Standards watchdog flags up accountability concerns over ministers’ use of WhatsApp

Lord Evans tells MPs that personal messaging platforms should only be used by ministers if doing so can be properly regulated

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A lack of transparency around lobbying and the use of personal messaging services to conduct official business are among the various ways the government has shown “carelessness” in its upholding of the standards which govern public servants’ behaviour, the chair of the Public Standards watchdog has warned.

Lord Jonathan Evans said the government needs to take the rules around behaviour and ethics “much more seriously” and provide more funding to do so.

“I don’t think it’s given the priority that it should have across various government departments,” Lord Evans told the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee this week. “I think, if you look at, for instance, the very unsatisfactory way in which transparency reports are given in respect of lobbying, it’s pretty clear that that is not a priority. Some parts of the business world, some of the regulated corporations, I think, are much more professional in the way that they seek to meet their compliance requirements.”

One measure mooted by Evans was the prohibition of the WhatsApp and other private-messaging platforms for conducting official business if this process cannot be properly regulated.

“In principle, it doesn’t seem like a very good idea for substantive public business to be being transacted on WhatsApp. But you have to live in the real world, and it probably is [conducted that way],” he said. “I personally felt there may be other technical solutions that are better than WhatsApp for this purpose but that’s beyond my remit.”

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Evans added: “It is absolutely clear [that] the responsibility is: if you are conducting public business, then there needs to be public accountability for that, irrespective of which channel you choose. There may be compliance challenges and people need to look at that and think about whether you say: ‘You’re not to use WhatsApp, you’re to use something else – which can be more regulated’.”

The Committee on Standards in Public Life released a report in November calling for improved procedures around public standards, a better system for ensuring the rules are complied with, and greater independence for those regulating compliance.

“At the moment, the government system is very weak in comparison to where we believe it should be,” the former MI5 chief said. “We have seen a whole series of issues over the last few months. The Owen Paterson affair; the attempt to change the rules over standards investigations in the middle of the investigation into Mr Paterson’s actions; the questions around the redecoration of Downing Street and particularly the very bad processes that were clearly in place for keeping Lord Geidt properly informed; the Greensill affair; and now ‘partygate’.

“All of those I think have demonstrated that there is at least a carelessness amongst people in government over standards issues, and possibly more than that.”

Evans also set out the need for a central compliance function which understands and can interpret and advise on the rules so that department chiefs understand what they need to comply with.

Ministers should be responsible for making sure procedures are in place so that departments are living up to the standards that the ministers themselves endorse, he said, but should not run the process.

But he said simply putting the procedures in place is not enough without a “proper system in place to make sure that people are complying with them”, pointing to the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments’ lack of power.

 “You have a system which goes some way towards at least providing some moral responsibility on those leaving government to do the right thing,” he said. “But it’s not enforced, it’s not very clear and the regulatory body, if you can call it that, doesn’t have the teeth that it needs to make sure that its recommendations are followed through.”

Explaining why standards in public life are so important, Evans spoke about the importance of public perception.

“This is about trust,” Evans said. “People should feel able and confident that those people who are serving them as senior officials or ministers, are doing so with the interests of the public at the front of their minds and not their own personal interests.”

Sam Trendall

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