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Covid-19 Pandemic: Government Response

Volume 680: debated on Thursday 17 September 2020

Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee

Select Committee statement

We now come to the Select Committee statement. Mr William Wragg will speak for up to 10 minutes, during which no interventions may be taken. At the conclusion of his statement, I will call Members to put questions on the subject of the statement and call Mr William Wragg to respond to these in turn. Members can expect to be called only once, and interventions should be questions and they should be brief. Front Benchers may take part in questioning. I should say that we have two heavily subscribed debates afterwards, so I urge Members to ask brief questions.

I call the Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Mr William Wragg.

Thank you very much, Madam Deputy Speaker.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I would like to start the next debate at approximately 1.35 pm, so I stress that these are questions to Mr William Wragg, not mini-speeches, so that he has the chance to respond.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for updating the House on these issues. I welcome much of the report, but I cannot agree that a judge-led inquiry would not be the best way to achieve the desired transparency. Although I agree it is vital that each of the devolved nations has its own inquiry, should we not also be encouraging a broad UK approach in those areas that are reserved, so that we get a national picture, not a disjointed one?

We have not quite made the recommendation that it should not be a judge-led inquiry; it could well be, but perhaps with a panel of different experts to contribute something different. I entirely agree with the hon. Lady on the need for a co-ordinating role, which has to be based on co-operation with the devolved Administrations.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is entirely appropriate that there is a separate Scottish inquiry into the areas of responsibility of the Scottish Government? As my colleagues have already highlighted in the Scottish Parliament, there are significant areas of concern, not least in relation to the number of deaths in Scotland in care homes, which followed specific decisions of the Scottish Government. Does he also agree that it should be possible to have such an inquiry into those responsibilities and at the same time have an inquiry into the responsibilities of the UK Government, who of course have significant reserved responsibilities in Scotland?

Without pre-empting such an inquiry, the short answer is yes, and I thank my right hon. Friend for his contribution to the report.

As my hon. Friend identified in his statement, we discovered during the evidence sessions that there is no standing secretariat for public inquiries. For example, Sir Robert Francis told us that

“we were all starting with a blank piece of paper when it came to setting up resources, so there was no idea where we would have offices or where we were going to get equipment from.”

He also said it took him four months to appoint solicitors. So does my hon. Friend agree that if we set up an inquiry sooner rather than later, it will enable the inquiry to do that important background preparatory work so that it is ready to focus on the main task at hand as soon as possible?

I thank my hon. Friend for that and for his contribution to the Committee’s work. Time is indeed of the essence, as there will be an inevitable lag period before such an inquiry can begin taking evidence, and we should use that time wisely, as he suggests.

One of the main issues facing the effectiveness of any inquiry will be the difference in approach across the four nations and whether evidence presented has been evidence-based or politically driven. Does the hon. Member therefore agree that the devolved Governments should be afforded access to evidence-based decision making by the UK Government that has had a direct impact on the devolved Governments’ ability to respond to the pandemic?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, but it would be for the inquiry to require that evidence if it was based on a statutory footing.

We have learned a lot about covid in the past nine months, and it is worth reflecting that this disease did not exist a year ago. One of the things that plagues inquiries—I have certainly seen this a lot in medicine, in terms of investigations—is the trap of hindsight bias. Of course, when we look back, there are things that we would do differently because we have learned so much in the past nine months. How can we ensure that the inquiry avoids using what we sometimes call the retrospectoscope?

I thank my hon. Friend. Being a qualified medic, he will share my disdain for any outbreak of “hindsightitis” in all this. I would emphasise that the summary of our report states that the primary purpose of the inquiry should be

“to learn lessons and to make recommendations about how similar events can be better handled in future.”

I thank the hon. Member for his presentation. I wholeheartedly agree with him and others that there should be an inquiry, but does he agree that the inquiry should not be to point fingers, but rather to enable lessons to be learned if, God forbid, we come to circumstances like this again? Furthermore, does he agree that any inquiries and investigations carried out by the devolved Assemblies of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland should be sought by this inquiry team and must be incorporated in any report?

Yes, I agree with the thrust of the hon. Member’s question. He may already be aware of—and, following this statement, may wish to follow up—the evidence kindly presented to us to by Gordon Lyons, Minister in the Northern Ireland Executive Office, who made an important contribution to our proceedings.

I thank my hon. Friend and all those who contributed to the report. Does he agree that it would be appropriate for any inquiry to consider the supply of critical equipment, including personal protective equipment and ventilators, and how the Government can ensure that we have adequate manufacturing capacity in the UK, so that we are not reliant on outside suppliers to have enough vital equipment?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. Again, without pre-empting what such an inquiry may wish to investigate and find, it is useful to have the Paymaster General on the Treasury Bench, because I know that her department in the Cabinet Office is particularly keen on the areas that my hon. Friend mentioned.

As a member of the Select Committee, I would like to thank all the Committee staff for their ongoing help, support, knowledge and professionalism during these complex times. Does the Chair agree that, if we are to fully understand how we can do things better, the proposed devolved inquiries must have access to the Cabinet members, experts and civil servants who were part of the UK Government’s response to the covid crisis?

I thank my fellow Committee member for his question. The short answer is yes, but it is important to remember that it will be the inquiry, placed on a statutory footing, that will be able to summon such evidence.

I thank the Chair and all the other members of the PACAC for this timely report, its fifth report; they have been very assiduous.

Her Majesty’s Opposition have responded to this pandemic in a spirit of co-operation that has always put the national interest first, and we are also willing to work together to ensure the right lessons are learned. The fundamental task of any Government is to protect their citizens’ health and wellbeing, so it is crucial to get this inquiry right. A full, independent public inquiry into the Government’s response to the covid-19 pandemic is essential to ensure that we are better equipped to confront future health emergencies. We also need to ask questions about why Exercise Cygnus was not followed during the pandemic.

An emphasis should be placed on the early response to the pandemic, including the factors that might have contributed to a delay in ordering a full lockdown and whether the initial herd immunity strategy was pursued. Members will have been shocked by the disproportionate number of BAME deaths, which were not just confined to people in poverty but included people of all classes, including consultants. Understanding these disparate outcomes should form a central part of the inquiry.

The Prime Minister has said that the inquiry should not take place while the pandemic continues. I suggest there be a two-stage inquiry: an initial review followed by a wide-ranging public inquiry. We know that the Government Legal Service can set up inquiries quite quickly and that there are different inquiries taking place. I support the 16 recommendations in the report. It is extremely important that we hold the Government to account, so I agree with the Committee that the Liaison Committee should consider adding the scrutiny of the Government’s responses to public inquiries to the list of core tasks of the Departmental Select Committees. It would be a welcome development. I also think that the four nations should hold their own lessons-learned inquiries, because they all dealt with the pandemic differently.

To conclude, I again thank the Committee for its assiduous work. Her Majesty’s Opposition welcome the report.

I thank the right hon. Lady for her constructive reply and careful consideration of the report and for welcoming all our recommendations. I am sure that the Government—with my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General on the Front Bench—will in due course welcome all those recommendations as well.

Virtual participation in proceedings concluded (Order, 4 June.)