The high court will decide “very soon” whether ministers should be forced to hand over all unredacted files demanded by the Covid inquiry, MPs have been told.
In an attempt to allay concerns of a cover-up, the Cabinet Office minister Jeremy Quin faced down fractious MPs on Monday and denied there was any political involvement in the scrutiny of such material.
Legal action launched by the government last week had been expedited, he said, with the first hearing to go ahead “on or shortly after 30 June”. He claimed the government’s motive for the unprecedented move to try to limit the Covid inquiry’s powers had been “misinterpreted”.
A judicial review is being sought by the Cabinet Office because it wants to avoid handing over the entire WhatsApp history of Boris Johnson and a former No 10 aide, Henry Cook, as well as the former prime minister’s notebooks.
Whitehall bosses believe the government has the right to decide what evidence to redact before the files are handed over to the inquiry on the basis of being irrelevant.
Quin said there was no political involvement in the process and the move to seek a judge’s ruling was to resolve a “genuine and sincere difference of opinion”.
However, opposition MPs and some senior Tories voiced concerns that confidence in the inquiry and its findings could be hit by the government’s move.
Quin said he “fully supports the vital work” of the inquiry, led by Heather Hallett, a retired court of appeal judge, and praised her as an “eminent” lawyer.
He defended redacting “unambiguously irrelevant” WhatsApps – citing discussions about personal issues or unrelated policy. Any files there might be a dispute over have been handed over in full, Quin added.
Laying out the process for deciding whether material is relevant or not to the inquiry for the first time, Quin said witnesses who the documents are requested from are first asked to surrender anything potentially relevant. That is reviewed by lawyers, including a king’s counsel who works for the Cabinet Office, he added.
Though Labour pressed for answers over how much the judicial review would cost taxpayers, Quin declined to provide any figures.
Fleur Anderson, a shadow Cabinet Office minister, told him: “By potentially undermining and challenging the inquiry, they’re not only undermining trust but public safety as well.”
Some Tory MPs also voiced concerns. William Wragg, who chairs the Commons constitutional affairs select committee, said it was up to Lady Hallett to request whatever evidence she felt necessary.
Julian Smith, a former government chief whip, also said the inquiry was in a strong position legally and called for more “mediation” with Hallett to agree a middle ground, such as setting up private reading rooms to view sensitive material but not be able to remove it.
Edward Leigh, an arch lockdown critic, said it was absolutely essential that everything is given to the inquiry.
Hallett may make her first public comments about the issue since the row blew up last week, at a preliminary hearing of the Covid inquiry on Tuesday morning.