Politics latest: Johnson's WhatsApps at centre of COVID inquiry row; Braverman gets prime seat at PMQs as Tory MP told to leave | Politics live (2023)

Key points
  • COVID inquiry issues legal notice to Cabinet Office over Boris Johnson's redacted WhatsApps
  • Downing Street insists government is supplying all relevant material to probe
  • Johnson also back in hot water over lockdown allegations - what you need to know
  • Labour MP who harassed assistant and racially abused journalist gets whip back
  • Braverman gets seat next to Sunak at PMQs after being told she can keep job
  • Liz Bates: But their uneasy alliance may not last much longer
  • Watch: Tory MP asked to leave Commons during PMQs
  • Live reporting by Ben Bloch and (earlier)Faith Ridler


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Nurses in Wales reject pay offer and will continue planned strike action

Members of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) in Wales have rejected a pay offer and will continue strike action - despite a majority of other unions accepting it.

According to the Welsh government, the package they offered meant those at the bottom of Band 5 - including nurses and other health care professionals just starting their careers in NHS Wales - would have received a total pay increase of over 17% (of which over 12% is consolidated) for the 2022-23 and 2023-24 financial years.

At a meeting involving all NHS unions earlier this week, the RCN voted to reject the pay offer. However, it was in the minority, meaning that it will be implemented, despite the opposition from nurses.

The union says that industrial action planned for 6 and 7 June and 12 and 13 July will go ahead unless the Welsh government engages in "meaningful negotiations."

In a statement, its director, Helen Whyley, said: "I have written to the minister for health and social services today, seeking to urgently re-enter negotiations, and unless that happens, members of RCN Wales will be on the picket lines once again from next month.

"I respect those in our membership and in other unions who voted to accept, but this was not the view of the majority of our membership.

"The decision to take strike action is not taken lightly by us or our membership. Nursing is the largest part of the NHS workforce and they require an offer that matches their true value."


Labour MP who harassed assistant and racially abused journalist gets whip back

MP Neil Coyle has been allowed back into the parliamentary Labour Party after he was suspended for harassing an assistant and racially abusing a journalist.

Mr Coyle, the MP for Bermondsey and Old Southwark, was suspended from Labour last February following allegations he made racist comments to a journalist on the parliamentary estate - forcing him to sit as an independent in the Commons.

Mr Coyle, who was found to have breached parliament's bullying and harassment policy in a report published by parliament's Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme (IGS), apologised for his "insensitive" remarks and has since been sober.

Sky News understands that Labour decided to restore the whip to Mr Coyle due to his sobriety and the length of the suspension he served.

However, receiving the Labour whip back does not guarantee that Mr Coyle will be the party's chosen candidate going into the next election.

The development comes just two months after the expert panel recommended Mr Coyle be suspended from the Commons for five days - which meant Mr Coyle had his pay suspended and was unable to vote and take part in debates.


New probe ordered into Teesworks - but questions remain over powers it will have

By Tim Baker, politics reporter

The government has ordered a new inquiry into the Teesworks site - but concerns are being raised about the powers the probe will have.

Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove has written to the Conservative mayor of the Tees Valley, Ben Houchen, to say that he will "appoint a panel, in line with established practice, to undertake an independent, external assurance review."

This comes following allegations of "corruption" - including from Labour MPs - at the site, which is being redeveloped into a freeport.

It had been expected that a statutory National Audit Office inquiry would be instructed, but this has not materialised.

A spokesman for the NAO said: "In discussions with government officials last week, the NAO indicated that it was willing and able to carry out an examination of the South Tees Development Corporation and the redevelopment of Teesside Steelworks, if the necessary agreement was in place.

"The government has decided to make alternative arrangements for looking into these matters, as is its prerogative."

All of this to say that a probe of some kind will take place, but not under the auspices of the NAO.


Cabinet Office insists it is 'fully committed' to COVID inquiry obligations after legal notice issued

The Cabinet Office has issued a statement in response to the Section 21 notice demanding that unredacted WhatsApp messages and diary entries from former prime minister Boris Johnson be provided (see post at 13.52).

The department says it has provided over 55,000 documents and committed "extensive time and effort" to assisting the inquiry "fulsomely".

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: "We are fully committed to our obligations to the Covid-19 Inquiry.

"As such, the Cabinet Office alone has already provided upwards of 55,000 documents, 24 personal witness statements, eight corporate statements and extensive time and effort has gone into assisting the Inquiry fulsomely over the last 11 months.

"We will continue to provide all relevant material to the Inquiry, in line with the law, ahead of proceedings getting underway."

It is understood that the Cabinet Office took the decision to redact certain documents to remove "unambiguously irrelevant material", and the position is that the inquiry cannot compel that that be provided.


What is a Section 21 legal notice?

As we have been reporting, the chair of the COVID inquiry has issued a Section 21 order under the Inquiries Act 2005 to the Cabinet Office to release unredacted WhatsApp messages and diary entries from former prime minister Boris Johnson.

So what is the Inquiries Act 2005?

As with all modern public inquiries in the UK, the COVID inquiry is governed by the Inquiries Act 2005.

The Act has 53 sections that outline how public inquiries should be conducted, from their opening to taking testimony, the production of documents, and everything in between.

The biggest completed inquiry to have been conducted under the Act is the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practices, and ethics of the British press in the wake of the phone hacking scandals.

The inquiries into the Grenfell Tower tragedy and the Manchester Arena bombing, among others, are currently being conducted under the Act.

What does Section 21 say?

This is the section cited by Baroness Hallett, the chair of the COVID public inquiry, in her letter to the Cabinet Office demanding that the department produce unredacted materials under threat of a fine and/or imprisonment.

The name of the section is "powers of chairman to require production of evidence".

Therefore, it sets out the powers that the person in charge of a public inquiry has to mandate that evidence be handed over.

It gives the chair of a public inquiry the powers to:

  • Require someone to attend a hearing at a specific time and place;
  • Produce documents;
  • Produce any other physical evidence the chair deems relevant.

In order for a Section 21 notice to be lawful, it must:

  • Explain the consequences of not complying with the notice;
  • Explain how the person or organisation should proceed if they are unable to comply with the notice, or if complying with the notice is considered "not reasonable".

Only the chair of the inquiry can decide what is or is not reasonable.

What are the consequences for not complying?

If a person or organisation does not follow the order, and the chair decides the request is reasonable, it is considered an offence.

Consequences could include:

  • A fine not exceeding £1,000;
  • And/or imprisonment for up to 51 weeks.


'Hand on heart': Boris Johnson swears he's telling the truth

Not even two months ago, Boris Johnson was questioned by a cross-party group of MPs for more than three hours over allegedly misleading the Commons about lockdown rule-breaking in Downing Street.

He gave evidence to the Privileges Committee's inquiry, set up after the House of Commons referred the matter to them last April.

On the Sky News Daily podcast just after the former PM's appearance in March, Sally Lockwood was joined by our chief political correspondent Jon Craigto examine what was said, by whom and when, plus - what could happen next?

Listen back to the podcast here:

Click to subscribe to the Sky News Daily wherever you get your podcasts


Legal notice 'suggests this is a government with much to hide' - Labour

To recap, the COVID inquiry has issued a legal notice to the Cabinet Office for not handing over the full contents of Boris Johnson's messages from during the pandemic.

The government department tried to object to handing over the communications but was overruled by Baroness Hallett, the chair of theCOVIDinquiry.

Labour has weighed in on the situation, with the party's deputy leader, Angela Rayner, saying: "The fact the COVID inquiry has had to invoke legal powers to compel the hand over of crucial documents suggests that this is a government with much to hide.

"Rather than fighting legal battles to withhold evidence, it is essential that ministers now comply so the public is able to get to the truth and those responsible can be held to account."


COVID inquiry 'needs to get the facts' - as Cabinet Office dubbed 'outrageous'

Rivka Goettlib, a spokesperson for COVID Bereaved Families for Justice, has insisted the COVID inquiry "needs to get to the facts" if it wants to learn lessons from the pandemic.

She praised Baroness Hallett, the chair of the COVID inquiry, for "standing up to the Cabinet Office" and demanding redacted messages are shared.

"It's outrageous that they think they can dictate to an independent inquiry which of Boris Johnson's WhatsApp messages they can see," Ms Goettlib said.

She also pointed to the allegations made against Mr Johnson yesterday that he had broken lockdown rules, adding: "You really do fear the worst about what they’re hiding."

Elkan Abrahamson, head of major inquests and inquiries at Broudie Jackson Canter, who represents families from COVID Bereaved Families for Justice, added that the situation is "extremely concerning".

"It is imperative to the process that all government departments are honest and open to ensure we find out the truth around the decisions made during the pandemic.

"This obstructiveness emphasises why we need a statutory duty of candour."


Redacted WhatsApp messages include texts from Johnson relating to Sarah Everard vigil

As we have reported, the Cabinet Office has tried to object to handing over the full contents of Boris Johnson's messages to the COVID inquiry.

This bid was overruled by Baroness Hallett, the chair of theinquiry.

She has now ordered the release of unredacted WhatsApp messages and diary entries from theformer prime minister.

In documents released today, Baroness Hallett said it was "apparent that some important passages were initially assessedby the Cabinet Office to be 'unambiguously irrelevant' to my investigationsand therefore redacted".

This included discussions between the prime minister and his advisers about the enforcement of COVID regulations by the Metropolitan Police during the public demonstrations following the murder of Sarah Everard.

Sarah Everard was kidnapped and murdered by a working Metropolitan Police officer who spotted her walking home in North London.

A vigil for the 33-year-old descended into chaos when it took place in the midst of COVID restrictions in March 2021.

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