The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has decided that the Department for Education has to respond to a freedom of information request asking for data sent in a private email account, as it amounts to departmental business. 

It was revealed in September last year that the ICO had written to the DfE raising concern about its handling of a freedom of information request made by the Financial Times. 

The newspaper claimed that it had evidence relating to Education Secretary Michael Gove’s private emails, which contained departmental business, that the DfE had not handed over upon request. The DfE claimed at the time that Gove and his special advisors had not been circumventing the official government email network and that it believed they had acted within the law. 

However, the ICO has said the DfE has to respond to the newspaper’s request for information, which includes the email subject lines, and dates and times sent, as the information is subject to FOI laws. 

“The Commissioner’s decision is that the information amounted to departmental business and so was subject to freedom of information laws, being held on behalf of the Department for Education,” said an ICO spokesperson. 

“The Department is now required either to disclose the requested information or issue a refusal notice in accordance with the FOI Act giving reasons for withholding it”. 

The DfE has said that when it received the initial request from the newspaper it had been following advice from the Cabinet Office that government departments did not have the authority to search the private email accounts of members of staff. 

The Commissioner has also said that this was a “novel” case and one which may not have been anticipated when the FOI Act was passed, and his decision was based upon the fact that most of the information in the email amounted to the business of the education department.