Matt Hancock used private email account for government business
Gabriel Pogrund www.thetimes.co.uk
Matt Hancock faces an investigation after using a personal email account instead of an official address during the pandemic in a breach of government guidelines.
Since March last year the former health secretary has routinely used a private account to conduct government business, concealing information from his own officials and potentially the public, according to documents obtained by The Sunday Times.
It means that the government does not hold records of much of Hancock’s decision-making, including negotiating multimillion-pound PPE contracts, setting up the £37 billion test and trace programme and overseeing the government’s care homes strategy.
The disclosure of Hancock’s secret account appears in minutes of a meeting between senior officials at the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) in December. Cabinet Office guidance states that ministers should use official email accounts in order to ensure that there is evidence of important decisions and of proper internal scrutiny.
Hancock was left fighting for his career after he broke his own coronavirus guidance — and potentially the law — during an affair with a senior aide.
Hancock, 42, is also accused of conflicts of interest after appointing Gina Coladangelo, 43, as his media adviser and a director of his department, earning £15,000 a year. However, according to leaked documents, he may have hidden details of their official dealings and his wider conduct in office.
The minutes record that David Williams, the department’s second permanent secretary, had warned about Hancock’s conduct, saying that he “only” deals with his private office “via Gmail account”. He stated that “the SOS [secretary of state] does not have a DHSC inbox”.
Williams disclosed that officials could not freely access key evidence or documents, saying the “threshold for requesting this personal account would need to be substantial”.
He added that Lord Bethell, Hancock’s ally and a junior health minister, engaged in the same practice, saying he “routinely uses his personal inbox and the majority of [approvals for contracts] would have been initiated from this inbox”.
The minutes concern a meeting about a Good Law Project legal challenge over Hancock’s decision to award a contract worth up to £75 million for “malfunctioning” tests to a firm linked to Sir John Bell, a government adviser.
In the minutes, Williams admits that he “doesn’t believe there was inappropriate acts on behalf of ministers but can clearly see the optics suggest otherwise”.
Since the meeting, Hancock has been given an official email account, although two Whitehall sources said that he still preferred to use Gmail. This is considered to be a less traceable form of communication.
Under the Freedom of Information Act, officials can request access to private email accounts. Yet the Information Commissioners Office (ICO) says such searches are rare. The individual must be asked to go through their own personal address and decide what to disclose, rather than handing it over to officials in full
The disclosures pose new questions about Hancock’s conduct. They suggest it will be difficult for officials to obtain evidence of his conduct in office before an independent inquiry into the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
His emails may also be important for any investigation into whether he breached MPs’ rules by sponsoring a parliamentary pass for Colandangelo. Cabinet Office guidance states explicitly that “it is expected that government business should be recorded on a government record system”.
Labour has demanded an investigation by the Information Commissioners Office. Angela Rayner said: “He needs to explain to the British people why he thought it was acceptable to have a secret and private email inbox for contracts for people that he had a direct relationship with.”
It is not the first time that ministers have been embroiled in controversy about the use of private email accounts. Ten years ago, Michael Gove faced an inquiry over similar allegations after Dominic Cummings, his chief adviser, refused to communicate via his formal inbox. He even wrote that would “not answer any further emails to my official … account”. Eventually Gove was forced to hand over his email to his department.
Hancock already faces potential investigations into whether he broke laws and guidance he helped create, and the ministerial code.
A DHSC spokesman said: “All DHSC ministers understand the rules around personal email usage and only conduct government business through their departmental email addresses.”