Shhh! It’s a secret

Foreign Office hoarding 1m historic files in secret archive

Justice secretary signed authorisation to place retention of files – some created in 19th century – on legal footing for 12 months

Hanslope Park in Buckinghamshire, where the files are held. Photograph: Martin Argles for the Guardian

The Foreign Office has unlawfully hoarded more than a million files of historic documents that should have been declassified and handed over to the National Archive, the Guardian has discovered.

The files are being kept at a secret archive at a high-security government communications centre in Buckinghamshire, north of London, where they occupy mile after mile of shelving.

Most of the papers are many decades old – some were created in the 19th century – and document in fine detail British foreign relations throughout two world wars, the cold war, withdrawal from empire and entry into the common market.

They have been kept away from public view in breach of the Public Records Acts, which requires that all government documents become public once they are 30 years old – a term about to be reduced to 20 years – unless the department has received permission from the lord chancellor to hold them longer. The secret archive is also beyond the reach of the Freedom of Information Act.

The Foreign Office is not the only government department that has been unlawfully hoarding files. This month the Guardian disclosed that the Ministry of Defence was unlawfully holding more than 66,000 historic files at a warehouse in Derbyshire, including thousands of files from the army’s Northern Ireland headquarters.

However, the Foreign Office’s secret archive, which is estimated to hold around 1.2m files and occupies around 15 miles of floor-to-ceiling shelving, is believed to be far larger than the combined undisclosed archives of every other government department. One of Britain’s leading historians describes its size as “staggering”

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