Whitehall departments face legal demand to reveal every time that ministers and top civil servants have used personal phones and email for official business
Former prime minister David Cameron was revealed earlier this year to have bombarded ministers and officials with private messages amid the Greensill lobbying scandal
Two Whitehall departments are facing a legal demand to reveal every time ministers and mandarins have used their personal phones or email to conduct official business.
All those in high-profile posts within the Cabinet Office and Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS) will have to explain what was said and the steps taken to preserve any messages.
The request has been submitted by transparency campaigners Foxglove, who claim key policy decisions are being discussed over encrypted messaging services such as WhatsApp.
Such apps allow users to delete messages, they warn, which in turn poses an ‘urgent threat to democratic accountability and to the future of the public record’.
Foxglove director Cori Crider said: ‘That’s why these personal channels shouldn’t be used for government.
‘What gets saved and what gets destroyed in our public record shouldn’t come down to ‘who kept the screenshots?’
The use of encrypted messaging apps within government has come under increasing scrutiny, with much of the pandemic response said to have been conducted over WhatsApp.
Former prime minister David Cameron was revealed earlier this year to have bombarded ministers and officials with private messages amid the Greensill lobbying scandal.
Foxglove’s legal demand was submitted as part of the group’s bid to stop the government using apps where messages can be set to disappear – which they argue is breaking the law.
Alongside fellow campaign group The Citizens, they are due at the High Court on October 12, where they are looking to convince a judge to allow them to launch a full judicial review.
Known as a Request for Further information, the latest demand asks for every instance in which staff have used either their personal phones, emails or self-deleting messaging apps to discuss official business. It will apply to ministers in the Cabinet Office or DCMS who have been in post within the past two years – meaning both former Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove and former culture secretary Oliver Dowden will also be subject to it
Known as a Request for Further information, the latest demand asks for every instance in which staff have used either their personal phones, emails or self-deleting messaging apps to discuss official business.
It will apply to ministers in the Cabinet Office or DCMS who have been in post within the past two years – meaning both former Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove and former culture secretary Oliver Dowden will also be subject to it.
So too will their private secretaries and special advisors, plus the Cabinet Secretary and permanent secretary in each department.
In each case, they will be required to explain what government business was discussed and what steps they took to preserve it under both the Public Records Act 1958 and the Freedom of Information Act 2000.
The DCMS and Cabinet Office are being targeted specifically because they have overall responsibility for correct compliance for both acts respectively.
If the government does not meet the request before the High Court hearing, Foxglove said it will ask the judge to order them to do so.
Ms Crider said: ‘In two weeks, ministers may have to fess up about every time they’ve used WhatsApp, personal email or disappearing messages for government business and explain why.
‘That’s going to make for some awkward moments in the Number 10 WhatsApp group once their lawyers break it to them.’
She added: ‘Disappearing messages defeat democracy. We have to be able to hold elected politicians to account and we’ve got to have a historical record we can trust.’
The demand follows the publication of an official probe into the access granted to Lex Greensill, the supply chain finance specialist who hired David Cameron as an adviser before his firm went bust.
The second part of the report by auditor Nigel Boardman – which was slipped out amid the reshuffle drama last week – called for a toughening up of rules on lobbying within Westminster.
Within it, he advised that messaging apps with the self-deleting feature should not be used.
If they were, however, he said disclosing what they said became ‘significantly more important since trust will otherwise be eroded’.
The Cabinet Office said they did not comment on specific legal cases. However they said not all communications regarding government business were sensitive and that ministers and officials often needed to act with great speed which was made easier using modern messaging apps.
A spokesman said: ‘Ministers will use a range of modern forms of communication for discussions, in line with legislative requirements, and taking into account government guidance.’