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Boris Johnson: None of PM’s phone messages before April 2021 are searchable, government admits

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson (Hannah Mckay/PA) (PA Wire)

No phone messages sent by Boris Johnson before April 2021 are available for scrutiny due to an earlier security breach, the government has admitted.

It emerged as part of a court hearing during which campaign groups claimed there were “many cases” of government decisions made about phone messaging services being illegally taken down.

All the Citizens and the Good Law Project have alleged that ministers are breaking the law by not following policies by deleting posts and using private accounts for government business.

On Tuesday, the High Court heard that Johnson was among the ministers who used personal WhatsApp accounts as a tool to communicate “critical decisions”.

But Sarah Harrison, director of operations for the Cabinet Office, said Johnson’s historic messages could not be retrieved due to a security breach last spring.

In a witness statement, Ms Harrison said: “In April 2021, in light of a highly publicized security breach, the Prime Minister implemented security advice relating to a mobile device. The effect was that the historical messages were no longer available to search and the phone was not active.

It is the first time that the government admits that none of the messages sent before the phone change is available to be consulted.

The prime minister was forced to change his mobile phone number in April last year after it was discovered that his old number had been in the public domain for 15 years.

In January, Johnson blamed a new mobile phone number for failing to provide his own ethics adviser with WhatsApp messages crucial to the investigation into the lavish makeover of his Downing Street apartment.

Lawyers acting on behalf of the government told the High Court on Tuesday that ministers and officials must communicate quickly with each other in the wake of the pandemic and therefore use instant messaging platforms.

However, Ben Jaffey QC, representing All the Citizens, said the posts could serve as a “public record for future societies” and that removal does not adhere to “meaningful parliamentary democracy” allowing for proper scrutiny. .

He said in his filing that there were “many cases” where messages related to government business were “never copied or transferred to any government system for archival or record purposes, or only copied/transferred when the written message needed to be retrieved for some particular purpose.”

The campaign groups claimed that a Cabinet Office policy that requires the use of automatic deletion of instant messages if it breaches the Public Records Act of 1958.

Beginning in November 2020, Johnson had “sensitive information” sent via WhatsApp to his personal device, according to court documents.

A witness statement from Sarah Harrison, director of operations for the Cabinet Office, claimed that government officials use private devices “on a daily basis.”

Another witness statement from William Vineall of the Department of Health and Social Care detailed that the prime minister, former health secretary Matt Hancock and other senior officials used personal WhatsApp and email accounts to discuss government business.

Another said education secretary Nadhim Zahawi had previously used WhatsApp auto-delete on his personal phone to communicate with the government.

Mr. Jaffey went on to say that at least one of the top six officials had used an automatic delete feature. All of Citizens’ lawyers also argued that the actions of the ministers and officials did not comply with their own policies.

He said: “The concern is that the material is not being properly considered and is at risk of being removed and lost entirely, and thus meets the test of breaching their own policies.”

Jaffey added: “The public has a right to view historically important public records, many of which focus on important policies related to the pandemic. We say these messages should have been archived and saved for future reference.”

Government lawyers in a written submission argued that “there is no principle” of common law that prevents ministers or officials from communicating in the manner “they deem appropriate.”

They continued: “There is nothing inherently new or different about the use of private email accounts, instant messaging, and private devices.”

It was added: “The claims presented are unrelated to the reality of current labor practices. The modern work age is defined by instant and fast communications.”

“This has only been reinforced by the pandemic… Ministers and officials need to engage quickly and effectively with each other.”

Government lawyers continued to criticize the “unreality” of the claims made, saying they “insulate” ministers and officials from the modern world.

The prime minister’s official spokesman later said they were “limited” in what they could say due to an ongoing legal case brought by the Good Law Project and “security issues” around the prime minister’s phone.

When asked if the messages that were not available had serious implications for transparency, they said: “Again, when it comes to correspondence that takes place by phone, messaging and WhatsApp, the rules state that relevant information is passed on. to the private office in the normal. way. That is the action the prime minister takes.

They added: “Ministers would have communications through a variety of means.

“Highlights of that information relating to government business should be passed on to the private office, that does not necessarily mean that every message should be noted down and passed on. But the important thing is that there is a record of any highlights transmitted through a private office.”

Asked who decides on the prominence of those messages, they said: “Well, I mean obviously it will be for ministers to use their judgment together with their officials.”

In its separate lawsuit against Johnson, the Good Law Project is expected to discuss the use of non-government communication channels.

The claims will be heard over three days before Lord Justice Singh and Mr Justice Johnson, with a decision expected at a later date.

The hearing continues.

Additional Press Association Reports

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