Lucy Letby: What a statutory inquiry will mean in search for answers

The inquiry into serial killer Lucy Letby’s crimes will become statutory, the Health Secretary Steve Barclay has announced.

Letby was convicted of the murder of seven babies and the attempted murder of six more when she was a nurse on the neonatal unit at the Countess of Chester Hospital between 2015 and 2016.

She became only the third woman alive to be handed a whole-life jail term when she was sentenced at Manchester Crown Court.

Questions are now being asked about whether Letby could have been stopped sooner.

The Countess of Chester Hospital is under mounting pressure to explain why, despite concerns over Letby being expressed by medical staff, it didn't alert police at an earlier stage.

The Countess of Chester Hospital

The government had been roundly criticised after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak previously announced the inquiry would be 'independent', meaning it would not have powers to compel witnesses to attend.

Now in a move amid mounting pressure, Health Secretary Steve Barclay has announced that the inquiry has had its powers upgraded so it is on a statutory footing.

So what are the differences in the two types of inquiry?

According to the House of Commons Library document, a non-statutory, independent inquiry "provides greater flexibility on procedure rules".

It says this can make it easier to secure cooperation from those called to attend. But these inquiries can't compel witnesses to give evidence under oath or produce other evidence to the inquiry.

This means there's a risk that uncooperative witnesses, or witnesses who refuse to attend, could hamper the progress of an inquiry.

statutory inquiry, also known as a public inquiry, allows for evidence to be taken on oath.

Anyone failing to comply with a statutory inquiry can be fined up to £1,000 or imprisoned.

A statutory inquiry means witnesses can be compelled to attend. Any witness found to have concealed evidence would be liable for prosecution.

Rishi Sunak refused to be drawn which type of inquiry he favours, saying he wants the victims' families to get answers "as quickly as possible", the process to be transparent and for lessons to be learned from failures in the case.

However, after mounting calls for the investigation to be strengthened, the health secretary has indicated it has been upgraded.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "We are focused on the outcomes. The most important thing is to make sure families get the answers they need and that it's possible to learn the lessons, that it's done transparently and that it happens as quickly as possible.

"And that's crucial. And obviously, we will have an inquiry on the right footing to achieve that."

Gillian Keegan Credit: PA

Education Secretary Gillian Keegan had previously indicated a statutory inquiry was "on the table".

"But there are pros and cons to the two types of inquiry, so when the chair works with them (the families) on the terms of reference that will be something that they can input to them," she said.

What have been the arguments for the inquiry to be upgraded?

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said what a statutory inquiry "gives you is the power to order documents, to order witnesses to come forward so we get the fullest, proper, comprehensive analysis of what went wrong here".

Steve Brine, the Conservative chairman of the Health Select Committee, said some key witnesses may not be willing to co-operate with a non-statutory inquiry, which he said could drag on for years and "disappear down a rabbit hole".

Dame Christine Beasley, a former chief nursing officer, said if witnesses "can opt out of it if they want to", "relatives and patients will not feel that they've got to the bottom of it".

Paediatrician Dr Stephen Brearey, who blew the whistle on Letby in 2015, said the victims' parents "deserve" a probe "with the most wide-ranging and statutory powers".

Lawyers representing families of some of the babies attacked by Letby said a non-statutory public inquiry into her killing spree is "inadequate" and needs to have a "statutory basis to have real teeth".

As Letby becomes the most prolific serial child killer in modern Britain, Gamal Fahnbulleh joins Mel Barham and Emma Sweeney on the latest episode of From the North to look at how she managed to slip under the radar for so long, carrying out her attacks unchallenged for a year.