Ministers warned of accountability risk over missing WhatsApp messages

Missing WhatsApp messages and other communications which disappear in the course of the Covid-19 Inquiry could undermine the accountability of ministers to the public, transparency campaigners have warned.

It comes as senior Government figure Penny Mordaunt (pictured) has claimed in her witness statement to the inquiry that a series of WhatsApp messages with Boris Johnson vanished from her phone.

The Commons Leader said she tried to raise the matter 14 times with No 10, and that they said retrieving the files could cost as much as £1,000 a day over six weeks of work.

Transparency International UK warned that missing messages were not just important to the inquiry’s work, but the credibility of those in public office.

Rose Whiffen, a senior research officer at the campaign group, said: “Access to information on how, why and by whom decisions are made at the heart of government is in the public’s interest.

“Transparency over communications from officials and ministers, whether by email or WhatsApp is a vital part of this.

“The Covid inquiry is showing both how important access to such messages can be, but also the impact the lack of access to them can have on effective scrutiny and the ability of inquiries like this to hold officials to account.

“If ministers and officials are intentionally ensuring such conversations are routinely deleted, this will undermine their accountability to the public.”

In her witness statement to the inquiry, Ms Mordaunt shared details of her time serving as paymaster general, a Cabinet Office ministerial role.

Ms Mordaunt said in May 2021 she had checked back through her WhatsApp messages on the Government’s early handling of shielding in care homes, because of media coverage of the issue at the time.

But she said that February 2020 messages between her and Mr Johnson on the matter had vanished when she looked for them, as had any other exchanges they had between March 2018 and March 2020.

The senior Conservative MP said she was not sure if the disappearance related to the fact that Mr Johnson changed his phone number, as his previous contact details had been released into the public domain around that time.

Her personal secretary pressed the Number 10 security team for an explanation, but they said suggestions of a security breach were “speculation”.

The senior Tory MP said she had chased the then-prime minister’s chief of staff Dan Rosenfield for a meeting on the matter 14 times, writing in her statement: “From memory, we asked 14 times for a meeting with him, but had no response from his team, despite my office chasing this.”

Ms Mordaunt offered to have her phone forensically examined, adding: “I was told, after some chasing, that they would be happy to do this, but as my phone was my own personal device the CO (Cabinet Office) would have to charge me for this.

“The estimated bill was approximately £1,000 per day for six weeks’ work. I did some research with the government-approved cybersecurity contractors as to their rates and an initial interrogation of my phone would have costed approximately £1,000.”

She took further action after leaving the post of paymaster general to clarify what had happened to the messages, and said she received a letter from the Cabinet Office as a result.

Ms Mordaunt’s statement added: “This was highly significant as this was the first time I had received any confirmation that no official advice had been given to the Prime Minister to delete his messages.”

The Commons Leader said she had since discovered further groups of messages had gone missing, including with Michael Gove, then a senior Cabinet Office minister.

“I would be content for my phone to be examined by the inquiry if it is thought this would assist,” she added.

Elsewhere in documents published by the inquiry, a Treasury official revealed that Rishi Sunak had considered sending out debit cards loaded with cash in an attempt to encourage people to spend money following the first lockdown.

In his witness statement, Dan York-Smith, the Treasury’s director-general for tax and welfare, said the idea was deemed to present “substantial challenges and risks”.

He added: “For example, registering every adult in the UK would have presented very significant challenges in the time available.

“Even if that could be achieved, there would have been significant risks associated with tens of millions of cards being distributed through the post as part of a highly publicised and marketed scheme, such as theft, fraud and loss.”

A plan to give out vouchers was also rejected, with both ideas ultimately being succeeded by the Eat Out to Help Out scheme.

Copyright (c) PA Media Ltd. 2023, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) Peter Byrne / PA.