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Mr. Leslie: Yes, of course the inquiry will have access to the informationthat 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
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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
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Committee has published its report, which the Government welcomed in their response. I am sure that both documents will help to inform the debate.
Lembit Öpik: 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?
Mr. Leslie: 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.
Mr. Leslie: 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 inquiriesa 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 provisionexisting 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.
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