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Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): May I put on the record my appreciation of the way in which my hon. Friend has handled this matter? He has acknowledged the specific question about Parliament's role in relation to a certain category of inquiry that is not caught by the Bill and I am grateful for his comments. I hope that, when we return after the election, he and the Government will be prepared to give the matter further thought, so that the House can reach a view on how it wants to carry it forward.
The Bill is important and I am pleased that we have been able to see it through. This is an historic moment for families, for people who use our public services and for people who are experiencing problems. The shining of public light on such problems that the Bill enables is fundamental to our democratic arrangements and we have brought the system into the 21st century. On that basis, I commend the Bill to the House.
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Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): We agree that new legislation is required to initiate and regulate public inquiries. There is a pressing need to consolidate the many statutory and non-statutory bases for public inquiries and we need universal procedures that can be applied with certainty to such inquiries. Those procedures must allow sufficient powers to call witnesses and evidence while maintaining safeguards and minimising red tape and costs. It is important that we retain the appropriate level of independence, openness and parliamentary involvement to ensure public confidence in any conclusions drawn by a public inquiry.
The Government introduced the Bill in the other place at the end of last year. Although it dealt with some of the deficiencies of the present hotch-potch of rules, the Bill was fundamentally flawed. First, it removed all parliamentary involvement and thus democratic legitimacy from the public inquiry process. Secondly, it over-extended Ministers' powers to interfere in an inquiry at the expense of the inquiry's chairman, which would compromise an inquiry's independence, effectiveness and credibility. Thirdly, the Bill failed to address our concerns, due not least to the Saville inquiry, regarding the proper control of costs. In its original form, the Bill was wholly unacceptable to the Conservative Opposition.
I acknowledge that, since then, we have made great progress in amending the Bill to meet those concerns. First, through a compromise position reached in another place, we have ensured that Parliament has some involvement in public inquiries. Under the Bill as it is now, a Minister must inform Parliament of his intention to set up an inquiry, the extent of its terms of reference, who will chair it and how many will serve on the inquiry panel. Further clauses provide that a Minister must lay before Parliament any decision, supported by reasons, to suspend an inquiry or to bring it to an end before it has fulfilled its terms of reference. Those provisions will ensure parliamentary scrutiny and, I hope, debate. They will also facilitate public scrutiny of Ministers' central decisions relating to an inquiry.
Secondly, following the strong and eloquent argument of Lords Kingsland and Howe of Aberavon in the other place, we have boosted the chairman's involvement in key decisions relating to an inquiry. The chairman must now be consulted before a Minister decides who serves on the inquiry panel and when their appointment may be terminated; the extent of the inquiry's terms of reference and any modifications to them; whether it is appropriate to appoint assessors; when an inquiry is suspended; and when an inquiry may be terminated before the publication of its report. The added involvement of the chairman will help to promote the independence and effectiveness of inquiries. I hope that the chairman will not be political but have intimate knowledge of the progress and detail of the inquiry which, in turn, will help to improve public confidence in its conclusions.
It should be said, however, that those changes do not go as far as we had hoped in reining back the Government's extensive powers. In Committee, we proposed several further amendments to ensure the greater involvement of Parliament and chairmen in the inquiry process. Unfortunately, the Government rejected all our
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amendments, despite wide-ranging support from numerous human rights groups and parliamentary Committees. I certainly mirror the Minister's congratulations to the Public Administration Committee, which has done much work on the Bill, but its recommendations have been largely ignored by the Government.
In addition to obstructing our positive amendments in Committee, the Government pushed through two unfortunate amendments of their own, which removed the compromise positions reached after much debate in the other place that allowed parliamentary involvement in inquiries into ministerial conduct and gave a veto to the Lord Chief Justice on the appointment of a judge to an inquiry panel. The amendments undo the efforts of our noble Friends and are of particular concern to the Conservatives. Like the original version of the Bill, the current post-Commons Committee version does not allow for any special procedure to be used to investigate ministerial misconduct. It will now be a Minister who sets up such an inquiry, determines its scope, the members of the panel and public access. A Minister will also decide whether it is to be terminated and whether a report will be published. It does not require a great leap of faith to realise that a Minister may have little or no interest in launching an investigation into conduct by himself or the Government. If the inquiry discovers an embarrassing or incriminating fact, he may be tempted either to restrict its scope or public access, or to interfere with the timing, form or publication of the report.
It is Parliament's role to hold the Executive to account and we maintain that Parliament should be involved in any inquiry into the Executive's actions. We proposed appropriate amendments in both Houses that would have ensured such involvement. The other place made some headway in cutting the democratic deficit by providing the option of laying a resolution before Parliament, but that progress was reversed by the Government in Committee. The Opposition have noted that the hon. Members for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright) and for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) proposed a new amendment to address the issue, although I hear that it has since been withdrawn. It is worth considering it, however, as it would require a resolution by both Houses where public concern focuses on the conduct of Ministers or Government Departments and where other forms of inquiry are not appropriate. The drafting of the amendment is not clear, but I interpret
to mean ministerial misconduct. Where Government Departments are under investigation, one or more Ministers would have to take responsibility. The amendment went some way towards introducing the necessary parliamentary involvement in inquiries into ministerial misconduct. However, in the eyes of the Conservative Opposition, it would not have gone far enough. A parliamentary resolution should be required for every public inquiry into ministerial misconduct, not just in those cases where other forms of inquiry would not be appropriate.
The provision is not only limited, but uncertain, which further restricts its usefulness. Who would decide whether other forms of inquiry were appropriate? Furthermore, there is no specific mechanism through which to debate the matter in Parliament. It may be the Minister who decides whether another type of inquiry is
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appropriate, which removes the benefit of taking the matter out of the Minister's hands. Also, there are no set criteria by which to judge whether another type of inquiry would be appropriate. That removes both certainty and consistency. The amendment was by no means perfect and did not adequately cure the deficiencies of the Bill in relation to inquiries into ministerial misconduct, but we recognise that it would have been an improvement on the Bill as it stands.
The second matter that causes great disappointment to the Conservative Opposition is the limited involvement of the Lord Chief Justice when a judge is asked by a Minister to serve on an inquiry panel. The current version of the Bill requires only that the Minister consult the appropriate judge, usually the Lord Chief Justice. That was the case in the original draft Bill but, following the compelling arguments of the Lord Chief Justice and other noble Lords, the other place divided against the Government to ensure that the Lord Chief Justice consents to a judge's involvement in an inquiry. Unfortunately, the Government used their majority in the House to reverse the good work done in the other place.
It is important that the Lord Chief Justice can veto the use of a judge on an inquiry panel. If not, the Bill will remain inconsistent with the concordat agreed between the Lord Chief Justice and the Lord Chancellor that only days ago became embodied in the Constitutional Reform Act 2005. Only the Lord Chief Justice retains the necessary independence and knowledge of the courts' resources to judge whether it would be appropriate to use a particular judge for an inquiry. Finally, the current situation could leave a judge in a difficult situation where a Minister and the Lord Chief Justice disagreed about his appointment. Could he refuse the Minister? It is unfortunate that the Government did not accept the Lords amendment.
In conclusion, the Conservative Opposition support the legislation to regulate public inquiries. We are encouraged by the many positive amendments that were secured in the other place but remain disappointed that so many amendments were rejected by the Government, particularly on the two key issues relating to parliamentary involvement in inquiries into ministerial misconduct and the Lord Chief Justice's involvement in the appointment of judges to inquiry panels. I ask the Minister to consider those issues carefully and note that, as they arise from amendments introduced in another place, the Bill must now return to the other place for further consideration. We shall observe with interest what progress may be achieved by their lordships.
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