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I said that only because this is an interesting Bill, and I know that my hon. Friends want
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to make contributions on interesting Bills. I cannot, of course, foresee what matters will come before the House in the next 18 months.
"The theme throughout my by-election campaign was the need to organise the nation's resources to achieve social justice and the proper recognition of the dignity of the individual and the sanctity of family life."[Official Report, 23 February 1966; Vol. 725, c. 456.]
In the past, we have seen the significant impact that inquiries can have on public services. The findings of the inquiry into the tragic death of Victoria Climbiéa child who died in my constituencyhelped to bring about reforms in children's services. The Stephen Lawrence inquiry was a watershed for the police force, and is having a great impact on police operational practices and beyond. I am sure, however, that hon. Members will agree that we should move away from the existing complex, fragmented and often inadequate inquiries legislation. The inquiry into the tragic case of Victoria Climbié had to be set up under three separate pieces of legislation. There is no power at present for statutory inquiries to be held into deaths in prison custody, and there are no provisions to help a chairman to keep inquiry expenditure in check. We have heard a great deal about such expenditure this afternoon. Inquiries can make a real difference, so it is important to get the framework right.
My hon. Friends the Members for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright) and for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood raised the issue of when an inquiry should be held. The difficulty is that it is just not possible to set statutory criteria for when an inquiry should be held. We have only to look at the list of past inquiries to see the huge variety of events that they have covered. How could we put a single process in statute that would be appropriate for the BSE inquiry, the inquiry into organ retention at Alder Hey and the Scott inquiry into arms to Iraq, for example? How could we establish a single process that would identify the circumstances in which a Minister should set up such inquiries? It has to be a matter of judgment, weighing up the relevant factors in each case to see what is in the public interest.
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) (LD):
Before consideration of the Bill in Committee, will the Minister look into another interesting example of a Government inquiry, which was set up by his colleagues from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department of Health in respect of the Lowermoor water poisoning episode in my constituency many years ago? That has incredible flexibility andwith due respect to his professiondoes not involve a great many lawyers and a great deal of legal expertise,
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with all the difficulties that those mean for witnesses. It is proving to be an effective way to consider a difficult problem.
Mr. Lammy: I will definitely look into that. There has been legislation in respect of some Departments around which inquiries could be set up. There are always prerogative powers under which any Minister could set up an inquiry, but they would not have the duty to compel, and other things. We also have the 1921 Act, which we have heard much about. In a sense, the Bill pulls that together and provides a framework. It repeals measures in respect of lots of areas in which an ad hoc inquiry could be set up. Notwithstanding that, it would still be possible to hold an inquiry outside the scope of this legislation.
I was saying that Ministers have to make the judgment about when to set up an inquiry, and they have to justify it publicly and to Parliament, which brings me to the role of Parliament. That is where the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire began his remarks, and we have heard lots on that subject today. It is important to put it on record that we introduced several amendments in another place that give Parliament a full opportunity to scrutinise key aspects of the inquiry process.
Clause 6 now requires the Minister to make a detailed statement to Parliament on the establishment of an inquiry. Ministers must also explain to Parliament any decisions to suspend an inquiry, or end it early, and must lay published reports before Parliament. These requirements will exist as a result of the Bill, and they are to be welcomed.
The Bill is aimed at inquiries set up by Ministers to examine problems within the systems or services for which they are responsible. We have heard a lot about other vehicles through which Parliament should scrutinise, challenge and raise issues of public concern. The Government's view is clearly that if Parliament wants to explore options for setting up its own inquiries, that is for Parliament to consider. The Bill is not the place for that as it stands. Clearly, however, there are issues that arisewe have heard what the Prime Minister has had to say on thiswhich Parliament may want to examine in respect of how it might better conduct its own inquiries.
I also want to make it clear that the 1921 Act does not give Parliament the power to set up an inquiry per se. As hon. Members will know, that Act has rarely been used in recent years: in only one case since 1990 has such a resolution been debated by Parliament, while in the other three cases such a proposal was dealt with formally. The Government believe that it is right that the Minister should explain publicly the decision to establish, or not to establish, an inquiry. Ministers can be, and often are, called to justify such decisions to Parliament. That practice will undoubtedly continue.
The issue of the power of Ministers was raised by the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire and by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire, who wanted assurances with regard to his constituents. The Minister cannot set the terms of reference or appoint other inquiry members without consulting the chairman. The Minister must inform Parliament at the start of an inquiry, setting out the terms of reference, the identity of
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the chairman and the composition of the panel. The Minister must also consult the chairman before suspending an inquiry, or ending it early, and inform Parliament.
The Bill therefore sets boundaries and clearly spells out the respective roles of the Minister and the inquiry chairman. Crucially, it does not undermine the importance of inquiry panels in the future; in fact, it reinforces their impartiality in statute.
Lembit Öpik: I am grateful for the Under-Secretary's attempt to clarify this important point. Can he tell us, however, whether the Minister concerned is entitled to ignore the responses from the consultation? Is there any obligation whatever for the Minister to alter the plans on the basis of that consultation?
Mr. Lammy: The hon. Gentleman will know that nobody ultimately has a veto over the Minister, but the Minister will be accountable to Parliament, and I would have thought that that Minister would expect chairmen to raise any disagreement in public, as they do when they are not happy about things.
Tony Wright: I am not sure whether my hon. Friend has left the subject of Parliament yet, but in case he is about to do so, may I ask him directly what the Government's stance is on clause 7, which was introduced by the other place? As I understand it, the Government have problems with an original amendment that we produced, and they also have problems, as I do, with the clause that has come from the other place. They have told us, however, that they support the idea of a parliamentary commission as part of the armoury of inquiry. I therefore want to ask the Minister two things. First, would he support the development of an amendment with which the Government would feel comfortable, on which some of us are happy to work, and are indeed doing so? Secondly, if that is not the case but the Government still support the ideabecause the Government, if we are honest, control the business of the Househow do they propose to advance the idea of a parliamentary commission of inquiry?
Mr. Lammy: The Government will, of course, consider all suggestions. The other Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Mr. Leslie), indicated that we have real concerns about the provision, primarily because of the existence of the ministerial code of conduct. I hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase says about particular areas in which the politics of the inquiry bear on the Minister. First, in relation to any inquiry, it is hard to extrapolate when and how the issue of ministerial conduct might arise before the inquiry had even been set up. Secondly, he will know from past events, stretching back to the Profumo case, that Parliament and the media often bring such pressure to bear that Ministers resign well in advance of the inquiry when the issue is as political as in those matters about which he is concerned.
As for a restriction on public access, it is important to make clear that the starting assumption for inquiries under the Bill should be full public access. Indeed, that
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is the position under the Bill. Let me also make clear that even if access is restricted, the inquiry panel will still see whatever documents and witnesses it needs to see. The Bill gives it full powers to do that.
It is widely recognised that in certain circumstances it is appropriate to hold an inquiry, or parts of an inquiry, in private. That is not only because of issues of national security, about which we have heard a great deal this afternoon. As was the case with the inquiry into organ retention at Alder Hey, families might request such privacy because the circumstances are so sensitive and difficult. Clearly, that inquiry commanded much respect once it produced its recommendations.
The Bill makes clear the circumstances in which restrictions can be imposed, and what factors must be taken into account when deciding whether a restriction is justified. Those clauses reflect the balance that the Minister is expected to strike. Clause 20 makes it very clear that reasons for restrictions must always be weighed against the impact that they would have on the allaying of public concern.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase says that he would prefer that control to be in the hands of the inquiry chairman. We agree that once an inquiry is under way, decisions about public access should as far as possible be made by the chairman. The power in the Bill enables Ministers to safeguard. Ultimately it is Ministers who are responsible for protecting national security, and for having regard to such provisions as the Human Rights Act 1998 and the European convention.
My hon. Friends the Members for Newry and Armagh and for Hull, North spoke of the need for an inquiry into the death of Patrick Finucane. The Bill is designed to provide a statutory framework for any future inquiry into events causing public concern. Nothing in it would be any different if no Finucane inquiry were planned.
The Bill does not allow blanket restrictions on access to material simply because it relates to national security. The Minister or the chairman must weigh up all the factors, including whether restricting access would inhibit the allaying of public concern. My hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North asked me a crucial question: would everything be available to the chairman? I think that there was some difference of opinion between him and the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire.
In fact, the Bill gives inquiries full powers to compel witnesses to attend, and to require the production of documents. The only circumstances in which they cannot compel are those in which compulsion would not be possible in ordinary court proceedings. That applies to documents covered by legal professional privilege. I am afraid I must tell my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North that I cannot speak for the Irish Government, but as the Government have said, there were inaccuracies in a recent article in The Irish Times.
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