Health minister Lord Bethell faced fresh calls to resign over his use of a personal email account rather than official communication channels.
Downing Street acknowledged Lord Bethell was using a private email address but suggested that was allowed within the rules, while the peer insisted he had done nothing wrong.
Both the minister and his former boss Matt Hancock have faced claims that they used their private accounts to discuss government business during the pandemic, including potential coronavirus contracts.
Lord Bethell insisted he sought to uphold the ministerial code “in everything I do” as he was questioned by peers.
Pressed by Tory peer and former Boris Johnson aide Lord Udny-Lister if he “routinely” uses his private email, Lord Bethell said: “In terms of the use of private email can I just reassure members that I have read the ministerial code, I have signed the ministerial code and I seek to uphold it in everything I do.”
Responding to concerns raised with him in the upper chamber, the Tory frontbencher said: “I am absolutely rigorous to ensure that Government business is conducted through the correct formal channels.”
Contracts were negotiated by officials, not ministers, and went via “departmental digital boxes”, with decisions communicated “through secure governmental infrastructure”.
Lord Bethell said: “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.
“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.
“I’d say that those who have seen material on the internet should judge it extremely sceptically because distorted fragments of evidence do not provide sufficient grounds to rush to judgment on how ministers do their business.”
The Good Law Project, which has fought a series of legal battles over coronavirus contracts, published a leaked email to Lord Bethell’s private account from Lord Feldman regarding an offer to supply Covid-19 test kits.
The Sunday Times reported that both Mr Hancock and Lord Bethell routinely used private accounts to discuss government business.
Downing Street insisted on Monday that “both the former health secretary and Lord Bethell understand the rules around personal email usage and only ever conducted Government business through their departmental email addresses”.
But on Tuesday the Prime Minister’s official spokesman suggested the use of personal emails to conduct Government business was acceptable if the information was copied to an official account.
Asked if he recognised that the released emails showed that Lord Bethell was using a private email address, the spokesman said: “Yes, we have been clear that ministers are able to communicate in a variety of different ways as long as they adhere to the guidance as set out.”
The “important point” was that ministers ensured that “when there have been substantive discussions or decisions generated in the course of those communications they then ensure relevant information is passed on and is accessible”.
Keeping emails off government servers could potentially make it easier to avoid transparency requirements and Freedom of Information laws.
Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner said: “Lord Bethell used his private email account to sign off contracts and the Government tried to cover it up.
“Sack him, publish the private emails and hand them over to the public inquiry.”
Boris Johnson’s former aide Dominic Cummings said it was “nonsense” to suggest that communications were always conducted through official channels.
“PM/Hancock used WhatsApp to discuss procurement issues viz Tory donor network with No 10 officials,” he claimed.
Meanwhile, the Government also faced questions about the way non-executive directors of departments were appointed.
Mr Hancock appointed Gina Coladangelo, the woman he was caught in an embrace with on CCTV, triggering his ministerial demise, to such a role in the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC).
Former civil service chief Lord Kerslake told BBC Radio 4’s Today: “The problem really with the current model is about really the appointment process, how it is overseen and indeed clarity about what that role is supposed to be and I’m afraid changes are going to be needed in light of this sorry saga.”
Asked whether Mr Hancock’s relationship with Ms Coladangelo should have been declared, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “The rules on declarations are clear as regards to non-executive directors and, obviously, ministers.”
Ms Coladangelo has now formally stepped down as non-executive director at the DHSC.
Lord Bethell also told peers he had written to the standards watchdog following a complaint about him sponsoring a parliamentary security pass for Ms Coladangelo, despite reports that she never worked for him, which is against the rules.
Liberal Democrat health spokeswoman in the Lords Baroness Brinton said: “Lord Bethell has a lot of questions to answer.
“Over the past week we’ve seen a number of allegations arise about both his use of a private email to conduct ministerial business and his sponsorship of a Parliamentary pass for Ms Coladangelo.
“When given the chance to address these criticisms at the despatch box he chose not to.”
She said he “must come clean and address these serious allegations” and “if he refuses, then he must consider his position”.