WhatsApp messaging was widely used within the Scottish Government as ‘it’s easy to get rid of what you want to get rid of’, a former SNP minister has claimed.
Leading Nationalist politicians are under increasing pressure over messages sent during the pandemic as the UK Covid-19 Inquiry looks to uncover how key decisions were arrived at in Scotland.
WhatsApp is said to have been one of a number of methods of communication used to ‘dodge’ freedom of information legislation (FOI), which is meant to ensure transparency in how government operates.
The SNP Government has been ordered to hand over 14,000 messages sent by current and former ministers, as well as their officials and advisers, to the UK inquiry by the end of today.
The messages are mainly from group chats featuring three or more ministers or civil servants and do not include one-to-one exchanges.
There are concerns many of former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s WhatsApp chats have been deleted
There are concerns many of former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s WhatsApp chats have been deleted and cannot be retrieved.
The use of WhatsApp and other messaging systems rocketed during lockdown, when ministers and civil servants were largely working from home.
One unnamed former minister who served under Ms Sturgeon told the Sunday Post WhatsApp was used because ‘it’s easy to get rid of what you want to get rid of’.
They added: ‘Even before WhatsApp, there were ways of communicating to make sure FOI didn’t catch it. The most obvious one was just to have a cup of coffee with someone without it being recorded you were even having the chat.
‘There are loads of ways to dodge FOI if you go out of your way to do it. WhatsApp, text or even email – you could do it on your private email.’
Asked whether they knew of SNP ministers using private emails to get around FOI scrutiny, they said: ‘I was aware that was happening.’
Inquiry lawyer Jamie Dawson, KC, last month revealed the Scottish Government had failed to provide a single WhatsApp message despite the UK Government complying with similar requests.
Last week, Deputy First Minister Shona Robison finally agreed 14,000 messages would be handed over after the London inquiry issued a section 21 notice legally forcing the Scottish Government to do so.
Ms Sturgeon has been unwilling to confirm or deny whether her messages have been deleted.
Former rural economy secretary Fergus Ewing yesterday said: ‘No relevant material should be destroyed.’ The MSP added that in any public inquiry there is a legal duty to share information and this is ‘not a matter of individual choice’.
Nationalist MP Joanna Cherry has further increased the pressure on Ms Sturgeon by calling for anyone who has deleted messages to ‘explain themselves’.
Reports yesterday said Liz Lloyd, Ms Sturgeon’s ex-chief of staff, had handed her WhatsApp messages to the inquiry in July.
The Scottish Government last night refused to say if it had submitted the 14,000 messages to the Covid inquiry.
A spokesman said: ‘The Deputy First Minister confirmed the section 21 notice had been received and work was under way to comply.’