The Information Commissioner’s Office today ruled that information relating to the Department for Education held in private email accounts is subject to freedom of information laws, and that freedom of information requests about such information must be complied with or refused – with reasons given for refusal.
The decision comes after a request was made to the Department for Education in mid-2011 to disclose certain emails under the FOI Act. It was unable to retrieve the information. At the time, the Financial Times said this was because they were sent from education minister Michael Gove’s personal email account.
The ICO ruling notes that information in private emails which contain Department for Education correspondence is being held "on behalf of the Department for Education, and so falls under the freedom of information act.
It is not illegal for ministers to use their personal emails for government business, and all ministerial emails relating to government business are subject to the FOI Act regardless of what kind of account they are sent from. However, using a personal account would presumably make them harder for FOI compliance officers to find.
The ICO notes that it has not ordered the disclosure of any information. "The DfE said it wasn’t caught by FOI. We have said it is," the office said in a statement.
The ICO also notes that today’s decision doesn’t address the allegation that the DfE deliberately concealed information in order to avoid disclosure through the freedom of information act. "The Commissioner has made no finding on that issue as yet. His investigation is continuing," the ICO said.