A leading think tank has urged the government to create a permanent inquiries unit within the Cabinet Office, as part of a raft of measures designed to ensure future public inquiries lead to real change.
The Institute for Government released a report today which found that those who led the 68 public inquiries that have taken place since 1990 have largely had to rely on “informal networks” of civil servants, due to the lack of formal guidance in this area.
The think tank also decried the fact that government is not formally required to implement inquiry recommendations, and that inquiries take on average two and a half years, and often much longer, to publish a final report.
According to the IfG, central and devolved governments have spent more than £630m on 68 public inquiries since 1990, including eight live inquires – one of them looking at the circumstances of the Grenfell Tower fire which killed 71 people.
While many public inquiries have delivered “valuable legislative and institutional change” – including more effective gun control, CRB checks and the establishment of the Rail Accident Investigation Branch – today's report said the formal checks and procedures surrounding inquiries were “inadequate”.
It makes four recommendations: to make select committees responsible for scrutinising government departments on the implementation of inquiry findings; for inquiries to report actionable findings sooner; for them to adopt a seminar process to involve expert witnesses when developing recommendations; and for a permanent inquiries unit to be set up in the Cabinet Office.
The unit, which is a “repeated recommendation of Parliament”, would produce “detailed – and ideally public – guidance on running inquiries”.
The IfG said that without formal guidance, senior civil servants serving as inquiry secretaries were not always able to access the full range of good practice, while staff turnover meant that the “informal networks” they depend on for advice could not be guaranteed.
“During our research, past inquiry secretaries recounted walking the halls of Whitehall, seeking out fellow civil servants with experience of running a secretariat; or sitting in the gallery of an ongoing inquiry, hoping to learn through observation,” it added.
“There is no well-established guidance for the process of running an inquiry, gathering evidence and producing reports.”
IfG programme director Emma Norris said: “Our report finds that the aftermath of inquiries are being neglected.
“The implementation of findings is patchy and there is no proper procedure for holding government to account for change.
“Government needs to systematically provide a full and detailed response to inquiry findings and select committees need to make the follow up to inquiry recommendations a core part of their work.”