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by Kirsteen Paterson
30 January 2024
Kate Forbes 'not aware' of Scottish Government WhatsApp deletion policy

Kate Forbes | Alamy

Kate Forbes 'not aware' of Scottish Government WhatsApp deletion policy

Kate Forbes has told the UK Covid-19 Inquiry she is "not aware" of any Scottish Government rule requiring WhatsApp messages to ministers to be deleted.

Appearing before the inquiry in Edinburgh, Forbes, the former cabinet secretary for finance and the economy, confirmed that she had provided pandemic-era messages for scrutiny.

The panel heard that this includes conversations with national clinical director Jason Leitch, former health secretary Jeane Freeman, senior civil servant Alyson Stafford and a "limited" number with Nicola Sturgeon.

Sturgeon, who will give evidence this week, has said she deleted hers in line with Scottish Government rules, with any substantive material passed on for inclusion in official records.

Her successor Humza Yousaf has also said he deleted WhatsApp messages sent during the health crisis.

Forbes said she had not known of any policy calling on her to delete them "up until today".

She said she had not got rid of any messages sent before January 2022, when she was given a message deletion policy she said applied to private office staff.

Forbes said: "I did not delete any of the WhatsApp messages with cabinet secretaries, with special advisers and with private office until January 2022, after all of the major Covid decisions were taken."

She went on: "The message deletion policy was given to me and that was the first point at which I knew there was any policy covering messages."

Stating that she "did not retrospectively delete anything" sent before January 2022, Forbes said: "A junior member of my private office stated that it was now required government policy for messages with private office to be deleted going forward, to which I acquiesced because I believed it was an instruction."

She continued: "That only applied to that individual, a junior member of private office, and I don't recall it applying to anybody else in and around cabinet or government."

Asked if it was her understanding that there has been no policy suggesting the deletion of material sent to ministers, cabinet members of officials, Forbes answered: "Correct."

Forbes said at times it was deemed that it would be "too slow" to wait for a cabinet meeting to make a decision, and it was not "uncommon" for a final decision to rest with the first minister on matters like control levels for local authority areas.

She said: "The bulk of the decision would always be made by cabinet but when there were fine points that cabinet hadn't come to agreement on, that final decision would rest with the first minister."

The inquiry heard that Scottish Government Resilience Room (Sgorr) and Gold command meetings did not "appear" to have been minuted.

Forbes said: "That surprises me and this would be the first of me hearing it."

Jamie Dawson KC, appearing for the inquiry, said: "We've asked the Scottish Government for all of its papers concerning these matters and though we have cabinet minutes we don't have minutes of either of those groups."

Forbes said: "I think that every meeting of that nature in the Scottish Government should be minuted and I'm surprised to hear that they weren't."

The MSP said summary emails were sent out after such meetings and were "extremely important in terms of retrospectively considering how a decision had been arrived at".

Saying that "corporate memory was critical", Forbes went on: "Officials would come and go, teams would sometimes change and if individual officials couldn't recall how things had been approached the last time the decision was made then it would be much more challenging to make the decision again."

Inquiry chair Lady Hallett asked Forbes why she did not attend Gold command meetings in 2020. 

Forbes said: "I wasn't aware. I am not even sure I was aware they existed."

She went on: "I would have expected to be invited to any meetings where there were significant financial implications."

The inquiry continues.

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