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Lord Borrie: My Lords, I believe that that is perfectly true. It brings us to what we have to discuss on other amendments, and which we discussed to some extent in Grand Committee: what the Government have to do, if anything, to inform Parliament of their proposal to set up an inquiry. Since Committee, the
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Government have tabled amendments. I have received a copy of the letter to the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, and others explaining why certain government amendments answer points made by the noble Lords, Lord Goodhart, Lord Kingsland and others, so that Parliament is kept informed.

If Parliament is kept informed and has to be by statutory requirement in the Bill, which we may amend, it is up to the House of Commons and the House of Lords, through their normal procedures, to ensure that that information—keeping Parliament informed—is questioned or debated in accordance with normal ministerial accountability to Parliament. That does not need to be legislated for, as it exists in any case.

8 p.m.

Lord Ackner: My Lords, I should like to support the submissions made by the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland. Before I do so, I should confess that my credentials for speaking on inquiries are now somewhat moth-eaten. In the two or three years before I was elevated to the High Court, I appeared in three inquiries, as a result of which I was known by my alleged friends as the "disaster QC".

The inquiries were the Aberfan inquiry, at which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon, was one of my opponents. I appeared for the parents and children of those who were killed in the disaster. I also appeared in front of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lane, in the Vanguard air crash inquiry. I last appeared in the Seagem inquiry, which was the first of the oil rigs that were overturned. I had the great advantage of having as my second junior the present Master of the Rolls who managed to massage into a tired forensic mind all that I needed to know about metal fatigue, for which I gave him the then conventional red bag.

I should like briefly to refer to the report of the House of Commons Administration Select Committee in support of what the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, has said. Paragraph 175 states: "However, the Bill"—that is, the Bill before us—

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It was therefore not surprising to find a little later, at paragraph 229, the following stated as part of its conclusion. The end of that paragraph states:

Lord Donaldson of Lymington: My Lords, I do not want to take up much time, but in terms of mothballed or moth-eaten experience, probably I can do better than my noble and learned friend Lord Ackner. I was Crown Counsel, albeit in a very junior capacity, in the bank rate tribunal—I do not have any idea when that took place, except that it was a very long time ago—and the Vassall inquiry.

Even if it is right, as has been suggested, that we do not need Amendment No. 5, which concerns laying down procedure, because Parliament can lay it down itself, Amendment No. 3 will still be needed to stop the Minister or a colleague being able to set up an inquiry under this Act in its unamended form. Surely, that is one of the objects of the exercise for the noble Lords, Lord Kingsland and Lord Goodhart.

Lord Laming: My Lords, I will be very brief. I—and I am sure every Member of the House—have listened very carefully to the noble Lords, Lord Kingsland and Lord Goodhart. As ever, they have presented their views in a thoughtful and constructive way, but I am far from convinced about these amendments.

At Second Reading and in Committee, I and others expressed concerns about the Bill before us. First, it excluded Parliament from too many areas in which I and other noble Lords think that it should have a proper and distinctive role. Secondly, it gave far too much power to a government Minister. Those points have been extremely well made in the report before us today.

I hope that other noble Lords will agree that the Minister listened very carefully to those concerns and has now come back with a series of amendments that we will consider later. From my point of view, they address fully both of those concerns. I congratulate the Minister on those achievements, because they will not have been easily won.

That said, although I have great respect for parliamentary processes, particularly for the work of Select Committees, it is illusory to think that any part of the work of Parliament in this day and age can operate without the influence of party politics. The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, was very wise in his comments on the subject.

If I have one belief more than any other, it is that if inquiries are to command the confidence of the public, they must be seen to be independent and operating apart from the influences that are all too pervasive in Parliament. I agree with the contributions to the report of the noble Lord, Lord Heseltine, and Mr Dobson.
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For that reason, my concerns about the amendments are so great that, despite what they seek to achieve, I do not feel able to support them.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Laming, for his kind comments. I shall start what I hope will be a relatively brief response by saying how much I welcome the report of the Public Administration Select Committee. It makes an important contribution and endorses quite a lot of what the Government have been doing. Of course, not all of the total of 22 recommendations are specifically relevant to the Bill, but the report does cover some of the important issues that we discussed during our deliberations in Grand Committee and which the Government have brought forward amendments to address. Perhaps I may say particularly to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, that some of the issues of concern to him are addressed specifically and dealt with in later amendments.

I want also to say that the Government will make a full response to the Select Committee report. In view of the fact that we recognise the need to ensure that we have responded fully by the time the Bill reaches another place, we intend to curtail the normal length of time, which I believe is up to two months, that a government can take to make their response to enable the full response to be considered before Second Reading in another place. That will enable my honourable friend Chris Leslie and Members of the Select Committee to have a proper debate at Second Reading based on both the report and our full response to it. I hope that noble Lords will feel that that goes some way to acknowledging the importance we attach to this. The Government are committed to ensuring that the Bill is given a full and proper debate in another place.

I shall make a series of initial responses both to the amendments before us and to the points made by noble Lords in speaking to them. In Grand Committee I talked about the role of Parliament in the 1921 Act and the misunderstanding of the relationship between the passing of resolutions and the setting up of inquiries. Noble Lords who were present in Committee will recall that the passing of a resolution did not require a Minister to set up an inquiry, rather it enabled an inquiry to hold certain powers. Noble Lords will recognise from later amendments that I have sought to deal with the issue of parliamentary involvement in inquiries in an appropriate manner—one that reflects the reality of the position in 1921 rather than the misunderstanding that has arisen around it.

Noble Lords referred to the proposed commission that was considered in 1978 and the difficulties which arose when the proposal was approved in one House but not in the other. Noble Lords are also correct to assume that, if it so wished, Parliament could set up such a commission now. Nothing in law would prevent it. I look forward to a meeting scheduled with the honourable Dr Tony Wright to debate and discuss these issues. I agree with all that has been said about his excellent chairmanship of the Select Committee.
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I want to deal with a few of the points that have arisen in speaking to the amendments, thus enabling noble Lords to reflect even further on these issues. I turn briefly to the issue of misconduct. I understand what noble Lords are seeking to achieve, but in legislation we have to be crystal clear and say what we mean. There is an issue as regards determining or defining what "misconduct" means. We have sought to ensure in the Bill that inquiries are set up to look into events in order to identify what happened and what were the causes. That exercise might well identify misconduct, but we recognise that that should not be prejudged. I am concerned that we need to be clear about precisely what is being described and I would ask noble Lords to reflect on that point a little further.

I have already indicated that Amendments Nos. 1 and 2 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, do not give Parliament the power to force an inquiry to be held because Ministers would still initiate inquiries, appoint the panel members and set the terms of reference. Rather, the amendments would allow Parliament to delay or prevent inquiries being held by refusing to pass the relevant resolutions. I repeat what I said earlier: the 1921 Act did not do what some noble Lords who considered this in Grand Committee felt it might.

There are some technical issues with the amendments, but I shall not address those because the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, has rightly asked us to focus on the amendment suggested in the report. I have indicated already that it would be possible for a parliamentary commission of inquiry to be set up without the need for primary legislation, but I also recognise the points made by both my noble friend Lord Borrie and the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, on the particular example of the Rhodesian oil sanctions special commission and the difficulties it ran into.

A couple of other issues are also worthy of consideration. The committee itself acknowledged the difficulty of distinguishing between politically sensitive inquiries and others. Of course, "involving the conduct of Ministers" is a very broad definition.

There have been a great many inquiries beyond those referred to within the report where it could be relevant to suggest that there was ministerial involvement. When I looked at the report, two that sprang to mind were the BSE inquiry and the North Wales child abuse inquiry. In both instances there were questions and issues about the behaviour, on the one hand, of the Department of Health and, on the other, the reorganisation of local government in the 1970s, where it was felt in the North Wales child abuse inquiry that it had become easier for abuse to go undetected.

I was struck by the evidence given to the committee by Sir Michael Bichard on 9 December. He referred to inquiries falling along points on a continuum. In the proposed amendment there is an issue about where one would draw the line on that continuum.

I have already indicated that I am concerned not to pre-judge inquiries. We are specifically considering inquiries to investigate the causes of events, not to pre-judge whether there has been misconduct by either
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Ministers or departments. I am not entirely sure about how we would deal with an inquiry that was established under one framework but then discovered that there were issues of ministerial conduct. I am concerned about how we would ensure that such issues were properly investigated.

As my noble friend Lord Borrie said, Ministers provide advice about Orders in Council to ensure that they are initiated. Effectively, that would simply set up another route for the Government to initiate inquiries.

There is also the issue of what the noble Lord, Lord Laming, described as the political reality of divisions along party lines. Indeed, in the report there is some criticism of the Select Committee process in regard to that very issue. So there are particular concerns there.

I have deliberately tried quickly to raise some of the issues that I shall be keen to discuss with the chairman of the Public Administration Select Committee, Dr Wright, when I meet him, and also the questions that we will be addressing in our full response.

I understand what noble Lords are seeking to do. I also understand that the Select Committee is concerned to ensure a role for Parliament and to consider how best to deal with particular kinds of inquiries. I have difficulty with the amendments around the issues I have raised: about the fact that one can already set up a commission—it is available—if Parliament so wishes; about ensuring that the partisanship the committee had concerns about in the Select Committee process is dealt with differently; about prejudging what has happened in an inquiry before it begins; and about the other questions I have raised.

I hope that noble Lords will further consider these issues. I shall be very happy to discuss some of these concerns in more detail. As I have said, I very much look forward to discussing the issue with Dr Wright. On the basis of what I have said so far, I hope the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

8.15 p.m.

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