Downing Street looking for ‘way forward’ in spat with Covid Inquiry over demand to disclose all government WhatsApps – as chair Baroness Hallett says row will be settled in court
Downing Street today insisted it is looking for a ‘way forward’ in the spat with the Covid Inquiry over disclosing all government WhatsApps.
The PM’s spokesman voiced hope for a compromise as chair Baroness Hallett told a session she would not comment further before the courts rule on the case.
Speculation has been mounting that the government could abandon the bid to avoid handing over unredacted messages from Boris Johnson and others.
Tories have been warning that the attempt will backfire, while the former PM has made clear he is ready to supply all the material. A hearing is expected around the end of the month.
No10 said today: ‘We’re willing to agree another way forward.’
Lady Hallett, a former appeal court judge, said: ‘As has been widely reported in the media, an issue has arisen between the inquiry and the Cabinet Office as to who decides what is relevant or potentially relevant.
‘I issued a notice under Section 21 of the Inquiries Act 2005 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 Section 21 notice. I declined.
‘They are now challenging my decision to decline to withdraw the notice in the High Court by way of judicial review.
‘With litigation pending and as the decision-maker, I can make no further comment.’
Baroness Hallett told a session said she could not comment further on the spat pending the case being heard – potentially on June 30
Mr Johnson has vowed to send all his messages to the inquiry, circumventing the Cabinet Office
Mr Johnson has vowed to send all his messages to the inquiry, circumventing the Cabinet Office.
The Inquiry is now due to compare that unredacted material to what has been supplied by the government.
Inquiry counsel Hugo Keith KC told the hearing: ‘The inquiry team has been liaising with his legal team to arrange for the inspection of the unredacted WhatsApps that he had provided to the Cabinet Office, which he had returned to him.
‘We expect to begin that inspection this week. The inspection will allow your team to make its own assessment as to the redactions applied by the Cabinet Office and to satisfy ourselves and ultimately you of their appropriateness or otherwise.’
Mr Keith said the inquiry had asked the Cabinet Office to return Mr Johnson’s notebooks to him by June 12 to start a similar inspection process.
He added: ‘Mr Johnson also holds an old phone that was turned off in 2021 for security reasons.
‘Neither Mr Johnson nor the inquiry has the technical expertise to ensure the contents of the phone can be downloaded safely and properly, particularly bearing in mind the overarching need to ensure no damage is done to national security.
‘We have therefore agreed that this phone should be provided to the appropriate personnel in government for its contents to be downloaded.
‘We have asked the Cabinet Office, in liaison with Mr Johnson and those government personnel, to obtain the phone without delay, to confirm in writing the process by which it will be examined and to give confirmation that it, like the diaries and the notebooks and the WhatsApps, will be accessed fully.
‘That is to say, there will be no redactions made to the contents, other than in relation to national security, before we may view it.’
In the Commons yesterday, Tory MPs lined up to warn the Cabinet Office minister Jeremy Quin that the Government should not be pressing ahead with legal action.
Former justice secretary Sir Robert Buckland said the Government was almost certain to lose its battle with Lady Hallett.
‘The courts will be very reluctant to get involved in second guessing the decision by Baroness Hallett,’ he added. ‘They are going to have to decide she has got things very wrong indeed before they wish to intervene.’
Addressing Mr Quin, he added: ‘It begs the question to use the old wartime adage, ”is your journey really necessary?”
Mr Quin said the row did not undermine the Government’s confidence in the inquiry.
In the Commons yesterday, Tory MPs lined up to warn the Cabinet Office minister Jeremy Quin (pictured) that the Government should not be pressing ahead with legal action
‘The Government fully supports the vital work of the inquiry as it seeks to establish the facts and lessons to be learned from the response to the pandemic,’ he said. ‘It is right that the inquiry into Covid-19 handling in the UK is comprehensive and rigorous.’
But he said it was right to contest the ‘principle’ that the Government should be able to withhold material that was ‘unambiguously irrelevant’ to the inquiry, such as personal messages and those relating to other areas of government.
Tory grandee Sir Edward Leigh urged the Government to ‘let everything hang out’, adding: ‘Let them have what they want and let’s get to the truth.’
William Wragg, Conservative chairman of the public administration and constitutional affairs committee, said it was for Baroness Hallett to ‘determine’ what was relevant to her inquiry.
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