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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) [Draft]

Meeting date: Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Urgent Question, Committee of the Whole Parliament, Cost of Living (Tenant Protection) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 2, Meeting of the Parliament, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time


Urgent Question

Scottish Covid-19 Inquiry

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on whether the Scottish COVID-19 Inquiry might be delayed due to the resignation of the Chair and senior counsel.

The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Covid Recovery (John Swinney)

The Scottish Government wants the inquiry to be delivered at speed and to address the range of questions that people have—the bereaved, in particular—so that we can learn and benefit from those lessons as early as possible. That is why arrangements for appointing a new judicial chair for the inquiry have been taken forward urgently to ensure a successful transition.

The Scottish Government remains committed to the vital work of the inquiry, as does the independent inquiry team, and Lady Poole will continue as chair during her notice period of up to three months. A further update will be provided to Parliament at the earliest possible opportunity.

Jackie Baillie

I thank the Deputy First Minister for his response, but I am curious as to why he never mentioned the resignation of four senior and junior counsel when he hosted a cross-party briefing meeting on Monday 3 October. Not a word passed his lips. That is a material consideration, which should have been disclosed, and I regret the lack of transparency from the Government on such an important issue. Some people more cynical than I might say that there is a pattern of secrecy with the Government; I hope that that does not spill over into the inquiry itself.

The Scottish Government seconded senior staff from the civil service to work on the inquiry, so there was no excuse for not knowing what was going on. When was the Scottish Government told about the concerns and problems that preceded those resignations?

John Swinney

The first point to make is that the Inquiries Act 2005 requires that the inquiry is independent of the Government. That is the law; I must obey the law and I am following the law. Under the 2005 act, ministers have the power to establish an independent public inquiry, to set its terms of reference, and to appoint a chair and a panel. Section 17 of the 2005 act gives an inquiry chair alone, rather than ministers, responsibility for deciding how an inquiry should operate. That includes the approach to taking evidence and engaging with stakeholders. That is the legal position that I must follow.

I considered carefully what information I should share with members of Parliament when I telephoned them on Monday evening, because I was mindful of my legal obligation to respect the independence of the inquiry. The staffing matters of the inquiry are exclusively a matter for the chair of the inquiry. At no stage have I tried to conceal information; I have simply respected the legal framework under which I must operate.

In relation to the sequence of events, Lady Poole emailed my office on Friday morning. I spoke to her within minutes of the email being received and Lady Poole intimated to me her decision to step down for personal reasons. In the course of that call, she indicated to me that four members of counsel had resigned from the inquiry the previous day. That was news to me, as were the circumstances that led to Lady Poole’s resignation, when I heard it on Friday morning.

Jackie Baillie

I am sure that the Deputy First Minister will agree that this will be a huge disappointment for the families who are grieving the loss of a loved one to Covid. They deserve answers and they have been patient in waiting for the inquiry to start. Lady Poole was appointed in December 2021, the day before Baroness Hallett was appointed to lead the UK-wide inquiry. The UK-wide inquiry has started and has made it clear that the people affected are at the heart of its considerations.

Does the Deputy First Minister agree that it is the Scottish Government’s responsibility to ensure that the inquiry system works and is adequately resourced? Can he tell me when the inquiry will start? When will it hear from the families in person? When will the inquiry report and what is the revised cost? Above all, how will he ensure that whoever replaces Lady Poole ensures that the families affected are at the very heart of the inquiry’s work?

John Swinney

Presiding Officer, Jackie Baillie invites me, by asking those questions, to break the law, because she invites me to interfere in the running of the inquiry. I simply will not do it, because I have no intention of breaking section 17 of the 2005 act. If I were to do that, the first person to complain about it would be Jackie Baillie.

I have listened with enormous care to the bereaved families on a number of occasions during the establishment of the inquiry. I have taken all the time that they have asked me to take to engage with them. I will be seeing bereaved families next week. I offered to speak to the three bereaved families groups that made representations to me on Monday. I have spoken to one group, I am in correspondence with another and I will see another group next week. Their concerns must be at the heart of the inquiry.

Jackie Baillie asks me what I will do to ensure that their voices are at the heart of the inquiry and that is something that I can do. I can insist, when I secure the appointment of judicial leadership for the inquiry, that the point that Jackie Baillie has put to me will be taken on board. It will be a condition of appointment for the judicial leadership that is put in place that bereaved families must be at the heart of the inquiry. Their issues and concerns must be properly aired and properly addressed. They must have answers. That will be at the heart of the appointment process of the next judicial leadership.

I will take a few supplementaries. The first is from Murdo Fraser.

Murdo Fraser (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

I was contacted today by a constituent who lost his wife due to Covid. Like many other of the members of the bereaved families, he has serious concerns about what has been reported in the media and about the potential delays in the inquiry starting to take evidence.

Will the Deputy First Minister tell us whether Lady Poole’s resignation was prompted by the resignation of the four senior counsel members or was unrelated? Will he assure us that none of the resignations has come about because of any political interference in the direction or operation of the inquiry?

John Swinney

I hope that it was clear from my last answer to Jackie Baillie that the consideration of the bereaved families is absolutely central to the inquiry. If there is any group of people in our country who must secure answers in the Covid inquiry, it must be the bereaved families. I hope that that provides reassurance for Mr Fraser to share with his constituent.

In relation to the reasons for Lady Poole’s resignation, she indicated to me that, for personal reasons, she wished to step down from the inquiry. Those were her words to me and it is not incumbent on me to explore or examine the rationale for her statements to me.

Murdo Fraser’s final point is, to be frank, one to which I take the greatest of exception because I have judiciously followed the contents of the Inquiries Act 2005, particularly section 17, which guarantees the independence of the inquiry. For the record, there has been absolutely no political interference in the inquiry.

Alex Cole-Hamilton (Edinburgh Western) (LD)

There is not a member in the chamber who does not know somebody to whom the outcome of the inquiry will make a material, life-changing difference and for whom it will answer vital questions about the loss of their loved ones.

I am concerned about some of the confusion that exists around Lady Poole’s departure. Twice now, the cabinet secretary has been asked why other Opposition spokespeople were not told of the departure of senior and junior counsel at the same time as that of Lady Poole. Given that the narrative around Lady Poole’s departure is that it was for personal reasons, what confidence can we have about the narrative around the status of the rest of the inquiry, as it is all starting to fall apart?

I am very concerned and press the cabinet secretary again on the matter.

John Swinney

I do not know where to start with that question, to be honest, because I simply stood up in Parliament and made it clear that I am following the law, which requires me to respect the independence of the inquiry. If I was to go around nit-picking about the inquiry, which is what Mr Cole-Hamilton invites me to do, Mr Fraser would be on his feet accusing me of interference. Can we please respect the fact that it is an independent inquiry?

The Government has done its bit, which was to appoint a chair and to consult on and agree terms of reference. As far as I am aware from any of the representations that I have had from across the chamber, those terms of reference are judged to be absolutely appropriate. Everybody across the chamber also took the view that Lady Poole was an appropriate appointment.

The two things that the Government is allowed by law to do—to appoint a chair to the inquiry and to establish terms of reference—have been broadly supported across the chamber. Lady Poole has decided to resign and it is not for me to interfere in the running of the inquiry.

My job now is to ask the Lord President to provide me with nominees for replacement judicial leadership, which I have done. I will resolve the leadership of the inquiry as quickly as I possibly can. I want to minimise any disruption and any interruption to the proceedings. There are many staff already in the inquiry. Lady Poole will manage the transition and we will continue to advance, to ensure that the bereaved families and others are able to air the issues that they wish to have aired in the public inquiry.

Siobhian Brown (Ayr) (SNP)

It is vital that the families and relatives involved have the utmost confidence in the public inquiry and that the process allows for credible answers to be reached. Can the Deputy First Minister provide further assurances that the important progress that has been made so far by the inquiry is continued and that it will be done in a transparent manner that operates independently of ministers?

John Swinney

I stress the point that the inquiry is established on the basis that it is independent of Government, and it will continue to operate independently of Government.

I want to ensure—I think that this was broadly understood from the terms of reference—that members of the public who lost loved ones in the Covid pandemic had the opportunity to address their concerns and issues as part of the inquiry. That will be central to the way in which the inquiry proceeds in the days, weeks and months to come.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

That concludes the urgent question.

Before we move to the next item of business, which is a committee of the whole Parliament, I suspend this meeting of Parliament.

15:05 Meeting suspended.