Education Secretary Michael Gove was under fire this morning after it was revealed that his department used private email systems for official business that – it is claimed – included sensitive information.
Officials at the Information Commissioner's Office have written to the Department for Education (DfE) asking for more details.
The ICO waded in after a Freedom of Information Act-backed investigation by the FT revealed that Gove's chief political aide had said in February this year that he had effectively abandoned his DfE and conservative.com email accounts in favour of Google's Gmail.
The newspaper claimed that email traffic showed that Gove and his advisors had used private Gmail addresses to carry out official government business.
Civil servants were consequently unable to retrieve such correspondence under the FOIA, enforced by the ICO, when requested, added the FT.
As a special advisor to Gove, Dominic Cummings wrote to Tory party officials and other wonks on 24 February and explicitly stated that he was using Google's service for all email correspondence.
"I will not answer any further emails to my official DfE account or from conservatives.com,” he wrote.
"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 that's obviously up to you guys – I can explain in person the reason for this."
The paper noted that it's not illegal for ministers and Whitehall gophers to use such methods of communication for their work. However, the FOIA makes it clear that such usage should be disclosed.
Seven FOIA requests to the education department asking for checks on named private accounts drew a blank because the information was not held on the DfE's systems.
The FT also highlighted Section 77 of the FOIA that covers the "offence of altering etc. records with intent to prevent disclosure". If such a law is breached, it carries a financial penalty of up to £5,000.
DfE permanent secretary Sir David Bell said he believed Gove and his advisors had acted "within the law". Gove and his advisors declined to comment. ®