Data watchdog issues warning in light of reports that a digital clean-up had been encouraged
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The Information Commissioner’s Office has warned officials that deleting messages that could relate to investigations into alleged rule-breaking parties at 10 Downing Street and other departments is a criminal offence.
The caution follows reports that staff at No.10 were advised to wipe potentially incriminating messages from their mobile phones because of the ongoing investigation into events held in and around government buildings in 2020 while coronavirus restrictions on gatherings were in place.
In a statement, the ICO said officials should be aware of their obligations in relation to data.
“It is an important principle of government transparency and accountability that official records are kept of key actions and decisions,” a spokesperson for the data watchdog said. “Relevant information that exists in the private correspondence channels of public authorities should be available and included in responses to information requests received. Erasing, destroying or concealing information within scope of a Freedom of Information request, with the intention of preventing its disclosure is a criminal offence under section 77 of the Freedom of Information Act.”
Earlier this week, the Independent reported that Downing Street staff had been urged to “clean up” their phones, removing any suggestion that parties had been held. It said two sources claimed a senior member of staff told them it would be a “good idea” to remove messages suggesting they had attended – or were even aware of – anything that could “look like a party”.
On Wednesday last week, prime minister Boris Johnson admitted in parliament that he had attended a staff garden party at No.10 in May 2020, prompting calls for his resignation – some made by Conservative MPs.
Former government ethics chief Sue Gray, who is now second permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office, is leading investigations into numerous allegations of central government get-togethers held while coronavirus restrictions were in place. Cabinet secretary Simon Case was originally tasked with heading up the probe but recused himself after details emerged of an event held by his own private office.
Late last week, Boris Johnson’s former director of communications apologised after details emerged of two drinks events held at No.10 on 16 April last year while pandemic-related restrictions on indoor gatherings were in place.
James Slack reportedly gave a speech to thank teams for their support at his leaving party, which was one of the events held on that day. He is now deputy editor of The Sun.
“I wish to apologise unreservedly for the anger and hurt caused,” he said in a statement published by the paper. “This event should not have happened at the time that it did. I am deeply sorry, and take full responsibility.”