Have you no sense of decency?

It was on June 9th 1954, during the course of a US Senate hearing into allegations of lax security at top secret US Army facility, that the political career of US Senator Joseph McCarthy effectively came to an end, destroyed by those same six words which are the title of this article.

In front of stunned television audience, McCarthy launched into what had, by then, become an all too familiar line of attack, charging that one of the attorneys working for Boston lawyer, Joseph Welch, who was representing the US army, had ties to a communist organisation.

Welch replied to this attack with the immortal words:

“Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness…”

…and when McCarthy tried to continue his attack, Welch angrily responded:

“Let us not assassinate this lad further, senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency?”

Have you no sense of decency?

It’s a question that I want to address, today, to each and every one of the members of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

Well, have you?

Why do I ask this? Well, in part its because of this story, the latest chapter in the sad tale of the death Jean Charles de Menezes.

Much has already written today about this case and about the leaked documents which show just how badly wrong the Police were at every step leading up to his being shot eight times on a stationary train in Stockwell Tube station; but that’s not – directly, at least – the issue which prompted this question. Rather it is the matter of his family’s call for an independent public inquiry into the circumstances of his death which moves me to anger on this occasion.

Why would I be angry about this, you might wonder? Does his family not deserve such an inquiry, in fact don’t we all have a legitimate interest in just such an inquiry as central to this whole issue is the question of the conduct of the Police?

Of course this matter merits a public enquiry, that should be self-evident. It’s not the call for a public enquiry that angers me but the knowledge that no such inquiry is possible. Oh don’t get me wrong, there may still be things, from time to time, that the government might refer to as ‘public inquiries’, they may even have the nerve to refer to them as ‘independent’ but, to all intents and purposed, since June 7th, this year, the public inquiry as knew, understood and valued it, ceased to exist.

How could this possibly have happened?

It happened because on June 7th, the Inquiries Act 2005 came into operation, having completed it passage through Parliament on April 7th 2005 – remember that date, I’ll be coming back to it in a short while.

The Inquiries Act changes, in several fundamental ways, the process by which public and other governmental inquiries are convened, conducted and, ultimately, reported on, not a single one of which serves the public interest.

It does this by taking away from the independent chair of such an enquiry and from Parliament itself, a whole series of rights which have been in place since the 1920’s, rights which the government has now, through its ministers, reserved solely and exclusive to itself.

Faced with calls for a public inquiry, a Minister now has the sole and exclusive right to:

1. Decide whether there should be an inquiry.

2. Set its terms of reference.

3. Amend its terms of reference – at any time before or during its proceedings.

4. Appoint its members.

5. Restrict public access to inquiries – at any time before or even during its proceedings.

6. Prevent the publication of evidence placed before an inquiry

7. Prevent the publication of the inquiry’s report – all inquiry reports are now to be submitted to the Minister who then decides whether to submit it to Parliament. Previously inquiry reports were automatically submitted to Parliament, Minister had the right only to access in advance of any debate on the inquiry’s findings.

8. Suspend or terminate an inquiry.

9. Withhold the costs of any part of an inquiry which strays beyond the terms of reference set by the Minister.

Does that sound to you like the basis of an independent public inquiry? No, me neither.

There is a first class summary and critique of the Act, in full,
to be found here, which I would recommend you take the time to read, but I will pick out on passage of the critique with of obvious and particular relevance to today’s events:

“Where Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights (which protects the right to life) is engaged, the Inquiries Act is at variance with the United Nations’ Principles on the Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extra-legal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions. Indeed, we doubt that the Inquiries Act can deliver an effective investigation in compliance with Article 2. The Minister’s powers to interfere in every important aspect of an inquiry robs it of any independence. Even if a Minister were to refrain from exercising those powers that are discretionary, s/he still has absolute power over whether there should be an inquiry at all and over its terms of reference. There is no scope for victims to be involved in or even consulted about the process.”

You might well wonder, as I did, who the hell voted for this bill on its passage through Parliament?

Would you be shocked if I said ‘no one”?

This is where the date, April 7th 2005, I mentioned earlier, become important.

This bill passed through Parliament and into law without ever being subjected to a vote in the House of Commons. Believe me, I’ve looked. I’ve checked with both Hansard and with ‘The Public Whip’ and can find no record of a division on this particular bill either on its second reading, on March 15th 2005, or on it completing it passage through the Commons on the 7th of April – in fact I can’t even find a third-reading debate on the bill.

That’s because, if you cast you mind back, April 7th 2005 was the final sitting of Parliament before it dissolved in order for the General Election to take place. The Inquiries Act, as it now is, was one of several bills which made it through Parliament on the back of agreements with the opposition that they would not oppose or delay its passage.

There was no third-reading debate and no divisions because the leaders of the respective political parties put their heads together and cut a deal which allowed it through without challenge. This is no mere case of a government using its crushing majority to force the bill through, in this case our supine political opposition colluded with the government to sell some of our fundamental rights, rights which previously enabled us to hold both the government and the state to account, down the river.

Why has this happened?

Well unless you’ve been living on another planet for the last couple of years then the government’s motives here should be perfectly apparent. They can be summed up in only two words – Hutton Inquiry.

The government may well have been effectively exonerated or any substantive wrongdoing by this inquiry but during its proceedings what we actually saw of the way the government goes about its business became rather embarrassing for [their] comfort – and can there be any more effective means of preventing anything like that happening again that by an Act of Parliament which give Ministers absolute control and authority over any future inquiries into the conduct of the government and its servants.

But what of the opposition, in this? Surely their best interests lie in preserving the old system, given that it could, and often would, cause massive embarrassment to the government of the day.

Well I can’t speak for the Lib-Dems on this but in the case of the Tories there’s an all too obvious reason why that would back this bill – remember the Scott Inquiry? Robin Cook’s finest hour and the single greatest parliamentary speech in living memory?

That was 1996 and still, I would suspect, fresh – in political terms – in the minds of the Tories, especially those like Michael Howard, who were members of the actual government that was on the receiving end of the glorious savaging administered by Robin Cook during that debate.

What was it that he said that day?

“This is not just a government that does not know how to accept blame – this is a government that knows no shame.

One might well say the same of our current crop of parliamentarians on reading the Inquiries Act.

This is, by farm the most shamelessly misbegotten, self-interested, self-justifying piece of legislation to pass in law since..

… well, I suspect you’d have to go back to the era of ‘rotten boroughs’ to find anything so blatantly against the public interest.

It is a travesty and fundamental betrayal of the public trust, an act of nothing more than sheer contempt for the British people; and so I must ask again:

Have you no sense of decency?

… and invite any current or former member of parliament to answer, if they dare – as always, the comments box is open.

  • The death of public enquiries
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  • So how can you have Backing Blair and Tom Watson on your blogroll and still say this? I agree with you don’t get me wrong… but this is Blair’s work and in response to nearly being caught out with Hutton

  • Unity

    1. I’m a member of the Labour Party

    2. I don’t support Blair

    3. I have a mind of my own

    Yes, the Act itself is Blair’s work but then the opposititon is equally to blame in the sense thsy had the option to oppose the bill, force the debate and ensure that it ran out time and had to be carried over to this current session where it could be debated properly.

    Had this gone throguh the proprer process not only would the public have seen it for what it is but it would have had a rough passage in the Lords and may not have made it at all – its a horrid thought for a democrat but with public inquiries now firmly under the lidless eye of government ministers the sole independent means of inquiry we have left to us is a special committee of the Lords, as was used in the case of Chinook 476.

  • Gerald

    Something has gone rotten at the heart of our constitutional system.

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