Central intelligence - If at first you dont succeed, by Colin Talbot

24 Mar 05
The trouble with most reviews and inquiries is that as soon as they report, their recommendations get farmed out and either float off or sink. Sir Michael Bichard bucked the trend by coming back to check on progress

25 March 2005

The trouble with most reviews and inquiries is that as soon as they report, their recommendations get farmed out and either float off or sink. Sir Michael Bichard bucked the trend by coming back to check on progress

The Bichard Inquiry - into how the Soham murderer Ian Huntley managed to work as a school caretaker despite a long history of alleged sex offences - has just issued its final report. Confused? Didn't Sir Michael Bichard report last year?

Before I explain, allow me a small digression. In early 1997 - when Michael Howard was still home secretary  I received a phone call from a senior manager in the Prison Service. He asked if I would be prepared to serve on the Prison Service Review, which was being established in the aftermath of the 'Derek Lewis' affair. Not really knowing what I was getting myself into, I agreed. The experience was instructive.

The then home secretary, Ken Clarke, had brought in Derek Lewis, a TV company manager, as director general of the newly 'agencified' Prison Service. Although Lewis had made a dramatic impact on Prison Service management and performance - including a substantial reduction in escapes - his misfortune was to be in charge when a couple of high-profile escapes from maximum security prisons happened.

The resulting political furore led to some of the most iconic moments of Michael Howard's career, including his famous grilling on Newsnight, where Jeremy Paxman asked the same question umpteen times, and Ann Widdecombe's 'something of the night' remark. Lewis was sacked (although he successfully sued for unfair dismissal) and, as part of Howard's 'not me guv' strategy, the home secretary announced to Parliament that he would order a review of the Prison Service. Everyone else quietly forgot about this obscure review - but not me, I was on it.

The review committee consisted of three Prison Service directors, including Richard Tilt, the new DG; one representative each from the Home Office and Cabinet Office; Sir Michael Heron (then chair of the Post Office); and myself. One of the first, and to me striking, things we did was to get a review of reviews - and we discovered that there had been no fewer than 14 over the previous 30 years. We eventually concluded: 'There is a striking repetitiveness about the findings of these reviews.' The same problems had been identified over and again. There was rarely a follow-up of previous reviews, no continuity and no accountability for what they had - or mostly had not - achieved.

As in prisons, so in child protection. In January 1973, seven-year old Maria Colwell died after being horrifically abused. There was an inquiry. Thirty years and countless other inquiries later, another little girl's legacy was yet another inquiry - this time it was Victoria Climbié. As with the 14 reviews of the Prison Service there has been a sad repetitiveness about such inquiries. Lessons have certainly been learnt, and some even acted upon, but certain themes keep recurring.

Perhaps some problems are intractable, but one thing is obvious - once an inquiry issues its final report, it is up to others, often those whose systems have failed in the first place, to put things right.

All this came flooding back to me this week as I read the Bichard Inquiry Final Report and a speech that Bichard recently gave about his experience of chairing the inquiry.

Bichard has clearly thought about the problem of inquiry follow-up and has done something unique with his own inquiry - he did not shut up shop after issuing his report. Instead, Arnie-like, he announced: 'I'll be back.' And he is. Six months later, he has come back to review progress.

The inquiry's first report last year was fairly novel in not only making recommendations but also in naming which organisations should be responsible for implementing the changes he proposed. And it is those named who have now been asked by Bichard to account for what they have done.

The Home Office produced its own 142-page progress report for Bichard in December 2004. This detailed a veritable avalanche of activity. It is difficult to know what would be happening if Bichard had not announced his intention to come back, but it seems unlikely that things would have been pursued with quite such a sense of purpose and determination. In these circumstances there is usually dissipation as individual recommendations are farmed out, absorbed into broader work streams and either sink or float off.

Instead, a 'Bichard Implementation Programme Board' is busily at work and Bichard says he is 'impressed with progress'. There are two major projects that cause him concern, but the balance sheet is so far positive.

Time will tell if this innovative recursive approach has really made a difference. Bichard himself hopes that this will become a model for future inquiries. At a personal level, you get the impression that despite the inquiry now being formally over, he'll still be back from time to time. He used a loophole to do this - only the chair can close an inquiry. Let us hope that Whitehall's reaction is to build on this idea for others and not to try to close the loophole.

Colin Talbot is professor of public policy at Nottingham University and director of the Nottingham Policy Centre