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Tony Wright: The hon. Gentleman's story about the 1921 Act could be told quite differently. In 1921, Parliament effectively started to contract out the business relating to inquiries, retaining its presence only in the most formal way. Surely the challenge now is not to reclaim that moment of abandonment but to reclaim the territory itself.

Mr. Heald: The hon. Gentleman makes the point that I was trying to make. Parliament should be involved in the process.

The Minister mentioned clause 6, which provides for Ministers to make a statement here about an inquiry, but that could be a written statement. There would be no guaranteed opportunity for the Minister to be questioned. The House should have the opportunity to question Ministers on the setting up of inquiries into important matters.

Mr. Leslie: Perhaps I did not make the point clearly enough. There is of course nothing to prevent Parliament from scrutinising, debating or looking into ministerial decisions to establish inquiries, or passing resolutions, which would then have an effect on the Government. Parliament is sovereign in our constitution and it has that capability. Does the hon.
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Gentleman understand my argument about the dangers of too much rigid, inflexible statute, which might in some ways inhibit the discussions in Parliament? The 1921 Act was framed in such a way in an attempt to prevent such contracting out by non-parliamentary inquiries at that time.

Mr. Heald: Without in any way suggesting anything about the Minister, who everybody accepts is acting fully in good faith and is to be trusted on these issues, there is out there among the public concern about inquiries following recent events. On issues to do with inquiries, it is not enough for him to say, "Trust me, trust this Government." Parliament needs to have a say, too. That is our view.

There are other questions to be resolved, many of which involve the balance of power between the Minister and the person chairing the inquiry. The Bill, in its original form, was riddled with discretionary powers for the Minister to override and overreach the traditional work of the chairman. We need to get this balance right, especially when considering those aspects of the Bill that relate to the terms of reference and to disclosure and publication of evidence. I shall not quote it, but the Public Administration Committee made that point very effectively. I hope the Minister will respond to those concerns.

The list of problems with the Bill does not end there. The degree of ministerial discretion over the publication of the inquiry's final report needs to be looked at very closely, and we want to be sure that there are adequate safeguards against whitewashes. The Bill also raises a number of practical issues, and we will need to look closely at how it affects existing inquiries. If Ministers are to require existing inquiries to be brought into the new rules—converting them, to use the language of the Bill, and I would be interested if the Minister has any thoughts about what sort of inquiry might be converted—the Government have to tell us what that means in practical terms for those inquiries. I have certain concerns about exactly what will happen in those circumstances.

I welcome the fact that the Bill was amended in the other place. There are a number of welcome changes: the Minister has to consult the inquiry chairman before suspending the inquiry, although we would like that to be a matter of agreement rather than just consultation, and has to consult the existing inquiry chairman on the proposed conversion. I question whether that is strong enough. Should not the inquiry chairman have to agree to the terms?

Further changes will provide greater public access to inquiry proceedings and information, but we shall look to achieve a presumption of access, although we fully accept that there may be circumstances in which that cannot happen. Further changes will also be needed to ensure proper openness and accountability.

Many changes made in the other place are the result of strong debate, and they were made despite opposition from those on the Government Benches. The amendment proposed by Lords Kingsland and Goodhart on inquiries where ministerial misconduct is the issue was passed in the other place. It is an important amendment. The Minister says that the Government are not happy with the drafting, but it was drafted by the
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Government parliamentary draftsman and taken on by the Opposition in the other place. It means that in cases of alleged ministerial misconduct we have a procedure for Parliament to have a say in how such inquiries are conducted.

My noble Friend Lord Kingsland noted that there is ample scope for the new provision to be strengthened. If the Minister is not happy with its wording, is he saying that he will table his own amendment to tackle the concern expressed in the other place, or is he saying that he simply wants to reverse that amendment? It would be a great pity if such an important Bill could not make fairly consensual progress through Parliament at this stage in the parliamentary year, given what might happen in the next week or so.

A further amendment means that if a Minister wants to appoint a judge as a member of an inquiry panel, he or she must first consult the appropriate judge, such as the senior Law Lord in the case of the Law Lords. That is an important change. It helps to ensure that, in circumstances where it is inappropriate for a judge to chair an inquiry, we can avoid situations that might be harmful to judicial independence.

Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): My hon. Friend is alluding to the many amendments made in the other place, to which the Minister made no reference whatever. Does that mean that the Minister does not accept that those amendments improve the Bill or that he intends to reverse them in Committee?

Mr. Heald: The Minister said that he has concerns about clause 7, but it would be a pity if he did not table his own amendment to replace it, meeting the point raised in the other place. He certainly did not say that he intends to try to reverse other amendments, but no doubt we can have the final word on this during the winding-up speech, based on the strong arguments made from the Conservative Benches.

There are unfinished matters. There is scope for curtailing the freedom granted by the Bill to Ministers to seek to interfere with an inquiry once it has been established. We are worried about that and will table amendments on it in Committee. There is also scope to tighten up the provisions on the composition of inquiries, determining when they are to terminate and the extent to which Ministers will be free to interfere on matters of evidence, privacy and the final report. We also need to consider the inclusion of the so-called restriction notices and the extent to which that is well balanced. We want a better inquiries procedure. All areas can and must be thoroughly scrutinised in Committee.

The Bill attempts to provide a framework to reform an area of law that we accept needs to be reconsidered. It presents an opportunity, but we must be sure that in making the necessary changes we do not tip the balance too far in the wrong direction—not too far in favour of the Executive against Parliament, not too far in favour of Ministers against the inquiry chairman and members, and not too far in favour of secrecy against openness and accountability.
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1.37 pm

Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh) (SDLP): May I say first that the perception of public inquiries among people in the north of Ireland, where I come from, is somewhat different from the general view of public inquiries carried out in England or Scotland or Wales? That is the case owing to the very nature of events and circumstances there, but the essence of the need does not change with circumstances or timing.

On the very day that I entered the House, the Westland affair was being debated. We remember the inquiry on it, and we have gone from one inquiry to another. Indeed, it is almost as if there are those who perceive the use of public inquiries as a cranks' charter or a means of having an unhealthy view of events. It is neither, and it cannot be in any normal society. Nor should it be allowed to become the plaything of public opinion, political parties, Governments, the legal profession or any institution, because public inquiries are what they say they are: inquiries for the public, by the public, in the interests of the public and of nothing else except justice.

For that reason, I want to root my remarks in what the Joint Committee on Human Rights states, as it says succinctly what must be said. It says of an inquiry that

I want to refer to some instances in relation to public inquiries that do not meet those criteria and that became part of the whole political negotiations.

It is a matter of record that, at the negotiations in Weston Park in summer 2001, the Government, in the form of the Prime Minister, made a commitment in relation to at least three requests for public inquiries, with regard to the deaths of Patrick Finucane, Rosemary Nelson and Robert Hamill. That is on record and, for that reason, it is crucial that I refer to them not simply because they are a Northern Ireland matter but because the implications that are entailed are crucial to everybody, wherever they live, because that independence to which the Joint Committee's findings refer and the criteria required by the House in terms of those recommendations are at stake. It is crucial that we do not see either the Finucane or other cases as simply another whinge by Northern Ireland Members, depending on their political persuasion. I emphasise that, because it goes to the heart of what we are considering.

At those meetings in Weston Park, the Prime Minister gave his word that, if an international judge appointed by the Government to investigate those cases recommended a public inquiry, one would be held. That was a solemn undertaking from the Government, given by the Prime Minister. The exact wording in the Weston Park document states:

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Those matters were considered by Judge Cory, an international jurist from Canada; he made recommendations in relation to public inquiries and we must examine how the reasons for those measure up against the duty to investigate in articles 2 and 3 of the European convention on human rights.

Sir John Stevens, who cannot be accused of being partial in Northern Ireland terms, and who was a police officer of the highest renown, commented in relation to the Finucane case that he found

He added that

The enormity of that, in terms of what we are discussing today, is fairly obvious to all of us.

In effect, an inquiry has not yet been held in that case, 17 years afterwards, which hardly complies with the Joint Committee's requirement that it be

That is because of the way in which, when that inquiry is held, the finger might point not just at policing or the security services but at those in a much more senior position and still holding senior positions in the administration. That might go as far as ministerial positions. That is why it is crucial that there be independence in relation to public inquiries, and that that independence should not just be a moveable feast between a Minister and the inquiry chairman but absolutely sacrosanct, both in terms of the inquiry and in terms of their independence of pressure from any ministerial figure.

The Ministers with whom I have discussed this matter know that, when it comes to the Finucane inquiry, it will be a series of withholdings of information under the new legislation, because it will be impossible, as they say in their terms, to give the information required. In a civilised, normal country, what Government can look themselves in the mirror and do away with that independence, as in clause 20, knowing full well that when this inquiry is held, if it is ever held, after 17 years, it will be a series of refusals by Ministers of the information that is so central to it?

In those circumstances, two matters come into question. First, given the abnormality of the situation that pertained in Northern Ireland at the time—it is far from normal as of yet—is it right, 17 years after the event, to introduce this type of legislation and apply it to circumstances then, when the type of conclusions that justice would demand will patently not be reached? Secondly, is it right that, in effect, a Prime Minister—not a Minister of State or Secretary of State—said in the negotiations, eyeball to eyeball, over a table, "I give my word"? I know the Prime Minister to be an honourable man. I know that, when the time comes, he will show that he will keep his word. However he can only do that if, in effect, he ensures that all the information that is required by that tribunal, when it is set up, is made available to it and will not be the subject of refusal by any Minister.

I believe that the Prime Minister made that arrangement in good faith, and I look forward to its being kept to in good faith. It is not just the Prime
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Minister's word that is at stake here, because the arrangement was negotiated by him jointly with the Irish Government, who stand guarantor in relation to those three inquiries. If they are not dealt with in the way that was expected then, we shall have to wonder whether those who gave their word did so as a matter of expediency, to buy time until a change in the legislation provided protection for the information involved.

I do not mean that cynically or harshly. I simply want to put on record that a deal was made and, when deals are made, they must be adhered to. If they are not, people lose the trust of those around them—and in the delicate circumstances surrounding the political process in the north of Ireland, and indeed the peace process in the north of Ireland, there is only one thing that any of us have: the fact that we can be trusted, and that when we give our word we keep it. When we say something and write it down formally in a statement, we abide by it.

I am very concerned about clause 20. I see shadows of last week's debates. I see ways in which the clause could be used not to further the aims of a public inquiry as defined in the Joint Committee's report but to ensure that what might eventually emerge causes the least possible embarrassment to the Government involved.

I sincerely hope that that does not happen. I sincerely hope that, in this country as well, the absolute integrity of public inquiries is maintained and protected. But it is not possible to play around in Northern Ireland. It is not possible to take away the integrity of public inquiries in the north of Ireland and believe that the integrity of inquiries in England, Scotland and Wales will not be affected. The rot will set in, and it will diminish public inquiries everywhere—and not just public inquiries, but all who will be involved at ministerial level in preventing the availability of full and proper information.

I hope that both Ministers will think about that. I hope that they will listen in Committee. I hope that they will put what I have said about Weston Park and the Prime Minister's commitment to the test. I hope that they will go to the Prime Minister and say, "Prime Minister, did you give that commitment? Prime Minister, did you write it on that piece of paper? Prime Minister, did you agree it with the Irish Government?" When the Prime Minister says yes—I know him to be an honourable man, and he will have to say yes—that must be the cue for ensuring that, after 17 long years, at least there will be honesty and integrity in the handling of an inquiry. The inquiry into the death of Patrick Finucane will unearth a good many dangerous things, but let us have it done. Let us be sure that it is dealt with. Let us not try to keep the cover on this one, or it will seep insidiously into every other inquiry.

1.55 pm

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