The Cabinet Office and Ministry of Justice have failed to act on a series of recommendations to improve the way public inquiries are run, despite having agreed to implement them.
The National Audit Office today published its review of the handling and aftermath of government-funded inquiries, which have cost the taxpayer more than £230m since 2005.
The spending watchdog said around 45% of recommendations made by the inquiries it examined were accepted by government. However, it found that there was no central oversight ensuring that inquiries are handled properly and recommendations acted upon, and some departments were unable to prove they had taken specific action in response to an inquiry.
Its report identified but did not focus on 11 ongoing inquiries, including the public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire that killed 72 people, which opened this week.
The NAO decided to investigate the government’s handling of public inquiries because of their prevalence and the amount of money spent on them, which the auditors found to be at least £239m since 2005. Some 26 inquiries have been established and reported back since then.
The average duration was 40 months, which ranged from 16 months for the Leveson Inquiry into press ethics and the Harris Review on deaths in custody, to 84 months for the inquiry into the UK’s involvement in the Iraq War.
The auditors found that since 2014 the Cabinet Office and MoJ have committed to several actions recommended by parliamentary select committees to improve the running of inquiries, including updating guidance for inquiry chairs and sponsor departments, reviewing rules relating to people criticised in inquiry reports, and sharing lessons learned. “None of these commitments have been fulfilled,” their report said.
A 2016 Treasury Select Committee report, for example, argued that Cabinet Office should set up an online resource where chairs can see what processes were adopted in previous inquiries. This has not yet been developed.
There is no department responsible for establishing and managing inquiries – a House of Lords Select Committee recommendation to set up a central inquiries unit was previously rejected. The government is also under no obligation to accept the recommendations made by these public reviews.
Of the 10 inquiries the NAO assessed in detail, eight of them made a total of 620 recommendations – ranging from one for the investigation into the death of Alexander Litvinenko to 290 for the inquiry into high mortality rates among patients looked after by the Mid Staffordshire NHS trust. An estimated 45% were accepted by government, 33% accepted in principle or partially, 7% rejected and 15% failed to receive a clear answer, the report said.
It also said that departments varied in the extent of their transparency on actions taken in response to recommendations.
The report said: “For four inquiries – the Azelle Rodney Inquiry, the Harris Review, the Morecambe Bay Investigation and the Mid Staffordshire Inquiry – we found readily accessible information on progress against each recommendation. For three inquiries – the Al-Sweady Inquiry, the Baha Mousa Inquiry and the Leveson Inquiry – the minister gave general updates to Parliament on progress but did not give specific detail on action taken in response to each recommendation.”
The auditors said departments had failed to demonstrate that they were consistently monitoring the costs and progress of inquiries.
However, the Home Office was highlighted for the “bespoke processes” it has developed, including establishing its own inquiry sponsorship team in April 2017 to ensure consistency in dealing with the relatively high number of inquiries the department sponsors. The Home Office is currently overseeing four ongoing inquiries.
A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “Inquiries are only called to investigate events of significant public concern and play an important role in giving victims closure, establishing where mistakes have been made and ensuring those responsible are held to account.
“Lessons are learnt from every inquiry, and while each one is unique in its size and length depending on the complexity of the investigation, measures are always put in place to ensure it represents value for money.”
They also said the Cabinet Office regularly advises departments on the setting up and running of inquiries, including the sharing of best practice across government.
The department said it had raised concerns about the NAO investigation because public inquiries are complex and varied, and it said attempting to draw conclusions from a limited study is misleading.