Leading article: A far cry from transparency

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The Independent Online

As recently as July, the Prime Minister was trumpeting his Government's "revolution in transparency". Now it transpires not only that the Education Secretary and his aides have been using personal email addresses to bypass Freedom of Information rules, but that such practices may be endemic across the Government.

The only glimmer of light is that ministers and their advisers from Mr Cameron downwards are to have their personal email accounts trawled for evidence of similar cloak-and-dagger activity. Rightly so. Attempts to hide policy discussions from public disclosure are both a mockery of the rhetoric on openness and a travesty of democratic accountability. Such practices should be exposed and stamped out.

Apologists for Mr Gove have floated two possible justifications for his aide's request that emails be exchanged using unofficial accounts. One blames a string of leaks that prompted concerns that politically-unsympathetic officials were actively trying to undermine their Secretary of State. The other is that the special advisers were simply complying with rules banning the use of official resources for party political activity. Neither is persuasive, not least given the email sent by Mr Gove, from an account in his wife's name, in which he discusses policies such as a schools literacy programme.

A third, more convincing, explanation is that the practice was a tactic to circumvent Freedom of Information requests from the public and press. That was certainly the wholly unacceptable outcome. Detailed records of the policy-making process are central to both governmental legitimacy and to the effective functioning of the Civil Service. Cliques, cabals or "sofa government" should not be tolerated. The Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war is only the most recent illustration of the importance of clear records of who said what to whom.

The Information Commissioner is absolutely right to be casting his net wider than just Mr Gove and his coterie. With Whitehall departments scrabbling to establish the extent of the problem and complaining of conflicting advice, the Cabinet Secretary should institute a parallel inquiry. If the Prime Minister is to avoid charges of hypocrisy, he should back both.