Covid-19 Inquiry - Question

– in the House of Lords at 11:36 am on 8 June 2023.

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Photo of Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Labour 11:36, 8 June 2023

To ask His Majesty’s Government what range of information they have now agreed to provide to the COVID-19 inquiry.

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, we have provided, and will continue to provide, the inquiry with all relevant material as requested. Following the request of the chair, the Cabinet Office will share a schedule of WhatsApp messages by the end of this week, and additional witness statements will follow. We have provided enormous quantities of material to the inquiry so far and will continue to do so. We remain determined to provide any potentially relevant material that the chair requests so that we can learn the lessons from this dreadful pandemic.

Photo of Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Labour

My Lords, this is a total shambles—and there is more to come. As well as this totally futile dispute, I understand that the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Hallett, has met with Lord Brailsford, who is chairing the separate Scottish report. Members will recall that the separate guidance and response in the different countries of the United Kingdom caused confusion and distress. Two separate reports could cause additional confusion and distress. Will the Minister give a clear indication as to when the reports will be published so that those whose relatives died needlessly will know who was responsible?

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

It is indeed the case that the Scottish Government are doing their own separate inquiry, and they organised separate arrangements during the pandemic. The inquiry is in the hands of the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Hallett. She is doing a very wide-ranging inquiry, and the timing of its results depends on her work, which, as I have explained, we are trying our very best to progress. We are providing a huge amount of support from right across government.

Photo of Lord Robathan Lord Robathan Conservative

My noble friend will recall that, back in 2020 and 2021, the opposition parties were very keen to lock down for longer and harder than we actually did. Could my noble friend tell us what assessment the Government have made of the efficacy of lockdowns and the costs to the country in social, economic, health and educational terms, and whether anybody now believes that the lockdowns were a good idea?

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

My noble friend speaks powerfully, as always. However, this is a matter for the inquiry. We have set up this wide-ranging inquiry so that these points can be looked at. It is right that different witnesses are recounting their experiences and that the inquiry is able to call upon the sorts of findings that my noble friend has mentioned.

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, does the Minister recall an earlier government-appointed judicial inquiry in which the Government chose what material to release to the judge rather than allowing the judge, under the rule of law, to choose for himself or herself? Also, does the Government’s recourse to judicial review mean that they have now reversed their previous attitude to limiting the judicial review and that therefore we can expect not to see ouster clauses in any future Bills under this Government?

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

Although this is a much wider inquiry even than other previous important inquiries, the process that has been followed by the Cabinet Office and across Whitehall is very similar in terms of providing information to the chair. There is a judicial review because of a specific technical point raised by the Section 21 notice that has been issued. In terms of judicial review, the noble Lord is right that judicial review must be used with circumspection. However, there is an important technical point here about whether it is right to provide unambiguously irrelevant material to the inquiry which is the subject of the review.

Photo of Lord Butler of Brockwell Lord Butler of Brockwell Crossbench

My Lords, there is a strong public interest in this inquiry being carried out constructively and expeditiously, and that should also be a public interest between the Government and the investigation. Does the Minister agree that it would be helpful if judicial review proceedings were stayed so that the Government and the inquiry could reach a reasonable accommodation on this issue?

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

I agree with the noble Lord about the possibility of an accommodation being reached. We have had discussions with the inquiry to bridge the gap between sincerely held views. However, we have also requested that any judicial review is held expeditiously, and we are very glad that the court has agreed to deal with this before the end of June. In the meantime—and I cannot emphasise this more strongly—every day more material is being sent into the inquiry and the large teams working on this important matter are co-operating.

Photo of Lord Clark of Windermere Lord Clark of Windermere Labour

My Lords, does the Minister guarantee that the inquiry will be provided with the figures outlining the serious loss of personnel in the NHS, which is causing serious problems in the cancer field, as we have heard about today, and which have occurred over the period that it is investigating?

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

I assure the noble Lord that anything that is Covid related is being made available to the inquiry, subject to some security points. The impact of the Covid measures on the wider NHS and health is a matter for the chair but is inherently relevant.

Photo of Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Conservative

My Lords, does my noble friend not think that the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Hallett, might draw some lessons from the experience of France and Sweden? They have completed their inquiries and been able to give guidance on where mistakes were made and what should happen in the future. Why on earth has this inquiry been extended in scope such that we cannot get the answers which the entire country is waiting for?

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

This is an independent inquiry, and its conduct is for the chair. However, clearly the experience of other countries is also important, and I am sure that material in respect of those will be submitted to the inquiry and taken into account.

Photo of Baroness Smith of Basildon Baroness Smith of Basildon Shadow Leader of the House of Lords, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development), Shadow Spokesperson (Devolved Issues)

My Lords, I raised this issue of the timing during the Minister’s Statement earlier this week. The amount of information that the Government say is relevant is enormous. They have said that 20 million documents may be relevant to the inquiry and, so far, something like 55,000 have been submitted. Why were the terms of reference of exactly what was required, and a timescale, not agreed between the Government and the inquiry prior to it starting? What is the Government’s assessment of the time that it will take them to go through these 20 million documents?

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

As I explained, ever since the inquiry was agreed, the Government have been helping it to ensure that, as is the precedent of other inquiries, the key documents are made available and appropriate witness statements are prepared. We have extended that process to wider material at its request, to reflect modern communications. The terms of reference were wide and a lot of discretion was left to the chair. The Government are keen to see the inquiry’s conclusions and findings as soon as possible. It is being phased by modules, and we look forward to hearing the chair’s conclusions.

Photo of Lord Alton of Liverpool Lord Alton of Liverpool Crossbench

My Lords, will the Minister assure the House that key documents will include information to the inquiry on the role of procurement, including concerns raised about transparency by the National Audit Office? It does not take an inquiry for the Minister to establish from her noble friends when the issue of the 118 million items still stored in the People’s Republic of China, costing this country £250,000 every day, will be resolved. If she cannot answer that now, will she agree to write?

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

Arrangements for procurement are very much at the heart of some of the issues in the inquiry, as I remember we discussed here on many occasions with the noble Lord. Of course, this was covered by the terms of reference; I look forward to hearing the conclusions just as much as he does.

Photo of Baroness Chakrabarti Baroness Chakrabarti Labour

My Lords, I wonder what kind of example the Government think they are setting for other parties to litigation or, indeed, to judicial inquiries. The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, deserved a better answer; who is the ultimate arbiter of what is relevant when that is in dispute? Is it the Government or the trusted senior judge?

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

Of course we trust the senior judge. She has control over what she decides within the framework of the inquiry, as we have been discussing, which has advantages and disadvantages. In the judicial review, we are addressing the narrow point of whether it is right to provide unambiguously irrelevant material. This could cover anything from civil servants’ or families’ medical conditions to matters totally unconnected with the Government’s handling of Covid. It seems right to have a ruling on how that should be handled, not least given the implications for future inquiries and future Governments.