From Leveson to Stephen Lawrence; Lords call for new body to handle public inquiries

11 March 2014

The Government’s approach to public inquiries wastes expert knowledge and makes inquiries longer and more costly, according to a House of Lords Committee report out today.

The Lords Committee, which was set up especially to look into the Inquiries Act 2005, is urging the Government to set up a specialist unit to assist all public inquiries and pass on best practice.

Chair of the Committee on the Inquiries Act 2005, Lord Shutt of Greetland, says that when a new inquiry is carried out, often at vast expense, ‘it’s as though previous ones had never happened’. 

The report, entitled The Inquiries Act 2005: post-legislative scrutiny, finds that the Government is not using the legislation enough, and is setting up inquiries with ‘inadequate powers’. 

Other findings from the report include:

  • The overall framework of the Act is good, but Ministers should be using it more and not setting up non-statutory inquiries, i.e. those not under the Act.
  • A Central Inquiries Unit should be established within the Courts and Tribunals Service of the Ministry of Justice, to set up and provide support for inquiries.
  • This unit will be responsible for guidance on best practice to pass on to future inquiries.
  • Inquiry panels should have a single member, rather than a panel.
  • Victims and families should routinely meet with inquiry chairmen and their needs must be handled sensitively.
  • An inquiry’s recommendations should be formally accepted or rejected by those bodies to whom they have been directed. These bodies should have a three month deadline in which to respond.
  • If accepted, there should be a formal implementation plan.
  • Recommendations from this report to change the Act and the Rules will lead to shorter, easier to manage and less expensive inquiries.

Commenting on the report Committee Chairman, Lord Shutt of Greetland, said: 

“Every time there is a new inquiry in this country it’s as though the previous ones had never happened. We really need to make the most of any lessons learned from past inquiries, and make the most of our collective knowledge and proficiency in this field. 

To do this we strongly urge the Government to set up a Central Inquiries Unit. This would be a new centre of expertise which would enable future inquiries to hit the ground running. It would also make them more efficient, more streamlined and less costly to the public.

Overall the Inquiries Act 2005 is robust and effective, but we feel that the Government is not using it in the way it should be. By setting up public inquiries outside of the Act, the Government is creating inquiries which have inadequate powers to do their job.

The Home Secretary announced on 6 March a judge-led inquiry into undercover policing following the review by Mark Ellison QC of events after the murder of Stephen Lawrence. She did not say whether or not it was going to be under the 2005 Act. If it is not, the chairman will not be able to summon those witnesses who refused to attend previous reviews.

Finally, the Committee believes that when an inquiry calls upon a public body or Government department to carry out any action, these recommendations should be formally accepted or rejected by those third parties.”

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