Controlling public expenditure - what the Government does with our hard-earned taxes - is rightly much debated. I don't see very much public discussion, though, about the last great redoubt of the "blank cheque": in the clutches of grandees of the Law, especially in their favoured retirement roles of running eponymous "Inquiries".
I mentioned Legg a while back but at under £2 million, Legg was a relative paragon of restraint; The Bristol Royal Infirmary Inquiry cost £14 million, the BSE Inquiry around £27 million. There can be only one winner, though, and as I open the (24 carat gold) envelope, I see that the Golden Blank Cheque award goes to: The Rt Hon Lord Saville.
Tony Blair first gave Lord Saville his book of blank cheques in January 1998, saying that the Saville enquiry should take a more thorough look at this matter of "urgent importance" than the first Inquiry into "Bloody Sunday" (by Lord Widgery), which reported 11 weeks after the event. Lord Saville has duly taken more than 11 weeks, more than 11 months - in fact, more than 11 years and counting.
The sheer surreal black comedy of Lord Saville's sense of "urgency" justifies our award today: on his Inquiry website, under "What's New" [sic], there is a Press Release headed "Final Report" [sic]. This explains that the final report is "in preparation" and that it is "not possible to give any firm estimate of when the report is likely to be finished". This latest news item is dated 12th August 2005. Yes, 2005. I am not making this up.
But why hurry, when the blank cheques are being filled out at £44,000 a DAY (yes, a DAY), mostly in fees to lawyers. £44,000 a day, for 12 years and 1 month (so far, until the end of last month): that makes £190,300,000. At that rate, if his Lordship can keep going another 8 months he can break the £200 million mark. That would indeed be a spectacular achievement, I am sure we all agree.
Yes, truly wonderful for the lawyers - but may I spoil their party with a question about how the budgets for these enquiries are set, or controlled? Someone is clearly counting the money as it is handed over to the various chambers, temples and inns, but has anyone thought of controlling it?
To put it another way, why are the cheques blank?