Legal challenge over ministers' private email use

2 months ago 17

By Nick Eardley
BBC governmental correspondent

image copyrightPA Media

image captionThe Sunday Times reported that Matt Hancock utilized a backstage email for authoritative business

The authorities is facing a ineligible situation implicit the usage of backstage email accounts and WhatsApp by ministers and elder officials.

Campaign radical Good Law Project believes existent authoritative guidance connected it leaves an "accountability gap".

It follows reports astir wellness ministers utilizing backstage email to sermon authorities business.

The authorities said the guidelines were "appropriate" and authoritative concern was conducted successful enactment with guidance.

It is not against the rules for ministers to usage backstage email - but Cabinet Office guidelines accidental "substantive discussions" and ceremonial decisions should beryllium accessible.

But Good Law Project believes the government's attack is unlawful - and is seeking to situation it successful the courts.

In a pre-action announcement sent to a fig of authorities departments and seen by the BBC, the radical alleges the usage of "non-governmental communications systems" breaches obligations to sphere records of decision-making.

The group, which campaigns for transparency and has raised a fig of concerns astir however authorities contracts were awarded during the pandemic, besides says the existent argumentation fails to comply with Freedom of Information laws.

The papers refers to WhatsApp messages precocious published by the PM's ex-adviser Dominic Cummings, which look to amusement authorities concern being discussed.

It besides refers to reports successful the Sunday Times that erstwhile wellness caput Matt Hancock utilized a backstage Gmail code for authorities business.

Cabinet Office proposal makes wide "substantive discussions oregon decisions generated successful the people of conducting authorities business" should beryllium accessible - for illustration by copying it to a authorities email address.

However, Good Law Project argues determination is "little evidence" that messages sent by backstage email oregon WhatsApp "are mostly recorded properly".

The organisation besides argues the guidance is unfit for purpose, due to the fact that it does not marque wide erstwhile it is acceptable for idiosyncratic email addresses to beryllium used.

Health curate Lord Bethell, different of those named successful the action, has said that portion immoderate 3rd parties "in their enthusiasm" often interaction ministers via their idiosyncratic email accounts, "that's not the aforesaid arsenic utilizing a idiosyncratic email for ceremonial departmental decision-making".

He has besides told peers: "I americium perfectly rigorous successful ensuring that authorities concern is conducted done the close ceremonial channels."

'Appropriate arrangements'

Gemma Abbott, ineligible manager of Good Law Project said: "We don't conscionable deliberation the existent attack is wrong, we deliberation it's unlawful.

"If successful, this ineligible enactment could adjacent this accountability gap, paving the mode for a robust, lawful argumentation connected the usage of backstage email and Whatsapp."

The authorities has 14 days to respond to the Good Law Project's solicitors. It would past beryllium for a tribunal to determine whether a judicial reappraisal goes ahead.

A authorities spokesperson said: "There are due arrangements successful spot for the absorption of physics communications, including instant messages and emails.

"Ministers and officials are alert of the guidance astir idiosyncratic email usage, and authorities concern is conducted successful enactment with that guidance."

The UK's information watchdog is already looking into the usage of backstage email accounts astatine the section for health.

Information commissioner Elizabeth Denham expressed interest it could pb to a "loss of transparency".

She wrote earlier this week: "My interest is that accusation successful backstage email accounts oregon messaging services is forgotten, overlooked, autodeleted oregon different not disposable erstwhile a state of accusation petition is aboriginal made.

"This frustrates the state of accusation process, and puts astatine hazard the preservation of authoritative records of determination making."

Labour has demanded a "full standard investigation" into whether backstage emails had been utilized to sermon authorities contracts.

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