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Lembit Öpik: I have listened with great interest to the hon. Lady's comments about Deepcut and Beyond and put on record my appreciation of her work on the issue, with other colleagues, on a cross-party basis. Does she agree, however, that the problem is that the terms of reference are so much in the hands of the Minister that even with this new Bill, as it stands, there is a danger that a public inquiry would be limited to too narrow a remit? Therefore, the inquiry might not get to the answers that the Deepcut and Beyond families require. Does she agree that we are looking for some assurance from the Under-Secretary that the Government are willing to discuss these issues in Committee to ensure that this legislation contains genuine added value for the people who matter mostthe general public?
The hon. Gentleman has taken the words out of my mouth, as I was going to urge that on the Under-Secretary. In any inquiry that is set up, it is vital that the terms of reference are right. With an issue as complex as non-combat deaths, it is vital to have clarity. As more and more service families learn of the Deepcut and Beyond campaign, they are coming forward with a wide variety of experiences. It will therefore be difficult to decide where the cut-off point should be, but there must be a cut-off point, as no inquiry can be open-ended. It is vital, however, that those with a genuine cause should not be excluded because the terms of the inquiry are too narrowly definedbecause it might be in the best interests of the Department concerned so to define them. We must make sure that if a thread runs through events, that thread runs through the inquiry, too.
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The Under-Secretary should be aware that the call for a public inquiry has been supported not only by the families of the young men and women who have died in non-combat circumstances but by 240 Members of Parliament. That should not just be brushed to one sideand that brings me back to my earlier point about the circumstances in which a Minister will listen and take into account such overwhelming calls from the public and Members for an inquiry.
As I said earlier, I hope that this Bill will not just be a consolidation but will enable inquiries to have more powers and to be more clearly focused. I am pleased that clause 22 gives the chairman of an inquiry power to compel people to come forward and give evidence, but I note that the exemptions in clause 23 are based on satisfying the test for civil proceedings. What happens if some sort of criminal liability is being discussed? I worry that evidence will not be given to the inquiry because people fear criminal prosecution, and that therefore much of the evidence given will not satisfy those who have called for it.
Like others, I read with interest the recommendations of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. The report referred to the issue of how inquiries deal with deaths, especially deaths falling within the ambit of article 2 of the European convention on human rights. A public inquiry is clearly not a court of law, but we must ensure that we get right not just the terms of reference but the powers of the inquiry; otherwise, we shall not secure the justice that so many of us want.
Clause 2 is entitled "No determination of liability". While many members of the public believe that an inquiry should determine who is to blame for what has occurred, the explanatory notes to the Bill state:
"The aim of inquiries is to help to restore public confidence in systems or services by investigating the facts and making recommendations to prevent recurrence, not to establish liability or to punish anyone."
"if a train crashes because the driver has gone through a stop light and he is then proved to be drunk while on duty, I would expect the blame to be stated very clearly".[Official Report, House of Lords, 9 December 2004; Vol. 667, c. 1004.]
That is patently obvious. There will be inquiries when liability should be apportioned to those who are plainly liable. If other proceedings need to be brought as a result, or indeed have already been brought, that will be an issue for the courts. However, those who are asking for justice, as the Deepcut and Beyond families are, want an inquiry that will look into exactly that sort of issue: who is liable?
Mr. McNamara: Article 2 of the convention requires blame to be apportioned. I do not understand why, having incorporated the convention in our domestic law in 1998, we are now introducing legislation which I venture suggest will be usedalmost certainly, in the Finucane caseto deal with causes of death, and trying to cut out the responsibility conferred by article 2. If we do that, the families will be off to Strasbourg again.
As always, my hon. Friend makes a very interesting point. I refer him to clause 2, and I hope
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that questions will be asked about the issue in Committee. Certainly, according to the explanatory notes, it is not part of the Bill's purpose to determine liability. There has to be some answer to this issue, because otherwise, when a constituent writes to us asking us to campaign for a public inquiry and we secure such an inquiry, they will say, "It didn't give me the answer I wanted." If an inquiry is not going to provide answers, why set it up? Inquiries have to be set up with the right terms of reference and the right powers, and they must determine the truth of what happened. They must accord justice to those who demand it, and make sure that lessons are learned from what went wrong.
Will the Bill help or hinder those who wish public inquiries to be held into issues of great importance to them and to the country? How will the Minister and his colleagues in various Departments respond to calls for such inquiries? If the Bill makes the process simpler and more transparent, it will have wholehearted support. Clearly, there will be instances of frivolous demands for public inquiries, or of demands that can be addressed in other ways, such as through the judicial system. However, many people are making genuine calls for inquiries, yet such calls are dismissed year after year. With each passing year, more evidence is produced, yet those calls are still dismissed.
The time has come when the Government must address these issues seriously and clearly. The time has come for them to tell us and our constituents, "These are the rules within which we are working. Some issues are not suitable for public inquiries, but others clearly should be. We have now introduced a simpler, clearer system, with guidance and rules that will help you and your constituents to get the answers they want." If that is what this Bill does, it has my wholehearted backing. I have a feeling that it will be examined in great detail throughout its passage, and I sincerely hope that by the end of that process, it will answer those questions and satisfy the majority of Members and our constituents.
Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): I will try to avoid detaining the House for long because I know that there are many others who want to speak; indeed, I am very conscious of the request, which Mr. Speaker makes from time to time, that we take such factors into consideration.
Before I comment on the Bill's content and the supporting documents listed on the Order Paper, I want to draw attention to the fact that this Parliament has well over two years to go. Notwithstanding that, I cannot help feeling that my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) and the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) may not catch Mr. Speaker's eye many more times during this Parliament. Their speeches this afternoon were an extremely important contribution to our consideration of the Bill, but they also reflected their great contribution to Parliament.
It is true that I have not always seen eye to eye with my hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman, nor they with me, but I want to place on the record my appreciationit is shared by other Membersof the courage shown by the hon. Gentleman over many years, and of his contribution to this House. I say that unreservedly and
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from the bottom of my heart, despite past comments that I might have made, or my past trespasses on certain matters relating to his party. Of course, the same appreciation is also due to my hon. Friend, who has helped me at every stageboth since I have been in Parliament and before. I hope that all Members present concur, and that they will want to be associated with those remarks.
The Bill is, on the face of it, a satisfactory and prudent piece of legislation, but as I said in my intervention earlier, the test will be whether it alters the culture of the present or subsequent Governments in respect of openness and allowing oxygen in for a full examination of the problems or alleged scandals that arise from time to time. During my period in the House, I have felt frustrated that Parliament is not always fulfilling its role of providing adequate scrutiny of legislation and that Governments are not as open as they should be in a democracy.
I was particularly aware of that problem after Labour came to office in 1997. The Foreign Affairs Committee clearly had a duty to probe the reasons for the deployment of British troops in Sierra Leone, particularly in connection with what became known as the Sandline affair. It posed the important issue of the interface of Her Majesty's Government and British armed forces with mercenary forces. It is a shame, but the Government immediately assumed that anyone who wanted to inquire into the affair was necessarily opposed to them. That was not the case. I have always taken the view that it is Parliament's duty to know what is going on, particularly when our armed forces are being deployed in potential conflict situations, and certainly when they are dealing with mercenary soldiers. Yet the Governmentand, I have to say, Sir John Kerr, who was in charge of the Foreign Office at that timeput every obstruction in the way of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Speaking for myself, the more they tried to obstruct us, the more determined I was not to be thrown off.
All that led to a fraught situation. It poses a problem that the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) and my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright) mentioned earlier. When we go into our Select Committees, we try to leave our party politics at the door, but we are creatures of political parties. I certainly found, in dealing with the Sandline affair and then again with Iraq, that considerable disagreement and some unpleasantness broke out in Select Committee between people who were otherwise and hitherto colleagues in the same political party.
I shall return to the matter in greater detail later, but I believe that the proposal advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase, who chairs the Public Administration Committeethat there should be some form of parliamentary commissionis highly commendable. I hope that the Government will accept some amendments to accommodate that proposal in Committee.
Since the Iraq war, we have encountered from the Prime Minister downwardsno doubt it has also appeared in briefing notes that are issued from time to timethe argument that goes, "What's the problem with Iraq? We have had four inquiries and nothing suspect has been found." I do not want to stray into debating Iraq, Madam Deputy Speaker, but the
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inquiries are relevant to our debate. Of course, the Prime Minister and others who make that sort of point are overlooking a number of things. They pray in aid four inquiries. One was carried out by the Foreign Affairs Committee, of which I am a member. It and I were subjected to considerable criticism for the way in which we pursued our inquiries. On another occasion, I would be prepared to explain and elaborate all the circumstances[Interruption.] It was flawed, partly because of the Government's reluctance to collaborate in the early stages. I have to say that many of my colleagues, whom in every other respect I consider friends, were bitterly opposed to our inquiry.
From my experience of the Sandline affair and Iraq, the question of whether or not the Select Committee should hold an inquiry and what it should inquire into was not just a matter of one vote. Whether the inquiry would be sustained depended on vote after vote after vote. Some wanted to close the inquiry and some wanted to stop inquiries into particular aspects of the subject.
I return to the proposal for a parliamentary commission of inquiry, which could take out that tension and cause of bad blood between friends and party colleagues, not to mention other parties. It will be different if just one vote is necessary to establish a commission on a particular subject, rather than depending on division after division, sometimes week after week, in order that an inquiry can be sustained. Then, of course, one sometimes feels aggrieved, as I have felt when I have been unable to command a majority. I have also felt aggrieved when party colleagues have accused me of voting with the Conservatives. That is deeply offensive. I have nothing personal against our Conservative colleagues, but they will understand that that accusation is hurtful. It has been made on a number of occasions, and I dismiss and resent it, as every time I was voting in favour of holding an inquiry. At the very least, adopting the Select Committee's recommendation will mean that the incidence of such unpleasantness will be greatly diminished.
The Prime Minister has also referred to the Security and Intelligence Committee. As I have said in the Chamber many times, that is nonsense. That Committee is appointed by the Prime Minister, who heads the security and intelligence services. It is true that the scrutineers are Members of Parliament, but they are not appointed by this House. The Committee does not use House of Commons Clerks, and its meetings are so secret that Committee members blush when one intercepts them waiting for the white van that takes them to meetings from the taxi rank in New Palace Yard, and asks them where they are going. They are petrified about telling people that they are going to a meeting of the Security and Intelligence Committee at the Cabinet Rooms. The Security and Intelligence Committee's members are obsessed with secrecy, but its reports are prayed in aid as examples of openness.
Another such example is the Butler inquiry, which was not granted from the outset but was rather extracted from Government. In contrast, the Hutton inquiry was appointed on the Government's initiative, but without consultation with Parliament. People should not dismiss that extremely important point. Mr. Speaker was not
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consulted and neither was Parliament, even though the Hutton inquiry had important ramifications for Parliament's independence.
Our Bill of Rights has its flaws and deficiencies, but one of its strengths is that it acknowledges that Parliament is supreme. That principle has been translated to constitutions in north America and around the world. We have exported our parliamentary institutions, yet the Hutton inquiry was the first to look into this House's conduct and stewardship of inquiries. Hutton is a judge, but my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase was right to distinguish between inquiries headed by judges and judicial inquiries. The difference is substantial.
The Hutton inquiry was not judicial. Its principal term of reference was to deal with matters expeditiously. It is always dangerous to tell the person presiding over an inquiry to make sure that it is completed quickly. I wish that Lord Hutton had said that he would not be told by the Government at what speed he should conduct his inquiry. The inquiry included no provision for cross-examination other than in the most narrow sense. Only some people could cross-examine witnesses. Information was not fully disclosed. I made a written submission to Lord Hutton and, to my surprise, it remains secret and outside the public domain. Many other submissions remain secret. In addition, I and my colleagues were not able to make opening statements. The Clerk of the House of Commons wrote to Lord Hutton to remind him of the rights of Parliament under the Bill of Rights, and that this place has comity with the courts.
In retrospect, I believe that the status of Parliament should have been made clear, and I hope that that will happen in future. Although I have got into trouble before for saying so, I repeat that I believe that this is the high court of Parliament. We need to safeguard that status jealously. To do otherwise would be foolish in the extreme, for Parliament and for the constitution of our parliamentary democracy.
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