Despite tram fiasco, public inquiries into Covid strategy and child abuse are valuable and necessary – Tom Wood

We seem to be living in an era of public inquiries.

The Edinburgh Tram Inquiry has now lasted longer than it took to build the tram line from Edinburgh Airport to the city centre (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Long and expensive, they can be an exercise in delaying blame or a vital mechanism to learn lessons on matters of public importance. At worst, they ask questions to which we already know the answers. At best, they shine a light into dark places, without fear or favour.

At the nonsense end of the spectrum sits the interminable Edinburgh Tram Inquiry, now in its eighth year and costing over £12 million. It is difficult to see what, at this stage, we will learn from this debacle other than the obvious point that major public works should be overseen by people who are competent.

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At the other end are investigations like the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry, so important that it must run to its conclusion regardless of time. But this inquiry is attracting critical attention. In its seventh year and costing £50 million, the fourth phase of Lady Smith’s inquiry will hear evidence relating to children who were boarded out or placed in foster care by our local councils.

Harrowing testimony has already been heard from former pupils of residential schools and religious establishments. Physical, sexual, and psychological suffering has been uncovered, stretching back over 50 years.

We should not be surprised that it has turned out to be a long process. Old hurts of such depth and magnitude must be uncovered with immense care lest a bad situation is made worse. The risk of re-victimisation is real unless the best of trauma-informed practice is used.

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The trauma-informed approach is a non-adversarial technique which carefully supports victims from the time they make the complaint to the end of the process.

Support teams and investigators receive special training that is refreshed continuously. Little wonder it’s a lengthy and expensive process. At its heart, the technique helps the victim to tell their story, usually for the first time. The chances of abusers being brought to justice are greatly diminished with time. Being heard and respected is often the only remedy available to victims, but no less important for that. It is all many victims have ever wanted.

We should not doubt the value of this inquiry, no matter how long it lasts for there are valuable lessons to be learned.

We spend a lot of time and money investigating historical wrongs – the 17th-century persecution of witches or the policing of a miners’ strike 40 years ago. What lessons are to learned from these events is difficult to see. It’s unlikely we’ll face another industrial dispute like that one, let alone think about burning witches again.

But vulnerable adults and children are not a problem of history, they are and always will be at risk. Vulnerability plus a gross imbalance of power always spells danger.

The conclusions of Lady Smith’s inquiry will be important, not just to right historical wrongs, but to guide future policy, or we will make the same mistakes again.

Now the Covid public inquiry is beginning to investigate areas of strategic decision-making around the pandemic. We must hope it takes the same careful approach to evidence gathering as the Child Abuse Inquiry. We must also hope for complete candour from all involved.

There are valuable lessons to learn and embed.

Tom Wood is a writer and former police officer

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