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Public inquiries play a prominent part in public life in the United Kingdom. When major accidents or disasters occur, or when something goes seriously wrong within government or a public body, calls are often made for “a public inquiry” to be held. Inquiries into matters of public concern can be used to establish facts, to learn lessons so that mistakes are not repeated, to restore public confidence and to determine accountability.

This briefing examines statutory public inquiries held under the Inquiries Act 2005. It sets out details of current inquiries held under the Act and analyses the procedural issues facing inquiries.

Within Government, the Cabinet Office is responsible for advising Ministers on the establishment and conduct of public inquiries, of whatever form. Statutory inquiries are not the only option open to the Government: they may instead establish a non-statutory inquiry, a Royal Commission or a departmental inquiry.

Further information on non-statutory inquiries can be found in a separate House of Commons Library Briefing, Public Inquiries: non-statutory commissions of inquiry.

The principal advantages of statutory inquiries are that they provide legal powers to compel witnesses to give evidence, provide legal safeguards, and can set limits upon the Government’s discretionary control of an inquiry.

Public inquiries are, by their nature, controversial. At the outset of an inquiry questions are often raised over the identity of the Chair, the breadth and precision of the terms of reference, the size of the budget, the proposed timetable, and the inquiry’s working methods.

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