The Prime Minister’s inner circle of aides and ministers have been using the WhatsApp messaging service to plot their campaign to keep Britain within the European Union, keeping records of their conversations beyond the reach of Freedom of Information requests.
By keeping referendum-linked conversations within the encrypted app – which is much favoured by criminals thanks to its high security levels – and off government email servers the group hope to avoid potentially embarrassing leaks.
But critics have pointed out that the tactic also removes their conversations from the historical records on the referendum and out of the public domain – and pro-Brexit campaigners are asking why they feel the need to hide their discussions in the first place.
Despite speculation it is not clear who has been involved in the group conversation; spokesmen for WhatsApp users Sajid Javid, Stephen Crabb and Nicky Morgan have all denied that the ministers have been discussing the referendum on the app.
But Chancellor George Osborne’s office has refused to comment on whether he is in on it. Despite recent ructions between the two men, Mr Osborne remains Prime Minister David Cameron’s closest political ally.
A government source told The Sun that the group involved senior government ministers: “There’s a big group with them all in it for planning and sharing news links,” he said, adding: “They did exactly the same before the election last year.”
The tactic has overtones of the scandal which engulfed White House hopeful Hillary Clinton when she was caught using her private email to pass on secure government documents; a move which allowed her to bypass Freedom of Information legislation as private accounts aren’t covered by the transparency laws in either country.
Conservative MP David Davis, a long-term campaigner for transparency in government said: “Attempts to avoid the Freedom of Information Act in what is supposed to be a legitimate activity will lead to scandal and embarrassment.
“This will only reinforcing the public’s view that the Remain campaign is prepared to cheat to win this referendum.
“The Government has to learn from the mistakes of Hillary Clinton.”
Others within the campaign to leave the European Union have questioned whether the ploy is even legal, asking for the matter to be investigated by the Information Commissioner and the Head of Ethics at the Cabinet Office.
“Not only are David Cameron’s taxpayer funded spin doctors running the ‘In’ campaign, they have now been caught trying to hide their secrets from the public.”
The Freedom of Information Act 2000 gives the public the right to see information held by the public sector, including emails and text messages concerning official governmental business.
Emails sent by ministers are held within governmental servers and are searchable by civil servants responding to FoI requests, but WhatsApp messages can only be accessed by invited users. The app is said to be favoured by criminals and terrorists because its tight encryption levels make it all but impossible for the intelligence services to break into.
The app allows users to share documents and pictures as well as messages, enabling the Downing St insiders to share a broad range of information on their referendum plans, as well as flagging up links to articles between themselves.
This is not the first time ministers have been caught using alternative means of messaging to avoid FoI rules. Last year it emerged that they were using Post-it notes slapped on official documents to express disagreements and even row with each other while avoiding the gaze of the public.
Commenting on the WhatsApp ring, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Digital Industries, Chi Onwurah, said: “This is yet one more example of the Government’s attempts to avoid scrutiny and stop us knowing what’s happening with our taxpayers money.”
Louise Haigh MP added: “Not only does this evade FoI but it could have implications for the 20 year rule of release of cabinet papers.”
She confirmed that she had “written to the Information Commissioner to ask that this is urgently investigated and either banned completely or brought under the FoI legislation.”