Health minister Lord Bethell has rejected the idea that it is wrong for ministers to use a personal email address for government business, after it was revealed that he and former health secretary Matt Hancock used theirs “routinely”.
The fresh allegations against the former health secretary and his junior minister were revealed in minutes from a meeting between senior officials at the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) in December, obtained by The Sunday Times.
In the document, a senior health official said the pair used their personal emails for government dealings during the pandemic “routinely” since March 2020.
But speaking in the House of Lords, Lord Bethell today said he did not “recognise the substance of those comments.”
“The guidelines are clear – it is not wrong for ministers to have personal email addresses and I have corresponded with a very large number of members in this chamber from both my parliamentary address and from my personal address and that is right and I will continue to do so,” he said.
“In their enthusiasm, third parties often seek to engage ministers through whatever means they can find and that includes their personal email. That is not the same as using a personal email for formal departmental decision-making,” he added.
Lord Bethell also said that government contracts are negotiated by officials, not ministers.
The allegations mean that it may be difficult for officials to obtain evidence of Hancock’s conduct in office during the upcoming independent inquiry into the UK government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
David Williams, the department’s second permanent secretary, reportedly warned in the obtained minutes that Lord Bethell also “routinely used his personal inbox and the majority of [approvals for contracts] would have been initiated from this inbox”.
In response to the allegations on Sunday, deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner said in a tweet that the new allegation against Hancock was “very serious and could have broken the law.”
She added: “Private email accounts could be used to discuss sensitive information and discuss contracts, avoiding Freedom of Information and concealing information from the public inquiry. I will be pursuing this.”