The never-ending problem with public inquiries

Readers can be forgiven for struggling to recall the Edinburgh tram scandal but happily the final report of the public inquiry was sent to the printers a few weeks ago. Alas, since the inquiry into this saga of delays and spiralling costs first convened in 2014, it has taken almost as long as the project whose overruns it was set up to investigate.

This was a relatively contained affair compared with the examination into the UK’s response to the pandemic, likely to be the most sweeping public inquiry in British history.

In Sweden, a national inquiry has already concluded. Here, the Covid-19 inquiry is still battling to secure the information it needs from a government fighting to keep sensitive smartphone messages from the investigation. The timetable envisages finishing the hearings by 2026, which is probably wildly optimistic. The terms of reference are vast, the cost already expected to exceed £100mn; to ease delays, the inquiry is breaking up its work into modules and promising interim reports.

All of which raises the question of whether the public is being well served by the process. Britain has a record of very slow and costly public inquiries. Invariably, key figures move on before they conclude. The Chilcot report into intelligence failures in Iraq came six years after Labour lost power. Six years after the Grenfell Tower fire, the final report is still to be published.

And yet such inquiries have proliferated. Between 1990 and 2017, 69 were launched, according to the Institute for Government think-tank, compared with just 19 in the previous 30 years. Another 11 have been announced since.

The reason is largely political. In an era of reduced trust, people are wary of private probes into establishment failures, an attitude that will only be bolstered by the current row over the release of ministers’ and officials’ material. Statutory public hearings have the powers to demand evidence.

Jason Beer KC, an authority on inquiries, says their job is to answer three questions. What happened? Why and who is to blame? And how can we stop it happening again? Yet increasingly they are vehicles of retribution and catharsis — this protracts the process. Module 2 of the Covid inquiry alone has given “core participant status” to 39 organisations, ranging from victims’ groups to charities, Whitehall departments and trade unions, all with legal representation. One sympathises with the desire of the bereaved to give “voice” to the victims but that is not the core purpose.

Meanwhile, perception is shaped by a media and political narrative of finger pointing, though the public is generally more mature, recognising that decisions made in a crisis are rarely perfect. Even so there are major issues during the pandemic response worth examining, from the arguments around lockdowns to political and administrative failures and errors in protecting care homes.

Given the delays and cost, it is easy to wonder if other fleeter, private models might better serve the country. Essential pandemic lessons need to be learnt before the middle of the decade; it presumably doesn’t need a multiyear and million-pound probe to conclude that Boris Johnson should not be placed in charge of the next crisis.

And yet, importantly, the model retains public confidence. Life-saving reforms can be traced to such investigations. Offshore safety was significantly boosted by the inquiry into the Piper Alpha oil rig disaster. The system of criminal records checks for those working with children sprang from the inquiry into the Soham murders.

But there are other important, systemic problems beyond time and cost. Inquiries, especially those led by judges, are effective at finding out what happened and why. Inquiry chairs, however, are often less expert when it comes to public policy recommendations to avoid a repeat occurrence. There is also an inevitable instinct to introduce more regulation. An IfG report in 2017 found that 45 inquiries delivered 2,625 recommendations. The proliferation diffuses the impact and force of such proposals.

More important, there is no process or even requirement for following up once the inquiry has concluded. The report normally provokes a single parliamentary statement. Ministers respond with thanks but are under no obligation to accept recommendations. There is no formal mechanism for detailed scrutiny on implementation. Some parliamentary select committees follow up but most do not.

After the Soham inquiry, Michael Bichard, the chair, held more hearings to try to force the pace. Emma Norris, deputy director of the IfG, talks of a “wild west after an inquiry has reported”. Recommendations may be quietly dropped, for reasons of cost, practicality or political expediency, but no update is required. A National Audit Office study found 45 per cent of recommendations were agreed. Another 33 per cent were accepted only in principle. The rest were rejected or shelved.

This is the other danger for the Covid inquiry. Not that it will take too long or cost too much; it will. But that its findings get lost in the machine, because the passage of time has eroded the sense of urgency and public interest. Parliament must ensure recommendations are being implemented or reasons given why not.

In a saner, calmer, more trusting environment, governments would look for better ways to examine public tragedies. In the current climate, the best we can hope for is a rigorous process that makes the report worth the wait.

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