Documents will only be disclosed to the Covid-19 inquiry “where it is appropriate”, a Cabinet minister has said.
As the dispute between the Cabinet Office and the inquiry over the release of Boris Johnson’s documents rumbled on, Mel Stride said the Government was prepared to be “absolutely robustly transparent” where necessary.
The Cabinet Office has claimed it does not have access to Mr Johnson’s WhatsApp messages and private notebooks which were demanded by inquiry chairwoman Baroness Hallett and the Government has a wider objection to the release of “unambiguously irrelevant” material.
The inquiry has set a deadline of 4pm on Thursday to hand over Mr Johnson’s messages, notebooks and official diaries, having granted a 48-hour extension on Tuesday.
Lady Hallett demanded a witness statement from a senior civil servant accompanied by a statement of truth confirming the documents are not held if the Cabinet Office fails to produce them by the new deadline.
Work and Pensions Secretary Mr Stride told Sky News “we absolutely intend to continue to be absolutely transparent and candid” and the Government had already provided “55,000 documents, eight witness statements and corporate witness statements” to the inquiry.
He added: “I’m absolutely certain and confident that the Cabinet Office will be engaged in this in exactly the right kind of way, and in the kind of spirit that I’ve just outlined and making sure that we are absolutely robustly transparent where it is appropriate to be so.
“I think that’s an important qualification, so that the inquiry has all the information that it is right for it to have.”
Allies of Mr Johnson insisted he has “no objection” to handing over the evidence as his successor Rishi Sunak said the Government was acting “in a spirit of transparency and candour”.
Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner said evidence has seemingly “gone missing”, adding: “It must be found and handed over as requested if the whiff of a cover-up is to be avoided and bereaved families are to get the answers they deserve.”
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman flatly denied the allegation of a cover-up, saying: “No. We want to learn the lessons about the actions of the state during the pandemic, we want that to be done rigorously and candidly.”
He said there is no requirement to “permanently store or record every WhatsApp”, with messages related to decision-making instead copied over to the official record.
But the spokesman said it is “down to individuals to decide what personal information they are able to hand over”.
A Cabinet Office spokeswoman: “We are firmly of the view that the inquiry does not have the power to request unambiguously irrelevant information that is beyond the scope of this investigation.
“This includes the WhatsApp messages of Government employees which are not about work but instead are entirely personal and relate to their private lives.”
Mr Johnson’s team says the notebooks and WhatsApp messages have been handed to the Cabinet Office legal team, but he has since parted ways with his Government-appointed lawyers.
The former prime minister says he has not had a request from the Cabinet Office since telling officials in a letter on Friday any request for material must be in writing to him.
Whitehall officials are concerned about setting a precedent by handing over all the requested documents in unredacted form, rather than deciding what material is relevant and should be submitted to the inquiry.
Refusing to comply with the request to hand over the documents – which include text conversations between Mr Johnson and a host of government figures including Mr Sunak – could lead to a court battle with the official inquiry.
But Whitehall officials hope that a compromise can be reached before the 4pm deadline to avoid the need for a damaging legal fight with the inquiry set up to examine the pandemic and the Government’s response.