Boris Johnson uses personal WhatsApp accounts to communicate ‘critical’ government decisions, the High Court has heard, as legal challenges are made over the use of the messaging app by ministers.
The Prime Minister received ‘confidential information’ via WhatsApp to his personal device from November 2020, court documents have argued.
And messages screengrabbed by former chief adviser Dominic Cummings were also never recorded on government systems, the court heard.
It comes as campaign groups All the Citizens (ATC) and the Good Law Project (GLP) argue that ministers are breaching the law by failing to follow policies, with ‘many instances’ of messages being deleted and private accounts being used for government business.
Ben Jaffey QC, representing ATC, said the messages could serve as a ‘public record for future societies’ and deletion does not adhere to ‘meaningful and parliamentary democracy’, allowing for ‘scrutiny through inquiries or court proceedings’.
In a written submission, he added: ‘It is possible to identify many instances where messages concerning government business which were sent/received using personal devices or accounts were never copied or transferred to any government system for archiving or records purposes, or were only copied/transferred when there was a need to retrieve the message for some particular purpose.’
The court heard that a Cabinet Office policy, requiring the use of automatic deletion of instant messages, falls foul of the Public Records Act 1958.
However, lawyers on behalf of the government argue that ministers and officials needed to communicate quickly with each other in the wake of the pandemic and, thus, use instant messaging platforms like WhatsApp.
A witness statement from Sarah Harrison, chief operating officer for the Cabinet Office, said private devices are used by government officials on a ‘daily basis’.
A second statement from William Vineall, of the Department of Health, detailed that the Prime Minister, former health secretary Matt Hancock and other senior officials used personal WhatsApp accounts and emails to discuss major government business – including the response to the Covid pandemic.
Another said Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi has previously used automatic deletion WhatsApp on his personal phone for government communication.
Mr Jaffey said at least one of the six top civil servants has used an automatic deletion function.
He argued that the actions of ministers and civil servants does not comply with their own policies.
Mr Jaffey added: ‘The concern is the material is not being properly considered and is at risk of being deleted and lost entirely, and therefore meets the test of falling foul of their own policies.’