ICO Probes Education Secretary Over Gmail Use

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The ICO is making inquiries over claims that education secretary Michael Gove used Gmail for government business

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has confirmed it is making inquiries over claims that education secretary Michael Gove has used Google’s Gmail to conduct government business.

The use of Gmail on the surface seems harmless enough, but using it for official government business could possibly breach disclosure rules. It also means that any significant emails will not be available to Freedom of Information (FoI) requests.

The revelation came to light after the Financial Times submitted its own FoI request to the Department for Education (DfE). It sought access to certain emails sent by Gove, which civil servants were reportedly unable to locate because of the alleged use of the Gmail account.

No Formal Investigation

An ICO spokesperson told eWEEK Europe UK that at this stage the ICO was only making informal inquiries and had not launched a formal investigation.

“The Information Commissioner has written to the Permanent Secretary at the Department for Education to raise concerns about the Department’s handling of freedom of information requests,” said the ICO spokesperson in a statement. “It would be inappropriate to comment further at this stage.”

It should be noted that it is not actually illegal for ministers to use private email accounts. But it does present a problem because if an FoI request is made, because any information has to be made public, whether official email accounts were used or private email accounts.

Indeed, under the FOI Act, it is an offence to alter or conceal records with the intent to prevent disclosure.

Newspaper Claims

According to the FT, Gove and his special advisors were allegedly “circumventing” the official government email network last year.

It claims that Gove’s chief political aide, Dominic Cummings, emailed colleagues last year to tell them that he “will not answer any further emails to my official DfE account.”

“I will only answer things that come from gmail accounts from people who i know who they are. i suggest that you do the same in general but thats obv up to you guys – i can explain in person the reason for this,” the FT reported.

Innocent Explanation?

But it seems that Cummings’ alleged email may not have been about government business. The Guardian newspaper, for example, attributed the below quote to a source close to Michael Gove.

“The email quoted by the FT was sent by Mr Cummings to Conservative party advisers. The email did not refer to Department for Education official business but to Conservative party business only,” said the source. “Mr Cummings was telling Conservative party officials not to use his departmental account for political business.”

“The FT story gives an entirely misleading impression of Mr Cummings’s email,” the source said.

Meanwhile Labour’s Andy Burnham, the shadow education secretary, has reportedly called for an investigation of the matter.

“The suggestion that the education secretary has created his own private and political network, in parallel to the civil service, to carry out government business is very serious,” Burnham wrote in a letter to Sir Gus O’Donnell, the cabinet secretary.

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Author: Tom Jowitt
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