Communications – The Key to Valuing Public Inquiries

It’s been 15 years since the introduction of the Inquiries Act 2005 in the UK, designed to improve the administration of public inquiries and advance a focus on cost and transparency in the process. Some 28 UK statutory inquiries have since been commissioned – 11 of which are ongoing – at a cost to the public purse of almost £250m, and rising.

Incidents currently being examined include: the tragic loss of life in 2017 when a residential tower block in London caught fire, causing the death of 72 people (Grenfell Tower Inquiry); the 2017 exposé of mistreatment of detainees in a Home Office immigration detention centre (Brook House Inquiry); the infection of haemophiliacs and others with Hep C and HIV from imported contaminated blood in the 1970s-80s (Infected Blood Inquiry); and the death of 22 people in 2017 at the hands of a suicide terrorist at a pop concert (Manchester Arena Inquiry) to name but a few. It can’t be long before a Coronavirus Inquiry is added to the list. Bell Yard declares an interest in two of these vital investigations, among others.

Clearly there is a significant role to play for forensic examinations of ‘matters of public concern’ – not least, as neatly identified many years ago by Lord Howe, the opportunities public inquiries provide for:

– establishing the facts;
– learning from events;
– cathartic exposure;
– reassurance;
– accountability and retribution; and
– political considerations.

As admirable as many of these ends may be, do the benefits outweigh the limitations of their value (such as cost to taxpayers, narrowness of remit, lack of follow-through on recommendations and the temptation to push into the long-grass any resolution of difficult and emotive issues)?

Bell Yard contends that communication lies at the heart of proving an inquiry’s value and here’s why.

The average time it takes for a statutory inquiry to report on its findings is 2.5 years – yet getting to completion is only half the story. In the case of the Infected Blood Inquiry, it took some 30 years of campaigning before the Government of the day accepted the compelling need to commission one.

Persistent and effective communication by the infected and affected, backed by dedicated lawyers, brought us to where we are today – in the midst of a detailed hearing – and continues to ensure that the Inquiry receives the media attention it deserves.

Yet what is the long-lasting significance of a weighty tome, representing the report and recommendations of a public inquiry, if very few members of the public read the content and affected industries fail to adhere to its findings?

In the world of corporate crime, when companies agree a Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA) with the Court so as to avoid conviction while promising to clean up their act under the threat of future prosecution, there are conditions attached. Commonly one such stipulation is subjecting the company to future independent monitoring, ensuring they don’t just pay lip-service to undertakings to improve. Monitorships are taken seriously in the US and increasingly so in the UK.

We believe a similar implementation oversight role is needed to enforce public inquiry recommendations. Until such a statutory framework exists, proactive and persistent communications could, and should, play a role. Specialist communicators should exploit the C-Suite concern for corporate social responsibility in order to focus – and maintain – a spotlight on the duties and obligations set out in the findings of a public inquiry, so that its true value can emerge.

Most private companies and public bodies affected by inquiries pour significant resources into managing their public profiles, and say the right thing when the spotlight is on. Yet time and again real action fails to materialise and history repeats itself when lessons remain unlearned. So if the Government won’t establish a mechanism for holding their feet to the fire, despite having originally footed the bill for an extensive inquiry, then communications teams and the media must fill the vacuum.

Well-targeted and tireless campaigns can have both momentum and real impact. Stephen Lawrence’s racially-motivated murder eventually resulted in the MacPherson Inquiry after a long and dignified campaign by his family to bring his killers to justice. The 389-page report delivered in 1999 uncovered institutional racism within the Metropolitan Police Service to which the force is answerable to this day. As a result of her dedicated campaign against racial injustice, Stephen’s mother was ennobled into the House of Lords 20 years after Stephen’s murder.

It may have taken five years to achieve, but the determined objections of many victims of press intrusion (from Royalty, to celebrity, to bereaved families) via criminal, parliamentary and Press Complaints Commission investigations, to name but a few, eventually led to the Leveson Inquiry. Its recommendations, within a 2,000-page report, resulted in the establishment of the Press Recognition Panel in 2014.

Paradoxically, despite it being tabloids on trial throughout Leveson, investigative journalists themselves deserve recognition for their role as the conduit through which public inquiry campaigners hold the responsible to account.

Bell Yard has learned many lessons from our years of advising campaigners and parties involved in both private and public inquiries – perhaps the most important of which is patient persistence. Justice has a way of exerting herself in time – and her value is priceless.

26th October 2020

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