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UK Civil Service boss asked to investigate Vaughan Gething’s deletion of WhatsApp messages

29 Feb 2024 7 minute read
Vaughan Gething. Picture by the Welsh Government.

Martin Shipton

The head of the UK Civil Service has been asked to investigate whether Cabinet Minister Vaughan Gething and Welsh Government special advisers broke codes of conduct or committed criminal offences when they deleted WhatsApp messages during the Covid 19 pandemic.

News that such messages had been deleted – and that Mr Gething used a WhatsApp feature that deleted messages automatically – emerged at a hearing of the UK Covid Inquiry in Cardiff.

Grave concern

In a letter to Simon Case, information rights activist Charlotte Dwyer stated: “I am writing to you as Head of the Civil Service in the UK, to bring to your attention matters of grave concern that have emerged from the evidence presented at the UK Covid inquiry’s Welsh hearing in Cardiff on February 27 2024.

“It has come to light that during the pandemic, there were instances of wilful deletion of internal government communications by Welsh Government ministers and special advisers, notably involving Vaughan Gething, the former health minister and current economy minister and special adviser Jane Runeckles.

“This practice raises significant questions regarding adherence to government rules and the Civil service Code, as well as potential contraventions of the UK Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) and the guidance provided by both the UK Government and the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) on the use of non-corporate communication channels for official business.

“The guidance from the UK Government on using non-corporate communication channels, such as WhatsApp, private email, and SMS for government business, underscores the importance of facilitating efficient government discussions while ensuring the security of information and compliance with principles of good governance, including record-keeping, accountability, and transparency.

“It explicitly states that government communications belong to the Crown and must be handled lawfully, with any significant government information in non-corporate communication channels (NCCCs) expected to be captured into government systems to support accountability.

“Similarly, the ICO’s guidance on official information held in non-corporate communications channels elaborates on the application of FOIA to such information, emphasising the need for public authorities to transfer official information from non-corporate channels to official systems for records management. It highlights the risks and challenges to FOIA compliance and adherence to records management codes posed by the use of non-corporate channels for official business.

“The deletion of crucial communications during a global health crisis seems to undermine these principles, particularly those of integrity and honesty, by potentially hindering transparency and accountability in government operations.

“Such actions could contravene the FOIA, which aims to ensure openness and transparency by granting public access to information held by public authorities. The Act’s provisions, especially those concerning the alteration or destruction of records intended to prevent disclosure, may have been violated through these deletions, evading possible disclosure and undermining public trust and accountability.

“I would particularly like to draw your attention to the following passage from the ICO’s guidance, relating to the deletion of WhatsApp messages and how such actions are deemed to be criminal offences under section 77 of FOIA: ‘You should remind staff that erasing, destroying or concealing information with the intention of preventing its disclosure following receipt of a request is a criminal offence under section 77 of FOIA. This offence can apply to both a public authority and to any person who is employed by, is an officer of, or is subject to the direction of the authority. For example, where information that a request covers is knowingly treated as not held because it is in a non-corporate communications channel, this may count as concealment intended to prevent the disclosure of information. The person concealing the information may be liable to prosecution.’

“As a result of the above, I now have four requests:

1. Given the implications of these deletions are profound, extending beyond ethical breaches to include undermining public accountability and trust in government institutions, and given the seriousness of these revelations, I urge you to investigate these matters further. Specifically, it is crucial to determine the extent of Dr. Andrew Goodall, Welsh Government Permanent Secretary’s, knowledge and involvement regarding these deletions, including whether he was a member of any WhatsApp groups where such deletions occurred, and what advice (if any) he may have provided concerning these actions in relation to guidance documents referred to above.

2. As the Head of the Civil Service and therefore Dr. Goodall’s immediate ‘line-manager’, I would urge you to immediately and voluntarily refer the matter of systematic deletions within the Welsh Government in relation to the WhatsApp messages during the pandemic, to the ICO, without delay. The ICO can then determine (not yourself) as to whether criminal offences under section 77 of FOIA, have indeed been committed by Vaughan Gething, Jane Runeckles and/or others.

3. Additionally, I request that you consider whether breaches of the Welsh Government Ministerial Code and the Code of Conduct for Special Advisers have occurred as a result of these deletions. The integrity of government operations and the public’s confidence in them are at stake, making it imperative that these issues are addressed with the utmost seriousness and urgency.

4. I request from the onset that at the end of your investigation, you send me copies (redacted if / when necessary) of all correspondence, communication and reports you send out or receive during your investigation. Please consider this as a Freedom of Information request in advance of your investigation. It is now important that all these matters are put into the public domain, as wider public confidence in Wales has been shaken by the disclosure of such activities taking place at the very top of the Welsh Government. Maximum transparency is absolutely essential following recent revelations, and as the Head of the Civil Service, you have a responsibility to deliver it.”

A spokeswoman for Mr Gething’s Welsh Labour leadership campaign referred us to the Welsh Government.

A Welsh Government spokesman said: “We will not be commenting on matters relating to the inquiry while the hearings are underway. Welsh Ministers and government officials will be giving detailed evidence over the next three weeks. We have made it clear that we continue to engage fully with the inquiry to ensure all actions and decisions are fully and properly scrutinised.”

Fined

Meanwhile a subsidiary of the company that donated £200,000 to Mr Gething’s leadership campaign has been fined £300,000 following the death of an employee. Anthony Bilton, 59, was killed in a collision with a shovel loader vehicle at the company’s base in Cardiff. Atlantic Recycling Ltd, a subsidiary of Dauson Environmental Group, pleaded guilty to breaching Section 2(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 and was sentenced at Merthyr Tydfil Magistrates’ Court.

The court heard Mr Bilton, of Barry, was working at the wood yard in Newton Road, Rumney, just after 4pm on September 4, 2019, when he was struck from behind by a vehicle driven by an unnamed driver.

Mr Bilton suffered fatal injuries and was pronounced dead. An investigation was launched by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and criminal proceedings were brought against the company, for failing to protect the welfare of their employees.

Nation.Cymru revealed how Dauson director David Neal received two suspended prison sentences for illegally dumping toxic sludge on the Gwent Levels, a sensitive wetland landscape south east of Newport.


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Llyn
Llyn
1 month ago

So if you deliberately delete messages you could be guilty of breaking the Ministerial Code. But if like Johnson you “loose” your phone that’s a get out?

Jeff
Jeff
1 month ago

I mean, dodgy goings on yes, but Simon Case? Recused from investigating partying at No10 cos he was there?(Sue Gray report). Boris Johnsons installed him. The Same Boris that deleted his messages (as in they are gone, so they are deleted, by whatever means, convenient eh?). Sunak, lost his ,messages (another deletion by whatever means, convenient eh), and you appeal to Mr Case? Then surly all Mr Gething has to do is “I done a Boris” and he is off the hook.
Mr Case still on the sick?

This could get interesting if Mr Case does anything.

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
1 month ago
Reply to  Jeff

Made me smile too…

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
1 month ago

Have a look at Rishi Ji while you’re at it…

“Mob rule is replacing democratic rule” he must think he is back in Modi-land or Trump-land…

G. Williams
G. Williams
1 month ago

The optics on Vaughan Gething are becoming increasingly awful He will be a desperate embarassment to Welsh Labour if elected Leader. A Welsh Liz Truss perhaps?!

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
1 month ago

Have a look at Vaughan Gething’s BBC profile and make your own mind up…

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
1 month ago

Freedom of the Press is sacrosanct, I’m right aren’t I or is this Putin’s Wales ?

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
1 month ago

Release the dogs…

Welshman28
Welshman28
1 month ago

Yet again I say he told the bbc audience and many others of his experiences and knowledge of farming and he understood the dilemmas farmers are going through. His Dad a vet in Zambia and mother a chicken farmer from where his knowledge on farming was learnt. He was only 2 years old when they came to UK so where on earth did he gain this experience. Not in Zambia and not in UK as his father could get a vets job in uk and his mother did not hold a farming job in the UK . Must have been… Read more »

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