Ministers’ texts and emails to be made available under FOI

Messages sent in ministers’ private texts and emails could be made public under the Freedom of Information (FOI) act, according to new guidance that is soon to be released by the Cabinet Office.

The news follows a two year dispute between education secretary Michael Gove and the Information Commissioner’s Office, where the Department for Education has been reluctant to respond to an FOI request asking for data sent in private email account.

It was revealed in September last year that the ICO had written to the DfE raising concern about its handling of a FOI request made by the Financial Times.

The newspaper claimed that it had evidence relating to Education Secretary Michael Gove’s private emails, which contained departmental business, that the DfE had not handed over upon request. The DfE claimed at the time that Gove and his special advisors had not been circumventing the official government email network and that it believed they had acted within the law.

However, the BBC has seen a letter sent to the ICO from the director of law and information rights at the Department for Education, Claire Johnston, which states that the department will give up its dispute over releasing the details of emails sent from Gove’s private account.

The letter also refers to new guidance about the scope of FOI requests that will ‘shortly’ be released by the Cabinet Office.

A spokeswoman for the Cabinet Office told the BBC: “The guidance will make clear that whether or not information is subject to the FOI Act depends on the nature of the information and not the format in which it is held.

“Government information held on private email accounts is within scope of the FOI Act.”

This new guidance means that information contained in private emails and text messages between the prime minister and other ministers could be requested for publication.

The Cabinet Office said: “The question of how the FOI Act applies to information held on private email accounts is a complex area of the law. The Cabinet Office is preparing guidance on how this applies to Central Government Departments, and this will be published shortly.”

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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