By ITV News' Deputy Political Editor Anushka Asthana and ITV News' Westminster Producer Jack Abbey
Tens of millions of pounds have been spent by government departments on legal representation for the Covid-19 Inquiry, including lawyers for current and former ministers, ITV News can reveal.
The revelation has led families who lost loved ones to ask - what is there to hide? Figures obtained by ITV News via freedom of information requests reveal Whitehall departments have already spent almost £14m on legal costs, and have signed contracts worth another £55m. The biggest spenders so far are, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Department for Health and Social Care and the Cabinet Office, with spends amounting to £5m each.
The combined spend of the Treasury and business departments is around £2m.
But figures given exclusively to ITV News by Tussell, procurement specialists who analyse government spending, shows tens of millions of pounds worth of additional spending already agreed in signed contracts. Rivka Gottlieb, who lost her father, Michael, at the start of the coronavirus pandemic said: "It feels like the government and its departments are hiding behind lawyers and using them for protection.
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"This should be a transparent process, it should be about getting to the truth of what happened and learning as a country. So what are they hiding?" Michael Gottlieb fell ill with Covid-19 on March 22, 2020, a day before the country went into lockdown.
Rivka, who is part of the campaign group Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK, said she is certain different government decisions could have saved her Dad's life, including going into lockdown earlier.
The five biggest spenders so far on legal costs or fees related to the Inquiry
Department of Health and Social Care - £5m
Cabinet Office - £4.7m
Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy - £1.2m
Treasury - £746,259.02
Home Office - £650,000
As well as the amount being spent on lawyers, Rivka pointed to the Cabinet Office taking the Inquiry to court over its desire to redact materials that it hands to Inquiry chair Baroness Hallett. She also points out the redactions themselves, and what they could contain. On ITV News' revelations, the government said: "The Covid-19 Inquiry is unprecedented in the breadth of its remit and the government is committed to supporting it. "To ensure that we respond to the Inquiry properly, legal support is being provided to individual departments from approved internal and external sources, all appointments represent best value for money and are made in line with procurement rules."
Others we speak to, including scientists, argue it is inevitable there will be high legal costs due to the sheer number of documents that need to be scoured through and handed over. But critics still believe lawyers are being used in a way that reduces transparency. One document between the Inquiry and Cabinet Office about Boris Johnson and his aide's materials talks about the process for redacting information.
The inquiry said "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". Meanwhile the Cabinet Office has launched a judicial review against the Inquiry, because it wants to continue redacting material. Ministers say they shouldn't have to hand over "irrelevant" material that might have also been shared on Covid-focused Whatsapp groups. But the Inquiry chair, Baroness Hallett, says it should be up to her to decide what is relevant.
Labour's Deputy Leader, Angela Rayner, said people would be furious about the latest revelations. She argued ministers had promised to be transparent but were spending millions defending themselves "against the indefensible".
Ms Rayner also said she feels the government is trying to "thwart the committee", but said people who lost loved ones want answers to questions. Nathan Oswin, the TUC's Covid Inquiry lead said: "Every penny of taxpayers' money spent on the inquiry should be going to help us learn lessons and save lives in the future. "Ministers shouldn't be racking up huge legal bills to block the handover of essential evidence. "The inquiry is too important to be derailed by the government's political games. Covid affected every worker and community in this country."
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