Ministers faced further criticism yesterday after it emerged that more Whitehall departments have redacted material before supplying it to the Covid Inquiry.
The Cabinet Office and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office had both submitted correspondence with some sections removed, a preliminary hearing of the inquiry heard.
It came as John Edwards, the Information Commissioner, told MPs that ministers should not have the ‘auto-delete’ feature turned on if they are using WhatsApp messages to conduct Government business and could face prosecution if they do.
Baroness Hallett, who is chairing the Covid Inquiry, yesterday refused to back down in a Government row over access to Boris Johnson‘s unredacted WhatsApp messages.
Her request for the former prime minister’s unedited communications and notes has been blocked by the Cabinet Office, triggering a legal challenge expected before the High Court at the end of this month. She said she ‘declined’ to bow to Cabinet Office requests to withdraw her demand, in her first public comments on the furore.
John Edwards (pictured), the Information Commissioner, told MPs that ministers should not have the ‘auto-delete’ feature turned on if they are using WhatsApp messages to conduct Government business and could face prosecution if they do
Baroness Hallett (pictured), who is chairing the Covid Inquiry, yesterday refused to back down in a Government row over access to Boris Johnson’s unredacted WhatsApp messages
Hundreds of formal requests for evidence have been sent out, including to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his predecessor Liz Truss
Requests were also sent out to former deputy prime minister Dominic Raab, and Covid-era health secretary Matt Hancock
Families of those who died of Covid-19 during the pandemic said the Government’s intervention ‘beggars belief’.
Thalia Maragh, representing the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK group, told a preliminary inquiry hearing in London yesterday: ‘[The bereaved] consider that the Cabinet Office’s response to the inquiry’s requests, the redaction and withholding of potentially relevant material from your investigation, demonstrates the lack of candour and undermines the sincerity of its statements that it will assist this inquiry in the discharge of its terms of reference.’
The first strand of the inquiry, examining resilience and preparedness for the pandemic, will start its evidence hearings on Tuesday next week, which will last until the end of July. The second strand, which will focus on Government decision-making and cover the actions of Mr Johnson among others, is due to begin in October.
Hundreds of formal requests for evidence have been sent out, including to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, his predecessor Liz Truss, former deputy prime minister Dominic Raab, and Covid-era health secretary Matt Hancock.
The Government last week missed the deadline to hand over Mr Johnson’s unredacted material, with ministers instead announcing highly unusual plans to challenge the request in the courts.
At yesterday’s largely administrative hearing, Baroness Hallett said: ‘I issued a notice… making it clear that, in my view, it is for the inquiry chair to decide what is relevant or potentially relevant.
‘The Cabinet Office disagrees, claiming they are not obliged to disclose what they consider to be unambiguously irrelevant material. They invited me to withdraw the notice. I declined. They are now challenging my decision… by way of judicial review.’
Hugo Keith KC, counsel to the inquiry, said Mr Johnson was effectively circumventing the Government by offering to hand over information directly.
Mr Keith said: ‘The inquiry team has been liaising with his legal team.’
Information Commissioner Mr Edwards separately told the Commons public administration and constitutional affairs committee that government departments ‘shouldn’t be using disappearing messages in the conduct of government business’.
Asked what sanctions were available if such messages were used, Mr Edwards said: ‘It’s a little perilous to speculate… but there are criminal sanctions for failing to maintain a record or destroying a record.’
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