Data watchdog probes government email bonfire

The Cabinet Office has come under scrutiny from the Information Commissioner for deleting millions of emails

The Office of the Information Commissioner is investigating the Cabinet Office for deleting millions of emails days before they would be made available to the public.

The government watchdog said on Wednesday it would look 'unfavourably' on the Cabinet Office if it was deleting emails because of the Freedom of Information Act.

"If the emails have been deleted then this is something the Information Commissioner would take very seriously," said a spokesperson for the Information Commissioner's Office. "And if it is happening because of the Freedom of Information Act, it would be looked on unfavourably."

The Cabinet Office (CO), which on Monday claimed it was deleting emails to save taxpayers' money, said on Wednesday it was deleting emails because it has no archiving space left.

"Our systems are being overloaded, which is why we are doing it," said a spokesperson for the Cabinet Office. "We are coming to our contract year-end and [emails] are clogging up the system."

The CO added that it was still archiving material relating to policy, legislation, senior management and decision-making.

Yesterday, the head of the All Party Internet Group, Derek Wyatt MP, slammed the Cabinet Office for deleting emails. Wyatt, who is leading a parliamentary charge against spammers, said he would be disappointed if the government had resorted to clearing inboxes as a way of avoiding embarrassment from the Freedom of Information Act (FoI).

"It's wrong," said Wyatt. "Everyone knew about the Freedom of Information three years ago. Everyone signed up for it. The whole idea was to open up government and bureaucracy. If they have been deleting emails then I'm disappointed. End of story. We as MPs have been scrutinised on expenses for years. Why shouldn’t the government?"

The Institute for the Management of Information Systems (IMIS) was puzzled by the CO's actions. "It really is an odd thing to do," said Philip Virgo, strategic advisor to the Institute for the Management of Information Systems. "Either you don't keep emails at all or you have a policy of auto-archiving them. But blanket deletion after three months is unusual."

The FoI is intended to provide the public with access to information from government organisations, such as hospitals, police stations and civil service department. The law comes into effect on 1 January, 2005.

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