How significant are public inquiries in the UK?

Public Inquiries are becoming increasingly common.

Public inquiries are quasi-judicial proceedings that investigate an issue, usually one that is politically controversial. The purpose of referring the issue to a public inquiry is to try to take the issue out of the political arena and allow it to be independently investigated. In recent years the number of public inquiries in the UK has grown, so what have some of the prominent ones been and how significant have they been?

What is the background to public inquiries?

A public inquiry is an official review of events organised by the government. The aim is to review the decisions taken in the cold light of day and, as such, these inquiries need to be held after the event being investigated can reasonably be said to have concluded. Inquiries are usually headed by a respected member of society, notably by a Judge or an retired Civil Servant. Those inquiries led by judges are often called ‘judge-led’ inquiries, with a sense that having a judge lead a public inquiry gives it an even greater level of political independence and legitimacy.

At the end of an inquiry a detailed report will be produced. This report will not only highlight issues from the event in question, but may also make recommendations for the future. These recommendations are not legally enforceable. However, they may create a political pressure on the current government to bring about a change based on the recommendations. As the government has set up the inquiry in the first place, it is often politically difficult for them to ignore the recommendations included in the report.

The legal basis for mist inquiries stems from the Inquiries Act (2005) which sets the general rules and procedures under which public inquiries must operate.

What famous examples of public inquiries have there been?

The Bloody Sunday Inquiry (often called the Saville Enquiry)

Chair: Lord Saville (Lord of Appeals Court and then Justice of the Supreme Court)

Dates: 1998-2010

Bloody Sunday was one of the most controversial events during The Troubles.

During the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland up to 21,000 British troops were deployed in a peacekeeping operation. On the 30th January 1972 a march was held in Londonderry in protest of republicans who had been held without trial by the British government. The 1st Battalion of the parachute regiment were deployed to the area. On arrival the paratroopers were ordered to arrest rioters. The situation escalated quickly and a number of shots were fired by the British Army. In total, 26 people were shot and 14 people were killed.

Lord Saville was a Lord of Appeal.

The Saville report was published on the 15th June 2010. The report was clear that British Soldiers were to blame for the killings. Saville found that British soldiers on that day had “lost control” and that they should never have been in the Bogside area in the first place. The report also found that British soldiers had colluded to cover the truth in the aftermath of the incident. On the day that report was published David Cameron, just two months into his tenure as Prime Minister, addressed the House of Commons and apologised on behalf of the British Government:

The Saville Inquiry has been significant for a number of reasons:

  • It was the first inquiry to find British serviceman of wrongdoing during the Troubles.
  • It laid open British soldiers, and commanders, to separate criminal prosecutions.
  • It laid responsibility for the events at the door of soldiers and commanders on the ground, not on the policies of the British government.

Since the inquiry, no soldier has faced prosecution. One soldier, identified only legally as Soldier F, faced prosecution on two murder charges but these were dropped in July 2021.

The Hutton Inquiry

Chair: Lord Hutton (Lord of Appeals Court and then Justice of the Supreme Court)

Dates: 2003

On the 18th March 2003 the British Government joined with that of the United States in launching an invasion of Iraq. The stated purpose of this invasion was to clear Iraq of Weapons of Mass Destruction and ensure Iraq became a peaceful state. However, the invasion was the end of a long diplomatic journey which in many ways had started in 1990 with the first Gulf War.

Alistair Campbell was widely accused of ‘sexing up’ the Iraq Dossier.

In the run up to the invasion the British Government had to justify any action to the electorate and to Parliament. In order to do this intensive intelligence work was begun to prove that Sadaam Hussein had WMD’s and was a threat to Britain. However, reports began to suggest that the British Government had knowingly embellished (or ‘sexed up’) the dossier that they presented that justified the invasion. In particular, a claim that Sadaam Hussein had weapons that could be fired at Britain within 45 minutes was widely questioned.

David Kelly was a source for a BBC story and subsequently took his own life.

In May 2003 reports aired on the BBC that suggested the dossier was ‘dodgy’. The reports were presented by Andrew Gilligan, a BBC journalist. Whilst the report was condemned by the Government, the BBC stood by its reporting, stating that they had a credible source for the information. That source was Dr David Kelly, a biological weapons expert and a former inspector of weapons in Iraq on behalf of the UN. On the 9th July 2003 the press named Kelly as the source. Tragically, on the 17th July Kelly was found dead in woodland near his home having taken his own life. People were quick to blame the government for the pressure that had came to bear on Kelly and the government immediately announced they would set up an inquiry into the events surrounding his suicide.

The Inquiry was led by Lord Hutton, a distinguished judge. It lasted 22 days and heard evidence from a number of key figures including Geoff Hoon (Defence Secretary) and Alistair Campbell, the Director of Downing Street Communications, who was widely believed to have ‘sexed up’ the dossier. The report was published in January 2004 and was 750 pages long. The report concluded that:

  • No-one could have reasonably predicted Dr Kelly’s death and the Government had not failed in any duty of care towards him.
  • Kelly had not been ‘outed’ as the source by anyone in Government.
  • That the Iraq dossier had not been deliberately ‘sexed up’ but that it had used the available evidence to its full extent to make a case for war.

In summary, the inquiry cleared the government of wrongdoing relating to the case for war and in regards to Dr Kelly’s suicide.

The Iraq Inquiry (often called the Chilcott Enquiry)

Chair: Sir John Chilcot (Former Senior Civil Servant)

Dates: 2009-2016

Sir John Chilcot headed the Iraq Inquiry and it quickly became known as the Chilcott Inquiry.

The Chilcot Inquiry was set up in 2009 and dwarfed the Hutton Inquiry in size and scope. Whereas the Hutton Inquiry had a limited remit in looking at the circumstances surrounding intelligence related to the case for war, the Chilcott Inquiry would look at British involvement in the run-up, conflict and aftermath of the Iraq War. The Chilcot Inquiry lasted seven years and heard evidence from hundreds of witnesses, including Tony Blair and Alistair Campbell:

The report was published on the 6th July 2016 and comprised of 6,275 pages and 2.6 million words. Some of the damning findings of the report found were that:

  • The UK chose the course on invasion before peaceful options had been exhausted. Chilcot said “We have concluded that the UK chose to join the invasion of Iraq before the peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted. Military action at that time was not a last resort.”
  • That the British intelligence agencies had produced ‘flawed information’ about Sadaam’s WMD programme.
  • The UK Government, under Blair, deliberately exaggerated the threat that was posed by Sadaam Hussein’s Iraq. The report said “the judgments about Iraq’s capabilities [military] capabilities were presented with a certainty that was not justified”.
  • Whilst the Inquiry refused to reach a judgement on the legality of the war, they did say that the circumstances in which the decision for war was made were not satisfactory. Chilcot said that the “process of deciding whether the war was illegal appeared “perfunctory”.
  • Post-invasion the UK’s influence on US strategic planning was extremely limited.
  • The UK military were ill-equipped for the operational roles in Iraq and that the government responded to slowly to changing risks, like the proliferation of IEDs (improvised explosive devices).

Following the publication of report, Tony Blair gave a speech, including taking questions, that lasted nearly two hours. Blair said that:

“…For all of this I express more sorrow, regret and apology and in greater measure than you can know or may believe.

Only two things I cannot say.

It is claimed that by removing Saddam we unleashed terrorism in the Middle East today.

I profoundly disagree. Saddam was himself a wellspring of terror, a continuing threat to peace and to his own people. Had he been left in power in 2003, then I believe, for the detailed reasons I shall give, he would once again have threatened world peace, and when the Arab revolutions of 2011 began, he would have clung to power with the same deadly consequences as we see in the carnage of Syria; whereas at least in Iraq, for all its challenges, we have today a Government, recognised as legitimate, fighting terrorism with the international community in support of it.

Secondly, I will never agree that those who died or who were injured made their sacrifice in vain. They fought in the defining global struggle of the 21st Century against the terrorism and violence which, the world over, destroys lives and divides communities, and their sacrifice should always be remembered with thanksgiving and honour when finally that struggle is won, as it will be.”

Tony Blair in response to the Chilcot Report

One of the biggest points of significance about the Chilcot Inquiry was that it was widely accepted. Whilst it was criticised for taking seven years to publish its findings, the scope and comprehensiveness of the report gave it a legitimacy that previous reports into Iraq (like the Butler Review and Hutton Inquiries) simply did not have.

The Levenson Inquiry

Chair: Lord Leveson (Lord Justice of Appeal)

Dates: 2011-2012

News International was (it is now called Newscorp) is owned by Australian mogul Rupert Murdoch, who also controls Fox News in the United States.

In 2007 two employees of News International (owners of the Sun, News of the World, Times and Sunday Times) were convicted of illegally intercepting voicemail messages for the purpose of writing news stories. At the time, News International claimed it was a one-off incident and not indicative of the wider culture of practices of the company. However, allegations surfaced that a number of celebrities had found information published in the newspapers that they believed could only have been conceivably obtained from voicemails left on their phone. These celebrities and public figures included: Prince William, Gordon Brown, Paul McCartney and Heather Mills and Hugh Grant. However, the known list extends to over 300. In 2009 the Guardian published a front-page article suggesting News International was guilty of wide-spread phone hacking and other illegal practices. However, it did not have the traction with the public that they had hoped for.

The British public initially found it difficult to get enraged about hacking celebrities, but did when they found out that Milly Dowler’s phone had been hacked.

Although this was clearly concerning, it was revelations in 2011 that a particular case really hit home to the public. In 2002, a 13 Year Old schoolgirl named Milly Dowler went missing. A huge manhunt took place. However, sadly, six months later her body was found not far from where she went missing. In 2011, lawyers for her family announced that while she was missing her mobile phone had been hacked into by Glenn Mulcaire, one of the News International employees found guilty in 2007. It was said that the hackers had deleted messages from her relatives on her voicemail. This meant that whilst her voicemail quickly became full, heartbreakingly, the fact that new messages could be left gave her parents hope that she was alive as she was apparently accessing her voicemails.

In July 2011 David Cameron David Cameron announced a public inquiry not only into phone hacking, but the wider relationship between the culture and ethics of the British Press and its relationship with different arms of the state, including government, parliament, and the police. He announced that the inquiry would be headed by Lord Leveson, who was then a Judge in the Court of Appeals.

The scope of the inquiry was huge. It was split into three clear sections:

  1. The relationship between the press and the public.
  2. The relationship between the press and the police.
  3. The relationship between the press and politicians.

In total there were 337 witnesses. Some of these were people who had been put in the public eye through no fault of their own. They included Sally and Bb Dowler (mother and father of Milly), Kate and Gerry McCann (mother and father of Madeleine McCann) and Chris Jeffries, who had been wrongly accused of murdering Joanna Yeates.

However, the inquiry also included a number of prominent celebrities and politicians, who gave compelling testimony about the intrusions of the press. These included:

Hugh Grant – Who said that he had no quarrel with reporting of times when he had broken the law, but believed the intrusion into his life by the tabloids was utterly illegal:

Steve Coogan – Who talked about how newspaper apologies were never adequate for the damage they had done:

Piers Morgan – In addition, Piers Morgan (Former Editor of the Mirror Newspaper who had allegedly used Phone Hacking) in which he refused to disclose his sources and appeared extremely combative throughout:

David Cameron – Who had to explain his close relationship with News of the World Editor, Rebekah Brooks:

he final report was published on November 2012. It was 2,000 pages long with a 48 page summary. It came to a number of conclusions including:

  • That Press Regulation in the UK was not competent. They recommended a new independent regulatory agency should be set up which would have the ability to levy fines and force papers to publish prominent apologies.
  • That the relationship between the Press and Police should be better regulated and that Data Protection Law should be more clearly followed.
  • It found that phone hacking was widespread and Leveson said:

” The evidence drives me to conclude that this was far more than a covert, secret activity, known to nobody save one or two practitioners of the dark arts”

As PM, David Cameron was criticised for not fully implementing the recommendations of the Leveson Inquiry.

The Conservative Government under David Cameron said that they welcomed the Leveson Report However, notably, they did not pass any legislation to enact the recommendations. In 2014 the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) was established to replace the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) that had clearly failed to adequately regulate the press. However, IPSO is controlled by the newspapers that it claims to regulate, it is not truly independent. Apologies have still appeared to be insufficient in magnitude, even when the story papers are apologising for has been on the front page of a newspaper.

In truth, despite the wide-ranging and significant recommendations of the Leveson Inquiry, its political impact has been quite limited. This makes a good example of how the non-binding nature of inquiries, and the length of time they take to conclude, can enable the government to avoid implementing real changes.

Ongoing public inquiries at the moment include:

  • Grenfell Fire Inquiry – An inquiry into the causes and responses by Government to the Grenfell Fire in 2017.
  • Post Office Horizon Inquiry – An inquiry into the circumstances that saw hundreds of Post Office operators criminalised after a failed IT system was not recognised and the blame for missing payments was blamed on the operators.

Will there be an inquiry into COVID-19?

Boris Johnson’s political legacy will be defined by COVID-19, not Brexit.

Since early on the pandemic there were wide-ranging calls for a public inquiry into the COVID-19 pandemic and the role of the Government in dealing with it. Under mounting pressure to do so the Prime Minister announced that an inquiry would take place in May 2021 and the Inquiry will commence later in 2022. The inquiry will be led by Baroness Hallett, a retired Court of Appeal judge. The inquiry will look at a range of issues related to the pandemic including the preparedness of the UK, the responses of the Government and the impact on people across the UK. The final terms of reference (parameters of the inquiry) have not yet been confirmed by the Government.

How significant are public inquiries in the UK?

Public Inquiries might be said to be beneficial because:

– They allow controversial issues to be considered beyond the political arena. The evidence based approach and independence of those leading them adds significantly to the legitimacy of their findings.

– People are much more likely to trust an independent inquiry that has been carried out than an inquiry carried out by Parliament.

– Statutory Inquiries can take evidence under oath and can subpoena witnesses. This allows for the public to trust that those given evidence are doing so trustfully.

Reasons why the benefit of inquiries might be questioned are:

– Many inquiries take an extremely long time to publish. Notably, the Chilcott Inquiry published its findings much later than planned. This led to much frustration by the public.

– Inquiries are often hugely expensive. For example, the Bloody Sunday Inquiry cost £210.6 million pounds. The main reason for this cost is the legal expertise that is needed to carry them out.

It is clear that public inquiries have grown in significance in recent years. Firstly, the number of them has grown significantly:

(C) Institute for Government


Secondly, they have taken on extremely controversial issues that could not otherwise be investigated in a politically impartial way. However, unless agreed in advance, the Government does not have to implement the recommendations of inquiries. For example, the lack of action by the Conservatives following the Leveson Inquiry is evidence of this. This issue is often compounded by the length of time big inquiries take, with the thirst for action somewhat diminished by the time a report is published.

Article Summary

Whilst public inquiries are limited to a minority of events, they are a useful mechanism for allowing an evidence based inquiry into controversial issues that avoids the political in-fighting associated with Parliament. They can often be used to draw a line under long controversial issues in a legitimate way, as shown in the Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday. However, this does not mean that there are not limits that Public Inquiries face.

Key Terms

Inquiries Act (2005) – The statute law that sets out the rules and procedures relating to public inquiries.

Judge-Led Inquiry – A term used to describe public inquiries that are led by a judge. Most public inquiries are led by judges (or ex-judges) because of the perceived independence that this imposes on them.

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