My Lords, I address my own remarks to two points in the gracious Speech that fall within the scope of today’s debate. First, like so many others, I welcome the Government’s undertaking to initiate a full public inquiry into the horrifying fire at Grenfell Tower to ascertain the causes and ensure that the appropriate lessons are learned. I also welcome the fact that this is to be a judge-led inquiry. Indeed, no one should be under any illusions about the problems that whoever leads this inquiry will face. Urgency suggests that it may have to begin its task before any criminal prosecutions take place. If so, great care will need to be taken to ensure that the inquiry does not adversely affect the criminal process by prejudicing the right to a fair trial. In some cases, such as that of the Victoria Climbié inquiry, which was chaired with such distinction by the noble Lord, Lord Laming, the criminal proceedings were concluded before the inquiry. Whether that will be so in this case is perhaps yet to be decided, but I suspect that the decision will be that the inquiry should go ahead without delay.
The noble Lord, Lord Hayward, drew attention to one of the problems to which this gives rise last Thursday in the question that he put to the Lord Privy Seal when she repeated the Prime Minister’s Statement on Grenfell Tower. He asked:
“Can we please ensure that when people give evidence, they do so in full and do not hide behind the fact that, if they answer certain questions, they might incriminate themselves?”.—[Official Report, 22/6/17; col. 83.]
The noble Baroness’s answer was that it was to be a judge-led inquiry, as the Minister said yesterday in answer to a similar question. It would be for the person appointed to determine how it works.
The Lord Privy Seal was absolutely right about that. I can go further, however. There is no doubt that the judge will ensure that the inquiry was conducted according to the well-established rules of our common law, which protect a suspect’s right to silence. Everyone is entitled to that protection. There are no exceptions, even in situations such as this, which have provoked so much public anger. How much of an impediment to the inquiry there will be if it is held before any criminal proceedings are concluded we have yet to see. I suspect not very much if the inquiry indeed concentrates on the causes and lessons to be learned, as the gracious Speech put it, which are so important. The terms of reference will need to be very carefully drafted in close consultation with the judge to ensure that the focus of the inquiry is neither too narrow nor too wide. It is of course reassuring to those with my background that the Government are putting their trust in the judiciary to achieve the clarity and certainty that is needed in a highly charged situation such as this.
Secondly, I welcome the Government’s undertaking to make further progress on tackling discrimination, but one particular aspect deserves attention. I suggest that legislation to address the hardship and injustice to cohabiting couples caused by a gap in the present law in England and Wales is long overdue. I refer to the problems that arise if there is a dispute about property division when their cohabitation ceases. Legislation to address these problems was passed by the Scottish Parliament in 2006. It was the subject of an appeal to the United Kingdom Supreme Court in Gow v Grant in 2012. The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Hale, drew attention in her judgment to the Scottish position in that case and to the need for similar legislation in England and Wales. She pointed out that the Law Commission published a report with recommendations on this as long ago as 2007, but despite the hardship and injustice caused by the lack of legislation and the prevalence of cohabitation, to which the Law Commission again drew attention in 2011, still nothing has been done; the gap remains. I hope that the Minister and his officials will feel able to look at that judgment and find a place for this legislation, which is badly needed, as early as possible in the life of this Parliament.