Sunday 21 October, 12.15pm until 1.15pm, Pit Theatre
In the years between the late-1990s Macpherson Inquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence and the current Leveson Inquiry into press ethics, something strange has happened. The public inquiry, once a recourse of political last resort, has increasingly come to play a prominent role in British political life. Rarely a week passes without a politician calling for an inquiry into something or other, be it a dodgy expense form, the fiddling of the Libor rate, or somebody’s wife’s speeding ticket. It does now seem that where the authority of politicians is often in doubt, the authority of the public inquiry is unquestioned. But ought it to be unquestioned? Is the rise of the public inquiry as undiluted a good as its champions claim?
For advocates of the public inquiry, its appeal seems straightforward: it represents an impartial way to establish the truth. Not only that, it also provides a judgement on the rights and wrongs of an issue that comes from above the partisan and partial sphere of politics. The judgement of a public inquiry is a judgement, it seems, that can be trusted. But how true is this? And is there something to be concerned about when the political sphere is bypassed in favour of the views of the judiciary and specially selected inquiry panel members? It may be called a public inquiry, but the public play no role in the formation of an inquiry’s judgement. We become little more than spectators, able to view the exercise of expert judgement, but with no means to influence it.
And what of politics? Aspects of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, for instance, have been the object of three separate public inquiries since the Hutton report into the death of weapons-expert David Kelly. For those who called for these inquiries, they represented a de facto opportunity to establish once and for all whether the UK was right to invade Iraq. But ought it really to be inquiry panel members judging the rectitude or not of the events leading up to the Iraq war? Would it not be better if politicians, and ultimately, those they represent, the public, were to hold the government to account? In the enthusiasm for public inquiries, is political and moral judgement being outsourced to experts?
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leading criminal and human rights barrister; regular columnist, The Times and Observer; editor, Criminal Bar Quarterly
barrister; writer on legal issues; regular contributor to spiked
consultant, Alexander Litvinenko inquest; secretary, Hutton Inquiry
trainee barrister; formerly, paralegal, Baha Mousa and Al Sweady Public Inquiries; founder, Student Academics for Academic Freedom