Jon Clements, Executive Director of Development
Tuesday 8 August 2023
It’s been a busy 12 months for public inquiries since Crest last surveyed people about their understanding and views on them. The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse and the Manchester Arena Inquiry (declarations of interest: we supported both of these) published their final reports, the UK Covid-19 Inquiry held its first evidential hearings and launched Every Story Matters to hear people’s experiences of the pandemic (declaration of interest: we work for this inquiry too) and the government announced an inquiry into the 1998 Omagh Bombing. These milestones have generated a lot of commentary, critique and criticism among journalists, politicians and others who have a professional interest in how the state holds itself to account and spends taxpayers' money about the purpose and value of inquiries. But what does the public itself think? Below are six insights we’ve taken from our survey and some questions we think they raise.
1. The public continues to accept that public inquiries inevitably take time and cost money, sometimes a lot of it.
Asked if an inquiry “should investigate the events or events as thoroughly as possible, even if this means the inquiry takes longer and or costs more than was originally anticipated”, 75% of our sample agreed, with 20% neither agreeing nor disagreeing and only 5% disagreeing with this statement. In addition, we found (again) that timeliness and minimising cost were much less likely to be rated as high priorities than getting the evidence need, gaining the trust and confidence of people most affected by the events and maintaining their independence from government.
These figures are almost identical to those in our 2022 and 2021 survey and suggest that though they make easy headlines, big bills and long timescales are actually ‘baked in’ by the public - if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing properly etc. How much weight should inquiries and those responsible for administering them actually put on the ‘cost too much and take too long’ narrative?
2. The public still has a shaky grasp on some of the mechanics of how inquiries work
Despite the high profile of many inquiries and their reports this year, a lot of people continued to be confused about how inquiries spend their taxes. Nearly a quarter of people think they have a jury, more than a third believe they can award compensation and a quarter think they can fine people. These numbers haven’t shifted since Crest began polling and perhaps they don’t matter. But it’s a useful reminder that while inquiries frequently operate under intense scrutiny and may attract a lot of media attention, this does not mean people understand how and why they operate the way they do. Could inquiries do more to explain this properly to their audiences, because nobody will do it for them?
3. The public considers finding out what happened more important than making recommendations on what needs to change
One theme in recent debates has focused on alternative ways to learn lessons which may be cheaper and quicker. Our survey suggests that for the public this risks missing the point: 41% of our sample ranked ‘establishing the facts’ as their top priority compared to 18% who ranked ‘making recommendations for the future’ as their top priority. This may be particularly relevant to those inquiries examining non-recent events where the scope to make recommendations is limited since policy and practice has evolved in the subsequent years.
Obviously, getting to the truth is a prerequisite for making evidence-based recommendations. But in the debate about the value of inquiries, do those with a professional interest recognise that the public sees establishing the facts as a healthy return on investment, and that fast-forwarding to the big policy questions may not wash?
4. The further back in time an inquiry is looking, the more questioning the public is about its value.
Some inquiries examine events which have just happened. Others become exercises in historical research. Broadly speaking, we found a clear majority of the public believes there is value in getting to the truth of events which occurred within the last 10 years. Further back in time, however, this reduces considerably - with people increasingly likely to be either undecided or say it depends on the specific events in question.
It’s a reminder that while it might be obvious to those highly invested in the inquiry why its work matters, the public may not recognise this at first sight. How can inquiries win over sceptics and build a mandate beyond the ministerial statement which established them?
5. A bigger challenge for inquiries which examine historical events may be convincing people that their work is actually feasible
Asked how feasible it is to examine events over different time scales, the results are quite stark. While 71% of people agreed an inquiry looking at events in the last 5 years could get to the truth, this proportion halved in relation to inquiries looking at events from 10-20 years ago. For inquiries examining events of more than 20 years ago, the proportions who felt it was feasible and who felt it was not feasible to get to the truth were equal.
Inquiries may be highly skilled and well-resourced fact-finding machines, but this finding suggests there is an inherent scepticism among the public that they will be able to get to the truth - which our other questions suggest is the aspect of their work which people typically place the most value on. Is convincing people they can deliver on the facts is of greater importance to an inquiry than demonstrating speed and efficiency?
6. The public remains reasonably confident that inquiries are good at maintaining their independence from government
Independence has long been seen as the USP of the UK inquiry model. It’s the reason ministers chose to establish an inquiry when public concern has reached a critical point and it’s the reason why those bereaved, injured or harmed are willing to give it the benefit of the doubt, at least initially. Our survey found that 69% of our sample were somewhat confident or very confident that inquiries generally preserve their independence from government.
This compares to 64% in 2022, suggesting that belief in the independence of inquiries is remarkably robust. Is there another model or way of examining controversial, and often highly politicised events, that would command similar levels of confidence in its independence from government?
If you’re interested in any of the findings from our survey, or in our work for inquiries and independent reviews more generally, and any of the lessons we’ve learned from them, please get in touch or visit our Crest Inquiries page for more information.