HC Deb 30 March 1976 vol 908 cc1252-5
Mr. Rifkind

I beg to move Amendment No. 6, in page 6, line 7, leave out from '(b)' to 'may' in line 8.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this, we are to discuss Government Amendment No. 7.

Mr. Rifkind

Our amendment is perhaps the most important before the House tonight. Under the Bill, the findings of the sheriff may be made available to any person who wishes to have the information. But a transcript of the evidence at the inquiry may be made available only to those persons who, by virtue of the Act, may appear at the inquiry. This is a very restricted class of person.

Our view in Committee was that this was an undesirable restriction, because part of the purpose of these inquiries is to elucidate information about the reasons for a particular incident in order to clarify it for employers and employees so that it can be used to prevent similar incidents in similar circumstances in other parts of the country. The sheriff's determination and findings would be useful on their own, but in many cases it would help if they were accompanied by a transcript of the evidence so that lessons could be drawn from the incidents and so that people should know the circumstances, what precautions were taken and why some precautions were not taken.

This is the sort of information that could be made available to employers, trade unions and others concerned with the prevention of accidents. Unless there are good reasons why this information should not be made available, we strongly urge that the Bill be amended.

It was suggested in Committee that the amendment would cause substantial expenditure out of public funds, but I think that it is now accepted that that is not so. If transcripts were made available, a fee would be charged. The cost of publishing a transcript should be paid by those seeking to obtain it.

Our amendment is being discussed with a amendment which, I am delighted to see, has been put down by the Lord Advocate. Government Amendment No. 7 ensures that the transcript of evidence shall be made available to all those who have an interest in the inquiry. It follows the wording of the original Fatal Accidents Inquiry (Scotland) Act, but there is one aspect which I should like the Lord Advocate to confirm rather than clarify.

The phrases: any person who has an interest in the inquiry is broadly acceptable to both sides, but will the Lord Advocate confirm that his understanding of those words would not be a restrictive interpretation, and that all who were genuinely interested in the background and reasons for the accident would be able to claim entitlement to the transcript of evidence? Will he confirm that the phrase will not be interpreted as being confined merely to relatives, fellow employees, the employer or those who had a direct connection with the accident?

Will the Lord Advocate assure us that the qualification is there merely to restrict those who out of malice or foolishness, having no genuine interest in the cause of the accident, seek to create the extra work and trouble in the production of a transcript? If that is the only purpose, Amendment No. 7 must be welcomed as a substantial improvement to the Bill and fully meeting the points raised in Committee.

The Lord Advocate

The House will be grateful to the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Rifkind) for the reasoned way in which he argued this point. The phrase included in Amendment No. 7 does not have a restrictive connotation. It must be a matter for the courts to interpret precisely what it means, but I think it means that anyone who could show a genuine interest would be entitled to get the transcript of evidence. That is as it should be.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this matter in Committee. We discovered that the wording in the Bill was not the same as the wording in the original Act, although I had been under the impression that it was. Amendment No. 7 restores the position under the 1895 Act so that the Bill follows it in prescribing that if a person has an interest in the inquiry, he can get a copy of the transcript of evidence.

One unfortunate consequence of the Bill as drafted which I did not appreciate at the beginning is that the original words which we are both seeking to excise might have had the effect of providing that only a person who had actually appeared at the inquiry could get the transcript. That consequence escaped us both in Committee, and I am therefore deeply grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising a point which might otherwise have escaped notice.

I was asked to explain the difference between Amendments Nos. 6 and 7. The only difference is that No. 6 might give the busybodies an opening that they would not otherwise have. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not wish malicious busybodies and nosey parkers to be able to obtain copies of the transcript. We wish to ensure that those who qualify are genuinely interested in the subject matter of the inquiry.

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

Would the wording allow a Member of Parliament—being a busybody—to get a transcript of evidence?

The Lord Advocate

If the inquiry related to a constituent, a Member of Parliament would have an interest. Again, if a Member of Parliament has a general interest in accidents, his interest would be obvious. Members of Parliament being what they are, it would be difficult to exclude them. I think that it would be right that they could, if necessary, be asked questions so that they could qualify their interest.

Mr. Rifkind

It is dangerous to make generalisations about Members of Parliament, or any other class of humanity, in regard to their interest in these matters, but I welcome the Lord Advocate's assurance, which was exactly what I hoped he would give. In those circumstances, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment made: No. 7, in page 6, 6, line 7, leave out 'was entitled by virtue of this Act to appear at' and insert' has an interest in'.—[The Lord Advocate.]

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