Back to website

Extracts from the oral evidence of Alun Evans, the Secretary to the Lessons Learned Inquiry, to the Public Administration Committee (See more )


Mr Evans: In our case the biggest challenge we had was in establishing the reputation of the inquiry because Government, MAFF, anything to do with foot and mouth were pretty much discredited at the end of 2001. In addition, there was a strong demand for a public inquiry per se, that it must be better than a private inquiry. The Government were very concerned, particularly because of the way in which the Bloody Sunday Inquiry was dragging on. In terms of the inquiry that they set up for foot and mouth, it had to be quick, it had to be independent and it had to be robust, but they were not convinced that a judicial inquiry by a judge would necessarily deliver a lessons learned report quickly. Some of the inquiries that have come since, Hutton and Bichard today, have picked up on the issue of time and the speed of a judicial inquiry, but that was a reason why they set up our inquiry as they did. They also set up two separate inquiries on the future of food and farming and on the science of foot and mouth disease, so we did not have to go into those in detail. The important thing was establishing the integrity of it. As I said earlier on, there was a judicial challenge to the inquiry. One of the things we had to do—and this was almost a communications as well as an administrative task—once the inquiry was set up was to justify publicly and in the High Court that the inquiry was going to be independent, that although it was not a public inquiry in the technical sense of the term, it was not, therefore, a private inquiry. One of the things we did first of all was set out our rules and procedures of operation, the method. We said that in all the main areas of foot and mouth we would hold public meetings which would be fully public and transcripts would be put on the web straightaway, how we were holding what we called stakeholder meetings, which were small round table meetings, to which a cross-section of stakeholders affected by foot and mouth attended, and we made clear as well the fact that there was going to be information publicly available and that the press would be welcome to attend and report on them. Although it was not a public inquiry, we had to do everything we could to give the image and reality that this was going to be a full, open and independent inquiry and I think we managed that. Certainly the judgement of the High Court was that the integrity and independence of our chairman could not be questioned and that argument went away. That took up about two months of our time earlier on.
Q354 Mr Liddell-Grainger: I seem to remember that at the time this was seen as a political decision to split this inquiry up into different parts because the ministers did not want to be dragged through the mire as in the BSE inquiry. Was it not the case that ministers were very concerned that unless they broke this up it was going to be become a political football and that what they were trying to do was to muddy the waters by having different parts of this inquiry?

  Mr Evans: That was certainly an argument that was put. I found it a slight difficulty when I was doing the job having to defend the decision as to why ministers set up that inquiry in the way they did because I was handed it and told "This is how it is going to be"; I was not in on the process of discussing it. The line on why it was set up was the one I gave earlier. I am quite sure you are right, that ministers were scarred and affected by the BSE inquiry, both the length of it and the impact when it finally came out, but we did ask the Prime Minister about this and one of his overriding concerns was to come out with effective, useful, practical recommendations from the three inquiries as soon as possible. I really think time drove a lot of this. Whether or not ministers were trying to avoid the potential embarrassment of an enormous all-singing, all-dancing inquiry, I am really the wrong person to ask about that.

  Q355 Mr Liddell-Grainger: The only reason I asked the question is that surely, because of the fact you had so many parts to this inquiry, the conclusions at the end were muddied because you then had Lord Haskins and others running round the country saying they were going to do this or that. If you look at it in the cold light of day now, do you not think that perhaps you failed?

  Mr Evans: No, I do not think we failed. I am very proud of this report, I think it is well written and the recommendations are fairly on the ball and I think very pertinent. People turn to this when they are looking for lessons learned elsewhere in the world if they have to respond to crises. I do not think, although your criticism is perfectly potentially valid, that you could have three inquiries and they contradicted what each said because we developed a fairly effective way of working between the three chairs and the three secretariats and we did divide up the territory quite clearly. One was on the future of food farming, the scientific inquiry stuck to the science of foot and mouth and other exotic animal diseases and we focused on the more political territory of lessons learned for Government and the administration. I do not think the criticism you put, which we heard a lot, stacks up.

  Q356 Mr Liddell-Grainger: The 1969 Northumberland Report was very clear as to what should and should not happen in foot and mouth, in fact that was the basis for a lot of things that went on at the time. Your report is much more difficult to understand exactly what the lessons learned are, ie this is what we are going to do, this is what should happen and this is what it should be about. Do you not feel that it was not precise enough given the disaster that foot and mouth created?

  Mr Evans: I do not agree it is not precise. If you read page 11, there is one page that sums up nine lessons to be learned. Also, if you compare this with the Northumberland Inquiry report, this is a much more user-friendly and approachable one. Where I think you would have a very good argument is in saying why have the Government not done enough about it? One of the things we might get on to later on is what is the process for following up inquiries and making sure that the 81 recommendations have been carried out? I have no idea because I left the inquiry team. I think there is a case for saying that Government and the country should be much more rigorous and robust in following up the recommendations of the inquiry because, to take your comparison with the Northumberland Report, if that had happened the extent of the foot and mouth disease crisis would have been much less than was the case.





Mr Evans: In terms of this foot and mouth inquiry, one of the issues was that people had somehow decided that this was a disease of the past and it was not going to come back and therefore the inquiry of 1969, which had some useful information on how to handle future disease outbreaks, was just lying on the shelf. The same thing could happen to our report. There needs to be some type of process within the lead government department or departments which ensures that inquiries are live even when the subject matter which they have dealt with is not in the public domain. That is a fairly straightforward management mechanism. One of the recommendations we made on foot and mouth was that every two years Defra should do a review of the state of exotic animal diseases. With greater globalisation, climate change and everything like that animal diseases which were only based in Africa may be moving northward and that is something that the department could do, but it does come back to making sure that inquiries have some type of process within the lead government department for following up on the list of recommendations and reporting back publicly on what progress has been made.

  Q364 Mr Heyes: What should those mechanisms be?

  Mr Evans: For example, foot and mouth, although it might happen on other inquiries, the lead government department could quite legitimately be asked to make sure they put a public statement or public document on their website every year or two years on the progress of an inquiry or it could even report back to parliamentary committees that had taken an interest in them. I think any form of reporting back on scrutiny in the future would work. I would not like to define the format of that reporting back.




Q366 Mr Heyes: We hear that Michael Bichard is intending to reconvene his inquiry at some future point to assess progress. Would that have been helpful in the case of the inquiries that you were both involved in?

  Dr Baxter: One does not want to leap in again too soon is one thing I would say. You want to give the Government and the local services time to try and implement the action plan. I do not think it is a bad idea at all saying to a member of the panel, maybe not all of them would necessarily want to do it four or five years down the line, "Could you go into Ashworth again and see what you think about it?"

  Mr Evans: I think it does depend on the nature of the inquiry. I can see why Michael Bichard has said what he said in the Soham case, because of the gravity of what he was looking into. In terms of something like foot and mouth, there are two elements to it. One is to make sure that government is doing what has been recommended or they have signed up to it, but, secondly, there is a wider thing about how you continue to engage with stakeholders and the general public, because obviously when foot and mouth was alive there was a big interest in the media and elsewhere. One of the issues is making sure that good practice in farming and animal management continues once the threat of foot and mouth or another exotic disease has died down. As well as keeping government in the loop there was the issue of how you keep stakeholders and the public engaged in something which is no longer big news.

  Q367 Mr Heyes: I think the idea of a follow-up audit inquiry committee is a good idea. You were talking about the entry problems of setting up an inquiry and the cumbersome administrative business you have got to go through which delays you and can deflect you from the purpose. If you were to have a follow-up audit, say 12 months after the event, there are going to be administrative issues again. How would you deal with the exit and then the temporary re-creation of an inquiry?

  Mr Evans: One of the things that I found slightly depressing at the end of my inquiry was that we had built up amongst our people a massive level of expertise, knowledge, understanding of local relationships on farming and everything like that and all that was lost. I do not think doing what you suggest, that is having a follow-up in six to twelve months' time, would be difficult at all if you knew at the time that you had to do it, because if you had the people, you knew they had the expertise, you could identify a system whereby they could come back and do extra work. The problem I had was setting up when you did not have that level of expertise.




 Mr Evans: I am sure we should try and avoid inquiries that go on for seven years, particularly if they cost £100 million, or whatever the cost is. Part of this comes back to the judicial basis of the inquiry. One of the issues for our inquiry, and not for Tim's, was that we did not have legal representation of witnesses. We did not stop them from bringing people if they wanted to but if it had been a public inquiry they would have had the right to have legal advisers with them. One of the advantages of that—and this is certainly something my Chairman Dr Iain Anderson thought was absolutely vital—was that it meant that because he was questioning people not in the public eye and they did not have legal representatives with them (by definition telling them how to frame their answers) he got a much more frank and honest appraisal of what they thought they had done and why, particularly in the way in which he questioned them, which was a very non-threatening, non-confrontational way. His view—and I asked him specifically about this last week in preparation for coming to see this Committee—was that he believes he got more information in evidence from them than he would have got from public scrutiny with legal representation for all witnesses




Mr Evans: I would agree with that. The relationship between the chair and secretary is absolutely vital to the effective delivery of an inquiry. Again, I was lucky in that Iain Anderson had an industrial background and clearly had a view on how to run a project and how to treat an inquiry like a project. He also had very good public communications skills so, for example, when we held public meetings around the country although I chaired the meetings he would do most of the talking and that worked very well. Equally, he relied on me, as I said earlier on, for getting him round the Whitehall village and making sure we got the right entries at the right level within Whitehall. I think he relied on me to write a large part of his report, although the report was all his and nothing was written that he did not sign off at the end. He did a lot of the work himself. By the end of the inquiry he described it as working six and a half days a week so it was very intensive in the last month or two. The only caveat I would put in terms of what this Committee might be thinking about is this issue of whether or not you should have a single chair or a panel.

  Q376 Chairman: We were going to ask you about that.




Q381 Chairman: Let's move to the point you almost started.

  Mr Evans: Can I make just one point on that which is—and I have not worked with judges so I cannot comment on judges—I worked with Dr Anderson, a former chairman of a company who had very good public speaking skills in my view, and one of the things we had to do particularly going round the country was represent the inquiry and make sure we were getting everyone to give their views to us, and that involved and required a very good skill in terms of public engagement so that as well as being shown to be a robust inquiry it also had something of a cathartic effect on the community that had suffered, and I think Dr Anderson did that well. Again depending on the type of inquiry, you must have somebody who is familiar and able to deal with the media in an effective way, as indeed Michael Bichard has in the Bichard Inquiry.

  Q382 Chairman: Can we move to the point we almost started just now which is if you have a judge, indeed if you do not have a judge, is it not important to have wing members, whether we say panel members or assessors, people who widen the inquiry function in that way? Again it is a shame we do not have Lee Hughes with us because one of the criticisms of Hutton was that it simply was a judge dealing with areas which, it was said, required rather wider experience. When the Committee was in America recently we had it put very strongly to us by the person who is the secretary of the 9/11 Commission that in fact it would be almost impossible to do these kind of things relying solely upon rather narrow judicial experience. What I am asking is from your own experiences where you both did have inquiries where they were panels—

  Mr Evans: —No, we did not.

  Q383 Chairman: —I am sorry I thought you had had assessors.

  Mr Evans: No.

  Q384 Chairman: Let me then ask, as you come from different experiences here, what your view on this is?

  Mr Evans: I am not particularly convinced that having assessors or panel members would have assisted the process. It might have done in terms of the workload—Iain Anderson had a very heavy workload—but he was quite clear that bringing in a different perspective would possibly have muddied the waters and would not necessarily have assisted in the overall analysis of the problem. I must admit I found it much easier working with one chairman rather than, as it were, having to balance the views of assessors as I know some people in other inquiries have had to do and found it quite a strain for the secretary if you have got conflicting views which you need to balance. Apart from the workload point of view (and if it is something like 9/11 I can see the workload) and the expertise point of view, I cannot see the case for having assessors. In terms of expertise we identified fairly early on the areas we thought our inquiry was lacking which was, one, on high-level economic analysis and, two, on statistical analysis. There was a lot of argument about the statistics of culling. Very early on we brought in two leading academic experts on these two disciplines to advise on those areas, and that worked admirably well for us, so that is my perspective.





Q389 Mr Hopkins: If Lord Hutton had sat with three judges or five judges and they had come to a collective conclusion, would it not have been easier? Would they not have had an easier time? Lord Hutton had a very hard time when he made his judgment. He stuck to narrow factual conclusions and did not make any interpretive judgments where people could have said, "Okay, hands up."

  Mr Evans: It is a hypothetical question as to whether we would have got a different report if we had had got three judges rather than one, but I think it must come down a bit to the view of the chair or the judge. For what it is worth, Iain Anderson told me in taking on this job if he had been required to have panel assessors he would probably have said he did not want it.

  Q390 Chairman: What have we not asked you that you would like to tell us? What do we need to know beyond what you have already told us, bearing in mind you are going to let us see some papers which you have written as well?

  Mr Evans: One thing we have not talked about is the process of cross-examining witnesses and the different ways and means, whether it is done in public or private. I think that there is a balance on either side. Either you do it publicly and it is very public and everyone knows what is going on or you can do it in private, as we did, and say the balancing argument is maybe you get more out of people talking frankly when there are no cameras around. The other thing which you have not asked about is how do you know you have got all the evidence and all the facts at your disposal, and that is almost an unanswerable question, apart from the fact everything we asked for we got from government. We had to do a bit of digging at some stages to get it and whether or not there were other things that we should have asked for and did not, I do not know.

  Q391 Chairman: There is a difference here, is there not, because the Ashworth Inquiry was set up under a statute which gave you powers and the assumption was that you would therefore have access to all that you needed? The question would be did it work like that and, simply to Alun, yours did not have that statutory basis, so did that make a difference to your ability to get all the stuff that you wanted?

  Mr Evans: It made it slightly more time-consuming, shall we say, for example in getting hold of Cabinet papers because we wanted to look at all the Cabinet discussions there had been on foot and mouth. Although we had full access to the Cabinet papers we had to go to the Cabinet Office and read them there and take notes there rather than if we had judicial powers for some of the notes of the meetings we wanted. In practice I think it worked quite well. The only interesting thing which we did not see, which of course Hutton saw, was Hutton got a lot of e-mails as well. We never requested a lot of e-mails. I do not think they would necessarily have changed any conclusions but they might have added a little more colour to our report perhaps.

  Q392 Chairman: Lord Hutton said, "Give me anything relevant," did he not, and therefore people weighed in with all kinds of things?

  Mr Evans: We certainly got plenty of volume of paper. As Tim referred to earlier on, there was no shortage of paper.





Q393 Chairman: Most inquiries once reporting that in fact they were not getting co-operation and access, that is a power that they have, is it not, and they would probably have it and indeed some of them are offered the reserve of having powers put in place that they may not have initially?

  Mr Evans: I thought Michael Bichard made it very clear in the way he said he expected to get all the information that he needed and if he did not he would have no hesitation in going to the Home Secretary to ask for powers to ensure that happened. In our case everybody who we asked to come to see us came and saw us, from the Prime Minister downwards, and we got everything we asked for in terms of the documents.

  Q394 Chairman: And not being able to take it on oath was not a difficulty?

  Mr Evans: We did not find it a difficulty. I cannot say we did not find that people lied to us but we have no evidence that people were not telling us things that they should have done, and indeed part of the process that we went through was, as it were, a triangulation of different pieces of evidence, so if one person said one thing it was quite easy to check against what another person said or something you had had written to see whether or not it matched up. It was quite a good process of interrogation of saying, "We have been told by X that the following happened . . ." and we provided notes of all the meetings so in going into the public domain every single piece was recorded in the CD-rom document so anybody who had been wanting to keep stuff from us would be playing a very high-risk game, I would suggest.




Mr Evans: I agree with that. I think contributing to the healing process is precisely what one was trying to do, certainly in foot and mouth. Certainly in a lot of these things, coming back to the criteria, harm has happened and the public has suffered in a way where you do want to contribute to that. Secondly, as Tim said, you have got to the bottom of the problem, in other words the inquiry's recommendations stack up, it makes sense, it is readable and seems to tackle the problems it set out to do. Thirdly, it comes back very much to the problem the Committee has raised about knowing what happened so that something happened as a result of the inquiry. That is something where the track record of inquiries has not been good, that something has come about and changes have happened, and anything you can do to help that process would be welcome, I think.

  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed. That is extremely interesting and a perspective that has been very valuable to us. If we could additionally see the papers that you have written in some form that would be, I think, a great gain as well. Thank you very much indeed for your evidence this morning.