Readers can be forgiven for having trouble recalling the Edinburgh tram scandal, but fortunately the final report of the public inquiry went to press a few weeks ago. Unfortunately, since the inquiry was first convened in 2014 into the saga of delays and rising costs, it has lasted almost as long as the project whose overruns it was created to investigate.
It was a relatively low-key affair compared to the UK’s response to the outbreak, and is possibly the most comprehensive public inquiry in British history.
A national investigation has already been completed in Sweden. Here, the Covid-19 inquiry continues to struggle to secure the information it needs from a government struggling to withhold sensitive smartphone messages from investigations. Hearings are scheduled to be completed by 2026, which is probably wildly optimistic. The terms of reference are huge, with the cost already expected to exceed £100m; to ease delays, the investigation is breaking its work into modules and promising interim reports.
All this raises the question of whether public opinion is well served by the process. Public investigations in Britain are very slow and expensive. Key characters will continue to move on unchanged before finishing. The Chilcot report into Iraq’s intelligence failures comes six years after Labor lost power. Six years after the Grenfell Tower fire, the final report is yet to be published.
And yet such inquiries have increased. Between 1990 and 2017, 69 were launched the Institute of Government think tank, compared to only 19 in the last 30 years. Since then, another 11 have been announced.
The reason is largely political. In an era of loss of trust, people are wary of privately probing the failings of facilities, an attitude only reinforced by the current debate over the release of materials from ministers and officials. Mandatory public hearings have the right to demand evidence.
Jason Beer KC, the investigating authority, says they are tasked with answering three questions. What happened? Why and who is to blame? And how can we prevent this from happening again? Yet they are increasingly instruments of revenge and catharsis – this prolongs the process. Only the 2nd module of the Covid examination gave “regular participant status’ to 39 organisations, from victims’ groups to charities, Whitehall departments and trade unions, all with legal representation. We sympathize with the bereaved’s desire to give the victims a “voice,” but that is not the main goal.
Meanwhile, perception is shaped by the media and political narrative of finger-pointing, although the public is generally more mature, recognizing that decisions made in a crisis are rarely perfect. Still, there are serious problems in the response to the pandemic that are worth examining, from the controversy over closures to political and administrative failures and failures to protect care homes.
Given the delays and costs involved, it’s easy to wonder whether other fleet, private models might better serve the country. Basic epidemic lessons must be learned before the middle of the decade; presumably it doesn’t take a multi-year, multi-million pound probe to conclude that Boris Johnson should not be treated as the manager of the next crisis.
And yet, what is important is the model preserves public trust. Life-saving reforms can be traced back to such investigations. Maritime safety has been significantly enhanced by the investigation after the Piper Alpha oil rig disaster. The criminal record system for those working with children originated from the investigation into the Soham murders.
But there are other important systemic issues beyond time and cost. Inquiries, especially those led by judges, are effective in finding out what happened and why. However, review boards are often less expert when it comes to public policy recommendations to avoid duplication. The instinct to introduce more regulations is also inevitable. The IfG’s 2017 report established this 45 requests fulfilled 2625 recommendations. Propagation diffuses the impact and power of such proposals.
More importantly, there is no process or even a requirement for follow-up after the investigation is completed. The report usually triggers a single parliamentary statement. Ministers respond with thanks, but are not obliged to accept the recommendations. There is no official mechanism for detailed monitoring of implementation. Some parliamentary select committees monitor it, but most do not.
After the Soham inquiry, chairman Michael Bichard held several hearings to try to force the pace. Emma Norris, Deputy Director of the IfG, “talks about the Wild West after an investigation reported”. Recommendations can be quietly rejected for reasons of cost, practicality or political expediency, but no update is required. THE National Audit Office according to the study, 45 percent of the recommendations agreed. Another 33 percent were only accepted in principle. The rest were rejected or thrown away.
This is the other danger for the Covid test. Not that it would take too long or cost too much; will But his findings get lost in the machinery because the passage of time has undermined the sense of urgency and public interest. Parliament must ensure that the recommendations are implemented, or explain why not.
In a saner, calmer, more trusting environment, governments would seek better ways to investigate public tragedies. In the current situation, the best we can hope for is a rigorous process worth waiting for the report.