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Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): The Liberal Democrats broadly welcome the Bill, because it simplifies and consolidates existing legislation on public inquiries, as the Minister explained at the outset. As the Minister said, it is tempting to talk about specific cases, but we must resist the temptation to bang the drum for our own preferences and particular cases that we feel should be dealt with. What the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) said about the Pat Finucane case is relevant. One test of the simplified legislation will be whether inquiries that many of us feel should have
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been handled expeditiously involve less of a requirement to lobby and to apply political pressure on the Government.

This is a much better Bill than the one initially introduced in the other place. The amendments made there will ease some of the concerns about lack of parliamentary involvement in the process. We had an interesting exchange with the Minister earlier, in which he tried to reassure us that the Bill would not over-centralise the decision-making process relating to the creation of inquiries in the future. I hope that he is right. One of my main worries is that the Government might be able to protect themselves from potentially damaging findings by future inquiries by limiting the terms of reference consciously to achieve that aim.

The case of Deepcut barracks is one reason for my interest in the Bill. I shall not rehearse the full history of the Deepcut case, but it involved the deaths of four young people at the barracks during a period beginning in 1995 with the death of Cheryl James, the daughter of two of my constituents. The salient point in this context is the difficulty that many of us who have campaigned for a full independent public inquiry have experienced in getting the Government to co-operate.

The hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) has been one of the leading figures in the call for a public inquiry. As he knows, we were repeatedly told by Ministers that there was no need for an inquiry because there was nothing more to investigate, but as recently as yesterday the Select Committee's report on the duty of care in the Army confirmed that we were right to persist in pushing the Government towards a full independent public inquiry. After many years of resistance on the part of the Army and the Ministry of Defence, it now transpires that there were facts that had not entered the public domain in the past pertaining to the duty of care and its failure in the Army. We have thus been entirely vindicated.

Mr. McNamara: I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman. I thank him for his kind words, and I agree with what he is saying—but the problem is that if we secure our public inquiry as a result of the Bill, the Ministry of Defence will draw up the terms of reference with no acknowledgement of the position of the families.

Lembit Öpik: That is true. I ask for the hon. Gentleman's forbearance: I shall return to his point shortly.

If the Bill made it easier and quicker for us to secure a full independent public inquiry in similar circumstances without the heartache, pain and extensive investment of time—and, I have to say, money—that the parents have experienced, it would be a very good Bill indeed. However, for precisely the reason given just now by the hon. Member for Hull, North, I fear that as it stands there is a danger—here I use the Deepcut example again—that the MOD will have a disproportionate opportunity to define the terms of reference in such a way that it could protect itself from the worst findings that a fully independent inquiry might produce.

I ask the Minister to consider and to respond to the point that the hon. Member for Hull, North and I have made. What reassurance can he give that the Bill will
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make it easier, rather than more difficult, for parents in the circumstances that I have outlined to get the answers and the closure that they have reasonably asked for? In other words, how can we be sure that we are more likely to get the kind of answers that are slowly seeping out of yesterday's Defence Committee report on, and the ongoing investigation by Nicholas Blake QC into, the deaths at Deepcut barracks? How can we be sure that such answers will be more forthcoming, rather than less, if the Bill is enacted?

On a connected point, will the Minister give us an assurance that we will not have to go through some dozen separate inquiries as a result of the MOD's—and, indeed, the Army's—resistance at every stage to being more open about its information on Deepcut? Will the Bill open doors rather than close them, and will it ensure that families and other interested members of the public have more opportunity to secure a justified public inquiry, instead of feeling left out? To me that is the core question, and an appropriate one to ask at this strategic Second Reading stage. I hope that the Minister can respond, and that in doing he will use Deepcut barracks as an example.

It is also clear that someone must initiate a public inquiry, and that person will almost always be a Minister. The debates in the other place were very helpful in showing the differences between public inquiries and inquiries by Select Committees. While the latter perform an extremely useful function, in the circumstances that we are discussing today, it must be right that such inquiries be initiated by a Minister—if the Minister is indeed at the very heart of the issue. But let us remember that, as the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) and his colleagues pointed out, the Minister must not operate in isolation. It would never be right for Ministers to use that power in such a way as to protect themselves or their Departments.

I accept that if Ministers set up the inquiry, it follows that they must also set out its terms of reference. But it is also important that they consult widely on those terms of reference, so I welcome the Government's amendments in the other place, which were tabled after considerable pressure from Liberal Democrats and Conservatives. The amendments stipulate that before a Minister sets out or amends the terms of reference, he or she must consult the chairman of the inquiry. It is extremely important, to ensure that there is confidence in the inquiry process, that this provision be included in the Bill, and I welcome the Government's decision to do that.

Mrs. Anne Campbell: Does the hon. Gentleman feel that there is a case to be made for consulting Parliament not only when the terms of reference are established, but if they are subsequently changed?

Lembit Öpik: I certainly do, especially when the issue in question is controversial, or when the inquiry's outcome could prove damaging to the Government of the day. Those are the times of greatest pressure on Ministers, who will unquestionably be under a degree of pressure to protect the Government's interests, even when doing so is in conflict with those of the public. With the best will in the world, no Minister will be free from such pressure, and the best legislation would ease
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it by putting in place statutory requirements that ensure both that there is transparency, and that the principles of democracy are upheld. There can be no better place to do that than in this Chamber.

Mr. Heald: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the amendment tabled in the other place by our noble Friends Lords Kingsland and Goodhart—it is now clause 7, which provides that there must be a resolution before both Houses if ministerial misconduct is the issue—constitutes a very important protection?

Lembit Öpik: That is absolutely right, and in another place my noble Friend Lord Goodhart and others were indeed apprised of the need to modify the Bill in exactly that way.

I am grateful to the Government for listening—to a degree—to these concerns and for amending the Bill to a large extent. The Minister is now required to make a statement to Parliament on the establishment of an inquiry, its terms of reference and chairman, and the composition of the panel. It is fundamental that Parliament be kept informed of the inquiry process, and I am pleased that the Government have recognised Parliament's role in this respect. However, it is a matter of slight regret that they did not automatically come to the view that that was necessary, and had instead to be forced in that direction by the Opposition parties.

Mr. Leslie: As I have said, I understand why Members are calling for us to enshrine in statute certain procedures that make Ministers accountable before Parliament, but in fact such arrangements already exist, as we know. To include every such mechanism in statute would give rise to the danger of missing out other things, or of the legislation becoming too rigid, which is why we have compromised in the Bill. Not everything needs to be included in it.

Lembit Öpik: The Minister makes a reasonable point. This has to be a question of degree, and I myself have sometimes criticised legislation for being over-prescriptive or tactical when it needed to be strategic. However, the following two points, which many Members have made, are matters of principle: first, that of Ministers being accountable to this House, especially when there might be a vested interest in protecting the Government from the possible outcome of an inquiry; and secondly, that of ensuring that consultation really does mean that Ministers are obliged to take genuine account of feedback on the breadth of the terms of reference. Those are indeed principles, rather than simply tactical matters, but in fairness I must add that the Government have moved somewhat on these issues in another place. The recorded comments of the Minister—and, I hope, of another Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy), who will wind up the debate—will act as a useful precedent in interpreting what to expect in terms of parliamentary etiquette.

I also concur with those who said that a written statement would probably not be sufficient—certainly not for any public inquiry of significant import. Again, there is plenty of parliamentary precedent for statements being made in the Chamber. For example, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence felt it
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necessary to announce the Nicholas Blake inquiry into Deepcut on the Floor of the House. That was beneficial because certain matters were subsequently explored and clarified in this place. Secondly, there was a public interest in ensuring that the Under-Secretary's proposals were transparent. Both things would have been more difficult to achieve had the statement been written rather than oral. I hope that the Minister who winds up will confirm that the default assumption will be that public inquiries will be announced on the Floor of this House, rather than in written statements.

Another crucial anxiety, to which reference has been made, concerns the power to maintain secrecy by restricting public access to hearings and evidence, and the possibility of withholding parts of reports from publication. There are of course circumstances in which withholding such information can be justified. As the Minister correctly said, one such example involves matters of national security; another is when the report in question contains information about a vulnerable individual or a witness. As this is a Bill for all circumstances and all possible future inquiries, it is right to make provision accordingly.

The Government took a constructive approach in listening to the arguments advanced by my noble Friend Lord Goodhart and people on the Conservative Benches in favour of bringing the Bill under the scope of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. It is now clear from the Bill that the power to withhold information does not override that Act—another significant improvement made in the other place.

On the whole, a public inquiry will be implemented in the public interest, so it is important that information from such an inquiry should not be restricted in the Government's interest. However damaging that information may be to the Government of the day, we must make sure that nothing in the Bill enshrines the opportunity for the Government to protect themselves from any such damaging information. The Government must not be allowed to withhold information on those grounds. We have talked about that at some length, and I am sure that Ministers are clear about the views expressed on both sides of the House.

Another criticism levelled at the Government is the fact that the Bill was introduced before the Public Administration Committee had completed its report, "Government by Inquiry". The Committee recommended an amendment to the Bill, under which investigations into ministerial misdemeanours should be Committees of Parliament. On Third Reading in the other place, my noble Friends supported an amendment tabled by the Conservative peer Lord Kingsland to allow a Minister setting up an inquiry to move a motion before the relevant Parliament or Assembly approving the proposal for the inquiry to be held and approving the terms of reference and identity of the chairman. The amendment, which is now clause 7, is absolutely vital in safeguarding the involvement of Parliament and, I believe, public trust in the inquiry system when ministerial behaviour is under investigation. The reasons for that are obvious.

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