Covid-19: Government Transparency and Accountability

– in the House of Commons at 1:06 pm on 22nd April 2021.

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Photo of William Wragg William Wragg Chair, Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Chair, Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee 1:06 pm, 22nd April 2021

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the Eighth Report of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Government transparency and accountability during Covid-19: The data underpinning decisions, HC 803.

I thank the Liaison Committee and the Backbench Business Committee for granting us time to debate this important report this afternoon. I thank the members and staff of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee for their extensive service and their efforts to bring about the report. I note that many of them are in their places this afternoon.

Of course, a report about statistics will bring up various quotations from the past. I think particularly of Disraeli’s

“lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

To manipulate Orwellian language slightly, I think too of the idea that language is power. In this circumstance, I would say that data certainly is power.

The past year has seen the Government impose some of the greatest ever restrictions on the people of this country. For those restrictions to have moral and democratic legitimacy, the Government must be able to justify them. At its core, the report asks whether the Government have done that. The aim of the report is not to question the decisions themselves, but to ask whether the data was available for us to understand and to interrogate those decisions.

The report finds that while there has been great progress in collecting data—I emphasise that point most strongly—there have been a number of shortcomings in how the data has been shared, how transparent the decisions have been and how some Ministers have made themselves available—or, sadly, have not done so—to face parliamentary scrutiny.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Conservative, Forest of Dean

I was slightly disturbed to note in one of the report’s conclusions that Ministers who appeared in front of the Committee in place of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster were not properly briefed to answer its questions. The Committee noted his

“refusal to attend this Committee and account for decisions” and drew the conclusion that it was

“contemptuous of Parliament.”

In my experience, that is not the usual course of action of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster; he is normally very happy to appear in front of Parliament. I wonder whether the Chair is able to furnish the House with any correspondence the Committee has had with the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to see whether that lack of accountability might be put right in future.

Photo of William Wragg William Wragg Chair, Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Chair, Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee

I refer my right hon. Friend to my correspondence with the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, which is published regularly on the PACAC website. I would hope that the response to a well-meant, generous invitation to such a senior Minister will promptly be put right and that we will be assured of his attendance at our Committee, so that we can do the job we are there to do, which is to scrutinise Ministers and the Government, and indeed to give those Ministers the opportunity to place things on the record—something I think they appreciate.

As we progress through these latter stages of the pandemic, data transparency becomes more crucial. The public must understand the justification for each decision on the road map. I want to dwell on the progress to date; I am a fair-minded person and I like to give as much praise as I do criticism, although sometimes that may not be too apparent. On this occasion, I will dwell momentarily at least on the progress that has been made. The Government have amassed enormous amounts of data from a standing start, making much of it available to the public, including the covid-19 dashboard and through surveys by the Office for National Statistics, including the infection survey. The report pays warm tribute to the work of public servants, indeed echoing the words of Sir David Norgrove who paid tribute

“to all involved in this work, at a time of anxiety for them and their families, with all the disruption caused”.

One of the key messages of the report is in relation to accountability. The Committee has reviewed the common themes across three of our recently published reports. All three of those have highlighted the fact that the governance arrangements have not always been clear. Emphasised in those reports was a lack of clarity over the role of the Cabinet Office, the various covid Committees, and, indeed, the quad in decision making. In addition, as has been highlighted by my right hon. Friend Mr Harper, we have had concerns over ministerial accountability.

I will, if I may, mention briefly how data have been communicated to the public. The Committee is very clear in its view that statistics should be used for the purpose of genuinely informing the public and that open and honest communication builds trust. Even when the Government have, on occasion, fallen short of their promises, that openness and willingness to share uncertainty certainly builds trust. We should avoid, as one of our esteemed witnesses said, the tendency towards number theatre, where big numbers are bandied around perhaps without very clear context, perhaps seeking to impress, rather than entirely to explain.

The UK Statistics Authority’s code of practice for official statistics promotes the production and dissemination of official statistics that inform decision making. The UKSA’s code of practice framework is based on three pillars: trustworthiness, quality and value. Trustworthiness is about having confidence in the people and organisations that produce statistics and data, and valuing the statistics that supports society’s need for information. We, as a Committee, have concerns that Ministers have not always lived up to the expectations of that code of practice. As a result of the evidence presented to the Committee, we have recommended that the ministerial code is strengthened so that it is clear that Ministers are required to abide by that code of practice in their presentation of data.

On the publication of that data, the Committee outlined clear recommendations. The progress around these recommendations has been varied to date, although I have been keen to emphasise areas of strong progress. We recommend that the Government should publish the data that underpin the restrictions that will remain in place for businesses at each step and do so as a matter of urgency. It is all very well having the data in the public domain, but we need to know what are the benchmarks. I have likened it in the past to someone taking an examination: they know what mark they got in that examination but they do not know quite what the grade thresholds are. Furthermore, in terms of internet publication, hyperlinks to this data should be included on those pages explaining those restrictions for maximum transparency.

Photo of Steve Brine Steve Brine Conservative, Winchester

In my constituency at the moment, we have 16 covid cases per 100,000. There have been no covid deaths in the past 15 days, yet all of my hospitality, certainly that in the city, is still prevented from opening up in any meaningful way. I notice that paragraph 191 of the report says:

“The hospitality and entertainment sectors have not seen sufficient data to underpin decisions relating to their industry.”

That is a point that I have repeatedly asked about in the House— I know that it is also the subject of a live case. Has my hon. Friend and his Committee seen any sufficient data to underpin decisions relating to the hospitality industry, which still remains closed in large part?

Photo of William Wragg William Wragg Chair, Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Chair, Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee

My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head, and the short answer is no. If the Government were to express the view that these are arbitrary decisions made because this is a difficult situation, that would be a more honest approach than vague references to following the science without bringing forward the evidence to underpin decisions. He hits the nail exactly on the head. I try to say this without sarcasm, which is a great effort for me, but we are surely driven by the data, and not dates.

The report also notes that local leaders did not always have access to the data that they needed to respond quickly at the height of the pandemic. As such, we recommend that going forward, the Government must share all available data with local areas in as much detail as possible, and ideally to patient level. Data that will be key to decision making on the road map should be shared immediately, and the road map indicators should be added to the dashboard with clear links to the data at lower local authority level underpinning each one.

Changing the topic slightly before I conclude, the Committee is now inquiring into the vexed proposal of covid vaccine certification or, indeed, wider covid status certification. The evidence we have heard so far reinforces the importance of transparency and accountability of data, as we highlighted in the report. Before the considerable ethical and legal issues about vaccine certification proposals are even taken into account, the purpose and effect of such certificates must be understood and the data and evidence underlying such a proposal set out. That means that the data needs to be made clear on issues such as transmissibility after vaccination, especially when considering implementing what we heard would be a permanent solution for what may well be a temporary problem.

I should say that I am pro-vaccination. I believe it is for the individual to decide whether they wish to take it. I would encourage them to do so and, indeed, when it is my turn—I am younger than I look, although perhaps not younger than I act—I shall indeed take the vaccine.

I will leave the House with one statistic, which I saw on the pages of The Daily Telegraph yesterday. It is that just 32 of some 74,000 hospitalised with covid between September and March had been vaccinated at least three weeks before. If we can get hold of more recent data than that, we will be proving that we can have confidence in the vaccine to deal with the worst aspects of this horrendous pandemic and that we can look forward to unlocking society, regaining our freedoms and allowing this country to move forward. I look forward to hearing the contributions of hon. and right hon. Members this afternoon.

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Before I call the next speaker, I emphasise that we have two debates this afternoon and a number of Back-Bench colleagues wish to speak. To save me having to put a time limit on, it would be helpful if speeches were confined to around five minutes. That will enable everybody to get in.

Photo of Karin Smyth Karin Smyth Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland) 1:18 pm, 22nd April 2021

It is a pleasure to follow Mr Wragg. I thank him for the fair and inclusive way in which he has chaired the Committee.

The sense of shock, uncertainty and genuine confusion that the public at large felt as this crisis began was in truth mirrored by the Government. That is at least in part understandable, and I will return to the issues of preparedness later, but the nature, scale and speed of that first wave was unlike anything our Government have ever faced before. It would have tested the boldest of leaders, the best prepared institutions and the most resilient of communities.

My father-in-law died in those early few weeks. I was grateful to be able to attend his funeral, but my children could not. Since last April, tens of thousands of families have faced this trauma, and the loss of life and destruction of our economy is not understandable, nor was it inevitable. The truth is that our leadership was woeful, our institutions already cut to the bone by funding cuts, our communities fractured and frayed, health inequalities widening, and it is no surprise that the poorest have faced the greatest burden.

In a democracy as old as ours, the Government rightly have less power to control us and force compliance than many others across the world, but that means that transparency and accountability are more fundamental to securing our agreement for the common good, and when the very Government who had previously eroded accountability and shirked transparency asked us to make those sacrifices, there were bound to be tensions. The starting point of distrust and dysfunction was made much worse by the unpreparedness with which we entered this emergency.

Emergency preparedness, resilience and response is a term that we use to make sure that we are safe before, during and after an emergency and national disaster. At our Committee session on 29 April the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster appeared to talk about the work of the Cabinet Office, and we looked at preparedness. The pre-2020 timeline to our report is really important. Public Health England’s pandemic flu strategic framework in 2014 had as a key principle preparing for the worst. That 2014 document built on work in 2011, which followed work in 2009 regarding the previous flu crisis. In 2016 Operation Cygnus, the exercise conducted to understand our preparedness and test our resilience in response, was shrouded in mystery, and it was only released in October 2020, as even The Daily Telegraph reported, following legal action and the threat of the Information Commissioner. That document really exposed how poorly prepared we were.

In addition, in our meeting with the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in April we discussed the national risk register, which had not been published since 2017; it is supposed to be published every two years. I asked him whether the Cabinet Office monitored whether various Departments and agencies had completed the mitigations in previous risk registers. He answered that it was the Cabinet Office’s responsibility to do so. He wrote to us later, on 21 May, with less clarity on the Cabinet Office’s role, simply stating that work on the risk register for 2019—for 2019—was advanced, but would need to be recalibrated in light of the current pandemic.

Also, we were running the NHS at over 90% of capacity, when the Royal College of Emergency Medicine and many other royal colleges had been warning that 85% was more in line with patient safety requirements. That, plus the additional year-on-year Government cuts, including to public health, all meant that we were not prepared when we could have been, and any look back at this dreadful time in our history needs to expose that failure.

But fundamentally and unforgivably, we were hamstrung by this Government’s ideological opposition to the very things that could have helped save lives—an ideological opposition to experts, an ideological opposition to local government and local expertise, an ideological opposition to the principles of good public health. And what was it replaced with? The absurd reliance on mates and acquaintances—approaching a pandemic in much the same way as most of us would look for someone to plaster our bathroom. Underpinning it, the idolatry of the private sector, trumping every time the institutions and people who actually understood the communities we were looking to protect.

Crucially, the Government were bereft of a strategy, with no accountability, and that includes the legislation and our role as Members of Parliament who were presented with that rushed legislation and reliance on ancient public health Acts, rather than the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 and the scrutiny that had happened in this place before—a problem that we are still trying to extricate ourselves from.

The key part of that Civil Contingencies Act was the reliance on local resilience forums. None of us live in Whitehall; we live in our communities. That is why local forums are so critical, and any response should have been driven bottom-up and then supported by the national effort—and that is where so much damage has been done, in that local response.

For everything we have learned in our Committee, the transcripts are really quite shocking. As a previous emergency planner and someone who has worked closely with public health, I expected certain things to happen, and they did not. The test and trace debacle is the most obvious case in point—so many lives lost, so much time lost. Why would the Government not trust local leaders, and our colleagues in councils of all political colours, to get the job done that they were trained to do? Over the border from me only 20 miles, in Wales, the Welsh Test, Trace, Protect system is run as a public service and has delivered, by any measure, better outcomes for vastly less public money.

Things have got a bit better in terms of the local-national interface and response, but there are still some real issues that are hampering the public health response now and for the future. First, we must not reorganise the organisation that is doing this at national level in the middle of a pandemic and make people fearful of losing their jobs when they are trying to save our lives. Secondly, the consequence of the Lansley Act is that public health expertise in local government does not have the same access to NHS data that previously occurred. That has hampered the public health effort locally. Public health officials in local government need to be able to access data for public benefit and recognise the difference between identifiable personal data and non-identifiable data. That is something the Government can do something about.

We have to use this excellent report to look to the future. Does anyone here think that everything will be normal after 21 June? Again, after everything we have been through, the Government are still not on the front foot. They are still too late, as demonstrated by the decision about India going on the red list this week. I do not think everything returns to normal after 21 June, and the Prime Minister has now started hinting about a third wave. That means he has to take some actions. We are all so very weary. We are desperate to see our loved ones. We are desperate for everyone to get back to work, to go on holiday, to start planning our lives now. Our young people need radical change in our education system to be prepared for the future. Decisions need to be made now. We all want to be able to visit care homes and have people able to leave those care homes. It is an absolute disgrace, but the urgency is missing.

In conclusion, I am very proud to be a part of this Committee. I commend our Chair for the fair and inclusive way he has conducted it. Our Clerks and advisers have been superb in their support and responsiveness to allow us to do some great work in difficult conditions. I thank them for report they produced, and I thank our great witnesses. The Government, however, have not learned the lessons. I am not confident that they have taken on board these recommendations. If we are to secure compliance for the next stage, that really needs to happen: we need honesty and transparency about the data; honesty about the political choices that face us; honesty about the balance of risk; and, frankly, more respect for Parliament and the people we represent.

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

I reiterate that we need to keep to five minutes, otherwise I will put on a time limit.

Photo of David Jones David Jones Conservative, Clwyd West 1:26 pm, 22nd April 2021

The covid pandemic, as we all know, has had the most devastating impact on the health and economy of our nation. It has also placed the most enormous strains on the administration of government. The pandemic is a phenomenon unprecedented in the lifetimes of most of us who are alive today. There was no real precedent to work to. There was no playbook. It was therefore inevitable that dealing with it would present huge challenges to medicines, science and Government.

Crucial to the response to the pandemic is the collation and analysis of data. The Committee’s report rightly praises the work of those officials who set up new data collection and management systems. In particular, I commend the work of the Office for National Statistics, the central part of which is the community infection survey, which provides a clear picture of the prevalence of the virus across the whole of the UK. Over the period of the pandemic, that picture has improved significantly in clarity.

The report rightly concentrates on and highlights the importance of transparency of data. In any democracy whose citizens are being asked, indeed instructed, to give up a large number of their inherent freedoms to keep their fellow citizens safe, it must be essential that the rationale for such instructions is readily available and understandable. That is only achievable through access to the data that underpin, or are claimed to underpin, the decisions the Government are making. Furthermore, citizens need to be assured that in making those decisions the Government are using the available data for the right reasons and in the right manner.

In this context, the Government have rightly been criticised for the way certain elements of data were used, or indeed misused. Arguably, the most egregious example of what I would categorise as the misuse of data was the press briefing on 31 October 2020, when the second lockdown was announced. Data projecting up to 4,000 deaths a day were cited, even though the data were never intended for public consumption, were based on extreme assumptions and were out of date by the time they were used.

Evidence to the inquiry suggested that on occasions such tinkering with the figures had seemingly been done for political purposes. The Committee heard, for example, that the target of achieving 100,000 tests per day was met by adding tests that had been sent out to tests completed—in other words, double counting.

Whether that was a genuine error or politically motivated, it cannot be acceptable.

The report points out:

“The first principle of the UKSA Code of Practice for the use of statistics is ‘Trustworthiness’.”

The UKSA code requires that

“Statistics, data and explanatory material should be presented impartially and objectively.”

However, the ministerial code requires only that

“Ministers need to be mindful of the UK Statistics Authority’s Code of Practice”— it almost invites bending the rules. The report therefore rightly advises:

“The Ministerial Code needs to be strengthened so it is clear that Ministers are required to abide by the UKSA Code of Practice in their presentation of data.”

Of course, there is frequently a temptation for politicians to try to give the impression that they have all the answers. However, one of the most interesting pieces of evidence that the Committee received was that

“admitting uncertainty is unlikely to undermine the public response and might have a positive impact.”

Furthermore, if people have less trust in Government and the science behind the response to the pandemic, they are

“less likely to follow rules and guidance”.

The shocking, perhaps revolutionary lesson is therefore that to transmit most effectively the conclusions of data analysis, honesty is the best policy.

Arguably, data has never been a more important element of the governance of this country than in the past 15 months. I have no doubt that when the pandemic is over, extensive “lessons learned” exercises will be undertaken both by the Government and by various Committees of this House. I very much hope that they will consider not only the extent to which data should underpin decisions, as I believe it always should, but the way in which that data should be communicated.

The fundamental point of the Committee’s report is that absolute transparency in communicating information is essential to provide the best public response. When people are asked to give up their liberties, they need to be told why. Regrettably, for a variety of reasons—which, to be clear, were not always disreputable—that has not always been the case over the past year and a quarter.

Photo of Owen Thompson Owen Thompson SNP Chief Whip 1:31 pm, 22nd April 2021

I thank Mr Wragg and his Committee for their work in undertaking the report. To me, it is nothing short of damning, but to those of us who have been paying attention to the Government’s record on transparency and accountability over the past year, it is entirely unsurprising. We have seen the scandal of corona contracts; when processes that ensure fairness and transparency are stripped away, politics is left open to exploitation. The Greensill and Dyson scandals have shown that the Government oversee a culture of taxpayers’ money being allocated through informal back channels, such as texting and WhatsApp—channels protected from public scrutiny.

The report reveals another dimension to the culture of undermining transparency and accountability: the Government have been misusing data to drive their own agendas rather than to reflect reality. They have sought to make the evidence behind their decisions opaque and unobtainable to the public and to Members. Every day it becomes clearer that they have an aversion to transparency that goes right to their very core. In many cases, they have used data not to inform the public, but to emphasise an argument or create a more favourable view of the Government. UK Ministers have cited statistics without providing sources and acted in a manner that falls far short of the UK Statistics Authority’s code of practice. It is clear that the Government think that the public’s heids button up the back. A Minister, a friend, a donor or even a pub landlord can expect unfettered access through unofficial back channels; anyone else can expect to be taken for a fool.

The report notes that the Government have used data to provoke anxiety rather than a realistic understanding of risk. In an age in which fake news and disinformation feed off public anxiety for nefarious political purposes, that is deeply irresponsible. It is also important to note that transparency is not only desirable for its own sake, but critical in maintaining public trust in our political institutions, especially at a time when we face such a national crisis.

The result of these failures has been a breakdown in public trust and the deterioration of the intergovernmental relationships that ensure good decision making. That is why transparency, openness and accountability should always exist, regardless of any crisis at hand. I recognise the need for swiftness in decision making during the pandemic, but speed must not come at the cost of transparency or accountability. It does not have to; balancing speed and transparency better simply requires Governments to start thinking more creatively about how scrutiny is undertaken. One solution would be something like my Ministerial Interests (Emergency Powers) Bill, which hon. Members have heard me mention on a number of occasions. I know that time has run out for that Bill to be given any sensible consideration at this stage in the Session, but it would put in place a mechanism whereby, even after the awarding of such contracts, a scrutiny process could still take place to hold Ministers to account for those decisions.

When it comes to concerns about data in the report, transparency and scrutiny could be delivered by committing to a full public inquiry on the handling of the pandemic, just as the Scottish Government have done. That move was supported by all parties in the Scottish Parliament, including the Scottish Tories, so I see no reason why colleagues in this place would not also support one. After all, if the Government have nothing to hide, there is nothing to fear.

Lastly, it is hard not to contrast that with the approach we have seen from the Scottish Government, where clear and often frank communication has been key. When my constituents see one Government holding daily press conferences, outlining the data and answering questions in a full and frank manner and another hiding from the facts and shielding from transparency, they can certainly make up their own minds.

Photo of Jackie Doyle-Price Jackie Doyle-Price Conservative, Thurrock 1:35 pm, 22nd April 2021

Without a shadow of a doubt, the nation has lived through a quite unprecedented period that would have tested all Governments of any colour. It is also the case that, for a long time, we did not know exactly what we were dealing with. As my hon. Friend Mr Wragg outlined, from a standing start, the Government had to move in a fleet-of-foot manner without being entirely certain and in that respect the leadership and speed with which the Government acted deserves commendation.

The Committee heard from a number of witnesses who acknowledged that, from a standing start, the speed with which the Government compiled a bigger picture of data that enabled us to understand what was happening was impressive. The way in which the Government illustrated how the data informed their decision-making process was equally impressive. What has been lacking, as our inquiry shows, is transparent data that illustrates the efficacy of the measures taken and whether they were delivering their stated outcomes, which were of course to save lives and protect our NHS. There has been rather less of that.

The Government have taken incredible freedoms and liberties away from the public. We in this House are the guardians of the liberties of the people in this country and it is our job to satisfy ourselves that the sacrifices we are asking people to make are proportionate and delivering those outcomes. However, I genuinely fear that over the last year we have come to a situation in which, far from the Government asking us to sacrifice liberties for the greater good, we now have a culture where the Government feel that those liberties are in their gift to give back to us. Nothing is more clear about that than the road map, because having heard the rhetoric from Ministers that we will be driven by data, not dates, we are sticking to the timetable. I got the figures from my borough this morning, where we have 9.2 cases per 100,000. My reaction to that is: let the blooming restaurants open, for heaven’s sake. We are doing unparalleled economic harm by not being so fleet of foot to enable our economy to reawaken. From the perspective of doing the best for the citizens of our country, we really should be doing that, because, with every day that goes by without us letting businesses reopen, we are making their long-term sustainability even more difficult.

I went out for dinner on Saturday night—it was so exciting. I was sitting outside my local restaurant. It was six o’clock in the evening, so the sun was going down, and it started to get very cold. I spoke to the owner who, bless him, was very pleased to see us. How can it be sustainable to expect people to eat outside in the current climate? It is not July. I have the utmost respect for everybody who is trying really hard at this moment to sustain a living—we will be dependent on the taxes they will pay to get us out of this—but, for heaven’s sake, I cannot believe how out-of-touch I feel we have got with us taking it for granted that these businesses can resurrect themselves on an arbitrary date.

We know that these restrictions have not demonstrated any positive benefit in respect of covid. My local area went into the November lockdown with one of the lowest case rates in the country and came out with the highest. There is a simple reason for that: we restricted legitimate businesses from being able to engage in economic activity while keeping the schools open, so there was social transmission. Lockdowns are effective only if everything is locked down, yet we seem to have locked down the most productive areas of our economy, which, frankly, for a Conservative Government, I find utterly bizarre.

My final point—recognising your strictures on time, Madam Deputy Speaker—is that we need to ensure that when we are asking the public to restrict their freedoms, it must deliver a positive outcome in saving lives and reducing pressure on our hospitals. So why is it that in palliative care wards, people are allowed only one visitor? What risk is there to the people in those wards of dying from covid when they are already dying? What we are doing is being very cruel to people at the end of their lives, because they cannot get comfort from their loved ones. Equally, what positive outcome is there right now when residents in our care homes, who have all been vaccinated—and, as my hon. Friend said, are protected from this disease—still cannot see their loved ones? My grandmother is 95 years old, with dementia. She is in permanent distress because she thinks no one cares about her. She has been vaccinated. I would love to be able to go and see her. She thinks I do not care. I think what we are doing is cruel and delivers no positive benefit to public health.

Photo of Rachel Hopkins Rachel Hopkins Labour, Luton South 1:41 pm, 22nd April 2021

It is a pleasure to follow Jackie Doyle-Price, who gave a very passionate speech. It was an honour to serve on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee during this inquiry and to contribute to the production of such an excellent report, and I thank the Committee staff for all their hard work.

The Nolan principles of public life speak of objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership as being core to public office and good governance. However, given the report’s conclusions, the Government’s stewardship of each of these principles has been brought into serious question. I want to speak specifically to recommendations relating to the Government needing to improve transparency by publishing data and information that underpin decision making.

Throughout the pandemic, when people have died, freedoms have been curtailed, families have been separated and living standards have suffered, the Government should have been more open and transparent about the data and information that have informed the decisions that have asked the public to make such huge sacrifices. There is a moral imperative to justify and evidence these decisions and to clearly show that they are working. When necessary, it is about the Government being honest about the uncertainties in the data, which would help to encourage trust, rather than scepticism. As the report states:

“Transparency builds trust, and trust aids compliance with rules.”

However, the communication has not always been transparent, which has damaged trust in sectors and communities across the UK.

The Committee heard from hospitality business organisations about the impact of the pandemic and I have discussed this with hospitality businesses in Luton South. Employers and employees understand the need for public health restrictions but are frustrated that they were left in the dark by not being provided with the information that underpinned the restrictions that impacted on their business operations. Pubs specifically required further information on the 10 pm curfew and the restrictions on wet-led pubs.

Lessons must be learned, as the Government are still failing to communicate the restrictions effectively with businesses. I have spoken to a number of businesses in the aviation sector that are stuck in limbo. They fully recognise the critical importance of the health restrictions to prevent the importing of cases and variants, but throughout this last year, they have consistently requested clarity on the information informing the restrictions in their sector in order to plan, particularly for the future and the opening up of our economy.

The traffic-light system is welcome, but there are still so many questions left unanswered. What information informs the criteria that places countries in the green, orange or red categories? What information underpins the operation of the green watch list? How will Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office travel advice work alongside the new framework? It is still unclear when further information will be provided. If it is possibly some time in May, business and airports will have such limited time—a week or so—to prepare for the potential introduction of the system on 17 May.

The sector needs certainty. This is not just about people going on holiday; the aviation sector is critical to our economy, supporting local economies and thousands of jobs. I fully support the report’s recommendation that the Government should publish, as a matter of urgency, the data that underpins the restrictions on businesses that will remain in place at each step of the road map, along with data thresholds for the road map, which would avoid confusion when decisions are made to move between the steps. I hope the Government will put those recommendations, and others in the report, into action to improve trust and compliance with the regulations.

Although the report focuses on the data, its conclusions reaffirm the Committee’s previous call for a public inquiry into the Government’s handling of the covid-19 pandemic. I emphasise that the Committee worked collectively on the report, but the Labour party will continue to call for an inquiry to start as soon as possible so that crucial, life-saving lessons can be learned.

Photo of Tom Randall Tom Randall Conservative, Gedling 1:45 pm, 22nd April 2021

As a first-term Member of Parliament, I am relatively new to the work of Select Committees. When I joined the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, I expected to undertake important and valuable work scrutinising the heart of Government, but I did not quite expect to have to consider matters that are so crucial to everyday life and, indeed, matters of life and death.

Data—the number of coronavirus cases, where they are occurring and the number of tests conducted and vaccinations administered—have decided whether we can leave the house, go to work, see family or go to the pub. Getting data right is at the heart of getting the Government’s response right, so the Committee’s inquiry was timely and necessary.

I reiterate my thanks to the Clerk of the Committee and the staff who have done such sterling work in helping to put the report together; to the witnesses for providing their knowledge and insight; and to my hon. Friend Mr Wragg for his chairmanship.

The Committee rightly recognises the efforts that the Government have made in pulling together data from a standing start 12 months ago. Governments do plan for catastrophes and emergencies, but I appreciate that this period has been exceptionally difficult for those in Whitehall. The coronavirus dashboard—to give an obvious, visible example of publicly available data—is very impressive, but for me the inquiry raised two issues on which improvements can be made in terms of the accuracy and certainty of data. The Committee found that the graphics the Government have used to present data have not always met the basic standards that would be expected. I welcome the assistance of the UK Statistics Authority and the Royal Statistical Society in supporting the Government to produce clearer graphics.

There is an understandable desire to present any information in the best possible light—it is a natural human instinct—but the news that we have had over the past year has not been good. We heard evidence that there has been a much greater public appetite for data, with people being willing to study it—particularly data on coronavirus—much more closely than perhaps they would have done in the past, so it is important that any information produced by the Government is accurate and well sourced. I trust that the report’s recommendation that statements on Government websites should direct readers to the detailed data that underpins any numbers will be taken forward.

There is a very human reluctance, particularly among politicians, to answer a question with “I don’t know,” but for periods in this pandemic, as we have been learning more about the virus and how it spreads, there have been questions to which we do not necessarily have readily available answers. I found the evidence that we heard from behavioural scientists very interesting. People do respond to open and honest information that is clear about the uncertainties within it, so it is important that Government communication trusts the people and levels with them.

Some thought is required on how information is communicated. I expect that, before this pandemic, few members of the public had heard of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies. Members of SAGE now frequently contribute to public debate and are introduced as members of that group. While that is important, and they play an important role in helping to inform public understanding, it might be less appreciated that there are differences of opinion within SAGE. The Committee found that guidance for SAGE members would be helpful.

Photo of Steve Brine Steve Brine Conservative, Winchester

One of the most interesting parts of the report is that these advisers, who probably enjoy the media requests that they get—although I can confirm that that wanes—appear as members of SAGE “speaking in a personal capacity”, but the public hear a Government adviser speaking about the subject of covid and draw conclusions from that. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is no wonder the public end up confused?

Photo of Tom Randall Tom Randall Conservative, Gedling

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The public perhaps do not appreciate that there are sometimes a variety of opinions within a group such as SAGE. Indeed, within SAGE, debate is encouraged as part of the decision-making process. Sometimes people think that there is a definitive scientific answer to something, which is not always the case. As we heard earlier, the report made further important points about sharing data, trusting bodies to make local decisions and the process of decision making itself.

This is, as I said, a timely report. I know that both the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care have responded to some of its key recommendations, but I urge the Government to take on board all of them, so that, as we enter what is hopefully the final stage of this pandemic, even better decisions will be made.

Photo of Bob Seely Bob Seely Conservative, Isle of Wight 1:50 pm, 22nd April 2021

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Tom Randall, who spoke very eloquently about the limits of knowledge and how much we know and do not know.

I thank the Committee for its report, and my hon. Friend Mr Wragg, who was as eloquent as ever, and Karin Smyth for their leadership on this. The Government have a duty to provide the public with fair and balanced information. As the report says, at times, the Government have presented data well in very difficult circumstances—the coronavirus.data.gov.uk site and the vaccination daily updates are excellent examples—but it is also clear that they have sometimes used statistics without providing full data, providing context for the data or explaining uncertainties in the data.

The critical thing—I am delighted that we have the Paymaster General listening to this debate, because, as she knows, I hold her in high regard—is to keep trust with the people. The Government need to provide the public with full information and datasets to allow them to understand risk in the round. The use of partial data or data that is presented partially damages public confidence. Frankly, it has damaged my confidence in the Government, which is why I have been less willing to vote for the past couple of lockdowns. I sometimes do not know what the Government’s real agenda is. I do not mean that in a silly conspiracy theory kind of way. The pandemic clearly exists. Clearly, there was a very strong case for a harder lockdown earlier, and I think a lot of us now see that case, but at the same time there has been a lack of clarity. I would draw a rough comparison with the Iraq war. Mistruths or non-untruths finally catch up with Governments. At the time, Tony Blair was a highly popular leader, but he is now seen to be a shallow populist. New Labour still has not recovered, partly because of the damage it did to its credibility by not telling the truth and not levelling with people.

I believe there is a strong case, as my right hon. Friend Mr Harper, my hon. Friend Mr Baker and others have argued, for fuller and franker datasets. Government can help people to rationalise risk, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling explained, so that we better understand Government policy. They need to explain better what is happening, rather than making a crude attempt at times to manipulate behaviour.

Specifically, it is difficult for us—all of us, whether we are in this House or out working in the country—to contextualise some of the numbers. Numbers of covid deaths were always released without a sense of proportion—without explaining that over 1,000 people die and are born in the country every day, or that between 7,000 and 25,000 people die of seasonal flu every year. In the last decade, that has included both myusb parents, for example. There has been so little contextualisation of the information. I saw not one Government spokesman, be it a Minister or a health adviser, say that the median age of covid death was 83. Why not? Because, as we know perfectly well, the Government feared a lack of compliance. For sure, that is a risk, but there is a greater risk by not being honest. There was a strong argument for saying why we should co-operate anyway; we did not need to have the information manipulated for us by a Government who, no doubt with the best of intentions, were trying to get us to do certain things. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling says, honesty is the best policy, even when we are unclear about the policy. I read some media stories—clearly, with a pinch of salt—suggesting that some Government scientists were happy to go along with this soft manipulation of data. If so, shame on them.

My next point—I promise I will not be too much longer, Madam Deputy Speaker—is that not once was there a realistic attempt to offset covid data with other data to show the cost of lockdown. That may not have changed our opinions, because clearly the saving of life was the significant factor here, but in saving life people have died and it is right for us to be able to understand and see the datasets that explain honestly the true costs. Frankly, we still have not got them a year in.

Sometimes, I do not know what the Government’s aims on covid are. We are told repeatedly by the experts and Ministers that we cannot get rid of covid. Well, okay—so, as my hon. Friend Jackie Doyle-Price says, if we cannot get rid of it, why are our restaurants not open? Frankly, so few people are dying of it that more people are now dying on the roads than of covid. More people will be dying from winter flu than from covid. So why are we still in a situation where we are encouraging long-term poverty, which will have a far greater effect on people’s lives than a pandemic that—thank God—is no longer killing people in anything other than tiny, tiny numbers? There is a lack of logic and consistency. If the Government had been clearer with the data, more honest and more open—if they had said, “Here’s the data. This is what we make of it”—we would have been able to do a better job.

I am happy to accept that the hard lockdown was probably the best option at the time. After that, we could have followed the Swedish model, lived with it and accepted that there were different prices to pay, or we could have continued to have a hard and aggressive lockdown every time covid raised its head. They were both variant options, and we sort of muddled through the middle in a slightly uncomfortable way. There was not great advice initially from Public Health England, but we understand that everybody in the beginning made mistakes, and I do not think that any Government would have done this any differently.

The pandemic created a unique set of circumstances, but I believe that more data and more context would have fundamentally created more trust, both here and, more importantly, out in the rest of the country. I know that my right hon. Friend Penny Mordaunt is a diligent Minister and Member of this House. I urge her to advise the Government that more data and more context equals more trust, and we still need that for the future.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Conservative, Forest of Dean 1:57 pm, 22nd April 2021

It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Bob Seely. That theme of trust is one that I will return to. I thank the members of the Committee who are present, who, ably led by their Chair, my hon. Friend Mr Wragg, produced an excellent report for the House. I certainly endorse all its conclusions and recommendations. It would be welcome if the Government accepted them all and put them all into practice.

One of the points that the Committee makes is that policy based on evidence and data is important, but that has obviously been very difficult in these challenging circumstances. We have learned over time, and Government have not had all the data to hand, particularly at the beginning. I recognise that in the remarks that I will go on to make.

Several hon. Members have talked about being open and transparent about communication and about keeping high levels of trust. That is incredibly important. My right hon. Friend Mr Jones referenced that back in October. He also referenced the press conference that the Prime Minister had on the Saturday. For me, one of the most important and damaging episodes was the day before, when information about projected hospital capacity was leaked to the media. It was not consistent with what I was being told by my local NHS trust. It turned out not to be true, and it also turned out to be so insubstantial that it was not used at the press conference the day afterwards in setting out the Government’s decision making. For me, hospital capacity and the pressure on the NHS would have been incredibly important in my decision making, and I am afraid that that episode significantly damaged the trust I had in Ministers, which informed the trust I was willing to put in them afterwards, which has informed the decisions I have taken.

Photo of Bob Seely Bob Seely Conservative, Isle of Wight

Was that the fiasco of the claimed 4,000 deaths, which was bogus data that was already out of date, or was that another example?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Conservative, Forest of Dean

No—my right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West referred to that. This was a slide that was leaked to Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC’s political editor, which referred to hospital capacity and how quickly we may find the NHS being overwhelmed. That information was not published by the Prime Minister the following day and turned out not to be correct. I felt that that was very damaging. It was intended to set up a debate, but the data actually did not stand up at all.

Photo of Steve Brine Steve Brine Conservative, Winchester

The Opposition faced criticism for not asking enough questions. Does my right hon. Friend think that the media asked the right questions or enough questions when incidents such as the one he just mentioned came to light?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Conservative, Forest of Dean

No, I do not think that they did entirely. This also highlights the danger of important decisions being announced at press conferences, not in the House. At that particular time, the House was not sitting, but frankly, given the impact of a decision of that magnitude, the House should have been recalled, and it should have been announced in the House to allow us to ask questions, not on our own account but on account of our constituents. I am pleased that subsequently, when proposals for a third lockdown were made in January, the Government learnt from that episode and recalled the House, so that the decision could be announced here, and we were able to ask Ministers questions, albeit with rather a limited amount of time available to do so.

I mentioned the point about trust because there have been stories in the media—the most recent one being yesterday in The Spectator by Isabel Hardman—about the decision that my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove referenced on vaccine passports. There is some suggestion, which I am sure cannot be true, that the Government might attempt to win a vote in the House by linking the case for international vaccine passports, which I think command a large degree of consensus, to the one for domestic vaccine passports. The cases for those are very different and should be set out clearly.

I do not know how Members would vote, but I say gently to the Government that if that were to turn out to be true and they were to win a vote on that basis, it would fracture the trust that many Members have in the Government, and that fracture may not be repairable. That would be very dangerous on a public health matter, where it is so important for the Government to command the trust of the public, particularly when decisions have to be taken quickly with a limited amount of data. It would be helpful if the Minister could confirm that any decisions on international vaccine passports and domestic ones will be set out separately for the House to take. If she were able to say that today, it would get rid of what may turn out to be completely idle speculation by members of the media.

On the core point about data, the House will remember that I and 62 other Members wrote to the Prime Minister on 13 February setting out what we thought was a sensible road map. We said that once the top four groups vulnerable to covid had been vaccinated and their vaccinations were effective by 8 March, we should be able to start unlocking the country. I am pleased that the Government listened to that and kicked that process off on 8 March. We also said that once the top nine groups have been vaccinated and those vaccinations are effective, which they will be by the end of this month, we could relax all restrictions. I will conclude my remarks by setting out where the data sits at the moment and why, although I agreed with the Government when they said “data, not dates”, I share the disappointment of my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove that we seem to be stuck on dates, not data.

We are now in a position where the number of people dying from covid has fallen to around 24 per day, which accounts for around 4% of deaths in England and Wales. That is down from a peak in January of 1,361 per day, which accounted for 45% of deaths—a dramatic reduction. The number of people in hospital has fallen to 2,000 from nearly 40,000. The important thing is that vaccination, which has gone extraordinarily well, with a fantastically high uptake, is breaking the link between cases, deaths and hospitalisations. Since schools have gone back, cases have continued to fall, but even if we were to see cases rising, that would not lead to an increase in deaths and hospitalisations.

I think that the Government could safely go faster. That would have massive economic benefits. As my hon. Friend Jackie Doyle-Price said, there has been a big impact on hospitality, and that is important because the job losses have been largely borne by younger people, who are largely not vulnerable to covid but have undergone tremendous sacrifices to their future prospects for the benefit of others. The sooner we can safely reopen the economy, the sooner we can improve the prospects for the younger generation, who have suffered so dramatically from the steps that have been necessary to deal with the impact of covid.

Photo of Ronnie Cowan Ronnie Cowan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Infrastructure) 2:04 pm, 22nd April 2021

As a member of the Select Committee, I acknowledge the hard work done by our Chair, my fellow members and the Committee’s staff.

While Committees can rightly attempt to hold the UK Government to account—and this report does just that—there is a wider issue here. As we have heard, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster refused to attend. The UK Government’s attitude was built on the premise that good enough will do. Attending press conferences and reading out data that, as the report states, was used

“to emphasise an argument, rather than genuinely trying to inform the public”,

as should be the case, is not good enough.

The Chair quoted Disraeli; I shall quote Rudyard Kipling:

I keep six honest serving-men

(They taught me all I knew);

Their names are What and Why and When

And How and Where and Who.

Too often, UK Government briefings failed to consider those basics of curiosity; they failed to understand that people would be curious as to why they were being asked to stay at home, to wear a mask or to not meet friends and family. Perhaps the UK Government, like Kipling, thought it was prudent to let those serving-men

“rest from nine till five”.

Well, I don’t. When the population of the UK faced a virus unlike anything we have ever encountered, they deserved better. If the UK Government are going to close down businesses, people need explanations. They need to understand the rationale. They need to be shown the figures.

The phrase “Trust me, I’m a politician” does not hold much cachet with the public, and the aversion to the truth and lack of transparency displayed by the UK Government only add to people’s mistrust. At times of national crisis, we need people to trust the Government. Big decisions are made that come into effect very quickly, and the normal levels of scrutiny might not be appropriate in the time allowed. It is therefore crucial that the evidence on which decisions—often life-changing decisions—are made is timely, accurate and transparent.

There is no place for blind trust in our society; trust has to be earned. Throughout the covid crisis, the UK Government have failed to do that. The UK Government demanded and expected trust, but failed to earn it. From the dubious contract tendering, which was covered by my hon. Friend Owen Thompson, to the narrowing of the criteria in the definition of coronavirus deaths, the UK Government have played fast and loose with data, while displaying an arrogant, devil-may-care attitude. That point was reflected by the Good Law Project, which condemned the UK Government for being

“contemptuous of transparency and apparently allergic to accountability.”

The Select Committee report highlights that UK Ministers quoted statistics without providing sources and acted in a manner that fell short of the UK Statistics Authority’s code of practice. The report found that there were not enough explanations of where ministerial responsibility for data lay, that that changed several times throughout the pandemic, and that UK Government delays in sharing data hampered local covid-19 responses. When the UK Government failed to be open and transparent, they fed the conspiracy theories, tested the resolve of responsible citizens and undermined the colossal work being undertaken by frontline workers.

The Prime Minister’s former house master once wrote:

“Boris sometimes seems affronted when criticised for what amounts to a gross failure of responsibility… I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else.”

Most of us would be affronted by the naivety of our teenage self; it appears that the Prime Minister has not just embraced those attitudes, but encouraged those close to him to do the same and rewarded them for their efforts. As we once again attempt to emerge from the covid restrictions, we cannot allow the UK Government to walk away from this.

I shall close by quoting the conclusions of the report:

“The Ministerial Code needs to be strengthened so it is clear that Ministers are required to abide by the UKSA Code of Practice in their presentation of data. The UKSA Code includes the principle of trustworthiness that builds ‘confidence in the people and organisations that produce statistics and data’. Abiding by the UKSA Code of Practice is a statutory requirement for Government Departments. It is simply not enough to ask Ministers to be ‘mindful’ of the UKSA code.”

Unfortunately, principles, conventions and expectations are not enough. Ministers cannot be held to account by a raised eyebrow or a stern letter, which is why it is only right and proper that PACAC holds an inquiry into the propriety of governance, in the light of Greensill.

Photo of Fleur Anderson Fleur Anderson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office) 2:10 pm, 22nd April 2021

I thank all right hon. and hon. Members from across the House who have taken part in this hugely important debate. I thank the Committee for its report, and its Chair, Mr Wragg, for the report and for securing today’s debate. I would like to declare that I have been involved in the data collection, as a volunteer in the Office for National Statistics covid survey, which comes to my house regularly—I can see the data being collected.

I stood at this Dispatch Box more than a month ago when the hon. Gentleman first introduced this report to the House, and my alarm at its contents has not subsided. So much has been asked of the British public as a result of the decisions that have been made and are being scrutinised in this report; there are huge implications to staying at home, closing businesses, and people not attending births, marriages, deaths and funerals. We need to know that we can trust these decisions. The Nolan principles of public life speak of “objectivity”, “accountability”, “openness”, “honesty” and “leadership” as being absolutely core to public office and good governance. This report brings the Government’s stewardship of every one of those principles into serious question. On both sides of this House, we should be deeply concerned.

My hon. Friend Karin Smyth, with her expertise as a former local emergency planner, talked correctly about preparedness, asking whether we are prepared for what is to come with covid and for future emergencies. She asked what can we learn from the decision making and talked about the ideological barriers to good decision making that have been displayed. My hon. Friend Rachel Hopkins talked about the impact of the lack of transparency. It is still having an impact on decisions now, for example, in respect of the data behind the traffic lights for travel restrictions. We still need to see data—it is still not good enough.

I wish to focus on three core themes: accountability, clear decision making and transparency. On accountability, I share the Committee’s indignation that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster did not appear before the Committee during its inquiry. What has he got to hide? Has he decided that parliamentary scrutiny, the bedrock of our democracy, is just not for him? As the report says, this was “contemptuous of Parliament”. Does the Minister know why the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster did not appear?

Continuing on the theme of accountability and openness of information, one area the report does not highlight but which is very relevant is the issue of private contractors. How can Parliament scrutinise the Government’s pandemic response when so many essential components of the response have been given to unaccountable private firms? We recently learnt that as well as the Government paying Deloitte £323 million for its role in the test and trace system, it is even being paid to draft Ministers’ parliamentary answers, which is ludicrous. Paragraph 96 of the report states:

“Lines of accountability must be clear”.

I absolutely agree. But it would seem at the moment that if we need answers we would be better off contacting the chief executive officer of a large consultancy firm than the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.

That brings me to the second key theme of the report, which is how decisions are made. I wholeheartedly agree with the report’s analysis that it has been very unclear who is responsible for ensuring that decisions are underpinned by data, especially when so much is at stake; that is absolutely right. There has been buck passing between Departments, which is totally unacceptable. One wonders if this could have been avoided and we could have found out more if the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster had bothered to turn up to the Committee in the first place. I am also pleased that the Committee highlighted the issue of local contact-tracing data, which has been raised by Members in this debate. This is a crucial point and it is absolutely correct.

Vital information, which would have helped local leaders to respond quickly to outbreaks, simply did not come quickly enough. Last month, I met local councillors and local authority contact tracers up and down the country and they all reported feeling completely bypassed by the Government. They had the capacity, the tools and the local knowledge to run a highly effective contact tracing system, and many went on to do so, but they were not given the data that they needed fast enough, despite pressing for it. I heard stories of people having to wait five days or longer for the information that was needed immediately.

It is very clear that an ideological reluctance to work with local authorities drives that decision making. Perhaps the Minister could tell me what the reasons were behind the Government’s unwillingness to share data with local authorities and local contacts. Does she agree with the report and with my Opposition colleagues that that seriously hindered the ability of local government and local authorities to control the virus at a vital time? Contact tracing is likely to play an important role for as long as we have new cases of covid-19 around the country, so this is important to know now and for the future. It is integral to breaking the chains of transmission. Labour has long been asking the Government to put contact tracing in England into the hands of local councils and trusted local public health teams who know their own communities better than anyone, rather than into the hands of more and more unaccountable firms. It is not too late to do this.

Finally, let me turn to transparency. Again, I am so glad that the Committee highlighted this crucial issue. A lack of transparency has plagued the Government’s response to the pandemic from the off. In particular, I share the Committee’s concerns about the obfuscation over the data that we saw during the tier system. This report shows that there were no data thresholds aligned to the indicators for tiering decisions. There simply cannot be a repeat of the shambolic and unfair chaos and confusion that we saw towards the end of last year, as we now move towards the end of the road map and beyond.

The Government’s aversion to transparency extends beyond lockdown data, however. Not mentioned in the Committee’s report are procurement and the information available on outsourced Government contracts, which is also very relevant. At the latest count, nearly 100 covid contracts awarded to private suppliers last year have still not been published. We simply have no idea how much the contracts were worth, who they were awarded to, and what they were for. This is extremely important information that should be in the public domain to build public trust.

The recent twist in this worrying tale came recently when the High Court found that the Government had acted unlawfully when it came to transparency in contract publishing. In fact, only this week the Good Law Project has uncovered that a £100 million personal protective equipment contract was brokered by a Conservative party donor and good friend of the Government. That information entered the public domain only thanks to an administrative error, which appears to be the only way to get reliable information from the Government these days.

Then we have the murky subcontracting of the Government’s contractors. Let us take Test and Trace for an example. My hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster highlighted in the House last October the fact that Serco had subcontracted its work on contact tracing to 29 other companies. The Government have refused to give us the names of these businesses; we simply do not have the transparency that we need. This information about data and taxpayers’ money should not be hidden from the public.

In closing, allow me to offer my sympathy to the Paymaster General. She certainly has a lot of questions to answer this afternoon. This report says that it is vital that lessons are learned and that changes are made. This is a Government who refuse to learn and refuse to change. When the chips were down and the stakes could not be higher, this report has shown that many, many times the Government threw openness, transparency and best use of data out of the window, which has undermined public trust in Government decision making.

The Committee has recently recommended a public inquiry and we on the Opposition Benches are also calling for that. It needs to happen urgently so that we can rebuild that essential trust among the public, and it cannot wait until the next Parliament. I hope that when it does arrive, it will address the many questions posed by this report that remain unanswered. The Government simply cannot run from scrutiny forever.

Photo of Penny Mordaunt Penny Mordaunt Paymaster General 2:19 pm, 22nd April 2021

I shall certainly do my best to answer as many hon. Members’ questions as I can. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions to the debate and for their interest in the critical issue of how data has helped to shape our response to the pandemic. I put on record my thanks to PACAC for its work, its report and its very helpful recommendations. The report makes it clear that the Government have

“overseen a remarkable effort pulling together data on Covid 19”,

with

“much of this data and analysis available to the public”.

It repeatedly refers to the Government’s openness with data, noting:

“The Government has responded to requests for new data and improved access to evidence.”

I also put on record my thanks to the civil servants, scientists and partner organisations that have done incredible work over the past 12 months—I think that the authors of the report and all Members of this House would agree with that. They have had to bring together very complex datasets from very different types of science and fuse them together in a way that enables us to be informed and enables Ministers to make decisions. That has been incredibly difficult and they have done it very well.

Photo of Bob Seely Bob Seely Conservative, Isle of Wight

I know that the Minister does her best to listen. Does she accept that a lot was presented without context? This was very complicated, but, looking back, I think it could have been done in a way that gave much greater context and greater openness to the debate.

Photo of Penny Mordaunt Penny Mordaunt Paymaster General

Certainly. I shall acknowledge some of the things that hon. Members have raised; I do think we need to learn from the past 12 months and look at how in future we can do this better, although God forbid we are ever in this particular situation again. As a Minister—I know my colleagues feel the same—I am always looking to continually improve and build on what we know works.

I also put on record my thanks to the House of Commons. When I was preparing to come before the Committee, I looked at what the House had done with the data that the Government produce; it has done a fantastic job in trying to inform colleagues about what is going on through the hub on our intranet, so I thank the staff of the House.

The Chair of PACAC, my hon. Friend Mr Wragg, raised several points. I will not relive my evidence session with the Committee, but in defence of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, whose attendance several colleagues raised, he has a huge in-tray to deal with—this week he has been overseas as part of his responsibilities with regard to passports. I am developing a complex because every time I come before a Committee or appear in the Chamber, people are always keen to tell me that they are very disappointed to see me. I know that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is very alive to the issues that have been raised; I think he is coming before the Committee soon and has had considerable correspondence with it.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Conservative, Forest of Dean

On ministerial accountability, I accept that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is incredibly busy, but it is the central responsibility of Ministers, however busy they are, to be accountable to this House; that includes the Prime Minister, who spends hours in front of the Liaison Committee. Nothing is more important than Ministers’ accountability to the House and Members’ responsibility on behalf on the public. Since the Paymaster General mentions the Chancellor of Duchy of Lancaster’s trip to Israel, where no doubt he is discussing vaccine passports, could she answer my question about the Government’s proposal on the decision that it will put to this House, so that we can rule out any of the shenanigans that we have read about in the newspapers?

Photo of Penny Mordaunt Penny Mordaunt Paymaster General

I am fairly confident that I can flatten any suggestion of shenanigans in that regard. These are not only very distinct issues, but conditional on very distinct things. What we do on international travel, over and above our own border controls, is clearly contingent on work with international partners. The World Health Organisation will be developing and thinking about schemes that it might put in place for a covid equivalent of the yellow fever card. Those are clearly very different from the domestic issues that my right hon. Friend refers to; I know that people would not want to conflate them and that it would be unhelpful to do so. I think that I can confidently say that.

Many Members touched on the complex balance between fighting the virus and trying to mitigate its impact on people’s livelihoods, mental and physical health, and freedoms. That is why this is obviously such a complex situation.

Karin Smyth raised many issues, but two in particular. On preparedness, she will know that I published the latest iteration of the national risk register on 18 December last year. External bodies welcomed that and said it was an improvement on its predecessors. On local information, she will remember from my evidence to the Committee that I was very robust in agreeing with her that people who have been in the frontline of this response are the local resilience forums, the local authorities, and our local health and care services. Giving them the data they need to make decisions is absolutely critical. As the crisis has gone on, we have got better and better about giving them information and sharing information, because this is obviously a two-way process.

It is also vital that members of the public can go on the public health website and look up in their area, right down to ward level, the number of positive cases, virus tests conducted, hospitalisations, death rates, and admission figures for both ordinary bed occupancy and mechanical ventilator bed occupancy. They can see all that data. That is not just good for transparency’s sake; it is a hugely motivating factor in getting people to follow the advice of the chief medical officer. Our actions are not just helping the nation; they are helping their neighbours and the nurses who are looking after people in their local hospital. They are helping their friends and neighbours.

Photo of Karin Smyth Karin Smyth Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland)

I am really grateful for the Minister’s comments, but may I write to her on the issue I raised with regard to public health clinicians in local authorities being able to access to NHS data? Will she liaise with her colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care on that important issue? If she can give me an assurance that she will look at that if I write to her, I would be grateful.

Photo of Penny Mordaunt Penny Mordaunt Paymaster General

Certainly. I hope that some of the questions I have already raised with colleagues may pre-empt that. I know there are requests from local authorities on issues such as encouraging people to take up the vaccine, when they want to ensure they are able to get good data and are able to work together to encourage people who have yet to come forward to do that. These issues are very important, and I will be very happy to take up the hon. Lady’s suggestions.

My right hon. Friend Mr Jones, Rachel Hopkins and my hon. Friend Bob Seely—I thank him for his kind words—raised issues about quality control and how we present data, which I agree with. I think people have learnt all sorts of things about how to present data and slides in a way that is suitable for television, and a whole raft of other issues. My right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West reminds us that our audience is sophisticated—they can accept that there will be gaps and that we will learn things as we go through the pandemic—and that we should bear that in mind as well.

A couple of hon. Members raised the issue of lagging data. There will be pieces of information that, by their very nature, have a lag, for example between people being infected and being admitted to hospital. Again, we have to set the context and ensure that we explain what particular information is demonstrating, that we make the best judgments on that, and that Ministers are informed when they are given data.

My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight framed an argument about covid being a cause of death versus other causes of death. I am very conscious of that. Before this debate I was reading an incredibly sad story of a double suicide. A young woman without access to the post-natal care she needed took her own life. Her mother then took her own life. We are all aware of the incredibly sad stories and the devastating things that have happened to families during this time. Also, the actions we have taken to control the virus are about keeping health services going, as well as covid being a cause of death; I think sometimes we lose sight of that.

I want to turn to some of the issues that my hon. Friend Jackie Doyle-Price raised. The impact on businesses is absolutely at the forefront of our mind, and as well as the data we are looking at what more we can do to help businesses to keep going. Just this week, I have been asked to support Ministers in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on the issue of the wedding sector as we go into this critical period, in order to keep that sector strong and ensure that it has a good summer season. This is not just about the guidance and the rules that we put together; it is also about the lead-in times that people need to make their decisions. Those issues are not lost on us.

Photo of Penny Mordaunt Penny Mordaunt Paymaster General

Can I just make a little progress?

My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock also spoke about care homes. Since 12 April, people in care homes have been able to have two visitors, but she is right to say that this has been a really difficult time for those in palliative care and for people with a learning disability or behavioural disabilities. We are in happier times now with regard to care, but the restrictions on care services have been very difficult for many people. My hon. Friend Tom Randall rightly raised issues around presentation, which I agree with. My hon. Friend Steve Brine made points about SAGE spokesmen, and I will certainly feed that back.

Photo of Steve Brine Steve Brine Conservative, Winchester

My point was around helping to support the hospitality sector and the weddings industry. At the end of the day, the best way we can help them is to let them trade. They have not been able to trade because of the pandemic. Either we believe in the vaccine or we do not. After 21 June, we will have freedom from the regulations, but the Boomtown festival in my constituency has had to be cancelled this summer. It was due to take place in August, and there is no reason whatsoever why it should not go ahead, but the messages it is getting are mixed and no one is sure whether Ministers actually believe in the vaccine. Does the Minister?

Photo of Penny Mordaunt Penny Mordaunt Paymaster General

I certainly believe in the vaccine. I am a volunteer on the vaccine programme. There has been a huge effort by science, by manufacturers, by our healthcare services and by the army of volunteers who are not just helping to put the vaccine into people’s arms but directing traffic and doing a whole raft of other things. The vaccine is critical to our having the confidence to unlock, and I encourage everyone to come forward to get it. My hon. Friend is right to say that this is not just about the ability of people to trade; it is also about the chilling factor, particularly in sectors such as the wedding sector, where we need not just to get people back trading but to give people confidence that they will be able to have those events. I can reassure him that that is very much our focus, and we hope to be able to say more on that as we progress through the road map.

Photo of Penny Mordaunt Penny Mordaunt Paymaster General

I will take just one more intervention, because I know we are short of time.

Photo of Iain Duncan Smith Iain Duncan Smith Conservative, Chingford and Woodford Green

There is a very specific reason why many of these outside events will not take place this summer. It is because they cannot get commercial insurance. The insurers simply do not believe that they can take the Government’s word on trust. There has to be sharing of risk, but the Government have dragged their feet for weeks and unless they make a decision now, we will lose July. If they do not make a decision before May, we will lose August, and so on. This has to happen now, because these events are worth at least £2 billion a month.

Photo of Penny Mordaunt Penny Mordaunt Paymaster General

I am glad I took my right hon. Friend’s intervention. If the Government have a role in this, it is to create a situation where it becomes possible for the insurance sector to provide products.

Photo of Penny Mordaunt Penny Mordaunt Paymaster General

I am not going to take any more interventions; I am sorry.

I am very aware of the issue raised by my right hon. Friend Sir Iain Duncan Smith, and I am certainly helping with regard to weddings. I can reassure him that this issue is well understood, and I hope that I will be able to come forward and say a bit more about the wedding sector. I will feed back to my colleagues on the wider insurance point, which I know many colleagues have raised before.

I am going to end there, Madam Deputy Speaker. Forgive me, but I wanted to respond to all the points that I could. I thank colleagues for their interest in this area and the sensible recommendations that have been made. We have acted already on some of them, and we will be bringing forward a response to the full report.

Photo of William Wragg William Wragg Chair, Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Chair, Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee 2:34 pm, 22nd April 2021

May I just say that we always enjoy my right hon. Friend the Minister’s appearances before our Committee, and I would not wish to reduce those in number or diminish them in quality. I say in her defence that we are tired of Ministers being sent to us who have been set up to fail, because they have not been part of the decision-making process. It is not they who are accountable, but rather those who are in more senior positions in those Departments. To continue to treat Committees in such a way is, I am afraid to say—I have resisted saying it so far, although it says it in the report—contemptuous of this House.

This debate has been filled with the usual suspects, and many of us are considered if not slightly eccentric then certainly on the boundaries of madness. We have made these points many times. Fortunately, repetition is not a cardinal sin in this Chamber, otherwise there would be very few of us left.

I thank all members of the Committee for their contribution to this important report, and I thank all those of my hon. and right hon. Friends and, indeed, all hon. and right hon. Members who have spoken this afternoon. Again in defence of my right hon. Friend the Minister, I am reminded of the words of Teddy Roosevelt in “The Man in the Arena”. I would replace the word “man” with “woman” in this context, but he said:

“It is not the critic who counts;
not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles”.

I just wish we were given fewer opportunities to point out those stumbles and give those criticisms. It is a challenge to each of us as a Member of this House, whether Government or Opposition, to provide that legitimate challenge. I have understood the restrictions on how we have conducted our business, but the first rule of the game is to show up, and now that we can do so safely, I urge all Members of the House to start turning up again to this place and to urge the House authorities to get a move on so that we can conduct our affairs properly and hold the Government rightfully to account.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered the Eighth Report of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Government transparency and accountability during Covid-19: The data underpinning decisions, HC 803.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means, Chair, Standing Orders (Private Bills) Committee (Commons), Chair, Standing Orders (Private Bills) Committee (Commons)

I will briefly suspend the House in order that arrangements can be made for the next item of business.

Sitting suspended.