All future enquiries will put ministers in control

#1
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/mai...law14.xml&sSheet=/news/2005/04/14/ixhome.html

Taming of the shrewd inquirer
By Joshua Rozenburg
(Filed: 14/04/2005)

Remember the fine old tradition of the British public inquiry? The fearless chairman, often a judge, who could never be sacked? The terms of reference, laid down in advance, that could never be altered? The publication of evidence, both oral and written, that the Government could never prevent?

All gone - thanks to the Inquiries Act 2005, passed a week ago while your back was turned. Forget about independent inquiries: ministers are now in control.


Dame Janet Smith's Shipman Inquiry and Lord Hutton's report on the death of David Kelly are history

The new legislation replaces the jumble of formal and informal inquiries into events such as Bloody Sunday, the death of Dr David Kelly, the Harold Shipman serial killings, the outbreak of foot and mouth disease and the collapse of Equitable Life. So, what difference will it make in practice?

Let's start with ministers' new powers to sack the chairman and - after consulting him - any other members of an inquiry panel who are guilty of misconduct, partiality or failure to comply with their duties under the Act. Note that those duties include the "need to avoid unnecessary cost". So if a chairman ends up spending £154 million, as Lord Saville did on Bloody Sunday, beware.

But that's not all. If the Government does not like the way an inquiry is going, it can effectively sack the entire panel at a moment's notice. True, the minister must consult the chairman, give reasons and tell Parliament. But let's imagine that the Hutton inquiry had been on the point of blaming the Government for Dr Kelly's death. In future, a minister can simply wind up the inquiry before it reports.

Next: terms of reference. These are crucial, since inquiry members are not allowed to take evidence or reach conclusions on issues outside the boundaries set by ministers. But what if the Saville inquiry had decided to investigate the Bloody Sunday shootings in more detail than the Government had wanted? In future, the minister can simply tell the inquiry chairman that he is acting beyond his remit, and then refuse to pay him and his staff for anything the minister thinks they should not be doing. And a minister can now change an inquiry's terms of reference - after it has started work.

Given the costs run up by Lord Saville, you might believe that this is a reasonable way of keeping an inquiry under control. But it could be misused by a government trying to avoid disclosure of uncomfortable facts.

The new Act allows inquiries to be held into events of "public concern". If those concerns are to be allayed, it is essential that as much as possible of the inquiry should be held in public. Whatever criticisms may be made of Lord Hutton's report into the death of Dr Kelly, there is no doubt that his inquiry set new standards of openness in publishing government papers and transcripts of evidence on the internet - much to the embarrassment of some ministers.

That is why the Government's new power to restrict public access to hearings and evidence is so alarming. If a minister considers it to be in the public interest, he may simply restrict public attendance at the inquiry and disclosure of documents.

The Act makes it clear that public access may be restricted in order to reduce damage to national security, international relations, Britain's economic interests or commercially sensitive information. A minister can now even restrict public access to information if it would "result in additional cost". And these restrictions may continue in force indefinitely if the Government wishes.

The new Act, which was published yesterday by HM Stationery Office, is not yet in force. For the time being, we shall continue with the untidy but generally effective arrangements under which some inquiries are conducted under various statutory powers and others are conducted entirely informally, with no powers to order witnesses to appear.

Once the legislation is in force, however, the chairman of any inquiry established under the Act will have powers to order anyone to give evidence, produce documents or allow their property to be inspected. Unreasonably failing to give evidence, shredding your documents or not producing items under your control will be an offence punishable with nearly a year's imprisonment (though only six months in Scotland and Northern Ireland).

On the other hand, there may be circumstances in which you are more than willing to give evidence - while others want to shut you up.

If the Government, the Financial Services Authority or the Bank of England tells the inquiry panel that your information could damage the economy, you could be prevented from disclosing it.

Though the legislation is not retrospective, ministers are allowed to convert any existing or proposed public inquiry into an inquiry under the 2005 Act.

And that explains why this legislation has been rushed through with such indecent haste by Lord Falconer's Department for Constitutional Affairs.

As part of the Northern Ireland peace process, the Government has promised a public inquiry into the death of the Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane, who was murdered in 1989 by loyalist paramilitaries. It is alleged that members of the security forces, and those responsible for them, colluded in his killing.

Announcing last September that the inquiry would go ahead, the Northern Ireland Secretary, Paul Murphy, said that it had to be held under the new legislation "in order that the inquiry can take place speedily and in a way that takes into account the public interest, including the requirements of national security".

That means that much of the inquiry will take place in private - to the fury of Mr Finucane's family.

Clearly, lives should not be put at risk by forcing witnesses to give evidence in public. But a decision on anonymity should be one for the inquiry chairman, subject only to review by the courts. Ministers should not have the power to withhold evidence from the public at a supposedly public inquiry.
 
#2
I've been thinking for a while that what we need is an independant "Office of Public Censors" (the Roman version not the "no porn" version) with the right to poke around in any area of public life and if neccessary recommend to the Queen that she sack people or to the DPP that people be prosecuted.
 
#3
Bladensburg said:
I've been thinking for a while that what we need is an independant "Office of Public Censors" (the Roman version not the "no porn" version) with the right to poke around in any area of public life and if neccessary recommend to the Queen that she sack people or to the DPP that people be prosecuted.
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
 
#4
Calypso said:
Bladensburg said:
I've been thinking for a while that what we need is an independant "Office of Public Censors" (the Roman version not the "no porn" version) with the right to poke around in any area of public life and if neccessary recommend to the Queen that she sack people or to the DPP that people be prosecuted.
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
Who watches the watchers ??, good question, so how about the House of Lords.

They after all are supposed to scrutinize the activity’s of our overseers (the House of Parliament), so why not this new body ??


Daz


"Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?", smug git, latin now is it :lol:
 
#5
FFS, its getting more and more like the EU every day! :roll:

Is this labours way of easing us into the european ways?
 
#6
What's the issue here?

Ministers and their minions have always been in control :roll:

Time for a reality check, imho :p :D
 
#7
MS_Rep said:
What's the issue here?

Ministers and their minions have always been in control :roll:

Time for a reality check, imho :p :D
They weren't in control of public inquiries, but looks like they are planning to take that one on aswell. Hardly impartial or accountable now is it?

Something Sir Humphry would be most proud of one thinks :roll:
 
#8
Looking back at some of the more recent Inquiries, they have hardly inspired confidence that all issues were properly tracked and reported upon.
Still, as a Saville Inquiry witness, I can understand how they would wish to put in some controls.
 

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