Government Response to Covid-19: Public Inquiry

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:10 pm on 22nd July 2021.

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Photo of Jackie Doyle-Price Jackie Doyle-Price Conservative, Thurrock 2:10 pm, 22nd July 2021

I beg to move,

That this House
notes the Fifth Report of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee of Session 2019-21, A Public Inquiry into the Government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, HC 541; and calls on the Government to provide an updated response to that set out in the Committee’s Fourth Special Report of Session 2019-21, A Public Inquiry into the Government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic: Government’s response to the Committee’s Fifth Report, HC 995, setting out how the Government intends to implement the Committee’s recommendations, to ensure that the administrative arrangements necessary to set up the public inquiry committed to by the Prime Minister to the House on 11 May 2021, in particular the appointment of an inquiry chair, take place in a timely manner and no later than the end of this year, and to agree: that the Government’s preferred candidate to chair the inquiry should be subject to a pre-appointment hearing by the relevant select committee for the sponsoring Government department.

It is a privilege to move the motion, in the name of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, into the very important subject of the Government’s response to the covid-19 pandemic and the promised public inquiry.

We, as a Committee, have taken evidence from some very well informed help, if I may put it that way, and we have brought our deliberations forward in the reports under discussion today. We thank our witnesses who gave evidence—Emma Norris from the Institute for Government, Dr Alastair Stark from the University of Queensland, Jason Beer, QC, Lord Butler of Brockwell, Sir Robert Francis, QC, Dame Una O’Brien and Baroness Prashar of Runnymede—and all those who submitted written evidence to the inquiry. I also thank fellow Committee members for their well-informed deliberation on these matters.

We are all used now, I think, to public inquiries as a routine part of the UK political landscape, and it is clear that the issues with which we have been grappling over the past 18 months, and the very difficult measures that the Government have taken to combat the pandemic, are very much the right subject for a public inquiry. However, although we are used to public inquiries, there is very little guidance about how public inquiries should be established, Chairs appointed and terms of reference agreed, so, in the absence of such guidance, our Committee has happily stepped into that void with a view to taking discussions forward.

The Prime Minister has committed in principle to establishing a public inquiry, and in May 2021 he suggested that it should be established in spring 2022. The first message that the Committee would like to give is that that timetable really ought to be brought forward, for the simple reason that it takes a number of months before an inquiry can get under way in terms of establishing its secretariat and so on. I guess one issue that we were keen to grapple with is that the farther away from events an inquiry is established, the less we can learn in a timely fashion. So we would strongly encourage the Government to think about how they can be setting up that inquiry from now. It really should not get in the way of the fight against the pandemic, especially given where we are with regard to vaccination.

Obviously, we need to be very sure about the purpose of the inquiry. As a Committee, we were very keen to ensure that the inquiry should be about learning lessons, not apportioning blame. The facts of the matter are that the Government, and all our public services, were dealing with unprecedented challenges, and there can be no right or wrong answers when the evidence on which you seek to make decisions is changing before your very eyes from day to day. Ultimately, it will come down to a matter of judgment exercised at the time.

I really hope that we can enter the inquiry very much in that spirit, because although I have not agreed with every aspect of the Government’s decision making on this matter, I absolutely recognise that everyone involved in that process was doing so honourably, with the best of intentions. We are not going to be honest about lessons learned unless we can approach the inquiry on that basis. We in this place need to give some very clear messages that we are doing so in the spirit of learning.