Orders of the Day — Inquiries Bill [Lords]

– in the House of Commons at 12:33 pm on 15th March 2005.

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[Relevant documents: First Report from the Public Administration Select Committee, Session 2004–05, on Inquiries, HC 51, and the Government's reply thereto, Cm 6481; and Minutes of Evidence taken before the Committee, HC 606 i-vii, Session 2003–04, and HC 51 i-iii, Session 2004–05. Eighth Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Session 2004–05, HC 388, Scrutiny: Fourth Progress Report.]

Order for Second Reading read.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs) 12:41 pm, 15th March 2005

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

From time to time, an event of such serious public concern occurs that the Government establish an independent inquiry, the aim of which is to establish the facts, to decide what, if anything, went wrong and, if appropriate, to make recommendations aimed at preventing a recurrence. The Bill is designed to reform the arrangements for conducting such inquiries. I should make it clear that it is not concerned with planning or licensing inquiries, or with inquiries set up by public bodies such as local authorities. Nor does it deal with inquiries conducted by parliamentary Select Committees. It creates a comprehensive new statutory framework for inquiries set up by Ministers to look into particular events that have caused public concern.

The Government and others want inquiries to be as effective as possible, and that is obviously the aim of the Bill. At present there is a mixture of powers available for Ministers to set up statutory inquiries. The first legislation allowing Ministers to set up inquiries of a general nature was the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921, which created a procedure separate from Parliament to carry out independent and non-partisan inquiries into any

"definite matter of urgent public importance".

Alongside that Act, other legislation developed, giving Government Ministers additional powers to order inquiries in particular areas within their remit such as policing, health or child protection.

In 1966, a royal commission headed by Lord Justice Salmon reviewed the workings of the 1921 Act. Based on that and on his later report of 1969, a White Paper was produced in 1973 setting out various proposals for legislation, but they were never taken forward. A mixture of powers are therefore available to the Government to call statutory inquiries and in many cases, they have proved quite adequate and suitable. For instance, the Stephen Lawrence inquiry was conducted under the Police Act 1996, and the inquiry into children's heart surgery at Bristol royal infirmary was conducted under section 84 of the National Health Service Act 1977. Other inquiries such as the Bichard inquiry into matters arising out of the Soham murders have conducted effective investigations on a non-statutory basis, as everyone involved was prepared to co-operate. However, we can see that deficiencies in the legislation could prevent us from setting up inquiries in the most effective form.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

The Minister is explaining the history of the matter, but does he recognise that concern has been expressed even by some of his noble Friends, such as Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws—distinguished lawyers with experience of inquiries—that in the Bill the Government are writing themselves too big a blank cheque to change the terms of reference? The danger is that in the Bill the Government may be getting away from the concept of independence in inquiries.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

I do not accept that we are moving away from independence in the conduct of inquiries. The Bill has as much to do with consolidating and bringing together many of the basic commonsense rules about how inquiries should operate—some of the standing orders, so to speak, setting out how inquiries should proceed. I understand that there are concerns about public access, which I shall deal with later, but I do not accept that independence need be jeopardised in any way.

Photo of Mr Kevin McNamara Mr Kevin McNamara Labour, Kingston upon Hull North

My hon. Friend gave an interesting catalogue of various inquiries that have been held. Can he explain to the House why the existing legislation is not sufficient to deal with the Pat Finucane inquiry?

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

It is tempting to be drawn into specific examples of inquiries that may or may not need to be held, and clearly, the Finucane issue exists. We know that an inquiry has been on the cards. The Bill would facilitate that by putting on a proper, more comprehensive footing our ability to conduct an effective public inquiry in circumstances where national security issues may well arise. Obviously, that would bring into question the point that Mr. Hawkins raised about public access. I hope to expand later on the rationale behind the Bill.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Secretary of State (Justice), Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

Does the Minister accept that under the 1921 Act, both Houses of Parliament decide whether the inquiry goes ahead, whereas under the current proposal, it is the Minister who decides? Does the hon. Gentleman think there is any merit in returning to the issue and thinking again about whether Parliament should be involved? Many of the issues that might require an inquiry are complex, in the public domain, important and serious, and Parliament might want to have a say.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

Parliament is entirely free to undertake its own parliamentary inquiries, parliamentary commissions and so forth, if it so wishes. What we are discussing today are the circumstances and rules surrounding ministerial inquiries conducted by the Executive. We have made a number of changes in response to the debate that took place in the other House with respect to ministerial statements that we think we should make to set out the arrangements for the inquiry, laying the report before Parliament and so on. Ultimately, reports to Ministers and the Executive can be questioned in Parliament through the natural process of accountability.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

The Minister has been generous in giving way. I am still not clear why precisely the Government have made the change so that a resolution of both Houses is no longer required in order for an inquiry to be set up on a matter of public importance.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

It is not the case that a resolution of both Houses is at present automatically required for all inquiries. Many inquiries can be preceded by resolutions of both Houses, but there are various loopholes in the legislation that allow other inquiries to be set up without parliamentary resolutions. If we can get into the detail of the Bill, particularly clause 7, which was introduced in the other place, we can start to investigate in a little more detail why, in certain circumstances, we would not want parliamentary resolutions—for instance, they can take time to be passed through both Houses, and sometimes we need to expedite the commencement of an inquiry. We should recognise that it is the role of the Executive to make sure that we can investigate problems and ensure that they do not recur, and we can be held accountable for that in Parliament.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

The Minister has insisted that increased Government powers to amend inquiries' terms of reference will not compromise inquiries' independence. If that is his contention, will he prove it by giving the House an undertaking not only that the Government would consult the chairman of the inquiry in those circumstances, but that they would obtain the chairman's approval before proceeding?

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

When Ministers decide to establish inquiries, we want to facilitate those inquiries' smooth operation, which means working in partnership with inquiry chairmen. From time to time, circumstances mean that inquiries must be suspended or even ended, and we can all envisage circumstances in which costs or policy changes might need to be considered. The Bill contains such provisions, although we do not envisage their being required in most circumstances. We have tried to bring the legislation together so that everyone can see the rules, so that we know how the rules operate and so that the framework for public inquiries proceeds on an open basis.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Secretary of State (Justice), Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

An amendment accepted in the other place means that Ministers will have to make statements whenever they set up inquiries. However, it could be any sort of statement, including a written statement. On such important matters, surely the House has the right to question Ministers on what they are setting up and on how it will work. Will the Minister consider that point again?

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

If Parliament wants to consider any statement, it must find time to debate it, and it would be wrong of me to dictate to it how it should consider particular inquiries. All inquiries are not the same, and they can cover big matters of public policy or specific individual tragedies. Parliament might want to debate some inquiries in more detail than others, so a rigid approach would be wrong.

Photo of Joan Humble Joan Humble Labour, Blackpool North and Fleetwood

The new responsibilities for Ministers are a key element of the Bill. When Ministers set up inquiries, the Bill requires them to consult inquiry chairmen about the terms of reference, but it does not refer to consulting other people. Inquiries are set up in response to issues of public concern, so members of the public should surely have a say on the terms of reference, which will in turn reassure them about the independence of that inquiry.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

Under the 1921 Act, the Government are responsible for setting the terms of reference, because public inquiries ultimately report to Ministers and to the Executive. I share my hon. Friend's views to the extent that we want to gain as much public confidence as possible when inquiries are established. However, all inquiries are not the same, and sometimes we must act speedily, which does not allow for widespread consultation. In many other cases, we hope that there will be time for widespread consultation, in which case the terms of reference will be as open and as transparent as possible, within the normal restrictions and exemptions.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

I have no doubt that the many interventions that the Minister is taking will shorten the debate, because he is answering important questions. On the apparent centralisation of control to Ministers in some cases, I am concerned that if an inquiry is granted under duress, its terms might be limited to protect the Government or a Department from a bad outcome. What is his response to those hon. Members who are nervous that over-centralising the decision-making process could prevent us from getting to the heart of the matter in cases such as the deaths at Deepcut barracks?

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

It is tempting to go into particular examples, but I will not do so because we are discussing the general framework for all inquiries. On Ministers setting terms of reference, the provision is not a substantive change from the arrangement in the 1921 Act, other than the fact that we are consolidating the legislation in this Bill. From time to time, inquiries must be held in part, or perhaps in whole, in private session, and all hon. Members can envisage good reasons for doing so, such as national security or the protection of the interests of certain individuals in vulnerable circumstances.

Photo of Mrs Anne Campbell Mrs Anne Campbell Labour, Cambridge

When Sir Michael Bichard gave evidence to the Public Administration Committee, he underlined the importance of getting the terms of reference right:

"Terms of reference are therefore . . . not something just to be nodded through".

The chairman of any inquiry should be involved from the outset in setting the terms of reference.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

My hon. Friend has made a perfectly reasonable point. I have not yet had an opportunity to pay tribute to the Public Administration Committee, which has produced a report on the issue. The Government do not agree with the Committee on every matter, but we share its general intentions. Where possible, we want to make sure that inquiries uncover any difficulties, expose problems to a wider audience and identify potential solutions. That is our collective objective.

Photo of Tony Wright Tony Wright Labour, Cannock Chase

I will not interrupt the Minister if he is about to pay tribute to the Committee's work. Under the 1921 Act, tribunals retain complete control of their proceedings. Under this Bill, that control will be shared with Ministers on a range of fronts. Whatever view we take on that matter, surely the difference is fundamental.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

I am not sure whether the matter is as clear-cut as my hon. Friend has suggested, because the Government set the terms of reference under the 1921 Act. However, we want to ensure that we enter into a partnership arrangement with the chairman, who, incidentally, might not always be a judicial chair, in setting up and running inquiries. There are also good reasons why the Executive should have a hand in setting and framing how inquiries operate, given that such inquiries might investigate issues of national security.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

It is always a pleasure to joust with the Minister, but notwithstanding his soothing bromides, I remain suspicious. Will he tell the House of the circumstances in which, rather than merely adding to the terms of reference of an inquiry, the Government would subtract from them? How might that eventuality arise, because the Bill appears to allow for it? I am not happy about that matter and hope that the Minister will satisfy me.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

I am not sure whether the subtraction or addition of terms of reference is a mathematical equation. The Bill requires co-operation between the inquiry chairman and the Minister to whom the report will be given. All such matters cannot be dealt with statutorily, but the flesh that this Bill puts on the bones will help.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

I will not get into a semantic dispute about addition and subtraction on the one hand or narrowing and broadening on the other. The central point is obvious: in what circumstances might it be necessary for the Government to remove a term of reference? If the Minister wants that power, which he may be justified in seeking, he should be able to explain the scenario in which the need could arise.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

It is tempting to get into hypothetical scenarios, although we all know that we should not necessarily hypothesise on these particular issues. I can, however, envisage circumstances in which the outcome of a court case resolves a question that formed part of the terms of reference at the outset of a long-running public inquiry and does not need to be investigated in a duplicative manner. I hope that we will be able to go into that in more detail in the Standing Committee, on which I know that Mr. Bercow will be very keen to serve.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

I wanted to make a little more progress, but of course I shall give way.

Photo of Mr Kevin McNamara Mr Kevin McNamara Labour, Kingston upon Hull North

My question arises from a matter that my hon. Friend has elided—the national security exemption. Will he confirm that there will be no way of challenging a Minister's decision to exclude matters on national security grounds; that there will be no independent third party to whom one can appeal to suggest that the desire to exclude a matter on such grounds is being used as an excuse in order to prevent further awkward questions being asked; and that historically, some of these matters have been of the utmost importance and relevance in seeking and finding the truth about situations? If the Minister seeks to maintain this exemption in the broadest possible terms, the whole purpose of public confidence will be lost.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

I understand my hon. Friend's point. Ministerial decisions, which must of course always be reasonable, may often be judicially reviewable, but in circumstances relating to national security we may sometimes need to have restrictions on public access to certain information. That does not mean that an inquiry will not be able rigorously to investigate what goes on—it simply means that there might be restrictions on access to that information in the public domain. We hope that the presumption will be that public access is the norm—we do not want blanket restrictions to be imposed where they are not necessary. My hon. Friend will understand that there are sometimes serious national security issues. We have recently debated many pieces of legislation in respect of which we could envisage scenarios where certain pieces of information would not be best disclosed in the public interest.

Photo of Mr Kevin McNamara Mr Kevin McNamara Labour, Kingston upon Hull North

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that reply. Does that mean that the tribunal chairman will have access to all that information, even though members of the public may not have such access? Will he have access to anything he wants to know without any restrictions being placed upon him in terms of national security?

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

Yes, of course the inquiry will have access to the information—that is my point. The restrictions would relate to what was publicly available. Of course we want an inquiry to be able to look into these matters even when they relate to national security and we need restrictions on what can be disclosed in the public realm.

Non-statutory inquiries have taken place in certain circumstances in the past. We feel that although co-operation was possible in some cases, we now need to put public inquiries and inquiries of this nature on to a better, sounder, statutory footing so that they can have more powers to get to the bottom of difficulties and to ensure that their investigatory strength is greater. For instance, there is currently no power to call inquiries into deaths in custody or other events of concern in prisons in England and Wales. The inquiry into the death of Zahid Mubarek in Feltham young offenders institution has had to begin on a non-statutory basis despite the clear value of having statutory powers available for it.

Nowadays, statutory inquiries can span several subject areas. For instance, the Climbié inquiry was set up under three separate pieces of legislation. The fact that the statutory powers vary slightly from piece to piece can create potential risks to the effectiveness of an inquiry. There is also the possibility that a future inquiry might need to span devolved and reserved business that falls within the responsibility of two different Administrations. One way of dealing with some of those problems would be to make greater use of the 1921 power, but in recent years it has been used very rarely. As the Public Administration Committee commented, the 1921 Act is perceived, rightly or wrongly, as bringing a panoply of procedural requirements and a whole array of attendant lawyers with it. The Act has never been updated either to reflect the 1973 White Paper or to take account of the more recent legislation on devolution.

There has also been concern here and in the other place about the cost of some inquiries. The Government are absolutely clear that inquiries must have all the powers and resources necessary to get to the truth, but it is entirely proper that the best use be made of public money in doing so.

With all those issues in mind, my Department and its predecessor have been reviewing the legislation for some years. In February last year, the Public Administration Committee announced its review of the use and effectiveness of independent inquiries into matters of public concern and asked for responses to a paper containing a series of questions about the conduct of inquiries, many of which overlapped with the work that we have been doing in our Department. Accordingly, the Lord Chancellor, my noble Friend Lord Falconer, decided to submit a full response to the questions from the Committee and obtained the Committee's agreement to publish the consultation paper, which was based on our response, in order to invite wider public debate. That was published on 6 May last year. It suggested that the conduct and effectiveness of inquiries could be improved if the 1921 Act and much of the specific legislation were replaced by the single statute that we have before us today.

At the same time as requesting written responses, we invited people who had been involved with inquiries in the recent past, including a number of distinguished former inquiry chairmen, to join in discussion groups. The discussions and written responses supported our view that the time was right for new legislation on inquiries and showed general support for the views expressed, as set out in the summary of responses that we published on 28 September. We also worked closely with the devolved administrations to create a system that takes account of their responsibilities. We were then ready to bring forward this Bill to provide a comprehensive statutory framework for major inquiries across the United Kingdom. The Public Administration Committee has published its report, which the Government welcomed in their response. I am sure that both documents will help to inform the debate.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

On inquiries that stretch from here to one of the devolved nations, such as Wales, can the Minister assure the House that there will be more than simply consultative input from the Welsh Assembly, for example, and that it will have some decision-making authority as the terms of reference are established?

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

Yes. Through the Bill, we are trying to create a statutory framework whereby the devolved Assemblies will have greater powers for their own inquiries. It is indeed one of our intentions to help to close that particular loophole in the legislation.

Clause 1 sets out the power to establish an inquiry. It is deliberately drafted more widely than the provision in the 1921 Act, so that it can be used for any future situation in which a substantial statutory inquiry may be needed. The Bill does not replicate the 1921 Act's requirement for parliamentary resolutions to authorise use of the powers given by that Act. That was inserted to prevent unjustified inquiries being initiated and has, for most recent 1921 Act inquiries, been taken as a formality.

Clause 3 provides for the appointment of an appropriate person or panel of people to conduct an inquiry. That clause should be read in conjunction with clause 10, which stipulates that the Minister must have regard to the need to ensure that the inquiry panel has the necessary expertise to undertake the inquiry. As clause 12, which deals with the appointment of assessors to assist the panel, also provides, we want the most appropriate people to conduct those inquiries.

Clauses 4 and 5 deal with the appointment of the panel and the setting of the terms of reference, ensuring, as I said earlier, full consultation with the chair of the inquiry. As a result of further Government amendments brought forward in the other place, clause 6 contains a duty on the Minister to make a statement about any proposed inquiry to Parliament, or the relevant Parliament or Assembly in the case of inquiries set up by the devolved Administrations. I believe that that requirement provides sufficient opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny of proposals to set up an inquiry.

Clause 7 is the result of an Opposition amendment that was carried on Third Reading in the other place. It provides for arrangements for inquiries relating wholly or mainly to allegations of ministerial misconduct. The Government continue to have genuine concerns about the drafting of clause 7 for several reasons. For example, there would be great pressure to use that procedure for almost all inquiries. I have a real concern about the definition of "misconduct", which its current framing leaves open. We already have the ministerial code of conduct, which sets out the standards that the Prime Minister expects of his Ministers. I have yet to be convinced that any formal resolution requirement, which does not appear in the majority of inquiry powers in existing legislation, contributes more meaningfully to parliamentary scrutiny of inquiries.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Secretary of State (Justice), Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

I am sure that the Under-Secretary will concede that the Government parliamentary draftsman drafted clause 7.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

Yes, in response to the nature of the debate, with which I take issue, in the other place. I do not believe that a particular desire for such a routine resolution, which defines almost all inquires as potentially relating to ministerial conduct, would necessarily be in the best interests of getting on with the thorough investigation that some inquiries carry out. Perhaps Parliament takes the view that ultimately everything is to do with ministerial conduct. I envisage a cumbersome and possibly confused picture if we accepted that broader definition of ministerial accountability and responsibility for all issues. That is one of reasons why I take issue with clause 7 as it is drafted.

Clause 11 concerns the arrangements for the appointment of judges to inquiries—a matter about which considerable discussion has already taken place, especially in the other place. The Government had already included a requirement in that clause for consultation with the Lord Chief Justice or other appropriate senior member of the judiciary. The Government remain of the view that, on issues of such national importance, we must leave the individual judge to decide whether he or she should accept the appointment.

Clauses 13 and 14 provide for suspending and ending an inquiry. As a result of debate in the other place, Government amendments were tabled to ensure that the Minister gives notice to Parliament to explain the reasons for suspending or ending the inquiry before it has reported. Indeed, that point has already arisen in today's debate.

Clauses 16 and 17 allow for the conversion of another type of inquiry into one under the Bill. That is not a transitional provision—existing inquiries can carry on as they are by virtue of clause 45. The conversion powers are included in case they are needed in future, for example, to convert an inquiry that is set up on a non-statutory basis when it becomes apparent that the power to compel witnesses to attend and the production of evidence would aid the inquiry in fulfilling its terms of reference.

Clauses 18 to 24 cover inquiry proceedings. They will be supplemented by rules of procedure made under clause 42, which should contribute significantly to the effectiveness and smooth running of future inquiries. Rules could cover topics ranging from legal representation to management of the records of the inquiry. A memorandum setting out some detail on the expected content of the rules has been placed in the Libraries of both Houses.

Clause 18 introduces an important new duty on inquiry chairmen to conduct proceedings with fairness, but also to have regard to the need to avoid unnecessary cost to all participants, whether they are financed by public funds or not. I am sure that hon. Members will recognise the sense of that.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

When and on whose advice was it decided that clause 42(5) should provide for the use of the negative rather than the affirmative procedure?

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

There are well-established rules and conventions about when orders require affirmative or negative procedures. If every order came before Parliament under the affirmative procedure, Parliament would quickly become bored and clogged up with them. On balance, it is right that some, albeit important, matters should be subject to negative procedure. We took advice on that from parliamentary counsel in the normal way. Clearly, the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee in the other place has examined the matter during the Bill's passage so far.

Clauses 20 and 21 cover public access to inquiry hearings and evidence. We aim to create a sensible framework and, for the first time, set out what factors are be taken into account in decisions on public access. The decision about whether a specific inquiry should be held in public or in private can sometimes be controversial, and I am sure that hon. Members will wish to examine those provisions closely.

I should like to make two things about the provisions clear at the outset. First, the starting point in the Bill is that an inquiry will be held in public. Secondly, nothing in the provisions prevents the inquiry panel from seeing whatever evidence and witnesses the panel considers necessary. That is important. I know that hon. Members believe that it is far from unusual for inquiries to be held in some privacy, but sometimes it is required. More than a third of the major inquiries held since 1990 have had some sort of restrictions on public access, for a wide variety of reasons. Sometimes, the Minister setting up the inquiry has chosen the restrictions; in other cases, it has been the chairman's decision.

Clauses 22 and 23 cover the powers that an inquiry can use to require the production of evidence and are similar to the provisions in existing legislation. The powers can be exercised only within the terms of reference. Later clauses cover enforcement, which can be done by the High Court or through prosecution.

Clauses 28 to 32 deal with inquiries by or involving devolved Administrations.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

I was reading clauses 29, 30 and 31 and I am confused. Surely the competence for matters that relate exclusively to business that is devolved to the Scottish Parliament and Executive should be that Parliament's. Are we not trespassing on matters that are not our competence under devolved constitutional legislation?

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

We can still hold those inquiries, but we must recognise that legislation on what is devolved and what is reserved has moved on from what the 1921 Act envisaged. That is one reason for the basic necessity to update the legislative framework. For example, if the Dunblane inquiry had been held today, it might well have been more appropriate for it to be set up by the devolved Administration. Some inquiries may involve UK-wide issues. A Sewel motion has been passed by the Scottish Parliament, which has examined the Bill's application to Scotland. We therefore have general agreement with the devolved Administrations about how to proceed. There is no great contention with them.

Many of the remaining clauses deal with further details of inquiry procedures and funding. For example, clause 39 aims to ensure that challenges to inquiry procedures will come before the courts promptly, minimising the potential for disruption and delay. There are general provisions on legal costs, which will be tackled in more detail in the rules of procedure.

Over the course of Committee proceedings, I have no doubt that the provisions will be debated in greater detail. However, the aim of the Bill is fundamentally to rationalise inquiry legislation to provide a suitable basis for a wide range of inquiries into events that have caused public concern. It draws together and replaces much of the existing legislation on inquiries, incorporating key aspects of current legislation, such as the power to compel witnesses. It provides clarity on points that have not, until now, been covered in general legislation, such as the duty to publish a report.

The measure also contains new provisions that are designed to improve the effectiveness of inquiries and keep costs under control, including a power to make rules of procedure under secondary legislation. Those matters might well be technical, but the time has come to modernise that part of our constitution, and I therefore commend the Bill to the House.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Secretary of State (Justice), Shadow Leader of the House of Commons 1:19 pm, 15th March 2005

It is timely and right to consider the future legislative framework for inquiries, and to revisit the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921. We want to see a more effective and streamlined inquiry procedure, so we welcome the opportunity that the Bill gives us to consider how to achieve that, but we have concerns over the extent of the powers to be granted to Ministers. Those concerns were also raised in the other place. We also believe that Parliament should play a central role in public inquiries.

In their consultation in 2004, the Government recognised that we have a long-standing practice of setting up formal, open inquiries into matters of serious public concern. We can be proud of our record in that regard. I noticed that the Public Administration Committee's report stated:

"The tradition of public inquiry has become a pivotal part of public life in Britain, and a major instrument of accountability. Some of the basic principles on which British inquiries are based are reflected in practice elsewhere . . . In the United States, with its powerful Congressional committees, the British system is viewed as a model of robustness".

It is important to have in place mechanisms to enhance open government and to improve accountability. We need to be able to uncover the failings in our institutions and public bodies. That involves establishing the facts, deciding what went wrong and, crucially, having a truly independent inquiry to make the necessary recommendations to put matters right.

We agree that there are shortcomings in the existing legislative framework for tribunals. There is a patchwork of provision, with the most serious matters being dealt with under the 1921 Act. There are other important Acts of Parliament involved, some of which have been mentioned today. The Stephen Lawrence inquiry was conducted under the Police Act 1996, and the Kennedy report on Bristol royal infirmary was conducted under the National Health Service Act 1977. There have been many examples of inquiries that were not statutory at all, the most obvious recent ones being the Hutton inquiry and the Soham murders inquiry.

The Saville inquiry into Bloody Sunday and the Shipman inquiry were recent examples of inquiries conducted under the provisions of the 1921 Act, but there have been only 24 inquiries conducted under that Act. Perhaps the Minister will confirm that one of the main motivations behind the Government's decision to introduce the Bill was the widespread criticism of the length of time taken by the Saville inquiry, of its huge cost, and of the cumbersome directions relating to the procedure involved. Although the establishment of the inquiry was announced in January 1998, it was nine months before any oral evidence was taken. The opening statement alone took nine weeks, and we are told that it is hoped that the report will finally be produced later this year, almost eight years on. The inquiry is thought to have cost between £155 million and £250 million. A leading QC has said of the cost:

"I don't think that any sensible, civilised society and modern democracy can spend that amount of money on a public inquiry, no matter how important it is."

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

The hon. Gentleman will also be aware of the widespread belief that, as we already have a pretty good picture of what happened on Bloody Sunday, we did not need to do a tremendous amount of digging to find witnesses who were willing to come forward. Does he agree that we need to be assured that the Bloody Sunday inquiry would have been significantly cheaper and faster if this legislation had been in place?

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Secretary of State (Justice), Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

We are all aiming for the goal of streamlined, effective and fair inquiries.

Photo of Mr Kevin McNamara Mr Kevin McNamara Labour, Kingston upon Hull North

Since the Government set up the Bloody Sunday inquiry, there has been a marked reluctance by the Ministry of Defence to co-operate with it, including the withholding and not keeping proper charge of evidence. Guns that formed part of the evidence were destroyed, for example. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that reluctance, and the whole atmosphere in the Ministry of Defence in relation to the inquiry, have accounted for at least a third of the time that has been wasted?

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Secretary of State (Justice), Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving his opinion on that matter. Personally, I would not take that view. I believe that the system set out in the 1921 Act provides for a very cumbersome way of conducting an inquiry. I could cite the views of various lawyers and others who have been involved in inquiries, all of whom feel that the time has come to have another look at the Act.

Gaps have been created by the piecemeal way in which the subject-specific powers to establish inquiries have been granted over the past 30 years. The Government's consultation paper recognised that problem. The Minister mentioned the Victoria Climbié inquiry, which was chaired by my constituent, Lord Laming. He showed that, while the problem of an inquiry having three or four subject areas was not necessarily insuperable, it was none the less difficult for such an inquiry to achieve satisfactory results. There is a strong case for looking again at that issue.

To sum up the need for change, Lord Justice Clarke said in the final report of 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. The statute should also set out the powers of the inquiry, which to my mind should be as flexible as possible."

We have reservations about some of the Government's proposals. My noble friend Lord Kingsland pointed out on Second Reading in the other place that, at its heart, the Bill shifts the responsibility for establishing a public inquiry from Parliament to the Executive. The initiative will lie squarely with the Minister, who will decide whether an inquiry should be established, what its terms of reference should be, and who should sit on it. Parliament will be sidelined.

The Minister will know that, under the 1921 Act, a resolution of both Houses is required to establish inquiries into matters of urgent public importance. There is no such mechanism in the Bill. That is all the more worrying when we consider that the Public Administration Committee said:

"Our research has . . . revealed a long-term diminution in Parliament's role in the process of public inquiries. We regard this as a serious development, and one which needs to be addressed urgently."

The Committee's report went on to say that the Bill

"finally removes the opportunity for formal parliamentary involvement in inquiries . . . We are deeply concerned that the Government's Inquiries Bill threatens the last remaining role for Parliament in the inquiry process."

These are serious concerns that must be addressed.

Although the Bill will provide an overarching structure for inquiries and streamline the processes involved, which is good, it will be a backward step to take Parliament out of the equation. If we can persuade the Minister to keep the amendment made in the other place, the House will have the opportunity to approve the arrangements for inquiries into ministerial misconduct, but we would like all inquiries to have that approval.

Photo of Tony Wright Tony Wright Labour, Cannock Chase

The hon. Gentleman's story about the 1921 Act could be told quite differently. In 1921, Parliament effectively started to contract out the business relating to inquiries, retaining its presence only in the most formal way. Surely the challenge now is not to reclaim that moment of abandonment but to reclaim the territory itself.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Secretary of State (Justice), Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

The hon. Gentleman makes the point that I was trying to make. Parliament should be involved in the process.

The Minister mentioned clause 6, which provides for Ministers to make a statement here about an inquiry, but that could be a written statement. There would be no guaranteed opportunity for the Minister to be questioned. The House should have the opportunity to question Ministers on the setting up of inquiries into important matters.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

Perhaps I did not make the point clearly enough. There is of course nothing to prevent Parliament from scrutinising, debating or looking into ministerial decisions to establish inquiries, or passing resolutions, which would then have an effect on the Government. Parliament is sovereign in our constitution and it has that capability. Does the hon. Gentleman understand my argument about the dangers of too much rigid, inflexible statute, which might in some ways inhibit the discussions in Parliament? The 1921 Act was framed in such a way in an attempt to prevent such contracting out by non-parliamentary inquiries at that time.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Secretary of State (Justice), Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

Without in any way suggesting anything about the Minister, who everybody accepts is acting fully in good faith and is to be trusted on these issues, there is out there among the public concern about inquiries following recent events. On issues to do with inquiries, it is not enough for him to say, "Trust me, trust this Government." Parliament needs to have a say, too. That is our view.

There are other questions to be resolved, many of which involve the balance of power between the Minister and the person chairing the inquiry. The Bill, in its original form, was riddled with discretionary powers for the Minister to override and overreach the traditional work of the chairman. We need to get this balance right, especially when considering those aspects of the Bill that relate to the terms of reference and to disclosure and publication of evidence. I shall not quote it, but the Public Administration Committee made that point very effectively. I hope the Minister will respond to those concerns.

The list of problems with the Bill does not end there. The degree of ministerial discretion over the publication of the inquiry's final report needs to be looked at very closely, and we want to be sure that there are adequate safeguards against whitewashes. The Bill also raises a number of practical issues, and we will need to look closely at how it affects existing inquiries. If Ministers are to require existing inquiries to be brought into the new rules—converting them, to use the language of the Bill, and I would be interested if the Minister has any thoughts about what sort of inquiry might be converted—the Government have to tell us what that means in practical terms for those inquiries. I have certain concerns about exactly what will happen in those circumstances.

I welcome the fact that the Bill was amended in the other place. There are a number of welcome changes: the Minister has to consult the inquiry chairman before suspending the inquiry, although we would like that to be a matter of agreement rather than just consultation, and has to consult the existing inquiry chairman on the proposed conversion. I question whether that is strong enough. Should not the inquiry chairman have to agree to the terms?

Further changes will provide greater public access to inquiry proceedings and information, but we shall look to achieve a presumption of access, although we fully accept that there may be circumstances in which that cannot happen. Further changes will also be needed to ensure proper openness and accountability.

Many changes made in the other place are the result of strong debate, and they were made despite opposition from those on the Government Benches. The amendment proposed by Lords Kingsland and Goodhart on inquiries where ministerial misconduct is the issue was passed in the other place. It is an important amendment. The Minister says that the Government are not happy with the drafting, but it was drafted by the Government parliamentary draftsman and taken on by the Opposition in the other place. It means that in cases of alleged ministerial misconduct we have a procedure for Parliament to have a say in how such inquiries are conducted.

My noble Friend Lord Kingsland noted that there is ample scope for the new provision to be strengthened. If the Minister is not happy with its wording, is he saying that he will table his own amendment to tackle the concern expressed in the other place, or is he saying that he simply wants to reverse that amendment? It would be a great pity if such an important Bill could not make fairly consensual progress through Parliament at this stage in the parliamentary year, given what might happen in the next week or so.

A further amendment means that if a Minister wants to appoint a judge as a member of an inquiry panel, he or she must first consult the appropriate judge, such as the senior Law Lord in the case of the Law Lords. That is an important change. It helps to ensure that, in circumstances where it is inappropriate for a judge to chair an inquiry, we can avoid situations that might be harmful to judicial independence.

Photo of Malcolm Moss Malcolm Moss Shadow Minister, Home Affairs

My hon. Friend is alluding to the many amendments made in the other place, to which the Minister made no reference whatever. Does that mean that the Minister does not accept that those amendments improve the Bill or that he intends to reverse them in Committee?

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Secretary of State (Justice), Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

The Minister said that he has concerns about clause 7, but it would be a pity if he did not table his own amendment to replace it, meeting the point raised in the other place. He certainly did not say that he intends to try to reverse other amendments, but no doubt we can have the final word on this during the winding-up speech, based on the strong arguments made from the Conservative Benches.

There are unfinished matters. There is scope for curtailing the freedom granted by the Bill to Ministers to seek to interfere with an inquiry once it has been established. We are worried about that and will table amendments on it in Committee. There is also scope to tighten up the provisions on the composition of inquiries, determining when they are to terminate and the extent to which Ministers will be free to interfere on matters of evidence, privacy and the final report. We also need to consider the inclusion of the so-called restriction notices and the extent to which that is well balanced. We want a better inquiries procedure. All areas can and must be thoroughly scrutinised in Committee.

The Bill attempts to provide a framework to reform an area of law that we accept needs to be reconsidered. It presents an opportunity, but we must be sure that in making the necessary changes we do not tip the balance too far in the wrong direction—not too far in favour of the Executive against Parliament, not too far in favour of Ministers against the inquiry chairman and members, and not too far in favour of secrecy against openness and accountability.

Photo of Mr Seamus Mallon Mr Seamus Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party, Newry and Armagh 1:37 pm, 15th March 2005

May I say first that the perception of public inquiries among people in the north of Ireland, where I come from, is somewhat different from the general view of public inquiries carried out in England or Scotland or Wales? That is the case owing to the very nature of events and circumstances there, but the essence of the need does not change with circumstances or timing.

On the very day that I entered the House, the Westland affair was being debated. We remember the inquiry on it, and we have gone from one inquiry to another. Indeed, it is almost as if there are those who perceive the use of public inquiries as a cranks' charter or a means of having an unhealthy view of events. It is neither, and it cannot be in any normal society. Nor should it be allowed to become the plaything of public opinion, political parties, Governments, the legal profession or any institution, because public inquiries are what they say they are: inquiries for the public, by the public, in the interests of the public and of nothing else except justice.

For that reason, I want to root my remarks in what the Joint Committee on Human Rights states, as it says succinctly what must be said. It says of an inquiry that

"it should provide an independent and effective investigation following any death which may have been caused by the actions or neglect of agents of the state. The Article 2 duty to investigate requires that there must be an inquiry on the initiative of the state; that the inquiry must be independent; that it must be capable of leading to a determination of whether any use of force was justified, and to the identification and punishment of those responsible for the death; that it must be prompt and proceed with reasonable expedition".

I want to refer to some instances in relation to public inquiries that do not meet those criteria and that became part of the whole political negotiations.

It is a matter of record that, at the negotiations in Weston Park in summer 2001, the Government, in the form of the Prime Minister, made a commitment in relation to at least three requests for public inquiries, with regard to the deaths of Patrick Finucane, Rosemary Nelson and Robert Hamill. That is on record and, for that reason, it is crucial that I refer to them not simply because they are a Northern Ireland matter but because the implications that are entailed are crucial to everybody, wherever they live, because that independence to which the Joint Committee's findings refer and the criteria required by the House in terms of those recommendations are at stake. It is crucial that we do not see either the Finucane or other cases as simply another whinge by Northern Ireland Members, depending on their political persuasion. I emphasise that, because it goes to the heart of what we are considering.

At those meetings in Weston Park, the Prime Minister gave his word that, if an international judge appointed by the Government to investigate those cases recommended a public inquiry, one would be held. That was a solemn undertaking from the Government, given by the Prime Minister. The exact wording in the Weston Park document states:

"In the event that a public inquiry is recommended in any case, the Government will implement that recommendation."

Those matters were considered by Judge Cory, an international jurist from Canada; he made recommendations in relation to public inquiries and we must examine how the reasons for those measure up against the duty to investigate in articles 2 and 3 of the European convention on human rights.

Sir John Stevens, who cannot be accused of being partial in Northern Ireland terms, and who was a police officer of the highest renown, commented in relation to the Finucane case that he found

"collusion, the wilful failure to keep records, the absence of accountability, the withholding of intelligence and evidence, and the extreme of agents being involved in murder".

He added that

"the unlawful involvement of agents in murder implies that the security forces sanction killings."

The enormity of that, in terms of what we are discussing today, is fairly obvious to all of us.

In effect, an inquiry has not yet been held in that case, 17 years afterwards, which hardly complies with the Joint Committee's requirement that it be

"prompt and proceed with reasonable expedition".

That is because of the way in which, when that inquiry is held, the finger might point not just at policing or the security services but at those in a much more senior position and still holding senior positions in the administration. That might go as far as ministerial positions. That is why it is crucial that there be independence in relation to public inquiries, and that that independence should not just be a moveable feast between a Minister and the inquiry chairman but absolutely sacrosanct, both in terms of the inquiry and in terms of their independence of pressure from any ministerial figure.

The Ministers with whom I have discussed this matter know that, when it comes to the Finucane inquiry, it will be a series of withholdings of information under the new legislation, because it will be impossible, as they say in their terms, to give the information required. In a civilised, normal country, what Government can look themselves in the mirror and do away with that independence, as in clause 20, knowing full well that when this inquiry is held, if it is ever held, after 17 years, it will be a series of refusals by Ministers of the information that is so central to it?

In those circumstances, two matters come into question. First, given the abnormality of the situation that pertained in Northern Ireland at the time—it is far from normal as of yet—is it right, 17 years after the event, to introduce this type of legislation and apply it to circumstances then, when the type of conclusions that justice would demand will patently not be reached? Secondly, is it right that, in effect, a Prime Minister—not a Minister of State or Secretary of State—said in the negotiations, eyeball to eyeball, over a table, "I give my word"? I know the Prime Minister to be an honourable man. I know that, when the time comes, he will show that he will keep his word. However he can only do that if, in effect, he ensures that all the information that is required by that tribunal, when it is set up, is made available to it and will not be the subject of refusal by any Minister.

I believe that the Prime Minister made that arrangement in good faith, and I look forward to its being kept to in good faith. It is not just the Prime Minister's word that is at stake here, because the arrangement was negotiated by him jointly with the Irish Government, who stand guarantor in relation to those three inquiries. If they are not dealt with in the way that was expected then, we shall have to wonder whether those who gave their word did so as a matter of expediency, to buy time until a change in the legislation provided protection for the information involved.

I do not mean that cynically or harshly. I simply want to put on record that a deal was made and, when deals are made, they must be adhered to. If they are not, people lose the trust of those around them—and in the delicate circumstances surrounding the political process in the north of Ireland, and indeed the peace process in the north of Ireland, there is only one thing that any of us have: the fact that we can be trusted, and that when we give our word we keep it. When we say something and write it down formally in a statement, we abide by it.

I am very concerned about clause 20. I see shadows of last week's debates. I see ways in which the clause could be used not to further the aims of a public inquiry as defined in the Joint Committee's report but to ensure that what might eventually emerge causes the least possible embarrassment to the Government involved.

I sincerely hope that that does not happen. I sincerely hope that, in this country as well, the absolute integrity of public inquiries is maintained and protected. But it is not possible to play around in Northern Ireland. It is not possible to take away the integrity of public inquiries in the north of Ireland and believe that the integrity of inquiries in England, Scotland and Wales will not be affected. The rot will set in, and it will diminish public inquiries everywhere—and not just public inquiries, but all who will be involved at ministerial level in preventing the availability of full and proper information.

I hope that both Ministers will think about that. I hope that they will listen in Committee. I hope that they will put what I have said about Weston Park and the Prime Minister's commitment to the test. I hope that they will go to the Prime Minister and say, "Prime Minister, did you give that commitment? Prime Minister, did you write it on that piece of paper? Prime Minister, did you agree it with the Irish Government?" When the Prime Minister says yes—I know him to be an honourable man, and he will have to say yes—that must be the cue for ensuring that, after 17 long years, at least there will be honesty and integrity in the handling of an inquiry. The inquiry into the death of Patrick Finucane will unearth a good many dangerous things, but let us have it done. Let us be sure that it is dealt with. Let us not try to keep the cover on this one, or it will seep insidiously into every other inquiry.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs 1:55 pm, 15th March 2005

The Liberal Democrats broadly welcome the Bill, because it simplifies and consolidates existing legislation on public inquiries, as the Minister explained at the outset. As the Minister said, it is tempting to talk about specific cases, but we must resist the temptation to bang the drum for our own preferences and particular cases that we feel should be dealt with. What Mr. Mallon said about the Pat Finucane case is relevant. One test of the simplified legislation will be whether inquiries that many of us feel should have been handled expeditiously involve less of a requirement to lobby and to apply political pressure on the Government.

This is a much better Bill than the one initially introduced in the other place. The amendments made there will ease some of the concerns about lack of parliamentary involvement in the process. We had an interesting exchange with the Minister earlier, in which he tried to reassure us that the Bill would not over-centralise the decision-making process relating to the creation of inquiries in the future. I hope that he is right. One of my main worries is that the Government might be able to protect themselves from potentially damaging findings by future inquiries by limiting the terms of reference consciously to achieve that aim.

The case of Deepcut barracks is one reason for my interest in the Bill. I shall not rehearse the full history of the Deepcut case, but it involved the deaths of four young people at the barracks during a period beginning in 1995 with the death of Cheryl James, the daughter of two of my constituents. The salient point in this context is the difficulty that many of us who have campaigned for a full independent public inquiry have experienced in getting the Government to co-operate.

Mr. McNamara has been one of the leading figures in the call for a public inquiry. As he knows, we were repeatedly told by Ministers that there was no need for an inquiry because there was nothing more to investigate, but as recently as yesterday the Select Committee's report on the duty of care in the Army confirmed that we were right to persist in pushing the Government towards a full independent public inquiry. After many years of resistance on the part of the Army and the Ministry of Defence, it now transpires that there were facts that had not entered the public domain in the past pertaining to the duty of care and its failure in the Army. We have thus been entirely vindicated.

Photo of Mr Kevin McNamara Mr Kevin McNamara Labour, Kingston upon Hull North

I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman. I thank him for his kind words, and I agree with what he is saying—but the problem is that if we secure our public inquiry as a result of the Bill, the Ministry of Defence will draw up the terms of reference with no acknowledgement of the position of the families.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

That is true. I ask for the hon. Gentleman's forbearance: I shall return to his point shortly.

If the Bill made it easier and quicker for us to secure a full independent public inquiry in similar circumstances without the heartache, pain and extensive investment of time—and, I have to say, money—that the parents have experienced, it would be a very good Bill indeed. However, for precisely the reason given just now by the hon. Member for Hull, North, I fear that as it stands there is a danger—here I use the Deepcut example again—that the MOD will have a disproportionate opportunity to define the terms of reference in such a way that it could protect itself from the worst findings that a fully independent inquiry might produce.

I ask the Minister to consider and to respond to the point that the hon. Member for Hull, North and I have made. What reassurance can he give that the Bill will make it easier, rather than more difficult, for parents in the circumstances that I have outlined to get the answers and the closure that they have reasonably asked for? In other words, how can we be sure that we are more likely to get the kind of answers that are slowly seeping out of yesterday's Defence Committee report on, and the ongoing investigation by Nicholas Blake QC into, the deaths at Deepcut barracks? How can we be sure that such answers will be more forthcoming, rather than less, if the Bill is enacted?

On a connected point, will the Minister give us an assurance that we will not have to go through some dozen separate inquiries as a result of the MOD's—and, indeed, the Army's—resistance at every stage to being more open about its information on Deepcut? Will the Bill open doors rather than close them, and will it ensure that families and other interested members of the public have more opportunity to secure a justified public inquiry, instead of feeling left out? To me that is the core question, and an appropriate one to ask at this strategic Second Reading stage. I hope that the Minister can respond, and that in doing he will use Deepcut barracks as an example.

It is also clear that someone must initiate a public inquiry, and that person will almost always be a Minister. The debates in the other place were very helpful in showing the differences between public inquiries and inquiries by Select Committees. While the latter perform an extremely useful function, in the circumstances that we are discussing today, it must be right that such inquiries be initiated by a Minister—if the Minister is indeed at the very heart of the issue. But let us remember that, as Mr. Heald and his colleagues pointed out, the Minister must not operate in isolation. It would never be right for Ministers to use that power in such a way as to protect themselves or their Departments.

I accept that if Ministers set up the inquiry, it follows that they must also set out its terms of reference. But it is also important that they consult widely on those terms of reference, so I welcome the Government's amendments in the other place, which were tabled after considerable pressure from Liberal Democrats and Conservatives. The amendments stipulate that before a Minister sets out or amends the terms of reference, he or she must consult the chairman of the inquiry. It is extremely important, to ensure that there is confidence in the inquiry process, that this provision be included in the Bill, and I welcome the Government's decision to do that.

Photo of Mrs Anne Campbell Mrs Anne Campbell Labour, Cambridge

Does the hon. Gentleman feel that there is a case to be made for consulting Parliament not only when the terms of reference are established, but if they are subsequently changed?

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

I certainly do, especially when the issue in question is controversial, or when the inquiry's outcome could prove damaging to the Government of the day. Those are the times of greatest pressure on Ministers, who will unquestionably be under a degree of pressure to protect the Government's interests, even when doing so is in conflict with those of the public. With the best will in the world, no Minister will be free from such pressure, and the best legislation would ease it by putting in place statutory requirements that ensure both that there is transparency, and that the principles of democracy are upheld. There can be no better place to do that than in this Chamber.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Secretary of State (Justice), Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the amendment tabled in the other place by our noble Friends Lords Kingsland and Goodhart—it is now clause 7, which provides that there must be a resolution before both Houses if ministerial misconduct is the issue—constitutes a very important protection?

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

That is absolutely right, and in another place my noble Friend Lord Goodhart and others were indeed apprised of the need to modify the Bill in exactly that way.

I am grateful to the Government for listening—to a degree—to these concerns and for amending the Bill to a large extent. The Minister is now required to make a statement to Parliament on the establishment of an inquiry, its terms of reference and chairman, and the composition of the panel. It is fundamental that Parliament be kept informed of the inquiry process, and I am pleased that the Government have recognised Parliament's role in this respect. However, it is a matter of slight regret that they did not automatically come to the view that that was necessary, and had instead to be forced in that direction by the Opposition parties.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

As I have said, I understand why Members are calling for us to enshrine in statute certain procedures that make Ministers accountable before Parliament, but in fact such arrangements already exist, as we know. To include every such mechanism in statute would give rise to the danger of missing out other things, or of the legislation becoming too rigid, which is why we have compromised in the Bill. Not everything needs to be included in it.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

The Minister makes a reasonable point. This has to be a question of degree, and I myself have sometimes criticised legislation for being over-prescriptive or tactical when it needed to be strategic. However, the following two points, which many Members have made, are matters of principle: first, that of Ministers being accountable to this House, especially when there might be a vested interest in protecting the Government from the possible outcome of an inquiry; and secondly, that of ensuring that consultation really does mean that Ministers are obliged to take genuine account of feedback on the breadth of the terms of reference. Those are indeed principles, rather than simply tactical matters, but in fairness I must add that the Government have moved somewhat on these issues in another place. The recorded comments of the Minister—and, I hope, of another Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, Mr. Lammy, who will wind up the debate—will act as a useful precedent in interpreting what to expect in terms of parliamentary etiquette.

I also concur with those who said that a written statement would probably not be sufficient—certainly not for any public inquiry of significant import. Again, there is plenty of parliamentary precedent for statements being made in the Chamber. For example, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence felt it necessary to announce the Nicholas Blake inquiry into Deepcut on the Floor of the House. That was beneficial because certain matters were subsequently explored and clarified in this place. Secondly, there was a public interest in ensuring that the Under-Secretary's proposals were transparent. Both things would have been more difficult to achieve had the statement been written rather than oral. I hope that the Minister who winds up will confirm that the default assumption will be that public inquiries will be announced on the Floor of this House, rather than in written statements.

Another crucial anxiety, to which reference has been made, concerns the power to maintain secrecy by restricting public access to hearings and evidence, and the possibility of withholding parts of reports from publication. There are of course circumstances in which withholding such information can be justified. As the Minister correctly said, one such example involves matters of national security; another is when the report in question contains information about a vulnerable individual or a witness. As this is a Bill for all circumstances and all possible future inquiries, it is right to make provision accordingly.

The Government took a constructive approach in listening to the arguments advanced by my noble Friend Lord Goodhart and people on the Conservative Benches in favour of bringing the Bill under the scope of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. It is now clear from the Bill that the power to withhold information does not override that Act—another significant improvement made in the other place.

On the whole, a public inquiry will be implemented in the public interest, so it is important that information from such an inquiry should not be restricted in the Government's interest. However damaging that information may be to the Government of the day, we must make sure that nothing in the Bill enshrines the opportunity for the Government to protect themselves from any such damaging information. The Government must not be allowed to withhold information on those grounds. We have talked about that at some length, and I am sure that Ministers are clear about the views expressed on both sides of the House.

Another criticism levelled at the Government is the fact that the Bill was introduced before the Public Administration Committee had completed its report, "Government by Inquiry". The Committee recommended an amendment to the Bill, under which investigations into ministerial misdemeanours should be Committees of Parliament. On Third Reading in the other place, my noble Friends supported an amendment tabled by the Conservative peer Lord Kingsland to allow a Minister setting up an inquiry to move a motion before the relevant Parliament or Assembly approving the proposal for the inquiry to be held and approving the terms of reference and identity of the chairman. The amendment, which is now clause 7, is absolutely vital in safeguarding the involvement of Parliament and, I believe, public trust in the inquiry system when ministerial behaviour is under investigation. The reasons for that are obvious.

Photo of Malcolm Moss Malcolm Moss Shadow Minister, Home Affairs

The hon. Gentleman's words suggest that Ministers must come to Parliament with the relevant motion, but in the words of clause 7(2), the Minister may do so "if he sees fit". In other words, it is at the Minister's discretion, so the provision is not as strong as the hon. Gentleman suggests.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. The language that I used suggested what I wished was in the Bill rather than what is, in fact, in it—but the tenor of debate in the other place demonstrated an acceptance of the expectation that there would be an obligation or a moral responsibility on Ministers to take the appropriate action as a matter of course. In the light of the hon. Gentleman's intervention, will the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, the hon. Member for Tottenham, confirm that despite the softness of language in the Bill, the expectation is that a Minister will do what clause 7 recommends, rather than just consider doing so as one possibility? That is not too much to ask; it is not really a concession, as I believe Ministers have already made the expectation clear in the other place.

There has been much disquiet about the Bill, but it is vastly improved as a result of its progress through the other place. I am content to support it in its current form, in tandem with the amendments that I mentioned, on Second Reading in this place. It is a Bill to deal with all the circumstances that might arise, so I can understand why all the individual provisions might be necessary on certain occasions. However, to avoid further criticism, I ask the Government to ensure that they consult widely before setting up specific inquiries under this legislation. It is crucial that those affected by the events leading up to any inquiry, including victims and their families, are listened to carefully.

I have asked some specific questions and I hope that the Minister will respond to them. I also hope that the Government will show their willingness to discuss in Committee some improvements on specific issues. On the whole, the Government have demonstrated their willingness to listen to Opposition Members and their own Back Benchers, and they have accepted feedback in order to improve the original Bill. I have already mentioned the test case of Deepcut barracks and the mystery still surrounding the four deaths that occurred there. Will the Minister tell us in his summation whether he believes that the long-standing campaign would have been aided by the Bill? That would not only assist me, but help to engender a degree of confidence that the Bill will add something of value to the difficult and necessarily vexing circumstances in which inquiries are initiated.

Photo of Tony Wright Tony Wright Labour, Cannock Chase 2:15 pm, 15th March 2005

One issue that hangs in the air, consequent on our debate so far, is the question of how an inquiry will be established when the Government of the day do not want it to be established. That issue hangs in the air now, as it did in 1921, and as it will when the Bill becomes an Act. That poses a challenge for us. It is often the case that a Government may not want an inquiry when the public and Parliament do, so we must turn our minds to devising a mechanism whereby an inquiry can be established when the Government oppose it. If we dodge that issue, we shall simply continue as we are now, which is to supplicate in the face of an Executive, "Please, may we have an inquiry?" into something or other, when we, a sovereign Parliament, have the ability, if we are so minded, to establish inquiries when we believe that matters should be inquired into. It is no good bleating about what the Government may or may not do. It is within our hands to do something about these matters if we really want to do so. That is my starting point and also my finishing point, but I have a few additional points along the way.

Those privileged enough to serve on the Public Administration Committee are used to the Government paying close attention to our work. We notice that they are often minded to accept some of our recommendations, but even we were stunned at the way in which they responded to our inquiry on inquiries. When we began that inquiry at the beginning of last year, to some amusement in some quarters, the Government produced a helpful and substantial consultation document in response, but then took us completely by surprise by saying that they were intending to legislate. We understand why they wanted to do that, but it was certainly not what the Select Committee expected. In the normal course of events, it would have been usual for a Bill of this sort to have appeared in draft form first. It is a Bill that could have been gestating for a long time, eventually seeing the light of day when a legislative opportunity presented itself.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Secretary of State (Justice), Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

I pay tribute to the report that the hon. Gentleman's Select Committee produced, but was it not rather shocking that the Government should start on the Bill when it was widely known that the Committee's report was about to be produced? That was most discourteous and says a good deal about the way in which the Government and this particular Department view the work of the Select Committees of the House.

Photo of Tony Wright Tony Wright Labour, Cannock Chase

I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, who saw an opening to make his point, but I have to put on record the fact that the Government have been immensely courteous to the Select Committee throughout and have sought to link their work to our work for the better benefit of the legislation. I completely reject what the hon. Gentleman has just said. I certainly hope that our inquiry, which has some claim to being the most comprehensive account of the whole inquiry tradition in this country, will help the House in its consideration of the Bill that the Government have decided to bring forward.

We do not say it often enough, but it is important to say that public inquiries matter. There is scarcely a day goes past without someone demanding one. I suspect that, at some time, every Member of this House has demanded that a public inquiry be held. We usually make such a demand when we cannot think of anything else to say, or when we are not clear what we think about something, and it is usually echoed from all sides.

The demand is always for a public inquiry, and not just an ordinary one. People want inquiries that are full, independent and judicial—often, all those descriptions are rolled together to suggest that inquiries must be gold plated. If an inquiry does not fit that description, we feel entitled to criticise every aspect of it. If we do not like the conclusion that is reached, we feel entitled to criticise the person who undertook the inquiry, and also the whole process involved.

As Lembit Öpik said, there are pressing demands for an inquiry into the events at Deepcut. The Government believe that, on balance, no inquiry is needed, but many disagree. However, public inquiries in their myriad forms play an indispensable role in our public life, and always have done. Sometimes, it is worth taking a step back to see how the process works. What functions do inquiries fulfil, and does the process need to be brought up to date?

The annexe to the Committee's report lists the 89 major inquiries that have taken place since 1900. They display an extraordinary variety, with inquiries established under many different kinds of powers and in different ways. Some have been public, some private, but there is no single model.

Inquiries are set up for a variety of purposes and in a variety of contexts, but they should be set up because something needs inquiring into. They are investigations, not policy vehicles. Their aim is to find out what happened, or what went wrong, and to determine whether a problem could have been avoided or prevented. They should also provide some reassurance to the people affected that a particular matter is being taken seriously.

The process of holding an inquiry is sometimes as important as its content. The process shows that a matter is being taken seriously and that it deserves a proper inquiry. In addition—and this has not been mentioned in the debate so far—the inquiry process shows us what we must learn to prevent a problem from reoccurring.

An inquiry should be a learning tool for Government, but that is often not the case. As a result, inquiries are sometimes held into matters that are very similar, and make similar recommendations. In our report, the Committee compared sections of the Franks inquiry after the Falklands war with sections of Lord Butler's inquiry into weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and associated intelligence matters. There are some striking similarities in what the two inquiries have to say about intelligence failures in both contexts.

Given that inquiries tend to reach the same conclusions, we are entitled to wonder why lessons are not learned in a systematic way.

Photo of Mrs Anne Campbell Mrs Anne Campbell Labour, Cambridge

Does my hon. Friend agree that the procedure followed by Sir Michael Bichard in his inquiry into the events at Soham might be emulated by other inquiry chairmen? Bichard stated that he would reconvene his inquiry within six months to look at the recommendations that had been made. Does my hon. Friend consider that to be good practice?

Photo of Tony Wright Tony Wright Labour, Cannock Chase

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend and fellow member of the PAC for that observation. I was going to mention Sir Michael Bichard in a moment, but I agree very much with what she says. It was innovative for an inquiry to look forward to its recommendations, to consult on them to make sure that they were workable, and to revisit its findings after a period of time.

Sir Michael Bichard presided over one of the most successful inquiries of recent years. It was undertaken in very short time, with great efficiency and a huge pay-off in terms of changing the procedures involved. The Bichard report reminds us that we should not get hung up about inquiries being judicial—that is, that they should be run only by judges. Requiring that inquiries be run judicially is a different matter, but Bichard—and Lord Laming is another example—reminds us that not all inquiries need to be run by judges to be effective.

People who are not judges often bring great experience of the administrative systems into which inquiries are held, but that is often not so of judges. We have had some seriously flawed judicial inquiries in recent years, but some of the non-judicial inquiries that have been held in the same period have been hugely successful. I am sorry if that seems a roundabout way of agreeing with my hon. Friend Mrs. Campbell, but there are many ways to conduct an inquiry. It is worth reflecting on them as we consider the whole inquiry process.

I was saying that Governments sometimes want inquiries for ignoble as well as noble reasons. That is perfectly reasonable. A Government will sometimes use an inquiry to bat a difficult issue into the lush pastures in the corner of the field, where it can be safely planted until no one can remember its cause. As Harold Wilson famously remarked, royal commissions take minutes but last years, and that can be extremely useful. Inquiries come in all shapes and sizes and are undertaken for all kinds of reasons. However, they perform an important function and therefore deserve a good deal of attention.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell Labour, Linlithgow

Is my hon. Friend familiar with the observation by Michael Foot that a royal commission was like a broody hen sitting on a china egg?

Photo of Tony Wright Tony Wright Labour, Cannock Chase

It is always a mistake to try and swap quotations with my hon. Friend as he will always win, but he adorns the House with his knowledge.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

I was interested in what my hon. Friend had to say about a Government's motivations. Does he agree that one of the tests of the Bill is whether it will prevent the future abuse of the process? For instance, the Clegg inquiry was non-judicial. It was conducted by an appointed civil servant, and was set up deliberately to frustrate the inquiry by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee into the deployment of troops in Sierra Leone. The Foreign Secretary of the day said that he did not want two inquiries into the matter and that he would set up his own. If the Bill is to be a success, it will prevent further torpedoes like that.

Photo of Tony Wright Tony Wright Labour, Cannock Chase

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and what Clegg produced is an example of the sort of inquiry that this House needs to study. If we are not happy with an inquiry, or if one is not held at all, it is up to us to do something about that. We must not content ourselves, as we often do, with complaining about the actions of a Government in that respect.

I congratulate the Government on bringing forward this Bill. As has been said, it makes sense to try to consolidate all the various legislation that applies in this area. It has been noted, too, that many inquiries are not held under any legislation but are set up in an ad hoc way.

Like the report, today's debate has noted some of the aspects of the Bill that have caused some disquiet, but I shall not dwell on that. I am glad that the Government have responded in the other place to some of the concerns. The balance of the Bill has shifted satisfactorily because of that and I do not accept that this is another example of the Executive wanting to extend their power to every part of public life, even to inquiries. That overstates the case unhelpfully—[Interruption.] The Irish case has been much mentioned and I understand why. British Irish Rights Watch said that repeal of the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921 and, therefore, the ending of the formal involvement of Parliament

"will mean the end of public inquiries as we know them."

That is not a sensible observation because it will not do anything of the kind. In some ways, it will strengthen the public inquiry tradition because the chances are that many more inquiries will be set up on a statutory basis with real power. There is a stronger case for saying that it will strengthen the public inquiry tradition rather than end it. However, I accept that there are issues—about Ministers' access powers, in particular—but as many have been touched on already I shall not dwell on them.

The principle is clear. Anything that might be seen to undermine the integrity and independence of an inquiry will be corrosive not just for the inquiry, but for our whole tradition of public inquiries. These are serious matters and I hope that they will receive the attention they deserve when the Bill goes into Committee. Much progress has been made in the other place, but perhaps further progress can be made. On access, I said that the 1921 Act gives total power to the inquiry on access questions. In principle, that is the model to which we should adhere because it gives public confidence. It would be difficult to persuade someone to chair an inquiry unless they had the extent of control over its proceedings in all respects to guarantee its integrity and independence. There are balances and judgments to be made and all I am saying is that I hope that the balance and judgment will come down in favour of giving as much control as possible to the person who chairs the inquiry, rather than to Ministers.

The outstanding point of contention between some of us and the Government has been the role of Parliament, repeal of the 1921 Act and all matters associated with that. The background is that at one time Parliament had a robust inquiry tradition. The end of our report lists the inquiries through the last century and shows that Parliament was vigorous in conducting inquiries. Back in the 19th century it was even stronger and there are many examples. In 1855 the House of Commons voted to appoint a Committee

"to inquire into the condition of our army before Sebastopol, and into the conduct of those departments of Government whose duty it has been to administer to the wants of the army".

That resulted in the resignation of Lord Aberdeen's Government in 1855. I give that example to remind the House that this place once had a vigorous tradition of parliamentary investigatory inquiries into issues that deserved attention in an era before we thought it was necessary to contract out such matters to other people.

The turning point, as is widely known, came with the development of the party system at the beginning of the 20th century and crystallised around the Marconi incident in 1911–12. An attempt by Parliament to inquire into allegations of Government favouritism in the awarding of contracts to the Marconi company floundered because party political loyalties kicked in and the inquiry's conclusion was abortive. G.K. Chesterton made a good remark about that. He said that the Marconi affair

"had concluded as such affairs always conclude in modern England, with a formal verdict and a whitewashing committee".

How often have we heard that in more recent times? He then said that recent history could no longer be divided into "Pre-War and Post-War conditions", but should be divided into "Pre-Marconi and Post-Marconi".

That episode led to the 1921 Act, which is why I call it the moment when Parliament contracted out. It was the moment when Parliament decided that it could not rely on itself to conduct inquiries. I gibed at what Mr. Heald said because it was not a moment of great parliamentary glory, but the moment when Parliament said that it could not do the sort of things it used to do, so it should put in place a mechanism to enable others to do so for it.The effect was that Parliament was sidelined. It no longer undertook the sort of inquires that it used to undertake into matters of public concern affecting Ministers. There have been various lamentations over the years about that failure.

Select Committees have sometimes tried to undertake such inquires and have run into the sand. When the Trade and Industry Committee investigated the BMARC affair it gave up and recommended that a parliamentary commission should investigate the matter with access to persons and papers—as Select Committees have in principle, but not in practice. The former Public Services Committee, in the wake of the Scott inquiry, recommended such a parliamentary commission to investigate matters in which Parliament should be centrally involved.

The most conspicuous example of Parliament trying to do that was in 1978 over the Rhodesia oil sanctions. The Government of the day, faced with demands for an inquiry into what happened, proposed a special commission of inquiry to be composed of Members of both Houses and chaired by a Law Lord. That was approved by this House without a Division, but was voted down by the other place, so that parliamentary commission was never established.

Are we content that Parliament has abandoned the matter and that we simply demand that inquiries should be held by someone, but that there is nothing we can do about it if they are not? In particular, are we content for inquiries, if they are held, to be held into matters that we should properly investigate? As the Committee took evidence, we found many important voices who were prepared to say that they thought that Parliament should do what they had done. For example, Richard Scott, of the Scott inquiry, told us that he thought that Parliament should have done what he did. Lord Butler assented to the proposition that his inquiry did not require a team of Privy Councillors, but should have been anchored in Parliament.

Michael Bichard said, interestingly, that inquiries were on a continuum—some being purely factual, which need someone to investigate and sort out the facts, and at the other end those that are essentially political, although they require some facts to be determined. He thought that the political end of the continuum should be the responsibility of Parliament because such inquiries involve politically contentious issues, such as the conduct of Ministers and Departments. For that category of inquiry, we have to decide whether we are content that someone else should be asked to conduct them—

Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice Labour, Pendle

My Friend omits Lord Hutton, who told us that Select Committees should have powers to call individuals. Of course, John Scarlett famously appeared before the Hutton inquiry, but the Foreign Affairs Committee was turned down when it asked him to appear before it.

Photo of Tony Wright Tony Wright Labour, Cannock Chase

My hon. Friend makes a good additional point in support of my general proposition.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell Labour, Linlithgow

As a Member of Parliament, I gave long evidence to Lord Franks's committee and was very upset at its conclusions, which bore little relation to the guts of the report. Shortly before Lord Franks died, I taxed him with that and he said, tersely, "You were a Member of Parliament. Why on earth did not the House of Commons do it itself?" That reinforces my hon. Friend's point.

Photo of Tony Wright Tony Wright Labour, Cannock Chase

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The cases of the Falklands inquiry and the Butler inquiry, in which we contracted out politically central issues to committees of Privy Councillors, were the worst form of abdication. In many cases, it is perfectly proper and desirable to want some external person to investigate, but in cases that are at the centre of political argument and debate, there is no other appropriate mechanism. Increasingly, judges, led by the Lord Chief Justice, are saying—and this is why the Bill requires amendment—that they will not be conscripted by Governments into doing their political business for them and providing a cloak of judicial respectability. The issues at stake are essentially political and parliamentary, so—whether we like it or not—we have reached the point at which the House of Commons has to decide whether it wishes to reclaim some of the ground.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that for those political inquiries that he is discussing we have a mechanism that could be used—the Select Committee process? However, for that to be effective, it would be vital that the Select Committee did not operate on a tribal basis. The difficulty is that if issues of visceral importance to the future of the Government or the Prime Minister of the day were being investigated, there would be enormous pressure on Government politicians to be sympathetic to the Government's position and, indeed, for Opposition politicians to seek advantage by aggressively opposing it. I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but I seek his perspective on how we could overcome those fundamental tribal concerns.

Photo of Tony Wright Tony Wright Labour, Cannock Chase

I am grateful for those comments, which lead me to my next point. The Government invoked that argument in response to the Committee's arguments, but they also broadly accepted our analysis. The Government accept that there is a gap in the system, but they question how it might properly be filled. I pay tribute to the speed with which the Government have formally responded to the Committee's report, but in that response they state:

"There is no reason why the good work done by members through the present Select Committee system cannot be translated into a commission equipped to conduct a public inquiry. However, any Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry is ultimately a matter for the House to decide and to appoint and the government would welcome any progress on this issue."

That is a solution without a solution, if I may put it like that. It acknowledges the force of the Committee's analysis and the gap that has to be filled, but by suggesting that Select Committees should promote themselves and become commissions, it simply returns us to the problems that the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire described. If it were possible to turn Select Committees into commissions to investigate such issues, we would be doing it. If it had been possible for a Committee of the House to inquire into the circumstances surrounding the decision to go to war in Iraq or the death of David Kelly, we would have done it, but that proved impossible.

Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice Labour, Pendle

If the Government want to make progress in that direction, surely they have to review the Osmotherly rules, which prevent civil servants from appearing before Select Committees.

Photo of Tony Wright Tony Wright Labour, Cannock Chase

The Government have promised to do so, but we go round in circles on promises to review the Osmotherly rules every few years. I do not want to give away too many trade secrets, but there are certain inherent limitations in the way in which Select Committees work, even with our best endeavours. Some of the limitations are formal constraints, involving the mismatch between the powers formally available to the Committees and the reality on the ground, but some are simply to do with the way in which our party system works. The issue is whether, knowing all that, Parliament can find a mechanism to transcend those limitations and enable the Committees to do the job that we think has to be done.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

May I suggest a criterion that would be a good test of whether we could inquire into our own affairs? The test would be whether the system were robust enough to ensure that, regardless of who was in power, the inquiry would come to the same conclusion. To pass the test, the outcome would have to be so robust that it could not be influenced by the political persuasion of the Government of the day.

Photo of Tony Wright Tony Wright Labour, Cannock Chase

As it happens, I have absolute confidence that the mechanism that I would recommend would have such authority behind it. Indeed, it would need to do so to function properly.

The Committee has argued that the Bill is welcome, as a consolidating measure. It can be improved in several ways, but there remains a category of inquiry—at the political end of the spectrum—that it is inappropriate for other people to undertake and which is not being dealt with properly at the moment. Those cases need to be investigated. Indeed, the reputation of Parliament demands that such inquiries be undertaken if we are really to be at the centre of national life. That is what led us to think that we needed an amendment to the Bill, at least to leave open the possibility of what we call a parliamentary commission—what in 1978 was called a special commission of inquiry. Of course, it would be used only in certain circumstances, when the political circumstances make it possible. Of course, all that is so. Nevertheless, the possibility will exist and that will enable Parliament to have a role that it does not have at present.

I conclude by quoting a sentence from the very end of our report. We said:

"Parliament now has to decide whether it wants to reclaim territory it has lost as far as inquiries of this kind are concerned, becoming once again the Grand Inquest of the Nation, or whether it is content to abandon the field to others, and to the executive."

That is the question. When we talk about the Bill, it is not simply a question of making demands of the Executive; it forces us to make demands of ourselves, because this is a moment when Parliament really has to decide—as we say in the report—whether, having contracted out in 1921, it now wants to abandon the field altogether.

Photo of Malcolm Moss Malcolm Moss Shadow Minister, Home Affairs 2:51 pm, 15th March 2005

It is indeed a privilege to follow Tony Wright, who gave us an extremely interesting insight into his Select Committee's report, which was published recently. It reinforces some of the views expressed in the other place: for example, that the measure may have been rather rushed, given all sorts of circumstances, not least among them the fact that the Committee had not actually finalised its report. His remarks, especially on the history of contracting out some of the particularly parliamentary-oriented inquiries, suggest that there is indeed a glaring hole in the Bill. If the Government had approached it in a more balanced and timely way, the arguments that are being deployed this afternoon could have been incorporated some time ago and a rather different Bill would be before us.

Given that the Bill is of huge constitutional significance and that the Government published their consultation paper, one wonders why, in the words of the hon. Gentleman, the Bill was not published in draft form, because it would have lent itself strongly to pre-legislative scrutiny. Indeed, the Deputy Leader of the House said last year that

"a Bill should be published in draft form unless there are good reasons for not doing so".—[Hansard, 24 February 2004, Vol. 418, c. 19WH.]

We have had no explanation this afternoon as to why the Government changed their mind about the publication of the Bill in that form.

We need public inquiries of the kind that we have been discussing. The hon. Member for Cannock Chase drew our attention to the public's appetite for such inquiries. When things go wrong, the first thing people want is a public inquiry, especially an independent one, which suggests that we should be careful when setting up parliamentary-based inquiries. In the current climate, I am not sure that the public at large would necessarily feel that those investigating were doing so objectively.

The Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921 has served us pretty well over the years, although it is used only in particular circumstances. Hundreds, if not thousands, of inquiries have taken place in the intervening years not under that legislation but under more localised legislation—if I can describe it thus. In fact, schedule 2 lists existing Acts of Parliament, sections of which will be repealed by the Bill because they will no longer be relevant to the inquiries in those sectors or Departments. The 1921 Act has been used four times in recent years as the legislative basis for inquiries such as those into Bloody Sunday, the north Wales child abuse, Shipman and Dunblane.

We need inquiries, because we need to ensure that those in public life are accountable. Furthermore, we must also ensure that through the inquiry lessons will be learned and acted on. That is an important ingredient, which we overlook at our cost. We need this legislation and the Opposition will be reasonably supportive of the Bill as it stands, although we should like further amendments in Committee. There is a need for consolidation. Deficiencies have been exposed, especially in the piecemeal, subject-specific powers given to other bodies under Acts of Parliament. There is a case, which the Government have made, that consolidation would be useful.

The Bill is needed on three counts. First, there is the modernisation dimension. We need to bring our knowledge and information up to date as a result of the history of various types of inquiry. Secondly, we need, if possible, to bring into the new legislation greater independence from Government of such investigations, which will meet with public agreement. Thirdly, in the light of the various ways in which inquiries can be held, an attempt should be made to provide an all-embracing legislative framework to cover more than the existing eventualities. I think the Bill makes such an attempt. We must at all costs avoid the potential for whitewashes, and ensure that new legislation retains all the necessary protections that we have inherited from past measures.

The Bill was substantially altered and amended in the other place, but why were so many amendments required at that early stage? Given the gestation period of the measure and the fact that even this afternoon the Government have said that there was fairly wide consultation, as well as discussion with the Select Committee—I think that was confirmed by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase—why did the Bill arrive in the other place, for its Second Reading and Committee, so massively deficient in so many aspects? One finds oneself concluding that either the Government were rushing it through without thinking carefully enough about it, or perhaps the Executive wanted legislation that gave them enormous powers at the expense of Parliament and other measures.

I put to the Minister who will respond to the debate the question that I put earlier to my hon. Friend Mr. Heald: are the Government content with the many amendments that have so far been secured, or is it their intention to reverse them when the Bill goes into Committee in this place? That important question needs to be answered.

Important amendments were made, and we and the other place believe that the Bill was immeasurably improved as a result of those amendments, but if the Government have set their mind to denying those aims, it is as well that we understand their motivation.

The amendments achieved in the other place refer to the Minister having to consult the chairman of the inquiry before appointing the panel, before establishing or modifying the terms of reference, before appointing assessors and before suspending or terminating an inquiry. It was either a massive oversight or a perverse intention by the Government to allow Ministers to wade in and change all those things in an inquiry without even consulting the chairman. It beggars belief that they thought that such an action would be acceptable.

The Minister must lay before Parliament the terms of reference and notices suspending or terminating the inquiry. As we have heard already, the Minister must secure the consent of the Lord Chief Justice before appointing judges to the panel. Of course, where ministerial misconduct is an issue, the Minister has the option to move a motion before Parliament that relates to the decision to hold an inquiry and, of course, its terms of reference.

As I said in an intervention on Lembit Öpik, clause 7(2), which is part of the new clause inserted by the other place, states:

"The Minister may, if he sees fits, move a motion before the relevant Parliament or Assembly for a resolution".

So such things can take place at the Minister's discretion, and the point that the hon. Gentleman made is an important one for the Minister to address in responding to the debate to clarify whether the Government will seek to water down that provision even further—I understand that they are unhappy about it—or whether they will accede to the wishes of those in the other place who successfully passed that amendment. No doubt, when the Bill is considered in Committee, a similar amendment will be required.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is very hard to understand why the Government are resisting such a proposal? It will not put any undue pressure on the Government to do something that they should not be willing to do automatically anyway—in other words, to involve the House in important decisions made by Ministers.

Photo of Malcolm Moss Malcolm Moss Shadow Minister, Home Affairs

I accept that point. I hope that those who serve on the Standing Committee—the Whip is not here, and I am not asking to do so—will seek to strengthen those words. The word "will" should replace the word "may". After all, if such consultation is important, it should be mandatory.

A number of concerns have been expressed about the Bill—not least of which, of course, relates to the true independence of any future inquiry under the new legislation. I submit the view that the Bill shows a shift in the responsibility to set up inquiries from Parliament to the Executive. Under the 1921 Act, there is a requirement for a resolution of both Houses before such inquiries are established, yet that requirement is not in the Bill.

A statement must be made by the Minister under clause 6—I believe that the other place made that amendment—but as had been said already, it can be either oral or written. With a written statement, Members cannot question the Minister about the rights and wrongs of the inquiry or its terms of reference. That provision also ought to be strengthened in Committee.

The powers of the Minister under the Bill are stronger than hitherto. They are additional to those in the existing legislation, and a proper balance needs to be reached between the Minister's responsibilities and those of the inquiry chairman.

If the Minister is in control of the terms of reference, he can set them. As we have seen recently with the Hutton inquiry—the Butler inquiry was not of the same nature—by setting narrow parameters for the inquiry, we can end up with a conclusion that is probably perfectly honourable and proper, given the evidence within those boundaries, but the outcome causes a great deal of disquiet and a lack of widespread support among the public.

As has been mentioned already in the debate, perhaps the Bill's introduction has been prompted by the Saville inquiry's overrun costs. Its cost has been estimated at between £160 million and £250 million. If that is the case, or if that is an ingredient in the decision-making process that has arrived at the Bill, would the Saville inquiry have been any quicker or any cheaper if the Bill had been on the statute book? That question was rightly posed earlier—I do not know the answer, and I suspect that the Minister does not either, but it should be answered.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that clause 18—the key clause in respect of an inquiry's costs—provides no reason necessarily to think that the Saville inquiry would be cheaper? Clause 18 states:

"the chairman must act with fairness and with regard also to the need to avoid any unnecessary cost".

I would imagine that anyone who has handed in an invoice to the Saville inquiry would claim that theirs was a necessary cost. So although I hope that the Bill will make such things cheaper, does he agree that, as it is currently phrased, it is not clear what mechanism will cause us, without the benefit of hindsight, to make better decisions than were made with regard to the Saville inquiry's costs?

Photo of Malcolm Moss Malcolm Moss Shadow Minister, Home Affairs

The hon. Gentleman points out a deficiency in one of the clauses, so I look forward to his tabling an amendment in Committee.

Photo of Malcolm Moss Malcolm Moss Shadow Minister, Home Affairs

We will happily work together to try to find an amendment that is suitable in that case.

Further amendment to improve the Bill is indeed necessary. Surely, in the interests of independence, the Bill should ensure that the Minister not only consults but gains the consent of the chairman of the inquiry, principally before establishing or modifying terms of reference, before modifying the composition of the panel and before suspending or terminating the inquiry.

The Government have moved a little way so far in accepting that consultation between the Minister and the chairman is necessary. We would go further by saying that, if the chairman is to be independent, the Government should gain the chairman's consent before making those fundamental changes. Only that will convey to the general public that the Government cannot intervene even if the inquiry is not going in quite the direction that they would like. If the Minister has the power to intervene and stop things in their track, it would indeed smack of a massive whitewash. I cannot understand why the Government want to leave that question mark hanging over the Bill.

We would also like to change clause 20, which relates to restriction notices. That matter was addressed powerfully and persuasively by Mr. Mallon when he referred to a specific case from the Province of Northern Ireland that was extremely important to him and others. It would seem from both his analysis and my reading of the clause that it will give the Government the power to withhold information as and when they choose. They will also have the power to direct Departments to do the same and to decide that certain people may not attend an inquiry. If the Government are serious that the Bill is designed to promote the independence of inquiries, clause 20 must be examined carefully. We also want clarification of the definitions of public interest and damage to the economy in the clause because Conservative Members think that both phrases are too obtuse to be included in the Bill.

Photo of David Lammy David Lammy Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

I hesitate to intervene, but there is now consensus about the interpretation of public interest, certainly in case law. The hon. Gentleman might recall that part of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International inquiry was held in private specifically because there was a question about the nature of the economy and because information could have come out that might have damaged the economy. I am thus surprised that he raises that point.

Photo of Malcolm Moss Malcolm Moss Shadow Minister, Home Affairs

The Minister might be surprised that I am raising the point, but other people are raising it, too. It is perfectly legitimate to raise such matters during a Second Reading debate. If he wants to respond to the points that I make, he can do so in his winding-up speech. People are saying that the clause is too restrictive and that it will give the Government the power to control the ingredients of an inquiry—the people who turn up and the paperwork that is revealed. If he wishes to justify his position, he will have plenty of time to do so at the end of the debate.

We question the role given to the Minister by clause 26, of determining how to publish the findings of an inquiry and the timing of the report. If the Government are giving chairmen the responsibility of running inquiries, such decisions should be in the hands of those chairmen. We will want to amend the clause to reflect that.

Photo of Mrs Anne Campbell Mrs Anne Campbell Labour, Cambridge 3:12 pm, 15th March 2005

A great deal of what I wanted to say has been said by my hon. Friend Tony Wright, so I shall not cover that ground again. However, this is indeed the right time to review the procedures for public inquiries. When the Public Administration Committee conducted its inquiry, the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921 was referred to by Sir Andrew Turnbull as a "clunking instrument". Events have shown that that is the case. The Act is now not used for most inquiries, because they are conducted using a different procedure.

I am interested in the extent to which Parliament has been involved in inquiries and the extent to which it will be involved under the Government's proposals. I take complete account of my hon. Friend's point about the way in which the 1921 Act effectively contracted out Parliament's role of conducting inquiries to other bodies. It is time for us to reclaim that ground, but I want to examine whether the Bill gives us grounds to be optimistic that that will happen.

The 1921 Act provided that Parliament had to pass a resolution to allow inquiries to be given the powers detailed in that Act, which gave Parliament a measure of control over whether an inquiry should be carried out and the conditions under which it should take place. Under the Bill, Ministers will have to make a statement to Parliament about an inquiry's terms of reference and membership. When Ministers make a statement, even if it is oral, there is not a vote. Although one assumes that a Minister would note comments made by Members of Parliament, the House would not necessarily be involved in making the decision. As Mr. Heald said, the statement need not be oral. I assume that a written statement could be made—the Minister seems to be nodding: that would mean that the House would have no way of expressing its views at that point.

I have read clause 7 carefully, but given the way in which it is drafted, it does not seem to be of much use at all. If a Minister does not want to bring a case of ministerial misconduct before the House, he will not do so. It is difficult to think of circumstances in which clause 7 would be used. There would be few circumstances in which a Minister would want to bring a matter of ministerial misconduct before the House. The clause is thus superfluous. Although I hope that we can replace it with a stronger measure, I am not optimistic that that will happen.

I am sure that there are many differences between the Bill and the 1921 Act, but I have picked out only several. Under the 1921 Act, the report of an inquiry need not be laid before Parliament, but that will be required under the Bill. I would like to know the implications of that. Will Parliament necessarily have the right to debate an inquiry report, which it does not have at present? I ask that question perhaps because I do not understand the procedures involved very well.

Our discussion on terms of reference was interesting. More than one inquiry chairman told the Select Committee that he found it necessary to clarify the inquiry's terms of reference. The Committee recommended that there should be a short consultation period after the announcement of an inquiry to ensure that the terms of reference met the expectations of the inquiry. Sir Michael Bichard said that he found it necessary to take careful note of the terms of reference when he conducted his inquiry. However, we heard in relation to the BSE inquiry that

"Lord Phillips was perfectly able to explore the areas he felt appropriate without feeling totally constrained by three and a half lines in the terms of reference".

Terms of reference are obviously open to interpretation by chairmen, but it is nevertheless important for us to get them right. The way in which they are drafted should not unnecessarily constrain an inquiry.

I understand that there is a duty on Departments to report on the implementation of inquiry recommendations. I am interested in the lessons learned from inquiries. The findings of inquiries on foot and mouth outbreaks over the past century have not always been closely heeded. It has been said that if the lessons of the 1967 inquiry had been properly acted on, we would not have had an outbreak of foot and mouth in 2001. That shows that although inquiries are often held and sensible recommendations are made, they are not always heeded and acted on.

It was therefore extremely helpful of Sir Michael Bichard to say that he would reconvene his inquiry within six months to look at the way in which the Home Office had acted on his recommendations following the tragic events in Soham, which is not far from my constituency. I watched the events there with great interest. I crave your indulgence to discuss the Bichard inquiry, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because it helps me to explain the circumstances that led to its conclusions. Sir Michael Bichard made many recommendations, including the suggestion that the police establish a national intelligence system for England and Wales and that the Criminal Records Bureau have access to other databases.

The importance of that came home to me on new year's eve when, tragically, Sally Geeson, a young female student in my constituency, was abducted and murdered by someone who had been identified as very dangerous by the Ministry of Defence when he was court-martialled for the offence of false imprisonment. Sally's relatives naturally called for an inquiry into the circumstances of her death. Lance Corporal Atkinson was known to be a dangerous person, yet he was allowed freedom to become involved in activities that proved tragic for my constituent. I wrote to Sir Michael Bichard to ask whether he would look into the case. The important issue was not so much the circumstances surrounding Sally's death, which had already been investigated by the police, but whether the information known to the MOD was known to the CRB and the police. Strangely enough, the reconvened inquiry published its report today, and at the end Sir Michael says that he understands that the Home Office has written to the MOD as a result of the Sally Geeson case

"to ask whether the military police would like access to the violent and sex offender register so that convictions and intelligence for service personnel are on that system."

He very much supports that action and recommends that it be "pursued urgently".

It should be much more common for chairmen to reconvene their inquiries after a period to ascertain whether their recommendations have been pursued. That also gives people the opportunity to look at the recommendations and consider whether their scope needs to be broadened to take account of subsequent events. It is terribly important that Departments be encouraged to look at the implementation of recommendations. A procedure should be established so that over time Departments examine recommendations and see whether they have been implemented in the most effective way. That could have prevented a number of tragic events, including the foot and mouth outbreak, which caused so much grief in 2001.

The Bill represents an improvement on the current position, but amendments could usefully be made to it. As parliamentarians, we should look carefully at our role and see whether there are better ways of becoming involved in what my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase called a parliamentary commission, so that we can consider inquiries into events that concern both the general public and the House.

Photo of Mr Kevin McNamara Mr Kevin McNamara Labour, Kingston upon Hull North 3:25 pm, 15th March 2005

I trust that my hon. Friend Mrs. Campbell will forgive me if I do not follow her line of inquiry.

First, a point about clause 19 made by Mr. Moss needs to be cleared up. When I asked the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, my hon. Friend Mr. Leslie, whether he could give an undertaking, even though it might not be published, that inquiry chairmen would have access to all papers and documents, he said yes. The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire raised serious doubts about that, so it is of the utmost importance that we obtain clarification when the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, my hon. Friend Mr. Lammy winds up. Will all persons and all papers be available to tribunal chairmen?

The Bill provides Members with a first-hand opportunity to witness the clash between our democratic ideals and the legacy of Britain's imperialist role in Ireland, where the principles of good governance have collided with sordid self-interest and manifest contempt for human rights and the rule of law. The admirable purposes of the Bill have been corrupted by the refusal of the defence and intelligence establishments to come clean over their collusion with loyalist paramilitaries in the murder of defence solicitor Patrick Finucane. I do not believe that the protection of undercover agents has ever been a prime consideration, but there has been an attempt to hide implications of policy and its implementation. Successive Governments have permitted, wittingly or unwittingly, an undercover war in Northern Ireland to be conducted outside democratic control. I believe, as does the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir John Stevens, that agents of the Crown have engaged in systemic collusion with paramilitary groups and pursued a policy of unlawful killing and extra-judicial assassination.

There can be no doubt about the depth of that collusion. In the case of Mr. Finucane, it was a British intelligence agent, Brian Nelson, working undercover in a paramilitary organisation, who selected the solicitor as a target and supplied logistic information to the gang that carried out the attack. It was a Royal Ulster Constabulary agent who, in his capacity as a quartermaster for the Ulster Defence Association, was in charge of the supply and disposal of illegal weaponry used to effect the murder. The murder was not a mystery. The paramilitary who pulled the trigger on Patrick Finucane in front of his family made a full confession to the police. The police officer who took that statement alleges that RUC special branch agents recruited Ken Barrett as an informant and destroyed the tape. As a result of Sir John Stevens's investigations, Ken Barrett confessed in court and was sentenced to 22 years' imprisonment for the murder of Pat Finucane last September.

We therefore know the identity of all the individuals involved, but we do not know what the policy was, who decided it, who made the decisions to implement it, who hid it, who told lies in court about one individual—a colonel, whose name we were not given—allegedly saving a dozen lives or more, and a whole host of matters that are still relevant.

Because of the confusion and lack of confidence in respect of the death of Pat Finucane, the Irish and British Governments agreed at Weston Park to the demands—mainly of the Social Democratic and Labour party—for a full public inquiry, if an independent outside judge recommended one, into the deaths of the various individuals that, it was put to them, required particular investigation because of the collusion of the security forces.

A year later, a Canadian judge, Mr. Justice Peter Cory, was appointed to conduct the investigation. In April last year, he concluded that the security forces were, at the very least, aware of the plan to murder Patrick Finucane and that they failed to intervene. He recommended a public inquiry. This is what Mr. Justice Cory said about the Bill before us:

"I don't know how any self-respecting Canadian judge would be part of it in light of the restrictions on independence it would impose."

He went on to say:

"If this Act had been in place at the time to set up an inquiry I don't think that there is a judge who would take it on. Its provisions are too restrictive. Independence would be impossible."

The judge continued:

"My view of the proposed legislation is that it would be extremely difficult to have a public inquiry that would be in any way significant."

Those are all statements that he made to The Irish Times.

If that is Mr. Justice Cory's opinion, can the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham, assure us that the Irish Government, who are a party to the Weston Park agreements and who agreed to Mr. Justice Cory's appointment, are satisfied that the terms of the Bill fully meet the undertaking that they gave to the participants at Weston Park? A straight yes or no from the Minister would be welcome.

It is important to understand the background to the Bill. Following the conviction of Mr. Barrett, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland came under considerable pressure. It had been the Government's policy that they could not hold any public inquiry into the death of Mr. Finucane until all outstanding criminal matters had been disposed of. Mr. Justice Cory did not accept that, but nevertheless that is what happened. When Mr. Barrett was convicted, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State finally announced an inquiry into the Finucane killing that month.

Everybody expected that the inquiry would be held on the principles of the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921. However, my right hon. Friend immediately qualified the announcement by asserting that the inquiry could be established only after the passage of the Bill before us, which would guarantee that the inquiry would hear most of the important evidence in private. What degree of public confidence is created by reluctantly conceding an inquiry and immediately qualifying its openness and transparency?

I should compliment the Finucane family on their astounding dignity and determination. Their grief at losing a loving husband and father has been compounded by the duplicity of those who are ultimately accountable for his death, by the failure to uncover the truth, by the failure to bring those responsible to justice and by the refusal of the intelligence and security forces to bring their operations under democratic control or behave according to the rule of law. That must have been an enormous additional weight on their emotions, which the family could well have done without, when all they were asking for was the application of the rule of law.

I should at the same time compliment my colleagues in the SDLP on their tenacity in continuing to pursue the matter of the Finucane, Hamill, Nelson and other inquiries over a long time until they eventually received an undertaking from the Prime Minister.

When the Public Administration Committee set out to examine the options for reform of the antiquated patchwork of legal provisions for public inquiries, I doubt whether my hon. Friends and other colleagues could have imagined the minefield that they were walking into, where the James Bond world of Robert Nairac meets the despicable trade of Dirty Harry. I pay tribute to the work of the Committee and the care with which it considered the role of the public inquiry in providing a critical component of the framework of checks and balances that is required for effective government and democratic accountability.

I recognise the quality of the evidence given to the Committee by Members of the House of Lords and others who were able to reflect upon and draw lessons from their own experiences of chairing some of the most important and influential inquiries of the past 40 years. Their lordships' considerations on public interest stand in stark contrast to the narrow and defensive framework of the Bill.

I refer the House to the correspondence between the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, my noble Friend Baroness Ashton of Upholland, and Lord Saville of Newdigate. I shall not examine all the minutiae of the correspondence, partly because of the time that would be required, but with regard to the Bill, Lord Saville wrote:

"As a judge, I must tell you that I would not be prepared to be appointed as a member of an inquiry that was subject to a provision of this kind"—

That is a reference to clause 17. He continued:

"This is because I take the view that it is for inquiry panel itself to determine these matters, subject of course to the right of those concerned to challenge in court any ruling that it may make or refuse to make."

That was in his letter of 26 January. There was a full and detailed reply from my noble Friend, but on 23 February Lord Saville wrote back:

"Once again, may I thank you for . . . addressing in detail my concerns. Sadly, they remain and accordingly I have decided to make them public."

When my hon. Friend the Minister replies to the debate, can he tell the House whether Lord Saville, who has great experience of inquiries, is now completely satisfied as to the contents of the Bill and has no lingering problems with it? If requested, and subject to the approval of the Lord Chief Justice, would Lord Saville agree to chair another inquiry, if the present one has not wearied him a little of public inquiries?

Two questions arise. Does the legal framework for public inquiries need to change? The answer is yes. Does the Bill answer that requirement? I think that it does not.

In the confused history of the powers of different Departments to initiate inquiries, an inquiry under the 1921 Act was the gold standard, despite all the problems associated with it. Under the 1921 Act, the proposal for an inquiry had to be endorsed by both Houses of Parliament—Parliament was involved. Such tribunals were equipped with powers to summon witnesses and demand evidence, and reluctant Ministers and officials could be charged with obstruction. Such an inquiry was chaired by a distinguished judge in order to establish its independence and guarantee its authority.

The Bill will take the initiative away from Parliament. It will allow a Minister to pick his own tribunal chair and instruct the tribunal chair on how to regulate access to the inquiry and whether to exclude the public. It will allow the Minister, or change of Minister, to step in and alter the structure or even the terms of reference of an inquiry. It will allow a Minister to suspend an inquiry or terminate it before completion, and a Minister could also limit—censor—publication of the inquiry report. It will give a Minister powers to dismiss and replace a tribunal chairman on a number of grounds, including that of a difference of opinion about the interpretation of the terms of reference.

It is little wonder that many distinguished judges have raised the question whether they would serve on an inquiry established under such legislation, believing that such an inquiry might be compromised from the outset—Mr. Justice Cory concurs with that assessment. It is true that the ever-evolving effectiveness of judicial review and the monumental protection of the Human Rights Act 1998 provide a safeguard against ministerial abuse, unreasonableness and arbitrary decision making that would have been undreamt of by the legislators who framed the 1921 Act. That is welcome, but it is still a long and cumbersome procedure to go to Strasbourg, despite the incorporation of the ECHR into our legislation.

When the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley, introduced the Bill, it was regrettable that he did not refer to the severe concerns of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, of which I am honoured to be a member. The Committee raised many real problems about the Bill, which the Lord Chancellor's long and detailed reply did not completely overcome.

It is surprising that the Bill does not offer more. It has little to say about the public interest, openness and transparency, the human rights framework within which it will operate and, in particular, the role and rights of victims. It has been introduced because the intelligence services fear an open inquiry into the murder of Pat Finucane held under the 1921 Act. That concern reflects not a need to protect agents at risk, but a desire to prevent the intelligence services' operations and methodology from being subject to public scrutiny, which is not the right way in which to assist victims of criminal activity in which agents of the state are implicated and to which successive Governments have turned a blind eye. That is not the right way to address truth, recovery and reconciliation in Northern Ireland or to approach legislation, and I see no reason further to delay an inquiry into the death of Pat Finucane. The Bill has been rushed because of the death of Pat Finucane. It should be withdrawn, and the next Parliament should consider the matter, because there is no immediate demand for a major Bill on inquiries.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights has produced a substantial report, which I recommend to those hon. Members who have not read it. In particular, it draws attention to our obligations under the ECHR. It is a tragic reality that many of the most pressing circumstances leading to the establishment of a public inquiry involve the loss of life of an individual or of a group of individuals—sometimes the number of victims is very large. A civilian police investigation and a coroner's inquest may provide an adequate remedy for the families of those who have died, but in many instances, the call for a public inquiry is a result of the failure of the established mechanisms to provide that remedy. Where that is so, the jurisprudence of the European Court is clear that the procedural requirements that it has established for the conduct of an effective investigation will apply to the tribunal itself.

Article 2 of the convention covers any investigation into the loss of life. My hon. Friend Mr. Mallon has already given the conditions that must be met in order to satisfy its requirements, so I will not go into them any further. Article 3, on torture and inhuman or degrading treatment, may also be involved, as may article 6 on the right of a fair trial, which in this context means the proper holding of a tribunal and the degree to which an inquiry can attribute guilt and blame and recommend bringing those responsible for events or actions to justice and to trial. That element is lacking from the Bill.

This Bill has been pushed through not to establish a proper inquiry system, which we do need and requires proper examination and consideration in light of the important report by the Committee chaired by my hon. Friend Tony Wright, but to try to deal with the case of Patrick Finucane, which could have been adequately dealt with under existing legislation. It is being done in this manner not to bring justice but because the Government—who were not responsible for the circumstances and were not in office when the events took place—are worried that a stone might be unturned and the worms, filth and dirt that might be revealed are such that they want to keep them covered up. That is not the right way to purge these excesses from our system. I believe that we can go back to the ideals of democracy, openness, transparency and the rule of law that first brought me into this House nearly 40 years ago.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North 3:47 pm, 15th March 2005

I am pleased to have an opportunity to speak in this debate and to follow some very good speeches, particularly the tour de force by my hon. Friend Tony Wright, who chairs our Select Committee. I do not need to say much, because I agree with everything that he said, but I will have my few minutes.

I feel privileged to be a member of the Public Administration Committee and to be able to make a modest contribution to it. That is one of the most valuable things that I do in this place. It does some splendid work. I believe that our report on inquiries was first class, and I pay tribute to those who drafted it.

Having listened to the many witnesses whom we interviewed, I have come to the view that inquiries are even more valuable than I thought when we started. They are an immensely valuable part of our political life and make a great contribution to improving the quality of our debate and information about what happens in our society. They lead to significant improvements in the way in which we run things by illuminating dark corners and exposing important truths that we should know about even if we may not want to. They lead to better policy making and help us to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. I was impressed with many of the inquiry chairs and officials whom we met—including Lord Laming and secretaries Dr. Tim Baxter and Mr. Alan Evans—and interested in what they had to say. However, there are problems with inquiries. They do not often arise, because most inquiries do not directly impinge in any way upon a Government, who can happily set them up because they will not rebound on them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase mentioned Sir Michael Bichard in the context of the spectrum and continuum of types of public inquiry. At a Public Administration Committee meeting, I said that I did not believe that there was so much a continuum as two distinct types of inquiry. One might be considered "other regarding" from a Government perspective, in that a local authority or hospital trust might be in difficulty, whereas the other affects Government.

When inquiries affect Governments—an extreme example is the Hutton inquiry—they become politically controversial. We experience difficulties with that sort of inquiry. My hon. Friend Mr. McNamara and Mr. Mallon detailed some of the problems with such inquiries.

The Government should accept that sometimes life will be difficult for them and not resist too strongly inquiries that will cause them discomfort. Indeed, in my political life, I try to engineer opposition to what I say when I discuss issues because I learn a more precise truth only when I encounter opposition. If I try to surround myself with people who simply agree with me, I will not be an effective or valuable member of the political fraternity.

One of the strengths of British Governments in the past has been the existence of institutions that challenge them to an extent. We have had strong trade unions and local government, and a strong independent civil service. We have had what is called political pluralism. That is valuable, especially in our political system, which tends to centralise power. When I was a student some 40 years ago, there was a book by F. W. G. Benemy called "The Elected Monarch", about the British Prime Minister and how powerful he was. If it was true then, it is much truer now, after several more Governments of both parties. Downing street has aggregated more power than ever and Parliament has been sadly downgraded. Indeed, we might say, in Walter Bagehot's terms, that we have become more the decorative than the effective part of the constitution. That is not right. We live in a democracy and the House should have more power relative to the Executive. That may be uncomfortable and disagreeable for Government, but it is better for the people and ultimately better for the Government. Sometimes Governments get it wrong and they should accept that.

Unfortunately, Governments of both parties appear to believe that the dialectical debate has been resolved and that all truth now resides in Downing street. That is not so and we must constantly challenge, argue and debate matters. We should debate them in the House, not simply be told what to do and follow the decisions of a small number of people, who believe that they know what is best for us all. Even if I were in their position, I hope that I should want to be challenged.

The Bill should more closely resemble the Select Committee's recommendations, give more power to Parliament and provide for more openness. That would be a great improvement but, unfortunately, once Governments get into power, they do not like to give their power away. When they are in opposition, they say, "We want more democracy, more openness and more debate in the Chamber", but when they get into power, they say, "Oh, it's a bit difficult in this particular case." Within months, if not weeks, they have changed their view on some subjects and want to retain the powers that the previous Government held.

Looking back to the 1960s and 1970s, we had a relatively collegiate form of government rather than prime ministerial dictatorship. The Cabinet genuinely discussed matters. I understand—I was not a Member of Parliament at the time—that papers were presented to the Cabinet and open discussions ensued. One gets the feeling that that is no longer the case and that Governments do not welcome a challenge in the way that they once did. I believe that the change will come from the Labour party rather than the Conservative party, but I should like our Government to say, "Let's release the reins of central power in Downing street a little. Let's have a little more discussion and collegiality. Let's give Parliament a little more independence. Let's accept a bit more challenge from public inquiries and let's accept that the chairs of those inquiries will be able to publish information without necessarily going through a Minister." That would be healthy for our politics and our political institutions.

That would have to be done voluntarily and it would take a brave leader, a brave politician, a brave Prime Minister to do it. They would inevitably be giving away some of their own power and, in politics, power is what it is all about. We do not like to give it away. However, it would be much better if we did, and the Bill could provide an opportunity for a Government—our Government, I hope—to give away a little more power from the Executive to the legislature and, indeed, to the electorate whom we serve. I shall not necessarily serve on the Bill's Committee, but I have one or two amendments that I hope to table through colleagues in Committee, and I hope that they will be accepted.

We have a job to do now, and that is to persuade the people of Britain that we are genuinely trustworthy and open, that the Government represent what people think and want, and what is in the people's interests, and that they are not just about the concentration of power in the hands of a small number of people who think that they know what is best for us. We have drifted too far in that direction for too long, and I want that drift to be reversed. The Bill could provide an opportunity to move in the other direction, and I hope that the Government will take that opportunity.

Photo of Joan Humble Joan Humble Labour, Blackpool North and Fleetwood 3:56 pm, 15th March 2005

It is a great pleasure to follow so many serious and measured contributions to this important debate. The Bill is a slim volume, but it is an important document not only for Parliament but for many of our constituents, who look to public inquiries to give them the answers that they cannot get from any other source. It is therefore important for us to get this right.

I welcome the fact that the Government are presenting the Bill as a consolidation measure, but many of the hon. Members who have spoken this afternoon seem to be asking for more than that. Many have welcomed the fact that the Bill clarifies the law, and that it will tidy up untidy pieces of legislation that do not work well together to facilitate public inquiries, especially complex ones such as the inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbié. However, many of us, while supporting that degree of consolidation, also want more clarity about the role of Parliament and the power that we have, as Members, to raise issues on behalf of our constituents and to push for public inquiries. Some of us also hope that the establishment of public inquiries will be easier to achieve under the Bill, because our constituents want answers on many issues.

Concerns have been expressed about the increasing power that the Bill will place in the Government's hands. Consolidating the different pieces of legislation perhaps emphasises the fact that Ministers have always taken decisions, but those decisions have now been outlined with much greater clarity in the Bill. The Bill proposes to place the control over inquiries into the hands of the Government. Ministers will be able to appoint the chair of an inquiry without any consultation, and they will also be empowered to dismiss and replace an inquiry chair. They will be able to decide in advance whether to regulate or prevent public access to an inquiry. They will also be empowered to vary the structure and terms of reference, and decide whether to limit the publication of the inquiry report. They will be able to suspend or terminate an inquiry before it ends, and to decide that an inquiry should not attribute blame. That is a long list of powers, and we should consider carefully the impact that they will have on those of us who have supported our constituents in asking for public inquiries. Our constituents are not interested in how this legislation helps Parliament; they want to know how it helps them to get answers.

There are particular issues that I want to use as touchstones to discover how the Bill will help individuals. I make no apologies for that, because if we did not refer to real people and real cases we would be discussing legislation in a vacuum. All too often, we can pass legislation without realising what implications it might have for our constituents, so, if you will allow me, Madam Deputy Speaker, I want to mention two particular areas.

First, I chair the all-party Myodil group. Myodil is the commercial name for a drug that was injected into the spines of hundreds of people to act as a contrast agent so that clinicians could more clearly see the results of X-rays so as to determine whether the patient had a particular illness. That drug was enormously toxic. People who had myelograms then found that they suffered from a very painful condition called adhesive arachnoiditis.

Glaxo Wellcome withdrew the drug in 1987. There was then a court case, but many individuals who had undergone myelograms were excluded from it. Since then, they have been campaigning for a public inquiry. It has to be said that Governments of both parties have denied them that—because, they say, there was a court case, regardless of the fact that many people were not involved. They also say that the way in which drugs are monitored and licensed for use has changed. That is true, but they have left hundreds of people still wanting to know why they had an injection that they were not warned contained a toxic agent that may not have been essential for their treatment. They are suffering pain. More importantly, they are finding out much more about that drug—more than was known years ago. For example, they have found out about how other Governments reacted to it.

These people still want answers; they want a public inquiry. I have constituents who suffer and are asking me to support them. I get the same response from Ministers as Ministers have given over the past 10 years or more. So, for me, the question is: how can this Bill help? The Minister will still be making a decision. Will he or she make that decision on the same grounds as Ministers have in the past? This is not in the Bill, but will it have guidance attached on the rules within which Ministers will agree, or not agree, to a public inquiry? Will Ministers take into account issues that may have arisen many years ago, on which people still want justice, and still want answers?

The second example that I want to mention has already been raised by Lembit Öpik—the Deepcut campaign. As the hon. Gentleman well knows, I support the families involved in the Deepcut and Beyond campaign, so I raise again the point about terms of reference that I made in an intervention on the Minister. The Deepcut and Beyond families have been campaigning for many years. There has been a good deal of publicity about the four tragic deaths at Deepcut barracks, but my constituent died not at Deepcut but at Catterick. He was not a young trainee.

All the debate in the media has been about how the Ministry of Defence looks after young trainees and its duty of care. The very interesting Defence Committee report published yesterday concentrated on young trainees. The issue for many of the Deepcut and Beyond families, however, goes beyond Deepcut and beyond training. In asking for a public inquiry for the Deepcut and Beyond families' campaign, I therefore have real concerns that without involvement by the victims of the issue which is to be the subject of the inquiry, the terms of reference will not satisfy people, and calls will continue for public inquiries to pick up on matters that the original inquiries did not cover. Deciding the terms of reference is therefore important.

I am concerned that the Bill does not require the Minister to consult others but leaves that to his discretion. How will he use that discretion? My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, when he sums up, might say that every case is different, that some cases will be clear-cut, that the Minister will be able to consult the inquiry chairman, and that that is a fairly narrow issue. All too often, however, there are victims and families who want to be consulted, and that is not mentioned anywhere in the Bill. Those victims and their families are our constituents, so we have a responsibility to be their voice in this place and to demand that that voice is heard.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

I have listened with great interest to the hon. Lady's comments about Deepcut and Beyond and put on record my appreciation of her work on the issue, with other colleagues, on a cross-party basis. Does she agree, however, that the problem is that the terms of reference are so much in the hands of the Minister that even with this new Bill, as it stands, there is a danger that a public inquiry would be limited to too narrow a remit? Therefore, the inquiry might not get to the answers that the Deepcut and Beyond families require. Does she agree that we are looking for some assurance from the Under-Secretary that the Government are willing to discuss these issues in Committee to ensure that this legislation contains genuine added value for the people who matter most—the general public?

Photo of Joan Humble Joan Humble Labour, Blackpool North and Fleetwood

The hon. Gentleman has taken the words out of my mouth, as I was going to urge that on the Under-Secretary. In any inquiry that is set up, it is vital that the terms of reference are right. With an issue as complex as non-combat deaths, it is vital to have clarity. As more and more service families learn of the Deepcut and Beyond campaign, they are coming forward with a wide variety of experiences. It will therefore be difficult to decide where the cut-off point should be, but there must be a cut-off point, as no inquiry can be open-ended. It is vital, however, that those with a genuine cause should not be excluded because the terms of the inquiry are too narrowly defined—because it might be in the best interests of the Department concerned so to define them. We must make sure that if a thread runs through events, that thread runs through the inquiry, too.

The Under-Secretary should be aware that the call for a public inquiry has been supported not only by the families of the young men and women who have died in non-combat circumstances but by 240 Members of Parliament. That should not just be brushed to one side—and that brings me back to my earlier point about the circumstances in which a Minister will listen and take into account such overwhelming calls from the public and Members for an inquiry.

As I said earlier, I hope that this Bill will not just be a consolidation but will enable inquiries to have more powers and to be more clearly focused. I am pleased that clause 22 gives the chairman of an inquiry power to compel people to come forward and give evidence, but I note that the exemptions in clause 23 are based on satisfying the test for civil proceedings. What happens if some sort of criminal liability is being discussed? I worry that evidence will not be given to the inquiry because people fear criminal prosecution, and that therefore much of the evidence given will not satisfy those who have called for it.

Like others, I read with interest the recommendations of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. The report referred to the issue of how inquiries deal with deaths, especially deaths falling within the ambit of article 2 of the European convention on human rights. A public inquiry is clearly not a court of law, but we must ensure that we get right not just the terms of reference but the powers of the inquiry; otherwise, we shall not secure the justice that so many of us want.

Clause 2 is entitled "No determination of liability". While many members of the public believe that an inquiry should determine who is to blame for what has occurred, the explanatory notes to the Bill state:

"The aim of inquiries is to help to restore public confidence in systems or services by investigating the facts and making recommendations to prevent recurrence, not to establish liability or to punish anyone."

Although many of those calling for inquiries might not want people to be punished, they certainly want some indication of liability.

On Second Reading in the House of Lords, Lord Laming said:

"if a train crashes because the driver has gone through a stop light and he is then proved to be drunk while on duty, I would expect the blame to be stated very clearly".—[Hansard, House of Lords, 9 December 2004; Vol. 667, c. 1004.]

That is patently obvious. There will be inquiries when liability should be apportioned to those who are plainly liable. If other proceedings need to be brought as a result, or indeed have already been brought, that will be an issue for the courts. However, those who are asking for justice, as the Deepcut and Beyond families are, want an inquiry that will look into exactly that sort of issue: who is liable?

Photo of Mr Kevin McNamara Mr Kevin McNamara Labour, Kingston upon Hull North

Article 2 of the convention requires blame to be apportioned. I do not understand why, having incorporated the convention in our domestic law in 1998, we are now introducing legislation which I venture suggest will be used—almost certainly, in the Finucane case—to deal with causes of death, and trying to cut out the responsibility conferred by article 2. If we do that, the families will be off to Strasbourg again.

Photo of Joan Humble Joan Humble Labour, Blackpool North and Fleetwood

As always, my hon. Friend makes a very interesting point. I refer him to clause 2, and I hope that questions will be asked about the issue in Committee. Certainly, according to the explanatory notes, it is not part of the Bill's purpose to determine liability. There has to be some answer to this issue, because otherwise, when a constituent writes to us asking us to campaign for a public inquiry and we secure such an inquiry, they will say, "It didn't give me the answer I wanted." If an inquiry is not going to provide answers, why set it up? Inquiries have to be set up with the right terms of reference and the right powers, and they must determine the truth of what happened. They must accord justice to those who demand it, and make sure that lessons are learned from what went wrong.

Will the Bill help or hinder those who wish public inquiries to be held into issues of great importance to them and to the country? How will the Minister and his colleagues in various Departments respond to calls for such inquiries? If the Bill makes the process simpler and more transparent, it will have wholehearted support. Clearly, there will be instances of frivolous demands for public inquiries, or of demands that can be addressed in other ways, such as through the judicial system. However, many people are making genuine calls for inquiries, yet such calls are dismissed year after year. With each passing year, more evidence is produced, yet those calls are still dismissed.

The time has come when the Government must address these issues seriously and clearly. The time has come for them to tell us and our constituents, "These are the rules within which we are working. Some issues are not suitable for public inquiries, but others clearly should be. We have now introduced a simpler, clearer system, with guidance and rules that will help you and your constituents to get the answers they want." If that is what this Bill does, it has my wholehearted backing. I have a feeling that it will be examined in great detail throughout its passage, and I sincerely hope that by the end of that process, it will answer those questions and satisfy the majority of Members and our constituents.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock 4:17 pm, 15th March 2005

I will try to avoid detaining the House for long because I know that there are many others who want to speak; indeed, I am very conscious of the request, which Mr. Speaker makes from time to time, that we take such factors into consideration.

Before I comment on the Bill's content and the supporting documents listed on the Order Paper, I want to draw attention to the fact that this Parliament has well over two years to go. Notwithstanding that, I cannot help feeling that my hon. Friend Mr. McNamara and Mr. Mallon may not catch Mr. Speaker's eye many more times during this Parliament. Their speeches this afternoon were an extremely important contribution to our consideration of the Bill, but they also reflected their great contribution to Parliament.

It is true that I have not always seen eye to eye with my hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman, nor they with me, but I want to place on the record my appreciation—it is shared by other Members—of the courage shown by the hon. Gentleman over many years, and of his contribution to this House. I say that unreservedly and from the bottom of my heart, despite past comments that I might have made, or my past trespasses on certain matters relating to his party. Of course, the same appreciation is also due to my hon. Friend, who has helped me at every stage—both since I have been in Parliament and before. I hope that all Members present concur, and that they will want to be associated with those remarks.

The Bill is, on the face of it, a satisfactory and prudent piece of legislation, but as I said in my intervention earlier, the test will be whether it alters the culture of the present or subsequent Governments in respect of openness and allowing oxygen in for a full examination of the problems or alleged scandals that arise from time to time. During my period in the House, I have felt frustrated that Parliament is not always fulfilling its role of providing adequate scrutiny of legislation and that Governments are not as open as they should be in a democracy.

I was particularly aware of that problem after Labour came to office in 1997. The Foreign Affairs Committee clearly had a duty to probe the reasons for the deployment of British troops in Sierra Leone, particularly in connection with what became known as the Sandline affair. It posed the important issue of the interface of Her Majesty's Government and British armed forces with mercenary forces. It is a shame, but the Government immediately assumed that anyone who wanted to inquire into the affair was necessarily opposed to them. That was not the case. I have always taken the view that it is Parliament's duty to know what is going on, particularly when our armed forces are being deployed in potential conflict situations, and certainly when they are dealing with mercenary soldiers. Yet the Government—and, I have to say, Sir John Kerr, who was in charge of the Foreign Office at that time—put every obstruction in the way of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Speaking for myself, the more they tried to obstruct us, the more determined I was not to be thrown off.

All that led to a fraught situation. It poses a problem that Lembit Öpik and my hon. Friend Tony Wright mentioned earlier. When we go into our Select Committees, we try to leave our party politics at the door, but we are creatures of political parties. I certainly found, in dealing with the Sandline affair and then again with Iraq, that considerable disagreement and some unpleasantness broke out in Select Committee between people who were otherwise and hitherto colleagues in the same political party.

I shall return to the matter in greater detail later, but I believe that the proposal advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase, who chairs the Public Administration Committee—that there should be some form of parliamentary commission—is highly commendable. I hope that the Government will accept some amendments to accommodate that proposal in Committee.

Since the Iraq war, we have encountered from the Prime Minister downwards—no doubt it has also appeared in briefing notes that are issued from time to time—the argument that goes, "What's the problem with Iraq? We have had four inquiries and nothing suspect has been found." I do not want to stray into debating Iraq, Madam Deputy Speaker, but the inquiries are relevant to our debate. Of course, the Prime Minister and others who make that sort of point are overlooking a number of things. They pray in aid four inquiries. One was carried out by the Foreign Affairs Committee, of which I am a member. It and I were subjected to considerable criticism for the way in which we pursued our inquiries. On another occasion, I would be prepared to explain and elaborate all the circumstances—[Interruption.] It was flawed, partly because of the Government's reluctance to collaborate in the early stages. I have to say that many of my colleagues, whom in every other respect I consider friends, were bitterly opposed to our inquiry.

From my experience of the Sandline affair and Iraq, the question of whether or not the Select Committee should hold an inquiry and what it should inquire into was not just a matter of one vote. Whether the inquiry would be sustained depended on vote after vote after vote. Some wanted to close the inquiry and some wanted to stop inquiries into particular aspects of the subject.

I return to the proposal for a parliamentary commission of inquiry, which could take out that tension and cause of bad blood between friends and party colleagues, not to mention other parties. It will be different if just one vote is necessary to establish a commission on a particular subject, rather than depending on division after division, sometimes week after week, in order that an inquiry can be sustained. Then, of course, one sometimes feels aggrieved, as I have felt when I have been unable to command a majority. I have also felt aggrieved when party colleagues have accused me of voting with the Conservatives. That is deeply offensive. I have nothing personal against our Conservative colleagues, but they will understand that that accusation is hurtful. It has been made on a number of occasions, and I dismiss and resent it, as every time I was voting in favour of holding an inquiry. At the very least, adopting the Select Committee's recommendation will mean that the incidence of such unpleasantness will be greatly diminished.

The Prime Minister has also referred to the Security and Intelligence Committee. As I have said in the Chamber many times, that is nonsense. That Committee is appointed by the Prime Minister, who heads the security and intelligence services. It is true that the scrutineers are Members of Parliament, but they are not appointed by this House. The Committee does not use House of Commons Clerks, and its meetings are so secret that Committee members blush when one intercepts them waiting for the white van that takes them to meetings from the taxi rank in New Palace Yard, and asks them where they are going. They are petrified about telling people that they are going to a meeting of the Security and Intelligence Committee at the Cabinet Rooms. The Security and Intelligence Committee's members are obsessed with secrecy, but its reports are prayed in aid as examples of openness.

Another such example is the Butler inquiry, which was not granted from the outset but was rather extracted from Government. In contrast, the Hutton inquiry was appointed on the Government's initiative, but without consultation with Parliament. People should not dismiss that extremely important point. Mr. Speaker was not consulted and neither was Parliament, even though the Hutton inquiry had important ramifications for Parliament's independence.

Our Bill of Rights has its flaws and deficiencies, but one of its strengths is that it acknowledges that Parliament is supreme. That principle has been translated to constitutions in north America and around the world. We have exported our parliamentary institutions, yet the Hutton inquiry was the first to look into this House's conduct and stewardship of inquiries. Hutton is a judge, but my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase was right to distinguish between inquiries headed by judges and judicial inquiries. The difference is substantial.

The Hutton inquiry was not judicial. Its principal term of reference was to deal with matters expeditiously. It is always dangerous to tell the person presiding over an inquiry to make sure that it is completed quickly. I wish that Lord Hutton had said that he would not be told by the Government at what speed he should conduct his inquiry. The inquiry included no provision for cross-examination other than in the most narrow sense. Only some people could cross-examine witnesses. Information was not fully disclosed. I made a written submission to Lord Hutton and, to my surprise, it remains secret and outside the public domain. Many other submissions remain secret. In addition, I and my colleagues were not able to make opening statements. The Clerk of the House of Commons wrote to Lord Hutton to remind him of the rights of Parliament under the Bill of Rights, and that this place has comity with the courts.

In retrospect, I believe that the status of Parliament should have been made clear, and I hope that that will happen in future. Although I have got into trouble before for saying so, I repeat that I believe that this is the high court of Parliament. We need to safeguard that status jealously. To do otherwise would be foolish in the extreme, for Parliament and for the constitution of our parliamentary democracy.

Photo of Tony Wright Tony Wright Labour, Cannock Chase

On the Hutton inquiry, did my hon. Friend notice that the Committee's report expressed great reservations about judges sitting alone? We recommended that, routinely, they should sit with other panel members. We pointed out that if Lord Hutton had sat with a media expert and an expert in the machinery of government, it is likely that his findings would have been substantially different.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

I agree. I have an open mind about such matters, but the inquiry was flawed because the judge accepted the time scale in which he had to conduct his inquiry and that inevitably led to less than full disclosure, less cross-examination and few opening statements. I do not relish saying that the Hutton inquiry findings are deemed to be flawed. The proposition of my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase is eminently sensible. We must look at the matter more critically before the Bill receives Royal Assent.

I came into politics and became an avid reader of Private Eye when the world first heard of Lord Denning. My hon. Friend would probably not have been elected in the great Hull, North by-election but for what flowed from the Profumo case and the humbug of the Denning inquiry in 1963. He was elected in 1966 in the wake of the bumbling, nonsense and humbug of that period. That was exemplified by the way in which the Denning inquiry met, which was in private.

Photo of Mr Kevin McNamara Mr Kevin McNamara Labour, Kingston upon Hull North

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words. I was elected because we had a brilliant Prime Minister and a brilliant Government who survived for 18 months with a majority of only three and introduced great and positive reforms that people rejoiced in.

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. I remind hon. Members to speak to the Bill under discussion.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

Indeed, Madam Deputy Speaker. You will notice that Lord Denning's report is referred to in the report of the Public Administration Committee.

My hon. Friend is correct. He was elected because of the great prudence of Harold Wilson, who pursued the then Conservative Government for setting up a committee of inquiry that sat behind closed doors. It was headed by a judge whom Mandy Rice-Davies referred to as a sweetie.

The parliamentary commission of inquiry commends itself to me. The Transport Committee adequately deals with inquiries on matters such as the location of airports. The Foreign Affairs Committee adequately considers our overseas missions and so on, but it also considered Sandline and why we went to war in Iraq. It can consider the broad issues relating to the war against terrorism, but we are not detectives. The Sandline and Iraq cases involved the Government, security forces and bitter opinion on both sides. It was difficult for us to probe adequately because that is not our function. However, uniquely in Parliament, the Public Accounts Committee can do that because it has the valuable tools of the National Audit Office and the Comptroller and Auditor General.

As I read the Public Administration Committee's report and its recommendations, it believes, as I do, that when Select Committees deal with what my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase and the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire referred to as highly charged political issues, there should be pre-examination by the equivalent of the National Audit Office and the Comptroller and Auditor General who can be a detective and caution witnesses, Ministers and Departments. With the need for candour and full disclosure, that can be done behind closed doors.

The painful experience of the past two years has persuaded me that cameras should not be allowed in courts and inquiries where rigorous examination takes place. Pre-examination would take place behind closed doors. The Committee would receive a report from those who carried out the investigation, as the Public Accounts Committee does. That is what happens in the US. Then, the Committee could deliberate in public and in private and produce its report on the detailed findings obtained by the examination officer on behalf of Parliament. That would be fairer to witnesses and there would be fewer cover-ups, whereas at the moment we see many cover-ups on fraught, highly charged political issues. It would be a great step forward and I hope that the Minister has an open mind on the issue.

Mention was made by my hon. Friend Mr. Prentice of the Osmotherly rules. Until they are clarified, we will always have people such as Sir John Kerr trying to use the Osmotherly rules to obstruct witnesses from Departments appearing before Select Committees. We need to tackle that problem, but the proposals by the Public Administration Committee may alleviate the tensions that have occurred when Committees have demanded that civil servants should appear before them.

I was interested to see that clause 36, entitled "Offences", states:

"A person is guilty of an offence if during the course of an inquiry he does anything that is intended to have the effect of . . . distorting or otherwise altering any evidence, document or other thing . . . or . . . preventing any evidence, document or other thing from being given . . . or . . . intentionally suppresses or conceals a document".

And it continues. However, a few months ago, the House of Commons—foolishly, in my view—voted to do away with Sessional Orders that encapsulated those offences. That was a big mistake and I hope that we will revisit the issue. A culture has developed in which it is felt to be wholly legitimate to mislead or to fail to make full disclosure to parliamentary Committees. More worryingly, it is seen as perfectly proper for employers and managers, in both the public and private sectors, to lean on witnesses so that they are not candid with parliamentary Committees. It is amazing that we decided to do away with the Sessional Orders, which made it a high crime and misdemeanour to lean on another person to be less than candid before Parliament. I would like to table an amendment in Committee to extend clause 36 to Parliament, bearing in mind that we have comity with the courts and we are the high court of Parliament.

Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice Labour, Pendle 4:38 pm, 15th March 2005

It is always an education to listen to my friend Andrew Mackinlay, who is an expert on these constitutional matters. I wish to apologise to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to the House for my absence during the opening speeches: I was called away urgently.

We have covered a lot of ground this afternoon. As my friend Tony Wright said, the Bill is a consolidating measure. It draws attention to an important part of our constitution. As he told the House, our report states that

"inquiries play an important role in the public life of this country . . . they deserve to be taken seriously."

Sometimes they are not taken seriously, however. They come in all shapes and sizes and each inquiry has its own story to tell.

We have heard several times this afternoon about Lord Saville and his inquiry, which has been grinding on, year after year, since 1998. It has cost £155 million, and I heard some talk from the Opposition that the true figure could be £250 million. We heard that the opening speech—the opening speech!—was 42 hours long, or was it 42 days long? It was astonishing.

Photo of Mr Seamus Mallon Mr Seamus Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party, Newry and Armagh

One of the difficulties with the Saville inquiry was that it had to undo the faulty inquiry chaired by Lord Widgery. There was a danger in having reached a faulty conclusion through a faulty inquiry—the infamous Widgery inquiry—so the Saville inquiry's first business was to undo that. Secondly, there was an inordinate number of requests from the Ministry of Defence for judicial review, at enormous expense and waste of time.

Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice Labour, Pendle

I do not want to get bogged down in Saville. Saville is already bogged down in Saville. The Widgery inquiry was convened rapidly and reported quickly. Saville may be trying to right wrongs, but what is the purpose of an inquiry that takes eight or more years to report? As I said to Lord Hutton, in the long run we are all dead, and that includes judges. It asks a lot of the judiciary that they should give up eight or nine years of their lives to inquire into matters.

As we have heard, the Bill repeals the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921 and removes the statutory role of Parliament in establishing some inquiries.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

Just before we leave the Saville inquiry—I hope for good in this debate—does the hon. Gentleman accept, in defence of the Government, that the Saville case is exceptional? Much as I should like to think that we could find legislation to resolve such things, as I said in exchanges with Mr. Moss, there will always be pressure and responsibility on Ministers to set parameters about what they think reasonable. The error may have been a degree of naivety by the Government in thinking that leaving the cheque book open would not have inevitable consequences.

Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice Labour, Pendle

I understand all that. The Saville inquiry is atypical, but there are many inquiries, as we discovered in our work, that run on for two, three or four years. There should be some expedition, some sense of urgency. Some of the better inquiries do their work quickly. We heard about the Bichard inquiry into the Soham murders, with its 31 recommendations. That was all wrapped up in about six months. There are lessons to be learned from that.

I was talking about the 1921 Act and pointing out that the statutory role of Parliament in establishing inquiries will be removed. My friend from Thurrock and others have referred to Select Committees. We remember that Treasury Ministers refused point blank to attend the Transport Committee's inquiry into the London Underground public-private partnership. We remember, because my friend has just reminded us, that the Foreign Affairs Committee tried to get its hands on John Scarlett, but he would not go before a Select Committee of the House, although he subsequently appeared before the Hutton inquiry. We need to look urgently at the application of the Osmotherly rules, to give Parliament teeth. If Parliament had the same powers in practice as, say, the Hutton inquiry, it would really make an enormous difference. Lord Hutton admitted as much.

Inquiries are set up by Ministers using prerogative powers, and this will be the case after the Bill has passed. The initiative is very much in the hands of Ministers when deciding whether to hold an inquiry. My friend Mrs. Humble spoke earlier about the Deepcut inquiry. The Minister of State at the Ministry of Defence told the House that the Government were rejecting calls for an inquiry into the deaths of the four young soldiers at Deepcut barracks—I quote from the Public Administration Committee report—by saying:

"We cannot run the Government on the basis of pubic inquiries. They may be good for lawyers, but they are not good for the governance of this country."—[Hansard, 24 May 2004; Vol. 421, c. 1318.]

So the Government will not have a public inquiry into what took place at Deepcut, and to be fair, the Defence Committee, which reported yesterday—or was it the day before?—drew back from calling for a public inquiry.

Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice Labour, Pendle

I do not want to get sucked into Deepcut.

Photo of Mr Kevin McNamara Mr Kevin McNamara Labour, Kingston upon Hull North

My hon. Friend makes a statement about what the Ministry of Defence will or will not do. May I point out that its original view was that there was never any problem about people committing suicide in the Army? It then said that there was perhaps a problem. Then no figures were available; then figures were available. It then said that perhaps it might look at the problem and perhaps it might not. It then suggested that perhaps an education group would look at the issue and then that it would get the distinguished barrister, Mr. Blake, to look at it. There is now the possibility of an independent ombudsman becoming involved. So the MOD can give way to pressure, and one of the important things about the House is that we should not take no for an answer.

Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice Labour, Pendle

Indeed, but the Government sometimes take some shifting, do they not?

Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice Labour, Pendle

Yes, and then I must move off Deepcut.

Photo of Joan Humble Joan Humble Labour, Blackpool North and Fleetwood

There is an important point to make about the MOD's response to the Deepcut and Beyond campaign by the families if the Bill is about simplifying matters and saving money. The MOD is an example of a Department that has spent huge sums on not having a public inquiry, but on holding a police investigation, and a separate police investigation to investigate the first one, on setting up an inspectorate to look at training methods, and now on setting up the Blake inquiry. It would have been a lot simpler if the MOD had set up an independent inquiry in the first place and answered the parents' concerns—then the issue would have been dealt with.

Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice Labour, Pendle

I agree with that. The litmus test is whether there is huge public anxiety. If people are clamouring, with good reason, for a public inquiry, the Government should accede to their wishes and hold a public inquiry. Of course, we know of not just Deepcut but Gulf war syndrome. All MPs have received shoals of letters from constituents—ex-military people and ordinary members of the public—calling for an independent public inquiry. Even when the Royal British Legion secured the services of the former Law Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, that did not embarrass the Government or shame them into holding an independent public inquiry. Lord Lloyd has reported and his report has just sunk to the bottom of the pond. What people really want is a fully fledged public inquiry into Gulf war syndrome, and that wish will not go away.

There are two types of inquiry that should not be a matter for Ministers—something that is picked up in the Select Committee report—and the first type is the inquiry into ministerial conduct. Not so very long ago, Sir Alan Budd's inquiry investigated the conduct of the former Home Secretary. Sir Alan came before our Select Committee and he took us through the procedure. The phone rang. He picked it up. The permanent secretary at the Home Office was on the other end of the line and asked, "Sir Alan, are you available for this inquiry?" We were told that a number of individuals were canvassed, but it just so happened that Sir Alan was free and available, and he is a public servant with a very strong sense of duty and obligation. That was why he took it on. However, surely that approach is very ad hoc, is it not? It is amazing that a permanent secretary can set up an inquiry into the conduct of his Minister in such a way. That is why my friend from Cannock Chase says that it is better to involve the parliamentary ombudsman in matters that touch on the application of the ministerial code, which are currently the responsibility of the Prime Minister. The parliamentary ombudsman should investigate such matters. She has the confidence of the House and is an Officer of the House. She could report simultaneously to the Prime Minister and the House. Allegations of ministerial misconduct should be properly investigated in such a way.

Ministers should not be involved at all when questions are raised about the way in which they discharge their ministerial responsibilities, however they are defined. We spoke earlier about the Butler report and the controversy over the illusive, imaginary weapons of mass destruction. The Select Committee says that such matters should be investigated by a parliamentary commission. They should not be investigated by Privy Councillors who are plucked from thin air using the royal prerogative, but people appointed following a recommendation from the Liaison Committee. The inquiry would thus be rooted in Parliament itself.

Ministers tell us that such things are up to Parliament and that Parliament can do what it wants. Yes, theoretically, Parliament is sovereign—I hear that from my friend from Thurrock all the time. However, Parliament rarely gets up off its knees. Its posture is one of grovelling.

Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice Labour, Pendle

Yes, supine. We must construct mechanisms that translate the theoretically awesome power of Parliament into something that works on the ground. Otherwise, as my friend Mr. Hopkins said, we are just a decorative part of the constitution. We should be more than that.

A few other things have troubled me, so I am going to get them off my chest. The first is the whole business of inquiries being chaired by judges. I agree with the amendment adopted in the other place that the appointment of a judge as a chair of an inquiry should be a matter of co-decision between the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice, or another relevant leader of the judiciary. There was quite a spat about that in the other place, which led to the Lord Chancellor and Lord Justice Woolf locking horns. In the Government's response to the Select Committee's recommendations, they said that they were

"unable to accept the Committee's recommendation" on co-decision,

"which would give the Lord Chief Justice or other senior judge a right of veto over the appointment of any serving judge."

I ask my friends on the Front Bench whether the Government will resist the amendment and try to reinstate the Bill as originally drafted in Committee. I hope that they will not, because the provision has the support of both Labour and Opposition Members.

My friend from Cannock Chase touched on the appointment of wing members. Wing members could offer advice, counsel and sometimes common sense to the person—often a judge—chairing an inquiry. That is a good idea. Lord Hutton was marvellously open and relaxed about his inquiry's conclusions when he appeared before the Select Committee. He confessed that he was ignorant of the machinery of government—I am not breaching any confidences, because this is what he told the Select Committee—and had not thought through the implications for freedom of information when he posted emails between Jonathan Powell and Alastair Campbell on the net so that billions of people around the world could see them. He did not realise that that would have a huge ripple effect and would have implications for future inquiries.

Lord Hutton also confessed that he knew little about the media. Greg Dyke was excessively scathing when he said that the Hutton report was just

"a cut and paste job".

He, along with Gavyn Davies, was one of the many casualties of the report. When major inquiries report, some people lose out—they lose their reputation and their job, and they might lose everything. It is therefore important to have a system for establishing inquiries that is as fair as possible. Judges may be skilled at ferreting out the truth and the facts, but in my experience, they need expert wing members to give them counsel. I am reminded of Lord Scott, another judge who worked alone for many years on his arms to Iraq inquiry. Geoffrey, now Lord, Howe said that Scott got lost in a swamp of detail. To this day, in my little study at home I have Scott's five volumes, but as the years pass, I find it more difficult to pick them up. It was an enormous great investigation, but there was far too much detail. I feel very strongly that it should be obligatory to give evidence on oath.

Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice Labour, Pendle

I have support from my friend from Thurrock. The Bill says that the inquiry chair may take evidence on oath. I believe that it should be obligatory to do so. When Donald Rumsfeld went to Capitol hill to give evidence to the Senate Committee, I watched the session on television. I remember watching him raise his hand and swear that he would tell the truth according to the constitution of the United States. We should have a similar arrangement here, and people should swear to tell the truth. When Butler reported in July 2004, it was a revelation to learn that the Secret Intelligence Service withdrew its reports on chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction in July 2003 because they were unsafe. However, when John Scarlett appeared before the Hutton inquiry, that fact was not reported. From memory, the Hutton inquiry started to take evidence in August 2003, but the security people had withdrawn cover for that crucial bit of evidence in July.

It is therefore important that people give evidence on oath. When I put that to the Lord Chancellor, he conceded that people behave differently when they give evidence on oath, as they start to think differently about the consequences, which are dire for someone who lies in court. They would be equally dire for someone who lied to an inquiry after taking the oath.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

Is not the importance of the oath also that it provides protection to those who want to be candid with the Select Committee or the committee of inquiry, but are being leaned on by superiors? The oath not only demands candour but offers some protection to those who might feel intimidated.

Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice Labour, Pendle

I agree, and I do not see the problem in making the oath obligatory.

The final point that I want to get off my chest before I leave the subject of Hutton concerns cross-examination. The Prime Minister gave his evidence to the Hutton inquiry but there was no opportunity for cross-examination. When I asked Lord Hutton about that, he said he did not want to give the press a field day. I paraphrase what he said, but that was the gist of it.

We do not want inquiries to run on for ever, so it is important that when they make recommendations, those are acted on and there is a follow-up, as Michael Bichard has done. His report on the Soham murders came out in June 2004, and there was a statement, I believe, from Mr. Bichard today on the progress in implementing his 31 recommendations. He tells us that senior civil servants felt that the prospect of a public review concentrated their minds wonderfully. That is a good thing.

I wish that minds in No. 10 and in the Cabinet Office were similarly concentrated. Butler made his recommendations in July 2004, and a few days later the Prime Minister said at the Dispatch Box—I was present, as we all were—that the Government

"accept fully the report's conclusions." —[Hansard, 14 July 2004; Vol. 423, c. 1431.]

Yet, when I asked the Cabinet Secretary last week how it was going, he said there were drafts circulating round Whitehall. It is now nine months after Butler. Whitehall seems to be spending more time thinking, ruminating and considering the recommendations than the Butler committee took to make them in the first place.

I welcome the new clause 6, which obliges Ministers to inform Parliament about the inquiry chair, the panel and the terms of reference, but astonishingly, the clause provides that the statement may be oral or written. A written statement is not good enough. I want to see the provision amended in Committee so that when Ministers want to set up an inquiry, they come to the Dispatch Box, make a statement and can be quizzed about it.

Despite these criticisms, minor though they may be, I welcome the fact that the Government have taken the opportunity to introduce the Bill. I am disappointed that Ministers did not take up more of the recommendations of the Select Committee, but I am hopeful that the Bill can be improved in Standing Committee.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 5:04 pm, 15th March 2005

I declare any interest that I may have as a practising solicitor.

The debate has been interesting, though relatively short. As Mrs. Humble said, the Bill is short, but involves issues of constitutional importance that demand our due consideration. Mr. Hopkins and others recognised that inquiries fulfil an important social role. They can provide a platform from which to ascertain the facts surrounding issues of public concern. In turn, that provides catharsis, allowing us to learn from events, to apportion blame where appropriate and to provide reassurance for the future.

In recent years, the numerous important inquiries fall into three broad categories. First, inquiries of urgent public importance based on the 1921 Act, such as the Dunblane and Shipman inquiries. Secondly, inquiries based on subject-specific legislation, such as the Stephen Lawrence and Victoria Climbié inquiries, which were based on the Police Act 1996 and the National Health Service Act 1977 respectively. Thirdly, many ad hoc inquiries have been conducted without any statutory base, such as the BSE and Hutton inquiries. The Bill provides a model for consolidating legislation in that area.

In debating the Bill today, we have had the benefit of several reports on the subject, including "Effective inquiries", the Department for Constitutional Affairs consultation paper on which the Bill is largely based, the Public Administration Committee report and the Joint Committee on Human Rights report. We have also had the benefit of much debate and progress in another place, where the noble Lords identified the salient issues and introduced several amendments. As is clear from today's debate, several further amendments are required before the Bill is acceptable to all parties.

As my hon. Friend Mr. Heald said, the Conservative Opposition welcome the introduction of new legislation to update and consolidate the current piecemeal approach to inquiries. The 1921 Act is inflexible and cumbersome and therefore rarely used. Subject-specific powers do not provide a suitable alternative, because an inquiry's subject matter may fall in the gap left between the various legislative powers or, conversely, be covered by more than one statute.

As many hon. Members have pointed out, the non-statutory path is unattractive, because it provides no basis on which to compel witnesses to come forward, to require evidence to be submitted and to provide protection from external influences. In his earlier comments, the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, Mr. Leslie, frequently referred to the many different types of inquiries as his defence against the charge of the centralisation of power in the Executive and the removal of parliamentary approval entailed by the Bill. That is a red herring, in so far as the Bill's stated purpose is to consolidate, and I hope that the Minister was not implying that the consolidation approach is a non-starter.

The Conservative Opposition welcome many of the amendments introduced in another place, particularly those that seek to redistribute the proper balance of power. As the hon. Members for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) and for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright) have pointed out, the Lord Chief Justice must now consent to the use of judges on inquiry panels, a decision that should never have been in the hands of Ministers. I agree with the hon. Member for Thurrock, who warned the Government not to change their mind about that provision. In that context, certain key ministerial decisions and reports by inquiries must now be laid before Parliament, which will allow transparency and the possibility of debate, where it is required, even if, as various hon. Members pointed out, it will not ensure debate.

As the shadow Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire, said, the Opposition in the Lords have also secured an alternative parliamentary basis for setting up an inquiry, where the subject matter includes ministerial misconduct. As Lord Kingsland put it in the other place:

"It is plainly ludicrous . . . that a Minister should investigate his own conduct or that of any other Minister who is in the Government of the day."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 18 January 2005; Vol. 668, c. GC192.]

The optional use of Parliament in such circumstances will go some way to curing the constitutional imbalance between the Government and the relevant assembly, but it will not go far enough. We will be arguing for obligatory parliamentary involvement, such as the parliamentary commission advocated by the Public Administration Committee, when ministerial conduct is in question.

Earlier today, the Minister said that he was reconsidering clause 7. We will carefully study his remarks, but with some concern, as this is an important issue that should not be diluted. I was pleased to hear the Liberal Democrat spokesman supporting our concerns in this regard.

The Opposition will table several further amendments to the Bill as it stands. I am in full agreement with my hon. Friend Mr. Moss and with several hon. Members on the Government Benches that just because the Government present this Bill to us one week before the likely start of a general election campaign does not mean that Conservative Members should avoid giving it the oversight that it deserves. We have identified various areas that demand specific attention, including the role of Parliament in the establishment of an inquiry, as set out by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire, costs and the worrying imbalance of powers between the Minister—

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman is saying, which sounds like a conversion. When Lord Heseltine came before our Committee, he said, "When I was in government it was very simple—choose your conclusion then choose your chairman." Presumably this is a change of heart by the Conservative party.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that comment. As we know, Ministers can take differing views during office and after they leave it. I can assure him that the position that I am maintaining is the current position of the Conservative party and one that we will support throughout Committee.

Let me turn to costs, which is a matter of topical interest that has inspired some debate today but not been adequately dealt with in the Bill. Inquiries are valuable tools, but they come at some cost to the British taxpayer—I would estimate, as a ballpark figure, more than £500 million since 1990. A small percentage saving on inquiries would free up millions of pounds to be diverted to other worthy causes every year. It is now well known, as was made clear by Mr. Prentice, that the recent Saville inquiry may cost up to £250 million—an amount that, as he rightly pointed out, would be difficult to justify using any criteria. In fact, the seemingly uncontrollable spiral of inquiries' costs was one of the main inspirations for drafting the Bill. The Conservative Opposition believe that a broad budget for an inquiry should be announced from the outset and that any increases should be justified thereafter—an approach that is also supported by the Public Administration Committee and in principle, it would seem, by Baroness Ashton of Upholland in another place. No doubt the issue will be debated further in Committee, but I would be grateful to hear more from the Minister now so that we know where we stand before then.

More critically, the Conservative Opposition cannot accept the current imbalance of powers between the Minister and the chairman of an inquiry. That issue has been raised by many hon. Friends, including my hon. Friends the Members for North-East Hertfordshire, for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins), for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) and for North-East Cambridgeshire, and by many other hon. Members, including the hon. Members for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara), for Cannock Chase, for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), for Luton, North, for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood and for Thurrock. It is clearly a matter of great import to many hon. Members.

As stated by Lord Kingsland in the other place, the Bill is riddled with new discretionary powers for Ministers to override or overreach decisions that are, or should be, made by the chairman of the inquiry. Unfortunately, as many hon. Members have noted, that could affect the inquiry's independence and effectiveness, and therefore its credibility. The hon. Member for Cannock Chase made the important point, in a wide-ranging and extremely competent speech, that the Executive could effectively end the possibility of an inquiry before it even begins.

There was much debate about that imbalance of powers in another place, where several amendments were introduced to try to cure the deficit. However, we believe that the restructuring of the relationship must go somewhat further. The Minister should not have the final say over changes in the composition of the panel, the suspension or termination of an inquiry, the withholding of funds or the publication of the inquiry report. As the Bill stands, members of the panel could, as Lord Bledisloe noted in the other place, be removed at the whim of the Minister if they seemed to be taking a view not favourable to the Government interest in the inquiry.

The PAC report noted that Ministers could manipulate the publication date of an inquiry report for their own needs or undermine a parliamentary debate on its findings by limiting access to it. The hon. Members for Luton, North and for Thurrock wanted the Executive to give up powers and Parliament to get up off its knees—I believe that that was the phrase used. I sympathise with that but there is little chance of its happening under the current Administration.

Apart from issues about independence, the Minister is simply not qualified to make those decisions as he will not have attended the proceedings and will not intimately know the inquiry's state of affairs. By contrast, the chairman will be fully up to date on all factors affecting the inquiry and therefore best placed to judge practically and politically. To ensure an inquiry's fairness, independence and effectiveness, we believe that all the powers should rest with the chairman, as recommended by the PAC and the Joint Committee on Human Rights.

The most worrying example in the Bill of the unacceptable imbalance of power between the Minister and the chairman is the Minister's restriction notice, which would allow him to restrict public access to the inquiry, its documents and evidence. That subverts the presumption of openness that should be present in any inquiry, as the PAC noted. The Opposition acknowledge that there may be circumstances in which it would be preferable for an inquiry or its evidence to remain private. However, that power should be exercisable only in exceptional circumstances by the chairman, who is in a position to know all the circumstances from an independent point of view. Otherwise, the inquiry's independence and effectiveness are put at risk by limiting public accountability and restricting next of kin's access to inquiry proceedings. Like the Joint Committee on Human Rights, we consider that that is also a potential breach of the European convention on human rights.

Ministerial restriction notices could not only compromise grand principles, but reduced public confidence in the inquiry could limit the co-operation of witnesses and interested parties. That could lead to biased conclusions. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire raised anxieties about the possible Deepcut inquiry and the hon. Member for Cannock Chase spoke wisely about what he described as a corrosive effect.

The thesis has been borne out twice in recent years. First, the statutory basis of the Shipman inquiry had to be changed following a successful challenge to the decision to hear evidence in private. Secondly, we must appreciate that the Finucane family has refused to take part in any inquiry that is constituted under the same conditions for which the Bill provides because of excessive ministerial power. Mr. Mallon referred to that. However, although I sympathise with much of what he said from a procedural point of view, it is worth pointing out that, in the year when Mr. Finucane was killed, 61 others were murdered in Northern Ireland, including 23 members of the security forces. We need to acknowledge the debt that we owe them.

We welcome the Bill in principle. It has the flexibility to encompass various types of inquiry and therefore could consolidate and clarify the existing basis for establishing inquiries. It also provides increased clarity for rules of procedure, which could lead to more effective and efficient inquiries. In turn, that could boost public confidence in the reports. However, the Bill should not reach the statute book in its current form. It requires amendment, not least regarding the pressing matter of controlling inquiries' costs. More important, the draconian powers afforded to the Minister after an inquiry has been set up must be reined back.

To ensure an independent and effective inquiry in which the public can have full confidence, we must correct the balance of power between the Minister and the chairman. The Opposition will address those issues in Committee to ensure that future inquiries can effectively fulfil their important role and stand against the Government's obsession with boosting the power of the Executive and reducing that of Parliament.

Photo of David Lammy David Lammy Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs) 5:19 pm, 15th March 2005

We have had a frank, illuminating and wide-ranging discussion this afternoon on the role of inquiries in our democratic system, and I am pleased that hon. Members across the House agree that there is a need for reform of the legislation on inquiries. I am grateful for the support that has been expressed by the hon. Members for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) and for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald), and by the Liberal Democrat spokesman, Lembit Öpik.

We all agree that this should not be a party political matter. We must not lose sight of the fundamental importance of inquiries in highlighting issues of public concern. In that regard, we heard from Mr. Moss, and from my hon. Friends the Members for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell), for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble), for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) and for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins).

I want to associate myself with some of the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock when he paid tribute to my hon. Friends Mr. McNamara and for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon), who may have made their last contributions in Parliament today.

Photo of David Lammy David Lammy Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

I said that only because this is an interesting Bill, and I know that my hon. Friends want to make contributions on interesting Bills. I cannot, of course, foresee what matters will come before the House in the next 18 months.

I looked up my hon. Friends' maiden speeches, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North said in his:

"The theme throughout my by-election campaign was the need to organise the nation's resources to achieve social justice and the proper recognition of the dignity of the individual and the sanctity of family life."—[Hansard, 23 February 1966; Vol. 725, c. 456.]

My hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh said in his maiden speech:

"Jefferson once said that if justice is sacrificed for security, both are lost."—[Hansard, 20 February 1986; Vol. 92, c. 532.]

We heard in their speeches today that those themes remain important to our discussion, and we are all grateful for the powerful way in which they put their cases.

In the past, we have seen the significant impact that inquiries can have on public services. The findings of the inquiry into the tragic death of Victoria Climbié—a child who died in my constituency—helped to bring about reforms in children's services. The Stephen Lawrence inquiry was a watershed for the police force, and is having a great impact on police operational practices and beyond. I am sure, however, that hon. Members will agree that we should move away from the existing complex, fragmented and often inadequate inquiries legislation. The inquiry into the tragic case of Victoria Climbié had to be set up under three separate pieces of legislation. There is no power at present for statutory inquiries to be held into deaths in prison custody, and there are no provisions to help a chairman to keep inquiry expenditure in check. We have heard a great deal about such expenditure this afternoon. Inquiries can make a real difference, so it is important to get the framework right.

My hon. Friends the Members for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright) and for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood raised the issue of when an inquiry should be held. The difficulty is that it is just not possible to set statutory criteria for when an inquiry should be held. We have only to look at the list of past inquiries to see the huge variety of events that they have covered. How could we put a single process in statute that would be appropriate for the BSE inquiry, the inquiry into organ retention at Alder Hey and the Scott inquiry into arms to Iraq, for example? How could we establish a single process that would identify the circumstances in which a Minister should set up such inquiries? It has to be a matter of judgment, weighing up the relevant factors in each case to see what is in the public interest.

Photo of Mr Paul Tyler Mr Paul Tyler Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

Before consideration of the Bill in Committee, will the Minister look into another interesting example of a Government inquiry, which was set up by his colleagues from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department of Health in respect of the Lowermoor water poisoning episode in my constituency many years ago? That has incredible flexibility and—with due respect to his profession—does not involve a great many lawyers and a great deal of legal expertise, with all the difficulties that those mean for witnesses. It is proving to be an effective way to consider a difficult problem.

Photo of David Lammy David Lammy Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

I will definitely look into that. There has been legislation in respect of some Departments around which inquiries could be set up. There are always prerogative powers under which any Minister could set up an inquiry, but they would not have the duty to compel, and other things. We also have the 1921 Act, which we have heard much about. In a sense, the Bill pulls that together and provides a framework. It repeals measures in respect of lots of areas in which an ad hoc inquiry could be set up. Notwithstanding that, it would still be possible to hold an inquiry outside the scope of this legislation.

I was saying that Ministers have to make the judgment about when to set up an inquiry, and they have to justify it publicly and to Parliament, which brings me to the role of Parliament. That is where the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire began his remarks, and we have heard lots on that subject today. It is important to put it on record that we introduced several amendments in another place that give Parliament a full opportunity to scrutinise key aspects of the inquiry process.

Clause 6 now requires the Minister to make a detailed statement to Parliament on the establishment of an inquiry. Ministers must also explain to Parliament any decisions to suspend an inquiry, or end it early, and must lay published reports before Parliament. These requirements will exist as a result of the Bill, and they are to be welcomed.

The Bill is aimed at inquiries set up by Ministers to examine problems within the systems or services for which they are responsible. We have heard a lot about other vehicles through which Parliament should scrutinise, challenge and raise issues of public concern. The Government's view is clearly that if Parliament wants to explore options for setting up its own inquiries, that is for Parliament to consider. The Bill is not the place for that as it stands. Clearly, however, there are issues that arise—we have heard what the Prime Minister has had to say on this—which Parliament may want to examine in respect of how it might better conduct its own inquiries.

I also want to make it clear that the 1921 Act does not give Parliament the power to set up an inquiry per se. As hon. Members will know, that Act has rarely been used in recent years: in only one case since 1990 has such a resolution been debated by Parliament, while in the other three cases such a proposal was dealt with formally. The Government believe that it is right that the Minister should explain publicly the decision to establish, or not to establish, an inquiry. Ministers can be, and often are, called to justify such decisions to Parliament. That practice will undoubtedly continue.

The issue of the power of Ministers was raised by the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire and by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire, who wanted assurances with regard to his constituents. The Minister cannot set the terms of reference or appoint other inquiry members without consulting the chairman. The Minister must inform Parliament at the start of an inquiry, setting out the terms of reference, the identity of the chairman and the composition of the panel. The Minister must also consult the chairman before suspending an inquiry, or ending it early, and inform Parliament.

The Bill therefore sets boundaries and clearly spells out the respective roles of the Minister and the inquiry chairman. Crucially, it does not undermine the importance of inquiry panels in the future; in fact, it reinforces their impartiality in statute.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

I am grateful for the Under-Secretary's attempt to clarify this important point. Can he tell us, however, whether the Minister concerned is entitled to ignore the responses from the consultation? Is there any obligation whatever for the Minister to alter the plans on the basis of that consultation?

Photo of David Lammy David Lammy Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman will know that nobody ultimately has a veto over the Minister, but the Minister will be accountable to Parliament, and I would have thought that that Minister would expect chairmen to raise any disagreement in public, as they do when they are not happy about things.

Photo of Tony Wright Tony Wright Labour, Cannock Chase

I am not sure whether my hon. Friend has left the subject of Parliament yet, but in case he is about to do so, may I ask him directly what the Government's stance is on clause 7, which was introduced by the other place? As I understand it, the Government have problems with an original amendment that we produced, and they also have problems, as I do, with the clause that has come from the other place. They have told us, however, that they support the idea of a parliamentary commission as part of the armoury of inquiry. I therefore want to ask the Minister two things. First, would he support the development of an amendment with which the Government would feel comfortable, on which some of us are happy to work, and are indeed doing so? Secondly, if that is not the case but the Government still support the idea—because the Government, if we are honest, control the business of the House—how do they propose to advance the idea of a parliamentary commission of inquiry?

Photo of David Lammy David Lammy Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

The Government will, of course, consider all suggestions. The other Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend Mr. Leslie, indicated that we have real concerns about the provision, primarily because of the existence of the ministerial code of conduct. I hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase says about particular areas in which the politics of the inquiry bear on the Minister. First, in relation to any inquiry, it is hard to extrapolate when and how the issue of ministerial conduct might arise before the inquiry had even been set up. Secondly, he will know from past events, stretching back to the Profumo case, that Parliament and the media often bring such pressure to bear that Ministers resign well in advance of the inquiry when the issue is as political as in those matters about which he is concerned.

As for a restriction on public access, it is important to make clear that the starting assumption for inquiries under the Bill should be full public access. Indeed, that is the position under the Bill. Let me also make clear that even if access is restricted, the inquiry panel will still see whatever documents and witnesses it needs to see. The Bill gives it full powers to do that.

It is widely recognised that in certain circumstances it is appropriate to hold an inquiry, or parts of an inquiry, in private. That is not only because of issues of national security, about which we have heard a great deal this afternoon. As was the case with the inquiry into organ retention at Alder Hey, families might request such privacy because the circumstances are so sensitive and difficult. Clearly, that inquiry commanded much respect once it produced its recommendations.

The Bill makes clear the circumstances in which restrictions can be imposed, and what factors must be taken into account when deciding whether a restriction is justified. Those clauses reflect the balance that the Minister is expected to strike. Clause 20 makes it very clear that reasons for restrictions must always be weighed against the impact that they would have on the allaying of public concern.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase says that he would prefer that control to be in the hands of the inquiry chairman. We agree that once an inquiry is under way, decisions about public access should as far as possible be made by the chairman. The power in the Bill enables Ministers to safeguard. Ultimately it is Ministers who are responsible for protecting national security, and for having regard to such provisions as the Human Rights Act 1998 and the European convention.

My hon. Friends the Members for Newry and Armagh and for Hull, North spoke of the need for an inquiry into the death of Patrick Finucane. The Bill is designed to provide a statutory framework for any future inquiry into events causing public concern. Nothing in it would be any different if no Finucane inquiry were planned.

The Bill does not allow blanket restrictions on access to material simply because it relates to national security. The Minister or the chairman must weigh up all the factors, including whether restricting access would inhibit the allaying of public concern. My hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North asked me a crucial question: would everything be available to the chairman? I think that there was some difference of opinion between him and the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire.

In fact, the Bill gives inquiries full powers to compel witnesses to attend, and to require the production of documents. The only circumstances in which they cannot compel are those in which compulsion would not be possible in ordinary court proceedings. That applies to documents covered by legal professional privilege. I am afraid I must tell my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North that I cannot speak for the Irish Government, but as the Government have said, there were inaccuracies in a recent article in The Irish Times.

Photo of Mr Kevin McNamara Mr Kevin McNamara Labour, Kingston upon Hull North

Can I assume from what my hon. Friend has said that the answer to my question about the Irish Government is no? Will he now answer the question about Lord Saville? I thank him for clarifying a point that he made earlier.

Photo of David Lammy David Lammy Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

I am afraid that there is disagreement between the Government and Lord Saville.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the work of the Joint Committee on Human Rights and the effect of article 2. In the context of the right to life, when someone has died an inquiry will not be the only means of investigation. There will be an inquest, and there may well be criminal proceedings. The whole package makes up the Government's obligations in relation to article 2.

Photo of Mr Kevin McNamara Mr Kevin McNamara Labour, Kingston upon Hull North

With respect to my hon. Friend, it does not. When a state agent is involved in a killing, the Government have a specific duty to hold an inquiry that is speedy, independent, open, transparent and capable of reaching a decision on the apportioning of blame, and which involves the victim's family at all stages. My hon. Friend has not referred to any of those factors.

Photo of David Lammy David Lammy Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

There are wider considerations. As my hon. Friend will appreciate, there may well be an inquest into a death that bears on the state function that led to that death. I can think of inquests in which that has been the case, certainly in the context of my constituents. In any state, the legal mechanisms—which may include an inquiry, an inquest or even criminal proceedings—will have a bearing on our obligations under article 2, or at least on our interpretation of our obligations.

Photo of Mr Seamus Mallon Mr Seamus Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party, Newry and Armagh

I thank the Minister for giving way to me, and for his kind words. Will he try to explain why—after 17 years and a police investigation by Sir John Stevens, which was very conclusive indeed—there is still no conclusion in respect of the Finucane incident? How, after the passage of 17 years, can the Minister's statement be substantiated?

Photo of David Lammy David Lammy Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has made clear, we intend that this Bill could be used to conduct an inquiry into the matters that the hon. Gentleman remains so concerned about.

I turn finally to the appointment of judges. The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire and my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle asked what the Government's plans were in respect of the Opposition amendment to clause 11, and whether we will seek to reverse it. The Government continue to take the view that although the Lord Chief Justice and other appropriate senior judges should certainly be consulted on any proposals to appoint a judge to an inquiry panel, they should not have a veto. The Government are giving very serious consideration to the action that should be taken.

I am grateful to Members for a stimulating debate, and I have endeavoured to respond to the issues raised. The citizens of this country rightly demand accountability from Government—never, in a sense, more so than now. So it is right that this Government should introduce legislation that clarifies and strengthens that accountability. Inquiries are far from easy subjects for any Government, because they often point out systemic failures and shortcomings in our state administration. But as I have said, they can be a vital tool in reforming our public services, and in holding the deliverers of those services—from Ministers to front-line staff—to account.

The Bill is necessary to bring our inquiry procedures and processes up to date and make them fit for the 21st century. Ultimately, it will enable them to be more efficient, accountable and transparent, and it will give us the framework that we need to allay public concern in the years ahead. On that basis, I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.