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Proceeds of Crime (Compensation of Prosecution Costs)

Brian White accordingly presented a Bill to amend the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 to make provision for the recovery of certain prosecution costs in proceedings for offences giving rise to a confiscation order: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 8 April, and to be printed [Bill 88].

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Orders of the Day

Inquiries Bill [Lords]

[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.

12.41 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie): 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

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.
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Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath) (Con): 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.

Mr. Leslie: 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.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North) (Lab): 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?

Mr. Leslie: 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 the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) raised about public access. I hope to expand later on the rationale behind the Bill.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): 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.

Mr. Leslie: 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.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): The Minister has been generous in giving way. I am still not clear why precisely the Government have made the
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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.

Mr. Leslie: 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.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): 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?

Mr. Leslie: 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.

Mr. Heald: 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?

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