Part 3: The Permanent Archive for the Hillsborough Disaster

Public access

3.15 Before public records are 30 years old, they should be destroyed if not suitable for permanent preservation or, alternatively, they should be transferred to The National Archives or a Place of Deposit (PoD),[3] normally a local Record Office. At this time they become open to the public, unless retention/closure of complete or partial records is agreed by the Lord Chancellor's Advisory Council on National Records and Archives. 

3.16 Organisations can transfer and disclose records before 30 years but they are under no obligation to do so. At the time of the Panel's appointment, documents relating to Hillsborough were within the 30-year period.

3.17 Coroners' records are court records and subject to the Coroners Rules 1984. They are defined as public records and undergo selection for permanent preservation at PoDs appointed under Section 4(1) of the Public Records Act 1958. Currently, they should be transferred by 30 years to a PoD and then become subject to the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA). Coroners' records are outside freedom of information (FOI) requests until they are deposited in a PoD at 30 years, when they come within FOIA.

3.18 In practice and by convention, PoDs always refer back to depositing organisations, particularly if the material sought under FOIA is less than 30 years old. In summary, therefore, coroners' records should be deposited by 30 years. If they are deposited prior to that time they may be closed because they are subject to the court records exemption under Section 32 of FOIA.[4]

Recommendation 1

The Panel considers that the implementation of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009[5] should bring about a more consistent approach to the archiving and availability of transferred records and encourages the newly appointed Chief Coroner of England and Wales to issue guidance in consultation with the Keeper of Public Records.

3.19 Other records disclosed to the Panel, including the South Yorkshire Police records, are not subject to legislation in respect of archiving obligations; nor are privately owned records. At the outset of the Panel's work, the South Yorkshire Police stated that records held by the Force relevant to Hillsborough would be disclosed for public access. These hard-copy records are deposited in Sheffield Archives and are publicly accessible online.
 
3.20 Most documents sought for disclosure by the Panel were produced within the 30-year period of transfer. In normal circumstances, organisations subject to the Public Records Acts would not be obliged to disclose or make them accessible except through the provisions of FOIA and other relevant Access to Information legislation.

3.21 At 30 years FOI legislation deems records to be historical and many of the exemptions to disclosure are lifted.

3.22 For historical research, wholesale disclosure is critical, enabling the full context of the history of a matter to be known. This applies to the Panel's proposed Distributed Permanent Archive, both digital and hard copy.

3.23 Unlike the regulatory framework under which central government and other designated public records bodies operate, there is no official archival legislation requiring the provision of archive services at local and regional level for records that have been created by an administrative body, or for other records in its custody. There are a number of Acts and Statutory Instruments that, to an extent, safeguard historical records, but the wording is often open to interpretation and archiving may be incomplete. This has been an issue for the Panel and, on occasion, has made the work of the Panel difficult.

[3] PoDS are repositories authorised by the Keeper of Public Records as suitable for the permanent archiving of records, usually created locally and of regional or local importance, considered to be of national significance such as records relating to Hillsborough.
[4] The Freedom of Information Act 2000 has provision for access to 'historical' records, i.e. those older than 30 years when many of the exemptions fall away. It is at present under review.
[5] The Coroners and Justice Act 2009, www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2009/25/contents. For the appointment of the Chief Coroner of England and Wales, see www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-18156598, reported 22 May 2012.