Civil servants are ordered to delete millions of emails

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair was savaged over his commitment to new freedom of information laws yesterday as it emerged that civil servants are being ordered to destroy millions of emails less than a fortnight before they will become publicly accessible.

The Cabinet Office has told officials to delete any email more than three months old tomorrow, just 11 days before the new freedom of information legislation comes into force. Although civil servants working in what is effectively Mr Blair's own department have been told to keep "important" electronic mail, there will be no monitoring of what is deleted.

Michael Howard yesterday rounded on the Prime Minister, accusing him of being "hypocritical". In a letter to Mr Blair, the Tory leader wrote: "There are reports that your Government is engaged on a massive email destruction binge in order to get round the law which you yourself passed," he wrote. "How hypocritical can you get? What is your Government trying to hide? The public are entitled to a clear and simple explanation as to what is going on."

Many officials, including those in the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit and the offices of Alan Milburn and Cabinet Secretary Sir Andrew Turnbull, receive around 100 emails a day. The Cabinet Office's 2,000 staff have been told to print and file emails that should be disclosed but there will be no supervision.

A spokeswoman last night insisted the move was not about the new laws or "the destruction of important records". She said: "Paying to store outdated records which are no longer any use wastes taxpayers' money."

However, assistant information commissioner Phil Boyd, who is responsible for enforcing FoI requests, fears important files could be lost. "The risk is that you're applying a deletion policy on the basis of the age of the record, rather than the information it contains," said Mr Boyd.

Alan Beith, the Liberal Democrat leader of the Constitutional Affairs Committee, said: "This has the appearance of trying to get round the new freedom of information legislation. It certainly appears they are not observing the spirit of the act. The FoI legislation was meant to result in a change of culture, not a wholesale clear-out."

The Government has faced accusations before that it is trying to undermine the new powers of disclosure. It was forced to back down from proposed charges amounting to hundreds of pounds to answer simple requests for officially held information.

In a compromise solution, officials will be able to charge for FoI requests only where they would cost more than £600 to answer.

The new regime goes "live" on 4 January and government departments as well as thousands of quangos, health bodies and police forces are bracing themselves for an expected flood of requests.

* Gordon Brown and Patricia Hewitt were at pains yesterday to deny reports that they opposed the promotion of Ruth Kelly to the Cabinet. They both claimed to be delighted at the appointment of the 36-year-old as Secretary of State for Education. However, there are signs of a backlash against Ms Kelly among some Labour MPs. A number of backbenchers claim she has been overpromoted.