Professor Hugh Pennington: Inquiries can blame but they're not courts

Public inquiries are in the news, again. The ­Grenfell Tower Inquiry team has counsel in place - three heavyweight QCs. Their inquisitorial activities will play a major role in setting the tone of the public part of the inquiry.

A public inquiry has been announced into the deadly Grenfell Tower inferno. Picture: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Meanwhile, in England an inquiry into hepatitis C and HIV transmitted by blood transfusions and blood products has been announced. It will follow two public inquiries into the same subject, the Lindsay Tribunal in the Republic of Ireland (1999-2002) and the Penrose Inquiry in Scotland (2008-2015).

The Penrose final report was called a whitewash. It was burned in public. It is a fair guess that this happened because nobody was singled out for blame, and nobody went to prison.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

But public inquiries regularly apportion blame. Careers were ­significantly blighted by evidence during the public inquiry I chaired in Wales into an E.coli outbreak. Regulators hadn’t regulated. Complaints hadn’t been heeded. Dishonesty went undetected. Inspections were inadequate. But the law hadn’t been broken. The villain of the piece, a butcher, was jailed before the start of our public hearings.

Public inquiries are inquisitorial, not adversarial. They are not a court. Counsel quizzes the witnesses. The chair is in charge. As Lord Cullen said in his Piper Alpha report, his remit was wide-ranging, “but did not entitle me to embark on a roving excursion into every aspect of safety in the North Sea or into every grievance, however sincere or well-founded, that was entertained”.

There had to be a tenable connection with the disaster before a ­particular line of evidence would be explored.

Public inquiries try to achieve fairness by ­Maxwellisation, when a person who might be criticised in the report is sent a draft for their comments. The term comes from an investigation into Robert Maxwell’s running of the Pergamon Press in 1974. Aberdeen University Press was part of it. According to the public record, that is why the university gave him an honorary LLD. I was at his graduation at Marischal College. He was really chuffed. All he had before was a degree from the Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow.

Public inquiries describe what happened in a disaster, try to explain why it occurred, and aim to prevent a repeat by making evidence-based recommendations. Criminality is a police matter. My inquiry in Wales was typical in that our public hearings waited until a trial had finished. But we worked in parallel with the police; their findings were very helpful to us.

Most public inquiries last years. The disaster they investigate has in itself nearly always induced rapid technical investigations and changes to rules and regulations. In 2015, Penrose didn’t need to propose new procedures to make blood transfusions and blood products safe; they had been introduced long before, occasioned by the march of science.

This is just as well. After delivering its report, an inquiry ceases to have any standing or authority.

Professor Hugh Pennington is an emeritus professor of bacteriology at the University of Aberdeen. He has chaired inquiries into E. coli outbreaks in Scotland and South Wales.