Conducting inquiries.

Byline: A.G. Noorani

INQUIRIES lie at the very heart of the democratic process. They ensure accountability of the state to the legislature and to the people who elected them. The recent statements by Prime Minister Boris Johnson's once trusted aide Dominic Cummings before a parliamentary panel shook the government. But the question commonly discussed in Britain is whether the prime minister will set up an inquiry.

The Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany (1949) has a wise provision in Article 44:

'(1) The Bundestag has the right, and upon the motion of one quarter of its members the obligation, to set up committees of inquiry which shall hear evidence in public. The public may be excluded.

'(2) The rules of criminal procedure shall apply mutatis mutandis to the hearing of evidence. The privacy of correspondence, posts and telecommunications shall remain unaffected.

'(3) Courts and administrative authorities shall be bound to render judicial and administrative assistance.

'(4) Decisions of committees of inquiry shall not be subject to judicial review. The courts shall be free to evaluate the facts on which the inquiry is based.'

Thus one fourth of the total membership can force the appointment of a committee of inquiry.

The UK has a chequered past in the setting up of inquiries

Until 1921, the British practice relied on select committees of parliament. Lloyd George, Lord Reading, Lord Samuel, and the Master of Elibank were accused of having favoured the English Marconi Company by accepting its tender for the construction of state-owned wireless stations and of having made use of this information, acquired as ministers, to gamble in the company's shares by buying some in anticipation of the contract. Lloyd George and Lord Reading, while denying in parliament any dealings with the English company, omitted to say they had bought shares in the American Marconi Company which had also risen in value. The select committee produced two reports, one exculpating and the other condemning the ministers. The result was the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act of 1921.

The report of a budget disclosure inquiry, published in May 1936, ended the career of popular Labour politician J.H. Thomas. The 1936 budget increased the standard rate of income tax by three pence and also the tea duty. It was indicated that someone had advance knowledge of the proposed tax rise. A tribunal of inquiry found that there had been unauthorised disclosure by J.H. Thomas...

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