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The call for a ‘public inquiry’ into an event of major public concern or into a controversial public policy issue is a common occurrence. The term ‘public inquiry’ refers to inquiries set up by Government ministers to investigate specific or controversial events.

What is a non-statutory inquiry?

Statutory inquiries, nowadays, are held predominantly under the Inquiries Act 2005 but occasionally under other Acts. Details of the 2005 Act and inquiries held under it, are set out in another Library briefing paper:

If a public inquiry is “non-statutory” it has still been established by a Government Minister, but otherwise than under an Act of Parliament.

Types of non-statutory inquiry

This paper gives background to and examples of three different types of non-statutory inquiry, explaining the key differences between them. These are:

  • ‘Ad hoc’ public inquiries;
  • Committees of Privy Counsellors; and
  • Royal Commissions.

Implications of an inquiry being non-statutory

Holding a non-statutory public inquiry provides greater flexibility on procedure rules. This can make it easier to hear (privately if necessary) evidence that is sensitive for national security reasons (for example). In some situations, this can better secure the cooperation and candour of core participants, such as the intelligence services, police or military.

However, non-statutory inquiries cannot compel witnesses (a) to give evidence under oath or (b) to produce other evidence relevant to the inquiry’s work. There is therefore a greater risk that uncooperative witnesses or core participants will impede a non-statutory inquiry’s progress.

Notable non-statutory inquiries

Many historic public inquiries were non-statutory, such as the Profumo Inquiry (1963) and the Maze Prison Escape Inquiry (1983-1984). In the early 21st century, several high profile inquiries, including the Butler Inquiry and Chilcot Inquiry on aspects of the Iraq war were also non-statutory inquiries.

Since the 2005 Act was passed, non-statutory inquiries have become slightly less common. Two recent exceptions are the Daniel Morgan Independent Panel and the new inquiry into matters related to Sarah Everard’s murder.

There are other recent examples of non-statutory inquiries or reviews being converted to statutory inquiries in order to strengthen their evidence powers. The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, the Brook House Inquiry and the Post Office Horizon Inquiry were all products of converted non-statutory inquiries or similar internal investigations.

Parliament’s role

Public inquiries are not the same as parliamentary inquiries. The latter are carried out by a parliamentary committee either on its own initiative or at the behest of one or both Houses (e.g. the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards). Some have suggested that Parliament should have a more active role in commissioning public inquiries. For more on this, see:

Other forms of government-led review

Sometimes Ministers, departments or agencies will establish reviews into operational matters or policy areas within their responsibility. A recent example is the Independent Review of Administrative Law commissioned by the Lord Chancellor and chaired by Lord Faulks, supported by a panel of academics and legal practitioners.

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