David Cameron and his most senior aides face being forced to open up their private email accounts to see if they contain details of sensitive Government business hidden from the civil service.
A meeting of permanent secretaries yesterday discussed ordering a "trawl" of personal email accounts held by Mr Cameron, senior aides and Government ministers to see if they contain messages which fall within the remit of the Freedom of Information Act, i understands.
Last night a spokesman for the Information Commissioner's Office, which polices the act, confirmed that information in private emails could fall within the scope of the act if they pertained to Government business. That is likely to lead to a flood of Freedom of Information requests to Number 10 and other departments.
In the face of this advice, Whitehall mandarins have discussed how the Government can establish the extent to which personal email accounts have been used by ministers for official purposes. One senior Government source said: "The whole of Whitehall is in a tailspin. It appears as if the Cabinet Office has been giving conflicting advice to different departments. It is a complete mess and it is going to blow up in our faces."
It is not yet known whether ministers will be able to "self certify" their own email accounts or whether they will have to provide access to officials for them to scrutinise.
A Downing Street source said it was unclear whether ministers would have the right to restrict access to their accounts under the Data Protection Act. "They have merely agreed to look at this issue in order to be able to produce guidance to departments," a source said.
The move comes the day after emails became public showing that Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, had used an account registered in his wife's name to correspond about Government business.
In one email he wrote: "Where are we on phonics/age six reading test implementation plans?" Mr Gove also asks to see documents submitted by the permanent secretary and two named civil servants.
In another email Mr Gove summarises his expectations about a judicial review of his decision to cancel the schools building programme with a single word: "AAAARGGGGGHHHH".
It also emerged that political advisors in his office become so worried about the leaks that they stopped using official government accounts for correspondence – using their own private addresses instead.Reuse content