The FCO file release process

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office's file review and release process.

Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) files in paper format are added to the FCO archive after they have finished active and regular use by FCO business units, whether FCO overseas posts or home departments. Today the FCO creates mainly electronic files. However, the archive continues to receive paper files from both overseas posts and home departments. The FCO did not create electronic records until the 1990s, although it was 1 of the first UK government departments to do so in a systematic way.

Like all government departments, the FCO is required to review its files for permanent preservation in line with the requirements of the Public Records Act. Further information about the public records system is available on The National Archives website.

Before FCO files are publicly released they undergo a sensitivity review process. On average, the FCO only withholds around 1% of information reviewed for release.

Whole files, whole documents or parts of documents may be closed or retained for a specified and approved period if the content is deemed to be sensitive. If only part of a document is withheld, sensitive content will be redacted (blanked out).

Information can be closed under Freedom of Information Act (FOI) exemptions. Information can only be closed if the FCO makes an application for closure to the Advisory Council on National Records and Archives. Once the specified period of closure has expired, the FCO must re-review the closed material and either release it or submit an application for a further period of closure. The exemptions which the FCO uses most frequently for closure are Section 27 (international relations), Section 38 (Health and safety) and Section 40 (personal information). Closed information is held by The National Archives (TNA) securely and separately from open records. Under Section 66 of the Freedom of Information Act, TNA is responsible for answering Freedom of Information requests for closed material (in consultation with government departments). Further information on the legal basis and process for closing information is available on the Access to Public Records pages of the TNA website.

The FCO may also retain information under Section 3(4) of the Public Records Act. Applications for retention are made to the Advisory Council. Retained information is held by the FCO for a specified period and the FCO is responsible for answering any Freedom of Information requests for retained material (please see the FCO’s home page on for details of how to make an FOI request to the FCO). The commonest grounds for retention are described on the Access to Public Records pages of the TNA website. Records can be retained on grounds of sensitivity, for business use by the department or because of a backlog of records awaiting review. In some instances, the Lord Chancellor gave his approval for the retention of specific categories of records of a similar character across government departments. This means departments are not required to apply to the Advisory Council on a case-by-case basis to retain qualifying records. An example is the Security and Intelligence Instrument which covers records relating to security or intelligence service activities.

Recent transfers to The National Archives of formerly retained information

The FCO now publishes the details of information it previously retained and which has now been transferred to The National Archives.

View the FCO’s published tables of transferred material (covering material transferred from 1 January 2014 onwards). The annual table is updated quarterly.

Published 24 July 2013
Last updated 25 January 2017 + show all updates
  1. The FCO file release process updated

  2. The FCO file release process updated

  3. Updated

  4. Updates to the FCO inventory.

  5. First published.