With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 2, in clause 1, page 1, line 13, at end insert—
‘(2A)Any inquiry established under subsection (1) must be subject to approval by a resolution moved by the Minister in the relevant Parliament or Assembly.’.
No. 6, in clause 6, page 3, line 11, leave out from ‘section’ to end of line and add ‘must be oral’.
No. 12, in clause 14, page 6, line 37, at end add—
‘(c)make an oral statement to the relevant Parliament or Assembly’.
No. 13, in clause 15, page 7, line 16, at end insert—
‘(c)make an oral statement to the relevant Parliament or Assembly’.
The purpose of amendments Nos. 1 and 2 is to place Parliament firmly at the centre of the establishment of an inquiry by requiring a resolution of approval of the arrangements. The amendments are worded so that they would apply equally to the Welsh Assembly or the Scottish Parliament, if either body were involved.
We fully accept the need to reform the patchwork of provisions. That includes the 1921 Act, which was the basis for the Saville inquiry and the inquiry into the activities of Dr. Shipman, and other statutes such as the Police Act 1996 and the National Health Service Act 1977, which were used in the inquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence and the Kennedy inquiry into the Bristol Royal infirmary. There is also the informal, Hutton-style inquiry, although that was perhaps thought not to be the best example, and the Soham murders inquiry, which was generally thought a very good example.
The 1921 Act requires parliamentary resolutions. Lord Justice Salmon, in his royal commission, said that there were safeguards to prevent the procedure from being too readily invoked because Parliament had to make that resolution. Equally, on the other side of the argument, the Public Administration Committee said that it was
“deeply concerned that the Government’s Inquiries Bill threatens the last remaining role for Parliament in the inquiry process. Nonetheless it also provides an opportunity to update the current provision contained in the 1921 Act”.
It is worth also reflecting on what was said by Lord Justice Clarke, who undertook the Thames safety inquiry in 2000:
“the time has come when it would be desirable to set up a statutory framework for Inquiries generally. There is at present no generally applicable statute which covers public inquiries. The 1921 Act has been shown over the years to be much too restricted and cumbersome. In my view a statute should be enacted to give power to the appropriate Secretary of State to order a public inquiry.”
There is a mood both for change and for putting Parliament at the centre of what we do.
I fully accept that the purpose of the Bill is to provide a cost-efficient and effective way to conduct inquiries, but in a sense it consolidates the 1921 Act within it, so there is no need to remove parliamentary involvement. Why does the Minister want to do that? There is no doubt that Parliament is often concerned about the issues that give rise to public inquiries. Members of Parliament often call for a public inquiry. [Laughter.] I notice the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Geraint Davies) laughing, and MPs do sometimes call for public inquiries because they cannot think what else to do. None the less, there are very serious incidents and issues that give rise, rightly, to public inquiries, and it is hard to understand why the Minister would want to cut Parliament out of the loop. What is he afraid of?
The Bill strengthens the Executive’s position by enabling Ministers not only to decide on the form of the inquiry and the personnel, but to influence the inquiry during its operation. Clauses 12 and 13 allow the Minister to suspend or terminate the inquiry. The Public Administration Committee suggested continuing the parliamentary role and said that, where public concern about the conduct, actions or inactions of Government Ministers or officials was involved, there was, at a minimum, a very strong case for resolutions to be passed. Clause 7, which was added in the other place, reflects that.
My noble Friend Lord Norton explained his concern that Parliament was being sidelined, describing it as being excluded from the process. He went on to describe his discussions with Ministers, saying that he had seen a copy of a letter from the noble Baroness Ashton in which she justified the exclusion of Parliament on the grounds that inquiries under the 1921 Act are the exception, rather than the rule. She made the point that there have been only 24 inquiries under the 1921 Act, so it would be wrong to involve Parliament if we are consolidating and putting together a structure for all inquiries.
My argument is the other way around. Just because the 1921 Act has proved cumbersome and its procedures expensive and long-winded does not necessarily mean that that is the fault of Parliament. It is much more likely to be the fault of the procedures. It is often said that the Bichard inquiry into the Soham murders was extremely effective and efficient although it was informal. However, it was not a good, successful and effective inquiry because Parliament was excluded from the purpose of setting it up—far from it. The success of the Bichard inquiry is a tribute to the excellent public servant who was in charge of it and took a grip of its procedures and moved it forward.
I, too, was impressed with Sir Michael Bichard’s inquiry and report. One of the very good things about it was that he said in his report that he would reconvene the inquiry after six months to consider the progress that had been made on implementing his recommendations. Does the hon. Gentleman think that that is good practice and one that other people could follow?
Yes, it is an excellent precedent to say, “Here are my recommendations. Let’s see what’s been done about them after a particular period of time.” Parliament does not do that anywhere near enough. We pass legislation and assume that all is well. There is a strong case for better post-legislative scrutiny of what we do. I am sure that there are many Acts of Parliament that could even be the subject of, dare I mention it, a sunset clause. We would have to re-enact them after a period of time to avoid adding to the dense archaeology of law.
Funnily enough, on the Administration Estimate Audit Committee, which I chair, I recently suggested that when we make recommendations to the House authorities, we should return after a period to see how they have operated. In almost all walks of life it is standard management practice and an excellent thing to do to revisit recommendations and see what has been done. I applaud that. It shows that an inquiry does not necessarily have to be conducted by a lawyer, although I am one. One can often get a very good result by using someone who understands the system. Michael Bichard, having had a very distinguished career in public service, understands the system better than almost anyone. I do not think that there is any reason to think that Parliament would deplore the way in which Michael Bichard ran his inquiry or want to change it in any way. We would almost certainly welcome that more efficient approach.
My noble Friend Lord Kingsland identified two concerns in the other place. The first is the shift from Parliament to the Executive and the second is the shift away from chairmen to Ministers. The 1921 Act has proved expensive and cumbersome. I mentioned the Saville inquiry, but it also led to the Shipman inquiry, which many would say was an excellent and detailed inquiry that uncovered a great deal more than was originally thought had occurred. Some important lessons have been learned about the governance of general practitioners and the medical profession in general.
We do not want to lose the ability to have a detailed, thorough inquiry of the sort that was conducted on the case of Dr. Harold Shipman. I hope that Parliament could look at the terms of reference and decide the proper way forward. I hope that the Minister can accept amendments Nos. 1 and 2. An amendment accepted in the other place obliges Ministers to make statements when setting up inquiries. Amendment No. 6 would ensure that it was an oral statement so that Ministers could be questioned about the terms of reference and the conditions under which the inquiry would take place.
Amendments Nos. 12 and 13 would require oral statements on suspension or termination of an inquiry. Ministers are being given important powers to interfere in the running of inquiries and it is only right that they should be accountable. Our concerns are that we should have an effective and efficient inquiry system, but that Parliament should retain a role at the heart of the process, particularly given the shift of power away from the chairman to Ministers.
In broad terms, I am in agreement with the hon. Gentleman and commend him for tabling the amendments. I shall be interested to see whether he presses them to a Division as this strikes at a part of the Bill where the Government made some concessions in the other place. His party in the other place had the same basic concern as mine: the bypassing of Parliament. We wanted to ensure that the changes did not concentrate too much power in the hands of Ministers.
To that extent, the Government made a most welcome concession in the other place by accepting that the Minister should consult the chairman in drawing up the terms of reference for the inquiry. That notwithstanding, there is a lot to be said for the amendments. The hon. Gentleman said that Members of Parliament often ask for public inquiries. We follow a fairly well-established process: MPs demand a public inquiry, which we damn for running up excessive costs and, when it reports, we damn its conclusions as a whitewash. That is perhaps because the 1921 Act has been rather cumbersome, although some exceptionally fine pieces of work have been done under its aegis. One that springs to mind is the Cullen inquiry following the explosion of Piper Alpha in 1988, which had profound and long-lasting implications for health and safety practices in the offshore oil and gas sector.
However, even with the concessions that were made in the other place, Parliament is still a bit player in this Bill. If we remove the element of parliamentary scrutiny simply because the 1921 Act as a whole has been problematic, we risk throwing out the baby with the bathwater. What the hon. Gentleman proposes is fairly succinct and quite modest and I hope that the Minister will look favourably on it.
Amendments Nos. 1 and 2 two are slightly different from amendments Nos. 6, 12 and 13. The proposal that all inquiries would need a resolution of Parliament goes a long way beyond the provisions in the wide array of legislation on the establishment of inquiries.
The Bill replaces more than 30 pieces of legislation on inquiries on a wide range of subjects; only one—the 1921 Act—contains a requirement for resolutions of Parliament. There have been more than 30 substantial inquiries since 1990 and the 1921 Act has been used in only four cases. The amendment is not about retaining a role for Parliament per se; it would extend to every inquiry a procedure that now applies only to a small minority of inquiries and which, in any case, has not necessarily resulted in more debate about the terms of inquiry than would have been so without that formal resolution.
Equally, however, what the Minister proposes would remove the last vestiges of parliamentary control over inquiries. Given that he is an enthusiastic parliamentarian, it is difficult to understand why he thinks that that is a good way to proceed. Surely it would be better to allow Parliament to have a say.
We would be in difficult territory if we tried to legislate specifically on how Parliament should conduct its debates and affairs, make up its mind and make resolutions. If Parliament wants to express its will on any matter, including an inquiry that has been set up, in theory it can generate, debate and agree to such a motion. Incidentally, it is the nature of the 1921 Act that an inquiry is set up by a Minister, following which a resolution is made. In a statutory context, we need to consider refining and improving the nature of parliamentary scrutiny as it exists in inquiries legislation. That is the proposal in the Bill.
At the moment, Parliament could generate such a resolution, apart from under the 1921 Act, only if the Government chose to table one and gave time to it. Is the Minister prepared to agree to a new system under which Parliament at large, or a Select Committee, could trigger such a resolution and have time provided for it?
How Parliament and the House of Commons in particular makes its mind up about whether it debates a resolution and allocates time is a matter for Parliament. It is not for me to put that into legislation today. If Parliament wants to find a way of doing that, it will do so. Moreover, debates do not always take place solely at the instigation of the Government; there are many other ways in which they can take place.
I agree that Parliament could set up a commission, as my hon. Friend describes; there is nothing in law to prevent that. However, does he not agree that, in reality, it would be almost impossible to find the parliamentary time or to get agreement on such inquiries unless the Government chose that route? Inquiries carry large costs, and consideration would need to be given to how a freestanding parliamentary system divorced from statute would work in terms of financial control.
I do not think that the provisions of the 1921 Act necessarily help or constrain Parliament in its scrutiny of any proposals by the Executive, particularly on the setting up of inquiries. Parliament is capable of having a debate if it so wishes, and has the resources to do so.
We need to examine the history of debates and resolutions in Parliament on inquiries. We should bear in mind the formality of some of those and the fact that only a small minority of the total number of inquiries have not required parliamentary resolutions. There are flaws in the current system that need addressing, and one of the proposals in the Bill is to improve the nature of parliamentary scrutiny of proposals to establish inquiries. One argument against the amendments is that in many instances specific parliamentary resolutions might not be desirable or necessary. It is a moot point whether hon. Members would really want formally to have approved every inquiry that might have been held from the Regulation of Railways Act 1871 to the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004.
Some inquiries will, of course, raise important issues that many hon. Members will want to discuss and debate. That is why the Bill requires a statement to be made to Parliament, which can be oral and followed by debate where appropriate. Hon. Members have many ways of raising issues as normal; there is nothing in the Bill to prevent their asking for wider parliamentary debate through the usual channels.
However, some inquiries will be on a smaller scale, and on matters which, although important, do not necessarily generate widespread interest in Parliament. Not all inquiries have the public profile of, for instance, the Hutton inquiry or the Bloody Sunday inquiry. One could take as an example the inquiry into the actions of the Yorkshire gynaecologist, Richard Neale, which was set up in 2002. That inquiry was conducted under the National Health Service Act 1977—one of the pieces of legislation being repealed by the Bill—and its terms of reference were
“to assess the appropriateness and effectiveness of the procedures operated in local health services to deal with complaints about Richard Neale.”
One might also consider the inquiries into the actions of Dr. Clifford Ayling, Dr. William Kerr and Dr. Michael Haslam, which were established in the same year.
I do not suggest that any of those inquiries were not of great importance—they were. They referred to matters of great concern and that had resulted in great suffering. However, I recall the newspaper coverage at the time. I believe that The Times ran the headline, “Hague comes home to an empty house” about the Adjournment debate secured by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) on the establishment of the Neale inquiry, which was attended by only four MPs. That demonstrates two points: first, that hon. Members already have means of introducing debates on issues concerned with inquiries; and, secondly, that on some occasions widespread parliamentary debate is not necessary, particularly if there is a lack of interest among hon. Members, because that might send undesirable messages.
Although I understand the arguments made by hon. Members, parliamentary approval carries potential dangers. For instance, if we have to seek parliamentary support for the establishment of an inquiry, there is a risk that it will be delayed because Parliament is in recess. If we needed to move forward quickly with an inquiry in such circumstances, there could be significant difficulties if a resolution were required but Parliament was not available to debate and make a expedient decision.
Can the Minister name a single inquiry of those that he has listed that would have been materially affected by a delay arising from waiting for Parliament to return, even from a long recess?
It is not just a case of specific examples in the past; we have to legislate for all eventualities in future. Hypothetically speaking, of course I can imagine an incident occurring at the beginning of the long summer recess, when there would be an urgent need, if this amendment were passed, to get a resolution from Parliament. Delay could be detrimental to the establishment of an inquiry, which is why I am arguing against amendments Nos. 1 and 2.
I hold the Minister in high regard, but that is not the strongest argument that I have heard him advance. Inquiries tend to be open-ended, and because their length cannot easily be determined, that matter should be left in the hands of the chairman of the inquiry. With the best will in the world, the suggestion of urgency in holding a retrospective inquiry does not hold water. Ministers have a lot of Executive power in order to deal with matters prospectively.
We are talking about inquiries that would, under the amendment, require resolutions of Parliament. I can think of examples of events taking place at the beginning of a summer recess, when public interest would demand that an inquiry were established and up and running as soon as possible. If inquiries were not established with due speed and efficacy, public perception might be that such issues were being kicked into the long grass. That is a serious point.
There are numerous occasions when we have to pass regulations at short notice under affirmative resolution, and if that happens during the summer recess when the House is not sitting, we find ways of tackling that through our procedures. There would be no problem in setting up an inquiry, with the approval coming a few weeks later owing to a vacation; we could tackle that procedurally with no difficulty. If that is the Minister’s only significant objection, I would be more than happy to have a long discussion with him about how we could sort that out.
I am always happy to have long discussions with the hon. Gentleman, but I am not sure which parliamentary procedure he is talking about and how Parliament could pass resolutions during a recess. That would be quite difficult, given the nature of the drafting of amendments Nos. 1 and 2, which would require full parliamentary approval. That is one reason why I doubt that the amendments are worth while.
There are better ways of involving Parliament in debate and discussion about establishing inquiries. As I said earlier, sometimes the formality of the resolution is not the best way to secure parliamentary involvement. A statement is a better way of triggering interest and debate in Parliament. We want to improve the legislative arrangements dealing with parliamentary involvement and to move to a level that is appropriate to all statutory inquiries, and not just those under the 1921 Act. For those reasons, amendments Nos. 1 and 2 would not be a good idea.
Amendments Nos. 6, 12 and 13 concern the nature of the statement that is to be made to Parliament and the fact that it should made orally in all circumstances. In some instances, Parliament will want to debate the setting up of an inquiry on the Floor of the House, but not all inquiries will warrant that attention. I cited the example of the Neale inquiry, which attracted a meagre attendance in the House. In many ways, that could be seen to have sent undesirable signals to those with a particular interest in the inquiry.
The Bill allows for both oral and written statements because the circumstances will differ for each inquiry. Incidentally, the statements would not necessarily be only about the commencement of an inquiry, but about variations during the process of an inquiry. If there were a suspension, for example, because of criminal prosecutions or other legal processes, that would not always merit a full, oral statement to the House of Commons. I shall never persuade Opposition Members that there could be a scenario about which they would not want a full oral statement to be made to the House of Commons, but we must take into account parliamentary time and the need to have the appropriate debate for the appropriate subject. That is why the Bill takes such a flexible approach.
Of course, nothing will stop hon. Members debating issues that they want to explore. If the circumstances are straightforward, they can raise matters for debate through the usual mechanisms and press Mr. Speaker to encourage Ministers to make an oral statement or to notify the House of matters through other means. Parliament has plenty of ways in which to bring Ministers to account for decisions that have been made. That is why it would not be right to fix in place oral statements for all occasions. That is my main argument against the group of amendments.
Is the Minister about to deal with amendments Nos. 12 and 13 or has he concluded his speech?
Essentially, I did. My response concerned oral statements.
The Minister’s main argument seemed to be that, without the amendments, Parliament could still play a role in approving the setting up of inquiries and the way in which they are pursued. I am not satisfied with that response. How does the hon. Gentleman propose that that will happen? He referred to the Adjournment debate obtained by my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks about the inquiry under the National Health Service Act 1977 into Mr. Neale in Yorkshire. The fact that my right hon. Friend obtained that Adjournment debate was a random chance; it is a shuffle. Sometimes we are lucky to obtain such a debate and sometimes we are not. In one or two instances, Mr. Speaker may agree to give us a debate, but that is not guaranteed. We have no right to it; it is a matter of luck or a person’s persuasive powers.
An Opposition day is another possible route. Let us say that the matter was not one about which the official Opposition—who are delegated most of the Opposition days—were particularly concerned. For example, there was some controversy about a forthcoming inquiry that the Government have promised, which is of interest to hon. Members who represent Northern Ireland constituencies. Given how little time is available to them on the Floor of the House, could they really force an Opposition day debate in such circumstances?
Is the Minister promising to give Government time to such matters? No. Whether such a debate would happen is not a moot point. Unless some provision is made under the Bill that requires parliamentary approval, it is most uncertain whether a debate would be held on such matters at all.
The Minister said that many inquiries are held into matters of second-order importance. He referred to the Mr. Neale, Clifford Ayling and the Michael Kerr inquiries and said that such inquiries did not necessarily need a debate. I shall make two points on that. Those inquiries were quite important, but let us say that there was an inquiry of less importance. Should we not then examine the question that Lord Justice Salmon raised: is there really a case for a public inquiry? If the matter is so minor that the Minister feels that it does not deserve even a debate in the House of Commons, is it of such public concern that it warrants a public inquiry?
Turning to the inquiries mentioned by the Minister, I think that the cases of alleged medical negligence and misconduct to which he referred raised an important series of issues that Parliament should have debated. It was very important that those allegations were thoroughly examined, and the same is true of the Shipman inquiry. It would have been a good thing if Parliament had been required to debate those issues.
The Minister says that only four MPs attended the debate on Mr. Neale’s case, but one has only to think of Government Adjournment debates to see that there are plenty of debates that the Government want to have but which attract little interest in the House. An example is the truancy debate that we had not long ago, which I think attracted seven hon. Members to the Chamber. Plenty of debates that we should have are not necessarily well attended. That may be a slight reflection on MPs. Perhaps they should attend such debates; certainly that is what The Times said.
Saying that it could be awkward to have to do what is proposed in the recess was a bit feeble. We have to pass laws in the recess and we manage to do so because we have procedures that enable us to do the formal parliamentary approval later. I would be perfectly happy to talk to the Minister about agreeing to have the approval of the setting up of an inquiry take place at a later date if setting it up was a matter of urgency in the recess. We can certainly reach an accommodation on that, but it is a pity that it has to be by virtue of work done at the other end of the building. When MPs make reasonable suggestions at this end, it is a rather sad and pitiful reflection on the Government that we then have to go through processes whereby the measure goes to the other end of the building, amendments are tabled there and then they come back here, and that amendments are often accepted there even though they were denied here. Should Ministers not consider more carefully arguments advanced in the House of Commons?
Is not the Minister saying overall that his principle as far as parliamentary scrutiny is concerned is, “If in doubt, cut it out”? That was a great maxim of surgeons at one time. If he is saying that, does he really think that it fits in with what we are trying to achieve in our parliamentary democracy? If he is saying that there is a class of cases in which approving the inquiry should not be the subject of resolutions of the House, or in which an oral statement might not be required but a written statement could be made, why will he not propose that the general rule is that there will be an oral statement or a parliamentary debate on resolutions, but that agreement can be reached between the parties by the usual channels not to have that in certain cases?
It seems sad that we have to lose the ability to debate such matters in all cases and that we are left like humble supplicants saying to the Minister, “Oh, could we please have a debate about this inquiry?”, and hoping that we will get it. If we do not, we have to try to persuade Mr. Speaker, and if that does not work, we have to go for a ballot. Why can we not say that Parliament is entitled to debate such matters unless the parties agree in the House that that is not necessary? I would have thought that we could find such a way forward.
Interestingly, I recently visited the Finnish Parliament, which works on a much more consensual basis. It seems to find the time and the ability to debate quite a lot of issues on a consensual basis without the Government feeling that they have to act in a heavy-handed way the whole time. Therefore, I do not accept what the Minister has said so far. I hope that he will comment further on some of the points that I have made, but if he does not, I will seek to divide the Committee on amendment No. 1.
With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 1—Inquiry pursuant to resolution of both Houses of Parliament—
‘(1)Where it has been resolved by both Houses of Parliament that it is expedient that an inquiry should be held under this Act into a matter described in the Resolution as of public importance, the inquiry shall be held in accordance with provision made under subsection (2).
(2)Her Majesty may by Order in Council—
(a)make provision for the appointment of the chairman and members of the inquiry panel,
(b)prescribe the terms of reference of the inquiry,
(c)make such other provision in respect of the setting-up date and for other purposes as appears necessary or expedient, and
(d)make such modifications and adaptations of this Act as may appear necessary or expedient for the purpose of giving effect to the Resolution.
(3)No recommendation shall be made to Her Majesty to make an Order in Council under subsection (2) above unless a draft of the Order, or if any modifications to it are agreed by both Houses the draft as so modified, has been approved by resolution of each House of Parliament.
(4)Sections 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 and 15 shall not apply to an inquiry held under this section.’.
I am a member of the Select Committee on Public Administration, which discussed the Bill at length. Our discussions were preceded by an investigation here and in the United States to discover the best form of conducting inquiries.
The Public Administration Committee’s conclusion was that since the 1921 Act, Parliament had to a large extent contracted out its responsibility to conduct inquiries. However, the 1921 Act still gives Parliament a role relating to Ministers’ conduct. It is important not to confuse the word “conduct” with “misconduct”, because there is a role for Parliament to examine the conduct of Ministers not when there has been misconduct but when their conduct is considered to be politically sensitive.
The Select Committee felt that since the 1921 Act, in a gradual process that has continued for many years, Parliament had relinquished its responsibility for, and its involvement in, inquiries. Many members felt that it was time for Parliament to grasp the reins and take back some control of the inquiry process, especially for inquiries into politically sensitive matters. We suggest that there should be a parliamentary commission of inquiry, perhaps modelled on Privy Council inquiries such as the Falklands review in 1983 or the Butler inquiry.
The new clause would address two distinct but complementary issues. The first is the extent of parliamentary involvement in some, but not all, inquiries and the second is the form that they should take. I confess that the proposal was suggested by the Select Committee, not by me, although I am the only member who signed it. The new clause would provide for inquiries into the conduct of Ministers of the Crown by means of an Order in Council, subject to a resolution of both Houses. That addresses the first issue, which is parliamentary involvement.
The new clause suggests that Parliament should have a role in deciding the form that the inquiry takes, and should be able to debate and decide on
“the appointment of the chairmen and members of the inquiry panel,
(b)prescribe the terms of reference of the inquiry,
(c)make such other provision in respect of the setting-up date and for other purposes ...
(d)make such modification and adaptations of this Act as may appear necessary or expedient for the purpose of giving effect to the Resolution”
already passed by the House.
Many of the arguments were explored in the previous debate, and I do not want to spend a long time going through many of them again. I understand that the Government remain opposed to the Committee’s proposals for amending the Bill and using parliamentary commissions. It is true that my amendment and new clause would make it mandatory for Ministers to call an inquiry once a parliamentary resolution was passed. Also, the Government have complained that my proposals are ambiguous, in that there would still be pressure for inquiries from those hoping to influence terms of reference or membership; however, that could be overcome by parliamentary debate. It is true that the proposals may slightly delay the setting up of an inquiry, but I am sure that there are parliamentary procedures that could be used to overcome the delays that would occur if the House refused to pass the necessary resolutions or wished to argue about them. The Government have also argued that the proposals are excessive, in that they go beyond the provisions of the 1921 Act.
I am surprised that the Government have not taken this opportunity to do something more radical than simply tidy up the legislation. Baroness Ashton said in a letter to the Committee:
“I confess I had not seen this Bill as one of substantial constitutional significance. It is very much a consolidation measure. It does not introduce any new constitutional ideas, but is designed to provide a single, UK wide framework that would be suitable for any future statutory inquiry into events that have caused public concern.”
If we accept that that is what the Bill is about, we are missing an opportunity to involve Parliament in the inquiry process in a way that it has not been involved since the 1921 Act. In proposing the new clause, I suggest that Parliament be involved in the examination of ministerial conduct, because I believe that that is our role. We are here to hold the Executive to account, and we would be relinquishing that responsibility if we allowed the Bill to be passed in its current form. I shall listen carefully to what the Minister and Opposition Members have to say, and I hope to reply to some of their arguments.
Despite the eloquent and thorough attempt of my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire to persuade the Government to increase the role of Parliament in inquiries, they have turned down our party’s amendments so far. In that context, through her alternative, the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) has given us the opportunity to debate the Public Administration Committee proposals addressing the serious imbalance between the powers of the Executive and Parliament contained in the Bill.
As my hon. Friend said, the Bill contains extensive ministerial powers that could prejudice the independence of an inquiry and the very argument about the separation of powers that the Government pushed so heavily during the passage of the Constitutional Reform Bill. It seems that the Government’s constant hunger for ever-increasing powers in the hands of the Executive has unfortunately, but perhaps inevitably, entered the arena of public inquiries—a context where excessive ministerial powers could make the very exercise of the inquiry redundant through potentially politicised findings and inadequate opportunities for the views of the public to be expressed. Parliament provides a channel through which those views may be heard, yet the Bill all but closes off that channel.
My hon. Friend presented the Conservative solution to the democratic deficit. A resolution should be passed in Parliament each and every time an inquiry is launched under the terms of the Bill, but it seems clear that the Government have not, and may be unlikely to, accept such proposals. That being the case, we will support the hon. Member for Cambridge in her sensible though less far-reaching alternative to obligatory parliamentary involvement.
Amendment No. 35 and new clause 1 provide a process by which any inquiries that Parliament finds to be of public importance will be set up and regulated by Her Majesty through Orders in Council. The hon. Lady explained that the Privy Council would decide on the terms of reference, the panel, any assessors, future modifications and suspension, or premature ending of the inquiry where appropriate. That solution to the parliamentary problem is attractive on two counts. First, while it is less than we would wish to see, it would ensure more parliamentary involvement. It is hoped that that role would be given to Parliament when it is most needed. Secondly, it would avoid the cumbersome procedure that seems so abhorrent to the Government and to other members of the Committee.
It is true that the 1921 Act was rarely used, but perhaps the amendment would provide the appropriate balance between ministerial accountability to Parliament and the pressures on Parliament’s timetable. Clearly, debate will ensue over whether an inquiry will be found to be of public importance. It is a line that no person would be particularly keen to draw, however the hon. Lady has avoided that difficult definition by leaving it to Parliament or the relevant Assembly to decide on a case-by-case basis. In the context, that is probably the right thing to do.
Would the debate over the public importance of a future inquiry negate the apparent advantage of not including Parliament in each and every decision to launch an inquiry? Quite possibly so. It is feasible that a Minister would argue that each inquiry is of public importance in an attempt to prove to the individual voters involved in each inquiry’s facts and scenarios that he takes their case seriously. The added debate about the categorisation of the inquiry could take up more of Parliament’s time before anyone has considered the terms of reference or panel members. We accept that that would need to be addressed.
Further, the freedom with which the Privy Council would dictate how the inquiry was run should perhaps be tempered to take account of the chairman’s intimate knowledge of how the inquiry is proceeding. We welcome the parliamentary legitimacy given to those decisions, albeit in a diluted form, and we merely suggest that some consultation with the chairman should be included to recognise his on-the-ground awareness of all issues affecting the inquiry.
There are problems with the amendment that need to be addressed, but in principle we shall support it as an alternative to our preferred solution, which would require more parliamentary involvement in every inquiry. After hearing the Minister’s response, the hon. Lady will have to consider whether the amendment should be put to the vote. I hope that she decides to do that. If she does not, and unless we receive a clear message from the Minister about a change of mind, the Conservative Opposition will request a vote.
The hon. Lady may be considering bringing back her amendment on Report, but if we are to have a May election, which is a possibility, the chances of the Bill having a Report stage are slim. That is why I ask that she makes her principles stand. She will have our support on that.
There is little that I can add to what the hon. Members for Cambridge and for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) have said. I cannot share the hon. Lady’s surprise that the Government are not prepared to take radical action. That has been pretty much the story of the past eight years. She does, however, provide an interesting interface between the Select Committee system and the Standing Committee system. In tabling her amendment, she has done the Committee a great service.
As the hon. Member for Huntingdon pointed out, the hon. Lady wants to create a new system, and consequential amendments would have to be made as a result. I do not take that as a criticism. That is exactly the role of Committees such as this. She starts from the best of principles: that there should be parliamentary involvement. She has introduced that in a way that is, in essence, workable. I hope that, as the hon. Gentleman says, she sticks to her guns. This is one of the few occasions on which we can express a view on this issue. I would certainly be with her.
Whether or not the hon. Member for Cambridge sticks to her guns, she has certainly done the Committee a favour by moving the amendment. I want to flag up its importance in relation to the outbreak of foot and mouth disease, which so badly afflicted my constituency. It started there and ended there about a year later. It caused devastation to the landscape and to many farmers’ livelihoods. The Government set up the “Lesson Learnt” inquiry, which was under their terms and looked at what could be done to prevent a similar outbreak in future. That was perfectly sensible, but they steadfastly refused to hold an inquiry into why the outbreak happened and whether anyone was derelict in their duty and responsible for the outbreak spreading at the rate it did.
At the time, serious allegations were made against Ministers. I have no idea whether they were founded or unfounded, but because we were approaching the 2001 election which was scheduled for May—it subsequently had to be postponed for a month—it was suggested that they deliberately failed to act with due diligence and speed so that the original May deadline would not be missed. That was a serious allegation. If it were true, it would have meant that many billions of pounds were wasted and many livelihoods ruined because Ministers, for political purposes, did not act quickly. I stress that there is no evidence that Ministers did that, but a proper inquiry would have identified the truth.
Clearly, there were other issues that never came out as a result of having no proper inquiry. First, there were serious allegations that a Ministry vet had inspected the farm where the outbreak occurred and had passed it as satisfactory, despite the visible evidence to the contrary. That was never properly explained, although some video evidence recently came to light on the state of the farm, which reinforces the view that it was inadequately inspected. Had an inquiry taken place, it would have enabled farmers who lost their livelihoods to sue in a class action. The whole issue of the treatment of foot and mouth would have been very much better if Parliament could have had a say and instigated a proper inquiry.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it was shameful that this Parliament did not hold an inquiry? Even the European Parliament had a form of inquiry into part of it, yet we did not when it was a matter of such concern to so many colleagues.
Indeed, my hon. Friend is right. The European Parliament held an inquiry into the foot and mouth epidemic, because a lot of the money paid in compensation came from Europe and there were concerns that many farmers had been substantially overcompensated for what they had lost. That was another thing that the inquiry should have considered. There were allegations that valuers were bidding up the compensation all the time.
Is the hon. Gentleman seriously suggesting that an inquiry has to be held every time there is an allegation? While we are on the subject, what about the proven cover-up for about eight years of BSE, pre-1997?
With respect, the hon. Gentleman has not been listening to the hon. Member for Cambridge. We want Parliament to have a say. There would not be an inquiry every time someone made an allegation against a Minister because an inquiry would be triggered by Parliament, which would not agree to inquiries every time. Surely the hon. Gentleman can understand that an issue of such huge importance that did so much damage—like the foot and mouth epidemic—should be subject to a proper inquiry. I am sure that Parliament would have voted for a proper inquiry to clear Ministers of serious allegations, if nothing else.
I understand the rationale and reasons behind the new clause and amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge. However, she will be disappointed by some of my comments, because on reflection it would not be right to accept them.
The Bill is predominantly about ministerial inquiries, for which Ministers set the terms of reference, determine the chairman, ensure that they run smoothly and report to them. Ultimately, Ministers are accountable to Parliament, and Parliament does its job quite well in holding Ministers to account. Parliament also has its own procedures and arrangements for undertaking its inquiries, investigations and reports on matters of public concern. The Select Committee system works well. It would be wrong to shift the balance so much by inserting the suggested provision, which would go a lot further even than the existing arrangements in the 1921 Act. Under the provision in the new clause, there would an expectation for Parliament to rubber stamp, sanction and give its approval to inquiries for them to be deemed serious and important. That would jeopardise the public’s sense of value in respect of inquiries that went ahead without such parliamentary resolutions. That creates separate worries and concerns.
Let us leave to one side for a moment whether the new clause gets into the details of whether a Minister chooses the terms of reference and deals with the nuts and bolts of an inquiry. Parliament already has ample powers and scope to undertake debate, decision, investigation and inquiries of its own, if it so wishes. Parliament could, if it wanted to, pass a motion calling for an inquiry. It does not need statutory provision in the Bill to allow it to do so. That is the nature of our constitution and parliamentary sovereignty.
The political reality is that persons other than Ministers move resolutions in both Houses of Parliament calling for the establishment of an inquiry, and if those were debated and agreed there would be a tremendous amount of political pressure on the Government to establish an inquiry. I cannot imagine that any Government would feel able to refuse to do so, and I cannot imagine the Government of the day responding to the resolutions by setting out, under clause 6, terms of reference with which Parliament would not be happy. There is no need to include a provision that imposes a formal requirement on the Government to establish an inquiry in such circumstances.
My hon. Friend said that she was concerned about ministerial misconduct and that that was one reason why she advocated the new clause.
I said that I was concerned not about ministerial misconduct, but about ministerial conduct. That is different, particularly if considered in the context of political action. I hope that my hon. Friend makes that distinction.
The amendment mentions neither ministerial misconduct nor ministerial conduct. My point is simply that it is not clear in what circumstances the parliamentary trigger would be used, which takes us back to the uncertainty of when the parliamentary triggering process would be necessary. There are worries that it could raise the expectation that, somehow, all inquiries are in need of that parliamentary stamp of approval. Those without a parliamentary resolution might be seen as somehow devalued. We could also be getting into territory where much of the detail would still be left to the Minister to establish. The inquiries would still, effectively, be ministerial inquiries, apart from the formal parliamentary involvement at the beginning. In most respects, the running arrangements would still be decided by Ministers. I am not sure that the amendment and new clause are the right vehicles to ensure a parliamentary procedure for approval in that way.
Parliament has the power to force commissions to be held, and there is no constraint on it in that sense. The Public Administration Committee itself found an occasion—albeit the Rhodesian oil sanctions arrangement—when proceedings to set up an inquiry were begun by Parliament, which acted of its own volition. That goes some way towards proving that Parliament has the capability and capacity to generate inquiries if it so wants. The amendments are not necessary. In some ways, they could have perverse consequences, because sometimes victims’ families or those with a direct interest in the subject of an inquiry would expect not only parliamentary interest, but parliamentary approval of a resolution generating the inquiry. If an inquiry did not have that approval at the beginning, it would send the message that there were two tiers of inquiry. I worry about that. For those reasons, I urge my hon. Friend to withdraw her amendment. I understand why she tabled it, but a statutory arrangement is not necessary to enable a sovereign Parliament to set up its own procedures for any inquiry that it wishes to establish.
Is the Minister saying that if Parliament resolved to have an inquiry the Government would not be prepared to help? That is all that the new clause is about. It says that if Parliament decides that a matter is of public importance and wants an inquiry, the Government have to do some things. Is he seriously saying that they would not be prepared to facilitate Parliament’s wishes?
Of course, if Parliament determined to set up an inquiry and demanded that Ministers did so, we would probably respond and co-operate. My point is simply that the amendment and new clause are unnecessary. They are superfluous to the powers that Parliament already has. It would be wrong to write legislation that is superfluous because the powers exist for a sovereign Parliament to devise how it conducts its inquiries. Indeed, the amendment and new clause could be interpreted as very rigid sets of procedures, saying who should and should not set out terms of reference. Parliament might want to undertake its own inquiry in its own way, and it is not necessary to have that rigid arrangement set in statute. It is simply not needed, because Parliament already has ample scope to cope with such eventualities. On those grounds, I ask my hon. Friend to withdraw her amendment.
I am afraid that I will disappoint my hon. Friend because I am not convinced by his arguments. Defining politically sensitive inquiries is not easy or straightforward, but many of the witnesses who gave evidence to the Select Committee inquiry were able to describe the inquiries that were at issue. The challenge is to craft legislation that enables Parliament to have some involvement rather than ruling out that ability. That is what I have tried to do.
The Minister argued that practically any inquiry would have to be set up under this provision or risk legal challenge, and of course inquiries have been subject to legal challenge. The most notable was the Shipman inquiry, which was originally chaired by Lord Laming and held in private. That decision was challenged by relatives of the victims of Harold Shipman, and the subsequent inquiry was held in public, so there have been legal challenges to ministerial decisions.
The Government have also argued that inserting provisions for parliamentary involvement would subject the inquiry to delay and perhaps even prevent the possibility of having an urgent inquiry. In fact, no amendment would prevent the Government from announcing their intention to hold an inquiry as soon as they thought it expedient to do so, subject, of course, to any parliamentary procedures.
When the Select Committee took evidence from chairmen of inquiries and members of the public, we heard quite a lot about the rather haphazard way in which chairmen were tracked down and asked to preside over inquiries. Several chairmen told us that they had found themselves agreeing to terms of reference rather speedily. There were one or two exceptions in which chairmen took time to think about the terms of reference and possibly return to the Minister and discuss them with him. However, the evidence points to the need for more time and for parliamentary consideration, rather than the haste with which some inquiries are currently established. That can lead to criticism, but the involvement of Parliament would absolve Ministers from some of the criticism that they may have experienced in the past.
The Minister again reminded me that Parliament already has the power to establish any inquiry it wishes, with any powers it deems fit. That is true, but in practice the availability of parliamentary time to debate any such resolution, other than one brought forward by the Government, is largely in the hands of Government business managers. The Select Committee suggested that that problem might be overcome through use of the Liaison Committee, but in short what is required is some surety of parliamentary involvement should Parliament see fit to involve itself in the way that we are discussing.