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Wednesday, 21 September 2011 19:36

The use of private email by the Education Secretary and his advisers raises some important questions. Jonathan Baines looks at the background to the case.

My twitter timeline was alive this week with discussion of the Financial Times story that the Information Commissioner (“IC”) is to investigate the Education Secretary Michael Gove and his close advisers at the Department for Education in connection with allegations that they have deliberately been using private email accounts to conduct government business.

"Email traffic, seen by the FT, shows the Education Secretary and his advisers have conducted government business using private e-mail addresses. Civil servants were then unable to find these e-mails when asked to retrieve them under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)," the article said.

(It should be stressed that the Department concerned appear to deny that there was any impropriety, and that private email was being used to conduct party political rather than government business.)

The article concluded by referring to section 77 of FOIA: "Section 77 of the act states that officials must not conceal or destroy information to prevent its disclosure. Breaches of the law carry a fine of up to £5,000."

This perhaps misses a key point. Section 77 states: "Where…a request for information has been made to a public authority, and… the applicant would have been entitled…to communication of any information…any person to whom this subsection applies is guilty of an offence if he alters, defaces, blocks, erases, destroys or conceals any record held by the public authority, with the intention of preventing the disclosure by that authority of all, or any part, of the information to the communication of which the applicant would have been entitled."

This is carefully worded and means, I would submit, that an offence can only be committed if the attempt to conceal occurs in response to a request having been received. If, however, it is merely standard practice to conceal, no offence would be committed. FOIA is predicated largely on what happens or must happen if a request for information is made. It is not, primarily, a records management act.

However section 46 of FOIA does require the Lord Chancellor to issue a code of practice for management of records. Section 9 of that Code deals with the need to keep records in systems that enable records to be stored and retrieved as necessary, and section 10 with the need to know what records are held and where they are.

Under section 47 of FOIA the IC must promote the following of good practice by public authorities and perform his functions so as to promote the observance by authorities of the section 46 Code, as well as the requirements of the Act in general. And under section 48 he may issue a “practice recommendation” if it appears to him that the authority has not conformed with the section 46 Code. In investigating compliance with the Code he has the power (section 51) to issue an “information notice” requiring the authority to furnish him with the information. Failure to comply with an information notice can, ultimately, constitute contempt of court.

None of this is to down-play the potential seriousness of an allegation of a “pre-emptive” attempt to conceal information. It is also not to suggest that it might not constitute a breach of other kinds of code. However, I would suggest that the biggest weapon at the IC’s disposal is one of publicity, something that Christopher Graham, the current IC, with his journalistic background, is quite good at creating.

Jonathan Baines works in Local Government. His blog, Information Rights and Wrongs, can be read here.

 

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