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Tony Wright: I am very grateful to my hon. Friend and fellow member of the PAC for that observation. I was going to mention Sir Michael Bichard in a moment, but I agree very much with what she says. It was innovative for an inquiry to look forward to its recommendations, to consult on them to make sure that they were workable, and to revisit its findings after a period of time.
Sir Michael Bichard presided over one of the most successful inquiries of recent years. It was undertaken in very short time, with great efficiency and a huge pay-off
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in terms of changing the procedures involved. The Bichard report reminds us that we should not get hung up about inquiries being judicialthat is, that they should be run only by judges. Requiring that inquiries be run judicially is a different matter, but Bichardand Lord Laming is another examplereminds us that not all inquiries need to be run by judges to be effective.
People who are not judges often bring great experience of the administrative systems into which inquiries are held, but that is often not so of judges. We have had some seriously flawed judicial inquiries in recent years, but some of the non-judicial inquiries that have been held in the same period have been hugely successful. I am sorry if that seems a roundabout way of agreeing with my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell), but there are many ways to conduct an inquiry. It is worth reflecting on them as we consider the whole inquiry process.
I was saying that Governments sometimes want inquiries for ignoble as well as noble reasons. That is perfectly reasonable. A Government will sometimes use an inquiry to bat a difficult issue into the lush pastures in the corner of the field, where it can be safely planted until no one can remember its cause. As Harold Wilson famously remarked, royal commissions take minutes but last years, and that can be extremely useful. Inquiries come in all shapes and sizes and are undertaken for all kinds of reasons. However, they perform an important function and therefore deserve a good deal of attention.
Andrew Mackinlay : I was interested in what my hon. Friend had to say about a Government's motivations. Does he agree that one of the tests of the Bill is whether it will prevent the future abuse of the process? For instance, the Clegg inquiry was non-judicial. It was conducted by an appointed civil servant, and was set up deliberately to frustrate the inquiry by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee into the deployment of troops in Sierra Leone. The Foreign Secretary of the day said that he did not want two inquiries into the matter and that he would set up his own. If the Bill is to be a success, it will prevent further torpedoes like that.
Tony Wright: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and what Clegg produced is an example of the sort of inquiry that this House needs to study. If we are not happy with an inquiry, or if one is not held at all, it is up to us to do something about that. We must not content ourselves, as we often do, with complaining about the actions of a Government in that respect.
I congratulate the Government on bringing forward this Bill. As has been said, it makes sense to try to consolidate all the various legislation that applies in this area. It has been noted, too, that many inquiries are not held under any legislation but are set up in an ad hoc way.
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Like the report, today's debate has noted some of the aspects of the Bill that have caused some disquiet, but I shall not dwell on that. I am glad that the Government have responded in the other place to some of the concerns. The balance of the Bill has shifted satisfactorily because of that and I do not accept that this is another example of the Executive wanting to extend their power to every part of public life, even to inquiries. That overstates the case unhelpfully[Interruption.] The Irish case has been much mentioned and I understand why. British Irish Rights Watch said that repeal of the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921 and, therefore, the ending of the formal involvement of Parliament
That is not a sensible observation because it will not do anything of the kind. In some ways, it will strengthen the public inquiry tradition because the chances are that many more inquiries will be set up on a statutory basis with real power. There is a stronger case for saying that it will strengthen the public inquiry tradition rather than end it. However, I accept that there are issuesabout Ministers' access powers, in particularbut as many have been touched on already I shall not dwell on them.
The principle is clear. Anything that might be seen to undermine the integrity and independence of an inquiry will be corrosive not just for the inquiry, but for our whole tradition of public inquiries. These are serious matters and I hope that they will receive the attention they deserve when the Bill goes into Committee. Much progress has been made in the other place, but perhaps further progress can be made. On access, I said that the 1921 Act gives total power to the inquiry on access questions. In principle, that is the model to which we should adhere because it gives public confidence. It would be difficult to persuade someone to chair an inquiry unless they had the extent of control over its proceedings in all respects to guarantee its integrity and independence. There are balances and judgments to be made and all I am saying is that I hope that the balance and judgment will come down in favour of giving as much control as possible to the person who chairs the inquiry, rather than to Ministers.
The outstanding point of contention between some of us and the Government has been the role of Parliament, repeal of the 1921 Act and all matters associated with that. The background is that at one time Parliament had a robust inquiry tradition. The end of our report lists the inquiries through the last century and shows that Parliament was vigorous in conducting inquiries. Back in the 19th century it was even stronger and there are many examples. In 1855 the House of Commons voted to appoint a Committee
That resulted in the resignation of Lord Aberdeen's Government in 1855. I give that example to remind the House that this place once had a vigorous tradition of parliamentary investigatory inquiries into issues that deserved attention in an era before we thought it was necessary to contract out such matters to other people.
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The turning point, as is widely known, came with the development of the party system at the beginning of the 20th century and crystallised around the Marconi incident in 191112. An attempt by Parliament to inquire into allegations of Government favouritism in the awarding of contracts to the Marconi company floundered because party political loyalties kicked in and the inquiry's conclusion was abortive. G.K. Chesterton made a good remark about that. He said that the Marconi affair
How often have we heard that in more recent times? He then said that recent history could no longer be divided into "Pre-War and Post-War conditions", but should be divided into "Pre-Marconi and Post-Marconi".
That episode led to the 1921 Act, which is why I call it the moment when Parliament contracted out. It was the moment when Parliament decided that it could not rely on itself to conduct inquiries. I gibed at what the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) said because it was not a moment of great parliamentary glory, but the moment when Parliament said that it could not do the sort of things it used to do, so it should put in place a mechanism to enable others to do so for it.The effect was that Parliament was sidelined. It no longer undertook the sort of inquires that it used to undertake into matters of public concern affecting Ministers. There have been various lamentations over the years about that failure.
Select Committees have sometimes tried to undertake such inquires and have run into the sand. When the Trade and Industry Committee investigated the BMARC affair it gave up and recommended that a parliamentary commission should investigate the matter with access to persons and papersas Select Committees have in principle, but not in practice. The former Public Services Committee, in the wake of the Scott inquiry, recommended such a parliamentary commission to investigate matters in which Parliament should be centrally involved.
The most conspicuous example of Parliament trying to do that was in 1978 over the Rhodesia oil sanctions. The Government of the day, faced with demands for an inquiry into what happened, proposed a special commission of inquiry to be composed of Members of both Houses and chaired by a Law Lord. That was approved by this House without a Division, but was voted down by the other place, so that parliamentary commission was never established.
Are we content that Parliament has abandoned the matter and that we simply demand that inquiries should be held by someone, but that there is nothing we can do about it if they are not? In particular, are we content for inquiries, if they are held, to be held into matters that we should properly investigate? As the Committee took evidence, we found many important voices who were prepared to say that they thought that Parliament should do what they had done. For example, Richard Scott, of the Scott inquiry, told us that he thought that Parliament should have done what he did. Lord Butler assented to the proposition that his inquiry did not require a team of Privy Councillors, but should have been anchored in Parliament.
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Michael Bichard said, interestingly, that inquiries were on a continuumsome being purely factual, which need someone to investigate and sort out the facts, and at the other end those that are essentially political, although they require some facts to be determined. He thought that the political end of the continuum should be the responsibility of Parliament because such inquiries involve politically contentious issues, such as the conduct of Ministers and Departments. For that category of inquiry, we have to decide whether we are content that someone else should be asked to conduct them
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