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Covid 19 Inquiry: Judicial Review

Volume 733: debated on Monday 5 June 2023

I have a short statement to make about sub judice, which is important in connection with this statement. Some of the matters covered by the statement are currently being considered by the courts, but given the national importance of the issue, Mr Speaker is exercising his ability to waive the sub judice resolution in order to allow references to them, both during proceedings on this statement and on an ongoing basis.

I am grateful for permission to make a statement on the Government’s decision to seek a judicial review on a specific point of law relating to the public inquiry on the covid pandemic. The whole House will recognise that, as you so eloquently said, Madam Deputy Speaker, on any issue that is before the courts, a Minister needs to act and speak with extreme sensitivity. We fully respect the difficult role that judges need to perform, and I appreciate that the conventions of this place are designed to ensure that we do not make their role—the sober and detailed consideration of facts of law by those qualified to do that—any harder. I am sure that the House will respect the fact that, for those reasons, it would be inappropriate for me to debate the fine details of this case.

Notwithstanding that, we felt that there was very real public interest in the broader issue of why the Government would take the unusual step of asking for a judicial review on a point of technical difference between the Government and an inquiry that the Government have established. That being the case, we felt, as ever, that the matter should be raised in this House.

The Government fully support the vital work of the inquiry, which seeks to establish the facts, and the lessons to be learned from the response to the pandemic. It is right that the inquiry on covid-19 be comprehensive and rigorous. It is being chaired by Baroness Hallett, an eminent former Court of Appeal judge. In this dispute, the guidance of the courts is sought on a narrow and technical point of law. It does not touch on the Government’s confidence in the inquiry. Nor does it in any way affect the Government’s intention to continue full co-operation with the inquiry. To date, the Cabinet Office alone has submitted 55,000 documents to the inquiry. We will continue to provide any and all covid-related materials requested.

We are grateful for the work being undertaken by the inquiry chair and her team. The pandemic was one of the most difficult times for our country in living memory —so many people lost so much. The inquiry’s task is challenging. It must have the support of us all in conducting its work, and in bringing forward its conclusions in a timely way. The core point of principle that is raised is whether there are limits to the power of the inquiry to compel information and documents to be produced.

Specifically, the question raised by the compulsory notice under the Inquiries Act 2005 that was served on the Cabinet Office is whether the inquiry has the power to compel production of documents and messages that are unambiguously irrelevant to the inquiry’s work, including personal communications and matters unconnected to the Government’s handling of covid. The notice received is bound to include a range of material of that nature. It covered a two-year period and a range of documents, including WhatsApp messages relating to my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) and a former special adviser.

I reiterate that all material that is relevant to the inquiry’s work has been and will be provided to the inquiry; likewise, material about which there might be real questions about its relevance to that work. There is no question but that all internal discussions on covid, in any form, requested by the inquiry will be made transparently available to it. What has been redacted, and so not provided in response to the notice, is material that the Cabinet Office considers to be clearly and unambiguously irrelevant to that work. That material includes, for example, communications about purely personal matters and about other aspects of the Government’s policy and work which have nothing to do with covid. It is that material, and that material alone, that is subject to judicial review. Hon. Members wanting to see more detail of our concerns may be interested in our letter to the inquiry, sent last Thursday, which is available on the Government’s website and a copy of which I will deposit in the House of Commons Library.

As in any such dispute, there are two sides to this debate. Baroness Hallett, as I have said, is a highly respected senior judge and inquiry chair in whom the Government have great confidence. The inquiry has made relevant statements regarding the Government’s position on its website, to which I draw the House’s intention. The inquiry will no doubt be making further statements. Above all, as I understand it, the inquiry believes that it should be for the inquiry alone to judge the relevance of the material requested. We respect that position and, as I have indicated, the Cabinet Office has provided material about which there might be a dispute.

Where we differ with the inquiry is only in relation to material that is considered to be clearly and unambiguously irrelevant, and that is considered to be so after careful checking. This is a genuine and sincere difference of opinion on which we are seeking the guidance of the courts. I do, however, want to assure the House that the Government have explored with the inquiry ways to bridge the gap between those sincerely held but differing views, and we will continue to do so. We appreciate the patience and goodwill shown by the inquiry as we have sought to identify a mutually acceptable solution.

We have also sought to assure the inquiry on the nature of the redactions of non-relevant material from the information requested in the section 21 notice and how those would operate. The process deployed to ascertain and redact unambiguously irrelevant material from that information is as follows. Witnesses are required to identify any material that may contain potentially irrelevant information to the inquiry, with guidance from the counsel team supporting them. That is then reviewed by the counsel team, who identify any material that is unambiguously irrelevant. The counsel team discusses it with the witness in case there is any context or detail of which they may not be aware. The review by the counsel team includes the assessment of a King’s Counsel instructed by the Cabinet Office. No decision to redact material as unambiguously irrelevant has been or will be taken by a witness acting alone.

These redactions will all be kept under review such that if the scope of the chair’s inquiry changes, she will be able to receive the material that becomes potentially relevant. I would like to reiterate that this is a matter of legal principle that will have an impact on this Government and all future Governments. This is absolutely not related to one individual’s personal information.

In conclusion, I would like to again issue my thanks to the inquiry chair and her team for the important work they are undertaking. The Government have only embarked on this course after serious consideration. It is with regret that we felt the judicial review had to be brought forward. We are very aware that it is sometimes in the nature of government that difficult decisions have to be taken, knowing that in the short term they may of course be criticised or misinterpreted, but which we believe are important for the country in the longer term. Whereas it is entirely right that any material in any way related to covid is available to the inquiry, we believe there is value to challenge and debate inside Government being unclouded by the knowledge that other discussions could be disclosed regardless of their relevance to any future inquiry. As such, we believe this request for guidance is necessary.

Finally, I would like to make it absolutely clear to all those directly affected and bereaved by covid that the Government will do absolutely nothing that we believe impedes the vital work of the inquiry, to give them the answers they deserve and that the country needs to ensure that we learn the lessons of covid. I commend the statement to the House.

I thank the Minister for an advance copy of his statement. This weekend I walked the length of the covid memorial wall on the banks of the Thames just opposite this building. Every heart on that wall symbolises a life lost to covid. Every heart represents a family who lost a loved one—a mother, father, sibling, friend or colleague—to that terrible disease. That is what the covid inquiry is about: preventing a repeat of that same tragedy, which cost so many lives and still affects so many of us; and answering the questions that so many families still have.

This week, we all watched with embarrassment—I am sure that Government Members on the Benches behind the Minister feel the same privately—as the Cabinet Office, the Department responsible for upholding transparency in government, briefed journalists that taxpayers would be picking up yet another legal bill to pay for the Prime Minister’s ploy to obstruct the covid inquiry. We need more information: public inquiries are a core ministerial responsibility in the Cabinet Office; and vital lessons are learned through inquiries, which save lives in the future. By undermining and challenging the inquiry, the Government could undermine not only trust but public safety. Then, there is the cost: hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money on legal fees.

May I ask the Minister a few straightforward questions? How much has his Department projected the judicial review to cost? Does he agree with his Minister’s assessment that the review will “probably” fail? Does he think that time would be better spent on complying with the inquiry, handing over the information and learning lessons to prevent another pandemic, rather than this infighting?

Can the Minister confirm media reports that his Department’s lawyers have threatened to pull the plug on the taxpayer-subsidised legal defence fund for the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson)? Does he agree that Ministers must be held to the highest standards of transparency and openness? In that spirit, what guidance has he given to other Cabinet Ministers about handing over WhatsApp messages to the inquiry? Will we be back here again?

How many inquiry-imposed deadlines for evidence submissions have been missed to date? Can the Minister confirm whether the Prime Minister has already handed over his WhatsApp messages to the inquiry in full? Can he confirm how many devices have been handed over by the former Prime Minister?

The Minister claims that the Government have handed over 55,000 documents to the covid inquiry. I commend civil servants for working through the night to look at them, but his Department previously admitted that well over 20 million documents could be relevant. What criteria have been used to determine whether evidence will be suppressed?

It comes down to trust. We need to be able to trust the process and the determination of what is relevant and what is not. People’s trust in this Government is severely weakened, and the judicial review is undermining it further.

The hon. Lady started where I ended, and she is right that the focus of the inquiry must be the people who have been affected and bereaved and the lessons that this country needs to learn. I commend her for her walk over the weekend. It is harrowing to see that memorial and to remember what it represents.

Government is tough. It is easier, in many ways, to be in Opposition. They do it very well on the Opposition Benches, and I am sure that they will get even more practice over a long period of time, but in government we have to take very difficult decisions. It does not take a genius to realise that the decision we felt we had to make regarding a judicial review may be misinterpreted and criticised, but we have to look at the long-term consequences for this and future Governments. There are important—albeit technical—matters of law, and we need guidance to ascertain how this and future inquiries should operate.

The hon. Lady asked a series of questions, one of which was on cost. I cannot give her an exact number, but I am delighted that, from what we have heard from the courts, the judicial review looks to be heard very soon and in a timely fashion, which I would welcome for a number of reasons. I will certainly not get into our view of the case. That would be pertinent; it is before the courts, which must look into that and take their own view.

I will go through all the points the hon. Lady made. There is a long tradition, under all Administrations, that Ministers should be provided with support for their legal fees and for their work to support and help the inquiries that are established—that is the right thing to do.

The hon. Lady is right that we have already passed over some 55,000 items. To counsel a note of caution about the hon. Lady’s reference to 2 million documents, those undertaking the inquiry have made it clear that they do not want to be flooded with information that is not relevant to the inquiry, and therefore we go through the process of trying to ensure that they get all the information that they require that is covid related. The point of issue is only material that is unambiguously not relevant to the inquiry. We go through a process, which I have set out to the hon. Lady and to the House.

I reiterate that we have a great deal of confidence in the inquiry. We know that those undertaking the inquiry are absolutely assiduous in their work, but we feel that there is a technical point of law on which we need to have guidance from the courts, and that is what we are pursuing.

The problem is that if Government business is conducted by means of WhatsApp, public inquiries will express an interest in reading what was transacted. My right hon. Friend is well aware of what a statutory public inquiry is and how that is established under the Inquiries Act 2005. Indeed, he referenced section 21 of that Act, which makes it clear that it is for the inquiry chair to decide what is required. When he says that the question is about material that might be “unambiguously” irrelevant, surely it is for the chair to determine that. It was spurious nonsense to hear some Ministers witter on about personal information about their children being disclosed—that is not the case. Nor is it my understanding that any of this material will be subject to a freedom of information request. May I ask my right hon. Friend why, sadly, the Government have chosen this course of action?

I thank my hon. Friend, but in my recollection the Act refers to related material. However, we will not dwell on that as it is a matter for the courts.

I have some sympathy with my hon. Friend regarding WhatsApp messages. Such messages should not be used for taking policy decisions; those decisions should be taken formally and through the proper course. Any WhatsApp information presented will cover all manner of things between individuals and may well include illness, family or other personal issues. That is simply a statement of fact.

I think it is absolutely vital that we have guidance on this technical point. When other inquiries reported, we were perhaps in an era before a whole range of means of communication, including WhatsApp. I would point out to my hon. Friend that while WhatsApp has got the attention, the technical point of law applies to all manner of communications, not simply WhatsApp, about what is unambiguously irrelevant or what is relevant, and the process will determine that.

I thank the Minister for advance sight of his statement. As has been said, this is a serious and important inquiry for all of us whose lives were impacted by covid, particularly those who lost loved ones.

This matter is one of the most bizarre things that we have dealt with recently—and this has been a wild few years. What is the point in having an inquiry if those carrying it out are not confident that they have all the relevant information? Actually, the inquiry is not being given the information; the information is being given to the Government, and the Cabinet Office is then filtering it and passing it on to the inquiry. If those conducting the inquiry, which the Government set up, are asking for this information, then they should be given it.

May I ask the Minister about the group of people who are looking at the information? Who are the counsel team that are involved in considering the relevance of the information alongside the witnesses? Are any politicians who are, or were formerly, in the Cabinet, other than the witnesses themselves, involved in the decision making about whether the information is relevant? How can we be clear and confident that this inquiry will have all the relevant information if we do not even know who is taking the decisions or how the decisions are being taken? As for the information that we do have, we have had to pull it out of the Government.

We have talked before about the breaches of the ministerial code, and the fact that it was entirely in the gift of the Prime Minister to decide whether or not a person was investigated in relation to the code. Once again, the Cabinet Office is holding something in its own grip and refusing to allow the rest of us any say in, or any look at, what is happening. Who watches the watchers in this regard? Who is considering whether the transparency that is being shown is actually being shown properly?

Any answers that the Minister can provide will be much appreciated.

The hon. Gentleman is showing off his Latin! But let me respond to the hon. Lady’s important question about who is keeping an eye on this and who is running it. I want to give her an absolute assurance—she asked for one, and it was reasonable for her to do so—that there is no political involvement in the process of establishing what is and is not relevant information, and what is unambiguously irrelevant. That is a process undertaken by lawyers, by the counsel team, with a KC involved. It starts with witnesses being required to say, “These are the materials that may be in scope”. They must then go through the process, initially with the counsel team and with an overview from the KC; but no politicians are involved. The hon. Lady described this process as “wild”, but I do not think it is. I think it is quite narrow and technical, but I also think it is important for the future conduct of such inquiries, and for this inquiry, that we know exactly where the law stands.

I thank my right hon. Friend for coming to the House, bravely, to defend the Government’s position. Is it not the case that the courts will be very reluctant to become involved in second-guessing the decision making of Baroness Hallett, and will have to decide that she has got things very wrong indeed before they wish to intervene? This prompts, does it not, the question in the old wartime adage: “Is your journey really necessary?” In that spirit, I must press my right hon. Friend and ask him whether he is ensuring that all manner of expedition is taking place. Will there be a very early hearing in the divisional court? Those concerned—and we have all heard their heart-rending stories—cannot wait a moment longer for the resolution of these important matters.

As my right hon. and learned Friend says, the chair of the inquiry is both experienced in inquiries and an eminent former Court of Appeal judge. I have alluded to arguments that have been presented, and Members may well wish to look them up.

This is a matter for the courts to determine, but I entirely agree with my right hon. and learned Friend that it is something we want to advance at the swiftest possible pace—and, incidentally, while doing so we will continue to supply documents to the inquiry. That process continues, and I hope the inquiry will feel able to continue its vital work, but it is important for the matter to be resolved in the courts as soon as possible. I am pleased to inform my right hon. and learned Friend that, according to my understanding, the courts have indicated that we can use an expedited process and have a divisional court hearing, which is expected to be held on or shortly after 30 June. I am very grateful to them for doing that so swiftly.

The Minister has not answered the question about why he thinks the Government should decide what is and is not relevant, rather than the chair of the inquiry. He has said how well qualified she is; will he please now answer that question?

It has always been the case in respect of inquiries set up by the Government, when it comes to Ministers and former Ministers, that the Government have undertaken that role, although it was not a process governed by the Inquiries Act 2005. That was, I believe, the case with the Chilcot inquiry, and that is what the Government do: they help to put the information together and to ensure that all relevant information is presented. I do not believe there is a precedent for an invitation to provide information on quite such a wide basis—all information over a two-year period, involving a certain means of communication—so this is a new situation, but what the Government are doing is consistent with what Governments have, I believe, always done in these circumstances.

Can I urge the Minister to build not on the legal aspects of this statement but on the discussions with the inquiry? How can the Government build trust with the inquiry—it has a strong position; the Government have a different view—whether through mediation, legal teams meeting or reading rooms? What are the ways through to move this topic on?

My right hon. Friend asks an excellent question, but I hope he will forgive me if I do not get into potential ways through. That would be a matter for the Government to discuss directly with the inquiry, but I very much hope that a way can be found that avoids the court’s time on 30 June. If there is a way through, that would be warmly welcomed.

I urge the Government to think about the fact that so many people on all sides of the House are asking the same question: how can it be right for the Government to mark their own homework? How can it be right for the Government to decide what is relevant to the inquiry? Surely that is the job of the inquiry. Could the Minister please answer that question? We are all concerned that the Government are going to have the final say, and surely that is not correct.

I can absolutely assure the hon. Lady that this is not an issue on which the Government are marking their own homework—absolutely not. Some 55,000 documents have been delivered to date, with everything that is covid-related being surrendered and provided to the inquiry on its request. The only issue of contention is information that we believe to be unambiguously irrelevant. I genuinely believe that all the information will be provided to the inquiry that it needs to ensure that the handling of covid in this country is fully and properly understood, and that it will be marking the Government’s homework.

A vast study published today by Johns Hopkins University and widely reported in the press has found that the draconian methods used in lockdowns by various countries including our own had negligible effects on mortality and might have saved only 1,700 lives. This inquiry is therefore probably the most important public inquiry that we have had in recent years. It is absolutely essential for our credibility that everything is given to the inquiry, and there can be no perception that anything is being hidden. The Minister talks about personal behaviour as being irrelevant, but the then Prime Minister lost his job not because of the decisions he took on lockdowns but because of his alleged personal behaviour. My strong advice to the Government, for whatever it is worth, is: let everything hang out and just co-operate with the inquiry; let it have what it wants and let us get to the truth.

I hear what my right hon. Friend says. I would not want there to be any perception that we are not ensuring that the inquiry has all the information that it requires. We believe that that does not need to include information that is clearly and unambiguously irrelevant, although I know what he is saying.

To be honest, this just feels like a terrible fool’s errand. As the Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg), said earlier, section 21 of the Inquiries Act 2005 is absolutely unambiguous. Let me introduce that word into the conversation: unambiguous. It states that the chairman may require a person

“to produce any other thing in his custody or under his control”.

It also states:

“A claim by a person that…it is not reasonable in all the circumstances to require him to comply…is to be determined by the chairman”.

It is absolutely unambiguous. The chairman is only required to

“consider the public interest in the information”

being provided. So I cannot see where this is going to lead, unambiguously, other than to a dead end. Can the Minister confirm that the chairman has been very specific in asking only for covid-related WhatsApp groups, not all the WhatsApp messages on anyone’s phone? Has the chairman asked for the present Prime Minister’s, as well as the previous Prime Minister’s, WhatsApp messages in those groups? And has the former Prime Minister’s former telephone, with its former WhatsApp messages, also been provided to the Government? If not, when will it be provided?

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate why I will not go into parsing the 2005 Act, which is a matter for the courts. There are two views, and the courts need to determine their interpretation of the Act and what it means. I can tell him that the request from the chair goes beyond the covid WhatsApp groups, so it is a broader swathe of information that will inevitably touch on information shared between individuals that may be personal in nature and may certainly relate to non-covid issues. Anything covid related goes to the inquiry.

Clearly the inquiry needs everything that is relevant, and clearly it does not need anything that is personal or unrelated, which should remain private. It is clearly very important that the public are able to trust the result of the inquiry, and it is clearly very important that the inquiry is done quickly so that we learn the lessons fast and so that people who have lost loved ones, or who have had ill health as a result of long covid, find out what happened, but this is not the first public inquiry to include sensitive information. Presumably the Government have an almost infinite amount of information that they could provide, so they have to select that which is relevant. This has happened before, and no doubt it will happen again. How does it happen normally, and why is this particular case so different?

The circumstances are different, and my understanding is that a wider amount of information has been required. I totally understand and respect where the chair is coming from in going for a wider request involving messages from two particular individuals over a two-year period, as well as other information. That is of a different nature from some historical inquiries, which is why there is a novel point of law on which the Government seek clarification of that technical issue.

Ever since the Supreme Court ruled that the Prorogation of Parliament by the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) was unlawful, successive Tory Governments have been very keen to restrict the right to judicial review for ordinary members of the public who want to challenge Government actions. Does this litigation indicate a new-found enthusiasm for judicial review? Will the Government consider repealing the Judicial Review and Courts Act 2022, or is judicial review just for those such as them?

There is obviously a role for judicial review, and there has to be a role for judicial review. I have great respect for the learned judges who are required to opine on these technical points of law. It is not something the Government do lightly, as the hon. and learned Lady will appreciate. The Government established this inquiry, but we feel that, given the implications for this and future Governments, we need clarification from the courts on this point of law. I am glad they are there and are able to provide that clarification.

It is obviously vital that lessons are learned, but they must be learned in a timely fashion. There was a great deal of press comment over the weekend about how, say, Sweden completed its inquiry in February 2022. On that note, I commend to the Minister and the House the joint report by the Health and Social Care Committee and the Science and Technology Committee on the lessons learned from covid, to which the Government have already responded, covering an awful lot of the same material, although Baroness Hallett will obviously consider further material.

Turning to the matter at hand, I understand that the Government want to defend and, indeed, test the legal principle, but I reiterate the urging of my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) in asking the Minister to do everything he can to find a middle way through so we can avoid this JR proceeding.

If we can find a way through without this, that would be helpful to all concerned. Everybody wants to get on with this inquiry, and, as I say, we will continue to deliver documents. I hope that we do not delay, in any way, the work of the inquiry while the courts determine on this technical point. I thank my hon. Friend for drawing attention to his Committee’s inquiries, but there is a huge amount that needs to be covered. I recognise that the chair’s remit is very broad and that there is a lot of work that the chair and the inquiry will wish to do, but the quicker we can get answers to this, the better.

As I understand it, this inquiry was negotiated and consulted on, with its terms of reference agreed, before it got going. Yet, astonishingly, it is only once it starts doing its job—only when it starts asking for evidence—that this vital point of principle surfaces. I do not blame the Minister for sticking to his brief, but does he honestly think anyone in the public is going to buy this?

This process started with the delivery of that section 21 notice; the earlier rule 9 notices were different in their construction. This is a wide request from the chair, which is perfectly legitimate, provided it is not including unambiguously irrelevant information—that is what we are focused on, only that. I must, once again, assert that every bit of information that is covid-related is not under any question at all—this is only about stuff that is unambiguously irrelevant.

I listened carefully to the Minister’s statement and I have never heard so much insulting verbiage. He says that

“it should be for the inquiry alone to judge the relevance of the material”,

but then directly contradicts himself by saying that the Government are going to do it. He says he respects Baroness Hallett’s position and then actively disrespects it by taking her inquiry to court. He then says that doing so

“does not touch the Government’s confidence in the inquiry.”

Has it occurred to him that it might just touch the public’s confidence, both in this Government and in the inquiry itself, and that in so doing it is adding insult to injury to bereaved people? It is also undermining public safety in the future, because if we do not know that an inquiry such as this is going to get to the heart of the matter, what confidence can we ever have that the Government will learn the lessons when we face the next pandemic, as we surely will?

The last thing this Government or I would wish to do, in any way, is undermine confidence in this inquiry. I was fulsome in my respect for the inquiry and its chair for good reason: Baroness Hallett is an eminent former Court of Appeal judge and has had experience of other inquiries. As I say, 55,000 documents have been delivered already and everything in relation to covid for which the inquiry asks will be delivered. The only issue is on this narrow point about information that is unambiguously irrelevant. That is the point on which we are seeking the insight of the courts.

Almost 227,000 people lost their lives to covid and in my borough 540 people died. Many of us personally lost loved ones. We have faced the trauma of loss and of reliving the horrors of covid when the partygate revelations involving the former Prime Minister but one came out into the public domain throughout the past year. We now face the obscene spectre of legal battles and delaying tactics employed by this Government, which serve to undermine the covid inquiry and delay justice for bereaved families. What does the Minister have to say to the bereaved families, who are horrified by and are in disbelief at the fact that public money is being used by the Government to obstruct the covid inquiry? Instead of delay, obstruction and cover-ups, is it not time that the Minister apologised and made sure that this inquiry took place immediately?

Let me reassure the hon. Lady that the inquiry is ongoing and is doing its work. I have no doubt that it will be doing it assiduously and thoroughly. As I say, 55,000 documents have already been delivered to the inquiry and we are continuing to deliver information to it that it requests. Anything that is covid-related is passed to the inquiry. This is a narrow point of legal definition that we are seeking to get resolved. I hope that she was reassured by my response to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland); we are hoping to get this in front of the courts very swiftly, and I hope there will be no requirement for delay. I sincerely hope that the inquiry can continue its work in the meantime. If there is a means of resolving this without going to the courts, that would, obviously, be welcomed.

The Swedish inquiry reported 15 months ago. Our inquiry is only starting to take evidence now, and is expected to take three years. We now have further delay with this legal wrangling over what information can and cannot be given. The revelations in the WhatsApp messages from the former Secretary of State for Health revealed the often offhanded way in which decisions were made that affected millions of people and cost billions of pounds. Does the Minister not understand that this further delay only raises the fear in the public’s mind that the drawn-out process and the legal wrangling over it are designed to bury the evidence, to cover for mistakes and to cover for those who made them?

It does not matter how inappropriate or unfortunate the language is in these WhatsApp messages; if they relate to covid, they must be delivered to the inquiry and rightly so. Anything in relation to covid must go to the inquiry if it is asked for—of that there is no doubt. It is purely if the information is unambiguously irrelevant that there is this discussion on the point of law. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that we want to get a response as swiftly as possible. I hear what he says about the Swedish inquiry. Our inquiry has wide terms of reference. There is a lot for the team to cover—it is doing it in modules—but I do hope that it will be able to make progress. I sincerely hope that an early resolution of this narrow point of law will ensure that there is no delay to the work of the inquiry.

During the covid pandemic, I lost my lovely grandmother, my uncle and my brother-in-law’s father, not to mention other family friends. I now find it utterly shameful and deplorable that this Government are taking the covid inquiry to court. The likes of me are looking to the covid inquiry to provide answers so that we can begin to make sense of our immense losses. We know that many other nations have already concluded their inquiries and learned the lessons. What does the Minister have to say to those bereaved families who are looking on in utter disbelief at their Government’s disgraceful use of public funds, not to mention the efforts to further frustrate the process?

The hon. Gentleman speaks with great passion, as well he might. I am very sorry for his loss, and I know the whole House would think the same. He speaks for so many in this country who suffered bereavement and were afflicted by covid and its dreadful consequences. We need to get to the bottom of this, and we must do that in a timely and effective way. As I said earlier in my remarks, there are decisions that are made in government that we know will be criticised, and understandably so, because people are desperate to see the result of this. None the less, there are points of principle and points of law that will have a bearing not only on this inquiry, but on all those in the future, so we find it necessary to take the step of a judicial review. I sincerely hope that it does not impinge on the ongoing work of the inquiry. As I have reassured the House, we will continue to deliver documents to add to the 55,000 already delivered. I hope the work of the inquiry is not impeded while we get, hopefully, an early hearing on this issue and it is resolved in the courts.

Many, many people will be interested in the covid inquiry, not least, of course, the bereaved themselves. It is not credible for any Government to establish an inquiry into any matter and then take the decision as to what is or is not relevant to that inquiry. Despite the Minister’s protestations, it seems that the suggestion is that the chair of the inquiry is confused as to what is or is not relevant, and has to be corrected by the Government.

By way of contrast, the former first Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon MSP, and the former Scottish Health Secretary, Jeane Freeman, have both said they will co-operate absolutely and fully with the Scottish inquiry into covid-19. Why will this Government not give the same level of co-operation? Does the Minister not realise that their slipperiness and lack of transparency only make it look as though they are hiding something? What does he think the Government have to hide?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for bringing to bear her experience of the Scottish inquiry under Lady Poole, which I believe is also being held under the 2005 Act. We all have an obligation to support the inquiry in its work. This is a matter, given the nature of the UK inquiry and the question it has posed, about whether it should include within scope information that is unambiguously irrelevant. I do not know whether any requests for emails have been made to Nicola Sturgeon, whether those are purely covid-related or on all manner of issues over a period of time, or with whom. I do not know whether she made those remarks having received, or prior to receiving, an invitation to provide information. I certainly agree with the hon. Lady that people should wish to support the inquiry and ensure that it does its work, but there is a point of law on whether material that is unambiguously irrelevant stands, and that is something we need to get sorted.

The Government seeking a judicial review on their own inquiry that they set up under the relevant legislation is not a good look. Did they give consideration to what would arise if the judicial review was successful and hobbled the ability of the chair of the inquiry to access all the information that she considers relevant? Would her position be untenable?

I have been absolutely clear about the respect in which we hold the chair of the inquiry, who is an eminent former Court of Appeal judge and has a lot of experience in inquiries. The Government sincerely believe that we are able to provide every bit of evidence that is covid-related to the inquiry and, where there is a matter of doubt about that, we should share it with the inquiry in any event. It is only on information that is unambiguously irrelevant that we believe there is any question of law, and I think we all respect the decision of the courts on these issues.

Going to court over which Government WhatsApp messages matter and which do not is an unedifying distraction. The TUC has shown that poverty and high vulnerability to covid went together, and before the pandemic Wales had the highest rate of poverty and disability of all UK nations. Does the Minister therefore agree that politically procrastinating over this evidence only serves to postpone the key lesson to be learned: that the austerity agenda left poor communities in Wales defenceless during the pandemic, and that they are no better prepared for the next?

The right hon. Lady will recall that there were a series of UK Government schemes right across the United Kingdom to support people through a very difficult time. I believe that there is a covid inquiry ongoing in the Welsh Government as well, and we will all have lessons to learn. I take her point that she wants this done in a timely and swift manner. So do the Government, which is why I am delighted that the judicial review will, it appears, be heard soon. As I have said, I hope and believe that it should not stymie the work of the inquiry over the next few weeks, as we will continue to deliver documents to ensure that the work can continue.

The Minister has dressed this up in a lot of legal language, but in essence it is a nakedly political decision to operate in this way. I wonder why, when the principle of the inquiry deciding what is relevant is well established and Baroness Hallett was appointed to the inquiry 18 months ago, this issue has arisen only now? The Minister will be aware that it raises huge concerns about what is going on here. If he has total confidence in Baroness Hallett, as he appears to do, he should be confident that when he hands over documents that he considers completely irrelevant, she will come to the same conclusion, no one will ever see them and there will be no embarrassment to the Government. What is the problem with that approach?

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. Do I trust inquiries to keep information confidential? We have to do that; they are serious people undertaking serious work—I assume there are 70, 80 or even more of them, and I am sure they will take their responsibilities extremely seriously. However, he must consider what the impact might be on communications and on people discussing issues if they have that cloud hanging over them that any material related or unrelated to a particular inquiry could be required by it. That might even cloud the consideration of Governments in the future about the use of inquiries under the 2005 Act—I do not know. There are genuine long-term ramifications that need to be considered. It is quite a narrow point of law, but it might have wider considerations. Therefore, it is wise to get that narrow point of law satisfied by the courts, and we respect the courts’ judgments.

I am sure the Minister was not intending to suggest that the Government would not support public inquiries if they do not win this case. He has heard the concerns in this House about how the Government’s decision could look. He seems to be saying that the Government are seeking clarification on what they see as mission creep and on what unambiguously irrelevant documents and questions might be, and that there is an element to do with modern technology and the use of WhatsApp. He said the Government were looking for guidance. If he wants to restore faith on all sides of this House, and if all the Government are trying to do is to get guidance on a narrow point of law, will he commit here and now that, whatever the outcome of the judicial review, the Government will not appeal it?

I am genuinely grateful to the hon. Lady, not for her second point, but for her first. If I misspoke in any way and gave the impression that this Government would shy away from future public inquiries, I apologise to the House, because that was not my intention. Public inquiries have an incredibly important role to undertake and it is important that they are supported. On the second point, she will understand that we are in a legal process and it will be seen through. We of course respect the views of the courts, but it would be rather rash to come to a conclusion before hearing what the divisional court says on the issue.

The Minister always gets the hard stand, and he always perseveres to give answers as best he can; we thank him for that.

Some 3,445 people died in Northern Ireland because of covid-19. Some of them were good friends. Other hon. Members have also referred to losing loved ones, and I think of Billy Allen, Norma McBride and my own mother-in-law, Jemima George. They all died alone and they all followed the rules, every one of them. My constituents who lost loved ones have a simple request: they want their questions asked and they want the answers. It is clear to them that many in certain places of power blatantly disregarded the rules while others followed them implicitly, as my family did. Everyone who lost loved ones wants the questions and the answers. Can the Minister confirm that will be the case throughout the inquiry, and also that the scope will include decisions taken to close schools and surgeries to the public, which were critical issues for my family and my constituents?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. I felt it was appropriate, even though we have had to have a careful discussion in the House, that hon. Members were able to raise questions regarding the decision to take this matter to JR. It is an unusual decision, but we thought it was important on this point of law. As so often, he brings us back to the key point we must all consider in relation to the covid inquiry: the impact on the bereaved and those afflicted, and the necessity to learn lessons. From my reading of the terms of reference, they cover the points he raises. Those are valid points of concern and interest. We must learn lessons to ensure that we get it right if the country ever faces such dreadful circumstances again.