All But One of Boris Johnson’s Cabinet Ministers Used Private Email – Why?
Suella Braverman has returned to the Home Office following her resignation last week over her use of private email – but Iain Overton reports how using personal channels is a common occurrence among cabinet ministers
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All but one Cabinet minister who served under Boris Johnson used personal emails to conduct official Government business, according to evidence given at a trial challenging the Government’s use of private messaging systems this year.
On 19 October, the now reappointed Home Secretary Suella Braverman resigned after using her personal email in her ministerial role – claiming that this failed to live up to the “highest standards” of standards.
However, this practice seems commonplace in previous Conservative Cabinets.
In March this year, the UK’s third-highest court was presented with evidence by the Boris Johnson-led Government that outlined its members’ extensive use of private emails. The case was brought by transparency campaigners The Citizens over the use of disappearing messages and auto-delete functions by Government ministers.
The Government’s legal team argued at the time that it was not unlawful for ministers to choose how they communicate, and that the use of private devices was common in modern workplaces.
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In a statement to the High Court, Sarah Harrison, chief operating officer for the Cabinet Office, said that “in all cases, bar one individual who never used a private email account, there has been some limited use of private email accounts to carry out Government business” by ministers.
Harrison caveated the usage, arguing that it was in instances “such as where the minister is not able to access their Government email address (for example, because they are travelling)”. The onus, however, appeared to lie on the minister in question to declare their email habits and not on the Cabinet Office.
She went on to explain that she understood “that the items sent from a Government email account to a private email account tend to be things like a presentation from a meeting”.
“Occasionally, a number of ministers sent questions from their private email accounts to their private office,” she added. “In both these circumstances the material is held on the Government system.”
As an example, the court document also cited how former Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock had set up a Gmail account – **********@gmail.com – “for diary management purposes”. He also used another email account under the address **********email@example.com.
In addition, Hancock said he “used WhatsApp for shorter, more informal communication… (and) made occasional use of my private email account, for example when I was contacted by someone outside Government”.
But these examples cited by Hancock appear to go surpass the mere ‘used when travelling’ argument.
When his private emails were analysed by Government technicians for messages between February 2020 to 30 September 2020 for keywords relating to the court case (presumably words such as COVID, contract, NHS etc.) more than 3,000 documents were revealed. Hancock also had some 368,548 messages on his WhatsApp account between May 2015 and October 2021.
Similarly, Lord James Bethell, who was appointed Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department of Health and Social Care on 9 March 2020, confirmed he had used three private email accounts: one linked to his personal website, one on Outlook, and one on Gmail.
Helen Whately, Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury between 16 September 2021 and 8 July 2022, admitted to using private emails, including a single Gmail account to which emails from two addresses were stored alongside SMS and WhatsApp messages. The court heard the latter were “used regularly”.
The Government’s legal defence argued that, when it comes to the use of a private email address, “ministers are encouraged to follow the advice given in Security Government Business (SGB) document by the Ministerial Code, as a matter of security guidance (rather than as a matter of records management guidance). However, neither the Code nor SGB are drafted using the word ‘must’. Rather, the word ‘should’ is used”.
This position seems to be in some opposition to Braverman, whose resignation letter said: “I sent an official document from my personal email to a trusted parliamentary colleague… This constitutes a technical infringement of the rules… Nevertheless, it is right for me to go… As Home Secretary I hold myself to the highest standards and my resignation is the right thing to do”. Just six days later, Braverman has been re-appointed Home Secretary.
Whether the ministers under former Prime Minister Boris Johnson also thought that their use of private emails fell short of these “highest standards” is not clear. Every then-serving minister was approached for comment, asking if they had used private emails to conduct ministerial business. None replied.
This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.