Sneaky exchanges between civil servants, politicians & those in public bodies via private or secret email accounts can be revealed through FOI. SNEAKS in Government, Local Government public bodies & public services who use private email facilities to discuss official business in attempts to avoid the information leaking out through Freedom of Information legislation have now been told in no uncertain terms by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) that information concerning official business held in private email accounts is subject to the Freedom of Information Act.
However, as the Guardian newspaper reports, the ICO’s move which brings Ministers private emails and text messages within the scope of FOI has angered politicians at Westminster who are now fearful Freedom of Information laws appear (to them) to be allowing too much openness following the latest ruling. The Guardian goes onto report “The chairman of the public administration committee, Bernard Jenkin, is understood to be considering a select committee inquiry next year in the wake of the recent ruling by Christopher Graham, the information commissioner.”
Currently there is no clarification from the Scottish Information Commissioner on how the ICO’s ruling on private emails affects FOI in Scotland, however, as they say, there’s no time like the present to test it out, particularly as it appears the practice of using private, secret, & throw-away email accounts by civil servants & certain ‘advisers’ to the Scottish Government appears widespread…
Commenting on the ICO ruling, Information Commissioner Christopher Graham said: “It should not come as a surprise to public authorities to have the clarification that information held in private email accounts can be subject to Freedom of Information law if it relates to official business. This has always been the case – the Act covers all recorded information in any form.
Mr Graham continued : “It came to light in September that this is a somewhat misunderstood aspect of the law and that further clarification was needed. That’s why we’ve issued new guidance today with two key aims – first, to give public authorities an authoritative steer on the factors that should be considered before deciding whether a search of private email accounts is necessary when responding to a request under the Act. Second, to set out the procedures that should generally be in place to respond to requests. Clearly, the need to search private email accounts should be a rare occurrence; therefore, we do not expect this advice to increase the burden on public authorities.”
Key points set out in the guidance include:
Where a public authority has decided that a relevant individual’s email account may include official information which falls within the scope of the request and is not held elsewhere, it will need to ask that individual to search their account.
Where people are asked to check private email accounts, there should be a record of the action taken. The public authority needs to be able to demonstrate, if required, that appropriate searches have taken place.
Although the main emphasis of the guidance is on official information held in private email accounts, public authorities should be aware that the law covers information recorded in any form
Public authorities should remind staff that deleting or concealing information with the intention of preventing its disclosure following receipt of a request is a criminal offence under section 77 of the Act.
It is accepted that, in certain circumstances, it may be necessary to use private email for public authority business. There should be a policy which clearly states that in these cases an authority email address should be copied in to ensure the completeness of the authority’s records.
Mr Graham continued: “As part of our work on understanding more generally how FOI handling works across government, we conducted a good practice visit at the Department for Education. We’ve today published the findings of that visit and are now keen to carry out similar visits to other Whitehall departments. Work on specific complaints made to the Commissioner about the Department of Education’s handling of individual FOI requests is still ongoing. We hope to issue our decisions on these cases early in the New Year.”
So, next time readers & FOI’ers do requests to the Scottish Government, local authorities, public bodies and so on, you may want to ask for any information contained in private email facilities used by those in the relevant organisations which relate to the business or subject access of your FOI request…