Will this latest government inquiry serve only to increase public cynicism over politics?

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The Independent Online

When the Home Office announced that it had set up an independent review into allegations that David Blunkett had misused his public position to help his then lover, there can be few hearts that leapt with excitement. This Government's record in the matter of independent reviews, investigations, inquiries - style them how you will - has come close to discrediting the whole genre. This may seem hard-bitten and cynical, but after half a dozen or more inquiries, there is much to be cynical about. And it is hard to believe that Sir Alan Budd, a man of impeccable establishment credentials, has been appointed to rock many boats.

When the Home Office announced that it had set up an independent review into allegations that David Blunkett had misused his public position to help his then lover, there can be few hearts that leapt with excitement. This Government's record in the matter of independent reviews, investigations, inquiries - style them how you will - has come close to discrediting the whole genre. This may seem hard-bitten and cynical, but after half a dozen or more inquiries, there is much to be cynical about. And it is hard to believe that Sir Alan Budd, a man of impeccable establishment credentials, has been appointed to rock many boats.

The Government's record of investigating its own conduct and that of individual ministers lies somewhere between appalling and disgraceful. For all its initial protestations of clean and open government, hardly one year of Tony Blair's seven and a half years in office has not been tainted by an unsatisfactory inquiry into some aspect of what, in the time of a previous government, we called sleaze. From the Ecclestone affair (a large donation to the Labour Party and a suspension of the ban on tobacco sponsorship for Formula One) investigated by Lord Neill's Committee on Standards in Public Life, through the convoluted saga of visas for the wealthy Hinduja brothers investigated by Sir Anthony Hammond, up to the Hutton and Butler reports which considered different aspects of the rationale for the war in Iraq, the British public has been treated to a series of highly technical inquiries, full of small print and discretionary judgements, which - strangely enough - found that little, or nothing, untoward had taken place.

Where there were resignations, they were either regretted and resented (Peter Mandelson), or solicited from the Government's accusers (the BBC top brass after Hutton). Keith Vaz, implicated in the Hinduja affair, was an exception. Technically, perhaps, these inquiries were less whitewashes than highly selective investigations in which the original question was so tightly drawn as to preclude wider considerations. And they were conducted by individuals personally or institutionally disinclined to challenge the existing order. Lord Butler, whose inquiry was one of the more searching, notably said that it was not his job to bring about the fall of the Government.

Sometimes openly, sometimes between the lines, these investigations had something else in common. Time and again, they showed how lax and secretive was the actual conduct of government, with informal understandings and unminuted discussions frustrating even the most assiduous attempts to find out who knew what, when, and how individual decisions had been made. They also exposed a gulf between the perception of certain politicians and that of ordinary voters on what constitutes appropriate conduct. The result is that this welter of inquiries has done nothing to foster trust either in the institutions of state or in those who run them. Inquiries have also become an effective way for the Prime Minister to deflect embarrassing questions.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with David Blunkett requesting an independent inquiry into his conduct. It shows a shrewd appreciation of how damaging the claims are and a brazen confidence that he has right on his side. What Mr Blunkett significantly has not done is even to tender his resignation. He clearly intends to ride out the storm. In this instance, if not in others, his judgement may well be correct.

The first signs are that Sir Alan Budd's review will be in the same vein as its predecessors. Here again, we have a fully paid-up member of the establishment conducting the inquiry. Here again, we have a disappointingly narrow question: Did Mr Blunkett misuse his position to fast-track a visa application for Mrs Kimberly Quinn's nanny. This may be the technical question that determines Mr Blunkett's professional fate. But it is by no means the only one now in the public domain. Fitness to be a minister is about more than judicial technicalities. It is about character - and Sir Alan is most unlikely to address it.

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