At least four ministers used private email addresses for official business, the government has admitted – but they have refused to search them.
As well as Matt Hancock and health minister Lord Bethell – government lawyers said trade minister Greg Hands and the PPE Tsar, Lord Deighton used private accounts.
But they refused a request to search the accounts as part of a High Court legal challenge, saying it would be “neither necessary nor proportionate”.
The Good Law Project and EveryDoctor are pursuing the government over its “VIP lane”, which saw lucrative Covid-19 contracts handed to firms linked to officials, MPs and ministers.
Cabinet Office guidance states ministers may use private e-mail addresses but should “take steps” to make any government business accessible – such as by copying it to an official address.
In their letter, Government lawyers argued: “Clearly the duty of candour does not give rise to an obligation on the Authority to search every email account which appears within the disclosure set as such an exercise would be wholly disproportionate and incur substantial cost to the taxpayer for littler no benefit.”
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They also argued the judge in the case, Mr Justice O’Farrell, had refused a previous application to search Lord Bethell’s text and WhatsApp messages.
But in a blog, the Good Law Project said: “We are left with the farcical situation of Government behaving like the three wise monkeys, declining even to look at what business private email accounts were used to conduct.
“How can Government lawyers be sure they have complied with their duty to put their cards face up on the table when they won’t even look at their cards?
“We have the prospect of highly partial disclosure on VIP contracts worth hundreds of millions or billions of pounds.”
They added: “The Government is shaping up to be as evasive as possible. But we won’t back down.”
Separately, Ministers face a formal probe from the Information Commissioner over the use of private emails.
Commissioner Elizabeth Denham said earlier this month: “It concerns the public to feel there may be a loss of transparency about decisions affecting them and their loved ones.
“And as the regulator of data protection and freedom of information laws, it concerns me.”