Inquests

Oral Answers to Questions — Home Department – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 30th March 1998.

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Secretary of State for the Home Department

In his recent report on the Hillsborough disaster, Lord Justice Stuart-Smith endorsed the recommendation of a Home Office working group that, in its current form, the inquest system was an inappropriate way in which to inquire into major disasters. I agree with that, and shall introduce legislation as soon as a suitable legislative opportunity arises.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I am very encouraged by the Home Secretary' answer, for which I thank him. For many years, there has been a file on the desk of his predecessors marked "Reform of the Inquest System", which has lain unattended to.

I share the right hon. Gentleman's view—it is not just the view of Lord Justice Stuart-Smith—on the Hillsborough inquiry. The families of people who lost their lives in the sinking of the Marchioness and many others feel that, unless we sort out the relationship between inquests, civil and criminal proceedings and public inquiries, we are condemning many people to a lottery of decisions, often involving many years of grief and difficulty. May I tell the right hon. Gentleman that if he wants support and encouragement to get an agreed procedure, many of us will be happy to oblige?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I am afraid that I cannot vouch for the contents of my predecessor's desk, as it was cleared just before I got to the room. Of course, I entirely share the hon. Gentleman's concerns about the inappropriate interaction between inquests, civil proceedings and major inquiries of the type established in the wake of the Hillsborough disaster. I have made it clear, not least in my statement on the Hillsborough disaster, that it was quite unnecessary and inappropriate and merely added to the grief of the families involved for the initial inquest, which would always take place to establish the immediate cause of death, to be followed by a major public inquiry, in this instance conducted by Lord Justice Taylor—it did a very good job—and for the families then to be put through the mill of further, detailed inquests, which frankly served very little purpose.

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Labour, Liverpool, Garston

I welcome my right hon. Friend's commitment to reforming the inquest system. In that connection, will he consider the adverse impact that findings of accidental death have on families of the bereaved in circumstances such as those surrounding Hillsborough? Will he include in his review and in any legislation some attempt either to refine or to widen the type of verdict available to the coroner, because it is the idea that people died accidentally that the families of the Hillsborough victims find so unacceptable and with which they cannot cope?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Secretary of State for the Home Department

Yes, we will, of course, take that on board. One of the continuing problems with inquests is that they are intended to deal with a very narrow issue, —the immediate or medical cause of death—not with the wider causes. That is a further reason why, when there has been a major inquiry of the kind established after Hillsborough, it should not be followed by further inquests. That simply implies that an inquest is meant to establish wider causes when it does not have that function or locus at the moment.