Gove and Hancock rebuked for failing to appear before Covid-19 probe

PACAC chair William Wragg says cabinet ministers should not “shy away from scrutiny”
Matt Hancock (left) and Michael Gove both turned down invitations to answer PACAC's questions. Photo: WIktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto/PA Images

By Jim Dunton

24 Feb 2021

Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove and health secretary Matt Hancock have been accused of shying away from scrutiny after rejecting requests to answer questions on their departments’ Covid-19 data transparency and accountability before watchdog MPs.

Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee chair William Wragg said panel members were “extremely disappointed” that Gove and Hancock had responded to requests to appear in person by sending junior ministers who were unable to answer all questions posed by MPs.

Gove sent paymaster general Penny Mordaunt while Hancock sent care minister Helen Whately to an inquiry session earlier this month.

Wragg subsequently asked Gove and Hancock to appear at a session this week to give definitive answers to questions that neither Mordaunt nor Whately could answer.

But in a joint letter, the cabinet ministers declined to appear at the session, pencilled in for tomorrow afternoon. They blamed “diary pressures” but offered to answer further questions from MPs by letter.

Wragg criticised Gove in particular for not doing enough to make sure policy decisions on the response to Covid-19 were open to scrutiny.

“We are extremely disappointed that we have been unable to take evidence from the ministers responsible for key questions on how data has been used to combat the Covid-19 pandemic,” he said.

“Secretaries of state and government ministers are accountable to parliament for the decisions they make. When a select committee holds an inquiry, those responsible for the policy must make themselves available to answer for their decisions. On that measure, in this instance the government has fallen short.

“I would urge the government to reconsider how it engages with parliamentary scrutiny and not shy away from select committees in the future.

“The public will come to its own judgement on how it performs on this measure.”

In his 5 February letter to Gove and Hancock, Wragg said PACAC members had specifically sought secretary of state-level input for the inquiry and that Mordaunt and Whately had been unable to answer questions in “a number of areas”.

“The paymaster general noted that she had ‘seen decisions taken’ and Helen Whately responded on a couple of occasions that our questions were outside her remit,” he said.

The PACAC inquiry took evidence from experts including statistician Prof David Spiegelhalter and Prof Sylvia Richardson, president elect of the Royal Statistical Society, at its first session.

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