|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
The hon. Gentleman's words suggest that Ministers must come to Parliament with the relevant motion, but in the words of clause 7(2), the Minister
15 Mar 2005 : Column 171
may do so "if he sees fit". In other words, it is at the Minister's discretion, so the provision is not as strong as the hon. Gentleman suggests.
Lembit Öpik: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. The language that I used suggested what I wished was in the Bill rather than what is, in fact, in itbut the tenor of debate in the other place demonstrated an acceptance of the expectation that there would be an obligation or a moral responsibility on Ministers to take the appropriate action as a matter of course. In the light of the hon. Gentleman's intervention, will the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, the hon. Member for Tottenham, confirm that despite the softness of language in the Bill, the expectation is that a Minister will do what clause 7 recommends, rather than just consider doing so as one possibility? That is not too much to ask; it is not really a concession, as I believe Ministers have already made the expectation clear in the other place.
There has been much disquiet about the Bill, but it is vastly improved as a result of its progress through the other place. I am content to support it in its current form, in tandem with the amendments that I mentioned, on Second Reading in this place. It is a Bill to deal with all the circumstances that might arise, so I can understand why all the individual provisions might be necessary on certain occasions. However, to avoid further criticism, I ask the Government to ensure that they consult widely before setting up specific inquiries under this legislation. It is crucial that those affected by the events leading up to any inquiry, including victims and their families, are listened to carefully.
I have asked some specific questions and I hope that the Minister will respond to them. I also hope that the Government will show their willingness to discuss in Committee some improvements on specific issues. On the whole, the Government have demonstrated their willingness to listen to Opposition Members and their own Back Benchers, and they have accepted feedback in order to improve the original Bill. I have already mentioned the test case of Deepcut barracks and the mystery still surrounding the four deaths that occurred there. Will the Minister tell us in his summation whether he believes that the long-standing campaign would have been aided by the Bill? That would not only assist me, but help to engender a degree of confidence that the Bill will add something of value to the difficult and necessarily vexing circumstances in which inquiries are initiated.
Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab):
One issue that hangs in the air, consequent on our debate so far, is the question of how an inquiry will be established when the Government of the day do not want it to be established. That issue hangs in the air now, as it did in 1921, and as it will when the Bill becomes an Act. That poses a challenge for us. It is often the case that a Government may not want an inquiry when the public and Parliament do, so we must turn our minds to devising a mechanism whereby an inquiry can be established when the Government oppose it. If we dodge that issue, we shall simply continue as we are now, which is to
15 Mar 2005 : Column 172
supplicate in the face of an Executive, "Please, may we have an inquiry?" into something or other, when we, a sovereign Parliament, have the ability, if we are so minded, to establish inquiries when we believe that matters should be inquired into. It is no good bleating about what the Government may or may not do. It is within our hands to do something about these matters if we really want to do so. That is my starting point and also my finishing point, but I have a few additional points along the way.
Those privileged enough to serve on the Public Administration Committee are used to the Government paying close attention to our work. We notice that they are often minded to accept some of our recommendations, but even we were stunned at the way in which they responded to our inquiry on inquiries. When we began that inquiry at the beginning of last year, to some amusement in some quarters, the Government produced a helpful and substantial consultation document in response, but then took us completely by surprise by saying that they were intending to legislate. We understand why they wanted to do that, but it was certainly not what the Select Committee expected. In the normal course of events, it would have been usual for a Bill of this sort to have appeared in draft form first. It is a Bill that could have been gestating for a long time, eventually seeing the light of day when a legislative opportunity presented itself.
Mr. Heald: I pay tribute to the report that the hon. Gentleman's Select Committee produced, but was it not rather shocking that the Government should start on the Bill when it was widely known that the Committee's report was about to be produced? That was most discourteous and says a good deal about the way in which the Government and this particular Department view the work of the Select Committees of the House.
Tony Wright: I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, who saw an opening to make his point, but I have to put on record the fact that the Government have been immensely courteous to the Select Committee throughout and have sought to link their work to our work for the better benefit of the legislation. I completely reject what the hon. Gentleman has just said. I certainly hope that our inquiry, which has some claim to being the most comprehensive account of the whole inquiry tradition in this country, will help the House in its consideration of the Bill that the Government have decided to bring forward.
We do not say it often enough, but it is important to say that public inquiries matter. There is scarcely a day goes past without someone demanding one. I suspect that, at some time, every Member of this House has demanded that a public inquiry be held. We usually make such a demand when we cannot think of anything else to say, or when we are not clear what we think about something, and it is usually echoed from all sides.
The demand is always for a public inquiry, and not just an ordinary one. People want inquiries that are full, independent and judicialoften, all those descriptions are rolled together to suggest that inquiries must be gold plated. If an inquiry does not fit that description, we feel entitled to criticise every aspect of it. If we do not like the conclusion that is reached, we feel entitled to criticise the person who undertook the inquiry, and also the whole process involved.
15 Mar 2005 : Column 173
As the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) said, there are pressing demands for an inquiry into the events at Deepcut. The Government believe that, on balance, no inquiry is needed, but many disagree. However, public inquiries in their myriad forms play an indispensable role in our public life, and always have done. Sometimes, it is worth taking a step back to see how the process works. What functions do inquiries fulfil, and does the process need to be brought up to date?
The annexe to the Committee's report lists the 89 major inquiries that have taken place since 1900. They display an extraordinary variety, with inquiries established under many different kinds of powers and in different ways. Some have been public, some private, but there is no single model.
Inquiries are set up for a variety of purposes and in a variety of contexts, but they should be set up because something needs inquiring into. They are investigations, not policy vehicles. Their aim is to find out what happened, or what went wrong, and to determine whether a problem could have been avoided or prevented. They should also provide some reassurance to the people affected that a particular matter is being taken seriously.
The process of holding an inquiry is sometimes as important as its content. The process shows that a matter is being taken seriously and that it deserves a proper inquiry. In additionand this has not been mentioned in the debate so farthe inquiry process shows us what we must learn to prevent a problem from reoccurring.
An inquiry should be a learning tool for Government, but that is often not the case. As a result, inquiries are sometimes held into matters that are very similar, and make similar recommendations. In our report, the Committee compared sections of the Franks inquiry after the Falklands war with sections of Lord Butler's inquiry into weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and associated intelligence matters. There are some striking similarities in what the two inquiries have to say about intelligence failures in both contexts.
Mrs. Anne Campbell : Does my hon. Friend agree that the procedure followed by Sir Michael Bichard in his inquiry into the events at Soham might be emulated by other inquiry chairmen? Bichard stated that he would reconvene his inquiry within six months to look at the recommendations that had been made. Does my hon. Friend consider that to be good practice?
|Next Section||Index||Home Page|