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Freedom of Information UK Government

Michael Gove warned that private emails are covered by FoI laws

By Hamish Mackay

December 16, 2011 | 3 min read

UK Education Secretary, Scots-born Michael Gove, a former journalist, has been asked to stop his officials using private emails for government business.

The BBC reports that Information Commissioner Christopher Graham says the use of private emails and texts should be "actively discouraged".

His guidance follows reports private emails were used to conduct Department for Education(DfE) business.

The DfE denied the reports - insisting the emails were about Tory business.

The BBC said this is the Information Commissioner’s first-ever probe of a government department under the Freedom of Information law.

Graham found that while the FoI rules on the use of private emails were known within Gove's department …"it is not clear that this advice and guidance has been fully understood and followed by those covered by it."

The commissioner's decision to stage a "good practice visit" to the department stemmed from reports in the Financial Times about the use of private email by Michael Gove and his advisers.

The FT quoted an email from one of Gove's special advisers, saying he would not answer emails to his official department account, but only those sent to a Gmail account and urged the recipients to do likewise.

The DfE responded that the emails concerned the Conservative Party spring conference 2011 rather than government business.

The commissioner called for checks "across the department, including within private offices, to ensure policies, procedures and guidance in relation to information rights is being followed in practice".

Early in the New Year he will also rule on FoI requests to the department by the FT.

In a separate move, the commissioner has also reminded the whole public sector that private emails and texts are covered by FoI requests.

"It should not come as a surprise to public authorities to have the clarification that information held in private email accounts can be subject to Freedom of Information law if it relates to official business," he says.

"This has always been the case - the Act covers all recorded information in any form."

The BBC's Freedom of Information specialist Martin Rosenbaum said that Graham’s comments may irritate those who find FOI requests a "source of aggravation".

He added that doubtless all this will now result in numerous FOI requests for the texts and Gmail messages of ministers and officials

Freedom of Information UK Government

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