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On Monday, June 28, Peter Bone (Con) asked an Urgent Question about the security camera in what was Matt Hancock’s office at the Department for Health and Social Care.

It has since been removed, but MPs from both sides of the aisle were deeply concerned — one wonders why — about its presence.

Julia Lopez, the Parliamentary Secretary in the Cabinet Office, answered MPs questions on that and on Hancock’s use of his personal Gmail account for government business.

Michael Gove, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, should have taken the questions, but he was working in Glasgow.

Excerpts from Hansard follow, emphases mine.

This debate cleared up misunderstandings about the use of personal email reported in the media at the weekend.

Security camera

Lopez said that an investigation is taking place:

On the specific incident relating to the leak of footage from a security camera to the media, given the public interest in the case I can confirm that the Department of Health and Social Care has launched an investigation that is supported, as appropriate, by the Government security group based in the Cabinet Office. Until the investigation is complete, it would be inappropriate to give further details. I am sorry to hon. Members who will understandably be seeking a lot of details on this matter. It is the case, however, that robust safeguards are in place around the security of Ministers, parliamentarians and Members of devolved legislatures.

Peter Bone asked for more information.

Lopez replied:

… once that investigation has been completed, notwithstanding the security concerns, we will want to provide him with reassurances on a number of the extremely important questions that he has raised.

My hon. Friend also asked about the extent to which offices are regularly swept. There is an organisation called UK NACE—UK National Authority for Counter Eavesdropping. It is the Government lead for counter-eavesdropping and this includes the technical manipulation of protective security systems, including CCTV. This is an area where it works very closely with the Government Security Group. My understanding is that it takes a risk-based assessment when it comes to sweeping, so in Departments where there are particular security sensitivities and concerns, those sweeps are taking place on a relatively regular basis, but Departments are accountable for the way in which their security is maintained within the Departments. The Cabinet Office plays a supporting role through the Government Security Group, setting out standards to which Departments are expected to adhere.

William Wragg (Con), a contrarian to his credit, asked about the safety of the whistleblower who allegedly leaked the Hancock video to The Sun:

what safeguards are there for whistleblowers who may inadvertently discover material that is in the public interest?

Lopez replied:

It is important that a distinction is made between material that was inappropriately sourced and then leaked and people who are trying to raise legitimate concerns that require public transparency. I shall look into the concern that my hon. Friend has raised to make sure that there is no blurring of those two very important and distinct issues.

Stewart Hosie (SNP) asked more questions about surveillance:

Was the former Health Secretary aware, and indeed, was the security officer in his Department aware, of the CCTV camera in his office? Is the Minister aware of similar CCTV cameras in any other ministerial office? Who installs such systems in Ministries and who monitors them and has access to their feeds? Do they record video only or is it sound and vision? Given that there were reports of this footage being touted on Instagram for some time, is it true that staff from private companies manage those systems and monitor the footage? If it is true, who is responsible for vetting, and what is the process for vetting, such staff?

Finally, and most importantly, how confident is the Minister that others—states and non-state actors who would do us harm—have not already compromised other staff or gained direct access to some of these CCTV feeds?

Lopez said that the Department of Health and Social Care were conducting their own investigation:

The hon. Gentleman raised a number of points—who installs such machines and so on—that we need to look into via the Department of Health and Social Care investigation. My understanding is that it was a CCTV camera, not a covert device. There are obviously questions to answer about the way in which civil servants are vetted—they do go through stringent vetting processes—and in respect of a risk-based approach as to which Departments need to be more regularly swept. I hope that some of the answers that the hon. Gentleman seeks will be answered by the Department of Health and Social Care investigation into this matter.

Jacob Young (Con) pointed out that it was crucial that, during a pandemic, the Department of Health must be fully secure for national security reasons.

Lopez said that, once complete, the DHSC investigation would provide more detail.

Jamie Stone (Scottish Lib Dem) wondered how Hancock would not have known about the security camera:

Crikey, Mr Speaker—who would be a Minister on a day like today?

I do not want to go into the detail of what happened on the day in question, but it occurs to me that the security camera—I think we are accepting that it was a security camera—must surely to goodness have been pretty covert. I know where the security cameras are in my local high street where I live in the Highlands. The more we go into this matter, the odder it gets. The public deserve an absolutely open explanation as to what has happened. If the cameras are covert, or semi-covert, why are they? Why does a Secretary of State not know, on a need-to-know basis, about this sort of thing and where the cameras are?

David Johnston (Con) asked for reassurance that no foreign power had access to the camera.

Lopez replied that the Government is investigating that issue.

Dr Julian Lewis (Con) asked whether security cameras in ministers’ offices was routine practice.

Lopez replied:

My understanding is that the general policy is that cameras are not sited within Ministers’ offices. I think this situation was an outlier in that regard, and we will have a better understanding of why it occurred once the Department’s investigation is complete.

Chris Bryant (Lab) had the comment of the day. Ordinarily, I disagree with much of what he says but fully appreciate his exasperation here:

Something really does not add up here. As I understand it, the Minister is saying that the camera in the office of the Secretary of State was not covert. In other words, the Secretary of State knew it was there, yet we have all seen the video. If that is true, he must be the stupidest man on earth. Is the Minister really trying to persuade us that he knew that there was a camera in his office? When he had meetings with other Ministers, were they informed that those meetings were being recorded? Is that really what she is trying to suggest? It blows my mind, this idea.

Lopez responded:

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman’s mind is blown. I am a Cabinet Office Minister who is responsible for overall adherence to Government security rules. When it comes to the placement of the camera in that office, I am afraid that it is for the Department of Health and Social Care to account for itself when it comes to what happened. It is already conducting an investigation, which we will want to look at.

Steve Brine (Con) wondered how many people had access to what the camera recorded, especially if The Sun could post photos and a video:

As a former Minister in the Department of Health and Social Care with the previous Secretary of State, in candidness, no one ever told me that our meetings were being observed. I never asked, it is true, but I was certainly never told. The issue, to my mind, is of course that they were being recorded, but more, who had access to those images? Does the Minister think that things would be made much easier for everyone as the Department of Health and Social Care begins the investigation if the, let us remember, profit-making media organisation involved simply made it clear how it was able to see inside a senior Minister’s office?

Lopez advised waiting for the results of the investigation.

Dame Angela Eagle (Lab) asked about the camera and the use of personal emails (see below). She picked up on Chris Bryant’s point:

The Minister has astonished us all by saying that this was not a covert device, yet we have just heard from a former Health Minister that he did not know about it. The Minister is somehow asking us to believe that the now departed Secretary of State somehow knew about it, but clearly if he did he would not have behaved in the way he did right in front of it, so I think that she is stretching credibility.

Lopez said that the investigation would answer more questions.

Either Lopez or Gove will report back to the Commons with the results of the investigation.

Gmail account

On Hancock’s use of his Gmail account, Lopez said:

Government guidance is that official devices, email accounts and communications applications should be used for communicating classified information. Other forms of electronic communication may be used in the course of conducting Government business, but each Minister is responsible for ensuring that Government information is handled in a secure way. How that is done will depend on the type of information and on the specific circumstances.

Angela Rayner (Lab), responding for the Opposition, spoke, complaining that Michael Gove, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was not there:

Incredibly, this is not even the biggest scandal of the day when it comes to ministerial security and communications, and the Minister alluded to this comments. This morning, a Government spokesperson claimed that all Ministers only conduct Government business through their departmental email addresses yet I have, right here, the minutes of a departmental meeting in which senior civil servants report Government contracts being approved from a Minister’s private email address. Who is telling the truth? It is a pity that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster could not be here in person, given his personal experience of the perils of using his private emails to conduct ministerial business and to try and avoid freedom of information laws.

And it goes well beyond one Department. Last week, the Cabinet Office refused to answer my questions about the Prime Minister’s mobile phone. Today, it has been reported that he, too, will not deny using private email addresses. Can the Minister now say from the Dispatch Box, categorically and on the record, that no Minister or Prime Minister has used, or does use, private email for Government business, especially when it involves spending public money?

This morning, the Justice Secretary agreed that private email was a huge security issue. He admitted that this revelation does raise legitimate questions. On this, he is right. Now it is time to answer those questions. Will those involved refer themselves to the Information Commissioner so that a genuinely independent investigation can take place? If any Ministers have used private email for Government business, what action will be taken and what will be done to prevent it from happening again? What steps have been and will be taken to preserve private emails as evidence for the public inquiry into the Government’s mishandling of the covid pandemic?

Our country faces daily threats from hostile foreign states that have already, for example, hacked the private email account of the right hon. Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox). What advice have the Government taken on the security of Ministers’ private email accounts? What does it say about this Government that they will launch an inquiry into leaks of CCTV but not into their own Ministers?

Lopez replied, mentioning ‘the height of the pandemic’ last year:

Other forms of electronic communication may be used in the course of conducting Government business. Each Minister is responsible for ensuring that Government information is handled in a secure way, but how that is done will depend on the type of information and on the specific circumstances.

The right hon. Lady asked about the procurement of personal protective equipment, I believe, or a covid contract that was conducted allegedly via a private email address. I am happy to look into that. But there needs to be understanding of the fact that when we were at the height of the pandemic, a huge volume of correspondence was coming to Ministers via their personal email addresses, their parliamentary email addresses and their ministerial email addresses.

A Scottish Labour MP, Mark Tami, shouted:

That’s all right, then!

The atmosphere turned lively, with audible reactions.

Lopez continued, pointing out that, when the time came to speak up in other debates, Angela Rayner had not done so:

I am not suggesting that there is something we should not be looking into. My point is that—[Interruption.] Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could wait for me to finish. Some 15,000 offers of help to secure PPE came in following the Prime Minister’s call for assistance. Obviously people wanted to respond to that call, and then we needed to manage the sheer volume of correspondence. The important thing to note is that when PPE offers did come in, they went through the same eight-stage process, so no matter which way those things were communicated, they went through the same process, and that should provide assurance.

Insofar as there are questions to answer, I want to assure the right hon. Lady that we have conducted a number of internal and external inquiries into this matter. There is the Boardman investigation into contracts and there was a National Audit Office investigation into contracts, so I assure her that this matter has already been looked into. She is absolutely right to ask questions and I am absolutely right to reassure her.

I would add that there have been a number of debates on covid contracts in this House, one of which took place in Westminster Hall. I was on maternity leave at the time of the pandemic. I shared the right hon. Lady’s concerns and wanted to understand what had happened, so I responded to a debate in Westminster Hall on those questions and I set out very candidly some of the concerns and challenges that we faced at the height of the pandemic. A number of hon. Members engaged in that debate and asked very legitimate questions to which I responded to the best of my ability. I am not aware that the right hon. Lady has ever engaged in any of those debates. If she wishes to generate a lot of hue and cry over this, that is understandable from a political point of view, but it is my duty to set out the challenges we faced and the ways we are addressing some of the concerns.

Later in the debate, Charlotte Nichols (Lab) said that Lopez had not answered Rayner’s questions:

The Minister did not give a straightforward answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner), so I will ask her again: is she confirming that Ministers did use private email addresses to approve contracts and that the Department of Health and Social Care therefore misled the public in its statement denying categorically that that happened? Given just how serious this is, will she agree to refer it to the Information Commissioner so that there is an independent investigation, not another Government whitewash?

Lopez replied that civil servants ultimately approve contracts but she would look into the matter:

My understanding is that it is not within the Minister’s power to approve contracts—that goes through the approval of civil servants. I would like to offer the hon. Lady that assurance, but I am happy to look into the particular incident she highlights further if there are concerns that need to be looked into.

Dame Angela Eagle (Lab) said there was a time when personal email accounts were forbidden with regard to government business:

When I was a Minister, we were not allowed to use our own inboxes or our own private emails for Government business. We were told very, very bluntly at the beginning of our ministerial career that this would not be allowed. Why on earth is it different now?

Lopez mentioned the pandemic:

On the use of emails, there are clear guidelines to which Ministers should adhere, but we have to accept that there was a situation in which we all had to move online, and we all have to account for the way in which we handled ourselves in that period.

Mark Harper (Con) asked whether private email accounts used in conducting government business were subject to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests:

On the use of private emails for Government business, will the Minister confirm the legal position under the Freedom of Information Act? My understanding is that if a public authority—the Secretary of State clearly is a public authority—uses a private email for Government business, that private email and those emails are subject to the Freedom of Information Act, and the destruction of any emails in order to prevent them from being disclosed would be a criminal offence. That information will obviously be of some reassurance to people. Is she able to confirm that from the Dispatch Box?

Lopez confirmed Harper’s understanding:

Yes, I can confirm that official information held in private email accounts is subject to FOI.

Joanna Cherry (SNP) picked up on Harper’s point:

Our Prime Minister has had to have his phone wrested from him by the security services for conducting Government business by WhatsApp, and now a Health Secretary has been using his Gmail for official purposes. Can the Minister please answer the second question posed by the right hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) and confirm to us that it would be a criminal offence for any Minister to destroy communications they have made about Government business on private emails or private messaging apps for the purpose of defeating the ends of justice regarding our freedom of information request or, indeed, defeating the ends of justice in any future inquiry into the covid crisis?

Lopez replied:

As I say, official information held in private email accounts is subject to freedom of information and all the rules and restrictions around that.

The final question came from Dame Diana Johnson (Lab) on the permissibility of using personal emails and other online platforms for government business. She also had a go at Michael Gove:

May  I say to the Minister first of all that this House should take precedence in the priorities of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, not travelling to Scotland?

When I was a Minister, neither parliamentary emails nor private emails were allowed to be used for Government business. Will the Minister therefore confirm whether using private email accounts to discuss sensitive Government business is in breach of the Freedom of Information Act, the Official Secrets Act, the Data Protection Act or the Public Records Act 1958, which place specific requirements on the use of Government information?

Lopez said that various online forms of communication is permitted:

As I have said, Government guidance is that official devices, email accounts and communications applications should be used for communicating classified information, but other forms of electronic communication may be used in the course of conducting business, and official information that is held in private email accounts is subject to FOI. I hope that that provides the right hon. Lady with assurance.

I am very much looking forward to a coronavirus inquiry next year, because I would like to know how many contract-related Gmail messages were deleted.

By the end of the day, Speaker of the House Sir Lindsay Hoyle issued a message to reassure anxious MPs about cameras in Parliamentary offices, not departmental buildings:

This seemed to preoccupy several MPs. It makes one wonder what they’ve been up to.

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