THE Good Law Project,* has started legal proceedings today over the use of private email accounts and WhatsApp by ministers to conduct Government business.** This follows a series of judicial review cases about Government Covid contracts, awarded apparently without competition, that it has already brought.
A recent High Court decision that Michael Gove did break the law by giving a contract to a communications agency run by long-time associates of Dominic Cummings and himself vindicates the GLP’s condemnation of the Government’s pandemic procurement as ‘institutionalised cronyism’.
The latest legal action follows revelations that Boris Johnson, former Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Health Minister Lord Bethell have all used private communication channels instead of official accounts.
Though Number Ten initially denied that Hancock and Bethell had used private email addresses, they were forced to backtrack less than 24 hours later, during which time the GLP published evidence of Lord Bethell’s use of his personal email account.
Lawyers acting on behalf of Good Law Project argue the use of non-Government communications systems such as personal email accounts and WhatsApp is in breach of Government’s obligations to preserve records of decision-making; and further that it undermines its ability to comply with freedom of information requests and the duty of candour required by the courts.
Gemma Abbott of the Good Law Project says: ‘Government’s current policy on the use of private email is not fit for purpose and it seems ministers aren’t taking much notice of it in any event. Perhaps most concerning is that it appears some in Government think the use of private communication channels is a means of avoiding proper scrutiny.
‘We don’t just think the current approach is wrong, we think it’s unlawful. If successful, this legal action could close this accountability gap, paving the way for a robust, lawful policy on the use of private email and WhatsApp.’
* The Good Law Project is a not-for-profit watchdog that uses the law to hold Government and those in power to account.
** The pre-action protocol letter from the Good Law Project to the Government dated July 8, 2021, can be found here.