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Tony Wright: On the Hutton inquiry, did my hon. Friend notice that the Committee's report expressed great reservations about judges sitting alone? We recommended that, routinely, they should sit with other panel members. We pointed out that if Lord Hutton had sat with a media expert and an expert in the machinery of government, it is likely that his findings would have been substantially different.
Andrew Mackinlay: I agree. I have an open mind about such matters, but the inquiry was flawed because the judge accepted the time scale in which he had to conduct his inquiry and that inevitably led to less than full disclosure, less cross-examination and few opening statements. I do not relish saying that the Hutton inquiry findings are deemed to be flawed. The proposition of my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase is eminently sensible. We must look at the matter more critically before the Bill receives Royal Assent.
I came into politics and became an avid reader of Private Eye when the world first heard of Lord Denning. My hon. Friend would probably not have been elected in the great Hull, North by-election but for what flowed from the Profumo case and the humbug of the Denning
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inquiry in 1963. He was elected in 1966 in the wake of the bumbling, nonsense and humbug of that period. That was exemplified by the way in which the Denning inquiry met, which was in private.
Mr. McNamara: I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words. I was elected because we had a brilliant Prime Minister and a brilliant Government who survived for 18 months with a majority of only three and introduced great and positive reforms that people rejoiced in.
My hon. Friend is correct. He was elected because of the great prudence of Harold Wilson, who pursued the then Conservative Government for setting up a committee of inquiry that sat behind closed doors. It was headed by a judge whom Mandy Rice-Davies referred to as a sweetie.
The parliamentary commission of inquiry commends itself to me. The Transport Committee adequately deals with inquiries on matters such as the location of airports. The Foreign Affairs Committee adequately considers our overseas missions and so on, but it also considered Sandline and why we went to war in Iraq. It can consider the broad issues relating to the war against terrorism, but we are not detectives. The Sandline and Iraq cases involved the Government, security forces and bitter opinion on both sides. It was difficult for us to probe adequately because that is not our function. However, uniquely in Parliament, the Public Accounts Committee can do that because it has the valuable tools of the National Audit Office and the Comptroller and Auditor General.
As I read the Public Administration Committee's report and its recommendations, it believes, as I do, that when Select Committees deal with what my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase and the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire referred to as highly charged political issues, there should be pre-examination by the equivalent of the National Audit Office and the Comptroller and Auditor General who can be a detective and caution witnesses, Ministers and Departments. With the need for candour and full disclosure, that can be done behind closed doors.
The painful experience of the past two years has persuaded me that cameras should not be allowed in courts and inquiries where rigorous examination takes place. Pre-examination would take place behind closed doors. The Committee would receive a report from those who carried out the investigation, as the Public Accounts Committee does. That is what happens in the US. Then, the Committee could deliberate in public and in private and produce its report on the detailed findings obtained by the examination officer on behalf of Parliament. That would be fairer to witnesses and there would be fewer cover-ups, whereas at the moment we see many cover-ups on fraught, highly charged political issues. It would be a great step forward and I hope that the Minister has an open mind on the issue.
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Mention was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) of the Osmotherly rules. Until they are clarified, we will always have people such as Sir John Kerr trying to use the Osmotherly rules to obstruct witnesses from Departments appearing before Select Committees. We need to tackle that problem, but the proposals by the Public Administration Committee may alleviate the tensions that have occurred when Committees have demanded that civil servants should appear before them.
"A person is guilty of an offence if during the course of an inquiry he does anything that is intended to have the effect of . . . distorting or otherwise altering any evidence, document or other thing . . . or . . . preventing any evidence, document or other thing from being given . . . or . . . intentionally suppresses or conceals a document".
And it continues. However, a few months ago, the House of Commonsfoolishly, in my viewvoted to do away with Sessional Orders that encapsulated those offences. That was a big mistake and I hope that we will revisit the issue. A culture has developed in which it is felt to be wholly legitimate to mislead or to fail to make full disclosure to parliamentary Committees. More worryingly, it is seen as perfectly proper for employers and managers, in both the public and private sectors, to lean on witnesses so that they are not candid with parliamentary Committees. It is amazing that we decided to do away with the Sessional Orders, which made it a high crime and misdemeanour to lean on another person to be less than candid before Parliament. I would like to table an amendment in Committee to extend clause 36 to Parliament, bearing in mind that we have comity with the courts and we are the high court of Parliament.
Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): It is always an education to listen to my friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), who is an expert on these constitutional matters. I wish to apologise to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to the House for my absence during the opening speeches: I was called away urgently.
We have covered a lot of ground this afternoon. As my friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright) said, the Bill is a consolidating measure. It draws attention to an important part of our constitution. As he told the House, our report states that
We have heard several times this afternoon about Lord Saville and his inquiry, which has been grinding on, year after year, since 1998. It has cost £155 million, and I heard some talk from the Opposition that the true figure could be £250 million. We heard that the opening speechthe opening speech!was 42 hours long, or was it 42 days long? It was astonishing.
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Mr. Mallon: One of the difficulties with the Saville inquiry was that it had to undo the faulty inquiry chaired by Lord Widgery. There was a danger in having reached a faulty conclusion through a faulty inquirythe infamous Widgery inquiryso the Saville inquiry's first business was to undo that. Secondly, there was an inordinate number of requests from the Ministry of Defence for judicial review, at enormous expense and waste of time.
Mr. Prentice: I do not want to get bogged down in Saville. Saville is already bogged down in Saville. The Widgery inquiry was convened rapidly and reported quickly. Saville may be trying to right wrongs, but what is the purpose of an inquiry that takes eight or more years to report? As I said to Lord Hutton, in the long run we are all dead, and that includes judges. It asks a lot of the judiciary that they should give up eight or nine years of their lives to inquire into matters.
Lembit Öpik: Just before we leave the Saville inquiryI hope for good in this debatedoes the hon. Gentleman accept, in defence of the Government, that the Saville case is exceptional? Much as I should like to think that we could find legislation to resolve such things, as I said in exchanges with the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss), there will always be pressure and responsibility on Ministers to set parameters about what they think reasonable. The error may have been a degree of naivety by the Government in thinking that leaving the cheque book open would not have inevitable consequences.
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