Public inquiries are institutionally corrupt, we should just give the money to victims | Simon Jenkins

There should be an inquiry into inquiries. They are institutionally corrupt. The latest, the fifth into the 1987 Daniel Morgan murder, justified itself this week with 1,200 pages and the headline-grabbing epithet “institutional”. We are no nearer the truth of this single unsolved killing, and the home secretary has merely announced another inquiry into police oversight. For this the nation has waited 24 years and spent £30m. It is a scandal.

Public inquiries are slow journalism for rich lawyers. A recent Institute for Government report listed 68 major ones since 1990, at the staggering cost of £640m. Most simply rewrote history. A mere six were assessed as leading to any parliamentary follow-up or consequence, mostly because too much time had passed and lessons had already been learned. The 1982 Franks inquiry into the causes of the Falklands War reported in five months. Chilcot on Iraq took seven years and cost £13m.

The rollcall of these inquiries reads like battles in the war of the Spanish succession. Bloody Sunday took 12 years and £192m; Hillsborough examined 450,000 documents and cost £60m. Then there was Stephen Lawrence, Baby P, Madeleine McCann and many others, including Grenfell.

These inquiries must be the worst value for money in British government. Most were just kicks into touch by some embarrassed minister, producing a day’s headline some years later before gathering dust. The infected blood inquiry, into an NHS mistake half a century ago, is now costing £32m a year. Like this week’s Manchester Arena bombing report, costing millions, it is telling us little or nothing that a bunch of assiduous investigators could not have discovered in a few weeks. In both cases the money would surely have been better spent on victims’ families. Ministers fight against giving a penny of compensation while the sky is the limit for legal fees.

What is most intriguing is the subjects that get inquiries, and those that do not. Most are into accidents, which means into the assessment of risk. Those into train crashes used to take months, not years, because railway inspectors knew their trains and the split-second nature of frontline decisions. Today, inquiries tend to be an emotional response to even just one human death, attracting money and lawyers like moths to the flame, and to victims’ sonorous demands for “justice”, as if to a public execution. Justice is for a court, not an inquiry.

Hence the heavy bias of inquiries into failings in health and social services, like the 2011 Mid-Staffs hospital inquiry (£19m) or this week’s awful disclosure of profiteering in local children’s care. Blame is thus deflected from wider political issues such as austerity or bureaucracy. The unwritten rule is that no blame should attach to the machinery of democracy, central government or parliament.

The hyper-defensive failings of the Metropolitan police in the Morgan case will have come as no surprise to journalists who have dealt with that force over the years – or who watched the BBC documentary Bent Coppers last month. Big organisations, invulnerable to reform or change of leadership, get like that. There has been no inquiry into the appalling treatment by the Post Office of its sub-postmasters, presumably because no one died; but if this was a local council it would have been wound up by now.

The same goes for the rampant corruption indicated by the industrial scale of political lobbying in Westminster. David Cameron might reasonably have thought there was nothing wrong in lobbying ministers on behalf of his clients last year: their joint acquaintances were walking away with tens of millions in fees and backhanders from Matt Hancock’s astonishing “VIP” pandemic pork barrel. Dominic Cummings clearly saw nothing amiss in stuffing half a million pounds of other people’s money into the pockets of his “research” friends.

The now blatant selling of out-of-order planning permissions to Tory party donors is considered merely bad form rather than “institutional corruption”, and then only if it gets into the press. No city skyline or area of outstanding natural beauty is safe from an avaricious Tory treasurer and the construction lobby. Likewise, the revolving door between Whitehall and the defence companies. I bet there will be no inquiry into the fiasco of the new £3.5bn tanks that “can only do 20mph”. It is too boring.

Legend has it that public inquiries took over in the 1960s from royal commissions, which were considered lengthy, verbose and worthy. But the commissions were as brisk as Twitter compared with today’s inquiries. More importantly, royal commissions were bipartisan and looked forward. They suggested structural reform on the basis of debate and compromise and usually led to action, be it law reform, the universities or the constitution. Lawyer-led inquiries are quite different. They are pseudo-courts, mostly for assigning guilt over some historical error.

There is soon to be the mother of all inquiries, into the coronavirus pandemic. It will inevitably seek to apportion blame. I sense that the present extreme caution of Whitehall’s politicians and scientists on lockdown is not driven by the public interest. It is driven by a sense of how their reputations will stand up under cross-examination. They must be aware that no lawyer will ever attack them for being too cautious, too risk-averse, even if the country grinds to a halt. If so, their judgment, like the inquiry process itself, will become corrupted.


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