came into force today.
The Act will help inquiries deliver high quality conclusions and
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
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
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
1. The Inquiries Bill was introduced into the Lords on 25 November
2. Links to the Inquiries Act, Explanatory Notes and progress of the
Bill through Parliament can be found at
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:
5. A paper summarising the responses to the consultation was
published on 28 September 2004 and is on the DCA website at:
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
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
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
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
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
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