I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am pleased, on behalf of the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Heather Humphreys, to introduce the National Archives (Amendment) Bill 2017. The National Archives is one of the State’s most important cultural institutions and plays an essential part in the cultural life of the country by collecting, managing and preserving the public records of Ireland. The records held by the National Archives document the historical evolution of the State and the creation of our national identity. The archives are key to informing Government policy and assisting research into the political, economic and social forces which have shaped the nation. The purpose of the Bill is to reduce the time limit for the deposit of certain departmental records with the National Archives from 30 years to 20. As Members may be aware, the British and Northern Irish archives have moved to a 20-year rule for the transfer of records to the British Archives and the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland. However, in Ireland the statutory period for transfer of departmental records remains 30 years.
The Government recognises the importance of synchronising the release of certain records between Ireland, Northern Ireland and Great Britain, particularly those records relating to Northern Ireland and Anglo-Irish issues. The proposed legislation will allow for the early release of records if the relevant Minister, that is, Deputy Heather Humphreys, as Minister with responsibility for the National Archives, agrees that the early release of the records in question is warranted by virtue of their historical or public interest value or to facilitate fair reporting of matters of common interest to the State and other jurisdictions.
The Minister is conscious of the fact that the proposals will have resource implications for Departments and changes will have to be managed within constrained budgetary allocations. For this reason, the changes will be implemented on a phased basis, starting with those Departments which hold significant numbers of Anglo-Irish and North-South records, namely, the Departments of the Taoiseach, Foreign Affairs and Trade and Justice and Equality and the Office of the Attorney General. The intention is to move over time to a full 20-year rule for all Departments, as resources permit. A phased implementation approach will assist in dealing with the inevitable resource implications for Departments, while providing flexibility for the early release of records, where appropriate. To facilitate progress in dealing with this issue, the director of the National Archives is chairing an implementation group which is developing an implementation plan which will be finalised shortly. As part of the process of implementing the 20-year rule, the director of the National Archives will write to all Departments to ascertain the number of files over 30 years old being stored by Departments, offices and the courts and the cost of so doing.
It is clear if the need for off-site storage was reduced, savings could be made across the entire system.
As I stated, the National Archives is one of the State’s most important cultural institutions, housing some of our most important historical State records. The Minister is only too aware of the limited physical capacity that the National Archives has to store our archives. However, there are exciting developments ahead for the National Archives in that regard. The Minister was delighted that as part of the decade of centenary commemorations, the Government provided €8 million in funding to commence the National Archives redevelopment plans. As the centenary of the destruction of the Public Records Office approaches in 2022, the new National Archives building, which will house the State archives, will be an appropriate response to the loss of so much of our cultural heritage in that destructive fire in 1922. The Office of Public Works has appointed a design team and is working with the National Archives to finalise the design plans for the Bishop Street building.
The lack of a records management policy is also an issue when it comes to the accumulation of records in Departments. The Minister is very pleased to have been in a position to provide the National Archives with €150,000 in 2016 and €300,000 in 2017 to assist in the work the office is doing on a public sector records management policy in conjunction with the office of the Government’s chief information officer in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. This policy aims to provide universal guidelines for the public sector in the management of records and, in particular, digital material. Crucially, it will also scope out the requirements of the National Archives in starting to accept digital records from Departments and the task of making digital records available to the public.
I will now turn specifically to the Bill and its main provisions. Sections 1 and 2 deal with general provisions such as definitions of words and terms in the Bill.
Section 3 amends the National Archives Act 1986 by inserting a definition for "relevant records", or those records to which the National Archives (Amendment) Bill 2017 applies in order to provide for early release of a particular class or classes of departmental records.
Section 4 provides the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht with the power by order to have records transferred to the National Archives from a Department after 20 years rather than the current 30-year transfer limit. An order will only be made under this section once the Minister has the approval of the Taoiseach, Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform and the relevant Minister to whose Department the order will apply. It will also come after consultation with the director of the National Archives.
Section 4 also provides the policy and principles under which the Minister would make such an order. These are if the records concerned are of significant historical or public interest such as to warrant their transfer to the National Archives; the transfer of the records concerned to the National Archives will facilitate the balanced and fair reporting of matters of common interest to the State and other jurisdictions; and the arrangements for such transfer are adequate.
Section 4 also provides that the Minister may make an order where he or she is satisfied the arrangements for the transfer of all departmental records more than 20 years old to the National Archives are adequate. This will remove the need for further legislation in the event that the Government decides to move to a 20-year rule for all Departments at some point in the future. Section 4 also provides that if a Department had already transferred records between 20 and 30 years of age to the National Archives, it will not be required to do so again.
Sections 4 and 5 also provide for the amendment of section 8 of the National Archives Act 1986 to insert the term "relevant records" where necessary. Section 5 also provides for the deletion of section 10(6) of the National Archives Act 1986 as this section is no longer necessary.
Section 6 provides for the amendment of section 11 of the National Archives Act 1986 to insert the term "relevant records" where necessary. Section 7 provides for the Short Title and commencement of the Bill.
Given our shared history with the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland, the Minister believes it is important that the synchronised release of official records should, to the greatest extent possible, be restored where appropriate. The Minister is satisfied the Bill provides the flexibility to do so when a record set is of sufficient historical or public interest value. I am pleased to bring the Bill before the Dáil and I look forward to hearing the contributions from Deputies throughout Second Stage. I commend the Bill to the House.