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Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): My Friend omits Lord Hutton, who told us that Select Committees should have powers to call individuals. Of course, John Scarlett famously appeared before the Hutton inquiry, but the Foreign Affairs Committee was turned down when it asked him to appear before it.
Tony Wright: My hon. Friend makes a good additional point in support of my general proposition.
Mr. Dalyell : As a Member of Parliament, I gave long evidence to Lord Franks's committee and was very upset at its conclusions, which bore little relation to the guts of the report. Shortly before Lord Franks died, I taxed him with that and he said, tersely, "You were a Member of Parliament. Why on earth did not the House of Commons do it itself?" That reinforces my hon. Friend's point.
Tony Wright: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The cases of the Falklands inquiry and the Butler inquiry, in which we contracted out politically central issues to committees of Privy Councillors, were the worst form of abdication. In many cases, it is perfectly proper and desirable to want some external person to investigate, but in cases that are at the centre of political argument and debate, there is no other appropriate mechanism. Increasingly, judges, led by the Lord Chief Justice, are sayingand this is why the Bill requires amendmentthat they will not be conscripted by Governments into doing their political business for them and providing a cloak of judicial respectability. The issues at stake are essentially political and parliamentary, sowhether we like it or notwe have reached the point at which the House of Commons has to decide whether it wishes to reclaim some of the ground.
Lembit Öpik: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that for those political inquiries that he is discussing we have a mechanism that could be usedthe Select Committee process? However, for that to be effective, it would be vital that the Select Committee did not operate on a tribal basis. The difficulty is that if issues of visceral importance to the future of the Government or the Prime Minister of the day were being investigated, there would be enormous pressure on Government politicians to be sympathetic to the Government's position and, indeed, for Opposition politicians to seek advantage by aggressively opposing it. I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but I seek his perspective on how we could overcome those fundamental tribal concerns.
I am grateful for those comments, which lead me to my next point. The Government
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invoked that argument in response to the Committee's arguments, but they also broadly accepted our analysis. The Government accept that there is a gap in the system, but they question how it might properly be filled. I pay tribute to the speed with which the Government have formally responded to the Committee's report, but in that response they state:
"There is no reason why the good work done by members through the present Select Committee system cannot be translated into a commission equipped to conduct a public inquiry. However, any Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry is ultimately a matter for the House to decide and to appoint and the government would welcome any progress on this issue."
That is a solution without a solution, if I may put it like that. It acknowledges the force of the Committee's analysis and the gap that has to be filled, but by suggesting that Select Committees should promote themselves and become commissions, it simply returns us to the problems that the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire described. If it were possible to turn Select Committees into commissions to investigate such issues, we would be doing it. If it had been possible for a Committee of the House to inquire into the circumstances surrounding the decision to go to war in Iraq or the death of David Kelly, we would have done it, but that proved impossible.
Mr. Gordon Prentice: If the Government want to make progress in that direction, surely they have to review the Osmotherly rules, which prevent civil servants from appearing before Select Committees.
Tony Wright: The Government have promised to do so, but we go round in circles on promises to review the Osmotherly rules every few years. I do not want to give away too many trade secrets, but there are certain inherent limitations in the way in which Select Committees work, even with our best endeavours. Some of the limitations are formal constraints, involving the mismatch between the powers formally available to the Committees and the reality on the ground, but some are simply to do with the way in which our party system works. The issue is whether, knowing all that, Parliament can find a mechanism to transcend those limitations and enable the Committees to do the job that we think has to be done.
Lembit Öpik: May I suggest a criterion that would be a good test of whether we could inquire into our own affairs? The test would be whether the system were robust enough to ensure that, regardless of who was in power, the inquiry would come to the same conclusion. To pass the test, the outcome would have to be so robust that it could not be influenced by the political persuasion of the Government of the day.
Tony Wright: As it happens, I have absolute confidence that the mechanism that I would recommend would have such authority behind it. Indeed, it would need to do so to function properly.
The Committee has argued that the Bill is welcome, as a consolidating measure. It can be improved in several ways, but there remains a category of inquiryat the political end of the spectrumthat it is inappropriate for other people to undertake and which is not being dealt with properly at the moment. Those cases need to
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be investigated. Indeed, the reputation of Parliament demands that such inquiries be undertaken if we are really to be at the centre of national life. That is what led us to think that we needed an amendment to the Bill, at least to leave open the possibility of what we call a parliamentary commissionwhat in 1978 was called a special commission of inquiry. Of course, it would be used only in certain circumstances, when the political circumstances make it possible. Of course, all that is so. Nevertheless, the possibility will exist and that will enable Parliament to have a role that it does not have at present.
I conclude by quoting a sentence from the very end of our report. We said:
"Parliament now has to decide whether it wants to reclaim territory it has lost as far as inquiries of this kind are concerned, becoming once again the Grand Inquest of the Nation, or whether it is content to abandon the field to others, and to the executive."
That is the question. When we talk about the Bill, it is not simply a question of making demands of the Executive; it forces us to make demands of ourselves, because this is a moment when Parliament really has to decideas we say in the reportwhether, having contracted out in 1921, it now wants to abandon the field altogether.
Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): It is indeed a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright), who gave us an extremely interesting insight into his Select Committee's report, which was published recently. It reinforces some of the views expressed in the other place: for example, that the measure may have been rather rushed, given all sorts of circumstances, not least among them the fact that the Committee had not actually finalised its report. His remarks, especially on the history of contracting out some of the particularly parliamentary-oriented inquiries, suggest that there is indeed a glaring hole in the Bill. If the Government had approached it in a more balanced and timely way, the arguments that are being deployed this afternoon could have been incorporated some time ago and a rather different Bill would be before us.
Given that the Bill is of huge constitutional significance and that the Government published their consultation paper, one wonders why, in the words of the hon. Gentleman, the Bill was not published in draft form, because it would have lent itself strongly to pre-legislative scrutiny. Indeed, the Deputy Leader of the House said last year that
"a Bill should be published in draft form unless there are good reasons for not doing so".[Official Report, 24 February 2004, Vol. 418, c. 19WH.]
We have had no explanation this afternoon as to why the Government changed their mind about the publication of the Bill in that form.
We need public inquiries of the kind that we have been discussing. The hon. Member for Cannock Chase drew our attention to the public's appetite for such inquiries. When things go wrong, the first thing people want is a public inquiry, especially an independent one, which suggests that we should be careful when setting up
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parliamentary-based inquiries. In the current climate, I am not sure that the public at large would necessarily feel that those investigating were doing so objectively.
The Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921 has served us pretty well over the years, although it is used only in particular circumstances. Hundreds, if not thousands, of inquiries have taken place in the intervening years not under that legislation but under more localised legislationif I can describe it thus. In fact, schedule 2 lists existing Acts of Parliament, sections of which will be repealed by the Bill because they will no longer be relevant to the inquiries in those sectors or Departments. The 1921 Act has been used four times in recent years as the legislative basis for inquiries such as those into Bloody Sunday, the north Wales child abuse, Shipman and Dunblane.
We need inquiries, because we need to ensure that those in public life are accountable. Furthermore, we must also ensure that through the inquiry lessons will be learned and acted on. That is an important ingredient, which we overlook at our cost. We need this legislation and the Opposition will be reasonably supportive of the Bill as it stands, although we should like further amendments in Committee. There is a need for consolidation. Deficiencies have been exposed, especially in the piecemeal, subject-specific powers given to other bodies under Acts of Parliament. There is a case, which the Government have made, that consolidation would be useful.
The Bill is needed on three counts. First, there is the modernisation dimension. We need to bring our knowledge and information up to date as a result of the history of various types of inquiry. Secondly, we need, if possible, to bring into the new legislation greater independence from Government of such investigations, which will meet with public agreement. Thirdly, in the light of the various ways in which inquiries can be held, an attempt should be made to provide an all-embracing legislative framework to cover more than the existing eventualities. I think the Bill makes such an attempt. We must at all costs avoid the potential for whitewashes, and ensure that new legislation retains all the necessary protections that we have inherited from past measures.
The Bill was substantially altered and amended in the other place, but why were so many amendments required at that early stage? Given the gestation period of the measure and the fact that even this afternoon the Government have said that there was fairly wide consultation, as well as discussion with the Select CommitteeI think that was confirmed by the hon. Member for Cannock Chasewhy did the Bill arrive in the other place, for its Second Reading and Committee, so massively deficient in so many aspects? One finds oneself concluding that either the Government were rushing it through without thinking carefully enough about it, or perhaps the Executive wanted legislation that gave them enormous powers at the expense of Parliament and other measures.
I put to the Minister who will respond to the debate the question that I put earlier to my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald): are the Government content with the many amendments that have so far been secured, or is it their intention to reverse them when the Bill goes into Committee in this place? That important question needs to be answered.
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Important amendments were made, and we and the other place believe that the Bill was immeasurably improved as a result of those amendments, but if the Government have set their mind to denying those aims, it is as well that we understand their motivation.
The amendments achieved in the other place refer to the Minister having to consult the chairman of the inquiry before appointing the panel, before establishing or modifying the terms of reference, before appointing assessors and before suspending or terminating an inquiry. It was either a massive oversight or a perverse intention by the Government to allow Ministers to wade in and change all those things in an inquiry without even consulting the chairman. It beggars belief that they thought that such an action would be acceptable.
The Minister must lay before Parliament the terms of reference and notices suspending or terminating the inquiry. As we have heard already, the Minister must secure the consent of the Lord Chief Justice before appointing judges to the panel. Of course, where ministerial misconduct is an issue, the Minister has the option to move a motion before Parliament that relates to the decision to hold an inquiry and, of course, its terms of reference.
As I said in an intervention on the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), clause 7(2), which is part of the new clause inserted by the other place, states:
"The Minister may, if he sees fits, move a motion before the relevant Parliament or Assembly for a resolution".
So such things can take place at the Minister's discretion, and the point that the hon. Gentleman made is an important one for the Minister to address in responding to the debate to clarify whether the Government will seek to water down that provision even furtherI understand that they are unhappy about itor whether they will accede to the wishes of those in the other place who successfully passed that amendment. No doubt, when the Bill is considered in Committee, a similar amendment will be required.
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