10 August 2021

Inquiry will cover minister’s use of WhatsApp, says information watchdog

10 August 2021

An inquiry into the use of private communications channels by ministers and officials at the Department of Health and Social Care will cover WhatsApp and other phone messaging apps, it has been confirmed.

Labour has been pressing for more details about the investigation by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) after it emerged Health Minister Lord Bethell had recently replaced his mobile phone and that data on the old one may no longer be retrievable.

In a letter to the Good Law Project – which is engaged in legal action against the DHSC over the award of Covid contracts – Government lawyers said the old phone had been “broken” six months ago and that data held on it was not contained on the replacement.

Angela Rayner has said every effort must be made to recover the lost data (Jacob King/PA) (PA Wire)

The lost information was reported to have included WhatsApp and SMS messages.

The disclosure came after the Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham announced last month that she was mounting an inquiry into the use of private communications channels at the DHSC.

It followed reports that Lord Bethell and the former health secretary Matt Hancock had routinely used private email addresses to discuss official business.

In a letter to Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner, the ICO said its inquiry would also cover “messenger apps such as WhatsApp and any other private channels that fall outside of the DHSC’s corporate systems.

Elizabeth Denham launched an inquiry into the use of private communications channels at the DHSC (ICO/PA) (PA Media)

“This includes looking at the retention, security and deletion of matters relevant to the corporate record to ensure that these have been handled appropriately.”

Ms Rayner, who has also raised the issue with the Cabinet Secretary Simon Case, said it was essential every effort was made to recover the missing data so the truth about the award of millions of pounds of Covid contracts could finally be established.

“A broken phone is a convenient excuse for the Conservatives to avoid scrutiny over yet more sleaze,” she said.

“Discussing millions of pounds of taxpayer-funded contracts on a private device is unacceptable. Why did he not use a Government-issued phone for these messages?

“Every effort needs to be made to retrieve them from the minister’s phone so that they can be presented in court and included in the pandemic public inquiry.

“These missing messages are vital evidence and bereaved families deserve nothing less than the whole truth.”

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