The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has warned the government that personal email accounts used to discuss official business are still subject to the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act.
The organisation published new guidance on the issue in light of the use of a Gmail account by secretary of state for education Michael Gove, which meant that official emails were hidden from staff trying to respond to an FoI request.
Information commissioner Christopher Graham explained that those in government should not really require the clarification, but that the incident with Gove had forced the ICO to publish updated guidance.
"It should not come as a surprise to public authorities to have the clarification that information held in private email accounts can be subject to FoI law if it relates to official business," he said.
"This has always been the case. The Act covers all recorded information in any form. It came to light in September that this is a somewhat misunderstood aspect of the law and that further clarification was needed."
Graham added that, with the new guidance, public sector workers should be well versed in the different sorts of information subject to the Act and know the correct procedures to source the relevant information requested.
The ICO also issued findings from an investigation into the awareness levels of Department for Education staff.
"The Information Rights Team demonstrated an understanding of the application of the FoI Act in the context of the use of private email accounts, and there is evidence this has been provided in advice and guidance since the allegations have been made," the report said.
"However, it is not clear this advice and guidance has been fully understood and followed by those covered by it."
V3 contacted the Department for Education for comment on the ICO's report but had received no reply at the time of publication.
The new guidance is the second set of instructions issued by the ICO this week, after releasing new documents giving firms more advice on how to achieve compliance with the so-called cookie law that will be enforced from May 2012.
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