Departments demanded disclosure of use of personal phones and emails for official business
Transparency activists have submitted legal demands to two departments in Whitehall demanding to reveal every case where ministers and senior officials have used personal phones, emails or self-deleting messaging apps to conduct official business .
Transparency campaign group Foxglove has submitted the demands to the Cabinet Office and the Department of Digital Culture, Media and Sports (DCMS), in the lawsuit over the government’s use of messaging services private individuals, such as WhatsApp and Signal, to make key decisions. .
The request took the form of a request for additional information, which can be used to provide evidence in court.
Activists hope the evidence gathered through this legal demand will support their call for a judicial review of what they call a “WhatsApp government.”
Foxglove and nonprofit The Citizens are due to attend a High Court leave hearing on October 12, where they will attempt to convince a judge the government is breaking the law by using unofficial channels to discuss cases of the government.
Foxglove’s legal request applies to ministers, their private secretaries, and special advisers to the Cabinet Office and DCMS, who have been in office for the past two years. It also applies to the cabinet secretary and the permanent secretary of the two departments.
Officials and ministers will be required to disclose which government business has been discussed by private email or private messaging and what steps have been taken to preserve communication under both the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and the Public Records Act 1958.
“This is going to create some tough times in WhatsApp group number 10 once their lawyers explain it to them,” Foxglove director Cori Crider said.
“The disappearance of the messages goes against democracy. We must be able to hold elected politicians to account and we must have a historical record that we can trust,” she added.
A spokesperson for the Cabinet Office told the Daily mail that all communications concerning government affairs were not sensitive.
“Ministers will use a range of modern forms of communication for the discussions, in line with legislative requirements and taking into account government guidance,” the spokesperson said, adding that officials often have to respond quickly, which is facilitated by officials. modern messaging applications. .
Foxglove and The Citizens filed a lawsuit in May, challenging the use of self-erase messages by ministers and staff. They argued that the use of self-erasing messages lacks transparency and poses an “urgent threat to democratic accountability and to the future of public records”.
Campaigners have claimed that the UK Public Records Act 1958 requires all government records relating to government policy to be reviewed and kept for public archiving.
In response to an Access to Information (FoI) request in June, DCMS told campaigners that ministers can set their official messages to be deleted automatically after a certain time if not. necessary to keep a record of the communication.
The ministry said ministers and officials are allowed to use instant messaging (via Google Workspace) in preference to email “for routine communications where it is not necessary to keep a record of the communication.”
The Good Law Project (GLP) campaign group, which also legally challenges the government, said earlier this month that Prime Minister Boris Johnson and three ministers – Matt Hancock, Lord Bethell and Greg Hands – had repeatedly violated their own national security guidelines regarding the use of email accounts and mobile phones for government businesses.
Government lawyers confirmed to the campaign group that searches of (now former) Health Minister Lord Bethell’s private emails using keywords relating to Covid-19 contracts found between 18 000 and 36 000 separate documents.
The precise number of emails could not be determined as the government refused to conduct detailed research or review the content of the emails, saying the effort would not be warranted.