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Boris Johnson, Matt Hancock and Lord Bethell have all been reportedly using private email accounts or WhatsApp for Government business, discussing matters of national importance – from the spread of Covid-19 in care homes to the award of lucrative Government contracts.
But why would Ministers choose to use personal accounts rather than official channels?
An email exchange between senior officials about a legal case being brought by Good Law Project over a controversial contract is perhaps revealing. The senior official explains that because Matt Hancock conducted his duties as Health Minister using his private email, they think this means there would be a “substantial” threshold for civil servants to request access to his emails to check if they should be disclosed to the Court.
They seem to believe this is a loophole to avoid scrutiny. If politicians think they can evade oversight from the Courts or dodge freedom of information requests by using private email and WhatsApp, the question becomes: what have they got to hide?
Government does have a policy in place about the use of private email, but we don’t think it is fit for purpose – not least because it fails to set out when and why it would ever be acceptable for politicians to use their own accounts. And it seems unlikely the policy is being followed in any event, because there’s no evidence that steps are generally being taken to ensure that information held by Ministers on private emails or WhatsApp is recorded on Government systems.
We don’t just think this situation is wrong, we believe it’s unlawful. It flies in the face of Government’s legal obligations to preserve official records, and undermines its ability to comply with Freedom of Information requests and the duty of candour required by the Courts.
We are taking legal action. If we are successful, we could force Government to put in place proper policies to close this accountability gap for good. If you believe that Government business should be conducted transparently and would like to support this legal challenge, you can do so here.
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