The government has been told the Scottish Information Commissioner is “concerned” about the lack of any specific policy around messaging apps, which could see relevant messages otherwise subject to Freedom of Information laws permanently deleted.
In England, the UK Government admitted minister Nadhim Zahawi deleted texts between himself and former prime minister David Cameron which were at the centre of a lobbying scandal connected to Greensill Capital.
This was despite Mr Cameron publishing his messages with Mr Zahawi in which he praised the minister for being “v helpful” in assisting him to lobby the Treasury on behalf of the firm.
Following an appeal by the Scottish Conservatives to the commissioner around a request that included text messages about polling, the government told the commissioner its IT policy meant Apple and Android backup services are blocked by government phones.
This means messages sent by ministers and special advisers could delete incriminating messages or conduct government business via text and WhatsApp without having any evidence of their existence and no way to recover any deleted messages.
At a public inquiry, for example, key decisions made by ministers by text could be unavailable due to a failure to record them.
Remote working guidance instructs Scottish Government officials and ministers to delete information “where it has no value”, such as emails of a personal nature or confirming logistical arrangements for meetings.
Head of enforcement at the SIC, Margaret Keyse, said while Scottish Government policy states all relevant information should be recorded, “this does not mean that all staff will adhere to that policy all of the time”.
She said: “The commissioner is concerned that the ministers do not appear to have any specific policy with regard to SMS and WhatsApp messages, which may be being created and deleted on a daily basis, with no back-up services in place to record such information.
"While the commissioner has no powers to require any authority to record specific information, he is concerned that the existing policies of the Scottish Government could pose difficulties for individuals trying to obtain SMS or WhatsApp messages under FOISA.”
Reacting, Scottish Conservative chief whip Stephen Kerr said the practice of “routinely deleting” messages was a sign the SNP was “keen to avoid scrutiny”.
He said: “This is all too typical of the SNP. It is clear by routinely deleting messages and failing to back them up that they are keen to avoid scrutiny at every turn over critical government business.
“They should heed this damning criticism from the information commissioner. This total failure of transparency will only raise suspicion among the public to the content of these messages, which have disappeared from view.”
Liberal Democrat MSP Willie Rennie labelled the criticism a “rebuke” and called for a “change of culture at the heart of government”.
He said: “Ministers seem to be desperately searching for every excuse they can concoct to get out of disclosing information.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “If substantive government business is discussed within a Whatsapp message, then a record should be added to our information management system where it will be subject to our Records Management Plan.”