Even before it started voices on the right of British politics were complaining that the Covid Inquiry would be too expensive and a waste of money. This view is perhaps best exemplified by the Daily Telegraph who have been running stories on this theme for most of the year. And in the Financial Times, Camilla Cavendish identified public inquiries as one of Britain’s few growth industries. As she points out, between 1990 and 2017, 69 public inquiries were set up, compared with just 19 in the previous 30 years.
The difficulty that Cavendish recognises is that, “Public inquiries can be forensic, heroic exercises in getting justice done. They can also be flabby gravy trains for lawyers, raising expectations, stringing things out and letting down victims.” When it’s the latter, then the costs are often a major focus of criticism. Naturally, when they do achieve justice the benefits of public inquiries seem clearer.
One way of trying to make sense of costs is to examine benefits at the same time. Economists use a system of cost-benefit analysis to allocate monetary value to the benefits, and assess whether they outweigh the costs. The difficulty is that the monetary values of justice and other benefits of a successful inquiry are not easily quantified.
Nonetheless, cost-benefit analyses can encourage us to make a more formal assessment of benefits, especially when the costs are very easy to see.
How much inquiries cost us
The costs of public inquiries are counted in millions. The Iraq Inquiry, chaired by Sir John Chilcot, accounted for more than £13mn over eight years; the Leveson Inquiry into the press spent £5.4mn in around a year. About two-thirds of the costs are taken up by staffing and a significant amount of that is accounted for by legal representation. In the 12 years of the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, for example, nearly £100mn (over half of the overall cost of £192mn) went on legal fees.
Other expenditure relates to the infrastructure of an inquiry, from venues and transport to refreshments and consumables, as well as its media and online presence (for the purposes of transparency).
The other potentially major cost is any subsequent award of damages, whether driven by the recommendations of the inquiry itself or as a separate set of claims once a finding of culpability has been settled. For instance, during the Infected Blood Inquiry, an interim compensation scheme was initiated partly due to representations made during the inquiry.
The costs of public inquiries are therefore reasonably easy to quantify, the benefits less so.
What might be the benefits?
It’s not uncommon to hear people say ‘justice is priceless’ – which sums up the problem of trying to allocate a value to the potential public good from a public inquiry. Of course, we might just equate the value of justice with the cost of the inquiry, but while this may be plausible it’s also a circular argument.
Likewise, if we argue that a significant benefit is establishing accountability for a government’s actions, as part of the operation of democracy, we would still have some difficulty allocating a monetary value to such a result.
One way forward is to ask those who have been adversely affected by the matter under investigation, how much it would cost for their situation to be ‘made good’, i.e. for them to be returned to the position they were in before such events took place.
Conversely, we might ask how much these individuals would need to be paid to accept the current situation (of injustice, or damage) without any changes being undertaken.
Costs of compensation
This ends up as a model of benefits based on compensation, and while subjective (in that each individual may calculate their own level of compensation differently), at least in theory it could establish a monetary value for the benefits of the inquiry.
Indeed, for individuals caught up in the problem under inquiry the subsequent compensation may be the biggest tangible benefit, whatever their appreciation of justice being achieved. Sadly, it is usually the case that any such compensation is dwarfed by the costs of actually running the inquiry, even if, as for the Infected Blood Inquiry, the delays and ‘decades of obfuscation’ look to have raised the compensation bill into the billions.
Finally, possibly the greatest benefit of a public inquiry will be the impact it has on future policy making. Avoiding repeating past errors and ensuring injustice is not experienced again seems like a major benefit to any democracy, though once more something that’s very difficult to put a price on.
Covid and the allocation of blame
This could end up being one of the most expensive public inquiries of recent years, possibly even surpassing the costs of the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, though at present most of the hair-raising estimates are coming from those making the case that it’s too expensive.
It is not too early to start to think about the likely benefits that will flow from the inquiry, but it is probably too soon to try and make even an outline assessment of their monetary value.
For everyone affected by coronavirus, from those continuing to suffer symptoms to the families of the bereaved, accountability for the decision-making will be of value. Indeed, where individuals in government have been held to account for actions the families believe were mistaken (such as discharging hospital patients into care homes without Covid tests), there may be some justice simply in the allocation of blame.
Pricing transparency and accountability
More generally, if we are able to draw lessons for the better handling of future pandemics then the benefits in avoiding unnecessary fatalities may well be highly significant. But again, it will be difficult to assign a value to a counter-factual – prospective deaths avoided.
Finally then, we need to ask if the potential benefits of the Covid Inquiry’s investigation likely outweigh the costs incurred. This will be largely a political judgement on how we allocate monetary value to insights gained from such a detailed examination of policy making and conduct during the coronavirus pandemic.
However, conducting even a rudimentary cost-benefit analysis helps us to decide how we might value the results of such a public inquiry, and whether merely focusing on its monetary cost really tells us what we need to know.
The current cries that the Covid Inquiry is too expensive prejudge this question and might suggest that for some, transparency and accountability in our democracy are not highly valued. But that is, perhaps, a wider problem for our political culture in the future.