Not just ‘facts and lessons’? The changing role of UK public inquiries

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As the COVID-19 Inquiry makes headlines, sociologists at the University of Bath turn their attention to the increased pressures on inquiries to do more in this joint CASP and CDAS blog. 

  • Public inquiries are now a routine response to crises and disasters. Public inquiries are increasingly complex in their structure, scope and aims.  
  • Recent inquiries have been characterised by greater involvement and visibility of victim and survivor communities. 
  • There is a risk that public inquiries are becoming overburdened.  
  • There is an urgent need to assess how inquiries can best accommodate a set of diverse aims – to examine events, attribute blame, recognise victims, memorialise loss. 

The UK COVID-19 Inquiry – announced in Spring 2021, with preliminary hearings starting in Spring 2023 – is proving to be an ongoing source of controversy. From early debates about the timing of the inquiry, to the drawn-out legal wranglings for the inquiry to gain access to Boris Johnson’s WhatsApp messages, the inquiry has rarely been out of newspaper headlines over the past two years. That is at least partly due to the scope of the inquiry and the enormity of the task in hand. The inquiry’s stated aim is to examine the UK’s response to and impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, and learn lessons for the future”, a significant undertaking in and of itself, even more so considering that the pandemic touched everyone’s lives, with devastating effects for many. Given its wide relevance and complexity, the COVID-19 Inquiry is set to become one of the most high-profile inquiries of the early twenty-first century. As such, it should prompt greater sociological interest in the role of public inquiries in responding to and treating crisis-events. 

Public inquiries in the twenty-first century 

Heated public debate about the need for a public inquiry into the COVID-19 pandemic points to the fact that this mechanism has become a routine response to public crises and disasters in the UK. Inquiries have become both a key feature of political culture and, in some cases at least, media spectacles. The unfolding events of high-profile inquiries make headline news and their key moments now seem like a familiar news cycle, aided by the growth of new forms of public access – most notably, dedicated YouTube channels that transmit, as-live or in regular updates, an inquiry’s public hearings.  

Originally created out of the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921, inquiries have steadily proliferated over the last fifty years, such that they are ‘no longer an instrument of last resort’ (Greer and McLaughlin, 2017: 125). They have, at the same time, become increasingly complex, lengthy, and costly. The Chilcot Inquiry that examined the role of the UK in the build up to and occupation of Iraq cost £13 million; Lord Leveson’s Inquiry into press culture and standards cost £5 million; and reports suggest that the costs of the Covid 19 Inquiry have already reached £85 million, even before substantive hearings commenced. Research for the Institute for Government suggests that, between 1990 and 2017, the UK Government and devolved nations have spent £639 million on inquiries. This is despite attempts, with the introduction of the Inquiries Act 2005 – which repealed the earlier 1921 Act – to tackle the perceived issue of government over-spending. 

What do Public Inquires do? 

Public inquiries are tasked with investigating events of ‘public concern.’ A cursory look at the inquiries that have been called over the last fifty years in the UK – on such diverse issues and events as undercover policing, the use of infected blood, and the failed implementation of the Horizon IT system in post offices – reveals that what counts as ‘public concern’ is not fixed and is open to definition. Recent inquires have ranged from events which have had serious outcomes on the health or finances of particular groups, to government conduct and decision making in the leadup and during war.   

At the most basic level a public inquiry will weigh evidence in an attempt to understand the causes and consequences of the event under examination. Through a forensic reconstruction and critical review of decisions made, an inquiry intends to establish practical insights for governmental and other bodies to learn from and apply. This more narrowly defined role of public inquiry is principally concerned with the consideration and attribution of blame and responsibility.  

Yet the structure and composition of inquiries has also changed. Inquiries increasingly rely on an expanding universe of expert witnesses, from diverse professional backgrounds and fields, who contribute to their proceedings. In the context of the sensitive and contested issues at hand, the role and place of such expertise also attracts significant controversy and critique. Recent inquiries have extended the scope of their work to include a more central, visible and active role for victims’ constituencies. Inquiries are now also seen as able to both inform the direction of commemorative work and, especially since the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, constitute a form of commemoration in their own rights. The inquiry process itself is thought to yield benefits, and participation within an inquiry has also been interpreted as a form of “procedural justice”. More broadly, public expectations about what inquiries can deliver have changed. Inquiries, like other interventions intended to redress large scale harms and official failures, will tend to have a ‘life cycle’ where victims groups and constituencies often hold initially inflated expectations about what might be achieved through inquiry. These expectations are often disappointed.  

Academic research on public inquiries is yet to catch up with many of these developments and changes. We have begun to sketch some avenues for thinking about public inquiries though given their increasing role and deployment as a policy tool and approach for social repair, important outstanding questions remain. How should inquiries best involve victim-survivor and activist communities? How should inquiries define the role and contribution of different groups of witnesses, and manage the increasing pressures around credibility of evidence? How can we account for the greater complexity and proliferation of public inquiries, and how does this shape their meaning and utility, for governments, those directly involved, and the broader public? 


Dr Sarah Moore, Dr Pete Manning, Dr Jordan Tchilingirian, Dr Kate Woodthorpe

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