National reckonings and public inquiries: what scandals come next?

<span>Asylum accommodation such as that at the Wethersfield military base in Essex has come under scrutiny. </span><span>Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian</span>
Asylum accommodation such as that at the Wethersfield military base in Essex has come under scrutiny. Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

Reckonings with shocking national scandals have lately become a defining feature of British public life.

Some, like the Post Office and infected blood scandals, have erupted from cases of wrongdoing hidden in plain sight. Again and again, whistleblowers are shown to have been sidelined, ignored and dismissed.

The gravity of scandals such as the Grenfell Tower disaster emerged as public inquiries painstakingly uncovered profound failures and potential crimes in companies, public institutions and regulatory bodies.

Journalism drove the exposé of the Windrush scandal, in which the Home Office operated a cruel “hostile environment” against people who had called Britain home for decades. And bereaved campaigners drove the fight to end cover-ups over the Hillsborough football stadium disaster.

Often there has been a moment of abrupt public awakening – for example, the broadcast of the ITV docudrama Mr Bates and the Post Office. A common theme running through all these sorry sagas has been ordinary citizens suffering as a result of the acts or omissions of corporate and government officials.

What then are the reckonings still to come that are likely to fall on the watch of whoever is the next prime minister? Guardian writers highlight some possibilities of scandals yet to fully unfold.

Crumbly concrete

When the government last autumn abruptly ordered the closure of multiple school buildings because their concrete was crumbling and they might collapse, it seemed like a blunt metaphor for Britain’s problems. Bubbly concrete used widely from the 1950s into the 1980s because it was lightweight and cheap was found in 231 state-funded education settings and then in 45 hospitals.

The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors warned that reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (Raac) in roofing panels could pose a structural risk, particularly if installed incorrectly or if there were leaks causing internal steel reinforcements to corrode. In July 2018, a Raac roof at a Kent primary school fell in on an empty classroom.

Efforts to identify and fix the problem, including demolition and rebuilding, are under way but the material is likely to be found in other places too, such as courts, prisons and private sector buildings. The problem has not yet been fixed, and it is not the first time it has been raised.

“Concerns about Raac use in the UK were first raised in 1996 by the Building Research Establishment, which found cracking and corrosion in Raac roofing panels,” according to the House of Commons library. “In 2019, the Standing Committee on Structural Safety, an industry body, warned that Raac planks were ‘past their expected service life’ and that roofs with Raac planks could collapse.”

Robert Booth, social affairs editor

Care homes and Covid

Summer 2025 will see the Covid-19 public inquiry expose the detail of decision-making inside central government that contributed to some of the more than 45,000 deaths of care home residents from, or with, Covid between March 2020 and January 2022.

It is already clear that the government ordered the discharge of hospital patients into care homes in the first weeks of the pandemic without requiring them to be tested for Covid, and that staff were moving between care homes without being tested.

This led the then prime minister’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, to warn in a WhatsApp message in May 2020: “We’re negligently killing the most vulnerable and I’m extremely worried.”

Matt Hancock, health secretary at the time, claimed in May 2020 that “we absolutely did throw a protective ring around social care”, but that was not backed up by the facts. Hancock has since accepted this was not an “unbroken circle”.

In the first wave of the pandemic there were almost 27,000 “excess deaths” in care homes in England and Wales compared with the 2015–19 average. The virus penetrated care homes so widely and spread so fast that 13 homes in England saw two dozen or more Covid deaths each in just 11 weeks at the start of the pandemic.

The inquiry could become a lightning rod for wider concern about the treatment of Britain’s growing population of vulnerable elderly people in a social care system that still has more than 150,000 staff vacancies, and is failing to deliver services to an estimated 1.6 million people aged over 65 who have unmet needs for care and support.

Robert Booth, social affairs editor

Indeterminate sentences

The continued existence of an endless prison sentence described by the UN special rapporteur on torture as “inhumane” and amounting to “psychological torture” is likely to be looked back on as a stain on successive governments.

Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) sentences were introduced by New Labour in 2005, with the intention of protecting the public from dangerous offenders. The measures allowed certain prisoners to be locked up indefinitely and were used far more than anticipated.

David Blunkett, who introduced the sentence as home secretary, said it was the “biggest regret” of his time in government. Now it is likely to fall to a Labour government to take responsibility for unravelling a policy that has proved fatal.

At least 86 people serving indeterminate sentences have killed themselves in prison since the introduction of the policy 19 years ago. In the last five years a further 33 people living in the community under the sentence have taken their own lives.

The Guardian has reported on the toll of extreme sentences for minor crimes, including the case of Martin Myers, who spent 18 years in prison after attempting to steal a cigarette and Tommy Nicol, who stole a car and was refused parole twice before killing himself in 2015.

The policy was scrapped in 2012 but this change was not backdated, meaning that almost 3,000 people imprisoned in England and Wales are still serving an endless sentence.

Emily Dugan

Mental health deaths

The health safety watchdog is investigating what families and campaigners claim is a long-running scandal: the often-avoidable death of people while receiving NHS mental healthcare.

The government asked the Health Services safety investigations body (HSSIB) to look into such deaths last year amid rising concern and growing evidence that poor care and neglect by NHS and private providers of mental healthcare has caused, or contributed to, many thousands – potentially tens of thousands – of deaths.

For example, a review commissioned by NHS bosses in Norfolk and Suffolk identified 8,440 “unexpected” deaths of people who were receiving mental health care from the Norfolk and Suffolk NHS mental health trust in the 43 months between April 2019 and October 2022.

Families and county councillors are demanding a public inquiry into what one bereaved parent claimed had been “a catalogue of disaster” in mental health care in the two counties going back years.

A public inquiry already under way into mental healthcare in Essex was due to look into an estimated 2,000 deaths between 2000 and 2020. But its timeline was extended last month to include fatalities that occurred up to last December, so the number of deaths it explores will be higher.

Denis Campbell, health policy editor

Asylum accommodation

Asylum accommodation has always been lousy, according to those expected to live in it or face the alternative of destitution. Before the pandemic, it was mostly shared housing of low quality in the private rented sector. Even then, asylum seekers were reporting ceilings collapsing on their heads, rats running up and down curtains, and mould so bad it caused walls to crumble.

Alongside the main Home Office asylum accommodation contractors – Serco, Mears and Clearsprings – all making handsome profits out of asylum seekers, are many sub-contractors and sub-sub-contractors taking their cut of government funds.

When the pandemic started the Home Office started to use hotels on a long-term basis for thousands of asylum seekers, along with two controversial mass accommodation sites: the Bibby Stockholm barge in Portland, Dorset, and the Wethersfield airbase in a remote part of Essex. Local residents have compared the former to a prison and the latter to a “stalag”.

Asylum seekers and the lawyers and non-government organisations supporting them have reported a sharp deterioration in the mental health of the already traumatised people living in these conditions. Suicides and suspected suicides in asylum accommodation have increased sharply.

At the end of 2023 106,000 asylum seekers were in Home Office accommodation, almost half in hotels. A National Audit Office report earlier this year found that mass accommodation sites were unlikely to be better value for money than hotels, which cost an estimated £140 a person each night.

The spiralling costs and poor value for money and the negative impact of this accommodation on asylum seekers’ health could all be flashpoints for the new government.

Diane Taylor

Carer’s allowance

Are carer’s allowance overpayments – tens of thousands of unpaid carers forced into huge debt by the state through its ruthless and draconian enforcement of outdated benefit rules – the next big public scandal?

As the Guardian has revealed, many carers have unwittingly continued to infringe poorly designed, easily broken “cliff-edge” earnings limits. The resulting “overpayments” – many of which officials could have prevented – have left 134,000 carers, many of whom are in poverty, repaying £251m.

The wildly disproportionate penalties imposed on carers making “honest mistakes” have prompted the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to demand thousands of pounds from carers whose earnings breaches often amounted to just a few pounds. Some have been prosecuted for fraud, and even had homes and inheritances seized.

There is powerful evidence of political and administrative neglect. Five years ago, ministers talked about “stopping overpayments occurring in the first place”. They have not achieved this, not least by failing to properly resource alert systems that would have saved thousands of carers from avoidable debt and distress.

There’s also stark hypocrisy. The government routinely praises unpaid carers as selfless “unsung heroes”. Yet when its own research confirmed the brutal impact of overpayments on carers and their often callous treatment by officials, ministers buried the findings.

Some say the DWP is simply following its duty to fight fraud and protect taxpayers’ money. But the parallels with the Post Office scandal – cynical blaming of individuals by a distant, defensive bureaucracy determined not to admit fault, explain or apologise – are not lost on carers.

Patrick Butler, social policy editor

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