A brief history of public inquiries

As was stated in the First Report of the Select Committee on Public Affairs there has been “a trend, from the primacy of parliamentary committees and royal commissions up to the second decade of the century to the dominance of 1921 Act inquiries until the 1970s, then the predominance of ad hoc or subject specific statutory inquiries subsequently.”

Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921

Before the Inquiries Act 2005, statutory tribunals of inquiry were established under the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921.

Oonagh Gay, in the parliamentary paper Investigatory inquiries and the Inquiries Act comments that public inquiries set up under the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921, “were independent of Parliament, although their establishment depended upon parliamentary resolution and upon the willingness of the Government to find the necessary time to debate such a motion.” Sir Andrew Turnbull KCB KVO, Cabinet Secretary and head of the Civil Service between 2002 and 2005, in giving evidence to the Select Committee was rather more scathing in his description of “this rather clunking instrument of the 1921 Act, which assumes everything is in public, with full legal representation and so on…”

The Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921 primarily deals with the powers of the inquiry once it has been set up, rather than the determination of public concern that the Inquiries Act 2005 stipulates. Gay comments that “the tribunals were designed to replace an earlier system of investigation by parliamentary committee into matters of urgent public concern after that system was discredited by the unsatisfactory outcome of an inquiry by a Commons committee into the Marconi Affair in 1913.”

The focus of public inquiries held under the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921 has been allegations of serious misconduct by the government or public officials. They have included investigations into allegations of political corruption, police brutality and serious disasters. The Salmon Commission opined that tribunals held under the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921 should “always be confined to matters of vital public importance concerning which there is something of a nation-wide crisis of confidence.” The limiting wording of the commission was not carried into the Inquiries Act 2005 however, which simply requires “public concern”.

Since 1921, the British Government invoked the act around 20 times. Prior to four public inquiries, listed below, held in the 1990s, the Act fell out of use for some time. It is now repealed by the Inquiries Act 2005.

Notable public inquiries held under the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921 include:

  • Aberfan landslide disaster
  • Dunblane School Inquiry
  • Harold Shipman Inquiry

The Republic of Ireland

The Republic of Ireland retains some United Kingdom legislation pre-dating independence in 1922. The Smithwick Tribunal of Inquiry, an inquiry set up to enquire into suggestions that members of An Garda Síochána or other employees of the State colluded in the fatal shootings of RUC Chief Superintendent Harry Breen and RUC Superintendent Robert Buchanan, was established by resolution of the Dail Eireann and Seanad Eireann and under the 1921 Act.

The Salmon Commission

The Royal Commission on Tribunals of Inquiry, ‘The Salmon Commission’ was chaired by Lord Justice Salmon. It made recommendations affecting the protection of witnesses, in particular the Salmon Principles.

Since the Salmon Commission

A useful and comprehensive narrative on the development of public inquiries can be found in the Report of the Select Committee.

Inquiries held under other legislation

Schedule 3 of the Inquiries Act 2005 repealed a range of sections or whole pieces of legislation that gave authority to hold a public inquiry.

Inquiries that had been held under such legislation include:

Non-Statutory Inquiries

A number of public inquiries have been held on an ad hoc basis. These include:

  • Scott Inquiry into export of defence equipment to Iraq
  • BSE Inquiry
  • Hutton Inquiry
  • Inquiry into Soham Murders
  • Death of Zahid Mubarek
  • The Deepcut Review