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UK's data watchdog probes use of private email to discuss government business at the Department of Health

Information Commissioner cites loss of transparency as reason for inquiry

The UK's Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has opened an official inquiry into the misuse of private email accounts at the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC).

The investigation comes amid mounting allegations that senior officials within the department – including former health secretary Matt Hancock who resigned recently over his inability to follow lockdown rules – used private emails to discuss sensitive government business.

If the law has been broken, it could lead to a criminal prosecution, the ICO said.

While the use of private emails by government departments is not illegal, the ICO is concerned about issues of transparency and accountability if rules aren't followed fully.

Writing in a blog, the Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, said that transparency is fundamental to democracy.

"That is why the suggestion of ministers and senior officials using private correspondence channels, such as private email accounts, to conduct sensitive official business is a concerning one," said Denham.

"It concerns the public to feel there may be a loss of transparency about decisions affecting them and their loved ones. And as the regulator of data protection and freedom of information laws, it concerns me."

She went on: "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."

Deputy Labour leader Angela Raynor has been quick to point the finger at the government and called for full disclosure.

In a series of tweets, she said: "Nothing could be more serious than government ministers facing investigation for potentially breaking the law.

"The government must cooperate fully, turning over all correspondence, emails and documents. 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."

A spokesperson for the DHSC told The Register: "DHSC has been engaging with the Information Commissioner's Office and the Department will cooperate with any investigation. All ministers are aware of the guidance around personal email usage and government business is conducted in line with this guidance." ®

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