Officials working in No 10 claim they have held back information from Sue Gray’s investigation into the partygate scandal due to a “culture of fear” surrounding the probe.
Three sources told The Independent they have not divulged messages and pictures on their phones after a senior member of staff told them to remove anything that could fuel speculation in the wake of the first party revelations.
Messages in a WhatsApp group were said to contain photographs of people drinking and dancing, as well as references to how hungover people were the next day.
The messages are from the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral, when there were two parties, one to mark the departure of a No 10 photographer and another to mark the departure of James Slack, Downing Street’s director of communications. Mr Slack has since made a public apology.
One source claimed that after being asked to remove information, they subsequently deleted evidence of that party.
They said they were also fearful that, having removed material, they could face censure: “I did the wrong thing and actually deleted stuff.”
“Everyone’s terrified. It’s a witch-hunt,” another source told The Independent. “There’s been a culture of fear [in the office] every day since the first party story broke.”
Another source added: "I’ve held back from sharing evidence, it’s too risky. And I’d have to explain why I’d deleted some stuff, which would mean saying I’d felt intimidated."
Ms Gray is expected to report back to the prime minister at the beginning of next week and he will then decide when to make the findings public.
One source said going to Ms Gray with such information was tantamount to being asked to “snitch on the PM in an internal investigation”.
“That’s why I’ve asked to be anonymous,” one source told The Independent. “I need to keep my job.”
When asked about the pressure to withhold information, one source said they felt they had been “frightened into silence”.
Asked if they had shared their claims with Ms Gray, as part of her investigation, all three sources told The Independent they did not consider the Cabinet Office as truly separate from Downing Street or political interests.
They added that while they respected Ms Gray’s integrity, leaks of plans for her investigation had already reached some newspapers.
Sources believe there is therefore considerable risk to their careers from sharing allegations with her team.
Sources said that when staff were called for interviews with Ms Gray to offer their accounts of any gatherings in Downing Street or the Cabinet Office, it seemed staff in No 10 had pieced together who was contacted and when to offer testimony or share information.
A No 10 spokesperson said allegations about pressure on individuals were “categorically untrue” and staff have been instructed to comply fully with the inquiry.
Three sources have told The Independent they were approached by a senior staffer after the first reports of parties at Downing Street last month, and advised to remove WhatsApps, diary invites and other digital communications.
Senior appointees in No 10 have been under considerable pressure to stem the tide of reports on parties throughout recent weeks.
Sources claim a set of senior figures in Downing Street were loudly told by the prime minister to stop the flow of party news last week.
The Information Commissioner’s Office issued a warning after allegations of pressure to delete material were first reported. “Relevant information that exists in the private correspondence channels of public authorities should be available and included in responses to information requests received,” a spokesperson added.
“Erasing, destroying or concealing information within scope of a Freedom of Information request, with the intention of preventing its disclosure is a criminal offence under section 77 of the Freedom of Information Act.”
Last week, Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, wrote to cabinet secretary Simon Case asking him to probe allegations of staff coming under pressure to remove material.
A spokesperson for No 10 said: “Staff were given clear guidance to retain any relevant information. As set out in the terms of reference, all staff are expected to fully cooperate with the investigation.
“Any suggestion otherwise is entirely false.”
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