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The calls for a wider legal duty of candour in public office grow

22 May 2024

The recently published Infected Blood Inquiry Report, coupled with the ongoing evidence being heard at the Horizon Post Office Inquiry continue to spark debate, most recently seen in the House of Lords, upon the principle of candour and why institutions appear to close ranks in the midst of scandals or tragedies.

It is increasingly being argued that the duty of candour is a now crucial instrument to promote an open and transparent culture in not just health and social care, but wider public and quasi public organisations. 

The House of Lords on the 30th April 2024 debated and voted in favour of extending this duty to wider public authorities, indicating that there is more than a little disquiet around the current dynamic of institutions who appear to focus primarily on reputation management in the wake of crises. Many argue that more needs to be done to nurture an open and transparent culture to ensure it is embedded into public life. 

The Hillsborough Charter seeks to prioritize public interest over reputation and, whilst some may deem it to be comprehensive, a large part of it remains voluntary. Do those organisations who have signed it really buy into it? The proposed Public Authority (Accountability) Bill ("the Bill") will enable victims to rely upon a statutory duty of candour and frankness on the part of public authorities and it could create an offence if the duty is breached.

It is of particular note that Sir Keir Starmer made a commitment last month to enacting the Bill if his government takes office following a general election.

One cannot help but wonder whether a legal requirement placed on organisations to approach public inquiries and inquests into state-related deaths, in a candid and transparent manner at the time would have resulted in a different outcomes in Hillsborough, Post Office and the Infected Blood scandal or at the very least would it have created less distress for the victims involved.

The chair of the public inquiry into the infected blood scandal, Sir Brian Langstaff, has called for a statutory duty of candour to be imposed on civil servants as well as healthcare leaders in the wake of his findings.

One of the key aspects of the report was to consider how the government and others in authority responded to what had happened. Langstaff commented:

'Here, the NHS and successive governments compounded the agony by refusing to accept that wrong had been done. More than that, the government repeatedly maintained that people received the best available treatment and that testing of blood donations began as soon as the technology was available. And both claims were untrue.’

It is quite clear that the calls for an extended duty of candour are growing. It is likely that following the general election more will be debated and if Sir Keir Starmer has his way, a statutory duty could be incoming. In today's Prime Minister's Questions, he asked the Prime Minister if he agreed that “time has come for the duty of candour to be clearly enshrined into law across the board”.

Contact us if you'd like to know more about any aspect of the public inquiry process, including the role that candour plays in the process, and how we could help you respond to an inquiry. 

Further Reading