Grenfell Tower London

Public Inquiries are a Smokescreen for Real Change

Public inquiries of the past have been a smokescreen for real change. Will Grenfell be any different?

Oliver Pridmore

Naked Politics Blogger

The inquiry into the Grenfell Tower tragedy began with heart-rending tributes to the 72 victims today. It forms the latest in a long line of public inquiries designed not to bring about real change but to convince the public that the Government is doing something; more broadly to convince the public that the Government actually cares.

There will be two phases of the inquiry: the first will examine how the blaze developed and the second will look at how the tower became exposed to the risk of a major fire.

Let’s consider press regulation. In the wake of the phone-hacking scandal, the Government announced a two-phase Leveson Inquiry. It took evidence from hundreds of newspaper proprietors, celebrities and politicians, with the likes of Rupert Murdoch, Andy Coulson and Tony Blair appearing for full public scrutiny. At the time, it seemed impressive. It was almost as though the Government was doing something. Perhaps the Government really did care.

Phone hacking inquiry

Actions speak louder than words, as we know. So, what came of Leveson? One of the core proposals of the first phase was the dreaded Section 40 where news publications would have to pick up the tab of someone who brought a case against them in court, even if that person lost the case. That proposal was voted down in the Commons last week. No change.

And what about the people who went on trial? Andy Coulson is now out of jail and running his own PR agency. Rebekah Brooks is now back as the CEO of News UK. No change.

And what about the second phase of the Leveson Inquiry? In their 2017 manifesto, the Conservative Party (whom introduced the inquiry in the first place) announced that if elected, the second phase would not go ahead. No change.

It isn’t just on the issue of press regulation. The recently concluded Iraq Inquiry was much of the same. Indeed, the head of the inquiry, Sir John Chilcot, admitted to the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg that, “Whether the machinery is perfect and whether memories will survive say a decade or two I’m more doubtful, but the lessons are there.”  So, Chilcot is saying he isn’t convinced that the inquiry will leave a lasting legacy in years to come, but it has taught lessons. How useful!

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There is no denying that public inquiries have their place. Inquiries often bring out important evidence and stories relating to the issue. But, far too often, successive governments rely on the public inquiry without making real statutory headway into the problem.

Consider the aftermath of Grenfell. Theresa May managed to avoid intense media questioning over the issue by kicking the can down the road with a non-committal “We need to know what happened, we need to have an explanation of this”.  As recently as last week, the government used the “we’ll consult” cop-out to avoid a commitment to banning flammable cladding. Whenever someone asks about the Grenfell tragedy, the reply will come… “there was a full public inquiry”.  They deployed the all too familiar adage then, they’re relying on it now, and successive governments will rely on it in the future.

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