Ministers’ Emails And Texts Open To FOI Requests

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Gove gives up the ghost in fight with ICO

Freedom of Information (FOI) requests will be able to get hold of government ministers’ emails and texts, as the government backs down from a fight with the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).

The Department for Education has given up the ghost in its dispute with the ICO over how far FOI requests can go, which centred on an email sent from a private account of education minister Michael Gove in December 2010 that the Financial Times published. It later emerged, thanks to the original FOI request to obtain the Cabinet minister’s email, that Gove had used Gmail to conduct government business.

In a letter seen by the BBC, the Department for Education said that the Freedom of Information Act will look at “the nature of the information and not the format”. That could indicate other communications, such as Skype, would be open to FOI requests.

More guidance coming

The letter notes that the Cabinet Office is working on fresh guidance for FOI requests, which are at “an advanced state and nearing publication”.

“The guidance will make clear that whether or not information is subject to the Freedom of Information Act depends on the nature of the information and not the format in which it is held,” a Cabinet Office spokesperson said.

“Government information held on private email accounts is within scope of the Freedom of Information Act.”

The ICO has welcomed the decision. “The Commissioner’s decision was that the email was within the scope of the Freedom of Information Act because the contents amounted to Departmental business. That decision was consistent with guidance he issued in December 2011,” a spokesperson said, in an email sent to TechWeekEurope.

In December, the ICO published guidance confirming that where private email was used for official business, it would be subject to searches under the Act.

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