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

The Sunday Telegraph - - Politics - By Ed­ward Mal­nick WHITE­HALL ED­I­TOR

‘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”.

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