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There are well-established rules and conventions about when orders require affirmative or negative procedures. If every order came before
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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.
Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): 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?
Mr. Leslie: 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.
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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.
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): 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
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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:
Lembit Öpik: 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?
Mr. McNamara: 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?
Mr. Heald: 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.
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."
"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."
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.
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