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Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): I am pleased to have an opportunity to speak in this debate and to follow some very good speeches, particularly the tour de force by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright), who chairs our Select Committee. I do not need to say much, because I agree with everything that he said, but I will have my few minutes.

I feel privileged to be a member of the Public Administration Committee and to be able to make a modest contribution to it. That is one of the most valuable things that I do in this place. It does some splendid work. I believe that our report on inquiries was first class, and I pay tribute to those who drafted it.

Having listened to the many witnesses whom we interviewed, I have come to the view that inquiries are even more valuable than I thought when we started. They are an immensely valuable part of our political life and make a great contribution to improving the quality of our debate and information about what happens in our society. They lead to significant improvements in the way in which we run things by illuminating dark corners and exposing important truths that we should know about even if we may not want to. They lead to better policy making and help us to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. I was impressed with many of the inquiry chairs and officials whom we met—including Lord Laming and secretaries Dr. Tim Baxter and Mr. Alan Evans—and interested in what they had to say. However, there are problems with inquiries. They do not often arise, because most inquiries do not directly impinge in any way upon a Government, who can happily set them up because they will not rebound on them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase mentioned Sir Michael Bichard in the context of the spectrum and continuum of types of public inquiry. At a Public Administration Committee meeting, I said that I did not believe that there was so much a continuum as two distinct types of inquiry. One might be considered "other regarding" from a Government perspective, in that a local authority or hospital trust might be in difficulty, whereas the other affects Government.

When inquiries affect Governments—an extreme example is the Hutton inquiry—they become politically controversial. We experience difficulties with that sort of inquiry. My hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) and the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) detailed some of the problems with such inquiries.

The Government should accept that sometimes life will be difficult for them and not resist too strongly inquiries that will cause them discomfort. Indeed, in my political life, I try to engineer opposition to what I say when I discuss issues because I learn a more precise truth only when I encounter opposition. If I try to surround
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myself with people who simply agree with me, I will not be an effective or valuable member of the political fraternity.

One of the strengths of British Governments in the past has been the existence of institutions that challenge them to an extent. We have had strong trade unions and local government, and a strong independent civil service. We have had what is called political pluralism. That is valuable, especially in our political system, which tends to centralise power. When I was a student some 40 years ago, there was a book by F. W. G. Benemy called "The Elected Monarch", about the British Prime Minister and how powerful he was. If it was true then, it is much truer now, after several more Governments of both parties. Downing street has aggregated more power than ever and Parliament has been sadly downgraded. Indeed, we might say, in Walter Bagehot's terms, that we have become more the decorative than the effective part of the constitution. That is not right. We live in a democracy and the House should have more power relative to the Executive. That may be uncomfortable and disagreeable for Government, but it is better for the people and ultimately better for the Government. Sometimes Governments get it wrong and they should accept that.

Unfortunately, Governments of both parties appear to believe that the dialectical debate has been resolved and that all truth now resides in Downing street. That is not so and we must constantly challenge, argue and debate matters. We should debate them in the House, not simply be told what to do and follow the decisions of a small number of people, who believe that they know what is best for us all. Even if I were in their position, I hope that I should want to be challenged.

The Bill should more closely resemble the Select Committee's recommendations, give more power to Parliament and provide for more openness. That would be a great improvement but, unfortunately, once Governments get into power, they do not like to give their power away. When they are in opposition, they say, "We want more democracy, more openness and more debate in the Chamber", but when they get into power, they say, "Oh, it's a bit difficult in this particular case." Within months, if not weeks, they have changed their view on some subjects and want to retain the powers that the previous Government held.

Looking back to the 1960s and 1970s, we had a relatively collegiate form of government rather than prime ministerial dictatorship. The Cabinet genuinely discussed matters. I understand—I was not a Member of Parliament at the time—that papers were presented to the Cabinet and open discussions ensued. One gets the feeling that that is no longer the case and that Governments do not welcome a challenge in the way that they once did. I believe that the change will come from the Labour party rather than the Conservative party, but I should like our Government to say, "Let's release the reins of central power in Downing street a little. Let's have a little more discussion and collegiality. Let's give Parliament a little more independence. Let's accept a bit more challenge from public inquiries and let's accept that the chairs of those inquiries will be able to publish information without necessarily going through a Minister." That would be healthy for our politics and our political institutions.
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That would have to be done voluntarily and it would take a brave leader, a brave politician, a brave Prime Minister to do it. They would inevitably be giving away some of their own power and, in politics, power is what it is all about. We do not like to give it away. However, it would be much better if we did, and the Bill could provide an opportunity for a Government—our Government, I hope—to give away a little more power from the Executive to the legislature and, indeed, to the electorate whom we serve. I shall not necessarily serve on the Bill's Committee, but I have one or two amendments that I hope to table through colleagues in Committee, and I hope that they will be accepted.

We have a job to do now, and that is to persuade the people of Britain that we are genuinely trustworthy and open, that the Government represent what people think and want, and what is in the people's interests, and that they are not just about the concentration of power in the hands of a small number of people who think that they know what is best for us. We have drifted too far in that direction for too long, and I want that drift to be reversed. The Bill could provide an opportunity to move in the other direction, and I hope that the Government will take that opportunity.

3.56 pm

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to follow so many serious and measured contributions to this important debate. The Bill is a slim volume, but it is an important document not only for Parliament but for many of our constituents, who look to public inquiries to give them the answers that they cannot get from any other source. It is therefore important for us to get this right.

I welcome the fact that the Government are presenting the Bill as a consolidation measure, but many of the hon. Members who have spoken this afternoon seem to be asking for more than that. Many have welcomed the fact that the Bill clarifies the law, and that it will tidy up untidy pieces of legislation that do not work well together to facilitate public inquiries, especially complex ones such as the inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbié. However, many of us, while supporting that degree of consolidation, also want more clarity about the role of Parliament and the power that we have, as Members, to raise issues on behalf of our constituents and to push for public inquiries. Some of us also hope that the establishment of public inquiries will be easier to achieve under the Bill, because our constituents want answers on many issues.

Concerns have been expressed about the increasing power that the Bill will place in the Government's hands. Consolidating the different pieces of legislation perhaps emphasises the fact that Ministers have always taken decisions, but those decisions have now been outlined with much greater clarity in the Bill. The Bill proposes to place the control over inquiries into the hands of the Government. Ministers will be able to appoint the chair of an inquiry without any consultation, and they will also be empowered to dismiss and replace an inquiry chair. They will be able to decide in advance whether to regulate or prevent public access to an inquiry. They will also be empowered to vary the structure and terms of reference, and decide whether to limit the publication of the inquiry report.
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They will be able to suspend or terminate an inquiry before it ends, and to decide that an inquiry should not attribute blame. That is a long list of powers, and we should consider carefully the impact that they will have on those of us who have supported our constituents in asking for public inquiries. Our constituents are not interested in how this legislation helps Parliament; they want to know how it helps them to get answers.

There are particular issues that I want to use as touchstones to discover how the Bill will help individuals. I make no apologies for that, because if we did not refer to real people and real cases we would be discussing legislation in a vacuum. All too often, we can pass legislation without realising what implications it might have for our constituents, so, if you will allow me, Madam Deputy Speaker, I want to mention two particular areas.

First, I chair the all-party Myodil group. Myodil is the commercial name for a drug that was injected into the spines of hundreds of people to act as a contrast agent so that clinicians could more clearly see the results of X-rays so as to determine whether the patient had a particular illness. That drug was enormously toxic. People who had myelograms then found that they suffered from a very painful condition called adhesive arachnoiditis.

Glaxo Wellcome withdrew the drug in 1987. There was then a court case, but many individuals who had undergone myelograms were excluded from it. Since then, they have been campaigning for a public inquiry. It has to be said that Governments of both parties have denied them that—because, they say, there was a court case, regardless of the fact that many people were not involved. They also say that the way in which drugs are monitored and licensed for use has changed. That is true, but they have left hundreds of people still wanting to know why they had an injection that they were not warned contained a toxic agent that may not have been essential for their treatment. They are suffering pain. More importantly, they are finding out much more about that drug—more than was known years ago. For example, they have found out about how other Governments reacted to it.

These people still want answers; they want a public inquiry. I have constituents who suffer and are asking me to support them. I get the same response from Ministers as Ministers have given over the past 10 years or more. So, for me, the question is: how can this Bill help? The Minister will still be making a decision. Will he or she make that decision on the same grounds as Ministers have in the past? This is not in the Bill, but will it have guidance attached on the rules within which Ministers will agree, or not agree, to a public inquiry? Will Ministers take into account issues that may have arisen many years ago, on which people still want justice, and still want answers?

The second example that I want to mention has already been raised by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik)—the Deepcut campaign. As the hon. Gentleman well knows, I support the families involved in the Deepcut and Beyond campaign, so I raise again the point about terms of reference that I made in an intervention on the Minister. The Deepcut and Beyond families have been campaigning for many years. There has been a good
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deal of publicity about the four tragic deaths at Deepcut barracks, but my constituent died not at Deepcut but at Catterick. He was not a young trainee.

All the debate in the media has been about how the Ministry of Defence looks after young trainees and its duty of care. The very interesting Defence Committee report published yesterday concentrated on young trainees. The issue for many of the Deepcut and Beyond families, however, goes beyond Deepcut and beyond training. In asking for a public inquiry for the Deepcut and Beyond families' campaign, I therefore have real concerns that without involvement by the victims of the issue which is to be the subject of the inquiry, the terms of reference will not satisfy people, and calls will continue for public inquiries to pick up on matters that the original inquiries did not cover. Deciding the terms of reference is therefore important.

I am concerned that the Bill does not require the Minister to consult others but leaves that to his discretion. How will he use that discretion? My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, when he sums up, might say that every case is different, that some cases will be clear-cut, that the Minister will be able to consult the inquiry chairman, and that that is a fairly narrow issue. All too often, however, there are victims and families who want to be consulted, and that is not mentioned anywhere in the Bill. Those victims and their families are our constituents, so we have a responsibility to be their voice in this place and to demand that that voice is heard.

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