Scottish COVID-19 Inquiry Chair: Ministerial statement

Statement by Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Covid Recovery in the Scottish Parliament on Thursday 27 October 2022.

Presiding Officer,

In this statement, I will update Parliament about matters relating to the Scottish Covid-19 Inquiry. In particular, I will announce a new Chair and an amendment which will be made to the Inquiry’s terms of reference.

I begin by repeating my condolences to those bereaved during the pandemic. I also repeat my conviction that the Scottish Covid-19 Inquiry must help to provide the answers for which those individuals, and others affected by the pandemic, search.

In fulfilling our commitment to establish a public inquiry into the handling of the pandemic in Scotland, the Government took time to meaningfully and openly engage with the public on draft aims and principles for the Scottish inquiry. I again express my thanks to everyone who engaged with me and my officials during that important work around the design and scope of the inquiry.

On 14 December 2021, I announced to Parliament the establishment of the Scottish Covid-19 Inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2005.

Under the 2005 Act, Ministers have the power to establish an independent public inquiry, to set terms of reference, and to appoint a Chair and panel.

In my December statement, I announced the terms of reference of the Scottish Covid-19 inquiry and the appointment of the Honourable Lady Poole to be its Chair.

On 9 June 2022, I announced to Parliament three amendments to these terms of reference. The amendments were designed to clarify the scope of the inquiry following a period of reflection. 

My statement in June was intended to be the final word from Government on the establishment of the Inquiry. In particular, I expected that statement to be my last word on the terms of reference; thereafter, they move over to the Inquiry itself.

Section 17 of the 2005 Act gives an inquiry Chair alone, rather than Ministers, responsibility for deciding how an inquiry should operate. It was, and is, for the Scottish Covid-19 Inquiry itself to comment on its work.

Presiding Officer,

On 30 September I was given notice by Lady Poole that she intended to step down from the role of Chair of the Scottish Covid-19 Inquiry for personal reasons.

The Scottish Government was not given any indication before 30 September that Lady Poole had intended to resign. However, Ministers fully respect Lady Poole’s decision and I accepted notice of her resignation.

The Scottish Government is grateful to Lady Poole for the work she has undertaken since the establishment of this inquiry. I thank Lady Poole for her work and wish her well.

The Scottish Government has always been clear that we want 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.

I am acutely aware, from recent discussions with bereaved families representatives, how important it is that there be no delay to the Inquiry arising from the resignation of Lady Poole as Chair.

That is why arrangements for identifying a new Chair for the Inquiry have been taken forward as a matter of urgency, in order to ensure a swift and successful transition.

To that end, I have liaised with the Lord President regarding the appointment of a new judicial Chair, in line with our previous commitment to having the Scottish inquiry led by a judge. I would like to thank the Lord President for his engagement and co-operation on this matter.

I have benefited from the insights and reflections of bereaved family groups about what they would want to see from a new inquiry Chair, and I am especially grateful to them for their engagement at this time.

As a result of this work, I am pleased to be able to announce that the Honourable Lord Brailsford, a sitting senator of the College of Justice of Scotland, will be the new chair of the Scottish Covid-19 inquiry and will assume the role of Chair of the Inquiry tomorrow.

I am confident that Lord Brailsford will bring his extensive experience as a long-serving Senator of the College of Justice to the role of Chair of the Inquiry and will approach its work in a way that properly addresses the need for answers to questions posed by those who have suffered through the pandemic.

From my interactions with Lord Brailsford, I know that he is keenly aware of the need to ensure that the Inquiry progresses and delivers at pace, in order that lessons can be learned within a timescale which will make them applicable and useful. I am also assured that he will undertake the role of Chair in an inclusive way with sensitivity, empathy and compassion.

And I am confident Lord Brailsford will see that full scrutiny is applied in all directions required to ensure that this inquiry provides the answers it has been established to find. I have asked Lord Brailsford, at the earliest opportunity, to meet with bereaved families so he may hear at first hand their perspective about the Inquiry and its approach.

Lady Poole undertook in her resignation to support and assist with the transition to her successor. It will now be a matter for Lord Brailsford to determine how these handover arrangements will work in practice, to best support continuity within the work of the Inquiry. The Scottish Government, in its role as sponsor of the Inquiry, will provide operational support as the Chair considers necessary and appropriate, in order to enable the Inquiry to continue its independent work and ensure the progress made so far by the Inquiry is maintained.

Presiding Officer,

I can also announce today that the terms of reference for the Inquiry will be supplemented in one important respect. This amendment has been discussed with Lord Brailsford, and is designed to provide absolute clarity of the Government’s desire that the Inquiry be taken forward in a way that support our commitments to a person-centred and human rights-based approach.

The terms of reference for the Inquiry currently set out 12 areas of investigation, each covering a strategic element of the handling of the pandemic.

In investigating these 12 strategic elements, the terms of reference ask the Chair to consider the impacts of handling of the pandemic on the exercise of Convention rights as they see appropriate, and to create a factual record of the key strategic elements of the handling of the pandemic.

In my June statement we amended the terms of reference, including to expressly highlight the consideration of disparities by way of amendment to the terms of reference, which encompasses unequal impacts on people.

Today I can confirm that we will make one further addition to the reporting requirements in the terms of reference, effective from the formal appointment of Lord Brailsford as Inquiry Chair. Specifically, this change will require the Inquiry “To demonstrate how a human rights based approach by the inquiry has contributed to the inquiry’s findings in fact and recommendations.”

This will coexist with current references in the terms of reference to Convention rights and to considering unequal impacts on people.

The operation in practice of a human rights-based approach will still, and must still, lie in the hands of the Inquiry Chair.

But this amendment reflects a joint commitment between Scottish Ministers and the new Chair that the Inquiry take a person-centred, human rights based approach, to ensure that every person and organisation taking part can meaningfully participate, be treated fairly, and be empowered to take part in the inquiry.

I am grateful to Lord Brailsford for supporting this amendment, the announcement of which I hope gives confidence to bereaved families and others about the future direction of the Inquiry.

Presiding Officer,

The inquiry operates independently of Government, which is key to its integrity, and within the legal regime under which it has been established.

The 2005 Act sets out a clear framework for the independent functioning of the Inquiry. This statement fulfils my duties under the Act to inform Parliament of my intention to appoint a new Chair. I have also set out today my intention to change the inquiry’s terms of reference, and how this will be done. An inspired Parliamentary Question, to be answered tomorrow, will fulfil the duty under the Act to set out the terms of reference as amended and confirm that they have taken effect. I should also note that no panel members will be appointed today, and that it will be for Lord Brailsford to consider whether to appoint any assessors to provide expertise on particular subjects or any other assistance to the Inquiry.

From my own and the First Minister’s interactions with Lord Brailsford, I am left with no doubt that he is fully qualified for the demanding task put in front of him. And I express my gratitude, and that of the First Minister, to Lord Brailsford for his agreement to take on this important role on behalf of the people of Scotland.

I reiterate that the Scottish Government undertakes to engage fully to support him and the Inquiry, in this vital task.

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