UK Information Commissioner launches probe into private email use at Department of Health

Concerns were raised over claims Matt Hancock and Lord Bethell used private accounts to conduct government business.

The UK Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has launched an investigation into the improper use of private emails and communication channels by government officials. 

Following Matt Hancock's abrupt departure after breaking social distancing guidelines, concerns were raised that the former health secretary, as well as minister Lord Bethell, had potentially conducted government business across improper channels -- including private email accounts. 

An investigation may also include other online forms of communication, such as WhatsApp.

Elizabeth Denham, the UK's Information Commissioner, said on July 6 that the data protection watchdog is now investigating the Department of Health and Social Care, branding the suggestion that officials are using these accounts to "conduct sensitive official business" as "concerning."

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

The Information Commissioner has now served official notices on the department and others who may be connected to the inquiry, requesting information and the preservation of evidence. 

The ICO's probe will try to establish whether or not government officials have used private correspondence channels in their roles in ways that have breached freedom of information regulations or data protection laws

According to the ICO, transparency is critical to democratic principles -- and when a government has been making decisions over a period of 18 months that have deeply impacted our lives, the need to maintain security standards cannot be overlooked.

Denham said that following a national crisis, and considering that the government's own Code of Practice sets clear guidelines for data protection, "it is through transparency and explaining these decisions that people can understand and trust them."

"The use of private correspondence channels does not in itself break freedom of information or data protection rules," she said. "But my worry is that information in private email accounts or messaging services is forgotten, overlooked, autodeleted, or otherwise not available when a freedom of information request is later made. This frustrates the freedom of information process, and puts at risk the preservation of official records of decision making."

Once completed, the results of the investigation will be published. 

The ICO can take a variety of actions depending on the results of the investigation. This could include simple best-practice recommendations and enforcement notices up to criminal prosecution -- a prospect that may be considered if there is any evidence that "information has been deliberately destroyed, altered, or concealed after it has been requested under the Freedom of Information Act."

Denham says that she will "not comment further until the conclusion of our investigative work."

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