Tuesday, 22 March 2022 — Good Law Project
The Government has admitted that none of Boris Johnson’s messages from his mobile phone prior to April 2021 are available, as Good Law Project’s legal challenge to Ministers’ persistent use of private communication channels to conduct Government business reaches the High Court.
We all know the Prime Minister uses his personal phone to discuss matters of national importance. The fact that none of his phone messages were retained when his phone was decommissioned in 2021 is utterly baffling, deeply regrettable, and leaves us all asking the obvious question – why?
While instances of the Prime Minister refusing to make some of his Whatsapp communications available have previously been disclosed, such as during the investigation into the redecoration of his Downing Street apartment, this is the first time that the Government has admitted none of his messages prior to April 2021 are available to be searched.
Sarah Harrison, Chief Operating Officer for the Cabinet Office, confirmed that:
‘In April 2021, in light of a well-publicised security breach, the Prime Minister implemented security advice relating to a mobile device. The effect was that historic messages were no longer available to search and the phone is not active.’
Given the current ‘Partygate’ investigation, as well as the future inquiry into the Government’s response to the pandemic, this has serious implications for transparency and holding the Prime Minister and his Government to account.
And it’s not just the Prime Minister. Our case has exposed a widespread disregard of the rules by Ministers across Government, who have repeatedly used personal email accounts and WhatsApp for Government business. Their chronic use of non-official communications means that vital Government business is being conducted in the shadows – it undermines accountability and it risks our national security.
And despite the Government’s protestations, discussions via private communication channels have not been merely “ephemeral” or “trivial” – instead they have covered important and substantive topics, such as the Government’s overarching Covid-19 strategy, the award of multi-million pound Covid contracts and the discharge of individuals from hospitals to care homes during the height of the pandemic.
These breaches of Government policies, and of the duty under the Public Records Act to make arrangements for the selection and safe-keeping of records which ought to be permanently preserved, are unlawful. The evidence also makes clear that there are serious consequences of Ministers’ habitual use of private communication channels for Government business, including:
- the threat to national security: the Government’s own Security of Government Business policy tells Ministers “You should not use your personal devices, email and communications applications for Government business at any classification” and that personal IT will “not be as secure” as Government devices;
- the challenge it poses to comply with Freedom of Information requests and duty of candour required by the Courts. Good Law Project has experienced first-hand the difficulties in accessing important disclosure in legal cases when Ministers have used private communication channels rather than official devices and accounts;
- the lack of transparency it creates, at a time when public confidence in the Government’s decision-making is low. The upcoming inquiry into the handling of the pandemic is a paradigm example of why it is important that communications are capable of being properly recorded, so that Ministers can be held to account.
We need this Government to put in place policies that are fit for purpose, and then we need Ministers and officials to actually follow them. Their default to opacity does us all a disservice.
We will keep you updated on this case.