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Baroness Crawley: My Lords, as I have said, Ministers are not, so far, convinced that a public inquiry will achieve anything additional to the investigations that have reported, are reporting or will report next year.
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Lord Grocott: My Lords, with the leave of the House, immediately following the Second Reading of the Inquiries Bill, my noble friend the Leader of the House will repeat a Statement on Northern Ireland.
The Chairman of Committees (Lord Brabazon of Tara): My Lords, I beg to move the four Motions standing in my name on the Order Paper.
Moved, That the Lord Blackwell be appointed a member of the Select Committee.
Moved, That the Lord Chadlington be appointed a member of the Select Committee.
Moved, That the Lord Howard of Rising be appointed a Lords member of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.(The Chairman of Committees.)
On Question, Motion agreed to.
Moved, That a Select Committee of six Lords be appointed to join with the committee appointed by the Commons to consider tax law rewrite Bills, and in particular to consider whether each Bill committed to it preserves the effect of the existing law, subject to any minor changes which may be desirable;
That, as proposed by the Committee of Selection, the following Lords be named of the committee:
L. Blackwell, B. Cohen of Pimlico, L. Goodhart, L.Haskel, L. Howe of Aberavon, L. Millett;
That the committee have power to agree with the Commons in the appointment of a chairman;
That the quorum of the committee shall be two;
That the committee have leave to report from time to time;
That the committee have power to appoint specialist advisers;
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That the minutes of evidence taken before the committee from time to time shall, if the committee think fit, be printed;
That the procedure of the Joint Committee shall follow the procedure of Select Committees of the House of Commons when such procedure differs from that of Select Committees of this House, and shall include the power of the chairman to select amendments.(The Chairman of Committees.)
On Question, Motion agreed to; and a message was ordered to be sent to the Commons to acquaint them therewith.
Lord Grocott: My Lords, I have it in command from Her Majesty the Queen to acquaint the House that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the Inquiries Bill, has consented to place her prerogative and interest, so far as they are affected by the Bill, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the Bill.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, on behalf of my noble and learned friend the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs and Lord Chancellor, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.
Over many years, successive governments have sometimes responded to a particular event of serious public concern by setting up an independent inquiry. The aim is for the inquiry to establish the facts, to decide what, if anything, went wrong, and, if necessary, to make recommendations aimed at preventing recurrence. This is a Bill to reform the arrangements for conducting such inquiries to make them as effective as possible. But it is important to be clear on what the Bill does not do.
It is not about inquiries conducted by parliamentary Select Committees, nor is it about planning and licensing inquiries, or inquiries set up by public bodies, including local authorities. It does not attempt to specify when an inquiry should be set up. One has only to look at the range of events that have led to past inquiries, for example, the Dunblane shootings, the tragic death of Victoria Climbié, the outbreak of foot and mouth disease or the collapse of Equitable Life, to see that it would not be possible to lay down criteria. In the future, as in the past, Ministers will have to consider the particular circumstances and all the options available. Ministers will not call an inquiry under the Bill when there are other investigation procedures for dealing with the matter. So the Bill will not lead either to more or to fewer inquiries being called.
Before I explain how the provisions of the Bill work, I will set out how the present legislation developed. That will, I trust, help noble Lords to understand why we believe that the time has come for a fresh start.
The first legislation allowing Ministers to give formal powers to inquiries of a general nature, as some noble Lords know very well, was the Tribunals of
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Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921. That provided for inquiries of an independent and non-partisan nature, into any,
Alongside that Act, other legislation has grown up giving Ministers additional powers to order inquiries in particular areas within their remit, such as policing, health or child protection. In 1966, a Royal Commission headed by Lord Salmon reviewed the way the 1921 Act worked. Based on that and on his later report of 1969, a 1973 White Paper set out various proposals for legislation, but these were never taken forward.
On taking office, this Government therefore found themselves with a mixture of powers available to call statutory inquiries. These have often proved quite adequate and suitable. Thus, for example, the Stephen Lawrence inquiry was conducted under the Police Act 1996, and the inquiry into children's heart surgery at Bristol Royal Infirmary, under Section 84 of the National Health Service Act 1977. Other inquiries, such as the Bichard inquiry into matters arising out of the Soham murders, have conducted effective investigations on a non-statutory basis since all those involved were prepared to co-operate.
But we can see that deficiencies in the legislation could prevent us setting up inquiries in the most effective form. Sometimes this arises from simple gaps in the framework of specific powers: there is no power, for example, to call inquiries into deaths in custody, or into other events of concern in prisons in England and Wales. The inquiry into the death of Zahid Mubarek in Feltham Young Offender Institution, has had to begin on a non-statutory basis, despite the fact that there would be clear value in having statutory powers available to it.
Nowadays, statutory inquiries can span several subject areas. For example, as the noble Lord, Lord Laming, knows well, the Victoria Climbié inquiry was set up under three separate pieces of legislation. As the statutory powers vary slightly from one piece of legislation to another, this creates potential risks to the effectiveness of the inquiry. There is also the possibility that a future inquiry might need to span both devolved and reserved business falling within the responsibility of two different administrations.
One way of dealing with these problems would be to make greater use of the 1921 Act. But over the years, it has been reserved for the most serious issues and has not been deployed for the whole range of inquiries commissioned by Ministers. It has never been updated, either to reflect the 1973 White Paper or to take account of the most recent legislation on devolution.
Though most inquiries are certainly conducted efficiently and effectively, there has been concern here and in another place about the cost of some inquiries. The Government are absolutely clear that inquiries must have all the powers and resources necessary to get at the truth, but it is quite proper that the best use is made of public money in doing so.
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With all these issues in mind, my department and its predecessor have been reviewing the legislation for some years. In February this year, the Public Administration Select Committee announced a review of "Government by Inquiry" and asked for responses to a series of questions about the conduct of inquiries. Many of those questions overlapped with our work. Some noble Lords gave evidence to the inquiry.
Accordingly, my noble and learned friend the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs and Lord Chancellor decided to submit a full response to the questions, and obtained the committee's agreement to publishing a consultation paper closely based on the responses, to invite wider public debate on the issues. The paper, Effective Inquiries, was published on 6 May. It suggested that the conduct and effectiveness of inquiries could be improved if the 1921 Act, and much of the specific legislation, were replaced by a single statute. New legislation could also codify much good practice that has grown up over the years.
Along with requesting written responses, we invited people who had been involved with inquiries in the recent past, including a number of distinguished former inquiry chairmen, to join discussion groups. The discussions and written responses showed general support for the views expressed, as set out in the summary of responses that we published on 28 September. We have also worked closely with the devolved administrations to create a system that takes account of their responsibilities.
Accordingly, we are now in a position to propose legislation that will provide a comprehensive statutory framework for major inquiries across the United Kingdom. The Bill is suitable for the whole range of major inquiries. We want the benefits of this framework to be available as soon as possible for any future inquiries that may be called.
I shall now give a little information about some of the detailed provisions of the Bill and refer noble Lords to the Explanatory Notes we have published for more information.
Clauses 1 to 13 deal with the process of setting up and running an inquiry. They set out a clear structure to the process for all inquiries, while recognising that the factors to take into account in decision-making will vary from case to case. The power to establish an inquiry, set out in Clause 1, is deliberately drawn to cover a wider range of inquiries than is covered by the 1921 Act, and covers all the areas where an inquiry might be needed. But, as I have already indicated, that does not imply any intention to call more major statutory inquiries. Many smaller or more localised inquiries, and indeed some larger ones, are set up very effectively on a non-statutory basis or under more general powers, such as Section 2 of the National Health Service Act 1977. It is not our intention to bring all those within the more formal regime of the Inquiries Bill.
Clauses 7 and 8 impose requirements on the Minister to have regard to the need for expertise and impartiality in making appointments to the inquiry panel. Clause 9 concerns the arrangements for the appointment of judges to inquiriesa matter on which, as noble Lords will
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know, there have been discussions during our consideration of the Constitutional Reform Bill. I have no doubt that we shall discuss this further in our consideration of the present Bill.
Clauses 14 and 15 give a new power, to convert another type of inquiry into one under this Bill. There is no present intention to use this power for any statutory inquiry already running; these will continue as if under their present legislation. However, the power will provide flexibility in the future. In particular, an inquiry set up on a non-statutory basis could be converted to provide it with statutory powers to compel witnesses, if it became necessary.
Clauses 16 to 21 cover the inquiry proceedings. They will be supplemented by rules of procedure made under Clause 38, which should contribute significantly to the effectiveness and smooth running of future inquiries. Rules could cover such topics as the arrangements for cross-examination of witnesses and the extent of legal representation. It is my intention to provide a memorandum setting out more detail on the expected content of the rules before the House rises for the Christmas Recess. There are separate rule-making powers for the devolved administrations.
Clause 16 also introduces an important new duty on inquiry chairmento conduct proceedings to avoid unnecessary cost to all participants, whether or not financed by public funds. I am sure that noble Lords will see the sense of this.
Clauses 17 and 18 cover public access to inquiry hearings and to evidence. We aim to create a flexible framework and to set out what factors can be taken into account in decisions on this. Whether or not a particular inquiry should be held in public or in private can sometimes be controversial, and I am sure that noble Lords will wish to look closely at these provisions. However, I remind noble Lords that it is far from unusual for inquiries to be held with some degree of privacy. More than a third of the major inquiries held since 1990 have had some sort of restrictions on public access, for a wide variety of reasons. Sometimes the Minister setting up the inquiry has chosen these restrictions; in other cases, it has been the chairman's decision.
Clauses 19 to 21 cover the powers that an inquiry can use to require the production of evidence; they are quite similar to the provisions of existing legislation. These powers can be exercised only within the terms of reference. Later clauses cover enforcement.
Clauses 24 to 28 deal with inquiries by or involving devolved administrations, and have been agreed with them. A Sewel Motion will be brought before the Scottish Parliament in respect of their application to Scotland.
Many of the remaining clauses deal with further details of inquiry procedures and funding. Clause 35, for example, aims to ensure that challenges to inquiry procedures will come before the courts promptly, minimising the potential for disruption and delay. There are general provisions on legal costs, which will
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be dealt with in more detail in rules of procedure. Some of these clauses in fact reflect recommendations of the 1973 White Paper.
I think that I have said enough about these proposals; it is now for your Lordships to consider them. I know that many noble Lords here today have experience and knowledge of inquiries, and naturally I look forward to hearing those voices of experience. I commend the Bill to the House.
Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.(Baroness Ashton of Upholland.)
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