The government could be forced to crack down on ministers’ use of WhatsApp and private email accounts if a High Court challenge is successful.
Legal activists have been granted a judicial review of official guidelines, which they believe is unclear and routinely ignored.
Boris Johnson and other senior ministers discussed government affairs on WhatsApp in violation of their own guidance, the group says.
They want the rules to be tightened.
The Cabinet Office said it did not comment on specific legal cases.
- Legal challenge to ministers’ use of private email
- The data watchdog launches an investigation into the minister’s emails
- Can ministers use private email for work?
But a spokesman said: “Ministers will use a range of modern forms of communication for discussions, in line with legislative requirements and taking into account government guidelines.”
The government argues that much of what is discussed by ministers and officials about WhatsApp and other messaging services is trivial and would cost too much to record it all.
But activists say WhatsApp and private email are increasingly being used to discuss important issues, from spreading Covid in nursing homes to awarding profitable contracts.
Earlier this month, campaign lawyers Foxglove, acting on behalf of the non-profit media group The Citizens, were granted judicial review over the use of self-canceling messages by ministers and officials.
The Good Law Project got a judicial review of her case on Monday.
The two cases will be heard side by side over three days at the High Court. The court date has yet to be announced, but it is likely to be early next year.
Rachel Smethers, Communications Manager at the Good Law Project, said: “Conducting government affairs outside of official channels goes against the legal obligations of ministers to keep official records of key decisions and severely undermines their ability to respect freedom. of the Law on information and the duty of transparency towards the courts.
“How can you be sure that critical information is not lost or even deleted?
“The government has been evasive for months, but now we have been given the green light on all fronts, we will make sure they cannot escape the spotlight.”
Cori Crider, co-founder of the Foxglove legal team, said: “We are always happy when other groups see the importance of our legal cases and follow them.
“The governance of WhatsApp is an absolutely critical issue: we must keep the historical record intact for future generations and ask our government to account.
“We look forward to the citizens’ hearing in the spring.”
Unsuitable for the purpose
The Good Low Project case refers to WhatsApp messages posted by former Prime Minister Dominic Cummings’ adviser, which appear to show government affairs under discussion.
It also refers to Sunday Times reports that former health secretary Matt Hancock used a private Gmail address for government activities.
Cabinet Office advice makes it clear that “substantive discussions or decisions generated in the course of government affairs” should be accessible, for example by copying them to a government email address.
However, the Good Law Project argues that there is “little evidence” that messages sent via private email or WhatsApp “are generally recorded correctly”.
The organization also argues that the guide is not fit for purpose, as it does not clarify when the use of personal email addresses is acceptable.
Former health minister Lord Bethell, another of those cited in the action, said that while some third parties “in their enthusiasm” often contact ministers via their personal email accounts, “it’s not the same as using a personal email for formal departmental decisions. manufacturing “.
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