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Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, the noble Baroness has a very good record in accepting the recommendations of the committee. I am delighted that she has done so on this occasion.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendment No. 48 not moved.]

Inquiries Bill

4.56 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, on behalf of my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton I beg to move that the Bill be now further considered on Report.

Moved, That the Bill be further considered on Report.—(Baroness Ashton of Upholland.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Clause 11 [Duration of appointment of members of inquiry panel]:

Lord Kingsland moved Amendment No. 32:

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I rise to move Amendment No. 32. We had a long discussion about this amendment in Grand Committee and I was delighted to have strong support both from the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, and the noble Lord, Lord Laming, from the Cross Benches.

I do not intend to repeat the analysis to which the clause was subjected at that stage; suffice it to say that, as far as I am concerned, no problems are presented by Clause 11(2) or part of subsection (3)(a). But that part of subsection (3)(a) which includes the expression,


 
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and subsections 3(b), (c) and (d) all give the Minister wide scope to remove a member for improper or illegitimate reasons.

Our view is that Clause 11(6) does not go far enough to check the discretion of the Minister. It places only the obligation to consult on the Minister. We believe that the Minister should not only be obliged to consult but also to obtain the approval of the chairman.

We take that view, first, because of our general philosophy about the appropriate balance of power in the Bill between the Minister on the one hand and the chairman on the other; and, secondly, because, frankly, it is common sense to take that view. In practice, the Minister is likely to find it almost impossible to remove a member of an inquiry board if the chairman of that board is opposed to it, without being faced with the prospect of the chairman's resignation. I beg to move.

5 p.m.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I am again grateful to the noble Lord for explaining the issue that concerns him. I agree that it is very unlikely that a Minister would remove a panel member against the wishes of the chairman, because the chairman has the ultimate, extremely powerful option of going public with any objections to that.

However, my two concerns remain as to why it is important to retain the provision. The first was drawn out by the noble Lord, Lord Laming, who is not in his place today, which concerns the responsibility for an inquiry. If there were to be a removal and the chairman's consent were needed, that would put the chairman in the difficult position of being publicly made to take responsibility for a decision that may attract a lot of attention.

Our view is that we should ensure that the chairman gets on with finishing the inquiry. Ultimately, the Minister must take responsibility for appointing the panel members and for any changes made. Secondly, we have placed with the Minister responsibility to ensure that resources are used effectively, so we need to ensure that the Minister can deal with very unlikely circumstances that may arise, perhaps concerning a loss of confidence that requires removal. Again, it is important that the Minister should take that responsibility.

I promised the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, that I would consider the wording of subsection (3)(a) concerning "any other reason". In considering that, we felt that it was important to cover eventualities that we cannot foresee. Therefore, we feel that we need to leave those words in. It is not a wide power, because it falls within the context of the clause. It is a standard phrase; I have checked. It is used in numerous pieces of legislation—for example, the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and the National Heritage Act 1980. It allows us to encompass situations that we cannot predict. For example—perhaps one that has resonance at present—if a member of a panel were to disappear
 
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in circumstances that suggested that he had been involved in a natural disaster, but there was no certainty, it would enable us to act on that basis.

I have thought carefully about the clause; I have thought carefully about where the responsibility should lie; but I must tell the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, that it is right that it rests with the Minister and that, in this context, we have got the relationship about right. On that basis, I hope that he will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Lord Kingsland: My Lords, while, of course, being grateful for the Minister's reply, I cannot disguise the fact that I am extremely disappointed by it.

I submit that the Minister has two options. The first and better option is to adopt our proposal and add the expression in our amendment to Clause 11(6). The alternative, on which noble Baroness dilated towards the end of her speech, would be to reduce the scope of the various paragraphs under subsection (3).

Extremely unconvincingly, in my view, the noble Baroness sought to explain why she felt that the expression,

should remain. That expression is cast in the widest possible form. It will give the Minister discretion to remove a member of an inquiry simply because he does not like the direction in which that member was tending in what he said during the inquiry. It could be open to the most abject abuse by the Minister. If the noble Baroness is correct in expressing the real intentions of the subsection, I should have thought it only right that she should have provided herself with proper protection by narrowing the definitions in it.

Nevertheless, the noble Baroness has said what she said to your Lordships. In those circumstances, I beg to withdraw the amendment, but assure her that I shall return to this matter on Third Reading and hope that, meanwhile, she will think again.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 12 [Power to suspend inquiry]:

Lord Goodhart moved Amendment No. 33:


"( ) The Minister shall lay a notice under subsection (1) before each House of Parliament, together with a statement of his reasons for suspending the inquiry."

The noble Lord said: This amendment, in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Smith of Clifton, is entirely covered by government Amendment No. 36, which is acceptable to us. In those circumstances, I shall simply move Amendment No. 33 formally to start the debate. I beg to move.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, for agreeing that government Amendment No. 36 answers his concerns. We should be most grateful if noble
 
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Lords would accept our amendment, because it contains the necessary provision for the devolved Administrations as well.

Lord Goodhart: I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 34 not moved.]

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting moved Amendment No. 35:


"( ) Before exercising that power the Minister must consult the chairman."

The noble Lord said: The amendment requires the Minister to consult the chairman of the inquiry before suspending it. That reflects concerns raised in Committee and formalises what we believe would be the normal practice in any event. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting moved Amendment No. 36:


"( ) Where the Minister gives a notice under subsection (1) he must—
(a) set out in the notice his reasons for suspending the inquiry;
(b) lay a copy of the notice, as soon as is reasonably practicable, before the relevant Parliament or Assembly."

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendment No. 37 not moved.]

Clause 13 [End of inquiry]:


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