The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has started an investigation into education secretary Michael Gove and his special advisors’ use of private email accounts to conduct official business.
The investigation was initiated after the Financial Times (FT) gave the ICO evidence that suggested that the resulting emails from these accounts could not be found when requested for under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act.
The ICO confirmed: “The Information Commissioner has written to the permanent secretary at the Department for Education (DfE) to raise concerns about the department’s handling of freedom of information requests.”
Although it is not illegal for ministers to use private email accounts, if there is a request made under the FOI Act for information relating to government business, all the information – in private or official email accounts – should be disclosed.
The Financial Times claims that it has requested specific information about government business under the FOI Act that it had seen and knew existed in these private accounts, but that the DfE said it did not hold.
However, the DfE said that Sir David Bell, permanent secretary at the DfE “believes the secretary of state and special advisors act within the law”.
The FT alleged that Gove and his special advisors have been “circumventing” the official government email network last year around the time the coalition government came into power.
It claims that on 24 February 2011, Gove’s chief political aide Dominic Cummings emailed colleagues to tell them that he would no longer be answering emails to his official DfE account.
“I will only answer things that come from gmail...i suggest that you do the same in general but that’s obv up to you guys – i can explain in person the reason for this...” the email continued, according to the FT.
Under the FOI Act it is considered an offence to alter or conceal records with the intent to prevent disclosure.