Insights Information Commissioner’s Office launches investigation into the use of private correspondence channels at the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC)

The Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, has published a blog post on the launch of the investigation into communications at the DHSC, noting that the role of transparency is fundamental to democracy to ensure that people understand and trust the decisions made by those in power. Further, she says, by transparently documenting decisions made by the Government, they can be learned from.

That is why, Ms Denham says, the suggestion of ministers and senior officials using private correspondence channels such as private email accounts to conduct sensitive official business is “a concerning one”.

Ms Denham is clear that the use of private correspondence channels does not in itself break freedom of information or data protection rules. However, the worry is that information in private email accounts or messaging services is forgotten, overlooked, autodeleted or otherwise not available when a freedom of information request is later made. This frustrates the freedom of information process, she says, and puts at risk the preservation of official records of decision making. Ms Denham is also concerned that emails containing personal detail are not properly secured in people’s personal email accounts.

Ms Denham notes that the ICO has looked at these issues in the past and produced clear guidance on the use of private communication channels, which has been available on the ICO website for a considerable time. Further, the Government’s own Code of Practice sets clear standards and emphasises the importance of good records management in ensuring public trust and confidence, particularly following a national crisis.

This is why the ICO has launched a formal investigation and has served information notices on the DHSC and others to preserve evidence relevant to the inquiry. The investigation will establish whether private correspondence channels have been used and if their use led to breaches of freedom of information or data protection law. The ICO will publish the results of that investigation in due course. To read the blog post in full, click here.