The Inquiries Act 2005: post-legislative scrutiny - Select Committee on the Inquiries Act 2005 Contents


Inquiries into matters of major public concern are now an integral feature of the governance of this country. They establish disputed facts, determine accountability, restore public confidence, and make recommendations for preventing recurrence of events and taking forward public policy.

Until the passage of the Inquiries Act 2005, inquiries had a large variety of different statutory bases. The Act replaced them with a single system for the setting up and conduct of public inquiries which, by and large, has worked well. But it was also possible for ministers to set up inquiries without any statutory basis, and this is still the case. Such inquiries have no power to order the production of documents or the attendance of witnesses, or to take evidence on oath. Public confidence in them is not as high, but still ministers persist in setting them up. One reason is that they are supposedly quicker and less expensive than inquiries set up under the Act. We show that this is not necessarily the case.

There is no consistency in ministerial decisions on setting up inquiries. Ministers tend to do so only when there is irresistible public or parliamentary pressure; and when they decline to set an inquiry up, adequate reasons are not always given. We suggest that failures of regulatory and investigatory bodies should at the very least be grounds for considering setting up an inquiry.

A major criticism of the Act has been that it gives ministers powers they did not previously have to limit attendance of the public, restrict the disclosure of documents, withhold material from publication in the report of the inquiry, and even bring the inquiry to a premature conclusion. It was predicted that dire consequences would follow, and public confidence would collapse. This has not happened, but we recommend stronger controls on the powers of ministers.

A major cause of the unnecessary length and cost of inquiries has been that the secretariat of every new inquiry has had to start from scratch working out details of appointment of staff, procurement of office premises and a venue for public hearings, establishing a website, preparing budgets, procurement procedures, arrangements for electronic handling of documents, transcripts of evidence, and many other basic matters. As a result, some inquiries have bought new custom-made IT systems costing millions of pounds more than the systems used by other inquiries of comparable length.

Each inquiry is required to summarise lessons learned for its successors, but this requirement is not followed. One of our major recommendations is that there should be a unit within Her Majesty's Courts and Tribunals Service responsible for all the practical details of setting up an inquiry. This recommendation alone should result in major savings. Other recommendations on procedure could save months at the end of inquiries, with corresponding savings in cost.

The responsibility of an inquiry ends when its report is published; at that stage the responsibility of the Government begins. Its response to recommendations of inquiries is often slow, and its implementation of them slower still. Parliament must do more to hold ministers to account.

No inquiry has been set up under the Act since 2011, but a number of non-statutory inquiries have been established. Ministers have in the Act what should be an effective framework for inquiries. Unless there are strong reasons to the contrary, they should use it.

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