Public inquiries are one of Britain’s only growth industries

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Spoiler alert: Boris Johnson didn’t take Covid-19 seriously enough. The UK’s pandemic inquiry is beginning to feel like a slow-moving whodunnit where everyone already knows the ending.

What Johnson took very seriously indeed, as the way he set up the inquiry shows, was his own political survival. It’s no accident that Britain’s pandemic hearings didn’t even begin until after some other countries had already concluded theirs. Nor that the inquiry has such a broad remit, and long timescale, that it won’t report until 2026 at the earliest. By that time, he had expected to be re-elected.

As so often, though, our blundering protagonist overlooked a crucial detail: that inquiries can take evidence in chunks. By investigating in “modules”, inquiry chair Baroness Heather Hallett has got Johnson on to the stand in good time — even allowing for the delay caused by her having to fight the government in court over access to WhatsApp messages. The mysterious disappearance of those messages, from both Johnson’s and Rishi Sunak’s phones, is such a blatant smoking gun that some publishers would consider it too lame even for a crime thriller.

Will we learn anything genuinely useful for a future pandemic, if a new virus even has the good taste to wait until Hallett reports? Public inquiries can be forensic, heroic exercises in getting justice done. They can also be flabby gravy trains for lawyers, raising expectations, stringing things out and letting down victims.

The appalling scandal of infected blood, in which up to 30,000 people contracted HIV or hepatitis C after receiving contaminated blood products in the 1970s and 1980s, is a dreadful example of governments passing the buck — for 40 years. Thousands died; the Haemophilia Society says 500 more have died since the Langstaff inquiry opened in 2018. On Monday, Sunak suffered his first Commons defeat, after MPs voted to speed up payouts to victims. But decades of obfuscation, with compensation payments deemed too small, have turned what should have been a manageable cost into a possible £10bn.

Japan and France paid out years ago, and drew a line under the scandal. Britain has instead ended up handing power to a judge who wants compensation to be decided by an independent body not a minister, and a King’s Counsel who wants payments to be made not only to the infected patients but to their children, spouses, siblings and carers. Shirking responsibility, years ago, served neither victims nor taxpayers.

When inquires do spend money, it is usually not on victims. Google “public inquiry specialist lawyer” and you’ll find a long list of firms offering whole teams with experience in advising witnesses, writing statements and providing experts. Unlike an inquest, which must conclude within six months, or a parliamentary select committee, where witnesses don’t bring lawyers, the statutory public inquiry is a cornucopia of counsel. The longer it lasts, the more fees can be charged, office space rented and complexity generated.

The independent inquiry into child sexual abuse, set up in the wake of the Jimmy Savile scandal, cost £180mn over seven years. Its most prominent recommendation was that people in positions of trust should report allegations of child abuse: something that could have been said on day one. I remember the call I got in 2015, asking if I would serve on it. Initially flattered, I found the conversation surreal. So broad was the scope, the official acknowledged, it could take forever and achieve nothing. “It’ll certainly see me out,” he said drily.

This is a growth industry: 69 public inquiries were launched between 1990 and 2017, compared with 19 in the previous 30 years. Since 1997 there have never been fewer than three at any one time, and in 2010, there were 16 running concurrently. Thousands of recommendations are made and lobby groups tend to demand these be implemented whether they make sense or not. Terms of reference have become longer, with judges increasingly asked not just to establish facts, which is their métier, but to opine on whole cultures. The Leveson inquiry asked a judge to opine not only on phone hacking but on the entire culture of the media.

The Covid inquiry is spending hours on the trivia of who hated who, according to Hallett, in order to gauge whether Downing Street was “capable”. But it has so far shown a worrying lack of understanding of how government actually works. The chaos in No 10 was a major problem, but equally important issues for the future are how the rest of the landscape functioned or failed to function. Matt Hancock was not fully in charge of the NHS in March 2020, and the NHS quangocracy was bewildering even to those who worked in it.

Since writing about the Covid inquiry a few weeks ago, I have been contacted by a number of officials (not politicians) who feel it is on the wrong track. Some who have appeared say that no one seemed to have read their witness statement, and that the questions focused on trivia. Others served with notices to provide evidence say the questions on the form betray an ignorance of how government works.

“Let’s kick it into the long grass” is a phrase you are bound to hear if you work in government for long enough. It’s an aspect of what James Jones, the former bishop of Liverpool and chair of the panel that secured justice for the Hillsborough families, memorably called “the patronising disposition of unaccountable power”. Johnson has failed to befuddle his interrogators this week. But the inquiry won’t succeed unless it stops trying to plot a drama and tries harder to write a textbook.

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