Public Trust and Inquiries

With the publication of Sue Grey’s internal inquiry into Downing Street’s lockdown parties expected imminently and the resumption of the inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire, it is crucial to examine the impact of these inquiries upon our own research on the Chilcot Inquiry to interrogate those included in the scrutinising process and identify those who are excluded.

As the Grenfell Inquiry resumed on Monday 24th January, the focus of the inquiry has turned to political culpability. Whilst the manufacturers of the deadly cladding, firefighters and builders have already had questions put to them, many feel they have been made ‘scapegoats’ for the actions of previous governments in allowing the cladding to become part of regulation in the first place. The inquiry will focus on guidance from 1997 onwards with a particular focus on David Cameron’s Conservative-Liberal Democrat government that came to power in 2010. Cameron’s government in particular held a strong resolve that aimed “to kill off the health and safety culture [of the United Kingdom] for good”. Rhetoric like this has driven further public sympathy for the victims of the Grenfell fire, damaging the British government and drawing attention to the number of buildings in the UK with dangerous cladding. Thus, running concurrently with Sue Grey’s inquiry into the alleged lockdown parties held by Boris Johnsons’ ministers over the course of the pandemic, the public’s calls for culpability and transparency are only growing.

Grey’s internal inquiry has the potential to be more tenuous in some of its evidence than the Chilcot or Grenfell inquiries. The power of public inquiry will be demonstrated as Grey’s team try to carry out a “full and fair investigation” despite the difficulty of collecting evidence in the form of WhatsApp messages. However, if able to collect these vital messages, some have argued that Grey would demonstrate the power of public inquiry and gain the confidence of bereaved families and the public. There is a clear message within reporting that the public desire transparency and honesty, but we question how far the government’s political cultures that led to rule-breaking incidents will be addressed.

This then raises the following question: how do these events shape our understanding of the Chilcot Inquiry? 

Interest in political culpability is increasingly visible due to the unavoidable nature of social media, however public engagement with its government is not novel in 2022. Historically, the public were not passive to scandals, like the Grenfell Tower fire, and many used the media to similarly criticise the government for incompetence or accusations of criminality. The public hold some power during inquiries as it is their opportunity to gain insight and understanding into governmental decisions and actions as well as, in some cases, gain retribution (as we have seen, to a degree, from the Saville Inquiry).

Engaging with these inquiries draws further examples of how establishment narratives are favoured, and certain elite perspectives are amplified within the inquiry process. Many argue that inquiries also have the capacity to shift their perspectives. As we have seen recently, the Grenfell inquiry has interviewed the victims, survivors, and bereaved family members of the fire. This is significant as it demonstrates a shift in experience from those holding the most power being given the largest platform, as is often the case with UK politics and the media. However, how far will these inquiries go to actually address the institutional cultures that marginalised these groups of people and enabled these behaviours in the first place?

Therefore, the Grenfell and Sue Grey inquiries are helping inform our understanding of the Chilcot Inquiry by forcing us to observe and challenge the perspectives and evidence sought by inquiry staff. We must question who is being given a voice, and why, and consider how far this shift in perspective will enable a more systemic examination of scandals in the UK.