CONSTITUTIONAL AFFAIRS – INQUIRIES BILL – 15 March 2005

[Mr Oliver Heald: Does the Minister accept that under the 1921 Act, both Houses of Parliament decide whether the inquiry goes ahead, whereas under the current proposal, it is the Minister who decides? Does the hon. Gentleman think there is any merit in returning to the issue and thinking again about whether Parliament should be involved? Many of the issues that might require an inquiry are complex, in the public domain, important and serious, and Parliament might want to have a say.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr Christopher Leslie): Parliament is entirely free to undertake its own parliamentary inquiries, parliamentary commissions and so forth, if it so wishes. What we are discussing today are the circumstances and rules surrounding ministerial inquiries conducted by the Executive. We have made a number of changes in response to the debate that took place in the other House with respect to ministerial statements that we think we should make to set out the arrangements for the inquiry, laying the report before Parliament and so on. Ultimately, reports to Ministers and the Executive can be questioned in Parliament through the natural process of accountability.]

Dr Julian Lewis: The Minister has been generous in giving way. I am still not clear why, precisely, the Government have made the change so that a resolution of both Houses is no longer required in order for an inquiry to be set up on a matter of public importance.

[Mr Leslie: It is not the case that a resolution of both Houses is at present automatically required for all inquiries. Many inquiries can be preceded by resolutions of both Houses, but there are various loopholes in the legislation that allow other inquiries to be set up without parliamentary resolutions. If we can get into the detail of the Bill, particularly clause 7, which was introduced in the other place, we can start to investigate in a little more detail why, in certain circumstances, we would not want parliamentary resolutions – for instance, they can take time to be passed through both Houses, and sometimes we need to expedite the commencement of an inquiry. We should recognise that it is the role of the Executive to make sure that we can investigate problems and ensure that they do not recur, and we can be held accountable for that in Parliament.]