JOHN Swinney has insisted he has not “tried to conceal information” over the chaos surrounding Scotland’s Covid inquiry following a string of resignations.
Lady Poole quit as chairwoman of the inquiry while it later emerged that four counsel have also resigned before the inquiry has even begun taking evidence.
The Deputy First Minister told MSPs that placing bereaved families at the centre of the inquiry would be “a condition of appointment” for Lady Poole’s replacement.
But Mr Swinney refused to say whether the inquiry will be delayed or not as a result and would not be drawn on whether Lady Poole’s resignation had been sparked by losing four of the counsel.
Addressing MSPs at Holyrood, Mr Swinney insisted that the Scottish Government “wants the inquiry to be delivered at speed” so that “we can learn and benefit form lessons as early as possible”.
He added: “This is why arrangements for appointing a new judicial chair for the inquiry are being taken forward urgently to ensure a successful transition.
“The Scottish Government remains committed to the vital work of the inquiry, as is the independent inquiry team.
“Lady Poole will continue as chair during her notice period of up to three months.”
But Labour health spokesperson Jackie Baillie, raised concerns that Mr Swinney “never mentioned the resignation of four senior and junior counsel when he hosted the cross-party briefing meeting on Monday”, adding that “not a word passed his lips”.
She added: “This is a material consideration which should have been disclosed and I regret the lack of transparency from the Government on such an important issue.
“Some more cynical than I might say that there’s a pattern of secrecy here with the Government. I hope this doesn’t spill over into the inquiry itself.”
But Mr Swinney claimed that the law “gives an inquiry chair alone, rather than ministers, responsibility for deciding how an inquiry operates”.
He added: “I considered carefully what I should share with members of parliament when I telephoned them on Monday evening to share the information because I was mindful of my legal obligation to respect the independence of the inquiry.
“At no stage have I tried to conceal information, I’ve simply respected the legal framework under which I must operate.”
Mr Swinney told MSPs that he spoke to Lady Poole on Friday morning when she told him of her decision to “step down for personal reasons”.
He added: “In the course of that call she indicated to me that four members of counsel had resigned the previous day from the inquiry.
“That was news to me as were the circumstances that led to Lady Poole’s resignation when I heard that on Friday morning.”
Ms Baillie warned “there will be huge disappointment” for the bereaved families over the situation, adding that “they have been patient in waiting for the inquiry to start”.
She added: “Lady Poole was appointed in December, the day before Baroness Hallett was appointed to lead the UK-wide inquiry.
“The UK-wide inquiry has started and they’ve made clear that the people affected are at the heart of their considerations.”
Ms Baillie pressed the Deputy First Minister over the new timetable for the inquiry and whether costs have been revised.
But Mr Swinney accused the Labour MSP of calling on him to “interfere in the running of the inquiry”, adding: “I simply will not do it.”
He said that the concerns of bereaved families “must be at the heart of the inquiry”.
Mr Swinney added: “I can insist, when I secure the appointment of judicial leadership for the inquiry, that the point that Jackie Baillie has put to me will be taken on board.
“It will be a condition of appointment for the judicial leadership that comes in place that bereaved families must be at the heart of the inquiry.
“Their issues and their concerns must be properly aired and must be properly addressed. They must have answers.”