What the Foreign & Commonwealth Office is Hiding in its Secret Archive

FCO archives in Hanslope Park – Katie Engelhart, Vice Magazine.

Richard Overy

Following a meeting last month with representatives from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO), Exeter Professor Richard Overy reports on the status of over 1 million secret files that the FCO has long kept hidden from the public. What is in the files? Will they be made available? If so, when? As Prof. Overy puts it, the situation remains ‘a rather gloomy one’. The Forum has previously reported on the secret archive’s implications for the history of decolonisation. Katie Engelhart (@katieengelhart), James Renton (@RentonJE, #secretarchive), Richard Overy, and Richard Drayton, among others, continue to keep us informed as events unfold.

The meeting was called by the FCO to inform interested academics and archivists about the current position of the so-called ‘Special Collections’ still held in the Foreign Office archives. The object was to gather views about what priority should be given to particular collections and to give a detailed breakdown of the current programme for releasing material to The National Archives. Around 60 people were in attendance with a panel of six experts, including representatives from TNA and the Lord Chancellor’s Advisory Council on archives.

The following points summarize the information that was given at the meeting:

  • There are now an estimated 1.2 million files still awaiting clearance and transfer to TNA, a substantial increase on the number originally calculated. The broad outline of the collections is available here.
  • Of these files, around 70 per cent are represented by microfilmed documents from the Hong Kong concession and documents related to compensation claims by victims of the Third Reich.
  • The most important collections in the remaining 30 per cent of files are records from the Colonial Administration Offices, records from the Allied Control Commission for Germany and various intelligence files including the FO Information Research Department. There are also some documents still relating to the Burgess and Maclean cases.
  • The aim is to deposit these ‘special collections’ by 2019, but the backlog is very substantial and it seems unlikely that this deadline will be met. Priority is to be given to the FO Information Research Department, the Allied Control Commission and the remaining colonial material (a total of 60,000 files).
  • The release of files will be governed by the security restrictions imposed by the Lord Chancellor’s office, and those deposited with TNA will not automatically be open for research.
  • The current ‘wastage’ rate of archived material is high – 80 per cent is destroyed, 20 per cent is kept in the medium term and only 2-5 per cent ends in a permanent archive.
  • The large backlog of archives in the FCO (and in other government departments) is likely to compromise the commitment to the introduction of a 20-year rule. It is probable that this new rule will not be capable of implementation until the 2020s unless there is a substantial increase in the financial resources and personnel devoted to the transfer process.

In general the picture was a rather gloomy one. The impression given was that the FCO is keen to accelerate the transfer of material and to do so with sufficient transparency, but members of the audience were highly critical of the claim and assumed that the FCO is still trying to conceal collections or documents which it regards as too sensitive to release.

The truth seems more likely to lie with the sheer scale of the special collections, which was unanticipated, and which will put a severe strain on what limited resources are currently available for the transfer. No detail was given on how decisions are reached between the FCO and TNA about which files would remain closed. In at least one case – the Hong Kong concession files – the microfilm format was unconventional and no way had yet been found to make the material technically accessible to researchers.

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