13 March 2019

Marcus Shepheard argues that public inquiries are a vital public resource – providing accountability that protects the public from repeated harmful and costly failures

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) was a surprising target for Boris Johnson. Faced with a question about rising crime, the former Foreign Secretary chastised the inquiry for “spaffing money up the wall”. He then went on to question how the inquiry would  “protect the public”, and called for funds to be redirected towards putting more police officers on the street.

‘Bobbies on the beat’ is a simple answer to a complex problem

In proposing an either/or choice, Johnson has missed the real value of public inquiries such as IICSA. They are, as in the case of Chilcot and Grenfell, necessarily long and complex processes, and their length and complexity often make them expensive. 

Johnson was correct, at least, about the sums in question: over the last four years IICSA has run up a bill of over £60m.

But £60m over four years – £15m a year on average – works out at just over 0.1% of annual police spending, which is hardly going to make a huge difference to police numbers. It is possible to have both a strong police force and conduct investigations. Both are valuable in their own, and both are needed.

Public inquiries provide valuable opportunities to learn

Inquiries have a track record of delivering practical changes which directly help to protect the public. There have been numerous inquiries into misconduct by doctors – including Shipman, Ayling, Neal, and Kerr/Haslam – which have led to increased oversight of medical staff and patient protection. Inquiries into failures of hospital administration, such as Mid Staffs and the Northern Trusts, have helped make the NHS safer overall. The investigations into Victoria Climbie and Baby P improved safeguards for children. The Dunblane Inquiry led to new and highly effective gun controls which directly protected the public. The Piper Alpha Inquiry led to safer oil rigs, the Ladbroke Grove and Southall Inquiries resulted in safer trains, the Marchioness-Bowbell Inquiry gave us safer boats, and the ICL inquiry made chemical plants safer. The list is a long one.

Inquiries are a response to a significant and genuine public concern. They can help to resolve that concern and protect the public by uncovering the truth of what went wrong and who was responsible. This process of transparency supports public trust in the Government and its institutions.

There have been legitimate concerns about IICSA. Its remit is almost unmanageably broad, and it went through three chairs in two years before settling under the stewardship of Professor Alexis Jay. However, the inquiry has adjusted to its circumstances and lately seems to have found a strong sense of direction and purpose. And these criticisms alone are hardly a basis to suggest that the inquiry should be aborted or is a waste of public money.

If children are to better protected from sexual abuse, then questions need to be asked, documents have to be reviewed and victims must be listened to. So far IICSA has heard the accounts of 2,255 abuse victims, reviewed nearly 1.9m pages of evidence, summoned 317 witnesses and published 10 reports. It is doing what is necessary to uncover what went wrong, make it public, and protect children from future harm by exposing what went wrong and ensuring that those who fail the public are held accountable.

Boris Johnson’s false choice is no way to get to the truth.

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