How government uses private emails and texts to evade scrutiny

There are probably not the emoticons to express how Jeremy Hunt is feeling this week. Under pressure to resign, following allegations of improper communication in his department, Hunt has today announced he will hand over his private texts and emails for scrutiny.

The move is intended to clarify how implicated Hunt is in the scandal, by documenting his personal correspondence with special adviser Adam Smith.

Hunt announced, ‘I will be handing over all my private texts and emails to my special adviser to the Leveson inquiry and I am confident they will vindicate that I handled the BSkyB merger process with total propriety.’

Earlier this week over 160 pages of emails provided to the Leveson enquiry revealed the Culture Secretary’s Spad, in cosy correspondence with New Corps lobbyist Frédéric Michel, regarding the company’s attempted procurement of BSkyB. Smith and Michel also sent frequent text messages.

Smith admitted that his email correspondence with Michel ‘at times went too far’.

He has since quit, as many, including online petition group Avaaz, call for Hunt to follow.

Private emails
The scandal has once again highlighted the cosy relationships our politicians have with lobbyists, as well as the complex relationship between Ministers and special advisers. But what is more, it has revealed how Government advisers are yet again using personal email accounts and text messages on official business.

Government departments’ official email accounts are subject to Freedom of Information Act requests, meaning anyone can ask to see correspondence. However officials can argue that personal email accounts can be used if dealing with party political issues.

Indeed, the current government has often spoken out about its commitment to transparency. Last year prime minister David Cameron wrote in the Telegraph, ‘We are creating a new era of transparency…. Information is power. It lets people hold the powerful to account, giving them the tools they need to take on politicians and bureaucrats.’

Hunt’s handing over of his emails and texts could, on the one hand be seen to be following this push for transparency. However, it does raise the question of why Ministers and their spads are using personal email and mobile phone accounts for departmental business.

This is not the first time the use of private emails to discuss official government business has come to light.

Mrs Blurt
Education Secretary Michael Gove has recently been embroiled in a skirmish with the Information Commissioner Christopher Graham, over his department’s use of private emails.

Last year the Financial Times reported that Gove was using a private email address, under the name ”Mrs Blurt” to discuss government business with his advisers.

Leaked emails to the FT also revealed Gove’s Spad Dominic Cummings explicitly telling his colleagues that he ‘will not answer any further e-mails to my official DfE account…i will only answer things that come from gmail accounts from people who i know who they are. i suggest that you do the same in general but thats obv up to you guys – i can explain in person the reason for this … ” [sic]

In a ruling last month the Information Commissioner decided that the private emails dealt with departmental business and therefore should be covered by the Freedom of Information Act.

The Department for Education is appealing the decision.

Transparency
So, that is two governmental departments that have been shown to be using private emails to discuss official business over the last year.

Cameron is resisting calls for his adviser on the ministerial code, Sir Alex Allan, to investigate whether Hunt broke the rules set for ministers. It is now down to the Leveson Inquiry to scrutinise Hunt’s personal emails and text messages.

One can only imagine the type of emoticons peppering Hunt’s text messages today.

First published http://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/2012/04/27/analysis-how-government-uses-private-emails-and-texts-to-evade-scrutiny/

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