John Swinney has rejected an accusation of a “pattern of secrecy” within the Scottish Government over resignations from the independent public inquiry into the handling of the Covid pandemic.
The Deputy First Minister addressed an urgent question in the Scottish Parliament on Wednesday on whether Scotland’s Covid-19 inquiry could be delayed due to the resignation of its chair, Lady Poole.
Lady Poole gave notice on Friday of her intention to step down from the key post for personal reasons.
It then emerged on Tuesday that four members of the counsel team have also quit.
Scottish Labour health spokeswoman Jackie Baillie quizzed Mr Swinney on the impact the resignations could have on the delivery of the inquiry, and questioned why there had been no mention of the four counsel members’ decisions when MSPs were briefed on Lady Poole’s announcement on Monday.
Speaking in the chamber, Ms Baillie said: “I am curious as to why he (Swinney) never mentioned the resignation of four senior and junior counsel when he hosted a cross-party briefing meeting on Monday.
“Not a word past his lips. This 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 more cynical than I might say that there’s a pattern of secrecy here with the Government, and I hope that this doesn’t spill over into the inquiry itself.”
Mr Swinney said he had “considered carefully” the information he could share with MSPs in the meeting, citing the fact that the inquiry is required to be independent of Government under the Inquiries Act 2005.
He said: “I was mindful of my legal obligation to respect the independence of the inquiry, and the staffing matters of the inquiry are exclusively a matter for the chair of the inquiry.
“So, at no stage have I tried to conceal information. I’ve simply respected the legal framework under which I must operate.
Lady Poole resigned from the #Covid Inquiry this week but the Deputy First Minister failed to mention that other senior counsel have also resigned. I have called for an urgent statement in @ScotParl this week to establish what has gone wrong pic.twitter.com/J2Op2xeXUt
— Jackie Baillie (@jackiebmsp) October 5, 2022
“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 the previous day from the inquiry. That was news to me, as was the circumstances that led to Lady Poole’s resignation when I heard that on Friday morning.”
The Scottish Government is working “urgently” to appoint a new chair, the Deputy First Minister added.
“The Scottish Government wants the inquiry to be delivered at speed, addressing the range of questions that people have – particularly the bereaved – so that we can learn and benefit from lessons as early as possible.
“This 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 the independent inquiry team, and Lady Poole will continue as chair during a notice period of up to three months.”