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STATUTORY INQUIRIES ARE MODERNISED WITH COMMENCEMENT OF ACT

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The Inquiries Act, which modernises the law on statutory inquiries,...
The Inquiries Act, which modernises the law on statutory inquiries,

came into force today.

The Act will help inquiries deliver high quality conclusions and

recommendations quickly and at reasonable cost.

It replaces different pieces of legislation that have grown up over

many years and which do not cover all situations in which an inquiry

might be needed.

The Act's provisions:

* ensure independence and expertise in the panel

* require the chairman to contain costs

* require a report to be published

* give power to the chairman to enforce the attendance of witnesses,

examine witnesses under oath or affirmation, and compel the

production of documents

* cover inquiries held in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and

jointly.

Constitutional affairs minister Cathy Ashton said:

'This is a very important piece of legislation. Inquiries examine

events that have caused serious public concern and can make a real

difference in establishing what went wrong and recommending how it

can be avoided in future. This Act ensures that inquiries have

everything they need to operate effectively.

'The Act consolidates existing inquiries legislation, fills gaps and

codifies best practice from past inquiries. For the first time in

statute the Act lays down all key stages of the inquiry process -

from setting up the inquiry, through appointment of the panel to

publication of reports.

'The Act does not, as has been suggested, radically shift emphasis

towards control of inquiries by ministers. Instead, it makes clear

what the respective roles of the minister and chairman are, thereby

increasing transparency and accountability.

'It also stipulates that proceedings will be in public unless

restrictions on access are imposed by either the Minister or the

chairman. Unlike previous legislation, it specifies the grounds on

which access can be restricted.

'The Act does not give ministers any power to decide what evidence an

inquiry should hear. It gives inquiries full powers to seek out

information within their terms of reference.

'The Act says that inquiry final reports must be published in full

unless there are clear reasons for withholding material and lays down

what these reasons can be. Once an inquiry ends, any restrictions on

public access to any material or evidence will be subject to the

Freedom of Information Act.

'Reform of inquiries legislation was long overdue and this Act will

enable inquiries to get to the truth more quickly and

cost-effectively.'

The Act is supported by the administrations of Scotland, Wales and

Northern Ireland, whose ministers will be able to use the new

framework to set up statutory inquiries into matters within their

remit.

Notes

1. The Inquiries Bill was introduced into the Lords on 25 November

2004.

2. Links to the Inquiries Act, Explanatory Notes and progress of the

Bill through Parliament can be found at

http:www.dca.gov.uk/legist/inquiries.htm

3. Legislation that is replaced by the Inquiries Act includes the

Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921, and a number of inquiry

powers in various subject areas, including s.49 of the Police Act

1996, s.81 of the Children Act 1989 and s.84 of the NHS Act 1977.

4. The DCA published a consultation paper on inquiries, Effective

Inquiries on 6 May 2004. It is available at on the DCA website at:

http:www.dca.gov.uk/legist/inquiries.htm

5. A paper summarising the responses to the consultation was

published on 28 September 2004 and is on the DCA website at:

http:www.dca.gov.uk/legist/inquiries.htm

What does the Inquiries Act do?

The Act creates a comprehensive new statutory framework for inquiries

set up by Ministers to look into matters of public concern. It

replaces over 30 different pieces of legislation on inquiries,

consolidating much of the current legislation and codifying past

practice for inquiries. It covers the setting up of inquiries, the

appointment of people to conduct them, their procedures and their

powers, and the submission and publication of reports.

What was wrong with the existing legislation?

The previous legislation was piecemeal. The 1921 Tribunals of Inquiry

Act was only used for the most serious matters of 'urgent public

importance' and provides for a tribunal of inquiry that looks very

much like a court. A collection of more modern inquiry powers

developed over the years, which covered some particular subject areas

such as policing and health, but not others such as prisons.

Increasingly, governments have started to set up ad-hoc,

non-statutory inquiries, often because there is no appropriate

legislation for statutory ones.

What sort of inquiries could the Act be used for?

Any inquiry set up by the Government to look into a past event, or

series of events, that has caused - or has been capable of causing -

public concern, for example, inquiries like the Stephen Lawrence

Inquiry, or the Bloody Sunday Inquiry. These sorts of inquiries have

generally been triggered by events - such as a death, an accident or

an alleged criminal act - but have tended to focus not on the events

themselves but on the possible failures in systems and services that

allowed them to happen.

The Act is not designed for planning inquiries, or any other

inquiries that take place as part of an administrative,

decision-making process. Nor is it designed to cover inquiries

commissioned by anyone other than government Ministers - for example,

inquiries set up by the Health and Safety Commission. These types of

inquiry are designed for a specialist purpose, and have their own

legislation.

Will the Act be used for all Ministerial inquiries in the future?

Not all. The Act will only be used for inquiries that need to have

statutory powers. There will still be a place for non-statutory

inquiries. There will also be some subject areas, such as financial

services, where it is appropriate to keep a specialised framework in

place.

Does an inquiry have any legal effect?

Inquiries do not determine civil or criminal liability. They are not

a substitute for court proceedings, and they don't punish people or

award compensation. They are a tool for establishing facts and

preventing a problem from recurring.

How will this legislation help control the costs of inquiries?

On the face of the Act, there is a new requirement on an inquiry

chairman to have regard to the need to control costs. Sections on

payment of inquiry and witness expenses provide the Minister with a

degree of budgetary control, while ensuring that the inquiry has

adequate funds. Procedure rules - which we will consult on this

year - will then strengthen a chairman's hand in controlling costs.

They will cover issues such as legal representation, taking of

evidence and costs assessment. A new requirement to publish final

costs will provide a greater level of public scrutiny.

What powers does an inquiry have?

Inquiries will be able to compel any information that could be

compelled by a court in normal civil proceedings. Failure to

co-operate will be a summary offence, and inquiry chairmen will also

have the option of asking the High Court to enforce any orders that

they make.

What provisions exist for holding inquiries in private?

The Act contains a presumption of public access to inquiry hearings

and evidence. It allows either a Minister or an inquiry chairman to

place restrictions on public access only when those restrictions are

justified within a detailed framework set out in the Act.

Restrictions can be imposed only when they are required by law, are

in the public interest or are conducive to the inquiry fulfilling its

terms of reference. In making a decision about restrictions, the

Minister or chairman must balance a number of factors set out in the

Act, including the risk of damage to national security and the extent

to which the restriction might inhibit the allaying of public

concern.

Provisions on public access are not new. Under previous legislation,

Ministers had discretion to hold certain inquiries in private. In

some legislation, this power was explicit, some legislation was

silent on the point. By setting out the framework in which decisions

on access can be taken the Act is more restrictive than previous

legislation.

Do the restrictions affect what information a panel can consider?

The Act does not give Ministers any power to decide what evidence an

inquiry should hear. It gives inquiries full powers to seek out

information within their terms of reference. Restriction notices or

restriction orders would never prevent information from being given

to an inquiry panel.

If an inquiry is held in private, will its report be published?

The Act specifies that reports must be published, and that material

can be withheld only where the redaction is in the public interest or

is required by law. Powers to withhold information could not be used

to prevent disclosure of information under the Freedom of Information

Act.

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