I thank the committee for the invitation to address it today on the National Archives (Amendment) Bill. I just want to say that we have been here since 2.15 p.m. and it is planned that we will leave around 4.30 p.m. That was the anticipated time as I believe other officials will come in at that stage.
This proposed legislation will provide the flexibility for certain Departments to transfer records to the National Archives for public release after 20 years rather than the current 30 years.
As the committee 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, PRONI. However, in Ireland, the statutory period for transfer of departmental records remains at 30 years.
The Government recognises the importance of synchronising the release of certain records between Ireland and the United Kingdom, particularly in regard to 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 and the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs are satisfied that it is warranted by virtue of the historical or public interest value of the records or to facilitate fair reporting of matters of common interest to the State and other jurisdictions.
I am conscious of the fact the proposals will have resource implications for Departments which would have to be managed within existing budgetary allocations.
For this reason, the change will be implemented on a phased basis, starting with Departments and offices that have holdings with 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 to a full 20-year rule for all Departments over time as resources permit. That is not possible at present, however, due to the capacity constraints at the National Archives and the significant resources which would be required. A phased implementation approach will assist in terms of the inevitable resource implications for Departments while providing flexibility for the early release of records where appropriate.
I am aware that many Departments are not fully compliant with the current 30-year rule. As part of the process of implementing the 20-year rule, I will write to all Departments to ascertain how many files that are over 30 years old are currently being stored by Departments, offices and the courts, and the cost of this storage. Savings could be made across the entire system if the need for offsite storage were reduced. I am also aware of the limited physical capacity which the National Archives has to store our archives. I have allocated €8 million to develop the National Archives in this regard. In due course, I will make proposals to deal with the current backlog of records in Departments that are more than 30 years old. The lack of a records management policy for digital records is also an issue. I was pleased to be in a position to provide the National Archives with €150,000 in 2016 and €300,000 in 2017 to assist in the work on digital records and a public sector records management policy that is being undertaken by the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in conjunction with the National Archives. This policy aims to provide universal guidelines for the public sector on the management of born-digital material. Crucially, it will 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.