Government Investigates FoI Avoidance Claims

Fresh controversy has erupted over Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, after it was reported that the Head of the Civil Service is investigating claims that civil servants at the Department for Business (DoB) have used personal email accounts when discussing official business.

The office of Sir Bob Kerslake, the head of the Civil Service, has, according to the Daily Telegraph, opened an investigation after allegations that civil servants at the DoB used personal email accounts to dodge embarrassing Freedom of Information Act requests.

Personal Emails

News of the investigation emerged after email evidence was obtained by the Daily Telegraph as part of its coverage of a recent employment tribunal at the non-profit company Nominet, which runs the .uk domain registry.

That disability discrimination tribunal concerned a former employee who suffered from mental illness.

The evidence appears to show that civil servants used private email accounts to quietly correspond with Nominet. These personal Hotmail and Yahoo! email accounts were reportedly used to conduct official business.

“It feels wonderful to work free from fear of FoI!!” the Telegraph quoted Geoff Smith, a Department for Business civil servant, as writing.

The Telegraph also reported that one email to Geoff Smith and others was from Nominet’s senior policy adviser Martin Boyle, who is alleged to have encouraged them to delete correspondence because he feared an “FoI is just around the corner”.

The newspaper said that the office of Sir Bob Kerslake had confirmed that an investigation would be mounted by the Cabinet Office’s Propriety and Ethics team.

Meanwhile the Department for Business told the Telegraph it would not comment “on individual cases, or on leaked documents”.

“However, our longstanding IT security policy is clear: All official correspondence from BIS must be undertaken from a BIS email account and all breaches of our IT policy are thoroughly investigated. Additionally, the Department is fully committed to the Freedom of Information regime, including the latest guidance from the Information Commissioner’s Office regarding the use of personal accounts,” said DoB in a statement.

Previous Controversy

This is not the first time Whitehall and government officials stand accused of using personal email accounts to avoid FoI scrutiny.

In September 2011 it was claimed that education minister Michael Gove was using Google’s Gmail to conduct government business. The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) confirmed at the time it had begun investigating the claims.

This matter was resolved earlier this month after the Department for Education backed down in its dispute with the ICO over how far FoI requests could go, and said it would allow the ICO to access ministers’ emails and texts.

Last December the ICO published guidelines in which it confirmed that where private email is used for official business, it would be subject to searches under the Act.

This meant that public servants will now have their private emails and text messages trawled under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act.

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Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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