The information commissioner Elizabeth Denham has said that her office will be “looking carefully” at evidence pertaining to allegations that government ministers have used private Gmail accounts to conduct official business.
The Sunday Times reported this weekend that, throughout the coronavirus pandemic, former health secretary Matt Hancock had “routinely used” a personal email account to conduct government business. Another minister at Department of Health and Social Care, innovation minister Lord Bethell, is also alleged to have used a private inbox for official business – including for exchanges relating to the award of contracts.
On Monday, The Guardian reported that minister for care Helen Whately was the third representative of the department to have allegedly used a Gmail account for DHSC matters.
The prime minister, Boris Johnson, declined to comment when asked by reporters whether he had ever done so.
The use of private email or messaging accounts is a clear contravention of government guidelines, which require official business to be conducted through official communications channels. This is to ensure records are kept to evidence the making of decisions and policy, and to allow for proper scrutiny – including, where applicable, the public right to information via Freedom of Information legislation.
"It is an important principle of government transparency and accountability that official records are kept of key actions and decisions," Denham said. "The issue of ministers and senior officials using private email accounts to conduct sensitive official business is a concerning one for the public and is one my office has advised on before. I am looking carefully at the information that has come to light over the past few days and considering what further steps may be necessary to address the concerns raised with me."
The Sunday Times obtained minutes of a meeting between senior civil servants at the DHSC in which, the newspaper claims, the department’s then second permanent secretary David Williams – who now leads the Ministry of Defence – noted that Hancock “does not have a DHSC inbox”, meaning officials could not access important information and documents.
The former cabinet minister, who resigned over the weekend, was subsequently given an official department email account but still preferred to use Gmail, the Times reported, citing “two Whitehall sources”.
“All DHSC ministers understand the rules around personal email usage and only conduct government business through their departmental email addresses,” a spokesperson for the department told the newspaper.
Sam Trendall is the editor of CSW's sister title PublicTechnology, where a version of this story first appeared.