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WhatsApp: Ministerial Communications

Volume 828: debated on Wednesday 8 March 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the extent of the use of WhatsApp for ministerial communications.

Ministers use a variety of channels of communication. This may include non-corporate communication channels as well as conversations in person and telephone calls, as has long been the case. Arrangements and guidance are in place for the management of such communications to ensure that official records are kept where it is considered necessary for good governance, but it remains the case that official decisions are made and recorded through proper processes, including ministerial boxes and Cabinet committees.

My Lords, I am really grateful to the Minister for her very helpful reply. However, is there any evidence that Ministers are using WhatsApp for government business on their personal phones rather than their work phones? Also, are they using the so-called “disappearing messages” that are removed after a set period, and, if so, is that consistent with government rules about record keeping? If the Minister is not able to deal with all those points today, could she write to me?

Of course. As I have said, if communications are substantive in nature, they need to be captured on government systems. But there is no requirement to retain every single communication, and that would include social media. As to disappearing WhatsApps, we will be producing new guidance shortly on the use of WhatsApp and other forms of communication, and that will include advice on the use of the facility for disappearing. As I have said, formal decisions must be recorded, but existing policy requires ephemeral and trivial information to be deleted.

My Lords, could the use of these disappearing WhatsApps be an explanation for the complete absence of policies on the part of the Opposition?

I note what my noble friend says and I refer to my previous answer about disappearing WhatsApps. Of course, parliamentarians and indeed Ministers get advice on security and on the use of social media, which I am sure the noble Lords opposite concur with.

My Lords, I note what the Minister says about guidance, but there is a difference between guidance and rules. The Hancock WhatsApp saga has highlighted that no standardised and formal rules exist across government on the handing over of government business app messages on a private phone when individuals leave their post. When and how will the Government close this serious loophole?

As I have explained, we do have guidance and we are in the process of developing revised guidance on the use of non-corporate communication channels, which we will be publishing in due course. There is a general understanding of the nature and extent of the use of WhatsApp for ministerial correspondence. As regards Mr Hancock, we have of course established a Covid inquiry to look into these things and it would be wrong of me to be making piecemeal comments on his use of WhatsApp.

My Lords, many of us recall the TV series and the films “Mission: Impossible”, where a confidential message from the Government would self-destruct in about 30 seconds. I think some Ministers probably did not realise that was fiction and not what happens in real life. We understand the difference between personal messages between Ministers and civil servants and those that relate to government decision-making, which, in normal circumstances, would be minuted. From the Answer she gave to the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, I think she has confirmed that there is currently no official guidance on the use of the disappearing message facility for WhatsApp. Can she confirm whether it is true that, at present, there is no guidance or advice on this? If that is the case—she said that they were going to be working on this—when guidance has been set up and published, could she confirm that it will be in the public domain so that it can be easily understood by all?

We have obviously been looking at the guidance to bring it up to date with modern methods, to which the noble Baroness refers, and are in the process of finalising that. To the extent that matters relate to security, we have to be careful about what we publish, but I will bear in mind the request from the noble Baroness as to what we should say about disappearing WhatsApps and their use. However, I refer back to the advantages of using disappearing WhatsApps as well as the disadvantages.

My Lords, would we not have been spared a great deal of tedium had WhatsApping and twittering and tweeting been made automatic breaches of the Ministerial Code?

I feel that that is completely impractical. We live in a modern world, where people use WhatsApp, private mail and SMS. What we need to do is have sensible rules and training for Ministers and parliamentarians to teach them what they can do and what is risky. I personally had an excellent briefing on my first day as a Minister at the Cabinet Office. I was given my own devices and was told about the risks of social media in a way that I found encouraged me to conform very closely.

My Lords, is it appropriate for a Minister to hand a cache of WhatsApp messages—government messages—to a journalist for personal gain?

I will not be drawn on the individual case, but I will point to what the Government are doing and also refer the noble Lord, who is a friend, to the Covid inquiry. My understanding is that Mr Hancock has said that he will ensure that all appropriate material is given to the inquiry, and I understand that the Department of Health and Social Care is ensuring just that.

I understand that staff in departments such as the DWP and HMRC already have guidance that tells them very clearly that they should not use their personal phones for business purposes. This creates a very clear separation between personal and public correspondence. Can the Minister confirm whether the advice she was given included clear strictures on using personal devices for public purposes and, if not, why not?

My Lords, in April last year, when the Government saw off at first instance a judicial review about the use of WhatsApp in government, a Cabinet Office spokesperson said publicly:

“We have been clear from the outset that there are appropriate arrangements and guidance in place for the management of electronic communications within Government”.

Those are the exact words the Minister has used at the Dispatch Box. The Cabinet Office position clearly was that these applied to WhatsApp messages. So, in a generality, do these procedures and arrangements allow former Ministers to take these records home? Do they allow them to alienate them to a third party, such as a journalist or ghost writer? If they do not, why do they not? Will the Government to publish the guidance?

I do not entirely understand the question, but what I can say is that the High Court dismissed challenges to the Government’s policy and practice with regard to non-corporate communication channels, which allows us to move ahead with the new guidance that I mentioned, and there are clear rules, of which we have already had evidence, on what we are supposed to be doing in the meantime.

My Lords, is it not worth remembering that the journalist in question signed an NDA but then betrayed a confidence and handed the documents over—or perhaps sold them—to the Telegraph? Is there a data-protection aspect to this?

My noble friend refers to a private arrangement between two parties, which I certainly would not want to comment on. Clearly, we in this country have some of the best data-protection law in the world, and data protection and the work of the Information Commissioner—I remember originally being responsible for this—is an important part of this whole policy area, although it is perhaps not directly relevant to the particular Question asked today.

Ministers expect civil servants to give impartial and candid advice, and, in return, there should be a reasonable expectation of privacy. This has clearly not happened in the Hancock case. What emergency measures is the Minister taking to protect the integrity of the Civil Service? Civil servants do not have a choice when a Minister asks them a question in a WhatsApp message, and they need protection.

As I explained, we have rules about how this is managed. Civil servants and Ministers have government devices that they can use to ask questions on. The Civil Service Code underpins the way the Civil Service operates, and impartiality is of course one of its fundamental principles; it is often quoted by civil servants in their day-to-day work and they feel very proud of it.