Public inquiries are used to examine some of the most tragic, complex and controversial issues in society. They can respond to one-off disasters such as the Grenfell Tower fire, or to broader issues of serious public concern, as in the case of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. Some are put in place quickly – the Grenfell Tower Inquiry was ordered by the Prime Minister just 24 hours after the tragedy. While in other cases, public inquiries are only launched after dedicated campaigning.
The Infected Blood Inquiry is the result of years of sustained pressure on MPs and ministers. It will investigate why people were given infected blood as part of routine medical care, the response that followed, and whether a cover up took place.
First announced in July 2017, the inquiry has only now begun formally hearing evidence. While a cause of frustration to some, the delay between announcement and the inquiry beginning should not necessarily be a cause for concern. The long wait for justice is hard on the victims, especially where so many have already died or are living with a terminal illness. But taking time to do things properly is a better way to reach the answers that they want.
Inquiries almost always face complex questions which take time to work through. Since 1990 there have been 62 completed inquiries, with only 13 taking less than a year. Of the nine current public inquiries, almost half – including the Undercover Policing Inquiry, and the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse – have been running for more than four years.
A careful balance is required: inquiries must be given enough time to thoroughly conduct their work while also being kept focused on delivering answers and recommendations. The Bloody Sunday Inquiry, which lasted for over 10 years, is an example of loose directions leading to an inquiry becoming consumed by a quest to present a perfect forensic reconstruction of past events.
To reach this point, the Infected Blood Inquiry has spent almost a year and a half laying the groundwork for its investigations. Our research has shown that careful preparation helps inquiries to be more effective in the long run. Some of this involves practical matters, such as hiring staff and setting up IT systems. These are activities which most inquiries have to do from scratch, and we have recommended that the Government should provide more support.
In addition to putting the nuts and bolts of the inquiry in place, Sir Brian Langstaff, the Chair of the Infected Blood Inquiry, has spent the last 18 months meeting victims and holding an extensive consultation on the terms of reference. This process is incredibly important. Gaining the confidence of both the victims and the Government will help the inquiry to run well, ensure that it is focused solely on the issues that matter, and provide assurance that this exercise isn’t just a whitewash.
There is no guarantee that the inquiry will reach its conclusions as quickly as some might hope. But building this relationship with the victims from the outset, and by remaining transparent throughout the course of the inquiry, will help all involved to keep faith in the process.
Inquiries serve multiple purposes for many audiences. They can provide a truthful and accurate description of events that happened. They can explain how decisions were made and who was responsible. And they can also offer suggestions for how to avoid repeating past failures.
With the Infected Blood Inquiry, there is perhaps less scope to suggest change as many of the systems which allowed infected blood to be used for medical purposes have since been reformed. A similar inquiry in Scotland – the 2008–15 Penrose Inquiry – only made a single recommendation, that the Scottish Government should offer a Hepatitis C test to everyone who had a blood transfusion prior to September 1991. This was poorly received.
The Government has already established the England Infected Blood Support Scheme to provide financial support to those affected, with the annual funding commitment increased from £46m to £75m. Similar support schemes in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are funded at different levels. The discrepancy arises due to varying definitions of who can apply for support. The Government has said it is discussing how parity can be achieved between the different schemes.
Whether or not the Infected Blood Inquiry produces a series of further recommendations and suggestions, there is a clear need to provide answers for the victims and their families. If it does so, then the long wait for this inquiry may finally feel worth it.