Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:14 pm on 17th September 2020.

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Photo of William Wragg William Wragg Chair, Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Chair, Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee 1:14 pm, 17th September 2020

Thank you very much, Madam Deputy Speaker.

On behalf of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, I am grateful for the opportunity to present our report on a public inquiry into the response to the covid-19 pandemic. I begin by expressing my gratitude to those who contributed to the report. In particular, I am indebted to our witnesses, who gave their time to the Committee in contributing evidence, including Emma Norris, Dr Alastair Stark, Jason Beer QC, Lord Butler of Brockwell, Sir Robert Francis, QC, Dame Una O’Brien and Baroness Prashar of Runnymede, as well as those who submitted written evidence to the inquiry. I also thank my fellow Committee members and indeed extend my thanks to the excellent Committee staff who worked at pace to help produce the report.

As we are all painfully aware, covid-19 has had and continues to have a profound impact on our lives, from those who work in our health and social care sectors to those who have sadly been bereaved. It is therefore important that a thorough inquiry is conducted.

Public inquiries have been a routine part of the UK’s political landscape, and they are now customary following major public incidents and crises. For that reason, it is welcome that at yesterday’s Liaison Committee meeting, the Prime Minister again committed to establishing a public inquiry into the Government’s response to the pandemic. However, at present there is little guidance about exactly how or when such an inquiry will be established.

From the time of their announcement, inquiries can take several weeks or even months before they begin gathering evidence. Chairs and panels need to be appointed, inquiry staff recruited, budgets established, IT procured and terms of reference decided, all of which is currently done without any official guidance. Even if the inquiry is launched immediately, it is unlikely to begin its evidence gathering much before the end of the year. For that reason, we recommend that the Government take immediate steps towards launching the inquiry. The Committee is confident that combating the spread of covid-19 and launching an inquiry into the Government’s responses thus far are not mutually exclusive ends.

The Committee also believes that there is a need for clarity about the primary purpose of any inquiry. To date, inquiries have served to establish facts, apportion blame, pass judgments, perhaps all under the umbrella of holding decision makers to account. Determining the purpose is important, not only because it dictates much of the substance of the inquiry but because it should also decide the way in which the inquiry is organised. As things stand, there is no fixed configuration and whether there is a quasi-legal construction—often chaired by a judge making extensive use of statutory powers—or chairs with no legal authority but considerable policy expertise remains uncertain.

Although mistakes will inevitably have been made in handling the pandemic response, the report recommends that the inquiry should be forward-looking, with the primary purpose of appreciating where and why mistakes were made and ensuring that similar events can be handled better in future. To do that, an understanding of the decisions taken and the reasons for them will be needed, but we are clear that the inquiry should not solely be a hunt for somebody to blame. While that may mean that some important issues are excluded from the inquiry, Parliament is able to set out its plans to cover which information is omitted. That will allow the public inquiry to focus on the issues with which it has been tasked and those who are impacted by the wider issues to understand how and when they can contribute to the lessons learned.

The report stresses the importance of the inquiry’s chair. At present, the remit and holder of the chair is decided by a Minister on an ad hoc basis without reference to established procedure, yet it is the Committee’s belief that the significance of the chair who conducts the inquiry is such that the usual ad hoc process is not appropriate and that greater transparency is needed. The appointing Minister should be able to demonstrate that proper consultation and deliberation has been conducted before the appointment is made. We also suggest that the appointment should be subject to a pre-commencement hearing with the relevant Select Committee, given the high level of parliamentary interest in the inquiry.

Yet of course the chair cannot succeed alone, and every chair should be supported by an equally capable panel. That is particularly important in an inquiry into the Government’s response to a multifaceted pandemic, for which the panel can supplement the chair’s skills and expertise with their own. However, there is a balance to be struck between increasing the range of expertise represented on the panel and the need to have a panel small enough to function effectively. Again, greater transparency is needed on how the panel is appointed.

Concern has also been raised about the authority to bring an inquiry. Under the Inquiries Act 2005, the Government of the United Kingdom can establish a joint inquiry, but we are concerned that a single inquiry would not see devolved matters receiving sufficient attention. That matter is exacerbated by the fact that we cannot make recommendations to the devolved Administrations, and rightly so. To that end, we encourage the devolved Administrations to establish their own inquiries into how they have handled the covid-19 response.

This report further explores the accountability of the Government in responding to an inquiry’s recommendations. At present, the Government are under no obligation to explain why they do or do not accept suggested courses of action. Although they sometimes accept recommendations, that is by no means always the case. Therefore, the Committee expects the Government, in responding to the inquiry, to adopt a “comply or explain” approach, which should demonstrate beyond doubt why they do or do not accept particular recommendations and what action will be taken instead.

On a final, related note, the lack of structure and official guidance leaves no formal process to follow up and oversee the implementation of an inquiry’s recommendations. Select Committees have been known to follow up inquiries, but often they do not. Of course the very purpose of Select Committees is to scrutinise actions taken by the Government, and the action taken with regard to inquiry recommendations should be no different. An additional level of scrutiny can be achieved via the Liaison Committee, which we suggest should consider adding the scrutiny of the Government’s response to public inquiries to the list of core tasks for departmental Select Committees. On that note of parliamentary scrutiny, I welcome questions from colleagues.