Ministers and government officials have been told to delete instant messaging conversations automatically, court documents have revealed.
A legal challenge by the Citizens campaign group – which condemned the use of disappearing messages and accused ministers of “government by WhatsApp” – was given the go-ahead by the High Court.
Transparency campaigners claim the routine use of WhatApp and Signal, which have options to make messages disappear, have been used to avoid scrutiny of decisions made during the Covid crisis.
A High Court granted a judicial review into the rules, and revealed new details of the Cabinet Office’s “information and records retention and destruction policy” for ministers and civil servants.
The government policy stated: “Instant messaging is provided to all staff and should be used in preference to email for routine communications where there is no need to retain a record of the communication.”
It added: “Instant messages history in individual and group chats must be switched off and should not be retained once a session is finished. If the content of an instant message is required for the record or as an audit trail, a note for the record should be created and the message content saved in that.”
The Citizens, supported by the legal group Foxglove, said it was challenging the lawfulness of the use of instant messaging services that allow messages to be automatically deleted while carrying out government business.
Clara Maguire, director of the Citizens, described the decision to grant as judicial review as “a good day for democracy”, adding that a lack of transparency “has been at the heart of the UK government’s disastrous handling of the Covid catastrophe”.
She added: “We believe this case goes to the very heart of this [transparency] problem and we look forward to proving government by WhatsApp is not only dangerous but also unlawful.”
Cori Crider, director of Foxglove, said: “We’re delighted we’ve won the right to take WhatsApp government to court. This is the first case of its kind, and it raises a critical issue in modern government … We can’t learn from history if the evidence has vanished into thin air.”
Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, said ministers “must not govern by private messages that are then deleted … This is completely undemocratic and an attack on transparency and accountability”.
A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “Ministers will use a range of modern forms of communication for discussions, in line with legislative requirements, and taking into account government guidance.”
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