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I decided that, in the absence of any power to compel the attendance of witnesses, a private inquiry was more likely to lead to a full and frank examination of all the evidence, and thus would better enable Mr. Skelhorn to arrive at the truth. I am sure that this decision was in the public interest. To publish the proceedings at the inquiry would be inconsistent with the decision to hold the inquiry in private; but Mr. Skelhorn's report will be published in full.
While recognising that it was a slip of the tongue on 19th December, when the Home Secretary referred to a public inquiry, does he not agree that this is rather an unusual step to take? Is it not normal to allow the commissioner, or whoever is appointed to make an inquiry ofthis kind, to decide whether the proceedings are best held in private or in public? Is not one of the purposes of this inquiry, not only that there should be a fair and impartial investigation of the Woolf case, but that there should be seen to be a fair and impartial investigation? How can this be done if the Home Secretary himself orders it to be held entirely in private?
I am sure that the report which I shall receive in due course will show that this has been an impartial, objective and comprehensive inquiry. I know that I am reported in Hansard as saying that there would be a public inquiry, but it must have been a slip of the tongue, because I have no recollection of saying that and I had already conveyed to Mr. Skelhorn that the inquiry should be in private. My reason was that, having no power to compel the attendance of witnesses, it seemed to be much better to ensure that they would attend by holding the inquiry in private. All the essential witnesses have been invited to attend, and I have every reason to believe that they will do so.
What is the good of saying that it will be a comprehensive inquiry when the right hon. Gentleman does not know whether or not vital witnesses will turn up? Surely, if he does not have power under this form of inquiry to summon witnesses and hear and cross-examine them on evidence on oath, this type of inquiry is inadequate for this purpose—an inquiry about which there is wide public interest and about which a great deal of public anxiety has been aroused, whether or not justifiably so we do not know?
When the Police Bill, which I presented to Parliament and which is now under discussion in Standing Committee, reaches the Statute Book, I will have power to set up a statutory inquiry at which the attendance of witnesses can be compelled. At present I have no such power, and it has not been suggested to me that this would be a suitable and appropriate case for using the powers under the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act, 1921.I am not sure whether the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Hale) is aware that this inquiry started seven days ago.
Is the Home Secretary aware that it is rather unfortunate that he made that slip of the tongue and referred to a public inquiry, thereby, quite unwittingly, misleading the House to some extent? Does he not agree that the only way in which public anxiety can be allayed, since the inquiry is now proceeding in private, would be for him to give the House and the country the fullest possible report of the proceedings?
I have already expressed my apologies to the hon. Members concerned if I made a slip of the tongue. I have written to them about the matter. I have already stated on more than one occasion that whatever Mr. Skelhorn reports I will publish in full.