19-May-20 Public Inquiries and Scandal

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‘Calls for a public inquiry’ is a phrase we hear increasingly.  Early in the pandemic crisis for example, there were demands for inquiries into the Government’s response.

Public inquiries are set up to establish disputed facts, determine accountability, restore public confidence… prevent recurrence of events and tak[e] forward public policy” (House of Lords Select Committee on the Inquiries Act 2005).  In this way, inquiries look back at what happened and seek to prevent harm in the future.  They are a potential vehicle for transparency and can have a cathartic value (Beer, 2011). 

Inquiries may have a formal statutory footing, such as the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, or a non-statutory format, such as the Hillsborough Panel.  Indeed, a more flexible and responsive arrangement has become increasingly important given the diverse challenges facing society (Mackie, 2012).

Public inquiries are also highly political.  They can be a means to kick issues into the long grass; they can be closed to public scrutiny (see the Chilcott Inquiry on the Iraq War); and the government can decide or influence the appointment of inquiry heads and the terms of reference.  As we saw in the Grenfell Inquiry, terms of reference – what the inquiry will and will not look at – are crucial.  The 2017 terms focused on the Grenfell Tower disaster and the actions or omissions of Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council and the London Fire Brigade, for example.  However, the broader issues about the management and maintenance of social housing by successive governments were not in scope. 

Too often, there is a failure to address report recommendations.  Sixty-eight public inquiries have been active or established between 1990 and 2017, at a cost of millions, and “only six have received a full follow-up by a select committee to ensure that government has acted” (Norris and Shepheard, 2017, p,26).  In part, perhaps, the sheer volume of recommendations can hinder rather than help track accountability (the Francis Inquiry, for example, into failings in care at Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust between 2005 and 2009, made 290 recommendations). 

In an article in the academic journal Theoretical Criminology, Greer and McLaughlin note how ‘scandal’ has become the key driver of public inquiries: be that “alleged corruption, incompetence [or] immorality” (Greer and McLaughlin, 2017, p.113).  It is entirely right that individuals and institutions are held to account.  The public inquiry should be a vehicle to reflect on failures within state and society.  Victims should be given a central voice in that process.

However, Greer and McLaughlin argue that:

“Unlike its welfare state predecessor, today’s public inquiry is immediately interpellated into the scandal machine. Its members, processes, practices and findings may be subjected to trial by media just as much as those implicated in the scandal it has been established to regulate. Scandals are challenging the defining qualities of competence and honesty that determine the trustworthiness and legitimacy of public sector institutions and the individuals that work in them. (Greer and McLaughlin, 2017, p.129)”

Where state provision is so often outsourced, it is problematic that the focus of inquiry attention is predominantly on those organisations representing an increasingly hollowed out public sector: the London Fire Brigade and the Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council, for example, in relation to the Grenfell disaster.  While they certainly have questions to answer, the private sector contractors who clad social housing blocks and the governments who have facilitated a culture of cost over quality and weak oversight, must give their account.

There is also a question of how the scandal culture elides with the now over-used phrase, ‘calling out’.  Facilitated by social media, much energy is devoted to identifying and castigating the wrongdoers and sympathizing with the wronged.  This is crucial in challenging the powerful and seeking to restore the victim.  There are three concerns however: first, to understand what has gone wrong and how to prevent it, we need to hear not just from victims, but also from those responsible.  It is difficult to do that from a scandal footing, which compounds the urge to conceal and deny.  Attempts in medicine to move from a blame culture to a just culture (in theory at least), a culture where there is learning from mistakes, is of potential value here.  

Second, the Norris and Shepheard report shows that after the fanfare of the published report and the huge emotional investment by victims and their families, too often the same events recur.  The lessons are not learnt.  As the former chief medical officer in England Liam Donaldson said, “To err is human, to cover up is unforgivable, and to fail to learn is inexcusable”.

Finally, we should be more alert to the culture and systems which make future harm possible: this requires ongoing interrogation of our values.  Often the harms that lead to public inquiries had ample signposting. We should listen proactively to the Cassandras, be they victims of abuse, community groups or care workers. 

© Natasha Mulvihill and Criminology Tales, 2020. 

Additional references

Beer J. 2011. Public Inquiries.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mackie, K., 2012. Public Inquiries: Proposals for a design rethink.  Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution.

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