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Cabinet Office legal bill to censor Covid Inquiry documents could run to millions

Rishi Sunak is spending potentially millions of pounds on Government attempts to censor documents demanded by the Covid Inquiry.

The Cabinet Office has set up an elaborate process that involves three different legal checks for every “redaction” it proposes, each incurring costs to the taxpayer, i has discovered.

The system was buried in the Government’s “statement of facts and grounds” sent to Covid Inquiry chair Baroness Hallett in response to her request for all documents covering the pandemic.

Within that document, the Covid Inquiry stated: “We are concerned about the delay to the process of disclosure, which in part appears to be caused by a desire to redact materials prior to disclosure to the Inquiry.

“An email received from GLD [Government Legal Service] on 20 March 2023 indicated that such redactions are considered by B level Panel Counsel, then A level Counsel and then finally Anne Studd KC.

“It appears to us to be causing an unnecessary delay to the process when we have provided assurance about the process of redacting by agreement.”

The checks mean that three different lawyers, often hired externally, are needed for each and every redaction proposed for official Government documents sent to the inquiry.

The cost of hiring such legal expertise could be substantial, given the thousands of documents needed by the inquiry.

The bill comes on top of that already set to be incurred by the judicial review of Lady Hallett’s demand for all documents in their original form, a legal case due to be heard on June 30.

Government sources stressed that the elaborate process was needed to identify which documents had been mistakenly redacted, as well as those done correctly. The system had already sifted out some wrongly redacted material, they said.

But both Labour and the TUC hit out at the spending, as well as the delays, entailed by the system of legal checks.

Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner said: “Families up and down the country will rightly be furious to learn of the government’s attempts to dodge scrutiny in the Covid Inquiry. These underhand tactics are set to cost the taxpayer millions.

“Instead of dealing with the cost-of-living crisis, Ministers are more interested in obscuring and concealing information.

“It is essential that UK Government Ministers comply with their obligations, so the public can get to the truth and those responsible can be held to account.”

Kate Bell, Assistant General Secretary of the TUC, said: “In the middle of the worst cost of living crisis in generations, the Prime Minister is potentially spending millions of taxpayers’ money on trying to undermine the inquiry.

“The government must stop playing political games and cooperate fully. The pandemic affected every single worker and community in the country.

“The very least we deserve is openness and transparency from our decision makers. That’s how we learn lessons and save lives in the future.”

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “The Government draws on a range of expertise to ensure that its legal processes are properly carried out.”

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