Public inquiries used to be a politician’s best friend. When disaster struck, setting up an inquiry was a sure-fire way of deflecting legitimate questions about ministerial responsibility, at least until the minister had moved on writes Joshua Rozenberg
Best of all: the bigger the failure, the longer the inquiry was bound to take.
But the trouble with independent inquiries is that governments cannot control them. Theresa May clung to the more limited inquest into the death of Alexander Litvinenko until she was effectively forced by the High Court to convert it into a public inquiry that opened last week.
When David Cameron was told last month by Sir John Chilcot that his inquiry into the Iraq war would not report before the general election, the only thing the prime minister could do was blame Labour for delaying its start until 2009.
Far from deflecting criticism, the home secretary’s inquiry into child abuse is damaging May’s reputation. It was set up as an informal panel – like the Hillsborough inquiry which it in no way resembled – even though survivors of abuse wanted an inquiry with statutory powers.
In inviting Lady Butler-Sloss and then Dame Fiona Woolf to chair it, the home secretary failed to realise that neither would command the survivors’ confidence. Each resigned in turn, leaving Ben Emmerson QC, counsel to the inquiry, holding the tiller as the inquiry navigated what he described to MPs as ‘some pretty choppy waters’. /continued
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