Select Committee on Public Administration First Report


This Report considers the effectiveness of inquiries established by Ministers to investigate events that have caused public concern. It examines the reasons for establishing these investigatory inquiries, which in recent years have ranged from the Hutton and Butler inquiries into issues surrounding the decision to go to war in Iraq to the Bloody Sunday inquiry and the Budd inquiry into the events in the Home office surrounding the resignation of David Blunkett as Home Secretary. The Report recommends that Ministers should justify their decisions whether to hold an inquiry or not on the basis of a published set of criteria.

The Committee believes that there is a need for regular review of the operation of such inquiries; they must be seen to be fair and efficient in discovering what may have gone wrong and in recommending what is needed to put things right. Such a review is particularly timely because the Government has recently introduced a Bill to regulate the establishment and conduct of such inquiries.

The Report lists a number of functions of inquiries and examines how effectively they discharge them under present arrangements, in particular with regard to how lessons may be learnt and recurrences avoided. It asks why the costs of such inquiries should vary so much. It also examines the political, constitutional and practical implications of the frequent use of judges to head inquiries, including the impact on judges' independence and reputation for political neutrality. It recommends that the Lord Chief Justice or the Senior Law Lord should be equally involved with Ministers in all decisions about the use of judges in inquiries.

The Committee welcomes many of the provisions in the new Inquiries Bill, especially its rationalisation of the many statutes which currently regulate such inquiries. However, it expresses its concern that the Bill creates wide powers for ministers to restrict access to inquiries; the Report endorses the presumption of openness contained in the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921, which has governed the conduct of many, but not all, major inquiries over the years. The 1921 Act would be repealed if the new Bill becomes law.

The Committee expresses its concern at the long-term diminution in Parliament's role in the process of public inquiries, and makes recommendations for improvements to parliamentary scrutiny. It also proposes a new mechanism which would enable Parliament to initiate inquiries in cases where Ministers may be unwilling to do so, including the establishment of a Parliamentary Commission of inquiry, composed of parliamentarians and others. In addition, the Committee repeats its earlier proposals for using the Parliamentary Ombudsman in the investigation of breaches of the Ministerial Code.

The Report makes a number of recommendations on practical matters, endorsing the Government's proposal for the establishment of a small support unit for inquiries. The Committee also recommends the setting of a broad budget figure near the start of inquiries. Any increase in costs over that figure would have to be publicly explained.

The Committee recommends that the presumption should be that inquiry chairs should handle publication of reports and that publication arrangements should ensure fairness to all concerned, and allow adequate time for parliamentary consideration and debate.

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Prepared 3 February 2005