Inquiring about the Inquiries

Kaitlin Dryburgh– 7th October 2022

What is happening with the state of inquiries in Scotland? It seems that we are almost incapable of holding an inquiry that is on time, on budget, isn’t littered with resignations or fails to provide a sense of justice or answers. With Monday’s announcement that Lady Poole, who chaired the Scottish Covid Inquiry that isn’t even a year old, has now resigned due to “personal reasons” (read into that what you will, however the vague wording is rather odd and with speculation it has nothing to do with her personal feelings). However, it has now been reported that a string of resignations from members on the counsel team perhaps kickstarted this saga, yet another Scottish inquiry tarnished by supposed in-fighting and resignations. This latest development in the Covid inquiry does hamper confidence in a smooth process. Of course this isn’t the only inquiry that has run into fairly big issues: we have the Edinburgh tram inquiry, which is running the risk of needing its own inquiry to investigate its own inadequacies, and the Scottish child abuse inquiry that seems to be moving along at a sluggish pace, although has been doing some significant work and that’s not to mention the Scottish Hospitals inquiry that is two years into its investigation.

So what exactly are the problems? Lack of accountability, bad management, an inability to keep in mind that each inquiry costs the tax-payer millions? Has it got to the stage where we need change, should we establish another body to keep on top of inquiries or should there be a completely different system for conducting inquiries?

The current tram inquiry, which is tasked with investigating how the Edinburgh tram works took five years longer than originally planned, caused major disruptions to local businesses and cost double the amount predicted, is set to cost the same amount as the Iraq Inquiry. An utterly ridiculous fact considering we are comparing nine miles of tram lines to entering into a war illegally. Current predictions set it costing the taxpayer £13 million, however as we’ve seen it might not end there, the inquiry headed up by Lord Hardie was meant to be swift and thorough yet eight years on it seems to be anything but that. Lord Hardie has stated it will take “as long as necessary”, and with over 13 million documents to scour through it seems they are taking that mantra extremely seriously.

Of course as the public we need to know why our tax money was overspent, why a civil engineering project took so long and we need to ensure those in charge learn from their mistakes so that it never happens again, but is it in the public’s best interest that it takes eight years? That it uses up the same resources and takes longer than an inquiry investigating a war? Do people in the North East of Scotland, for example, feel content that so much money is being invested into something that effects their lives very little? Surely a balance must be found between finding and placing blame and discovering what went wrong. If this is being approached in an aggressive manner in order to find the person/people responsible for the tram debacle, is this the best way to spend money and time, do we really need that?

However, unlike the trams some inquiries are brought about to find real justice, and to find accountability for what went so very wrong, such as the Child Abuse Inquiry. Something as important as this should have no limits of investigation and should be done rapidly and efficiently, in respect to the victims and the fact that we need to learn what happened and put a stop to is as soon as possible. Yet the inefficiencies have already started to rear their head, it was decided that this inquiry won’t be taking into account state schools, non-residential care or football clubs as the Scottish Government decided this would be too timely, regardless of the fact that these areas of society have several times proven to be abuse trouble spots. A bizarre choice perhaps, and the reasoning of being too timely seems questionable since its on its seventh year at a cost of almost £58 million with no real conclusion in sight.

The Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry was modelled on the Australian Royal Commission, yet Australia managed to do it in less than five years, spend less per head of population and critically it didn’t exclude any area of society, all child abuse was deemed important enough to investigate. How can it be based on something it has nothing in common with?

Serious questions should be asked as to why some areas have been left untouched? Senior circles of Scottish lawyers have been troubled with child abuse scandals, therefore quite appropriately many have called for that area to be included in the inquiry. Yet it was given a damming denial from Lady Smith when a former counsel member requested that the inquiry take this into account. However, should a senior judge in Scotland be able to determine if senior judges and lawyers should be an area for investigation, this seem like a blatant case of conflict of interest, and as such I don’t believe that the Scottish population and victims were thought about.

We have a pattern of expensive, long-lasting and controversial inquiries in Scotland and it’s simply not good enough. We need to have truly independent inquiries where the Scottish people decide what should be examined and government has little sway over the path of an inquiry. This is so important, as without separation from government how are they ever to be held to account for their involvement in certain issues. Currently ministers are being urged to get involved in the tram inquiry yet should in be their job? Shouldn’t there already be a council that ensures that inquiries are producing results in a timely manner, perhaps even presenting them with a deadline?

Wouldn’t it be great if this didn’t consist of government or even institutions heavily influenced by government but instead ordinary people could decide how inquiries took place, they decided when an inquiry was going to take place, the scope of it, who heads it and could ensure that it wasn’t taking an unreasonable amount of time and money to conclude. A citizens assembly could be the answer to revolutionising the outlook of Scottish inquiries, it could be the answer to the debacle we are facing right now.  

Inquiries are an important part of democracy and Scotland should never be denied the ability to probe into certain parts of society in order to learn, improve and gain justice. Transparency, accountability and value-for money should always be at the fore front of all of those involved.

1 thought on “Inquiring about the Inquiries”

  1. Ian Davidson

    Very briefly:
    1. The best way of avoiding public policy debacles is to ensure that everybody involved in government at every level, political and civil servant, that every key issue and decision will be recorded independently and evaluated in real time, not several years later at an inquiry;
    2. The “citizen jury” concept should be embedded in all decision making so that decisions which seem correct to politicians but seem strange to “the reasonable observer” are challenged before the meeting ends;
    3. Leslie Evans, former Permanent Secretary, appears to have failed us all by not having an effective and robust system of information management /retrieval within Scot Gov; not did she ensure that every key interaction between a Goverment Minister and externals was attended and minutes by a civil servant. This slack culture appears to have pervaded Scot Gov for a while, perhaps right back to the start of devolution in 1999?
    4. Thus, from any objective viewpoint, the whole culture of Scot Gov (the whole machine, political and administrative) has been lacking in basic accountability mechanisms. This will make it very difficult for any public inquiry to actually determine accurate facts and timeliness. At least one Director General of NHS Scotland resigned “for personal reasons” during this period! Many of the key Covid decisions were taken at informal meetings, held at short notice.
    5. The Scottish Parliament should have had more input from the outset; an “emergency covid coalition” could have been formed. Why did our 129 MSPs, regardless of party, not think about this? (I did but nobody was interested). The inquiry could have started much earlier, just to set up infrastructure etc but this was rejected on the spurious grounds that every part of Scot Gov was focused on dealing with covid. Really?
    6. Our judicial and legal system is, like much else, over worked with insufficient resources (people). There are lots of errors made, sometimes with devastating consequences for ordinary citizens seeking justice, but they are usually covered up. As Robin has frequently commented, Scotland has its own semi-secret self-interest groups; with interactions taking place informally between politicians, senior civil servants and quango chiefs; law officials and key influencers in finance, industry etc. This may all be legal, or at least, not illegal, but it does sometimes seem self-serving, to the detriment of the majority of us outside the circles.
    7. Independent or devolved, we need to hold politicians and bureaucrats to account in “real time” rather than retrospectively. This requires a fundamental change in culture which will be resisted by those with most to hide.
    What happens in Scotland is our responsibility; comparisons with more corrupt systems/practices, whether in Westminster or any other nation/legal jurisdiction are simply deflection .

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