Weeks before Tony Blair’s Freedom of Information (FOI) act first came into force, Downing Street adopted a policy of automatically deleting emails more than three months old, resulting in a system described by those who worked under it as ‘dysfunctional’. Campaigners have described the timing of the IT policy as ‘not a coincidence’.
The system was retained under the coalition government of 2010-2015, and is still in place. Under the system workers can only retain a mail beyond three months if they specifically move it out of the firing line, usually accomplished in server-based mail by dragging it, or a copy, into local storage on the user’s computer.
Former special adviser to Nick Clegg Sean Kemp commented “Some people delete their emails on an almost daily basis, others just try to avoid putting anything potentially interesting in an email in the first place,”
A former permanent secretary thought initially that he might have technical problems with his blackberry when emails began ‘disappearing’.
A special adviser told the Financial Times that the policy caused confusion, as staff were unable to agree on the details of meetings which may have vanished into the ether due to automatic deletion. One former Downing Street aide described the problem as ‘hugely frustrating’.
Director of the UK Campaign for Freedom of Information Maurice Frankel commented that the fact that the policy was instituted only a few weeks before the FOI Act came into force in January 2005 indicates that the timing ‘very strongly indicates that it was not a coincidence’.
President Obama’s administration cut through a similar Gordian Knot more cleanly back in March of this year, when it excluded the White House from FOIA regulations, outraging transparency campaigners.
Tony Blair expresses regret in his memoirs about the way the British Freedom of Information act turned out, claiming that his intent of public transparency was thwarted, with the FOIA transformed into a ‘weapon’ for journalists.