Government hit with legal request for records of WhatsApp messages concerning official business

Written by Beckie Smith on 30 September 2021 in News

Campaign group plan to ask for judicial review of practice it claims presents ‘threat to democratic accountability’

Credit: PA

Campaigners have demanded that two departments hand over records showing how often officials and ministers have used personal phones and email accounts to conduct government business, as part of the “first ever lawsuit over government use of WhatsApp and Signal to make key decisions”.

Transparency campaign group Foxglove has submitted legal requests to the Cabinet Office and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport demanding to know what official records have been kept of top civil servants’ communications.

The results will be used to shore up Foxglove’s call for a judicial review into what it calls “WhatsApp government”. The demand takes the form of a Request for Further Information, which can be used to provide evidence for the hearing.

The group has said the use of personal messaging apps is an “urgent threat to democratic accountability and to the future of the public record” given that there may be no official records of those conversations.

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Foxglove, along with campaign group the Citizens, will present its evidence at a permission hearing next month in a bid to demonstrate the government is breaking the law by using unofficial channels to conduct official business.

Its director, Cori Crider said the public must have official records they can trust in order to hold elected politicians to account.

“'What gets saved and what gets destroyed in our public record shouldn't come down to 'who kept the screenshots?'” she said. “Disappearing messages defeat democracy.”

Foxglove and the Citizens threatened to launch a legal challenge earlier this year when DCMS admitted its staff had been an instant messaging app provided through Google Workspace to communicate. Messages sent through the app are automatically deleted after 90 days.

Foxglove said at the time: “These apps allow them to delete messages after they’ve read them or minutes later. This lack of transparency is an urgent threat to democratic accountability and to the future of the public record."

The group has also launched a petition which it says it hopes will demonstrate “that a hell of a lot of people in this country care about Boris Johnson and his ministers using disappearing messages to run government by WhatsApp”.

“If you sign, you’ll be saying that a government minister can’t just bin embarrassing texts from former prime minister David Cameron lobbying them for dodgy money firm Greensill,” the group said in an open call for signatures.

Messages from the ex-PM to officials and ministers, urging them to take up the finance company’s offer to provide supply chain finance to the government during the pandemic, were published in May.

The campaign group added that "it’s ridiculous that so much of what we know" about the government's response to the coronavirus pandemic comes from "what the PM’s disgruntled former aide happened to screenshot".

This refers to screenshots shared on former No.10 adviser Dominic Cummings's blog with politicians including the prime minister and then-health secretary Matt Hancock. The screenshots included a now-infamous conversation with the PM, in which Boris Johnson appeared to call Hancock "f***ing hopeless".

Other high-profile examples of the use of personal accounts and devices being used for government business include reports this summer that several ministers at the Department of Health and Social Care, including Hancock, has "routinely" used Gmail private Gmail accounts. Information commissioner Elizabeth Denham said the revelations were "concerning" and that she would be "looking carefully" at the matter.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said the department does not comment on specific legal cases, but that messaging apps enable ministers and officials to communicate quickly.

A government spokesperson said: “Ministers will use a range of modern forms of communication for discussions, in line with legislative requirements, and taking into account government guidance.”


About the author

Beckie Smith is acting deputy editor of PublicTechnology sister publication Civil Service World, where a version of this story first appeared. She tweets as @beckie__smith.

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