Watchdog launches investigation into ministers’ use of private email

 (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
(POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
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The Information Commissioner has launched an investigation into “concerning” suggestions that private email accounts were used by ministers at the Department of Health and Social Care.

Elizabeth Denham said she has “served notices on the department and others to preserve evidence relevant to my inquiry,” and warned that her powers of enforcement include “the option of criminal prosecution.”

The move comes following reports that former health secretary Matt Hancock and current minister Lord Bethell, often used their private email accounts when discussing government business.

In a blog posted on the Information Commissioner’s Office’s website, Ms Denham said: “The role of transparency as fundamental to democracy has never been clearer than in the past eighteen months.”

She underlined how the effects of decisions made by the government about public health and civil liberties, due to the Covid pandemic would be with us for many years.

Ms Denham highlighted how the suggestion that ministers have used private email accounts to “conduct sensitive official business” was concerning.

The information comissioner added however that although the use of private communications channels was not in itself a breach of the rules, she was worried that it could be used to make the freedom of information process more difficult.

“My worry is that information in private email accounts or messaging services is forgotten, overlooked, autodeleted or otherwise not available when a freedom of information request is later made,” she said.

“That is why my office has launched a formal investigation into the use of private correspondence channels at the Department for Health and Social Care, and has served information notices on the department and others to preserve evidence relevant to my inquiry.”

In her blog post, Ms Denham explained how the Information Comissioner’s Office has looked at similar issues previosuly, issuing “clear guidance,” available on its website, on use of private information channels.

Furthermore, the Information watchdog said that the government’s own Code of Practice sets clear standards, and emphasises the importance of managing records well to help ensure public trust and confidence.

According to the Freedom of Information Act 2000, anyone making a request for information to a public authority is entitled to be told in writing whether the public authority holds the information requested, and should this be the case, to have it given to them.

Due to concerns that the use of private communication channels could hinder freedom of information requests, the Information Commissioner has launched an investigation into the Department for Health and Social Care’s use of private correspondence channels.

It is hoped that this investigation will establish whether or not private correspondence channels have been used, and if their use has led to breaches of freedom of information or data protection law.

“We will publish the results of that investigation in due course,” wrote Ms Denham.

The news comes as the Lords Commissioners for Standards announced that are in the process of investigating Lord Bethell, following a complaint that he sponsored a parliamentary pass for the aide who Mr Hancock was caught kissing on leaked CCTV footage.

The footage of Mr Hancock locked in a romantic embrace with aide Gina Coladangelo resulted in the former health secretary’s resignation.

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