The Department of Health and Social Care is being formally investigated over the use of private email addresses by ministers during the coronavirus crisis.
The Information Commissioner’s Office has launched a probe into “the use of private correspondence channels” by the department and is seeking the handover of evidence.
It follows a Sunday Times report last month that both former health secretary Matt Hancock – who quit the role after being caught breaching COVID rules by kissing an aide – and under-pressure health minister Lord Bethell routinely used private inboxes.
Claims that ministers used private email addresses during the COVID pandemic have prompted worries that key decisions have not been properly recorded ahead of a promised inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic.
Elizabeth Denham, the UK Information Commissioner, described the suggestion that ministers and senior officials used private email accounts to conduct sensitive official business as “concerning”.
“It concerns the public to feel there may be a loss of transparency about decisions affecting them and their loved ones,” she wrote in a blog post.
“And as the regulator of data protection and freedom of information laws, it concerns me.”
Ms Denham noted how the government’s own code of practice “sets clear standards, and emphasises the importance of good records management in ensuring public trust and confidence, particularly following a national crisis”.
“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,” she added.
“That investigation will establish if private correspondence channels have been used, and if their use led to breaches of freedom of information or data protection law.
“We will publish the results of that investigation in due course.”
Ms Denham said the use of private correspondence channels “does not in itself break freedom of information or data protection rules”.
But she expressed her fear that “information in private email accounts or messaging services is forgotten, overlooked, auto deleted or otherwise not available when a freedom of information request is later made”.
Ms Denham highlighted how her office has a range of powers, including “the option of criminal prosecution of individuals where information has been deliberately destroyed, altered, or concealed after it has been requested under the Freedom of Information Act”.
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Last month, Downing Street admitted Lord Bethell used a private email address – despite having previously said both he and Mr Hancock “only ever conducted government business through their departmental email addresses”.
Number 10 suggested the use of private email addresses by ministers was acceptable if emails were copied to an official account.
Lord Bethell has said he was “absolutely rigorous to ensure that government business is conducted through the correct formal channels”.
The Conservative peer, who was appointed to the health department by Mr Hancock, is also under a separate investigation over a complaint he sponsored a parliamentary pass for Gina Coladangelo – the aide that Mr Hancock was filmed kissing on CCTV.
Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner, who has previously called for Lord Bethell to be sacked over his use of a private email address, said: “Labour welcomes this important investigation and the government must cooperate fully, turning over all correspondence, emails and documents.
“The government cannot be allowed to cover up dodgy dealings with taxpayers’ money being handed out to friends of ministers.
“What is important now is getting to the bottom of how far this shady practice extends across the government, and ensuring that the COVID public inquiry has access to all evidence.”