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Inquiries Bill [HL]

7.27 p.m.

Report received.

Lord Ackner: My Lords, due to the start time of this Report stage, may I inquire whether there is any truth in the rumour that, essentially, it is to be treated as dinner-hour business?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, I can assure the noble and learned Lord that there is no truth in the rumour. We shall continue with Report stage and do as well as we can.

Clause 1 [Power to establish inquiry]:

Lord Kingsland moved Amendment No. 1:

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 1, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 2, 3, 4 and 5.

Your Lordships will recall that, when seeking to promote these amendments at Committee stage, I stated that I had two objectives in mind. The first was to reverse the decision of the Government, clearly reflected in the Bill, to expunge the role of Parliament from the decision to establish public inquiries; and the second was to revitalise the role of Parliament, either in the form of its existing Select Committee system or in some other form, in conducting inquiries which involve allegations concerning ministerial misdemeanours.

Since the Committee stage of the Bill, the Public Administration Select Committee of another place has published a report entitled Government by Inquiry. Among other things, the report makes specific recommendations about both these issues. I apologise
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in advance to your Lordships for quoting certain passages from the report. I justify that by saying that, in my submission, they are germane to these two matters, which I trust the noble Baroness regards as fundamental to the debate on the Bill.

Paragraph 178 is the core paragraph. I should like to quote it more or less in full. The committee states:

I pause there to say that that refers to the first of those matters with which we are concerned under this group of amendments; that is to say, whether or not Parliament should retain the initiative in this class of inquiries.

The paragraph goes on to discuss the character of individual Motions for a resolution in respect of the particular matter into which it is sought to inquire. Paragraph 178 continues:

That aspect refers to the second issue to which this group of amendments gives rise; that is to say, the desirability or otherwise of Parliament being directly involved in the investigation of the Minister. Here the committee recommends that a form of inquiry, which it calls a "parliamentary commission", should be established and that the shape of that parliamentary commission should be developed immediately the Inquiries Bill becomes law.

So the sequence of events would be that the Inquiries Bill becomes the Inquiries Act. Next there is immediately a general resolution of both Houses of Parliament to establish the framework of something called "a parliamentary commission". Thereafter, individual inquiries into ministerial misdemeanours would follow the general shape of that parliamentary commission.

The Minister may recall that, in Committee, my ideas as to what a parliamentary commission should look like developed, as it were, on the hoof. I started by suggesting that the right shape for a parliamentary investigation of a ministerial misdemeanour in the future should be based on, first, your Lordship's House, and, secondly, the Cross-Bench component of it.

Quite rightly, a number of your Lordships suggested that that might be rather overambitious in view of the likely reaction of another place. Therefore, in winding up my own amendment later in the afternoon, my idea
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became to have a joint commission, consisting perhaps of three Members of another place—one from each political party—and two Cross-Benchers from your Lordships' House.

I can place my hand on my heart and say that, in all honesty, I had no idea when I said that, that the notion of a parliamentary commission, as suggested by the committee of another place, was in the offing. As it turns out, the proposed shape of this new parliamentary commission should look not unlike a mixture of three Members of another place and two Members of your Lordships' House.

The committee report goes on to look at the political feasibility of establishing such a parliamentary commission. It starts off by reminding us that not all those who gave evidence to the committee were instinctively enthusiastic about the idea. However, in its first paragraph it tells us something of which I was not aware. It is presented in the form of an extract from a submission made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Scott, to the Public Services Committee in 1996, following his own legendary report into certain matters. The noble and learned Lord said at that time that he believed:

The report then goes on to remind us of the Osmotherly rules and how they have limited the ability of Select Committees in both another place and in your Lordships' House to obtain adequate documentary and oral evidence during an investigation. A number of distinguished Members of Parliament and Members of your Lordships' House also expressed views which might be described as somewhat sceptical. My noble friend Lord Heseltine, for example, is quoted in paragraph 200. He said:

So, clearly my noble friend Lord Heseltine was really saying that the Select Committee system has serious structural difficulties that would be hard to overcome.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, also offered a word of caution, which is quoted in paragraph 202. The noble and learned Lord said that,

Despite that, the committee concluded in paragraph 214 that there are activities in which another place engages that demonstrate that it is perfectly capable, if it puts its mind to it, of conducting the kind of inquiry envisaged by a parliamentary commission. That paragraph states:

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Having gone on to discuss how the recently established Butler committee, which, although it was a committee of Privy Counsellors, consisted of five members, two of whom were Members of another place and two were from your Lordships' House, operates, the report concludes:

I submit that that is a clear endorsement of and adds weight to what we said in Committee.

In the light of all that, and after discussions with the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, we have tabled as Amendment No. 5 the precise terms of the amendment contained in the report which is intended to achieve the objectives that I have outlined. It differs in some respects from my Amendment No. 1. For example, the events that would trigger such a parliamentary commission are cast rather more narrowly than in my amendment. My amendment refers to events in a ministerial department as well as those affecting the Minister personally. I sense that the committee was considering ministerial behaviour more specifically, rather than behaviour in the department for which he was politically but not personally responsible. There are other differences between the two; but essentially Amendment No. 5, which is contained in the parliamentary report, reflects exactly the principles that we were trying to establish.

I apologise to your Lordships for taking so long to introduce this line of amendments; but the report plainly adds important new material and expresses important views. In the light of that, I thought it essential that your Lordships should be made aware of it. I beg to move.

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