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Pressure grows on Gething as Welsh Government confirms it has no record of deleted messages

15 May 2024 7 minute read
Vaughan Gething Covid iMessage screen grab

Martin Shipton

The Welsh Government has confirmed that it does not hold a record of the ministerial group chat messages created during the Covid-19 crisis that Vaughan Gething told colleagues he was deleting – suggesting that he did in fact delete them.

This intensifies pressure on the beleaguered First Minister, who is already reeling from double scandals – firstly from NationCymru’s revelation that he accepted donations totalling £200,000 for his Welsh Labour leadership campaign from a company owned by businessman David Neal, who received two suspended prison sentences for environmental pollution; and secondly because he mislead the UK Covid Inquiry by deleting messages, contrary to what he had said in evidence to it.

On May 7 we published a message from a screenshot leaked to us dated August 17 2020 in which Mr Gething – who was Health Minister at the time – wrote: “”I’m deleting the messages in this group. They can be captured in an FOI [freedom of information request] and I think we are all in the right place on the choice being made.”

Our disclosure that Mr Gething had deleted the messages indicated strongly that he had misled the UK Covid Inquiry. He had given both written and oral evidence to the Inquiry under oath in which he claimed messages had been deleted from his mobile phone during a refit by the Senedd’s IT department.

Regret

He went on to express both regret and embarrassment that he was unable to provide them. At no stage did Mr Gething admit that he had deleted messages because he considered they would be subject to freedom of information disclosure.

The UK Covid Inquiry asked all the governments of the UK to disclose to it all material they held relevant to the making of decisions during the Covid Inquiry. In the run-up to the publication of our May 7 story, the Welsh Government suggested to us that the messages could have been related to “anything”, but NationCymru was confident that the messages related to both the Welsh Government and to the handling of the Covid crisis.

Previously a statement issued to the users of Welsh Government mobile phones in February 2019 had made it clear that messages written on mobile phones could be regarded as Welsh Government business and should be preserved.

The statement said: “Text and Instant Messaging Text or `instant messages’ are electronic mail and messaging systems used for the purposes of communication between individuals. Staff should be aware that when using their WG phones in this way they are in fact creating ‘public records’. Staff using private phones for WG business may also be creating public records. The ephemeral nature of text messages (and instant messaging) heightens the need for users to be aware that they may be creating records using this application, and to properly manage and preserve record content.”

First Minister’s Questions

After our story was published, the revelation about deleted messages was raised in First Minister’s Questions by both Welsh Conservative Senedd group leader Andrew RT Davies and Plaid Cymru leader Rhun ap Iorwerth.

Responding to Mr Davies, Mr Gething said: “The screenshot that you refer to is actually from a conversation between Ministers that relates to a Labour group meeting in August 2020. It does not relate to decisions captured. It’s actually about the way in which we describe what we are doing.”

Pressed further by Mr Davies, he said: “I’m very clear that I sent the message that you refer to. I’m also very clear that the context of the conversation is entirely about a Labour Party group meeting and it is not about decision making to do with the pandemic. It’s about comments that colleagues make to and about each other. It’s about ensuring that we don’t provide things that are potentially embarrassing, but not those things that affect any information about decision making during the pandemic.”

Mr ap Iorwerth also challenged the First Minister on the content of the messages on the screenshot. Mr Gething replied: “The individual message relates to a discussion within the Labour group about how people do and don’t talk to each other. It’s essentially an appeal for people to consider what they have to say.”

FOI disclosure

However, we have since argued that Mr Gething knew full well that conversations in the Labour group were not subject to FOI disclosure, nor were messages in the ministerial chat that related to individual Members of the Senedd.

Only Welsh Government business was liable for disclosure, and therefore “the messages in this group” referred to in Mr Gething’s deletion message constituted Welsh Government business.

They related to the decision – or “choice” as Mr Gething put it – to change the way students were assessed for GCSEs and A-levels. One of the other messages in the screenshot leaked to us had a minister – not Mr Gething – referring facetiously to an algorithm.

It so happened that on the very same day that Mr Gething signalled his intention to delete messages, the Welsh Government announced that GCSE and A-level grades would be awarded on the basis of teachers’ assessment of students rather than being determined by an algorithm.

Clearly, then, the matter under discussion, and the “choice” referred to by Mr Gething in his message, was both Welsh Government business and Covid related. The reason, of course, for choosing a new means of assessing students’ exam grades was because their education had been interrupted during lockdown.

Equally, as a lawyer and a minister of some years’ standing, Mr Gething knew that to be captured in an FOI, the messages had to relate to Welsh Government business.

Yet in a series of interviews with journalists following our revelation about the deleted messages, Mr Gething gave a series of answers that left readers and viewers unclear as to whether he had deleted the messages or not.

On May 9 we therefore submitted a freedom of information request to the Welsh Government, asking for the disclosure of the entire ministerial iMessage group chat dated August 2020 which included a message from Vaughan Gething in which he stated: “I’m deleting the messages in this group. They can be captured in an FOI and I think we are all in the right place on the choice being made.”

Search

A Welsh Government official has now – May 14 – responded to our request, stating: “Following a search of our paper and electronic records, I have established that the information you require is not held by the Welsh Government. We do not hold a copy of the entire message.”

This response suggests that Mr Gething did, in fact, delete the messages, and that the only copy of them now held by the Welsh Government is the screenshot we shared with officials in the run up to publishing our story on May 7.

A Welsh Labour insider said; “The Welsh Government’s response to NationCymru’s FOI is very troubling. It shows that the First Minister did, in fact, delete these messages, knowing them to be subject to FOI and in defiance of an instruction that messages should be preserved.

“What is further troubling is that we do not know the extent of the chat that was deleted. Were there more than in the screenshot disclosed to NationCymru or not? It also seems that other ministers on the chat deleted the messages too. All of this needs to be thoroughly investigated.”


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Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
7 days ago

What have the others in that ‘chat’ got to say for themselves or does the ‘omerta’ include all present making them also guilty ?

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
6 days ago
Reply to  Mab Meirion

Mark Drakeford…

It is like he never existed apart from that ‘Cheshire Cat’ smirk lingering in the air…

adrian savill
adrian savill
6 days ago

Keep digging

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