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Mr. Leslie: 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.
Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab):
The new responsibilities for Ministers are a key element of the Bill. When Ministers
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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.
Mr. Leslie: 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.
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): 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?
Mr. Leslie: 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.
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
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any difficulties, expose problems to a wider audience and identify potential solutions. That is our collective objective.
Tony Wright : 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.
Mr. Leslie: 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.
Mr. Bercow: 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.
Mr. Leslie: 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.
Mr. Bercow: 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.
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
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that in more detail in the Standing Committee, on which I know that the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) will be very keen to serve.
Mr. McNamara: My question arises from a matter that my hon. Friend has elidedthe 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.
Mr. Leslie: 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 onit 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 normwe 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.
Mr. McNamara: 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?
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