Ministers in Rishi Sunak’s cabinet are feared to be using a WhatsApp function which automatically deletes messages on the social media app, which is widely used to conduct government business.
Whitehall’s information commissioner has issued a fresh warning that such correspondences “are rarely properly documented and archived”, with the Liberal Democrats accusing ministers of “hiding behind disappearing messages” in order to evade scrutiny.
Under government transparency rules, ministers and their departments are told to decide themselves which messages should be kept on record, and they are only required to keep “substantive discussions or decisions in the course of conducting official business”.
But it is unclear how often frontbenchers hand over their WhatsApp messages for the Civil Service to keep a record of in case they are subject to Freedom of Information requests.
Heightening concerns further are allegations that some ministers are using WhatsApp’s auto-delete function to erase messages after a set period of time, such as a day.
According to the Daily Telegraph, several political advisers have activated the setting in the days since the paper began to publish the trove of Matt Hancock’s WhatsApp messages, which the ex-health secretary handed to journalist Isabel Oakeshott to write his Pandemic Diaries book.
The so-called “Lockdown Files” have provided further evidence of the extent to which government ministers discuss serious policy matters – as well as political machinations – on WhatsApp.
In the messages, then prime minister Boris Johnson can be seen using the app to discuss the merits of lockdowns, while Mr Hancock is shown to have frantically asked an adviser to clarify what his own rules were after news emerged of his affair with Gina Coladangelo, which forced his resignation.
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The information commissioner’s office warned in a report last July that “the rapid increase in the use of private messaging apps for government business” posed “real risks to transparency and accountability”.
Pointing to that report again on Monday, commissioner John Edwards lamented that such correspondences “are rarely properly documented and archived”, warning that “policies and procedures in place across Whitehall no longer reflect how ministers and officials work and interact in practice”.
Responding to the allegations of MPs using the auto-delete function, the Lib Dem Cabinet Office spokesperson, Christine Jardine, said: “Ministers should be setting an example for our country and governing with honesty and integrity, not hiding behind disappearing messages.
“We should live in an open democracy and society and that means ministers shouldn’t be evading transparency like this.”
A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “In the modern age, ministers will use a variety of communication channels for discussions, so appropriate arrangements are in place for the management of electronic communications.”