First Minister challenged again over lack of Wales-only COVID inquiry
The first minister has faced further challenge after failing to commit to a Wales only inquiry into the Welsh Government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
The UK Government also already confirmed it will hold a UK-wide inquiry and in August Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon confirmed an independent inquiry into the Scottish Government covid response would begin by the end of the year.
However First Minister Mark Drakeford has continually ruled out holding a Wales only inquiry, despite being pressed on why decisions that have affected Welsh lives and livelihoods won’t be scrutinised in Wales.
Instead Mr Drakeford said provided there is a specific Welsh focus in the UK-wide inquiry, he believes that is “the best way to move ahead.”
On Monday the first minister confirmed that he had received a guarantee from Prime Minister Boris Johnson that the UK inquiry would have a Welsh focus.
Mr Drakeford tweeted: “Today I pressed the prime minister for a guarantee the UK covid inquiry would properly examine the actions of Welsh Government and experiences of the people of Wales.
“The prime minister confirmed there will be a proper Welsh dimension to the inquiry and spoke of its importance to the whole of the UK.”
However during Tuesday’s FMQs (First Ministers Questions), Mr Drakeford faced renewed calls to commit to a Wales only inqury.
Acting Leader of the Welsh Conservatives Paul Davies MS challenged the First Minister on the topic at First Minister Questions, saying: “First Minister, yesterday you made it clear that you were seeking reassurances from the UK Government that a UK-wide COVID inquiry will have a sufficient focus on decisions made here in Wales.
“If you’re so concerned that a UK-wide inquiry won’t probe the Welsh Government enough, then why don’t you commit to an independent Welsh inquiry?”
Mr Drakeford replied: “Well, for the many reasons that I’ve previously explained. I had an opportunity yesterday to meet with the Prime Minister. It was a wide-ranging meeting, but I had two issues in particular that I wanted to make sure I put directly to the Prime Minister in that meeting.
“One was the issue of coal tip safety and its importance here in Wales, and the other was to follow up the meeting that I had held with bereaved families here in Wales and to put some of the points that they put to me to the Prime Minister.
“What I put to the Prime Minister was that for Wales to be part of the UK inquiry that he had proposed and in the way that he has asked us to be involved, I needed to be able to provide assurances to others that Wales would not be, in the term that is sometimes used, a footnote in a UK inquiry, that the inquiry would provide a specific focus on the Welsh experience and it would go about its inquiries in a way that provided ample opportunity for people in Wales to be directly involved in it, and that, when it came to reporting, that there would be material in the report that was directly focused on the way in which decisions had been made here in Wales.
“The Prime Minister gave positive replies to all of that, recognising the points that were made and reaffirming his wish that the Welsh dimension, as he put it, of the coronavirus experience, would be properly investigated and then reported within the wider context without which you cannot make proper sense of what happened in Wales or provide the answers that people, quite rightly, will look to the inquiry to provide.”
Mr Davies came back: “There is no reason why the Welsh Government can’t take part in a UK-wide inquiry and a Welsh inquiry. An open and transparent Government must be accountable to the people it serves, and the people of Wales deserve answers. ‘Responsible, but not held responsible’ seems to be the mantra of this Welsh Labour Government.”
“A Welsh inquiry is a necessary part in helping the country understand how decisions were made and whether lessons have indeed been learnt. Therefore, do you accept that refusing a Welsh inquiry is not just insulting to those campaigners who are tirelessly fighting for answers, but it also undermines Wales’s ability to mitigate against future threats, if we can’t understand the process of decision making throughout the pandemic?”
The First Minister said: “I do not come to my conclusions on the basis of wishing to insult anybody; I come to my conclusions because I believe the answers that people in Wales need will be better provided, they will get better answers, if there is a Welsh focus within a UK inquiry. Because I don’t believe that you can make proper sense of the many decisions that were made here in Wales without understanding the relationship between those decisions and the wider context within which they were made.”
“Our position remains as it has been for many weeks. Provided we get the assurances that we are looking for from the UK Government that there will be that focus on decisions here in Wales, that people in Wales will have answers to their questions within the UK inquiry, then I think that will give them better answers. If we don’t get those assurances, if we’re not certain that we will get the focus on the Welsh experience that we need, then that will give us pause to think again.”
Mr Davies reiterated his points and asked again: “If you don’t commit to a specific Wales inquiry, people will think that your Government is evading scrutiny and refusing to make itself accountable to its people. While the UK-wide inquiry will rightly consider inter-governmental decision making, a Welsh inquiry could solely focus on your Government’s handling of the pandemic.”
“Let us not forget that it was the Welsh Government that was responsible for people not being tested prior to being discharged from hospital, therefore allowing the virus to enter Wales’s care settings. In fact, after England introduced mass testing in care homes during the first wave in 2020, you said that you could see no value in introducing tests across Welsh care homes.
“And let us not forget that it was the Welsh Government that was responsible for failing to get a grip on hospital-acquired infections. In fact, after reports of hospital-acquired infections rising 50 per cent in a week, the health Minister at the time said that he didn’t think it was out of control, but that it was a real risk. And let us not forget that it was the Welsh Government that was responsible for failing to send more than 13,000 shielding letters to the right addresses in April and May last year.”
“So, First Minister, the list goes on and on and on. So, why won’t you give the families of those who lost their lives during the pandemic the answers they need and the peace that they deserve? And why won’t you accept both a UK-wide inquiry and, indeed, a Welsh inquiry, so that your Government’s handling of the pandemic can be fully scrutinised and your Ministers held to account? The Welsh people deserve that.”
The debate wrapped up with a final response from Mr Drakeford, “I’m completely committed to there being proper scrutiny of decisions that were made here in Wales; an inquiry into them and accountability as a result.
“I’m not persuaded that overlapping in completing inquiries will give the best answers for people who need those answers. While the Prime Minister—while his Prime Minister—continues to offer me the assurances that experiences here in Wales will get the attention they need and deserve and will do so within the wider context that only a UK inquiry can investigate, then, I’m prepared to continue with the agreement that I struck with the Prime Minister at the outset.
“There are still some important tests for the UK Government, and they’re coming in the short term. The Prime Minister has said to bereaved families that he will appoint a chair of that inquiry this side of Christmas. I expect First Ministers of other UK nations to be involved in that appointment.
“If I read about it in a press release, or I’m told about it half an hour before it is issued, then the sense of genuine involvement and a genuine opportunity to have the Welsh dimension scrutinised, as it needs to be in that inquiry, will inevitably be under question.
“Yesterday, the Prime Minister assured me that devolved Governments would be properly engaged and involved in that appointment, in the terms of reference and in the working practices of the UK inquiry and I look forward to that being borne out in practice.”
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