NICOLA Sturgeon is facing a row on the eve of her SNP conference address about using a party email account to conduct government business.

Despite a duty on civil servants to use formal channels for government business, officials were told in 2015 to send "urgent business" to the First Minister's personal SNP account.

Ms Sturgeon is now facing questions about whether she changed system to avoid her communications being captured by freedom of information requests.

The SNP's email system ultimately comes under the purview of Ms Sturgeon's husband, the SNP chief executive Peter Murrell.

The Scottish Tories called Ms Sturgeon's actions "highly suspicious" and called on her to come clean and publish her emails using the SNP account as soon as possible.

Ms Sturgeon this morning confirmed using her personal email for some government matters, but insisted the format did not matter as it would be subject to freedom of information.

However government record systems are subject to rigorous document retention policies.

Ms Sturgeon can delete her SNP emails whenever she likes.

The Times reported that a year after Ms Sturgeon became First Minister, one of her special advisers told civil servants that the FM would only use her party email account.

They were instructed to send routine correspondence to Ms Sturgeon’s private secretary, with urgent matters sent to her SNP account.

It was sent to 25 officials by special adviser Katy Bowman, who handles “support for the First Minister and the First Minister’s Private Office”.

It said: “As of immediate effect, FM will no longer be personally monitoring her MSP account.

“Instead, she will be using a different account for work. However, this is for urgent business.”

The memo included Ms Sturgeon’s personal email address for reference.

READ MORE: Sturgeon urged to come clean on any private email use

The disclosure comes amid growing concern that ministers and senior officials at both Holyrood and Westminster may be using private email and social media accounts to avoid scrutiny and circumvent FoI requests.

Despite the 2015 memo, Ms Sturgeon last month failed to tell MSPs whether she had ever used a private or party email addresses to conduct government business.

She appeared taken aback when Tory MP Donald Cameron put the question to her at FMQs.

She said: “Rightly or wrongly, most of my conduct of Government business is on paper.

“I receive paper boxes, not email boxes, and I make handwritten notes. 

“We will continue to respond to Freedom of Information requests about email correspondence on any particular issue.”

On BBC Radio Scotland today, Ms Sturgeon was asked if the Times story was correct.

She said: “Not really, no. I don’t generally use email to do government business. That story is… I haven’t read the story.”

Asked if it was true that she didn’t send any emails, she said: “How governments and anybody who’s been a government minister will know that routinely the way you do government business is you get a box of papers and you put handwritten notes, and then your private office turns them into emails.

“I don’t want to get too complicated here. The story as I understand it in the Times is that my private office, out of hours, if I don’t have a private secretary with me and they need to get something to me urgently, will send an email.

“But that’s coming from a Scottish Government email. It’s in the system. It will be routine stuff like my diary for the next day. But the crucial point here is this: any government business, whatever platform it’s done on, is subject to freedom of information.”

Asked if that included an SNP email account, Ms Sturgeon said: “Yes, well, let me finish this point. The only reason the Times are writing these stories is that they got emails released to them under freedom of information from my SNP account.

“So the crucial point of freedom of information. If I do government business it doesn’t matter if I;m doing in a handwritten form or by email, if it’s government business it’s subject to freedom of information is the basic principle of how that law works.”

In fact, the lastest Times story was based on a leak, not an FoI request. 

Professor Kevin Dunion, the former Scottish Information Commissioner, recently told MSPs he had never seen a Scottish FoI response include private email accounts.

However he said that if government business was being conducted with such accounts, it would be covered by FoI, and therefore not releasing it would be unlawful.

READ MORE: Ministers and their advisers ‘breaking FoI law’, warns former tsar

Last month the First Minister’s official spokesman said Ms Sturgeon hardly used email at all, with government business conducted on paper and in phone calls.

He admitted she had used her account but not for “substantive business”.

The Scottish Government also released an FoI response that stated: “Given the separation between government and party, Scottish Government officials would not normally be expected to send information about government business to (or receive such information from) an email account ending with”

Mr Cameron today wrote to Ms Sturgeon asking her to explain her actions.

He said: "The First Minister must come clean over her private email use and publish the emails from this account.

“It would appear that the First Minister and her team have not been entirely forthcoming and we have not been given the whole truth.

“I have written to the First Minister asking her to answer this simple question, does she use her private email account?

“The only way to clear this mess up is for her to publish the emails from this account.

“Anything less will be seen by Scots as highly suspicious – what does the First Minister have to hide?”

A spokesperson for the First Minister said: “This simply reinforces what we have previously said about the FM’s personal email only being used to flag urgent, out of hours issues.

“Unlike the UK Government, who have repeatedly failed to provide the emails and messages related to the unlawful prorogation of parliament, the Scottish Government has been utterly transparent by releasing emails from personal accounts in response to FoI requests.”