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Information commissioner to probe Scottish Government use of WhatsApp

Scotland’s information commissioner is launching an investigation into the Scottish Government’s use of WhatsApp and informal messages.

David Hamilton said evidence revealed at the UK Covid Inquiry raised “significant practice concerns” around the retention of informal communications from the pandemic.

Mr Hamilton is former chairman of the Scottish Police Federation (SPF) – an organisation whose leadership Humza Yousaf branded a “disgrace” in a frustrated message exchange from June 2020 which was shown to the inquiry.

Mr Yousaf, who was justice secretary at the time, was exchanging WhatsApp messages with fellow minister John Swinney where he “vented” his anger about the SPF’s approach to the pandemic, saying “they have shown an arrogance and retrograde thinking”.

During Lady Hallett’s inquiry, it emerged a number of ministers – including former first minister Nicola Sturgeon – and senior officials deleted WhatsApp messages from the pandemic.

They said they were acting in line with Scottish Government guidance, though current First Minister Humza Yousaf has ordered an external review into the use of informal messaging.

The information commissioner, whose remit is to enforce freedom-of-information law, has previously said he was “concerned” about the deletion.

Mr Hamilton said: “My office has launched an intervention into the Scottish ministers’ practices in relation to the retention of informal communications.

“The evidence disclosed during module 2A of the UK Covid-19 Inquiry hearings over the last few weeks raises significant practice concerns which warrant further investigation by my office.

“The failure to retain or even record a complete set of the decision-making processes has not only deprived the inquiry of information, but also frustrated the public’s right to request information and generally undermined the spirit of freedom of information.

“It is critical that public officials retain information which allows the public to understand how decisions are reached, for both record-keeping requirements and to maintain public confidence.”

Covid-19 pandemic inquiry
Nicola Sturgeon was among those giving evidence to the inquiry (UK Covid-19 Inquiry/PA)

He continued: “Understanding how decisions are reached is how public trust in decisions are secured and lessons learned for the future.

“It is evident from this week’s events that the use of informal communication channels presents risks to transparency and accountability within government.

“My intervention will review current practices as well as identifying actions to be taken to ensure improvements are made in relation to how officials and ministers use and retain informal communications in future.”

Mr Yousaf announced the Government would seek an external review after conceding the handling of requests for WhatsApp messages had not been its “finest hour”.

However, he has rejected accusations from opposition parties that the Scottish Government made pandemic decisions for political reasons.

On Thursday, he defended Ms Sturgeon’s handling of the pandemic, saying he is is “very pleased” she had been in charge during the “darkest days” of the pandemic.

Covid-19 pandemic inquiry
Alister Jack deleted ‘all’ of his WhatsApps (Jane Barlow/PA)

On Friday, the UK Government’s Scottish Secretary Alister Jack told the inquiry he had deleted “all” of his WhatsApps in November 2021 in order to free up space on his phone.

The information commissioner’s office said its “intervention” would be separate to any activity announced by the Scottish Government.

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “We have not yet received the notice from the Scottish information commissioner, when we do so we will respond and, of course, co-operate with the commissioner as required.

“The Scottish Government has a well-established and overarching records management policy in accordance with the Public Records (Scotland) Act 2011 and assured by the keeper of the records of Scotland.

“The First Minister has commissioned an externally-led review into the use of mobile messaging apps and non-corporate technology in the Scottish Government.

“This will take particular account of government interaction with statutory public inquiries.

“Scotland has the most open and far-reaching FOI legislation in the UK and the Scottish Government remains committed to our statutory obligations to ensure openness and transparency.”

Commenting on the investigation, Scottish Conservative chairman Craig Hoy said: “I welcome the Scottish information commissioner’s investigation into the Scottish Government’s use of WhatsApp, and I know the public will share my relief that the SNP could now finally be held accountable after trying so hard to evade scrutiny.

“The Covid Inquiry has exposed how key SNP figures engaged in jokey exchanges as people died, used the pandemic to further independence and stoke constitutional grievances and even admitted they were ‘winging it’ – and those are just the messages that hadn’t been deleted.

“Nicola Sturgeon promised grieving families that she would be completely transparent and assured journalists her messages would be handed over yet despite that pledge she deleted them.

“Her actions denied the public of the answers and closure the families of those who died deserve.”