On 30 November 2012, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe informed Parliament, Official Report, column 36WS, that a large volume of FCO archive records had come to light which are known as the “special collections”. On 12 December 2013, my right hon. Friend also informed Parliament, Official Report, column 55WS, that a high-level inventory of the special collections we published on gov.uk in 2012 had been updated with significantly more detail.
There are an estimated 600,000 special collection files. Initially, a specialist contractor appointed by the FCO estimated the number of files at 1.2 million but this has since been corrected following a reassessment of the number of files in formats other than paper.
The special collection files are outside the normal FCO filing sequence and many—but by no means all—contain records of historical value. The historical value of the files will be determined through an appraisal and selection process under the guidance and supervision of The National Archives (TNA). The FCO also holds a further 600,000 standard files created by FCO departments and overseas posts, around 500,000 of which are not yet due for transfer to TNA.
On 5 May 2011, Official Report, column 24WS, I made a commitment to Parliament that every paper of interest from our holding of colonial administration files would be released to The National Archives, subject only to legal exemptions. This project, involving the release of nearly 20,000 files, was completed in November 2013 in line with the published timetable.
I am equally committed to the release of the records in the special collections. This is a much bigger project which will take longer. Work is under way. We have already conducted an audit of the material and we are currently building the capability to begin preparing the files for release. We have published an overview of our release plans on www.gov.uk/archive-records.
I am very pleased that Professor Tony Badger, Paul Mellon Professor of American history and Master of Clare College at the university of Cambridge, is continuing in his role of independent reviewer and will be providing rigorous and independent oversight of our release programme.