It is quite something to open an inquiry by announcing that it might roll on for five years. That was the prediction of Justice Lowell Goddard on 9 July, as she outlined the possibility that one in every 20 children in the UK has been abused.
That statistic, estimate though it may be, is chilling. And there can be no doubt that there have been too many child abuse scandals for us to conclude that there has not been – and that there might not remain – a deeper problem in this country than many would care to believe.
From the institutional abuse in children’s homes, to the grooming of underage girls in Oxford, Rochdale and elsewhere; from the disgrace of Jimmy Savile and other stars of the Seventies, to the historical allegations of horrific abuse by senior politicians and public officials, it was inevitable that Justice Goddard’s inquiry would require a broad remit. Whether it is unrealistic in its scope remains to be seen.
In evidence to the Public Administration Select Committee in 2005, Lord Howe identified six functions for public inquiries: establish the facts; learn from events; act as catharsis; reassure the public that the government is taking action; hold individuals and organisations to account; and provide leverage for changes to public policy.
The Select Committee’s area of inquiry at the time was, without irony, the area of inquiries. It took evidence as the 2005 Inquiries Bill wended its way through Parliament, concluding with a hope that the decision over whether to hold public inquiries in the future would be more closely tied to a pre-set series of criteria than had been the case. Subsequent events have shown this to have been a forlorn hope. Only last year a House of Lords committee recommended that inquiries into matters of public concern should normally be held under the 2005 Act and, where they are not, ministers should justify the reason why an inquiry is needed.
The reality is that public inquiries remain too useful as a political safety valve for any government to agree their constraint. But this in itself is a serious problem when “something must be done”. And what, in the end, do public inquiries achieve? Their record is patchy to say the least.
The Bloody Sunday Inquiry, the longest and costliest (at £192m) in British history, was a major driver behind the 2005 Act’s attempts at reform. Despite examining its subject in remarkable detail, its findings were hardly without controversy.
Even since the 2005 Act, there have been question marks over several inquiries. Lord Justice Leveson’s investigation of press standards was unable to consider the very practice which led to its establishment: phone hacking. The Francis report into the Mid Staffs scandal was criticised for its recommendation to legally enforce a duty of candour among NHS staff. On the more positive side, the 1999 Macpherson report into the Met’s investigation of the Stephen Lawrence murder came to be seen as a defining moment in British race relations. More recently, an inquiry into the Hillsborough disaster by an independent panel proved more revealing and cathartic than many thought possible.
It is notable, however, that the successful re-examination of Hillsborough was led not by a judge but by a bishop, which ought at least to get us questioning why we continue to put so much faith in lawyers.Reuse content