14 March 2018

Marcus Shepheard argues that allaying mounting public concern over the suspicious attacks on Russians in the UK won’t be an easy task, but a public inquiry would be a good start.

More than a dozen suspicious deaths

The attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal in Salisbury is not an isolated incident. There have been at least 14 high-profile deaths of people with connections to Russia since the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006. This is a serious issue and the public is rightly concerned.

A public inquiry, akin to the one ordered by then Home Secretary Theresa May following Litvinenko’s death, would be an appropriate way to formally name and shame the perpetrators. It would also inform the public in a way that could restore confidence in the Government, the police and the security services.

A meaningful response

The Litvinenko case warranted an inquiry because it was so shocking, especially in a period of relative détente. As relations with Russia have cooled, particularly following the annexation of Crimea, these types of Cold War, James Bond-esque shenanigans seem less surprising.

But the lack of surprise does not diminish the need for a response.

The Government has a limited number of options. Fundamentally, it needs to put tougher measures in place to deter the murders of foreign nationals living in the UK – especially when the methods used to kill them are so extreme and put the wider public at risk.

Ministers also need to restore public confidence that the Government can stand up to Russia. For this a public inquiry would be the ideal tool – far more meaningful than threatening to boycott the World Cup.

The value of certainty

Public inquiries have no equal in uncovering ‘what happened’. This would be especially relevant if, hopefully, Sergei and his daughter Yulia Skripal recover from this assassination attempt, and so there is no coroner’s inquest. Without the Litvinenko inquiry, the public would probably never have known the names of his alleged killers, Dmitry Kovtun, Vyacheslav Sokolenko, and Andrey Lugovy.

The transparency that follows an inquiry can strengthen the Government by giving it robust and independent evidence that it can point to should it need to justify further actions, such as sanctions. It can also help the public to come to terms with what has happened, and dispel any lingering doubts.

Preventing recurrence

The Ministry of Justice argues that "preventing recurrence" is the primary purpose of public inquiries. However, when the issue concerns the clandestine world of intelligence operations, it is particularly difficult for an inquiry to achieve change. The Litvinenko Inquiry only made a single, classified recommendation. Anything similar in the Skripal case would probably never see the light of day.

However, the value of learning lessons remains. If a public inquiry can devote resources to produce insights that will help make us safer, then it will absolutely be a worthwhile effort.

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