Trust matters

Toby Harris on the Department of Health’s apparent attempt to evade scrutiny and accountability

For a government to retain public trust during a crisis, as we are in with Covid-19, it is important to be transparent about the problems being faced and at the same time open to parliamentary scrutiny. When the House of Lords returned largely virtually on 21 April, one innovation put in play was the concept of the Topical Written Question to which an answer would be provided within a week.

How has this worked so far? The latest Order Paper shows that ten of these topical questions – all to the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) – have missed the deadline for a reply. We all understand ministers and their officials are busy, but that is not a sufficient reason for being unaccountable.

My question was tabled on 22 April, so should have been answered on the 29th – some 9/10* days ago. And I wanted to know the government’s estimate of the average daily requirement for each type of personal protection equipment (PPE) to meet the needs of the NHS, the care sector and other priority services.

In asking the question, I was seeking to compare the estimated figure with the shipment of equipment that ministers had promised would be arriving from Turkey the previous weekend. It had been implied that this would transform the problems with PPE. Although we now know that it arrived late and incomplete, with most of the equipment sub-standard and therefore unusable.

Given the government’s failure, to date, to answer my original question, I can only assume there is a degree of embarrassment about the Turkish shipment debacle. Even so, the key information requested must be made available.

Everybody knows that PPE is vital for those on the frontline in the battle against COVID-19. We have all heard stories about the problems that doctors, nurses and care workers have had in not being able to access the protection they need and deserve.

We also understand that there have been huge efforts to buy in what was needed. Still, how can you embark on any procurement exercise unless you know what is required? The DHSC, NHS England, the Cabinet Office or whoever is responsible for ensuring sufficient PPE must have some idea. If they do not know, they are incompetent. If they do, why not tell Parliament?

An honest answer would allow the whole country to understand the scale of the problems being faced – and perhaps help us to appreciate that a planeload of PPE from Turkey would only meet the needs of the NHS for a matter of hours.

In the present emergency, trust matters. We need to feel that those speaking at the daily Downing Street press conferences are being open and truthful. And that is where parliamentary scrutiny comes in.

Questions to ministers and proper debate should strengthen public faith in the efforts being made to protect all of us and those on the frontline. But if questions are dodged, problems hidden, and spin allowed to overshadow the facts, then trust will be lost. Not just trust in the current government but in our democratic institutions as well.

Lord Toby Harris of Haringey is Chair of the Labour Peers Group. He tweets @LordTobyHarris 

Published 8th May 2020

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