‘Extortionate’ public inquiry costs in Scotland face clampdown
A CRACKDOWN on the spiralling cost of public inquiries in Scotland is set to be launched by the Scottish Government, amid concerns they have become a “cash cow” for lawyers.
It follows recent revelations that the Penrose inquiry into infected blood has cost £9 million, and could rise even further, while the Shirley McKie fingerprint inquiry cost almost £5m. Massive legal fees are behind much of the costs.
Justice secretary Kenny MacAskill has ordered a consultation into the way inquiries are run and has confirmed the costs are to come under scrutiny.
The convener of Holyrood’s justice committee, Christine Grahame, says greater scrutiny is needed over the way fees are handed out by inquiry chiefs at a time of chronic pressure on the public purse. She has called for an investigation into a “fixed fee” system or even a “taxation” system which operates in other courts and means auditors will check claims submitted by advocates have been “properly earned”.
The Nationalist MSP said: “The idea is that you do have a third party checking accounts. It’s public money and at a time when every other penny of public money is subject to scrutiny.
“Public inquiries are not granted casually, but we need to be sure that it’s properly applied.
“I’m not saying it’s improperly applied, but what need to find out, and what taxations would show, is that the public purse is being spent in a proper fashion. It would be open and accountable.”
The justice secretary revealed in a parliamentary answer to his SNP colleague on the subject of inquiry costs that a consultation into the way they operate closed last week.
“We will be considering all aspects of the current rules in the light of the consultation responses,” he said.
The consultation is into a proposed series of changes to the way costs are worked out and includes tightening up the timeframe in which awards are made.
Public inquiries are chaired by independent figures, usually judges, into scandals or tragedies that have given rise to major public concern.
The inquiry into the ICL-Stockline plastics factory explosion in Glasgow cost £1.9m, more than twice the cost of the inquiry into the Scottish Parliament’s Holyrood building fiasco, which came in at £717,400.
The latest moves come as demands grow for fresh public inquiries into the scandal over PIP breast implants and the recent Legionnaires’ outbreak in Edinburgh.
Scottish Tory deputy leader Jackson Carlaw backed demands for a crackdown.
“It is crucial we find a more streamlined way of getting to the end of these inquiries without costs escalating out of control,” he said.
“Before such cases are embarked upon, certain costs can be agreed and cut-offs imposed.
“Many of these inquiries are of crucial importance, but that does not mean they can become cash cows for lawyers or anyone else quoting ludicrous sums for their time.”
But Liberal Democrat justice spokeswoman Alison McInnes warned against any knee-jerk reaction.
“Public inquiries are a bastion of democracy,” the North East MSP said. “They allow the public to ask real questions and receive genuine, independently prepared answers in return.
“Whilst these figures might seem ludicrous, they should not be allowed to deter from the absolute necessity of the Inquiries Act in Scotland.”
The Scottish Government disclosed last month that the “interim cost” of Penrose inquiry currently stood at £8,788,901. This followed a long campaign highlighting the fact that hundreds of people in Scotland, including haemophilia sufferers and other patients, had been given contaminated NHS blood in the 1970s and 1980s.
Setting up the inquiry was a key commitment of the SNP when it came to power in 2007, but the costs prompted opposition politicians to question whether it had been conducted in the most efficient manner possible.
The inquiry began taking evidence three years ago and the public hearings drew to a close last month.
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “We are happy to consider any suggestions Ms Grahame has for improving the conduct of public inquiries.”
New laws covering the operation of public inquiries in Scotland came into force four years ago.
Since then, four inquiries have been set up – into the Stockline factory explosion, the Shirley McKie fingerprint row, the infected blood scandal and the C difficile outbreak at the Vale of Leven Hospital in Dunbartonshire in which 18 people died in 2007 and 2008. The last of these is ongoing.
Despite concerns about the growing cost of Scottish public inquiries, there is still some way to go before they reach the sort of figures seen elsewhere in the UK.
The Saville Inquiry into the Bloody Sunday shootings in Northern Ireland, which saw Paratroopers open fire in Londonderry, killing 14 people in 1972, cost £195m.
It prompted an angry broadside from UK Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, who branded the burden to the public purse a “disaster”.
He said: “I’m anxiously considering how we can stop such inquiries getting ludicrously out of hand, in terms of cost and length, as the Saville Inquiry was allowed to do.”
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