A third health minister used a private email account for government business, the Guardian can reveal, as the UK’s information watchdog said it was considering launching an investigation into the use of Gmail by Matt Hancock and Lord Bethell.
The social care minister, Helen Whately, copied in a private Gmail address to a diary invitation, according to a leaked email. Hancock, who quit as health secretary on Saturday after an affair with an aide breached Covid rules, could face an investigation for his own use of personal email.
Whately’s diary invitation, seen by the Guardian, was sent to both her official email and her Gmail and does not contain sensitive information, but will raise further questions about the routine use of private accounts.
Boris Johnson has also refused to answer whether he has ever conducted government business using a personal email account, saying: “I don’t comment on how I conduct government business.”
Hancock is reported to have routinely used a private account, according to minutes of an official meeting at the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) seen by the Sunday Times. The minutes said Hancock was only dealing with his private office “via Gmail account” and said he did not have a DHSC inbox.
The minutes, which were to discuss a Good Law Project legal challenge over government contracts for faulty tests, also say that Bethell, the health minister, “routinely uses his personal inbox and the majority of [approvals for contracts] would have been initiated from this inbox”.
Cabinet Office guidance states that ministers should use official email accounts in order to leave a paper trail for important decisions and to allow for scrutiny.
Elizabeth Denham, the UK information commissioner, said she was considering further action. “It is an important principle of government transparency and accountability that official records are kept of key actions and decisions,” she said.
“The issue of ministers and senior officials using private email accounts to conduct sensitive official business is a concerning one for the public and is one my office has advised on before. I am looking carefully at the information that has come to light over the past few days and considering what further steps may be necessary to address the concerns raised with me.”
The prime minister’s official 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,” and said using personal Gmail was “related to things like diary acceptances”.
Johnson’s former aide Dominic Cummings suggested that prime minister and Hancock routinely used WhatsApp messages instead of official communications channels. He said that there were “WhatsApps between PM, [Hancock] and Tory donors which No 10 officials know exist cos they’re copied in to some … So dozens of No 10 officials know No 10 press office openly lying again.”
Angela Rayner, the shadow chancellor for the duchy of Lancaster, earlier called for an investigation into government use of private email. “We need a fully independent inquiry into the working practices of ministers and the security risks created by ministers using their personal email addresses to carry out their government business,” she said.
DHSC has been contacted for comment.