Our challenge over Ministers’ use of private emails and messaging apps like WhatsApp and Signal has two simple but important questions at the heart of it. Firstly, why are senior Ministers and officials using private communication channels? And secondly, what measures is the Government putting in place to ensure this doesn’t lead to a colossal transparency black hole?
We’ve always said the default must be to use official channels to conduct Government business.
It turns out the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) – whose job is to uphold and promote openness in public bodies – agrees with us, not the Government.
In recently updated guidance, the ICO confirms that the legal position is what we’ve said it is all along: that the Government’s “records management policy should explain that, as far as reasonably practicable, you should always ensure that you use corporate channels for official business”.
But the Government policies we’re challenging do the exact opposite. They effectively encourage the use of private communications, including WhatsApp, for Government business.
Like us, the ICO stresses the importance of ensuring that information is preserved for external scrutiny – such as an inquiry or inquest. And the Information Commissioner makes no bones about the fact that “the suggestion of ministers and senior officials using private correspondence channels, such as private email accounts, to conduct sensitive official business is a concerning one”. We agree.
The guidance also makes clear that Government’s messaging systems should not use auto-deletion, and communications should be transferred onto an “appropriate retention system” and “not onto a corporate chat function where the information will be deleted after a short time period”.
This is a central point in our claim. Yet the current Cabinet Office policy dictates that “instant messages history in individual and group chats… should not be retained once a session is finished”.
The ball is now in Government’s court. A responsible Government would hold their hands up at this point. It’s clear that they’re defending a hopeless position; their policies need considerable improvement to bring them in line with the law – and they should commit to doing so.
We keenly await their response – and be in no doubt, we will hold their feet to the fire every step of the way.
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Government Ministers have been using private email accounts to conduct official business. This was the case throughout the pandemic, when Boris Johnson and others were making important, costly decisions. So far our legal action to challenge the practice hasn’t succeeded, but we’re not giving up. We’re now seeking an appeal hearing in the Supreme Court.
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