Ministerial code must be updated for age of WhatsApp, say former civil service bosses
Two former civil service chiefs have called for new checks on ministers’ WhatsApp messages and other informal communications, after controversial text messages between the Prime Minister and businessman James Dyson were revealed.
Former cabinet secretaries Gus O’Donnell and Mark Sedwill told the Lords Constitution Committee this week that the cabinet manual or ministerial code should be updated to require ministers to have an official record of their conversations with men business and media.
They appeared before the committee days after the text messages leaked in which Boris Johnson told Dyson he would “fix” an issue with fiscal arrangements for his staff.
Lord Sedwill, who stepped down as the country’s top civil servant last summer, said there “must be a record of all conversations” ministers are having in an official capacity.
“The key principle – that official conversations should be recorded – is one that the government manual could certainly encompass,” he said.
He said updates to the firm’s manual should include “separate advice on what it means for WhatsApp, what does it mean for SMS, what does it mean for this, that and the other or even for private conversations ”.
Lord O’Donnell, who was cab sec from 2005 to 2011, agreed that the rules should “keep pace with the way people operate.” [and] the increasing use of encrypted messaging services’ such as WhatsApp.
“There should be some advice somewhere on, especially on the importance, when there are discussions that really should be noted by officials, there really should be traces of that,” he said. . “I would always like to have fairly firm control over my prime ministers in terms of how they communicate. The idea of prime ministers reporting directly to the press … doesn’t interest me much.”
The comments follow reports that Johnson himself provided information to newspapers about a leak investigation potentially involving his former senior adviser Dominic Cummings.
“So I would like to think that there should be some advice somewhere on the importance of when there are discussions, [those discussions] really should be noted by officials. There should be records of that, ”O’Donnell added.
The two former officials were testifying before the committee as part of its investigation into potential updates to the cabinet manual.
Sedwill said he was involved in a project to update the manual while he was cabinet secretary, but the job was not finished by the time he resigned. He noted that there was ‘a lot of things going on’ at the time, including Brexit preparations which were straining the civil service’s capabilities.
But he said: “In my opinion, this should just be a matter of routine so that we don’t ask a government if it’s time to update a Cabinet manual. These things are never a priority, there is never quite the perfect time, so personally I would like to see an expectation that the cabinet manual is essentially released as a new version, perhaps with only minor updates, potentially with important updates, depending on events, at the start of a new parliament.
He said it would be “so natural” for the ministerial code to be updated at the same time, he said.
“If this became a regular feature, then she would not be subject to the whims of the present moment is never the right time” because, as you know, it so often disrupts these routine processes. “