Continuing our series of articles focusing on public inquiries, we look at the conclusion of a public inquiry, focusing on the inquiry’s final report and findings.
Section 14 of the Inquiries Act 2005 specifies that an inquiry comes to an end, either:
- 1. after a final report has been delivered and the Chairperson notifies the minister that the terms of reference have been fulfilled; or
- 2. at a date specified in a notice given to the Chairperson by the Minister.
The explanatory notes which accompany this section go on to explain that the latter will usually only occur if concluding the inquiry is no longer necessary or possible:
In most cases an inquiry will end when the chairman has submitted a report to the Minister and has done any further work necessary to wind up the inquiry, such as a costs assessment. However, there might be situations before the submission of the report in which it is no longer necessary or possible for the inquiry to continue. Evidence may emerge that obviates the need to hold an inquiry or demonstrates that the inquiry has the wrong focus, for example, if it emerged during an inquiry that the event being investigated was an act of sabotage rather than failings of a particular system, and ought to be dealt with by the police rather than an inquiry. Other events might occur which also need to be investigated, and it may be more appropriate to set up a single, wider-ranging inquiry, perhaps with a different panel. Something might happen, such as a fire or the death of a witness, which means that an inquiry will no longer have access to the evidence it needs to conduct an effective investigation, and it may no longer be in the public interest for it to continue. Such scenarios are unlikely, but possible. In such cases, and other unforeseen circumstances, the Minister, after consulting the chairman, is able to bring the inquiry to a close.
Premature conclusion of an inquiry does not however prevent the Chairperson from reporting their conclusions to the Minister. They can choose to do so in any event.
Section 24(3) permits the Chairperson to deliver an interim report to the Minister prior to the final report. Any report must be agreed and signed by all members of the inquiry panel. If there are areas of disagreement, the report must set out what those are. If any member of the inquiry panel feels they are not able to sign off on either an interim or final report they must resign from the panel.
Section 24(1) sets out the obligation for the Chairperson to deliver a report to the Minister to include:
- “(a) the facts determined by the inquiry panel;
- (b) the recommendations of the panel (where the terms of reference required it to make recommendations).
The report may also contain anything else that the panel considers to be relevant to the terms of reference (including any recommendations the panel sees fit to make despite not being required to do so by the terms of reference).”
Any recommendations of the Inquiry panel are intended to guide the Government and others to make the changes which will prevent recurrence. Between 1990 and 2017 46 inquiries made 2,791 recommendations. If any report contains criticism of an individual, the Chairperson must first send a warning letter to that individual affording them reasonable opportunity to respond. Whilst inquiries cannot determine civil or criminal liability, there is a possibility that criminal prosecutions could follow.
Publication and Public Interest
Section 25(1) places a further obligation on either the Minister or the Chairperson (upon notification or agreement) to publish the report in full (unless certain material can be withheld by law or it is considered necessary in the public interest). The matters to be taken into account for the public interest test in respect of withholding material is set out in Sections 25(5) and 25(6):
- “(a) the extent to which withholding material might inhibit the allaying of public concern;
- (b) any risk of harm or damage that could be avoided or reduced by withholding any material;
- (c) any conditions as to confidentiality subject to which a person acquired information that he has given to the inquiry.
(6) In subsection (5)(b) “harm or damage” includes in particular —
- (a) death or injury;
- (b) damage to national security or international relations;
- (c) damage to the economic interests of the United Kingdom or of any part of the United Kingdom;
- (d) damage caused by disclosure of commercially sensitive information.”
The proof in the pudding
An inquiry report is the best measure of the success of any inquiry. The recommendations made will demonstrate whether the terms of reference were framed appropriately, the right questions were asked and salient evidence was obtained. Ultimately it is what the government actually do with the recommendations that is the most important aspect of any inquiry.
Public inquiries series
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