ICO looks into government back-channel email claims

The Information Commissioner's Office has begun making enquiries into allegations that officials at the Department for Education have been systematically using private email accounts to conduct government business.Emails sent from private email services, such as Gmail, would not be accessible by other civil servants or by the public under Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

The Information Commissioner's Office has begun making enquiries into allegations that officials at the Department for Education have been systematically using private email accounts to conduct government business.

Emails sent from private email services, such as Gmail, would not be accessible by other civil servants or by the public under Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

The ICO became involved following a report in the Financial Times on Monday which said that it had seen email traffic confirming that "the education secretary and his advisers have conducted government business using private e-mail addresses" and that civil servants were "unable to find these e-mails when asked to retrieve them under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)".

However, contrary to the report, a spokesman for the Information Commissioner's Office said it was not launching a full 'investigation' at this stage.

"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. It would be inappropriate to comment further at this stage," the ICO spokesman added.

One of the emails under review was sent by Dominic Cummings, a key strategist for Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove. In it Cummings said that he "will not answer any further e-mails to my official DfE account", according to the report.

However, a spokesman for DfE told ZDNet UK that the email was not official government business and as such should not have taken place on government resources.

"Mr Cummings' email was not to civil servants and concerned Conservative Party spring conference 2011 - not government business. The Code of Conduct explicitly says that 'special advisers should not use official resources for party political activity'," the spokesman said.

The FT also said it had requested copies of emails — that it had already seen — sent by Gove and his advisers, under the FOIA that discussed government business but were circulated through private email accounts. In each case the Department for Education (DfE) said it did not hold the information.

"The Cabinet Office is clear that private email accounts do not fall within the FOI Act and are not searchable by civil servants. Neither the Secretary of State nor special advisers have been asked to disclose emails sent from private accounts," the DfE spokesman added. "The Permanent Secretary is satisfied that ministers and special advisers act within the law."