Mr. Prentice: I understand all that. The Saville inquiry is atypical, but there are many inquiries, as we discovered in our work, that run on for two, three or four years. There should be some expedition, some sense of urgency. Some of the better inquiries do their work quickly. We heard about the Bichard inquiry into the Soham murders, with its 31 recommendations. That was all wrapped up in about six months. There are lessons to be learned from that.
I was talking about the 1921 Act and pointing out that the statutory role of Parliament in establishing inquiries will be removed. My friend from Thurrock and others have referred to Select Committees. We remember that Treasury Ministers refused point blank to attend the Transport Committee's inquiry into the London Underground public-private partnership. We remember, because my friend has just reminded us, that the Foreign Affairs Committee tried to get its hands on John Scarlett, but he would not go before a Select Committee of the House, although he subsequently appeared before the Hutton inquiry. We need to look urgently at the application of the Osmotherly rules, to give Parliament teeth. If Parliament had the same powers in practice as, say, the Hutton inquiry, it would really make an enormous difference. Lord Hutton admitted as much.
Inquiries are set up by Ministers using prerogative powers, and this will be the case after the Bill has passed. The initiative is very much in the hands of Ministers when deciding whether to hold an inquiry. My friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood
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(Mrs. Humble) spoke earlier about the Deepcut inquiry. The Minister of State at the Ministry of Defence told the House that the Government were rejecting calls for an inquiry into the deaths of the four young soldiers at Deepcut barracksI quote from the Public Administration Committee reportby saying:
"We cannot run the Government on the basis of pubic inquiries. They may be good for lawyers, but they are not good for the governance of this country."[Official Report, 24 May 2004; Vol. 421, c. 1318.]
So the Government will not have a public inquiry into what took place at Deepcut, and to be fair, the Defence Committee, which reported yesterdayor was it the day before?drew back from calling for a public inquiry.
Mr. McNamara: My hon. Friend makes a statement about what the Ministry of Defence will or will not do. May I point out that its original view was that there was never any problem about people committing suicide in the Army? It then said that there was perhaps a problem. Then no figures were available; then figures were available. It then said that perhaps it might look at the problem and perhaps it might not. It then suggested that perhaps an education group would look at the issue and then that it would get the distinguished barrister, Mr. Blake, to look at it. There is now the possibility of an independent ombudsman becoming involved. So the MOD can give way to pressure, and one of the important things about the House is that we should not take no for an answer.
Mrs. Humble: There is an important point to make about the MOD's response to the Deepcut and Beyond campaign by the families if the Bill is about simplifying matters and saving money. The MOD is an example of a Department that has spent huge sums on not having a public inquiry, but on holding a police investigation, and a separate police investigation to investigate the first one, on setting up an inspectorate to look at training methods, and now on setting up the Blake inquiry. It would have been a lot simpler if the MOD had set up an independent inquiry in the first place and answered the parents' concernsthen the issue would have been dealt with.
I agree with that. The litmus test is whether there is huge public anxiety. If people are clamouring, with good reason, for a public inquiry, the Government should accede to their wishes and hold a public inquiry. Of course, we know of not just Deepcut but Gulf war syndrome. All MPs have received shoals of letters from constituentsex-military people and
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ordinary members of the publiccalling for an independent public inquiry. Even when the Royal British Legion secured the services of the former Law Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, that did not embarrass the Government or shame them into holding an independent public inquiry. Lord Lloyd has reported and his report has just sunk to the bottom of the pond. What people really want is a fully fledged public inquiry into Gulf war syndrome, and that wish will not go away.
There are two types of inquiry that should not be a matter for Ministerssomething that is picked up in the Select Committee reportand the first type is the inquiry into ministerial conduct. Not so very long ago, Sir Alan Budd's inquiry investigated the conduct of the former Home Secretary. Sir Alan came before our Select Committee and he took us through the procedure. The phone rang. He picked it up. The permanent secretary at the Home Office was on the other end of the line and asked, "Sir Alan, are you available for this inquiry?" We were told that a number of individuals were canvassed, but it just so happened that Sir Alan was free and available, and he is a public servant with a very strong sense of duty and obligation. That was why he took it on. However, surely that approach is very ad hoc, is it not? It is amazing that a permanent secretary can set up an inquiry into the conduct of his Minister in such a way. That is why my friend from Cannock Chase says that it is better to involve the parliamentary ombudsman in matters that touch on the application of the ministerial code, which are currently the responsibility of the Prime Minister. The parliamentary ombudsman should investigate such matters. She has the confidence of the House and is an Officer of the House. She could report simultaneously to the Prime Minister and the House. Allegations of ministerial misconduct should be properly investigated in such a way.
Ministers should not be involved at all when questions are raised about the way in which they discharge their ministerial responsibilities, however they are defined. We spoke earlier about the Butler report and the controversy over the illusive, imaginary weapons of mass destruction. The Select Committee says that such matters should be investigated by a parliamentary commission. They should not be investigated by Privy Councillors who are plucked from thin air using the royal prerogative, but people appointed following a recommendation from the Liaison Committee. The inquiry would thus be rooted in Parliament itself.
Ministers tell us that such things are up to Parliament and that Parliament can do what it wants. Yes, theoretically, Parliament is sovereignI hear that from my friend from Thurrock all the time. However, Parliament rarely gets up off its knees. Its posture is one of grovelling.
Yes, supine. We must construct mechanisms that translate the theoretically awesome power of Parliament into something that works on the ground. Otherwise, as my friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) said, we are just a decorative part of the constitution. We should be more than that.
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A few other things have troubled me, so I am going to get them off my chest. The first is the whole business of inquiries being chaired by judges. I agree with the amendment adopted in the other place that the appointment of a judge as a chair of an inquiry should be a matter of co-decision between the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice, or another relevant leader of the judiciary. There was quite a spat about that in the other place, which led to the Lord Chancellor and Lord Justice Woolf locking horns. In the Government's response to the Select Committee's recommendations, they said that they were
I ask my friends on the Front Bench whether the Government will resist the amendment and try to reinstate the Bill as originally drafted in Committee. I hope that they will not, because the provision has the support of both Labour and Opposition Members.
My friend from Cannock Chase touched on the appointment of wing members. Wing members could offer advice, counsel and sometimes common sense to the personoften a judgechairing an inquiry. That is a good idea. Lord Hutton was marvellously open and relaxed about his inquiry's conclusions when he appeared before the Select Committee. He confessed that he was ignorant of the machinery of governmentI am not breaching any confidences, because this is what he told the Select Committeeand had not thought through the implications for freedom of information when he posted emails between Jonathan Powell and Alastair Campbell on the net so that billions of people around the world could see them. He did not realise that that would have a huge ripple effect and would have implications for future inquiries.
He, along with Gavyn Davies, was one of the many casualties of the report. When major inquiries report, some people lose outthey lose their reputation and their job, and they might lose everything. It is therefore important to have a system for establishing inquiries that is as fair as possible. Judges may be skilled at ferreting out the truth and the facts, but in my experience, they need expert wing members to give them counsel. I am reminded of Lord Scott, another judge who worked alone for many years on his arms to Iraq inquiry. Geoffrey, now Lord, Howe said that Scott got lost in a swamp of detail. To this day, in my little study at home I have Scott's five volumes, but as the years pass, I find it more difficult to pick them up. It was an enormous great investigation, but there was far too much detail. I feel very strongly that it should be obligatory to give evidence on oath.