5 March 2012
Last year the British media uncovered an expanding practice of Ministers communicating by personal emails in the belief that the content was excluded from freedom of information obligations. The Education Secretary was challenged about sending government business through a non official “Mrs Blurt” email account. Apparently Ministry staff were told by the Minister’s adviser that he would not respond to inquiries from his official email address. The Minister was advised by his department that such use did not get around the statutory release requirements, but he referred to Cabinet Office guidance to the contrary. That guidance was never disclosed.

Last Friday the Information Commissioner ruled that government business is covered by the Freedom of Information Act whatever way it is transmitted. The logical conclusion is that, otherwise, all government communications would be channeled through hotmail or gmail accounts.

This will impact on the way the British Cabinet operates. Media reports are that Ministers and their advisers routinely use private emails accounts to keep exchanges unknown by their officials and beyond legal disclosure obligations. Ministerial advisers apparently feel the need to exclude officials from sensitive matters because of a suspicion that their sympathies will result in leaks to the Opposition.

An Opposition MP claims that she has not received a straight response from the Education Secretary to the following questions she put to him;

• Have you or your advisors ever used private email accounts to conceal information from civil servants or the public that relates to departmental business and is covered by the Freedom of Information Act?
• Have you ever directed civil servants not to answer FoI requests on specific issues?
• What steps are you taking to prevent the deletion of private emails that relate to government business and have been deemed by the Information Commissioner to be covered by the Act?

The Minister has 28 days to appeal to the Information Tribunal against the Information Commissioner’s decision and the direction to disclose the content of the Mrs Blurt emails. It will be interesting to see if there is much content left in Ministers’ unofficial email accounts by the time this matter gets to the Tribunal.

There was an echo of this matter in New Zealand in February. An Opposition State Services spokesman claims that there is widespread use of personal email accounts by Ministers.

“The fundamental concern is the basic breach of process. Ministers serve the New Zealand public. That means they must be open to scrutiny under the Official Information Act ….The only conclusion that can be drawn from that is …. Ministers are using private email addresses to hide information”.

When private emails of the Minster of Foreign Affairs were recently hacked and content published, it was evident that they contained official information. The Official Information Act provisions apply to any information held by a Minister in their official capacity.