Fears of cover-up as government departments wipe staff mailboxes
Trail of evidence at future inquiries could go cold as potentially significant messages are being wiped
‘To get rid of emails the moment someone goes is taking hygiene to unhealthy degrees’
GOVERNMENT departments and agencies are routinely wiping all emails sent and received by officials and advisers soon after they leave their posts.
A Sunday Telegraph investigation found that the vast majority of departments are automatically deleting staff mailboxes within three months of their departure – prompting concern that the system is a recipe for cover-ups.
The blanket deletions mean that potentially significant emails involving officials or special advisers are not retained unless they are deemed to have “business or historical value”.
Departments with the policies in place insist they are needed to prevent systems becoming clogged up with excess data. However, a handful do retain all emails, raising questions about why others fail to do so.
Maurice Frankel, director of the UK Campaign for Freedom of Information and a former government adviser on the Freedom of Information Act (FOI), warned that the practice risked undermining the legislation, which was intended to give the public access to information held by public authorities.
He said: “To get rid of emails the moment someone goes is taking hygiene to unhealthy degrees. I can’t understand how departments can expect to have an adequate record of what is taking place, on this basis.
“It’s hard to resist the thought that there is a happy coincidence between this approach to record management and getting rid of material that may contain unwanted answers about how particular decisions were reached – answers a department may prefer were unavailable if an FOI request came in.”
No10’s policy for the Prime Minister’s office is to “not employ email for the long-term retention of records”, instead archiving certain messages “where it is identified that an email needs to be kept”.
As a result, many emails that the public or campaigners would otherwise be able to obtain through FOI are wiped, and those requesting documents are simply told that they are “not held”. The disclosure comes after The Telegraph previously revealed how at least four departments had been automatically deleting emails that were not actively saved by officials, even while they remained in their roles.
In a Freedom of Information request, this newspaper obtained details about the email deletion policies of 26 departments and agencies. Of those, 20 – including the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), the Treasury, HM Revenue & Customs, the Department of Health and Social Care, and the Department for International Development – said they had policies in place to delete the mailboxes of staff when they left the department.
The CPS, Home Office, Ministry of Justice and Department for Transport said their policies for automatic deletion had been suspended following an order by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse that accounts should only be deleted once it becomes clear that they hold no information “of interest” to the inquiry.
The need for the order highlights how information at one time deemed “not important” by officials could be of significance to third parties, or become “important” as a result of subsequent events. The Scotland Office said email accounts of all former staff were deleted “as soon as possible” in the absence of “a business case for a delay in doing so”.
The Treasury deletes staff mailboxes 10 days after they leave, with the exception of specific items transferred into the department’s archive.
Documents that are routinely archived include those “describing the core work of ministers and permanent secretaries, whether departmental, governmental or political”, as well as “documents supporting our central administration and related activities”.
By contrast, the Cabinet Office, Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, and Department for International Trade retain all emails.
A Cabinet Office spokesman said: “Civil servants maintain records in line with the requirements of the civil service code and guidance from the National Archives.”
Guidance from the National Archives, which is itself a government body, states that retaining “all emails” will result in a “significant storage burden” and “create inefficiency”, while the civil service code requires staff to “keep accurate official records”.