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Government Business: Messaging Services

Volume 820: debated on Thursday 31 March 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what security assessment they have made, if any, of the use by Government ministers of messaging services on personal communications devices for official Government business.

My Lords, for obvious national security reasons, it is not appropriate for us to discuss security matters in detail. However, there are appropriate arrangements and guidance in place for the management of all electronic communications, including instant messages, in relation to the Government’s business. All Ministers and officials are aware of the guidance around the use of communication channels. As with all guidance, we keep this under regular review.

My Lords, Conservatives used to criticise Tony Blair for government by sofa. We now have a Prime Minister who conducts government by Signal, the messaging app that can delete messages after five seconds and block screengrabs. How is this in accordance with official rules, which state that private phones must be used only in exceptional circumstances and that all government business messages must be forwarded to civil servants to ensure the highest probity in public office?

My Lords, there are appropriate arrangements and guidance in place for the management of all electronic communications. Ministers will have informal conversations from time to time in person or remotely. Significant content relating to government business from such discussions is passed back to officials. Ministers will use a range of digital forms of communication for discussions, in line with relevant guidance on the handling and security of information. The Cabinet Office has previously published guidance on how information is held for the purposes of access to information and how formal decisions are recorded for the official record. Ministers are also given advice on the security of all electronic communications.

My Lords, when I was chairman of candidates, we tried to teach candidates about their responsibilities as far as their social media were concerned—clearly, not very successfully in some cases. I know that there is guidance in place, but would it not be a good idea for parliamentary colleagues to have more updated lessons about social media? I get the feeling that they do not really read the guidance enough and do not understand what is going on. Perhaps there could be some training for them on a yearly basis in this regard.

My Lords, Members of Parliament get the appropriate guidance when they become MPs, but my noble friend’s idea that all political parties should start discussions about the relevant guidance with candidates before they become MPs is a good one and I shall take it back to the Cabinet Office.

My Lords, we have seen the reports of what happens when those outside Parliament think they have a—let us say—different channel of access to Ministers. Paragraph 2.14 of the Ministerial Code, on “Security of Government business”, makes it quite clear how Ministers should behave. It would be helpful if the further information that the Minister referred to could be published and put in the public domain. However, it is not just about Ministers, is it? In the Code of Conduct for Special Advisers, there is no reference at all to the security of government business or the security of communications in public business. Many of those outside who wish to lobby Ministers, perhaps for contracts for certain equipment, would know that they could go to special advisers if they were not adhering to the same codes and there was nothing in their code of conduct about that. I ask the Minister to take this back and ensure that the Code of Conduct for Special Advisers is reviewed so that they are subject to the same requirements as Ministers.

I thank the noble Baroness for that. She is right that all Ministers and officials are aware of the guidance on the use of communications channels. As with all guidance, we keep that under regular review. Ministers still use a range of forms of communication for discussions, as has always been the case, in line with relevant guidance. However, I shall certainly take back the noble Baroness’s point about special advisers.

It is not really about private conversations, Minister to Minister. In a way, I am not really bothered about that. What this is about is Ministers using their own equipment to talk to other people: businesses, lobby groups. The Minister simply has not addressed the issue of Ministers using the equipment to go outside of government. She answered only about inside government.

I do not agree with the noble Lord. Let us make it clear: in 2013, the Cabinet Office issued guidance to departments that covered the use of private email accounts and any other form of non-corporate communication channel. The guidance states that all government information must be handled in accordance with the law, including the Official Secrets Act, the Freedom of Information Act, the Data Protection Act and the Public Records Act. Instant messaging services are used mainly for the type of informal, corridor chat that needs to be retained. However, Ministers and officials are required to ensure that a record is captured into the official system of any substantive discussions that take place or any decisions that are made in the course of conducting official business.

My Lords, the Prime Minister’s foreword to the Ministerial Code states that

“we must uphold the very highest standards of propriety … The precious principles of public life enshrined in this document—integrity … accountability, transparency, honesty … in the public interest—must be honoured at all times.”

The code of conduct and the Government Communication Service proprietary guidance are silent on the use of private emails and social media accounts by Ministers. If the Minister argues that no rules have been broken and that there is private guidance, should not the Ministerial Code be updated as a matter of urgency?

My Lords, the noble Baroness has a point, because the Cabinet Office has kept the guidance from 2013, which is a long time ago and things have moved on. However, it has kept it under review. It would be premature for us to reissue guidance before judgments are received on the two JRs of government policy in this area that are being conducted at the moment, but it is anticipated that updated guidance will be issued once the judgments are received.

My Lords, can my noble friend highlight what the national security risks associated with using WhatsApp are and can they be communicated to both Houses so that individuals can take the appropriate action to mitigate against those risks?

I thank my noble friend for that question, but, for obvious national security reasons and as I have mentioned earlier, it is not appropriate for me to discuss security matters in detail at the Dispatch Box. However, I can assure her that there are appropriate arrangements and guidance in place to support Ministers in communicating electronically in a secure way.

My Lords, this debate has centred on propriety in the use of the Ministerial Code, but there is also the issue of security, as just referred to by the noble Baroness opposite. It is well known that private devices are considerably less well protected in the main than those issued formally through the Parliamentary Estate. What assessment have the Government made of the vulnerability of private devices used to communicate government business, whether formally or informally, to possibly hostile state actors?

I cannot give the noble Baroness any further information apart from the fact that there are appropriate arrangements and guidance in place for the management and security of all electronic communications to conduct government business. In line with practices across successive Administrations, the Government do not otherwise comment on internal security arrangements, as I have already said.

My Lords, will the Minister have another go at answering the question of my noble friend Lord Rooker? Can I make easy for her? Is it in breach of the Ministerial Code for a Minister to communicate on a private device with a business or other party outside of government on something that may pertain to government business?

No, it is not, my Lords, but they are required then to take that back to their officials and make sure that it is officially noted.