Government Response to Covid-19: Public Inquiry

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 22nd July 2021.

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Photo of Tom Randall Tom Randall Conservative, Gedling 2:30 pm, 22nd July 2021

I thank my hon. Friend Jackie Doyle-Price for introducing this debate this afternoon. She has very well summarised the report by the Committee, and I completely agree with everything that she says. I just take the opportunity, if I may, to thank the Clerks, the Committee staff and the witnesses who attended the Committee for their help in putting this report together.

The Government are right to commit to a public inquiry, and the report that the Committee produced is wide-ranging. I will limit my remarks to the scope of the inquiry, the power of the inquiry and the establishment of a secretariat. Coronavirus has been very broad; it has affected every aspect of our lives, so careful thought needs to be given to what an inquiry should cover. The Committee’s report has recommended, as my hon. Friend identified, a focus on learning lessons as the primary purpose, rather than apportioning blame. I was struck by Lord Butler’s evidence to the Committee. He referred back to the Scott inquiry and said that the terms of reference had been extended so far that it took three years to complete the report, which was far longer than necessary to determine the original question.

As a Committee, we also considered what powers the inquiry should have. The report recommends that it should be a statutory inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2005. The Committee heard arguments for and against a statutory inquiry. Sir Robert Francis, who chaired the Mid Staffordshire inquiry, said he valued the non-statutory basis of the inquiry, because it allowed him to speak to people privately. We heard also from Dame Una O’Brien, who is the former permanent secretary at the Department of Health and was secretary to the Bristol inquiry. She said that the full statutory powers will ensure that all material is handed over, especially WhatsApp messages and texts outside the departmental system. As recent events have shown, that will certainly need to be the case with any coronavirus inquiry. It makes the case for a statutory inquiry very strong.

I was surprised to hear that there is no standing secretariat for public inquiries. They are established from scratch. Sir Robert Francis told us how it had taken six to nine months from his appointment to the start of the inquiry to get going. He started with a blank piece of paper, and there was even a four-month process to go through tendering to appoint a firm of solicitors to the inquiry. There is a strong argument for putting together an inquiry sooner rather than later, to allow that important preparatory work to be undertaken.

I have seen the Government’s response to the report. I see that in many respects the Government notes the recommendations. I have seen, however, that sadly they have not accepted recommendation 5, on the timing of setting up the inquiry. While that is unfortunate, I look forward to seeing the Government’s plans for the inquiry develop so that in time the Government, the national health service and society as a whole can learn the lessons from this terrible period.