Coroners Service

Oral Answers to Questions — Home Department – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 28th October 2002.

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Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham 2:30 pm, 28th October 2002

If he will make a statement on the review of the coroners service.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

We established the review group last year. It published a consultation document in August and will report back by the spring.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

Does my right hon. Friend agree that local coroners should be both accountable and sensitive to their communities? Clearly, that has not happened in Durham. I raised serious concerns about the death of one of my constituents, Maureen Malta, in the local accident and emergency department, but the local coroner, Mr. Andrew Tweddle, arrogantly refused to publish the letter or even to give reasons for that refusal. Will my right hon. Friend take a look at that case and have a meeting with me and others who have concerns about the service in Durham?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

The Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend Hilary Benn, will write to my hon. Friend shortly. We certainly need to open up consultation on how to improve the services. I do not want to make a statement about the individual case, other than to say that openness and transparency are very important and I hope that the health care trust will respond positively to his approaches. The consultation paper in August showed that existing systems for the investigation of deaths were fragmented and failed to provide clear participation rights or standards of service for the bereaved. They lacked appropriate mechanisms for skilling and training those involved, and a proper auditing processing system. They did not even respond to modern legal baselines, so there is a great deal of room for improvement in a process that has been left to fester for too long in the 19th century rather than being brought into the 21st century.

Photo of Colin Breed Colin Breed Liberal Democrat, South East Cornwall

May I make a plea that, as part of the review, the Home Office examine the need for a formal appeal procedure for coroners' decision processes? The relatives of people who have been killed are often left in an unhappy state of mind because of their lack of ability to appeal against the coroner's decision.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I certainly do not rule that out, but we need much greater clarity as to what an inquest is for, how it fits in with the wider criminal justice system, and what the rights of the bereaved should be. We also need to narrow the number of occasions on which an inquest would be appropriate, so that we can use the resources, not least the pathology services, more effectively. I am always listening to the radio or watching the television and learning, as we did from ancient films, about the XHome Office pathologist"—but of course there are no Home Office pathologists, only a range of people who are taken on, for individual payments and on individual contracts, to do the job. All that needs to be brought together if we are to ensure that the whole system is geared to providing answers to questions, to a search for the truth and to action on the findings, rather than the present vagaries.

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Labour, Redcar

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Law Officers' Department is holding an inquiry into the way in which deaths in custody are investigated and dealt with by the justice system. Clearly there is some overlap with the review of coroners, especially with regard to the investigative process. Although suspicious deaths in custody are few, one could argue that there is not currently great public confidence in any of the investigatory processes. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that the coroners service review team and the Law Officers' inquiry will liaise to work towards a better and more open mechanism for dealing with this difficult problem?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

Yes, I shall be happy for the review to do that, and to do it in conjunction with the development work for the establishment of the independent police complaints mechanisms that will provide a more transparent route for those who raise complaints about what has happened to people in custody. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Crime Reduction and Community Safety will publish the latest statistics shortly.

Photo of Andrew MacKay Andrew MacKay Conservative, Bracknell

Does the Home Secretary also accept that all too often the coroners service is signally failing the public? I shall give him a specific example about which I have been in correspondence with the Under-Secretary, Hilary Benn. The parents of constituents of mine were killed in a car crash in Teesside more than 18 months ago, but because of incompetence and alleged short staffing, there has been no inquest, and the coroner has still not acted. Is there really a shortage of staff, and is the Home Secretary doing anything about it? When will my constituents who are suffering have their minds put at rest?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

Those are all extremely good questions, but because the Home Secretary has no remit in such matters at the moment, the review will need to tell us how to develop sensible accountability, which will not take away the responsibility at local level, but will enable us to ensure that there is consistency and proper monitoring, and that we train those involved to be able to do the job. There is a kind of Xad hocism" here, which dates back to a distant bygone era. It is time to shed light on the process, and ensure that we use it sensibly so as to link it in with the criminal justice system in a meaningful fashion.