Panic as ministers are warned they may have to disclose personal emails

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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, The Independent 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 No 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: "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 stressed that no decision had been taken by the permanent secretaries and said it was unclear whether ministers would have the right to restrict access to their accounts under the Data Protection Act.

The move comes the day after emails were made 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 advisers in his office had become so worried about leaks that they stopped using official accounts for correspondence and switched to private accounts instead.

The Independent understands this practice extends beyond the Department for Education. Many special advisers and ministers are using personal accounts to communicate with the media and for sensitive correspondence that they want to keep away from the Civil Service. Downing Street claimed the Prime Minister did not use his private email in this way.

"This Government already has a reputation for leaks and there is a suspicion that some of them may be coming from Labour-supporting officials," said one government adviser. "That's why many people have taken to sensitive discussions on private emails."

An Information Commissioner's Office spokesman said: "It is certainly possible that some information in private emails could fall within the scope of the Freedom of Information Act if it concerns government business."