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Mr. Hopkins: I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman is saying, which sounds like a conversion. When Lord Heseltine came before our Committee, he said, "When I was in government it was very simple—choose your conclusion then choose your chairman." Presumably this is a change of heart by the Conservative party.

Mr. Djanogly: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that comment. As we know, Ministers can take differing views during office and after they leave it. I can assure him that the position that I am maintaining is the current position of the Conservative party and one that we will support throughout Committee.

Let me turn to costs, which is a matter of topical interest that has inspired some debate today but not been adequately dealt with in the Bill. Inquiries are valuable tools, but they come at some cost to the British taxpayer—I would estimate, as a ballpark figure, more than £500 million since 1990. A small percentage saving on inquiries would free up millions of pounds to be diverted to other worthy causes every year. It is now well known, as was made clear by the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), that the recent Saville inquiry may cost up to £250 million—an amount that, as he rightly pointed out, would be difficult to justify using any criteria. In fact, the seemingly uncontrollable spiral of inquiries' costs was one of the main inspirations for drafting the Bill. The Conservative Opposition believe that a broad budget for an inquiry should be announced from the outset and that any increases should be justified thereafter—an approach that is also supported by the Public Administration Committee and in principle, it would seem, by Baroness Ashton of Upholland in another place. No doubt the issue will be debated further in Committee, but I would be grateful to hear more from the Minister now so that we know where we stand before then.

More critically, the Conservative Opposition cannot accept the current imbalance of powers between the Minister and the chairman of an inquiry. That issue has been raised by many hon. Friends, including my hon. Friends the Members for North-East Hertfordshire, for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins), for Buckingham (Mr.   Bercow) and for North-East Cambridgeshire, and   by many other hon. Members, including the hon. Members for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara), for Cannock Chase, for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), for Luton, North, for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood and for Thurrock. It is clearly a matter of great import to many hon. Members.

As stated by Lord Kingsland in the other place, the Bill is riddled with new discretionary powers for Ministers to override or overreach decisions that are, or should be, made by the chairman of the inquiry. Unfortunately, as many hon. Members have noted, that could affect the inquiry's independence and effectiveness, and therefore its credibility. The hon. Member for Cannock Chase made the important point, in a wide-ranging and extremely competent speech, that the Executive could effectively end the possibility of an inquiry before it even begins.
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There was much debate about that imbalance of powers in another place, where several amendments were introduced to try to cure the deficit. However, we believe that the restructuring of the relationship must go somewhat further. The Minister should not have the final say over changes in the composition of the panel, the suspension or termination of an inquiry, the withholding of funds or the publication of the inquiry report. As the Bill stands, members of the panel could, as Lord Bledisloe noted in the other place, be removed at the whim of the Minister if they seemed to be taking a view not favourable to the Government interest in the inquiry.

The PAC report noted that Ministers could manipulate the publication date of an inquiry report for their own needs or undermine a parliamentary debate on its findings by limiting access to it. The hon. Members for Luton, North and for Thurrock wanted the Executive to give up powers and Parliament to get up off its knees—I believe that that was the phrase used. I sympathise with that but there is little chance of its happening under the current Administration.

Apart from issues about independence, the Minister is simply not qualified to make those decisions as he will not have attended the proceedings and will not intimately know the inquiry's state of affairs. By contrast, the chairman will be fully up to date on all factors affecting the inquiry and therefore best placed to judge practically and politically. To ensure an inquiry's fairness, independence and effectiveness, we believe that all the powers should rest with the chairman, as recommended by the PAC and the Joint Committee on Human Rights.

The most worrying example in the Bill of the unacceptable imbalance of power between the Minister and the chairman is the Minister's restriction notice, which would allow him to restrict public access to the inquiry, its documents and evidence. That subverts the presumption of openness that should be present in any inquiry, as the PAC noted. The Opposition acknowledge that there may be circumstances in which it would be preferable for an inquiry or its evidence to remain private. However, that power should be exercisable only in exceptional circumstances by the chairman, who is in a position to know all the circumstances from an independent point of view. Otherwise, the inquiry's independence and effectiveness are put at risk by limiting public accountability and restricting next of kin's access to inquiry proceedings. Like the Joint Committee on Human Rights, we consider that that is also a potential breach of the European convention on human rights.

Ministerial restriction notices could not only compromise grand principles, but reduced public confidence in the inquiry could limit the co-operation of witnesses and interested parties. That could lead to biased conclusions. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire raised anxieties about the possible Deepcut inquiry and the hon. Member for Cannock Chase spoke wisely about what he described as a corrosive effect.

The thesis has been borne out twice in recent years. First, the statutory basis of the Shipman inquiry had to be changed following a successful challenge to the
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decision to hear evidence in private. Secondly, we must appreciate that the Finucane family has refused to take part in any inquiry that is constituted under the same conditions for which the Bill provides because of excessive ministerial power. The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) referred to that. However, although I sympathise with much of what he said from a procedural point of view, it is worth pointing out that, in the year when Mr. Finucane was killed, 61 others were murdered in Northern Ireland, including 23 members of the security forces. We need to acknowledge the debt that we owe them.

We welcome the Bill in principle. It has the flexibility to encompass various types of inquiry and therefore could consolidate and clarify the existing basis for establishing inquiries. It also provides increased clarity for rules of procedure, which could lead to more effective and efficient inquiries. In turn, that could boost public confidence in the reports. However, the Bill should not reach the statute book in its current form. It requires amendment, not least regarding the pressing matter of controlling inquiries' costs. More important, the draconian powers afforded to the Minister after an inquiry has been set up must be reined back.

To ensure an independent and effective inquiry in which the public can have full confidence, we must correct the balance of power between the Minister and the chairman. The Opposition will address those issues in Committee to ensure that future inquiries can effectively fulfil their important role and stand against the Government's obsession with boosting the power of the Executive and reducing that of Parliament.

5.19 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. David Lammy): We have had a frank, illuminating and wide-ranging discussion this afternoon on the role of inquiries in our democratic system, and I am pleased that hon. Members across the House agree that there is a need for reform of the legislation on inquiries. I am grateful for the support that has been expressed by the hon. Members for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) and for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald), and by the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik).

We all agree that this should not be a party political matter. We must not lose sight of the fundamental importance of inquiries in highlighting issues of public concern. In that regard, we heard from the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss), and from my hon. Friends the Members for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell), for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble), for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), for   Pendle (Mr. Prentice) and for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins).

I want to associate myself with some of the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock when he paid tribute to my hon. Friends the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) and for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon), who may have made their last contributions in Parliament today.

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