Culture of secrecy at top of government must change

The British state is, for a reporter, a deeply irritating entity. Officials, ministers and advisers all too often believe that the core power of government is its ability to control the flow of information. That is also part of why it is so difficult for businesses to engage with the UK government.

This was shown up on a grand scale in the Brexit negotiations, where secrecy was the only consistent feature of Britain’s strategy. But this week has shed some light on how this culture of reticence works — thanks to the public inquiry into the UK’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The centre of this story is Heather Hallett, a judge who is chairing the inquiry — and who, rather unusually, has broad powers to demand documents. In April, she ordered the production of diaries, notepads and “WhatsApp communications recorded on devices owned or used by the former Prime Minister Boris Johnson MP”. 

These messages were said to include “exchanges between senior government ministers, senior civil servants and their advisers during the pandemic”. The Cabinet Office resisted: it said it has supplied the inquiry with all the “relevant” messages (my italics). It had redacted the messages, and said the missing messages were irrelevant. 

Hallett disagreed, and noted that the department excluded things that were clearly relevant — including on how lockdown rules were interpreted with regard to policing protest and on how relations were managed with the devolved administrations.

As the lawyer and frequent FT contributor David Allen Green has noted, the Cabinet Office appears to be trying to shape the direction of the inquiry by shaping the evidence. But there is something else here: the Cabinet Office is the driving entity behind Whitehall’s secrecy culture.

The department is, at root, the court of the sitting prime minister. It works for him, not for you. It also has a lot of securocrats — people who do not generally like sunlight. The department routinely lies to Freedom of Information Act requesters because its priors are towards opacity and secrecy.

But this saga showed up something else, too. In the course of this correspondence, the Cabinet Office declared it did “not have in its custody or under its control” Johnson’s data. It only ever had sight of it because the former prime minister was using government lawyers to prepare for the inquiry. Johnson severed ties with the team after they grassed on him to the police for another round of suspected lockdown breaches. 

Johnson has made a point, this week, of handing it over — thus disarming the cabinet office’s attempts to avoid disclosure. Hallett gave the Cabinet Office until 4pm today to hand the documents over. At the time of writing, it was unclear whether the department was intending to do so — or to put up a legal fight.

But just go back one step: Johnson left government last year, and yet the Cabinet Office had not secured copies of this essential documentation? This is, somewhat remarkably, in line with the government’s broader position on the use of what it calls “non-corporate communications channels” (NCCCs) — private email, WhatsApp and other messengers.

Its latest guidance to officials and ministers states: “Significant government information in NCCCs should be captured into government systems to support accountability.” 

But follows this up, rather timidly, by telling the reader they must judge what is significant: “You are responsible for deciding whether this applies to each communication . . .”

In short, government guidance is that it is proper that Johnson, as a public employee, would normally be entrusted with sifting, safeguarding and supplying his own messages to government for storage. This all relies on people being honest about what counts as work. That word “significant” matters too. As in: “Ah yes, my beer with that guy bidding for this public contract was about work but not significant.”

I say this as a veteran of fighting for access to public information: you can’t trust ‘em. There is a strategy here. People at the top of government are licensed to use private messengers, they are permitted to decide what is disclosed or kept for storage and they have a record of inventing strange rationales to avoid ever disclosing anything.

At the same time, WhatsApp has its own effects. As the Institute for Government put it, it “has accentuated . . . informal ways of working”. This is a dream scenario for dishonest lobbyists and a problem for the conventional, honest business making a carefully evidenced case through the approved channels.

It is, though, a problem that we can fix. It might be worth, for a moment, looking at the Financial Conduct Authority’s rules for people in a wide range of regulated financial activity:

A firm must take all reasonable steps to prevent an employee or contractor from making, sending, or receiving relevant telephone conversations and electronic communications on privately owned equipment which the firm is unable to record or copy.

This is, as anyone who works in a regulated entity knows, taken seriously: one contact told me about the fury of a senior colleague who, having not responded to prompts on his work systems, was pinged over WhatsApp to attend to an urgent matter. While colleagues were right to harangue him, that one single message would mean hassle as the FCA would now have a legitimate interest in their phone.

There is more than enough reason to take such an approach in Whitehall. It is absurd that Britain is a place where people who bet on onion prices or sell mortgage books are subject to much more stringent rules on record-keeping than politicians who locked people in their houses for months. Your assumption should be deep suspicion of people who work so hard to avoid leaving document trails.

It would be wise to start treating ministers, special advisers and senior officials with as much suspicion as bankers.

Brexit in numbers

One of the most important subplots in the Brexit negotiations was, of course, the position of Northern Ireland inside the union. New polling from YouGov points to a core problem for unionism: polls of people in Great Britain show they simply do not think of Northern Ireland in the same way as they think of Scotland and Wales.

They would, in fact, be a touch keener to keep the Falkland Islands than Northern Ireland.

Britain after Brexit is edited by Georgina Quach today. Premium subscribers can sign up here to have it delivered straight to their inbox every Thursday afternoon. Or you can take out a Premium subscription here. Read earlier editions on the newsletter here.

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