Public inquiries succeed in exposing many hard truths, but are not themselves devoid of shortcomings
In the past few months, the headlines have been dominated by talk of public inquiries: Savile, Hillsborough, Waterhouse and Leveson to name a few. At the moment, the spotlight is on inquiries into child sex abuse and into the murky world of collusion between politicians, the police and the press. Previous inquiries have dealt with similarly weighty matters: the murder of Stephen Lawrence, the sinking of the Marchioness, Bloody Sunday, Harold Shipman, David Kelly’s death and the legality of the war in Iraq.
The government resists most calls for public inquiries. They can be expensive, lengthy and politically damaging. Those they do accede to are set up under legislation or on an ad hoc basis to investigate specific, controversial events. Their scope is wide ranging, but their purpose is always the same: to restore public confidence by carrying out a full, fair and fearless investigation, and identify lessons to be learned.
However, while the calls for public inquiries continue, research in May this year found that less than a third of those interviewed had confidence in the inquiries system. So are lessons really being learned?
Where public inquiries go wrong is around how the remit of the inquiry is determined at the outset and who gets to have a voice. Lady Justice Smith, chair of the Shipman inquiry, described her original terms of reference as “a dog’s breakfast” which she had to completely reformulate in order to give the victims’ families the inquiry they deserved. Other bereaved families, including those of the Bristol heart babies, have complained about a lack of consistency on how evidence is taken. Lord Woolf, who is leading the first “inquiry into inquiries” on behalf of the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution has recognised that “the cathartic effect of being heard” is at the heart of the inquiry, and yet, as the North Wales scandal shows, sometimes the victims are shut out from the process entirely.
Another key issue is the recommendations that the chair makes at the end of the inquiry regarding how things should be improved. These recommendations are sometimes too numerous, too vague and frequently do not get implemented. The Victoria Climbie Inquiry followed 70 public inquiries into child abuse, which produced thousands of recommendations on how to save children’s lives, and yet her horrific death was not prevented. Meanwhile, recommendations that are introduced without proper thought can have unforeseen consequences. The revamping of criminal records systems in the wake of the Soham murders has in some cases prevented dangerous individuals from gaining access to children. However, in many cases the changes have meant that people with false allegations on their records are shut out of careers in teaching and childcare.
More fundamentally, because inquiries are primarily concerned with what goes wrong rather than with what goes right, they can create wildly unbalanced impressions, destroy morale, and undermine moral authority within vital institutions.
However, inquiries can play a crucial role in drawing attention to serious organisational deficiencies and bring about reform. If it were not for the Lawrence inquiry, for example, would we have begun to face up to racism within the police? If not for Leveson, would we have delved so deeply into the workings of the press? We need to therefore do much more to make the system deliver better results. Part of that involves treating the victims and their families as central to the process rather than mere witnesses. We also need to develop a means for monitoring the implementation of the recommendations so as to call to account those who fail to implement reforms.
But the key challenge is finding a way to allow public bodies to treat the inquiry forum as an opportunity for disclosure and change rather than as adversarial proceedings which should be resisted at all costs. Last week, the Hillsborough Family Support Group, Hillsborough Justice Campaign and Hope for Hillsborough won the Liberty Human Rights ‘Long Walk’ award in recognition of their 23-year fight to get anywhere near the truth about what happened to their loved ones. In her acceptance speech on behalf of the groups, Sheila Coleman talked about the heavy toll that the fight has had on the Hillsborough families. No other victims – Savile’s included – should be made to struggle in the same way to find out what went wrong.
Image from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/football/19692320
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