The Scottish Government is to be investigated by the country’s transparency tsar after Nicola Sturgeon and others destroyed potential evidence to the UK Covid Inquiry. 

Scottish Information Commissioner David Hamilton has launched an “intervention” into the “use and retention of WhatsApp and other informal communication messages”.  

He said evidence to the Inquiry about mass deletion of WhatsApps had highlighted “risks to transparency and accountability within government”.  

The probe will “review current practices” and identify steps to ensure improvements in “how officials and Ministers use and retain information”.

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It is the second time the Commissioner’s office has stepped into the Government’s affairs - a 2017 intervention into freedom of information failures by ministers is still ongoing.

The new development is a further blow to the SNP’s reputation, and will fuel criticism that it has become excessively secretive in office. 

Mr Hamilton said he had taken the step as a direct result of evidence which emerged at the UK Covid Inquiry in Edinburgh in recent weeks.

Ms Sturgeon, her former deputy first minister John Swinney and a host of other key officials in the Covid response deleted all their WhatsApp messages from the pandemic.

Key officials, including National Clinical Director Jason Leitch, were shown to have joked about deleting messages to avoid their recovery under freedom of information (FoI) law.

The Herald:

Ms Sturgeon was also shown to have promised to deliver messages to the Inquiry despite knowing she had already destroyed them.

The former first minister claimed she had been following Government guidance.

However her successor Humza Yousaf and former finance secretary Kate Forbes kept their WhatsApp messages from the period and submitted them as evidence.

Although the Scottish Greens joined the Government in August 2021, SNP ministers were in sole charge when the outbreak began and held all the health briefs throughout.

Mr Hamilton, who oversees Scotland’s FoI regime, said: “My office has launched an Intervention into the Scottish Ministers’ practices in relation to the retention of informal communications. 

“The evidence disclosed during Module 2A of the UK Covid-19 Inquiry Hearings over the last few weeks raises significant practice concerns which warrant further investigation by my office.

“The failure to retain or even record a complete set of the decision-making processes has not only deprived the Inquiry of information, but also frustrated the public’s right to request information and generally undermined the spirit of Freedom of Information.

“It is critical that public officials retain information which allows the public to understand how decisions are reached, for both record keeping requirements and to maintain public confidence. 

“Understanding how decisions are reached is how public trust in decisions are secured and lessons learned for the future.

“It is evident from this week’s events that the use of informal communication channels presents risks to transparency and accountability within government. 

“My intervention will review current practices as well as identifying actions to be taken to ensure improvements are made in relation to how officials and Ministers use and retain informal communications in future.”

The Herald:

Scottish Secretary Alister Jack also deleted all his WhatsApp messages, ostensibly to free up space on his phone, but Mr Hamilton’s writ does not extend to Whitehall.

The Scottish Information Commissioner’s office can carry out interventions “in cases where a Scottish public authority is failing to meet the requirements and standards set out in FoI legislation and the Scottish Ministers’ Codes of Practice”.

The 2017 intervention into the Scottish Government helped eliminate a backlog of FoI requests, however the records management systems remains inadequate. 

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A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We have not yet received the notice from the Scottish Information Commissioner, when we do so we will respond and of course cooperate with the Commissioner as required.

“The Scottish Government has a well-established and overarching records management policy in accordance with the Public Records (Scotland) Act 2011 and assured by the Keeper of the Records of Scotland.

“The First Minister has commissioned an externally led review into the use of mobile messaging apps and non-corporate technology in the Scottish Government. 

“This will take particular account of government interaction with statutory Public Inquiries.
“Scotland has the most open and far-reaching FoI legislation in the UK, and the Scottish Government remains committed to our statutory obligations to ensure openness and transparency.”