The Information Commissioner's Office is looking into allegations raised by a Financial Times article that detailed how officials in the Department of Education, including one of the top aides to the Secretary Michael Gove, used private gmail.com email addresses to conduct official business, The Register reports. When FT made a Freedom of Information request to the DoE, the civil servants were not able to retrieve any communication that took place over private email.
Although it is not illegal to use non-governmental email for government business, failing to disclose the use runs afoul of the FOIA rules.
The problems of private emails also created issues for civil servants seeking to answer questions posed to them by the members of Parliament. Specifically, those trying to answer MP's questions about the New Schools Network, a non-profit organization set up to oversee the free-schools program for the government, ran into a roadblock set up by one of Gove's closest aides, The Guardian reports.
Dominic Cummings, a confidant of Gove who was freelancing for the charity at the time, told a senior civil servant: "NSN is not giving out to you, the media or anybody else any figure on âexpressions of interest' for PQs, FOIs or anything else. Further, NSN has not, is not, and will never answer a single FOI request made to us concerning anything at all."
According to a trove of emails leaked to The Guardian, Cummings specifically encouraged his subordinates to use Gmail for office business, going so far as to offer to explain his reasoning "in person." Furthermore, the emails revealed that he also told civil servants not to cooperate with the parliamentary inquiries.
After the FT broke the story, the spokesman for the DoE said that the private email accounts of the department officials do not have to be turned over in response to FOI requests, and that no requests have come in asking for such disclosure.
However, Maurice Frankel, who is a director of Campaign for Freedom of Information said:
"If [Gove] or his special advisers used their private email accounts to carry out government business, those emails are subject to the FOI Act."