|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Lembit Öpik: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is very hard to understand why the Government are resisting such a proposal? It will not put any undue pressure on the Government to do something that they should not be willing to do automatically anywayin other words, to involve the House in important decisions made by Ministers.
Mr. Moss: I accept that point. I hope that those who serve on the Standing Committeethe Whip is not here, and I am not asking to do sowill seek to strengthen those words. The word "will" should replace the word "may". After all, if such consultation is important, it should be mandatory.
A number of concerns have been expressed about the Billnot least of which, of course, relates to the true independence of any future inquiry under the new legislation. I submit the view that the Bill shows a shift in the responsibility to set up inquiries from Parliament to the Executive. Under the 1921 Act, there is a requirement for a resolution of both Houses before such inquiries are established, yet that requirement is not in the Bill.
A statement must be made by the Minister under clause 6I believe that the other place made that amendmentbut as had been said already, it can be
15 Mar 2005 : Column 182
either oral or written. With a written statement, Members cannot question the Minister about the rights and wrongs of the inquiry or its terms of reference. That provision also ought to be strengthened in Committee.
The powers of the Minister under the Bill are stronger than hitherto. They are additional to those in the existing legislation, and a proper balance needs to be reached between the Minister's responsibilities and those of the inquiry chairman.
If the Minister is in control of the terms of reference, he can set them. As we have seen recently with the Hutton inquirythe Butler inquiry was not of the same natureby setting narrow parameters for the inquiry, we can end up with a conclusion that is probably perfectly honourable and proper, given the evidence within those boundaries, but the outcome causes a great deal of disquiet and a lack of widespread support among the public.
As has been mentioned already in the debate, perhaps the Bill's introduction has been prompted by the Saville inquiry's overrun costs. Its cost has been estimated at between £160 million and £250 million. If that is the case, or if that is an ingredient in the decision-making process that has arrived at the Bill, would the Saville inquiry have been any quicker or any cheaper if the Bill had been on the statute book? That question was rightly posed earlierI do not know the answer, and I suspect that the Minister does not either, but it should be answered.
Lembit Öpik: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that clause 18the key clause in respect of an inquiry's costsprovides no reason necessarily to think that the Saville inquiry would be cheaper? Clause 18 states:
I would imagine that anyone who has handed in an invoice to the Saville inquiry would claim that theirs was a necessary cost. So although I hope that the Bill will make such things cheaper, does he agree that, as it is currently phrased, it is not clear what mechanism will cause us, without the benefit of hindsight, to make better decisions than were made with regard to the Saville inquiry's costs?
Further amendment to improve the Bill is indeed necessary. Surely, in the interests of independence, the Bill should ensure that the Minister not only consults but gains the consent of the chairman of the inquiry, principally before establishing or modifying terms of reference, before modifying the composition of the panel and before suspending or terminating the inquiry.
The Government have moved a little way so far in accepting that consultation between the Minister and the chairman is necessary. We would go further by
15 Mar 2005 : Column 183
saying that, if the chairman is to be independent, the Government should gain the chairman's consent before making those fundamental changes. Only that will convey to the general public that the Government cannot intervene even if the inquiry is not going in quite the direction that they would like. If the Minister has the power to intervene and stop things in their track, it would indeed smack of a massive whitewash. I cannot understand why the Government want to leave that question mark hanging over the Bill.
We would also like to change clause 20, which relates to restriction notices. That matter was addressed powerfully and persuasively by the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) when he referred to a specific case from the Province of Northern Ireland that was extremely important to him and others. It would seem from both his analysis and my reading of the clause that it will give the Government the power to withhold information as and when they choose. They will also have the power to direct Departments to do the same and to decide that certain people may not attend an inquiry. If the Government are serious that the Bill is designed to promote the independence of inquiries, clause 20 must be examined carefully. We also want clarification of the definitions of public interest and damage to the economy in the clause because Conservative Members think that both phrases are too obtuse to be included in the Bill.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. David Lammy): I hesitate to intervene, but there is now consensus about the interpretation of public interest, certainly in case law. The hon. Gentleman might recall that part of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International inquiry was held in private specifically because there was a question about the nature of the economy and because information could have come out that might have damaged the economy. I am thus surprised that he raises that point.
Mr. Moss: The Minister might be surprised that I am raising the point, but other people are raising it, too. It is perfectly legitimate to raise such matters during a Second Reading debate. If he wants to respond to the points that I make, he can do so in his winding-up speech. People are saying that the clause is too restrictive and that it will give the Government the power to control the ingredients of an inquirythe people who turn up and the paperwork that is revealed. If he wishes to justify his position, he will have plenty of time to do so at the end of the debate.
We question the role given to the Minister by clause 26, of determining how to publish the findings of an inquiry and the timing of the report. If the Government are giving chairmen the responsibility of running inquiries, such decisions should be in the hands of those chairmen. We will want to amend the clause to reflect that.
Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge) (Lab):
A great deal of what I wanted to say has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright), so I
15 Mar 2005 : Column 184
shall not cover that ground again. However, this is indeed the right time to review the procedures for public inquiries. When the Public Administration Committee conducted its inquiry, the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921 was referred to by Sir Andrew Turnbull as a "clunking instrument". Events have shown that that is the case. The Act is now not used for most inquiries, because they are conducted using a different procedure.
I am interested in the extent to which Parliament has been involved in inquiries and the extent to which it will be involved under the Government's proposals. I take complete account of my hon. Friend's point about the way in which the 1921 Act effectively contracted out Parliament's role of conducting inquiries to other bodies. It is time for us to reclaim that ground, but I want to examine whether the Bill gives us grounds to be optimistic that that will happen.
The 1921 Act provided that Parliament had to pass a resolution to allow inquiries to be given the powers detailed in that Act, which gave Parliament a measure of control over whether an inquiry should be carried out and the conditions under which it should take place. Under the Bill, Ministers will have to make a statement to Parliament about an inquiry's terms of reference and membership. When Ministers make a statement, even if it is oral, there is not a vote. Although one assumes that a Minister would note comments made by Members of Parliament, the House would not necessarily be involved in making the decision. As the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) said, the statement need not be oral. I assume that a written statement could be madethe Minister seems to be nodding: that would mean that the House would have no way of expressing its views at that point.
I have read clause 7 carefully, but given the way in which it is drafted, it does not seem to be of much use at all. If a Minister does not want to bring a case of ministerial misconduct before the House, he will not do so. It is difficult to think of circumstances in which clause 7 would be used. There would be few circumstances in which a Minister would want to bring a matter of ministerial misconduct before the House. The clause is thus superfluous. Although I hope that we can replace it with a stronger measure, I am not optimistic that that will happen.
I am sure that there are many differences between the Bill and the 1921 Act, but I have picked out only several. Under the 1921 Act, the report of an inquiry need not be laid before Parliament, but that will be required under the Bill. I would like to know the implications of that. Will Parliament necessarily have the right to debate an inquiry report, which it does not have at present? I ask that question perhaps because I do not understand the procedures involved very well.
Our discussion on terms of reference was interesting. More than one inquiry chairman told the Select Committee that he found it necessary to clarify the inquiry's terms of reference. The Committee recommended that there should be a short consultation period after the announcement of an inquiry to ensure that the terms of reference met the expectations of the inquiry. Sir Michael Bichard said that he found it
15 Mar 2005 : Column 185
necessary to take careful note of the terms of reference when he conducted his inquiry. However, we heard in relation to the BSE inquiry that
Terms of reference are obviously open to interpretation by chairmen, but it is nevertheless important for us to get them right. The way in which they are drafted should not unnecessarily constrain an inquiry.
I understand that there is a duty on Departments to report on the implementation of inquiry recommendations. I am interested in the lessons learned from inquiries. The findings of inquiries on foot and mouth outbreaks over the past century have not always been closely heeded. It has been said that if the lessons of the 1967 inquiry had been properly acted on, we would not have had an outbreak of foot and mouth in 2001. That shows that although inquiries are often held and sensible recommendations are made, they are not always heeded and acted on.
It was therefore extremely helpful of Sir Michael Bichard to say that he would reconvene his inquiry within six months to look at the way in which the Home Office had acted on his recommendations following the tragic events in Soham, which is not far from my constituency. I watched the events there with great interest. I crave your indulgence to discuss the Bichard inquiry, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because it helps me to explain the circumstances that led to its conclusions. Sir Michael Bichard made many recommendations, including the suggestion that the police establish a national intelligence system for England and Wales and that the Criminal Records Bureau have access to other databases.
The importance of that came home to me on new year's eve when, tragically, Sally Geeson, a young female student in my constituency, was abducted and murdered by someone who had been identified as very dangerous by the Ministry of Defence when he was court-martialled for the offence of false imprisonment. Sally's relatives naturally called for an inquiry into the circumstances of her death. Lance Corporal Atkinson was known to be a dangerous person, yet he was allowed freedom to become involved in activities that proved tragic for my constituent. I wrote to Sir Michael Bichard to ask whether he would look into the case. The important issue was not so much the circumstances surrounding Sally's death, which had already been investigated by the police, but whether the information known to the MOD was known to the CRB and the police. Strangely enough, the reconvened inquiry published its report today, and at the end Sir Michael says that he understands that the Home Office has written to the MOD as a result of the Sally Geeson case
It should be much more common for chairmen to reconvene their inquiries after a period to ascertain whether their recommendations have been pursued. That also gives people the opportunity to look at the recommendations and consider whether their scope needs
15 Mar 2005 : Column 186
to be broadened to take account of subsequent events. It is terribly important that Departments be encouraged to look at the implementation of recommendations. A procedure should be established so that over time Departments examine recommendations and see whether they have been implemented in the most effective way. That could have prevented a number of tragic events, including the foot and mouth outbreak, which caused so much grief in 2001.
The Bill represents an improvement on the current position, but amendments could usefully be made to it. As parliamentarians, we should look carefully at our role and see whether there are better ways of becoming involved in what my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase called a parliamentary commission, so that we can consider inquiries into events that concern both the general public and the House.
|Next Section||Index||Home Page|