Leader: Inquiries system needs to be overhauled
A CALL for a public inquiry is often the first refuge of the political scoundrel. It works like this: Something goes wrong for which the government of the day might be responsible.
A politician, usually in opposition, demands something must be done and calls on ministers to set up a public inquiry.
If proof were needed of this frequent and depressingly predictable course of events in politics, Labour yesterday called for a public inquiry to look at the cause of the outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease even before the health and safety officials have finished their investigations into what happened in west Edinburgh.
Making the point that calls for inquiries are now so frequent that their impact is greatly reduced does not, however, imply that all such calls are without merit.
There are sometimes cases where the public interest can be served by an official investigation which leads to recommendations which improve the way we run affairs in the public realm. The problem is that even when such inquiries are justified they tend to cost large sums of public money.
There is plenty of evidence. In Scotland, the Penrose inquiry into the Hepatitis C and HIV infection via contaminated blood has already cost the taxpayer almost £9 million. Lord Gill’s inquiry into the explosion at the ICL plastics factory in Glasgow cost nearly £4m. The Shirley McKie fingerprint inquiry cost close to £5m. South of the Border the Bloody Sunday inquiry cost £195m.
That the Scottish Government has recognised there is a problem, and is trying to do something about it, is welcome. Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill has launched a consultation into the way inquiries are run, including looking at the costs. This is a step in right direction, but what might be considered by way of change?
One suggestion, from Christine Grahame, the Nationalist convener of Holyrood’s justice committee, is for a fixed fee system for lawyers. This has attractions in terms of saving money, but while we may not feel particularly sorry for well paid lawyers, if inquiries go on for a long period of time they have to be paid.
It might, therefore, be better for the consultation to start by accepting there are too many inquiries, and look at other ways on investigating areas of public controversy.
Why, for example, are inquiries usually presided over by a judge with all the participants represented by advocates? Is there a case for making more use of professional arbitrators to resolve disputes? Could there be a role for one senior expert figure, rather than a whole courtroom full of lawyers, to examine and rule on some controversies?
The length of time public inquires take, and the cost to the public purse, help no-one, particularly those who may be the aggrieved party. Justice delayed is justice denied. There must be a better, quicker, fairer, cost- effective way of holding public inquiries.
Cooking up a storm
And the award for the most pettifogging, inept, bureaucratic, jobsworth, foot shooting council in the world goes to… roll of drums… Argyll and Bute. It is impossible to overstate the lack of understanding of public opinion demonstrated by this authority in banning nine-year-old Martha Payne from taking pictures of school dinners – sometimes featuring distinctly unappetising fare – for her blog.
The ban had been imposed by her school after Martha cooked a meal with chef Nick Nairn and was pictured with a flaming frying pan, under the headline: “Time to fire the dinner ladies.” The decision was supposedly taken because the school’s dinner ladies took offence, but provoked outrage. Martha attracted thousands of messages of support including one from school food campaigner Jamie Oliver.
After local MSP and education secretary Mike Russell piled in, the authority’s leader, Roddy McCuish, revealed he had instructed apparently reluctant council officials to reverse the ban and praised Martha as “enterprising and imaginative”. Forced by worldwide opinion into this U-turn, he admitted the council was wrong and the ban should not have been imposed in the first place.
Martha took pictures of the meals as they were and gave her opinion. She should be praised, not punished. Once the school and council knew it has happening and she had a global audience they should have made sure they were providing good, attractive, healthy meals to the youngsters in their care. It could have been a great advert for the authority. Instead they banned a nine-year old girl from revealing reality. That is shameful.
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