Government renews powers for long-term withholding of public records on national security grounds

Longstanding Security and Intelligence Instrument been retained after completion of its decennial review
Photo: Pxhere

By Sam Trendall

09 Mar 2022

Digital secretary Nadine Dorries has re-signed into law provisions that allow government agencies to withhold on national security grounds the release of records that would otherwise be made public after the standard 20-year term has elapsed.

The law requires that, after a certain period of time, government administrative records are passed onto the National Archives for their perpetual preservation. This period of time has been reduced since the Public Records Act was first introduced in 1958 and now stands at 20 years.

However, the Security and Intelligence Instrument – first introduced in 1967 – allows for government departments to keep hold of the records in question if, “in the opinion of the person responsible for them, they are required for administrative purposes, or… [because of] the risk of prejudice to national security… in relation to the retention of security and intelligence records”.

Such exceptions to the standard 20-year release terms can only be applied if the secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport “has been informed of the facts and has given [their] approval”.

The DCMS secretary – a role currently occupied by Dorries – is also responsible for reviewing the instrument every 10 years and deciding whether or not to renew it.

Recently published documents reveal, upon the expiry of the previous iteration’s 10-year term on 31 December, the instrument was renewed for a further decade, beginning on 1 January. The renewal lasts until the end of 2031, at which point the records-retention mechanism will be subject to a further ministerial review.

The list of people and agencies covered by the instrument includes the prime minister, chancellor of the exchequer, MI5 and MI6, the Cabinet Office, the Ministry of Defence, HM Courts and Tribunals Service,, HM Revenue and Customs, the National Crime Agency, and numerous other departments and ministers.

The records covered by the instrument include those produced by or related the intelligence and security services, including detail on investigations, personnel,  budgets and spending, and operations.

The incoming instrument is the fourth of its kind; the first lasted for 25 years, until 1992, and the second for 20 years, until 2011. 

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