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An independent public inquiry is often demanded by opposition parties and pressure groups and often resisted by governments in the face of a major accident or disaster.
Boris Johnson’s pledge to set up an independent public inquiry with statutory powers into the handling of the coronavirus pandemic follows demands from bereaved families, health workers, police, transparency campaigners, and several parliamentary bodies including the public administration and constitutional affairs committee.
What is a public inquiry?
Statutory public inquiries are held under the Inquiries Act 2005, and have the advantage of having legal powers to compel witnesses to give evidence, provide legal safeguards, and can set limits upon the government’s control of an inquiry.
Are there any existing public inquiries?
Yes. So many that the Ministry of Justice did not have to hand a definitive list at time of publication.
The home secretary, Priti Patel, established two of the most recent public inquiries at the end of 2019; the Manchester Arena inquiry into the 2017 terror attack and another into the mistreatment of individuals who were detained at Brook House Immigration Removal Centre.
The Grenfell inquiry, which is being overseen by Sir Martin Moore-Bick, began in 2017, while the infected blood inquiry, headed by Sir Brian Langstaff, began in 2018.
The independent inquiry into child sexual abuse, which was launched in 2014, is now on its fourth different chair, Prof Alexis Jay.
Who leads a public inquiry?
The government appoints the chair of the inquiry, which is itself often a point of great tension and debate between interested parties. They have mostly been white, male and either a judge or a senior civil servant.
According to the Institute for Government, between 1990 and 2017 there have only been six inquiries with a female chair, fewer than the number of inquiries chaired by someone called either Anthony or William.
They are run independently, although there is a so-far unused ministerial power to remove the chair or terminate the inquiry.
Have previous inquiries ended in controversy?
Most inquiries leave one side or another unsatisfied. The Leveson inquiry, which examined the culture practices and ethics of the press, resulted in memorable interrogations of David Cameron, Rupert Murdoch and Paul Dacre, but did not complete its second part which was meant to be an investigation into the relationship between journalists and the police.
The Bloody Sunday Inquiry was criticised for taking 12 years and costing £195m before its release in 2010, making it the longest and most expensive public inquiry in UK history.
Inquiries cannot determine criminal or civil guilt – a function reserved for the courts – but they can uncover evidence which may later become part of a criminal inquiry.
Why do they take so long?
Usually delayed by criminal investigations and staff turnover, statutory inquiries usually take years to complete. Criminal investigations and trials running alongside inquiries will often demand a similar list of witnesses and experts.
Inquires must review thousands of documents and take witness testimony. Even under ideal circumstances they take time due to the sheer volume of evidence they need to consider.
What will be the purpose of this inquiry?
The purpose of statutory inquiries has been debated for many years, but the government has previously said that it considers “preventing recurrence” to be their primary purpose.
Johnson told MPs on Tuesday the inquiry will consider the UK’s handling of the coronavirus before the first lockdown in March 2020 and would not “exclude” the idea of looking at long-Covid.
The remit is yet to be set. But there will be demands that it examine how the UK controlled the movement of people through its borders and the timings and strategy of the many lockdowns; whether the government had failed to heed previous warnings about a pandemic; why Covid patients were discharged to care homes; the use of Do Not Resuscitate orders without consent; and whether the government was too slow to recognise the increased risk to BAME communities.
When will the public inquiry begin?
Boris Johnson said the public inquiry, which will take months to prepare for and set up, will begin in spring 2022 but has yet to set a deadline for selecting a chair for the inquiry.
He told MPs: “I expect that the right moment for the inquiry to begin is at the end of this period in the spring of next year, spring 2022.”
When will it report back?
No one knows. Dame Deirdre Hine, who led the independent review into the 2009 swine flu outbreak, said she does not expect the public inquiry to report back in less than two years due to the “ground it has to cover”.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: UK Covid: what is a public inquiry? | Coronavirus