UK Politics

Ex-government insiders reveal email FOI regime

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Ministers can easily protect themselves from embarrassment by deleting from their email inbox anything that might be subject to a future FOI request, ex-insiders have told BBC News.

Even if the deleted or archived material still exists officials rarely trawl back-up servers.

Downing Street and the Cabinet Office automatically delete all emails after three months.

But other government departments keep material for longer.

There is nothing illegal about this provided the deletion takes place as part of a regular process and not after the FOI request has been made.

Officials can also decline an FOI request if it turns up nothing from a search of an inbox and further searches, of back-up servers for example, would take too much time and money.

But critics say the Downing Street deletion policy makes complying with FOI requests close to impossible and hampers the smooth running of government. according to the Financial Times.

One former special adviser, who worked in Downing Street and the Cabinet Office at different times, told the BBC the three month deletion policy sometimes caused chaos, particularly when dealing with other departments who had less strict deletion regimes.

'Weird policy'

"You would just constantly lose stuff and you had to make sure you had a decent record saved," he told BBC News, on condition of anonymity.

Policy documents could be saved but "you wouldn't be able to save e-mail conversations or anything like that," he added.

He said he always got the impression that deleted material was being held on "back-up" servers.

"I am sure that there were ways if you needed to retrieve then you could," he said, but added that it rarely happened in practice.

"When an FOI request came in you were asked by whoever was responsible to do a search in your in-box for anything that is current," he added.

The Cabinet Office had what seemed like "weird" security protocols, such as preventing staff from "cutting and pasting" from websites, he added.

Another former official, at a different department, said officials complying with FOI requests asked staff to trawl inboxes but never looked at back-up servers.

But he added, copies of e-mail conversations held by other people meant that it would be difficult for anyone to cover their tracks if they had something to hide - and he was not aware of any minister or official deliberately deleting material to avoid FOI.

'Potentially embarrassing'

The Cabinet Office began deleting all e-mails after three months in 2004.

The reason for this, it said, was to comply with a request from the National Archive, which is responsible for storing records of government decision making, such as minutes of meetings and policy notes.

A Cabinet Office spokesman said: "Keeping essential emails and deleting less significant messages like diary alerts, actually makes it easier to run searches and respond to FOI requests.

"This is in line with the civil service code and guidance from The National Archives."

But Maurice Frankel, of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, accused the Cabinet Office of trying to get round FOI legislation.

"The government always says the purpose of this is to improve record management.

"But the policy was timed to coincide with the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act.

"It is a matter of interpretation as to whether this is an attempt to make sure potentially embarrassing material is not available in the future or whether it is entirely coincidental."

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