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Andrew Mackinlay: Yes.

Mr. Prentice: I have support from my friend from Thurrock. The Bill says that the inquiry chair may take evidence on oath. I believe that it should be obligatory to do so. When Donald Rumsfeld went to Capitol hill to
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give evidence to the Senate Committee, I watched the session on television. I remember watching him raise his hand and swear that he would tell the truth according to the constitution of the United States. We should have a similar arrangement here, and people should swear to tell the truth. When Butler reported in July 2004, it was a revelation to learn that the Secret Intelligence Service withdrew its reports on chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction in July 2003 because they were unsafe. However, when John Scarlett appeared before the Hutton inquiry, that fact was not reported. From memory, the Hutton inquiry started to take evidence in August 2003, but the security people had withdrawn cover for that crucial bit of evidence in July.

It is therefore important that people give evidence on oath. When I put that to the Lord Chancellor, he conceded that people behave differently when they give evidence on oath, as they start to think differently about the consequences, which are dire for someone who lies in court. They would be equally dire for someone who lied to an inquiry after taking the oath.

Andrew Mackinlay: Is not the importance of the oath also that it provides protection to those who want to be candid with the Select Committee or the committee of inquiry, but are being leaned on by superiors? The oath not only demands candour but offers some protection to those who might feel intimidated.

Mr. Prentice: I agree, and I do not see the problem in making the oath obligatory.

The final point that I want to get off my chest before I leave the subject of Hutton concerns cross-examination. The Prime Minister gave his evidence to the Hutton inquiry but there was no opportunity for cross-examination. When I asked Lord Hutton about that, he said he did not want to give the press a field day. I paraphrase what he said, but that was the gist of it.

We do not want inquiries to run on for ever, so it is important that when they make recommendations, those are acted on and there is a follow-up, as Michael Bichard has done. His report on the Soham murders came out in June 2004, and there was a statement, I believe, from Mr. Bichard today on the progress in implementing his 31 recommendations. He tells us that senior civil servants felt that the prospect of a public review concentrated their minds wonderfully. That is a good thing.

I wish that minds in No. 10 and in the Cabinet Office were similarly concentrated. Butler made his recommendations in July 2004, and a few days later the Prime Minister said at the Dispatch Box—I was present, as we all were—that the Government

Yet, when I asked the Cabinet Secretary last week how it was going, he said there were drafts circulating round Whitehall. It is now nine months after Butler. Whitehall seems to be spending more time thinking, ruminating and considering the recommendations than the Butler committee took to make them in the first place.

I welcome the new clause 6, which obliges Ministers to inform Parliament about the inquiry chair, the panel and the terms of reference, but astonishingly, the clause
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provides that the statement may be oral or written. A written statement is not good enough. I want to see the provision amended in Committee so that when Ministers want to set up an inquiry, they come to the Dispatch Box, make a statement and can be quizzed about it.

Despite these criticisms, minor though they may be, I welcome the fact that the Government have taken the opportunity to introduce the Bill. I am disappointed that Ministers did not take up more of the recommendations of the Select Committee, but I am hopeful that the Bill can be improved in Standing Committee.

5.4 pm

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): I declare any interest that I may have as a practising solicitor.

The debate has been interesting, though relatively short. As the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) said, the Bill is short, but involves issues of constitutional importance that demand our due consideration. The hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) and others recognised that inquiries fulfil an important social role. They can provide a platform from which to ascertain the facts surrounding issues of public concern. In turn, that provides catharsis, allowing us to learn from events, to apportion blame where appropriate and to provide reassurance for the future.

In recent years, the numerous important inquiries fall into three broad categories. First, inquiries of urgent public importance based on the 1921 Act, such as the Dunblane and Shipman inquiries. Secondly, inquiries based on subject-specific legislation, such as the Stephen Lawrence and Victoria Climbié inquiries, which were based on the Police Act 1996 and the National Health Service Act 1977 respectively. Thirdly, many ad hoc inquiries have been conducted without any statutory base, such as the BSE and Hutton inquiries. The Bill provides a model for consolidating legislation in that area.

In debating the Bill today, we have had the benefit of several reports on the subject, including "Effective inquiries", the Department for Constitutional Affairs consultation paper on which the Bill is largely based, the Public Administration Committee report and the Joint Committee on Human Rights report. We have also had the benefit of much debate and progress in another place, where the noble Lords identified the salient issues and introduced several amendments. As is clear from today's debate, several further amendments are required before the Bill is acceptable to all parties.

As my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) said, the Conservative Opposition welcome the introduction of new legislation to update and consolidate the current piecemeal approach to inquiries. The 1921 Act is inflexible and cumbersome and therefore rarely used. Subject-specific powers do not provide a suitable alternative, because an inquiry's subject matter may fall in the gap left between the various legislative powers or, conversely, be covered by more than one statute.

As many hon. Members have pointed out, the non-statutory path is unattractive, because it provides no basis on which to compel witnesses to come forward, to
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require evidence to be submitted and to provide protection from external influences. In his earlier comments, the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, the hon. Member for Shipley (Mr. Leslie), frequently referred to the many different types of inquiries as his defence against the charge of the centralisation of power in the Executive and the removal of parliamentary approval entailed by the Bill. That is a red herring, in so far as the Bill's stated purpose is to consolidate, and I hope that the Minister was not implying that the consolidation approach is a non-starter.

The Conservative Opposition welcome many of the amendments introduced in another place, particularly those that seek to redistribute the proper balance of power. As the hon. Members for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) and for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright) have pointed out, the Lord Chief Justice must now consent to the use of judges on inquiry panels, a decision that should never have been in the hands of Ministers. I agree with the hon. Member for Thurrock, who warned the Government not to change their mind about that provision. In that context, certain key ministerial decisions and reports by inquiries must now be laid before Parliament, which will allow transparency and the possibility of debate, where it is required, even if, as various hon. Members pointed out, it will not ensure debate.

As the shadow Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire, said, the Opposition in the Lords have also secured an alternative parliamentary basis for setting up an inquiry, where the subject matter includes ministerial misconduct. As Lord Kingsland put it in the other place:

The optional use of Parliament in such circumstances will go some way to curing the constitutional imbalance between the Government and the relevant assembly, but it will not go far enough. We will be arguing for obligatory parliamentary involvement, such as the parliamentary commission advocated by the Public Administration Committee, when ministerial conduct is in question.

Earlier today, the Minister said that he was reconsidering clause 7. We will carefully study his remarks, but with some concern, as this is an important issue that should not be diluted. I was pleased to hear the Liberal Democrat spokesman supporting our concerns in this regard.

The Opposition will table several further amendments to the Bill as it stands. I am in full agreement with my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) and with several hon. Members on the Government Benches that just because the Government present this Bill to us one week before the likely start of a general election campaign does not mean that Conservative Members should avoid giving it the oversight that it deserves. We have identified various areas that demand specific attention, including the role of Parliament in the establishment of an inquiry, as set
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out by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire, costs and the worrying imbalance of powers between the Minister—

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