What we know about Matt Hancock’s alleged use of private email
The government has issued what appears to be confusing and contradictory statements over whether health ministers, including former health secretary Matt Hancock, used personal email accounts to conduct government business.
We’ve taken a look at the reports that have emerged so far, why this matters and what guidance ministers actually have to follow when it comes to using non-official channels of communication.
On 27 June, a Sunday Times article claimed that Mr Hancock and health minister Lord Bethell had breached government guidelines by using their personal email addresses to conduct government business during the pandemic. But this was denied by the prime minister’s official spokesperson the next day.
The official statement from Boris Johnson’s spokesperson said: “Both the former health secretary and Lord Bethell understand the rules around personal email usage and only ever conducted government business through their departmental email addresses”. It was also clarified that use of personal email accounts would have been “related to things like diary acceptances”.
However, the documents seen by the Sunday Times, shared on Twitter by the author of the article, paint a different story. What are reportedly leaked minutes of a meeting between senior Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) officials specifically state that Mr Hancock and Lord Bethell used private email accounts.
The Good Law Project has also published an email about Covid-19 testing kits sent by former Conservative Party chair Lord Feldman, now managing partner of lobbying firm Tulchan, copying in Lord Bethell’s private email address.
A day after the government’s denial, the prime minister’s official spokesperson was asked about the communications published by the Good Law Project and confirmed that Lord Bethell had used his personal email.
They said: “We’ve been clear that ministers are able to communicate through a variety of different ways as long as they adhere to the guidance that’s set out.”
In answer to a question about alleged use of his private email, Lord Bethell told the House of Lords on Tuesday that he is “absolutely rigorous” in conducting government business through official channels. He clarified that he did sometimes receive emails to his personal address, but said “that is not the same as using a personal email for formal departmental decision-making.”
He also appeared to reference the information published both by the Sunday Times and the Good Law Project, asking people to “judge it extremely sceptically, because distorted fragments of evidence do not provide sufficient grounds to rush to judgment on how ministers do their business”.
A DHSC spokesperson later told Full Fact: “All ministers are aware of the guidance around personal email usage and government business is conducted in line with the guidance.”
Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner has written to Mr Johnson to ask him to correct the statement his spokesperson made. While a lot of questions still remain, it’s important that government ministers and their spokespeople are clear in their communications, particularly when it comes to matters of transparency, and correct the record if necessary.
What guidance do ministers have to follow on private email accounts?
It is important that clear records of governmental business are kept in order to allow government business to be properly scrutinised. Without them, it is much harder to track how decisions are made, and could lead to issues such as conflicts of interest going unnoticed.
Under the Freedom of Information Act, anyone has the power to access information held by public authorities. But if records of communication are not carefully maintained, it could become impossible for requests to be fulfilled as the information is not available.
The most recent government guidance on the use of non-government email addresses to conduct government business appears to have been published in 2013.
It does state that “other [non-governmental] forms of electronic communication may be used in the course of conducting government business”, but in doing so “the originator or recipient of a communication should consider whether the information contained in it is substantive discussions or decisions generated in the course of conducting government business and, if so, take steps to ensure the relevant information is accessible”, for example by copying it to a government email address.
Crucially, departments such as the DHSC should maintain public records so information can be accessed if it is required under the Freedom of Information Act. This is regulated by the Lord Chancellor’s Code of Practice on the management of records.
The code of practice stipulates that “authorities should know what records they hold and where they are, and should ensure that they remain usable for as long as they are required”.
While the code doesn’t go into detail about private email accounts, it does state: “The whereabouts of records should be known at all times and movement of files and other physical records between storage areas and office areas should be logged.”