Why are Ministers using private emails?

by Good Law Project

Why are Ministers using private emails?

by Good Law Project
Good Law Project
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Latest: Dec. 2, 2021

We have a date

Our judicial review hearing has now been listed for 2.5 days in the High Court from 22nd March 2022. 

Our challenge rests on two important questions. First, why are senior Ministers and officials…

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Boris Johnson, Matt Hancock and Lord Bethell have all been reportedly using private email accounts or Whatsapp for Government business, discussing matters of national importance - from the spread of Covid-19 in care homes to the award of lucrative Government contracts. 

But why would Ministers choose to use personal accounts rather than official channels?

An email exchange between senior officials about a legal case being brought by Good Law Project over a controversial contract is perhaps revealing. The senior official explains that because Matt Hancock conducted his duties as Health Minister using his private email, they think this means there would be a “substantial” threshold for civil servants to request access to his emails to check if they should be disclosed to the Court. 

They seem to believe this is a loophole to avoid scrutiny. If politicians think they can evade oversight from the Courts or dodge Freedom of Information requests by using private email and Whatsapp, the question becomes: what have they got to hide?

Government does have a policy in place about the use of private email, but we don’t think it is fit for purpose - not least because it fails to set out when and why it would ever be acceptable for politicians to use their own accounts. And it seems unlikely the policy is being followed in any event, because there’s no evidence that steps are generally being taken to ensure that information held by Ministers on private emails or Whatsapp is recorded on Government systems. 

We don’t just think this situation is wrong, we believe it’s unlawful. It flies in the face of Government’s legal obligations to preserve official records and undermines its ability to comply with Freedom of Information requests and the duty of candour required by the Courts. 

We are taking legal action. If we are successful, we could force Government to put in place proper policies to close this accountability gap for good. If you believe that Government business should be conducted transparently, please consider donating to this legal challenge. 


Good Law Project has instructed Joseph Barrett and Rupert Paines of 11KBW, and Rook Irwin Sweeney, who are being paid at significantly below market rates. You can read the Pre Action Protocol letter here. 10% of the sums raised will go to Good Law Project to help it develop and support further litigation in the public interest. It is our policy only to raise sums that we reasonably anticipate could be spent on this litigation. However, if there is a surplus it will go to support and enable other litigation we bring.

Update 7

Good Law Project

Dec. 2, 2021

We have a date

Our judicial review hearing has now been listed for 2.5 days in the High Court from 22nd March 2022. 

Our challenge rests on two important questions. First, why are senior Ministers and officials using private emails and messenger apps like WhatsApp and Signal for official business? And secondly, what measures is the Government putting in place to ensure vital information isn’t being lost, or worse, deleted?

The default has to be to use official channels to conduct Government business. And the Information Commissioner’s Office – whose job it is to uphold and promote openness in public bodies - clearly agrees.

The Government is due to respond before Christmas, and our challenge will then be heard over three days alongside another case brought by The Citizens and Foxglove. 

We’ll see them in Court.

Thank you for your support.

Update 6

Good Law Project

Nov. 5, 2021

We were right all along

Our challenge over Ministers’ use of private emails and messaging apps like WhatsApp and Signal has two simple but important questions at the heart of it. Firstly, why are senior Ministers and officials using private communication channels? And secondly, what measures is the Government putting in place to ensure this doesn’t lead to a colossal transparency black hole?

We’ve always said the default must be to use official channels to conduct Government business.

It turns out the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) – whose job is to uphold and promote openness in public bodies – agrees with us, not the Government.

In recently updated guidance, the ICO confirms that the legal position is what we’ve said it is all along: that the Government’s “records management policy should explain that, as far as reasonably practicable, you should always ensure that you use corporate channels for official business”.

But the Government policies we’re challenging do the exact opposite. They effectively encourage the use of private communications, including WhatsApp, for Government business.

Like us, the ICO stresses the importance of ensuring that information is preserved for external scrutiny – such as an inquiry or inquest. And the Information Commissioner makes no bones about the fact that “the suggestion of ministers and senior officials using private correspondence channels, such as private email accounts, to conduct sensitive official business is a concerning one”. We agree.  

The guidance also makes clear that Government’s messaging systems should not use auto-deletion, and communications should be transferred onto an “appropriate retention system” and “not onto a corporate chat function where the information will be deleted after a short time period”. 

This is a central point in our claim. Yet the current Cabinet Office policy dictates that “instant messages history in individual and group chats… should not be retained once a session is finished.  

The ball is now in Government’s court. A responsible Government would hold their hands up at this point. It’s clear that they’re defending a hopeless position; their policies need considerable improvement to bring them in line with the law – and they should commit to doing so.

We keenly await their response – and be in no doubt, we will hold their feet to the fire every step of the way.

Update 5

Good Law Project

Oct. 26, 2021

We're going to Court

Our challenge over Ministers’ persistent use of private emails and messaging apps like WhatsApp and Signal for Government business has just been given a huge boost: the High Court has granted us permission to proceed on all grounds. 

This follows a hearing yesterday before two judges in the High Court. This is a rare occurrence at such an early stage of a case, but a sign perhaps of the importance of the issues involved. 

This is a significant development. We will now have the opportunity to highlight the inadequacy of Government’s policies on private emails and messaging apps. The High Court will also hear of serious and persistent breaches of these policies by the Prime Minister, disgraced ex-Health Secretary Matt Hancock, Lord Bethell and other senior decision-makers. 

This case goes to the heart of the fight for Government transparency. It’s taken months and months of work to get us here - and has only been possible because of regular donations from people like you. 

Conducting Government business away from official channels not only flies in the face of Ministers’ legal obligations to preserve official records, including about key decisions - from care homes to PPE - it also severely undermines their ability to comply with the Freedom of Information Act and their duty of candour to the Courts. 

2020 was the worst year on record for UK Government secrecy. They seem determined to keep it up.  

Our Judicial Review will be heard over three days alongside another case brought by The Citizens and Foxglove, which tackles some of the same grounds as our claim. We will let you know as soon as we have a Court date.

Thank you for all your support.

Update 4

Good Law Project

Oct. 7, 2021

Ministers, private emails and security risks: High Court orders urgent hearing

Boris Johnson and at least three Ministers, past and present - Matt Hancock, Lord Bethell and Greg Hands - have routinely breached national security guidance by using private emails and private messaging apps for Government business. 

This, as Government openly acknowledges, leaves them open to malicious cyber attacks. Use of private emails and private messaging also helps Ministers dodge scrutiny when handling vast sums of taxpayers’ money. 

We have reason to believe that this is the tip of a large iceberg.

Given the issues raised in our claim, the High Court has now ordered an urgent hearing to consider how to take the claim forward.

This is a very welcome development.

Our legal team will be in the High Court in the next fortnight or so. We will keep you updated.

The more people who come together, the more powerful we can be at holding Government to account. You can tell your friends and family about this legal challenge by sharing this crowdfunder on Facebook or Twitter. Or you can send them this link by email: https://glplive.org/private-emails-0710 

Update 3

Good Law Project

Sept. 16, 2021

Boris Johnson breached national security guidance

Boris Johnson and at least three of his Ministers, Matt Hancock, Lord Bethell and Greg Hands, have repeatedly breached their own national security guidance by using private emails and phones for Government business.

The documents, unearthed in the course of our legal action, show Boris Johnson and other Ministers were warned 2 years ago that their personal phones and emails were vulnerable to hackers. And were issued with a ‘Security of Government Business policy’, which explicitly banned the use of private accounts:

“Your personal IT will not be as secure as departmental IT. You should not use your personal devices, email and communications applications for government business at any classification.” (Paragraph 68)

Despite this policy, and for reasons which remain unclear, Ministers continue to use private email accounts, and private devices and communications apps, for government business. We do not understand what good reason there can be for breaching this policy with the additional jeopardy to government and national security… although we can think of a number of bad ones.

And it’s not just one Minister. Or a handful of emails. The breaches are on an industrial scale. Just yesterday we revealed Government’s own lawyers confirmed that searches of the Health Minister Lord Bethell’s private emails using keywords relating to Covid contracts turned up hits of between 18,000 and 36,000 separate documents.

The documents also reveal that No 10’s WhatsApp policy has only been in place since March 2021. Prior to that it seems WhatsApp was not allowed to be used at all for Government business. WhatsApp can only be used for things like: 'confirming who is in the office', 'confirming a time for a meeting', confirming receipt of a document', or 'arranging staff social activities'.

But we know back in March 2020 Ministers, officials and Dominic Cummings were discussing Covid testing progress via WhatsApp group.

How can anyone be certain that critical information is not being lost, or worse, deleted?

The law requires relevant messages to be preserved and recorded. Government has, so far, failed to provide us with any evidence it is acting in compliance with the law. So we’ve filed judicial review proceedings.

This Government is to transparency as vampires are to sunlight. And we will do our damnedest to drag them into the light. But we could use your help. If you are in a position to do so, you can support us here

Update 2

Good Law Project

Aug. 4, 2021

Lord Bethell's phone

Lord Bethell is the Health Minister responsible for overseeing the award of Covid contracts. His time as Health Minister has been mired in controversy: from failing to declare meetings with firms that won huge Government contracts, to using his personal email address to conduct Government business. Good Law Project has a particular interest in the role he played in the controversial award of lucrative contracts to Abingdon Health.

Last week in Court, we argued against the Government’s attempts to apply blanket redactions to documents relating to the Abingdon Health contracts. We were successful – an important step towards transparency.

But the hearing uncovered something more alarming. In sworn evidence, Government admitted that some of Lord Bethell’s dealings with Abingdon had been conducted via WhatsApp or text message, and were held only on his private mobile phone. If that was the case for Abingdon, why not other VIPs too? 

What’s more, in December last year, Lord Bethell was told his mobile phone would be searched for documents relating to this case. Just weeks later, it seems, he ‘replaced’ his phone because, Government lawyers say, it was ‘broken’. They are now not sure it will be possible to retrieve the WhatsApp and text messages.

Lord Bethell has overseen the awarding of billions of pounds of public contracts. Information revealing how these contracts came to be awarded may now be lost – or even destroyed.

During the hearing, the Judge expressed alarm about the Government’s failure to preserve evidence and insisted the ‘Order’ he made at the conclusion of the hearing refer to the Government’s obligation to preserve relevant documents.

Our lawyers have written to the Government to demand answers. When did Bethell learn his phone would be searched? When did he report it as broken? What attempts were made to save crucial information from his old phone? If none, why not?

This Government seems allergic to scrutiny: redacting some documents, hiding others from public scrutiny via ‘confidentiality rings’, permitting Ministers to award billions in public money via private, as well as official, channels, and failing to protect evidence from destruction.

We are taking action to close this accountability gap. If you're in a position to do so, please consider donating to support this challenge.  

Update 1

Good Law Project

July 23, 2021

Government admits more Ministers used private emails

Following the revelations that disgraced former Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Health Minister Lord Bethell used private email accounts for Government business, our lawyers wrote to Government lawyers asking them to confirm they had searched the private email accounts of Ministers for material relevant to our PPE procurement challenges. 

We received an extraordinary response from Government. 

In it Government admits for the first time that as well as Hancock and Bethell – Trade Minister Greg Hands and the PPE Tsar, Lord Deighton – the Tory Peer directly appointed by Boris Johnson and responsible for coordinating the multi-billion pound procurement process – were using private email accounts. 

But still, it refuses to search those accounts. 

We are left with the farcical situation of Government behaving like the three wise monkeys, declining even to look at what business private email accounts were used to conduct.

How can Government lawyers be sure they have complied with their duty to put their cards face up on the table when they won’t even look at their cards? We have the prospect of highly partial disclosure on VIP contracts worth hundreds of millions or billions of pounds.

Government has also so far refused to confirm that relevant emails in Ministers’ personal accounts will be included in the future public inquiry.

The Government is shaping up to be as evasive as possible. But we won’t back down. Support our fight for full disclosure here.

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