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Parliamentary Commissions of Inquiry

Volume 495: debated on Tuesday 7 July 2009

Motion for leave to introduce a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for establishing a commission of inquiry subsequent to a resolution of Parliament into matters relating to the conduct of a Minister of the Crown; to make further provision for establishing a commission of inquiry into particular events which have or may have occurred and which have caused, or are capable of causing, public concern; to set out the procedures for setting up such a commission of inquiry, its powers, rights and privileges; to amend the Inquiries Act 2005; and for connected purposes.

The Bill is partly a response to the setting up of the Iraq inquiry and the excellent debate in the Chamber the week before last. It is partly an attempt to look ahead and to prepare the House for any eventuality that we may have to face. But principally it is a Bill to enable Parliament, in at least one respect, to assert its authority, to remove its assumed metaphorical cringe to the Executive and to stand on its own two feet. That is a worthwhile objective in itself.

Mr. Speaker, you will recall the problems that were identified in the debate on the Iraq war inquiry: the very long delay in setting up the inquiry at all, subsequent to the decision of the Prime Minister; the lack of openness that was originally suggested in the way in which the inquiry was to be conducted; and the deficiencies of process, with many hon. Members being worried about the inability to take evidence under oath and the inability of the inquiry to have the power to summon witnesses. There were concerns about the composition of the commission of inquiry—not those who were asked to join, but those who were omitted and the particular areas of expertise that they might have brought—as well as about the terms of reference and about the timetable for report.

Some of those were subsequently dealt with as a result of the debate that we had in the House. The concerns were addressed by a process of retreat on the part of the Prime Minister, communicated by correspondence to the chairman of the inquiry. I am not sure that that was an entirely sensible way of dealing with the matter; nevertheless, it may have produced at least some potential remedies. But the issue is this: when we need an inquiry because of a matter of great public concern, it should be this House that takes the decision, not a member of the Executive and not a Minister. This has been known for a very long time. Lord North is not often quoted as a model for parliamentarians or for Prime Ministers but in 1774 he referred to this House as

“the grand inquest of the nation…our very clear duty as members of this House is to undertake the very difficult, the very painful, the very meritorious task of watching our Ministers, of reprehending them, of blaming and calling them daily to account.”

That is a succinct expression of our duty, and, in extremis, part of the way in which we fulfil it is by setting up a public inquiry, or at least it was; there is a long history of this House having set up commissions of inquiry in earlier years. That was formalised under the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921. I do not defend every aspect of that Act; it had problems in procedural terms and parts of it were certainly capable of amelioration, but it nevertheless provided a clear power for the House to set up a commission of inquiry.

That then began to be questioned by the Government when they were looking forward to introducing legislation in this area. The Select Committee on Public Administration, to which I owe a great debt of gratitude in preparing my Bill, looked at this in its first report of 2004-05. It stated that

“in future inquiries into the conduct and actions of government should exercise their authority through the legitimacy of Parliament in the form of a Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry composed of parliamentarians and others, rather than by the exercise of the prerogative power of the Executive.”

Needless to say, the Government did not agree with that view; it will not surprise many Members to learn that they did not feel that it was right for Parliament as a body to be held to be superior to the prerogative powers of the Executive. Therefore, in the dying days of the last Parliament, they brought forward the Inquiries Act 2005, the effect of which was to repeal the 1921 Act and to remove entirely the formal role of Parliament in setting up public inquiries. I think that that was fundamentally wrong-headed, because there are 1,001 reasons why Ministers may not wish there to be a public inquiry into aspects of their conduct or the conduct of others in their control. There are so many reasons for them to delay, obfuscate or misdirect, rather than to have the searching after truth that a properly constituted public inquiry can provide.

We should also remember that public inquiries often look into the actions of public bodies, of which Ministers are hardly disinterested observers; they have a responsibility there, so of course it is often not in their interests to set up a formal inquiry. I believe that were such inquiries to be set up under the authority of Parliament, they would have more legitimacy and the public would have more confidence. The PAC returned to this matter in its ninth report of 2007-08, and recommended the provision of a mechanism for setting up such an inquiry.

That is the format on which my Bill rests. By amending the 2005 Act, it would restore powers in the 1921 Act to Parliament, although not in precisely the same form. It equips an inquiry to do its job effectively, enabling Parliament to confer the powers that an inquiry would need to take evidence under oath, to compel witnesses, to ensure that it has the papers before it, to ensure that its composition is appropriate to the task, and to ensure that wherever possible it takes its evidence in public so that the general public have the confidence that their interests are being properly represented. The parliamentary mechanism for the setting up of an inquiry requires a majority of this House, so it is not open to mischief—people will not be able to set up inquiries on spurious grounds, for instance—because a majority of this House is required, and a majority of this House will normally support the Government of the day unless there is a high level of public anxiety.

I believe that this House has a specific job to do on behalf of the nation. That job is to speak for, and ask questions on behalf of, the public. Sometimes we can do that within this Chamber. Sometimes we can do it in our Select Committees and they are the appropriate way of looking into matters in more depth, but at other times those Committees can find obstacles put in their way, as the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs found when it carried out its own inquiry into the lead-up to the Iraq war. When that is the case, it is sometimes necessary, in order to restore faith in democratic principles within this House and to allow the public to have sight of the truth, to set up a properly constituted commission of inquiry. When we do that, it should be in the hands of this House and this Parliament, not those of that Executive. That is why I believe this Bill is so important and why it has garnered the support of so many hon. and right hon. Members on both sides of the House, and it is why I hope the House will allow it to go forward today, so that we can perhaps make progress, even in the short time left available in this Session of Parliament, towards restoring some faith and credibility in this House.

Question put and agreed to.


That Mr. David Heath, Dr. Tony Wright, Mr. Michael Howard, Sir Menzies Campbell, Mr. Graham Allen, Mr. Iain Duncan Smith, Sir Alan Beith, Angus Robertson, Andrew Mackinlay, Mr. Richard Shepherd, Paul Rowen and Sir Nicholas Winterton present the Bill.

Mr. David Heath accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 16 October, and to be printed (Bill 130).

Finance Bill (Ways and Means)


Transfers of trade to obtain terminal loss relief

That provision may be made in the Finance Bill for disapplying section 393A(2A) of the Income and Corporation Taxes Act 1988. —(Mr. Timms.)