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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Tuesday, October 31, 2023


Covid-19 Inquiries (Scottish Government’s Provision of Information)

The Presiding Officer (Alison Johnstone)

The next item of business is a statement by Shona Robison on the Scottish Government’s provision of information to the Covid-19 inquiries. The Deputy First Minister will take questions at the end of her statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.


The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Finance (Shona Robison)

The loss and trauma that were experienced by people across Scotland throughout the Covid-19 pandemic cannot be overstated. We remember all those who lost their lives or had them permanently changed. It is my hope that, through the Scottish Government’s co-operation with the United Kingdom and Scottish Covid-19 public inquiries, we can help to provide some answers and some relief.

I know that Parliament will appreciate that we would not normally make a statement regarding engagement with public inquiries while their proceedings are live. However, as the minister who is responsible for the Covid-19 inquiries, I am making this statement to address issues that were raised by the UK inquiry at the preliminary hearing on 26 October, and to give our reassurances on our commitment to making a full response.

I hope that Parliament will also appreciate that, in order to ensure that the inquiries can take forward their necessary work without undue speculation, we do not intend to provide a running commentary on the work of either inquiry.

The Scottish Government established the first public inquiry in the UK to examine the response to Covid-19 in December 2021, ahead of the UK Government commencing the UK-wide public inquiry.

It is important to note that both inquiries have made all their requests to witnesses in confidence, and that those requests are not public. All those who have received requests, including the Scottish Government, have been told by the inquiries not to share their content. It is entirely up to, and wholly a matter for, the independent inquiry chairs to determine, where appropriate, whether to publish the material that they receive.

The Scottish Government is obliged to comply with that requirement. Therefore, I will not—and cannot—provide precise details of any of the requests that the Scottish Government has received to date, including specific information on what has been asked of individuals who have received requests from the inquiries, and nor can I discuss in detail what material individuals have or have not provided.

Let me say from the outset, Presiding Officer, that where there has been any lack of clarity from the Scottish Government about the material to be provided to the inquiries, I apologise to the families who have been bereaved by Covid for any distress that that has caused. That certainly was not our intention.

The First Minister has reached out to the representatives of the Scottish Covid bereaved group and has offered a meeting to provide further reassurances, where we can. What I can assure those families, and Parliament, is that the Scottish Government has worked, and will work, tirelessly to provide the UK inquiry with the material that it has requested. The material that has been provided to the inquiry to date includes emails, messages, submissions, advice to ministers and papers from key decision-making meetings, including meetings of the Scottish Cabinet. In total, more than 19,000 documents have already been provided to the UK inquiry, and that figure continues to grow.

The initial requests that were received from the UK inquiry focused on decision making. As we have stated previously, it is not the culture within the Scottish Government routinely to use systems such as WhatsApp for decision making. Decisions are routinely made in minuted meetings or through formal submissions to ministers. All relevant records of both have been provided to both inquiries already.

The UK inquiry asked in June for summaries of all WhatsApp and similar groups relating to co-ordination, logistics and day-to-day communication, thereby greatly expanding the scope of what the Scottish Government needed accordingly to collate and process. That request was followed in September by a request for the actual messages that were exchanged within those groups.

In examining the messages that were collated, it was clear that a number of them were of a particularly personal nature, including photos of individuals’ children and personal medical details. In order to reconcile our obligations as data controller for the contents of the messages with our desire to co-operate fully with the inquiry, the Scottish Government wrote to the UK inquiry on 5 October requesting a section 21 notice to provide the necessary legal basis for providing the information within the messages.

The Scottish Government received the section 21 notice yesterday. I can confirm that work is well under way to comply fully, in accordance with the timetable that has been set by the UK inquiry. That will mean that all requested messages that are held will be shared, in full and unredacted, by 6 November.

In addition to the hundreds of messages that have already been handed over to the UK inquiry, the section 21 notice will allow us to share more than 14,000 messages, mainly from WhatsApp, from various groups and individuals over the period of the pandemic, mostly concerning routine co-ordination of work and meetings by officials. I can confirm that messages from ministers and former ministers are included, but I have not seen them—nor should I, because that is for the inquiry.

We will, of course, continue to co-operate fully with both inquiries and will share any additional messages, should more become available or further material be requested.

Following questions in Parliament last week, I would also like to highlight that the First Minister has asked the permanent secretary to ensure that all steps are being taken to meet the inquiry’s requests and for the Solicitor General to satisfy herself that the Scottish Government has met all its legal obligations. It will be for individuals to explain to the inquiries any actions that they have taken in relation to records retention.

As the First Minister recently stated, should either Covid inquiry want more information, we expect every minister, past and present, and every Government official to comply. I can confirm that the First Minister will, when submitting his final statement for inquiry module 2A in the coming days, hand over WhatsApp messages, unredacted, to the inquiry.

Presiding Officer, I would now like to offer some insight and reassurance regarding the handling and retention of records including, but not limited to, informal communications by the Scottish Government.

The Scottish Government has a clear records management policy, including on the transcribing and storing of salient information from informal communications, such as evidence of decision making, to a centralised record system.

The Scottish Government’s duty to create and retain records has remained consistent throughout the period that the inquiries are looking at, and we have complied with that duty. The Scottish Government has maintained a detailed record and evidence of key decisions that were taken during the pandemic. Our policies fully comply with our legislative obligations under the Public Records (Scotland) Act 2011 and other legal obligations.

The Scottish Government’s records management policy makes clear what must be recorded in the official record, because it is not practical, cost effective or necessary for any organisation to retain every single exchange that everyone who works within that organisation creates.

To be crystal clear, I say that there is not, and never has been, a need for material that is without business value to be retained as part of the corporate record. Colleagues’ exchanging pleasantries and chatting electronically about inconsequential or personal matters while working from home during lockdown should not be retained. No Government and no organisation of any size routinely retains such material, because it has no business use. It should also be noted that there are clear legal requirements not to retain data—in particular, personal data—for which there is no legitimate purpose. Those legal requirements are statutory and UK-wide.

Prior to the development of a dedicated mobile messaging policy in November 2021, the retention of mobile messages was covered in the Scottish Government’s records management policy. The records management policy continues to apply to all records. The guidance has always been clear that, regardless of the platform, information that is relevant to the corporate record must be saved.

The mobile-messaging policy, which was drafted by civil servants, is intended to ensure responsible and effective use of messaging applications. It is consistent with and supplements the established records management policy. The policy covers a range of applications that are used on mobile devices, including, but not limited to, WhatsApp. The policy does not prohibit use of messaging applications, but it requires people to consider the benefits and risks of using those apps and to ensure that any usage is compliant with records management responsibilities and data protection requirements.

The policy encourages consideration of security and privacy when using mobile-messaging apps, including whether the application allows for the automatic deletion of messages after a set period to address the risk of messages being misused if a mobile device is lost or compromised. Let me be clear, however, that contrary to some reports there is not, and has never been, a requirement for any official, let alone ministers, to auto-delete messages without ensuring that relevant information from them is captured and saved appropriately first.

The Scottish inquiry wrote to the Scottish Government’s permanent secretary on 5 August 2022 requesting that all material of potential relevance to the inquiry be retained. The UK inquiry, to date, has not written to the Scottish Government with a specific request for records retention. However, the UK Government wrote to permanent secretaries in each devolved Administration in June 2021, February 2022 and October 2022 asking that material of potential relevance to the inquiry not be destroyed. Those requests were cascaded through the Scottish Government and the significance and importance of storing material of potential relevance was made known to all relevant staff, as was the instruction that that material should be saved on the official record.

For the avoidance of any doubt, I point out that the Scottish Government has consistently acted in line with its records management policies and relevant legal obligations with regard to collating and storing corporate information.

Before closing, I note my gratitude to those who are working in the UK and Scottish Covid-19 inquiries. I am conscious of both the immense responsibility that they hold and the enormousness of the task that they face in understanding and distilling the events of the pandemic and the lessons that can be taken away. We all stand to benefit from the work that they are taking forward on our behalf, so I am pleased with the constructive relationship that has developed between both inquiries and Scottish Government officials, including in the context of challenging deadlines and detailed scrutiny.

I am happy to reiterate the Scottish Government’s pledge to continue with the highest standard of co-operation that has already been established with both public inquiries. Those who have been affected by the pandemic, especially those who have borne some form of loss, have placed a great deal of trust in the Scottish Government—not just to take on the challenges that Covid-19 posed, but to be open and accountable about our performance. That trust is of the utmost importance to me and to the Scottish Government, and we will continue to work to make sure that we are acting accordingly.

Thank you, Presiding Officer. I am happy to take questions.

The Presiding Officer

The Deputy First Minister will now take questions on the issues raised in her statement. I intend to allow around 30 minutes for questions, after which we will move to the next item of business. I would be grateful if members who wish to put a question would press their request-to-speak button.

Douglas Ross (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

The UK and Scottish Covid inquiries were set up to give answers to the thousands of families who lost loved ones during the pandemic and to everyone who suffered. They must be at the forefront of our thoughts today. I also state that the Scottish Conservatives believe that it should be the First Minister delivering this statement and being held accountable in this Parliament.

With respect to evidence to the inquiries, Nicola Sturgeon, who is in the chamber today, promised in August 2021 that nothing would be off limits, including WhatsApp messages. However, the stench of secrecy from the Government is now overpowering, because it was revealed at the weekend that Nicola Sturgeon had manually deleted messages. It has also been revealed that Scotland’s most senior clinician, Jason Leitch, deleted WhatsApp messages on a daily basis.

Although the Deputy First Minister has said that the Scottish National Party Government will provide 14,000 WhatsApp messages, almost a year after they were originally asked for, does that figure include all messages from Nicola Sturgeon, Jason Leitch and any others who deleted messages? If so, how were they recovered, and if not, how does the Deputy First Minister defend that cover-up?

We know that in June 2021 the Scottish Government was told not to destroy any communication relating to the pandemic. Can the Deputy First Minister tell us whether any messages were destroyed after that date? If they were, does the Deputy First Minister accept that any SNP minister or former minister, including Nicola Sturgeon, broke the law if they did so?

Finally, many of the issues that are causing concern just now relate to disappearing messages. We have seen correspondence that suggests that the Deputy First Minister had disappearing messages turned on on her WhatsApp account. Is that true, and does she still have disappearing messages turned on on her WhatsApp account?

Shona Robison

Where I agree with Douglas Ross is that the families are at the forefront of the issue. That is why it is important that we give as much information as is possible. That is why 19,000 documents have already been given. I need to again explain something that I said in my statement, which is that the first tranche of queries and asks from the inquiry related to decision making. The 19,000 documents were given in response to that request.

In June this year, the inquiry came back to ask for groups of WhatsApp messages—the titles of those groups and who the members of the groups were—and then in September the inquiry asked for the individual messages, so it is not correct to say that it has been a year since that request was made; it has been just over a month. We then had to ask for the section 21 order because of the nature of those messages. That order came in yesterday, and those 14,000 WhatsApp messages will be given to the inquiry by the deadline of 6 November.

I said in my statement very clearly that I cannot say who those messages are from and what the content is, because I am not allowed to. I cannot see them. It is a set of confidential information requests.

I ask members to ensure that we can all hear the Deputy First Minister.

Shona Robison

That is the confidential nature of what the inquiry has asked for. If I were to breach that and ask for information from officials who do not share that information with anyone, that would be a breach of the confidential requirements of the inquiry.

I do not know who those 14,000 messages are from, other than that they include ministers, former ministers and officials. [Interruption.]

Mr Ross.

Shona Robison

The only person I know of who has provided and will provide WhatsApp messages is the First Minister, because he has publicly stated so. Beyond that, I do not know who those 14,000 WhatsApp messages relate to. Publishing them is in the gift of the inquiry. It will decide whether any of those messages are released.

On the disappearing messages, in my use of WhatsApp with my private office, for example, any decision where I ask for information or ask for something to be taken forwarded is recorded on the system, because otherwise it would not happen. We would not hold on to other messages about whether I want a coffee or what my time of arrival is, because that would not comply with the data management policy.

I hope that I have managed to give Douglas Ross the answers to the questions that he asked.

Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab)

Evidence that is being taken in the UK Covid inquiry today demonstrates why transparency in Government is so important. People were discharged to care homes without testing, too many people died and people lost their livelihoods. We absolutely need to understand why decisions were taken and what happened so that we can learn lessons for the future.

Bereaved families were promised nothing less than full co-operation by the Scottish Government in both the UK and Scottish inquiries, but they have been treated with disrespect. There has been promised transparency and a guarantee from the First Minister that all messages would be handed over but, instead, the Government and individual ministers have so far failed to deliver. Messages from those closest to the decision making have been destroyed on an industrial scale and what we have seen instead can only be construed as deliberate and co-ordinated withholding of information.

A public inquiry was talked about in May 2020. Why did ministers not retain evidence from then? The Deputy First Minister points to individual responsibility to co-operate with the inquiry, but surely it is the collective responsibility of the Scottish Government to ensure that its own procedures are followed, not least by the former First Minister and the former Deputy First Minister. Does the Deputy First Minister agree that it is inconceivable that a former First Minister would not understand the importance of that evidence?

Finally, have all the 70 people in the 137 WhatsApp groups—ministers, special advisers and civil servants—been issued with individual section 21 notices, or was there a notice to the Scottish Government? Does that include the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister? Can the Deputy First Minister confirm that she will be able to comply fully and has not destroyed any evidence?

Shona Robison

First of all, I agree with Jackie Baillie that in the midst of all this are families who have lost loved ones and have been profoundly affected. Many of us have families who have been affected, so it is not in my interest or the Scottish Government’s interest to not provide that information.

We have already provided 19,000 documents about decision making, and at least 14,000 WhatsApp messages will be provided by 6 November. The section 21 order covers all those messages. Because of the nature of the sensitivity of some of the personal information, that is required.

As I said in my statement, the permanent secretary and the Solicitor General for Scotland have also been asked for reassurance about the policy that is being followed.

Ultimately, each individual is required to comply with the policy. The recommendations and requirements were made very clear to everybody concerned. The inquiry can, of course, interrogate the information that is provided to it by individuals in the course of the hearings if it considers that it is relevant to do so. However, for the Scottish Government’s purposes, I set out in great detail in my statement what the management of information policy was, the requirement, and the clarity to ministers and officials on their requirement to follow that policy.


Jackie Dunbar (Aberdeen Donside) (SNP)

I take the opportunity to put on record my condolences to the families who have been bereaved. I hope that the inquiries will provide the answers that they so desperately need.

I am grateful that the First Minister has committed to handing over whatever the Covid inquiry asks for, which is in contrast to the Prime Minister’s attempts earlier this year to block Baroness Hallett’s request for information. Given the concerns that the representatives of bereaved family members have highlighted, will the Deputy First Minister give an assurance that the Scottish Government is doing everything that it can to provide maximum transparency?

Shona Robison

As I said in my statement, the Scottish Government is wholly committed to co-operating with the UK and Scottish Covid-19 public inquiries and will continue to comply fully with all requests for information that we receive. As I have said on a couple of occasions, that is why the Scottish Government has already provided more than 19,000 records to the UK Covid-19 inquiry, and we are providing more than 14,000 messages by 6 November, now that the inquiry has provided a legally compliant way for us to do that. We will continue to work with both inquiries to respond fully to any future requests for information beyond what has already been provided.

Meghan Gallacher (Central Scotland) (Con)

Last week, the SNP Government told the Covid inquiry, in reference to WhatsApp messages, that

“Relevant information ... would be recorded ... in the Scottish Government’s electronic records and document management system.”

The public deserve to know the truth. How many WhatsApp messages in relation to the pandemic were saved through the Scottish Government’s electronic records and document management process? Have any of those messages been subsequently deleted from those records? Will the Covid inquiry be given full access to those records?

Shona Robison

In my statement, I went through, in quite some detail, how the records policy works. It is the responsibility of the official, the minister and the minister’s private office to make sure that discussion on WhatsApp of anything that is material is recorded on the records management system.

As I said in my statement, WhatsApp is not routinely used for Government decision making, and members can see why. Anything that is about a decision has to go in the system—otherwise it will not be acted on. WhatsApp is not routinely used for decision making.

I have set out clearly the expectation of every single person who was required to follow the policy and set out how that was communicated. Ultimately, each individual is required to comply with the policy, which was clearly set out. As I said in a previous answer, the inquiry can interrogate the information that is provided to it by any individual in its hearings if it chooses to do so.

John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

The Finance and Public Administration Committee recently held an inquiry into Government decision making. Does the Deputy First Minister agree with what I think was the committee’s feeling, which is that there needs to be space for informal chats and sharing of ideas? How do we get the balance right between formal discussions, which should be properly recorded, and informal discussions, which need not be?

Shona Robison

John Mason makes a reasonable point. Free and open discussions between ministers and officials in formal and informal manners are a key part of the functioning of the Government and other organisations. Such discussions help to generate ideas and solutions, and they provide a way of communicating quickly. However, if any decision or anything that is pertinent to the organisation is discussed, that should be recorded on the information management system.

The Scottish Government has extensive records management policies that ensure that any discussions that have corporate value—particularly in relation to policy decisions—are transcribed and stored in the corporate record appropriately. That is how WhatsApp, Teams or any other platform should be used. As I said in my statement, the permanent secretary and the Solicitor General are making sure—and are assuring the First Minister and the Scottish Government—that that is the case and that it is fully understood by everyone in the organisation.

Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

“Do not destroy” notices were issued to ministers and officials on August 2022. In her answers so far, the Deputy First Minister has made it clear that it is a matter of individual responsibility whether they comply. Can she tell us how many individuals have complied and how many individuals have yet to comply?

Shona Robison

As I said clearly in my statement, I have no sight of any of that information, because it would be against the inquiry’s rules for me to have any of that. The requests—[Interruption.]

Let us hear the Deputy First Minister.

Shona Robison

This is really important, and it is important that members understand this point. Rule 9 requests come from the inquiry to the individual. No one is sighted on the content of that, and no one is sighted on what the response is. That is completely confidential. It would be quite wrong of me to ask to see those—[Interruption.]

I would be grateful if members allowed us all to hear the Deputy First Minister respond. That can be difficult when others are talking at the same time.

This is actually a very serious matter. [Interruption.]


Shona Robison

It is a very serious matter, and it is very important that people understand the nature of an inquiry. The inquiry is the guardian of the information regarding what it requests, from whom it requests it and what it receives back. That is confidential. I will have no sight of that. [Interruption.]

Mr Johnson!

Shona Robison

I do not know, for example, how many ministers—past or present—are included in those 14,000 WhatsApp messages, because I have no sight of that. I have no sight of who they are or what the content is, and neither should I have. If I was to have that information, that would be a breach of the inquiry rules.

That is how an inquiry works. Perhaps it might be helpful for us to circulate some information about exactly how the inquiry works, because, if people do not understand that basic concept, we have a problem in relation to the confidential nature of the information that is being provided.

Members will appreciate that there is a great deal of interest in the statement. Many members wish to put questions, so we require concise questions and responses.

Audrey Nicoll (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)

The First Minister was clear last week—as the Deputy First Minister has been clear today—that Scottish Government decisions were not routinely made over WhatsApp, which is very welcome. We know that that has not necessarily been the case elsewhere in the UK. Will the Deputy First Minister provide an update on steps that are being taken to reinforce that practice across Government?

Shona Robison

The Scottish Government has internal practices to ensure that all record keeping around decision making follows the internal policies that I referred to in some detail in my statement, as well as legal requirements for information management. The record management policy is available to all staff on the Scottish Government’s intranet as well as to the public on

We will, of course, reinforce those practices following today’s statement, with an all-staff communication to be issued reminding officials of their responsibilities to ensure that good record keeping practices are maintained—and, yes, that applies to ministers as well.

The interaction between ministers and their private offices, with private offices making sure that any decision making is recorded, is a really important interaction within Government. That is what I reiterated in my statement.

Alex Cole-Hamilton (Edinburgh Western) (LD)

Thousands of grieving families are looking to the inquiries for answers. UK Government WhatsApp messages show, minute by minute, what was really going on behind the scenes and how decisions were made. Those messages show that the discussions behind an order were often as important as the order itself.

Did those life-and-death judgments ever hinge around Nicola Sturgeon’s desire just to be different from Boris Johnson? We may never know—[Interruption.]—because, Presiding Officer, messages deleted at the very top of the Scottish Government erase the process by which ministers weighed the politics and the science behind the decisions that were required of them. If anyone else had acted in such a conspiratorial way, the Scottish National Party would now be in uproar.

This will all come out in the wash. Does the Deputy First Minister personally believe that those grieving families will ever see the correspondence of most importance to them—that being all relevant messages to and from Nicola Sturgeon?

Shona Robison

I agree with Alex Cole-Hamilton that families are looking for answers. Indeed, he is right about the context of some of the decision making. That is why the 14,000 WhatsApp messages that I referred to in my statement—that number will, without a doubt, grow—are so important, because some of them will provide the context of the environment in which decisions were made. The inquiry will see all of that, including the First Minister’s WhatsApp messages, which he will provide as part of his final statement to the inquiry.

I do not know what the inquiry will put in the public domain, because that is a matter for the inquiry. It might put all the messages in the public domain or it might put none of them in the public domain. That information is its information—matters relating to the information that it has requested, what it holds and what it releases are for the inquiry, not for the Scottish Government.

Emma Harper (South Scotland) (SNP)

A substantial number of people will be involved in Government decision-making processes. What engagement has been undertaken with civil servants to ensure that their views inform robust decision-making processes?

Shona Robison

All civil servants receive training to ensure that ministers receive the best possible advice. That includes training in using data and evidence and in working with partners and communities so that the advice that comes to ministers is based on relevant information and different views and perspectives. The civil service regularly works with external experts, too, who can peer review information and ensure that ministers receive high-quality advice on which to base decisions.

As I said earlier, the advice is then stored in the corporate record, in line with our records management policy. That is the crucial part of how decisions are recorded. I have made that point a number of times because its importance cannot be overstated.

Murdo Fraser (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

Yesterday, the First Minister said that there was a policy of deleting social media messages after 30 days. However, in her statement, the Deputy First Minister told us that that policy was introduced in November 2021, after the height of the pandemic was over. Can the Deputy First Minister confirm that anyone in the Scottish Government, whether a minister or a civil servant, who deleted messages before that date would be in breach of the Government’s records management policy?

Shona Robison

As I set out in detail in my statement, the records management policy is very clear that WhatsApp is not routinely used as a decision-making tool but that any decision that is made, whether on WhatsApp or on any other platform, has to be recorded on the official management system. That has always been the case; nothing has changed in relation to that.

As I pointed out in my statement, the issue about the deletion of messages relates to being able to distinguish messages about cups of coffee or when someone is arriving at an event from important information that is about decision making or that has corporate value. That distinction is made because no organisation in the world retains every WhatsApp conversation between every individual in the organisation—organisations just would not do that. The policy is clear about what has to be retained and where it has to be retained. That has always been the policy. I could not be clearer about that.

In relation to the messages that will be handed over, some of them will be in the category of chitchat on WhatsApp and some of them will pertain to the context of decisions that were made at the time. All the information that the Scottish Government holds will be given to the inquiry by 6 November, and it will do its best to provide the inquiry with any additional information that is requested beyond that.

Willie Coffey (Kilmarnock and Irvine Valley) (SNP)

Can the Deputy First Minister provide any more information about the steps that are being taken to ensure that there is a comprehensive understanding of the Scottish Government’s records management policy across the Government, including any further guidance on use of messaging apps or other apps for any relevant purposes?

Shona Robison

Senior officials have issued a number of emails to staff reminding them of their obligation to understand and adhere to the Scottish Government’s records management policy. Detailed advice on the policy and others related to it are available to all staff via their intranet. The Scottish Government’s senior information risk owner is also preparing a further all-staff communication to be issued in order to direct officials towards that information to ensure that everyone is reminded about the key aspects of the policy.

Gillian Mackay (Central Scotland) (Green)

It is crucial that, in this important discussion, we are all clear about exactly how and where Scottish Government decisions are made and how those decisions are recorded and acted on. Will the Deputy First Minister clarify whether decisions were made on WhatsApp during the Covid pandemic? What safeguards were in place to ensure that good governance standards were adhered to during the height of the crisis?

Shona Robison

Let me make it clear again that WhatsApp is not routinely used as a decision-making tool. That is because, if a minister wants a decision to be acted on, it has to go into the system. That is why any decision that is communicated to, for example, a private office from a minister will be transcribed into the system. That is done so that decisions can be acted on. When any decision was made, that would have been the process to ensure that it was put into the system. That would happen not just with WhatsApp messages but when any communication, conversation or phone call had to be followed up by action. They would be recorded in the management system to ensure that they were acted on.

Michelle Thomson (Falkirk East) (SNP)

The independence of the inquiry is paramount. However, the need to gather accurate and reflective detail can lead to long timescales for any inquiry. Can the Deputy First Minister set any expectations as to timescales for the relatives who are desperate for answers?

Shona Robison

I very much understand the desire to see the findings and lessons learned from both inquiries as soon as possible. That is a key underpinning of the Scottish Government’s desire. Section 17 of the Inquiries Act 2005 gives an inquiry chair alone, rather than ministers, responsibility for deciding how an inquiry should operate. Therefore, operational matters such as the timetabling and timescales of the inquiry’s work are for the chair to decide, entirely independent of Government.

Katy Clark (West Scotland) (Lab)

The Deputy First Minister has not made it clear whether the Scottish Government complied with its own policy, which is that salient WhatsApp messages should be saved, at least on the centralised records system. Can she confirm that that is normally what happens, and can she confirm whether it happened in relation to Covid messages? Can she confirm whether Covid records policy was reviewed on receipt of the “Do not destroy” notices?

Shona Robison

On that final question, any further information and requirements would have been cascaded through the organisation to make sure that everyone was fully aware of their need to comply.

As I have said throughout my statement and in answering the follow-up questions, the guidance has always been clear about what should be transcribed from WhatsApp messages. Ultimately, the requirement is on each individual to comply with the policy. As I have said, once the inquiry has all the information in front of it, if it has any concerns and feels that that has not been the case, it can interrogate the information that is provided to it—or not provided to it—by individuals. It can do that in the course of the hearings, if it considers that to be relevant. Anything that the Scottish Government was asked for that we have has either already been handed over in the 19,000 documents or will be handed over in the 14,000 WhatsApp messages, which we can do now that we have in place the section 21 legal underpinning.

What steps have been taken, or changes made, to maximise transparency in the Scottish Government’s records management policy and processes?

Shona Robison

The Scottish Government continually acts to ensure that its own policies and processes are fully understood. In aid of that, the Scottish Government’s records management policy is available to officials on the staff intranet and to the public via I am also happy to confirm that the Scottish Government published its mobile messaging policy on this afternoon to ensure that the wider public can see it.

Sandesh Gulhane (Glasgow) (Con)

I declare an interest as a practising national health service general practitioner, which role I performed during the pandemic.

The current First Minister told reporters that Government policy was that WhatsApp messages should be deleted, but in response to my question in December 2022 about whether WhatsApp messages are covered by freedom of information legislation, George Adam said:

“All recorded information that is held by ministers or officials”,

including WhatsApp,

“that relates to the business of the Scottish Government is subject to”—[Official Report, 8 December 2022; c 1.]

FOI requests. I ask the Deputy First Minister how I can make an FOI request for messages that are deleted.

Shona Robison

In some ways, the member answered his own question, because he said:

“that relates to the business of the Scottish Government”.

That is the key point. Anything that is contained on WhatsApp, Teams or anything else that relates to the business of the Scottish Government should be transcribed. [Interruption.]


Shona Robison

The deletion issue, as I set out in my statement, is about all the other information that does not relate to the business of the Scottish Government, which no organisation would keep. We meet our legal obligations is respect of deletion of information that does not relate to the business of the Scottish Government. It is clear that the advice, policy and legalities are that organisations should not hold on to information that does not relate to the business of the organisation concerned.

How many individuals in the Government have failed to comply with the Scottish Government’s internal processes, including its records management policy, since February 2021?

Shona Robison

As I have said in response to a number of questions, only the inquiry knows what it has asked for and what has been provided. I have no sight of that. I have no oversight of what the inquiry asks for, because that goes directly to individuals through rule 9 requests, and the information goes back to the inquiry.

On the inquiry’s wider ask about what the Scottish Government holds more generally, all the information that has been asked for by the inquiry that the Scottish Government holds in relation to decision making has been provided—19,000 documents have already been provided. That wider ask about all communication on WhatsApp and other message platforms is being addressed through the more than 14,000 messages that will be provided by the 6 November deadline.

Stephen Kerr (Central Scotland) (Con)

The Deputy First Minister cannot confirm whether the former First Minister manually deleted her WhatsApp messages, as was reported in the press at the weekend. Does the Deputy First Minister agree that it would be in order for the former First Minister to make a personal statement to Parliament on whether she deleted her WhatsApp messages, as has been reported?

Shona Robison

I have made it clear throughout my statement and all the answers to all the questions that I cannot comment on any individual, because I do not know what they have been asked for or what they have provided. I do not know any of that information because I should not know it. It is a confidential matter between—[Interruption.]

Members, let us hear the Deputy First Minister. Let us conduct our business in an orderly manner.

Shona Robison

What has been asked for and what has been provided is a confidential matter between the inquiry and the individual concerned. I imagine that if I were suddenly to ask for all that information to be given to me, members across the chamber would ask me why I was breaching the rules of the independent inquiry. The rules are clear: it is confidential information and is for no one but the inquiry, the person concerned and the group of officials who are working completely independent of ministers to provide that information. The channels of communication are clear. I think that the chair of the inquiry would take a very dim view if we were to do anything other than that.

Thank you. That concludes the ministerial statement.