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Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): I shall be brief. I welcome the Bill, which in some ways took us by surprise. Those of us who were investigating the matter of inquiries were surprised when the Government decided to legislate during the same period. It is good that they should, for two reasons.
One is that the Bill focuses attention on the importance of inquiries. We take them for granted, but inquiries play a hugely important role in our public life. Usually in the context of something bad having happened that needs to be investigated, they enable us to take a step backwards, to subject a part of our public
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life to microscopic investigation and, hopefully, to learn lessons for the future from whatever has happened. It is a crucial part of our tradition of public life and public administration, and it is right that we should therefore focus on it in the way that the Bill forces us to do. We owe a huge debt to those who undertake inquiries and we have an obligation to learn from them. That is the first reason.
The second reason is that the effect of having this Bill is that many more inquiries will now be conducted on a statutory basis. At the moment, they are conducted on a variety of bases, many of them on an ad hoc basis. The effect of the Bill, contrary to some of the suggestions that have been made, is that it will bring far more inquiries within the orbit of statute, and so equip them with the powers contained in the Bill. Therefore, it is to be welcomed as a strengthening of the inquiry tradition as a whole.
Having said that, I want to put on record why some anxieties remain, to which I hope that we can return on another occasion. My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) and I tabled an amendment to explore some of those. As I have acknowledged already, the fact that the Government have been able to say something positive on the parliamentary issue has enabled us to withdraw that, but the matter still sits there and two issues connect.
One issue concerns the role of judges in inquiries and the role of the Lord Chief Justice in assenting to a judge serving on an inquiry. Having heard the evidence of the Lord Chief Justice on that point, it is clear that the judges take seriously what we invited them to take seriously, which is a move further down the road towards a separation of powers in this country. In the context of inquiries, they say that, if that is to be case, we must not think in the future, as has been the case in the past, that we can simply summon up a judge to conduct an inquiry in politically contentious areas, because that raises particular problems for the judiciary. That is well known in other systems. Over the years, it has become massively fudged in our system, but the judges now want to take that more seriously. We should be alert to that. It is not the case that judges are universally the best people to undertake inquiries. Some of the best recent inquiries have been undertaken by people other than judges.
A particular issue has arisen there that connects directly with the second outstanding issue. There is a category of inquiries that only Parliament should properly undertake. There is always difficulty in finding the words to describe those inquiries, but we know which they are and we heard evidence on the matter from many recent inquirers who said that there is a whole category of inquiry that it would not be proper for people such as them to undertake, because they are politically contentious inquiries that turn on the conduct of Ministers and on what happened in Departments. These are matters that Parliament must consider.
If we are honest with ourselves we will accept that Parliament is good at many, many things, but it is not well equipped to undertake forensic fact-finding inquiries. That is not what it does. It used to be so equipped in another age, but it is not any longer and we
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have had some recent examples of the difficulties that it gets into if it tries to undertake such inquiries. We have a choice here. Either we simply say that Parliament cannot undertake such inquiries any more and we must contract them out to somebody else, or not do them at all or we can say that there is a category of inquiries that only Parliament can properly undertake, so we must find a mechanism within Parliament for undertaking them. Some of us have been exploring what such a mechanism might be. That is the clear choice. The reason I was happy to withdraw my amendment was because I was and am confident that the Government have at least accepted our analysis, even if on this occasion they have not accepted our conclusion. However, it is an important issue and I hope that we can return to it early in the next Parliament, because if we do not, Parliament's standing will be diminished further. We either have to abandon formally this territory or reclaim it. There is no other choice in the matter. I hope that, after the election, the Government will enable Parliament to reclaim this inquiry territory.
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) (LD): I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright) for two reasons. First, he speaks with great authority on this issue and has experience and eloquence that I cannot match. He has given much attention to the subject both in his Committee and elsewhere. Secondly, I agree with the concerns that he expressed. At this stage, it will not be possible in a matter of a few minutes to address them in the Bill, but I hope that what the Minister said about unfinished business in this respect will be held to when Parliament meets again after the general election.
I and my colleagues in both Houses welcomed the opportunity of this Billan opportunity that I hope we have used for constructive improvement. As the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) said, the Bill has improved since the Government introduced it. One issue of principle is extremely important, particularly, but not exclusively, in relation to the issues raised by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase. His Select Committee, the Public Administration Committee, gave a great deal of attention to the issues that are now before us and were before us in Standing Committee. Yet, the cross-fertilisation of that detailed inquiry into inquiries was not treated with the serious attention that it deserved.
As has been mentioned, the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) sought to introduce some major principles from that previous investigation by our Select Committee, which, after all, has a Government majority. As far as I recall, its recommendations were virtually unanimous, as the hon. Member for Cannock Chase may confirm. Yet the cross-fertilisation of that Select Committee work into a Standing Committee on the Bill simply did not take place.
There are wider issues that go beyond this Bill. A great deal of the most important work in this House is now done in Select Committee. If we cannot at least guarantee a clear channel to a Standing Committee of information, instruction and guidance from Select Committee work specific to a Bill such as this, there is something wrong with one Committee or other, or with the communication between the two. I suggest that the problem lies in the Standing Committee.
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There is unfinished business, and not just in relation to the role of the Lord Chief Justice. I agree with the point made by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase, but I suggest that the issue is more specifically about the parliamentary role. The Minister referred to that, but I do not find the reassurance that he gave us wholly adequate. I hope that there will be a return to the issue. Much careful thought was given in Select Committee and in the other House to how inquiries that touch on the conduct of Ministers could be effectively set up. That involved terms of reference and how the inquiries were to conduct themselves while taking note of the fact that there was a ministerial component.
I regret that we have not made more progress on that matter. I have had experience of inquiries of various sorts, both statutory and non-statutory. To fail to address the problem and to have made so little progress on that thorny issue is unfortunate, given that we have only rare occasions on which legislation can improve such matters and that there may not be another such occasion for some years. As I said before, that is unfinished business. The integrity, independence and efficacy of inquiries is at stake if we do not get this right and it is unfortunate that we have not made more progress.
I pay tribute to the work of the hon. Member for Cannock Chase and his Committee, as, indeed, the Minister did, but I think that it would have been even better if the words that we have all expressed had been reflected in action and if the Committee's recommendations had been taken to heart and put into the Bill.
The proposed order of consideration will ensure that we can deal with the reasons why the Government are amending clause 18. I know that it is a remaining area of concern, and I want hon. Members to have a chance properly to consider the detailed reasoning behind our decision to remove the "depression amendment", as it has become known, which was introduced by the other place. That explains the somewhat strange order of consideration in terms of the numbering of the clauses.
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