Liam Fox is facing mounting pressure to explain how sensitive government documents ended up in his personal email account where they were then allegedly hacked by ‘Russian-backed actors’.
Opposition MPs, former civil servants and privacy campaigners are calling on the former minister for international trade to explain how documents marked ‘official sensitive [UK eyes only]’ ended up in his personal email account last year.
Fox’s account is believed to have been hacked repeatedly between July and October by ‘Russian actors’ who then published 451 pages of emails and documents relating to UK-US trade negotiations on Reddit, an online public forum.
Former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said the dossier had shown that the NHS was ‘on the table’ in trade talks with the US, contradicting government claims it was ‘ringfencing’ the institution from negotiations.
Senior government figures are now demanding a public explanation from the minister.
Rachel Reeves, the shadow Cabinet Office minister, said: ‘The government now needs to explain how a minister’s account was hacked by a foreign state and specifically confirm whether classified documents were accessed through a personal email account.’
Downing Street said it would refrain from commenting while the investigation was ongoing but has so far not disputed claims that Fox’s account was hacked by Russian-backed actors.
Bob Kerslake, a former head of the civil service, said Fox ‘absolutely shouldn’t have used his private email address’ for official documents, and that there were clear rules ‘for the very good reason they aren’t secure’.
He explained that if the allegation were true then Fox may have breached the Official Secrets Act, which all ministers are required to observe.
Kerslake added that using private emails within government is not illegal in itself.
Alex Thomas, a former civil servant under the former cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood, said Fox would have been reprimanded for his actions had he been a public servant.
‘For a civil servant it would be a disciplinary offence if they had shared information via an inappropriate means,’ he said, adding that trade policy documents are ‘taken seriously and the security of that information does matter’.
Daisy Cooper, the Liberal Democrats’ justice spokesperson, said: ‘Liam Fox’s actions were totally irresponsible and by sending classified government documents to his private email, it seems he might have breached national security in a very serious way.’
Maurice Frankel, the founder of the Campaign for the Freedom of Information, said Fox ‘ought to have been using government servers for his business’ and added: ‘There’s no obvious reason why material like this should have been on a personal email account.’
Ministers have come under fire for the use of private emails in the past.
In 2011, Michael Gove, then education secretary, was criticised for using an email account with the name of ‘Mrs Blurt’ to discuss government business with his aide Dominic Cummings and others.
A spokesperson for Fox, who was the trade secretary until the end of July last year, declined to comment. The 58-year-old is currently the UK’s nominee for director general of the World Trade Organization.