The data watchdog has launched an investigation into the Department of Health and Social Care over the use of private email addresses by Cabinet ministers including disgraced ex-Health Secretary Matt Hancock during the coronavirus crisis.
Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham will probe the use of all private correspondence channels used by ministers, including the WhatsApp messaging service, after Labour raised concerns about the use of emails by Mr Hancock and Health Minister Lord Bethell.
The Information Commissioner’s Office has the power to seize evidence and can even recommend criminal prosecution if it finds that information has been deliberately destroyed, altered or concealed.
Mr Hancock is accused of routinely using a private account during the pandemic, according to leaked minutes of an official meeting at the department. The minutes state that Mr Hancock was only dealing with his private office ‘via Gmail account’ and said he did not have a departmental inbox.
The former Health Secretary quit government and ditched his wife of 15 years after CCTV images of him flouting coronavirus restrictions with his mistress, millionaire aide Gina Coladangelo, was leaked to the Sun newspaper. His use of emails will form part of the inquiry.
Lord Bethell, a former nightclub manager who sponsored Mr Hancock’s failed bid for Tory leadership and who oversaw the award of Covid contracts, is facing mounting pressure to resign after a number of emails were copied into his private email account.
He is also being investigated by the Lords Commissioner for Standards amid allegations that the peer sponsored a parliamentary pass for Miss Coladangelo, the wife of Oliver Bonas founder Oliver Tress.
In a blog posted on the ICO’s website, Ms Denham said the use of private communications channels was not in itself a breach of freedom of information or data protection rules. However, she said she was concerned that they could be used to frustrate the freedom of information process.
Matt Hancock quit government and ditched his wife of 15 years after CCTV images of him flouting coronavirus restrictions with his mistress, millionaire aide Gina Coladangelo, was leaked to the Sun newspaper. His use of emails will form part of the inquiry
Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham will probe the use of all private correspondence channels used by Cabinet ministers, including the WhatsApp messaging service, after Labour raised concerns about the use of private emails by Mr Hancock and Health Minister Lord Bethell
Mr Hancock’s rule-breaking affair with millionaire aide Gina Coladangelo in his then ministerial office
‘My 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,’ she said.
‘That is why my office has launched a formal investigation into the use of private correspondence channels at the Department for Health and Social Care, and has served information notices on the department and others to preserve evidence relevant to my inquiry.’
She added that the ICO had the option of bringing criminal prosecutions against individuals if information was ‘deliberately destroyed, altered, or concealed’ after it has been requested under the Freedom of Information Act.
‘I will follow the evidence in this investigation where it leads and use all the powers available to me to ensure a full understanding of what has happened.’
Downing Street has previously acknowledged that Lord Bethell used a private email address but suggested that was allowed within the rules, while the minister has insisted he did nothing wrong.
Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner said she welcomed the investigation, writing on Twitter: ‘This is very serious, and I welcome this announcement after I wrote to the Information Commissioner calling for an investigation.
‘The Government cannot be allowed to cover up dodgy dealings with taxpayers’ money being handed out to friends of Ministers without scrutiny. The Government must cooperate fully, turning over all correspondence, emails and documents.
‘What is important now is getting to the bottom of how far this shady practice extends across the government, and ensuring that the Covid public inquiry has access to all evidence.’
It is just one of a series of probes Mr Hancock could still face into his conduct despite his dramatic resignation from the Cabinet. He was accused of misleading the public over his insistence that he had not helped a former pub landlord win a lucrative coronavirus contract.
Mr Hancock had previously claimed that he ‘had nothing to do with’ the £30million deal for Alex Bourne, who used to run the Cock Inn near his old constituency home in Thurlow, West Suffolk, to supply test tubes for Covid tests.
Mr Hancock speaking during a Downing Street press conference on May 27, 2021
Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner said she welcomed the investigation, writing on Twitter: ‘This is very serious, and I welcome this announcement after I wrote to the Information Commissioner calling for an investigation’
It follows claims that the former Health Secretary had routinely used a Gmail account since March last year, meaning there are few records of his crucial decisions on PPE contracts, Covid tests for care home residents or the £37billion Test and Trace system.
Mr Hancock is now under investigation by Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards Kathryn Stone over his shareholding in a family firm that has won NHS contracts.
He has already been found to have committed a ‘minor’ breach of the Ministerial Code for not immediately declaring an interest when document-shredding firm Topwood Ltd first won the right to bid for health deals.
Meanwhile a House of Lords spokesman has said the Commissioner for Standards was investigating a complaint regarding Lord Bethell’s sponsorship of a pass for Miss Coladangelo.
A long-term friend of Mr Hancock, Miss Coladangelo was brought into the DHSC first as an unpaid adviser before being made a non-executive directors receiving £15,000-a-year for three days work.
Members of the House of Lords can sponsor passes for secretaries and research assistants if they ‘genuinely and personally’ fulfil those roles for the sponsoring member. The sponsor has to sign a declaration to that effect, and it would be against the rules if the individual did not work for the peer.
Passholders have free access to the Palace of Westminster, where they can mingle with ministers and MPs and use the estate’s facilities such as bars and restaurants.
Miss Coladangelo is no longer listed as a member of staff for Lord Bethell on his parliamentary web page. But an online archive showed she was listed as a staff member in May last year as ‘Mrs Gina Tress’, a marketing and communications director for Oliver Bonas.
The Opposition had called for an inquiry, saying Lord Bethell was Mr Hancock’s ‘chum’ and ‘dished her out a pass’, raising the prospect that there was ‘one rule for the Conservatives and their friends and another for everyone else’.