Civil Service denies email foul play

The Civil Service is claiming that it is deleting millions of emails to save taxpayers' money, not in anticipation of the Freedom of Information Act

The Cabinet Office denied on Monday that millions of emails are being deleted in response to a law that will make government information available to the public from 1 January.

The Civil Service department insisted the move was part of an ongoing management policy to avoid wasting taxpayers' money and not a way of ducking the Freedom of Information Act (FoI).

"This is about management of record systems," said a spokesperson for the Cabinet Office. "This is not about trying to quieten down or hide things before 1 January. It's nothing to do with FoI. It's about making sure that staff have been managing and deleting emails properly."

Civil servants have been ordered to delete 'unimportant' emails more than three months old, and to print out and archive 'important' emails.

The Cabinet Office (CO), which is the Prime Minister's right-arm department, said it would not monitor its 2,000 staff deleting emails because it was each employee's responsibility to judge the situation.

The FoI, which comes into force in 11 days, will allow public access to some government records, excluding confidential information or enquiries that would cost more than £600 in administration.

But many inside Parliament have criticised the Civil Service for acting irresponsibly.

"It's impractical and they're working on an idiotic time scale to do this," said Lord Erroll, member of European Internet security lobbyist EURIM. "But the CO might think what they have is embarrassing. The time scale is unrealistic and there will be some miscarriages of justice. It's a knee-jerk reaction and will have an effect on useful information in cases. If they do purge emails that are only three months old, a lot of background information on things will be lost for good."

The move could make it tougher for independent inquiries, such as the recent David Blunkett enquiry or the Hutton report, to look into government records.

"We should be embracing data and storage," said Erroll. "If we'd only behave more seriously towards emails and realise they are more akin to people talking rather than official documents."

Financial regulations, such as Sarbanes Oxley and Basel II, stipulate that companies must store all emails for at least seven years. Although none have been convicted yet, chief executive officers found to have failed in such auditing regulations can face heavy fines and jail sentences.


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