WhatsApp messages could be evidence of misconduct
The Scottish Government has been criticised for its policy of encouraging civil servants to delete WhatsApp messages that could be relevant to inquiries or legal cases. The policy was revealed by a freedom of information request from the Scottish Conservatives, who said it was “astonishing” and “deeply troubling”.
WhatsApp is a popular messaging app that allows users to send encrypted texts, voice messages, photos, and videos. The app also has a feature that lets users delete messages for everyone in a chat, making them disappear from both the sender’s and the recipient’s devices.
The Scottish Government’s guidance on WhatsApp states that civil servants should use the app only for “informal communications” and that they should delete any messages that are “no longer needed”. The guidance also warns that WhatsApp messages could be subject to disclosure requests under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 or the Data Protection Act 2018.
Critics say policy undermines transparency and accountability
The Scottish Conservatives said the policy was “a clear attempt to evade scrutiny and accountability” and that it could potentially destroy evidence of wrongdoing or misconduct by government officials. They also questioned whether the policy was consistent with the Scottish Ministerial Code, which requires ministers and their staff to preserve official records and documents.
The Scottish Liberal Democrats also expressed concern about the policy, saying it was “a recipe for secrecy and cover-ups”. They called for an urgent review of the policy and urged the Scottish Government to adopt a more transparent approach to communication.
The Scottish Government defended its policy, saying it was “in line with best practice” and that it did not prevent civil servants from complying with their legal obligations. A spokesperson said: “WhatsApp is used by staff across the Scottish Government for informal communications, as it is in many other organisations. Any information that is required to be retained for business purposes is transferred to the corporate record and the WhatsApp message deleted.”
WhatsApp deletion policy could affect ongoing inquiries
The revelation of the Scottish Government’s WhatsApp deletion policy comes at a time when the government is facing several inquiries and legal challenges related to its handling of harassment complaints against former First Minister Alex Salmond.
Salmond was acquitted of 13 charges of sexual assault in March 2020, but he accused the Scottish Government of acting unlawfully and maliciously in its investigation of the complaints. He also claimed that there was a conspiracy against him involving senior figures in the government and the Scottish National Party (SNP).
The Scottish Government admitted that its investigation was flawed and paid Salmond £512,250 in legal costs. A parliamentary inquiry was launched to examine the government’s actions and a separate inquiry was conducted by James Hamilton, an independent adviser on the ministerial code, to determine whether current First Minister Nicola Sturgeon breached the code.
Both inquiries have faced difficulties in obtaining evidence and documents from the Scottish Government, which has been accused of withholding or redacting information. The WhatsApp deletion policy could raise further questions about the government’s transparency and cooperation with the inquiries.
What will happen next?
The Scottish Government’s WhatsApp deletion policy could have serious implications for its credibility and reputation, especially if it is found to have interfered with the inquiries or legal cases involving Salmond. The policy could also undermine public trust and confidence in the government’s ability to handle sensitive and confidential information.
The Scottish Conservatives and the Scottish Liberal Democrats have called for the policy to be scrapped or revised, and for the government to be more open and accountable. They have also demanded that the government provide full and unredacted evidence to the inquiries and the courts.
The Scottish Government has insisted that its policy is appropriate and lawful, and that it has cooperated fully with the inquiries and the legal processes. It has also rejected any allegations of conspiracy or malpractice against Salmond.
The outcome of the inquiries and the legal cases could have a significant impact on the political landscape of Scotland, as the country prepares for the Scottish Parliament election in May 2021. The election could determine the future of the SNP’s bid for independence from the United Kingdom, which Salmond and Sturgeon have both championed.