Staff at the Department for Education repeatedly destroyed official government correspondence, a freedom of information investigation has found.
Around 130 emails to and from the account of special adviser Henry de Zoete were deleted, according to the Financial Times.
The alleged practice was uncovered by journalistic ethics charity the Media Standards Trust.
Michael Moore, the director of the organisation, sought details of emails sent from the education secretary Michael Gove‘s special advisers and a number of named journalists. The charity claimed that the department’s response stated that the emails did not exist.
Moore told the paper: “Uncovering how the government spins its policies to the press is clearly in the public interest – especially now, during the Leveson inquiry.
“If the Department for Education is destroying emails to frustrate that, it would be both shocking and wrong.”
A department spokesman said: “Emails are not automatically considered an official record. Special advisers are not required to maintain records of deleted emails. All civil servants routinely delete or archive emails, taking account of their nature and content.
“Government systems could not operate if every civil servant kept every email they send or received. The act of deleting emails is not evidence of wrongdoing.”
On Friday, Gove lost the latest round in his freedom of information battle to keep details of emails from his personal account secret.
The information commissioner, Christopher Graham, ruled that the emails were covered under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act because the messages dealt with departmental business.
He told the Department for Education either to release the information requested or issue a formal refusal notice setting out why it is being withheld.
Reports last September suggested that Gove had been using a private email account named “Mrs Blurt” rather than his departmental account to discuss government business with advisers.
He has been resisting the release of the information on the grounds that ministers’ personal email accounts are not covered by the act.
A spokesman for Graham’s office said: “The commissioner’s decision is that the information amounted to departmental business and so was subject to freedom of information laws, being held on behalf of the Department for Education.
“The Department is now required either to disclose the requested information – the subject line of the email and the date and time it was sent – or issue a refusal notice in accordance with the FOI Act giving reasons for withholding it.”