The Hillsborough Panel performed a wonderful service, extracting the truth which 2 judges, a coroner, the police and several ministers failed to do. Is this therefore the prototype for the future? The reason the panel succeeded so dramatically was that they concentrated on getting access to and publishing key documents rather than the adversarial legalisms of witness cross-examination, and the reason they got access to the documentation was because Andy Burnham MP succeeded in getting State bodies to lift the 30-year rule on non-disclosure od documents. For that reaon in future cases where the State and its rulers are more directly on the line than at Hillsborough it is almost certain that the 30-year rule will not be waived and attempts to get access to the relevant documents via FOI will be blocked (improperly) on the specious grounds that it constitutes a risk to national security or breaches the confidentiality between civil servants and ministers. But there is still an alternative.
Even if the Hillsborough-style panel probably won’t work most times in future (but should still be tried wherever possible), we do urgently need to replace the present system which is essentially members of the Establishment chosen by the Prime Minister making judgements on – other members of the Establishment who’ve got into a tight spot. Recent examples include Lord Hutton’s inquiry into the death of David Kelly, Lord Widgery’s inquiry into the British army massacre of unarmed civilians on Bloody Sunday in Londonderry, the failed police investigation into the killing of 215 patients by GP Harold Shiopman, and the sweeping under the carpet of the death of Ian Tomlinson at the G20 protests (had it not been fortuitously that a visiting US businessman videoed what happened on his mobile phone).
Public inquiries have two key defects. The do not in fact involve the public, and the Prime Minister and the clique around him will go the utmost lengths to select a judge or a committee who, whilst reasonably credible, can (it is believed) be relied on to reach ‘sound’ judgements in protecting the interests of the State and its rulers. That is why this ‘fix’ should not be left to Prime Ministers.
There are two alternatives here. Either the selections made by the PM have to be debated (with amendments as necessary) in the Commons, whether in Select Committee or on the floor of the House and approved by vote, or better still Parliament itself sets up its own Commission of Inquiry with its own remit and its own chair and membership, again with a debate and a vote. Either way, a significant number of the members of the committee of inquiry should be members of the public robustly representing the public interest.