UK data watchdog warns No 10 staff not to erase messages amid party probe

The Information Commissioner’s Office said it was potentially a criminal offence to erase communications.

Patrick Daly
Thursday 13 January 2022 18:02
Boris Johnson (House of Commons/PA)
Boris Johnson (House of Commons/PA)

The UK’s data watchdog has warned that it is important “official records are kept” as Downing Street staff face an investigation over allegations of lockdown-breaking.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) said it was potentially a “criminal offence” to erase communications, including messages which takes place within “private correspondence channels of public authorities”.

The statement comes amid reports that No 10 staff have been told to wipe their phones of any information that could potentially be incriminating during senior civil servant Sue Gray’s investigation into claims that Government parties were held in contravention to coronavirus restrictions.

Cabinet Office official Ms Gray is said to be interviewing Government staff as she looks to determine the facts behind the allegations.

The Independent said it had spoken to two No 10 sources who claimed a senior member of staff told them it would be a “good idea” to remove any messages implying they had attended or were aware of events that could “look like a party”.

The sources told the paper the “clean-up” suggestion was made early last month after the first reports emerged of parties at Downing Street.

An ICO spokeswoman said: “It is an important principle of government transparency and accountability that official records are kept of key actions and decisions.

“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.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has personally come under scrutiny since the claims surfaced.

On Wednesday, he admitted to MPs that he attended a “bring your own booze” garden party in Downing Street on May 20 2020 for about 25 minutes.

He apologised for not shutting down the drinks, which took place when outdoor gatherings in groups of more than two people were banned, but said he was under the impression it was a “work event”.

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