The public's view of public inquiries: insights from our 2022 survey

Jon Clements, Executive Director of Development


Wednesday 12 October 2022


It’s perhaps the busiest period for public inquiries that the UK has ever seen, with more than a dozen currently in operation. We’re proud to have worked with more than half of these over the last six years on communications, engagement and strategy. We’re always looking to test our thinking and assumptions, particularly on how inquiries are perceived and understood by the public itself. Last year we surveyed a representative sample of 1,000 people. This summer we repeated the exercise, adding in some more questions to reflect developments in the sector and points raised by inquiry teams we’ve been working alongside. Inevitably there’s a lot to unpick, and we’ll be sharing more insights through the autumn. But here are five immediate points we’ve picked out which we think have implications for how inquiries can build trust and confidence in their work.

If inquiries don’t explain, the public won’t understand

 

Public inquiries are established by the government into matters of public concern. Yet only a minority of our representative sample of the public was able to answer basic ‘true or false’ questions correctly about how inquiries work in practice. Only 40% identified as false the premise that an inquiry has a jury, compared to 25% who thought this was true and 35% who were just not sure. Only 23% correctly identified that inquiries do not have the power to award compensation, compared to 45% who thought that they do. And 28% of people wrongly thought that inquiries can send people to prison, compared to 40% who identified this as incorrect. These figures are virtually identical to results we found in our previous survey last year, suggesting 12 months of news coverage of a number of inquiries has done little to improve public understanding of the legal powers and processes they have.


Q: Which of the following statements do you believe are true or false about statutory public inquiries?



Teachers know that without basic knowledge and the right vocabulary even the brightest child will struggle with comprehension. If large sections of the public have a weak grasp on the essential facts about the inquiry process, getting them to understand what you’re doing and why is going to be difficult. The same rule applies to language. Legal terms such as ‘disclosure’ or ‘core participants’ mean everything to those familiar with inquiries and almost nothing to everybody else. Plain English explanations and ‘easy read’ guides can help to equip the wider audience (including journalists, policymakers and elected officials) with the scaffolding they evidently need in order to build understanding of an inquiry’s work and progress. What is obvious to people immersed in the inquiry process is not obvious to everybody else. What has been said once might need saying several times before the message gets through. Currently, much of the public does not understand what inquiries do with their money in their name.


Critical headlines about cost and time don’t reflect public opinion

 

Newspapers and politicians often lament the time and money inquiries spend on delivering their terms of reference. Changes in timetable are framed as delays to a service, rather than an unavoidable consequence of following the evidence or ensuring those who need to be questioned are called to give testimony. Costs are presented without context and rarely weighed against the present or future value of the work they represent. These are, of course, handy rocks to throw at inquiries for commentators, MPs and others who, perhaps, resent losing control of the narrative. Our survey, however, suggests that many of these missiles miss the target as far as the wider public is concerned. Asked to rank a series of priorities for the administration of an inquiry in order of importance, 55% of people put ‘getting the evidence it needs to reach conclusions’ in their top two. In contrast, only 28% put ‘minimising cost to the taxpayer’ in their top two – the lowest ranked priority out of the options presented. Similarly, only 30% put ‘timeliness i.e. completing its work quickly’ in their top two priorities.



Q: Please rate what a statutory public inquiry should prioritise when it is deciding how it should be run?


We found evidence too that the vast majority of the public, to some degree, takes the view that ‘if an inquiry is worth doing, then it’s worth doing properly’. Asked how much they agreed or disagreed that ‘a public inquiry should investigate the event or events as thoroughly as possible, even if this means the inquiry takes longer or costs more than was originally anticipated’, 43% strongly agreed, and a further 32% slightly agreed. Only 4% disagreed (strongly or slightly).


Q: To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statements?



The general public appear more likely to accept an inquiry over-running (and therefore over-spending) than headline writers - if they believe it’s necessary to get to the truth. Naturally, those most affected i.e. core participants will naturally seek rapid progress. But our findings suggest people are realistic about the trade-offs between speed and rigour, and consequently there is an opportunity to manage wider expectations - especially if inquiries are open about the rationale behind their decisions.


Independence is not a done deal


Most inquiries are set up when something has gone very badly wrong, and there’s no other credible mechanism to find out how and why. Frequently, these events involve government or other powerful institutions and circumstances require a process which is visibly independent from them. Our survey found that a majority of the public were confident that inquiries deliver this aspect of their work, with 47% ‘somewhat confident’ that inquiries preserve their independence from the government, and a further 17% ‘very confident’. However, 30% were ‘not very confident’ and 7% were ‘not at all confident’ on this point.


Q: How confident are you that public inquiries preserve their independence from the government?



Further analysis shows that younger people, particularly those aged 25-34 have more confidence in inquiry independence than middle-aged and older people.


Q: How confident are you that public inquiries preserve their independence from the government?




Women were less likely to be confident than men (59% v 69%) and non-white people were slightly more likely to be confident on this point than white people (68% v 63%).


Q: How confident are you that public inquiries preserve their independence from the government?



The appointment of a judge is typically seen as the ‘guarantee’ of independence from government, and frequently treated as such by core participants. This highly engaged audience will likely receive further reassurance from frequent exposure to an inquiry’s work. But it appears a significant proportion of the broader audience is sceptical that Whitehall is unable to interfere. They will view an inquiry’s decisions and actions through this prism and an inquiry’s approach to communications needs to account for this.


The public sees the human element as integral to inquiries

 

There was broad agreement (71%) that hearings should be held at venues which accommodate the needs of the people most affected, even if this increases costs, and we found similar levels of agreement (69%) for counselling and psychological support services to be available on site.


Q: To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statements?





Separately, nearly three quarters of people (74%) agreed that inquiries should get advice from those affected on how to work with them during the inquiry, for example through a forum or working party.


Q: To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statements?




These findings suggest the public expects such measures, which have become more widespread in recent years, as standard practice. Of greater significance, perhaps, is the broad support for inquiries including the impact on people within their terms of reference. Asked to what extent they agreed or disagreed that ‘the inquiry should investigate how the events it is examining have affected people and not just establish what happened, why and who was responsible’, 39% of people ‘strongly agreed’ with a further 37% slightly agreeing. Only 4% disagreed (strongly or slightly).


Q: To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statements?




To be clear, our sample was not suggesting a radical shift in an inquiry’s traditional mission. Asked to rank in 5 outcomes in order of importance, 64% put ‘to establish facts’ top of their list, while only 14% put ‘to help people affected by the event/events feel listened to and get closure’ there. But these are not mutually exclusive. Several inquiries investigating historical events have included the impacts on or experiences of victims in their terms of reference. But it seems there is public support (and perhaps an expectation?) for an examination of impacts on people to come as standard in future.


Diversity and equality are live issues

 

We asked respondents who had indicated they would not be willing to provide information to an inquiry formally or informally to give their reasons for this. The reason chosen most frequently by non-white respondents was ‘I don’t believe I would be treated fairly’. In contrast, this was the reason chosen least frequently by white respondents. This reflects other surveys which have found black and ethnic minority people are significantly more likely than white people to believe the criminal justice system discriminates against particular groups of people.


Q: What are the reasons you would be unwilling to provide formal or informal information to an inquiry?





Given this, it seems logical for inquiries to do as much as they can to proactively differentiate themselves from the criminal courts, for example through location, tone and behaviours.


There are other findings in our survey which might point towards ways to provide reassurance to ethnic minorities. While only 41% of our full sample put ‘to help people affected by the event / events feel listened to and get closure’ in their top two outcomes, this figure rose to 53% for non-white people. Placing greater visible emphasis on listening to personal experiences as part of the inquiry process could, perhaps, build trust and confidence among ethnic minorities. And more than two thirds of people (70%) expressed support for inquiries investigating whether discrimination or inequality played a role in events, even if there was little or no prima facie evidence. This support consistent across white and non-white respondents and across most age groups.


Q: To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statements?


In summary

 

While many people do not understand how inquiries work, they have clear views on what their purpose is - establishing facts and conducting rigorous investigations. When forced to choose, the public prioritises rigour over speed. People want inquiries to factor in the human element into their investigations as well as their operations, and to improve diversity and inclusion. Overall, the general public appears ambitious for inquiries - wanting more from them rather than less

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