Ministerial code needs update for WhatsApp age, former civil service bosses say

Written by Beckie Smith on 29 April 2021 in News

Johnson and Dyson’s text exchange shows need for new rules, believe ex-cabinet secretaries

Credit: PA

Two former civil service chiefs have called for new controls on ministers' WhatsApp messages and other informal communications, after controversial text messages between the prime minister and the businessman James Dyson were revealed.

Ex-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 mandate that ministers must have an official record of their conversations with businesspeople and media outlets.

They appeared before the committee days after text messages were leaked in which Boris Johnson told Dyson he would "fix" an issue related to tax arrangements for his staff.

Lord Sedwill, who stepped down as the nation’s top civil servant last summer, said there “must be a record of any conversations” ministers have in an official capacity.

“The key principle – that official conversations should be on record – is one that the government manual could certainly encompass," he said.

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He said updates to the cabinet manual would need to include “separate guidance on what does this mean for WhatsApp, what does this mean for texting, what does this mean for this, that and the other or indeed for private conversations”.

Lord O’Donnell, who was cab sec from 2005 to 2011, agreed that rules should “keep pace with the way in which people operate [and] the increasing use of encrypted messaging services” such as WhatsApp.

“There should be guidance somewhere about, particularly the importance when there are discussions that really should be noted by civil servants, there really should be records of this,” he said. "I would always  want to have pretty firm control over my prime ministers in terms of the way in which they communicated. The idea of prime ministers briefing the press directly... doesn't appeal to me very much.” 

These comments came after reports that Johnson himself provided information to newspapers on a leak inquiry potentially implicating his former top adviser Dominic Cummings.

"So, I would like to think that there should be guidance somewhere about particularly the importance of when there are discussions, [those discussions] really should be noted by civil servants. There should be records of this," O’Donnell added.

The two former civil servants were giving evidence to the committee as part of its inquiry examining potential updates to the cabinet manual.

Sedwill said he had been involved in a project to update the manual while he was cabinet secretary, but that the work had not been completed by the time he stepped down. He noted that there were “a lot of things going on” at the time, including Brexit preparations that put severe strain on the civil service’s capacity.

But he said: “My own view is that that should simply be a matter of routine so that we aren’t asking a government whether now is the right time to update a cabinet manual. These things are never a priority, there’s 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, maybe with only minor updates, potentially with significant ones, depending on events, at the beginning of a new parliament.”

He said it would “therefore be natural” that the ministerial code would be updated at the same time, he said.

“If that became a regular feature, then it wouldn’t be subject to the vagaries of now is never the right time’ because as you know, that so often disrupts these routine processes.”


About the author

Beckie Smith is acting deputy editor of PublicTechnology sister publication Civil Service World, where a version of this story first appeared. She tweets as @Beckie__Smith.

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