Clause 65 — Certificate requiring inquest to be held without a jury: England and Wales

Part of Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 9:30 pm on 10th June 2008.

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Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North 9:30 pm, 10th June 2008

I shall be brief to enable the Minister to reply and other Members to speak. I want the Minister to be able to explain to the House exactly why we are introducing something as draconian as clause 65 into this Bill. I am glad that we have had a good debate on this issue this evening, because this part of the Bill is as important and as dangerous to liberties in this country as the 42 days that we will be debating tomorrow. Like that issue, it crosses the important Rubicon of the separation of political and judicial powers. If we are to give the Secretary of State the power to appoint a coroner, the power to prevent a jury and the power to intervene in a case as it goes on, we can no longer claim that there is a complete separation of political and judicial authority in this country. Additionally, since, as far as I understand it, the majority, if not all, of jury cases that are heard in a coroner's court involve a state party—be it the police, the Army or some other organ of the state—in connection with a death, the Minister, whoever he is, will have a clear conflict of interest, as many hon. Members have pointed out.

Proposed new section 8A(1) (b), in clause 65 (2), contains the words

"in the interests of the relationship between the United Kingdom and another country".

That particularly disturbs me. If we are to be proud of and believe in our judicial system and traditions, why are we saying that our relationships with another jurisdiction are an overriding interest? Look at the odium that Tony Blair incurred when he intervened to prevent the investigation by the Serious Fraud Office into the involvement of BAE Systems with Saudi Arabia. He said in his defence that the overriding interest was one of national security and the relationship with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, whose record on human rights is slightly questionable in a number of areas. I suspect that the overriding interest would relate to many other jurisdictions as well where we have close relationships, arms sales or whatever else. It is simply wrong and dangerous for us to do this. It will not do our standing any good around the world and it is no good for our judicial system or our democracy.

I also draw attention to the briefing that has been sent out by Inquest. That organisation has its offices in my constituency and it has campaigned with great difficulty and tenacity and very bravely on investigating the causes of deaths in custody. I pay tribute to that organisation, and I know the people who work there very well.

I know families where somebody has died in custody, and the family goes through the pain of calling for an inquiry, a coroner's court inquest and so on. Someone who dies in custody may be under suspicion, which may be why they are in custody in the first place. Such people often do not have wonderful connections with brilliant barristers and lawyers, and they are often victims who find themselves in police custody and tragically die for a variety of reasons. In such circumstances, it is not in the interests of the police to ensure that there is an open investigation, and it is not necessarily in the interests of any other agency of the state. The only avenue that is available for families of the deceased to seek justice is through the legal system. If we give the Secretary of State the power to intervene to prevent a jury trial in a coroner's court, that avenue will not be open to such families.

I have two more points. First, deaths in custody raise important issues of state power and accountability. In a free and democratic society, deaths in state custody should be subject to particularly close public scrutiny. For that reason, it is imperative that the inquest system is open and transparent so that justice can be seen to be done and public confidence in the state bodies is upheld.

Secondly, I intervened on my hon. Friend Mr. Dismore during his excellent contribution—I will take great pleasure in supporting his amendment—on international comparisons. I do not have the information that he thought that I had about what happens in every other jurisdiction, but I want to discuss article 2 of the European convention on human rights, which other hon. Members have also mentioned. Article 2 requires the Government to implement a proper procedure for ensuring the accountability of agents of the state to maintain public confidence and to allay any concern arising from the use of lethal force. It places a positive duty on the state to investigate a death in custody with an inquiry that is conducted on the state's own initiative, that is independent both institutionally and in practice, that is capable of leading to a determination of responsibility and the punishment of those responsible, that is prompt, that allows for sufficient public scrutiny and that enables the next of kin to participate.

When the Minister replies, I hope that he will explain the motives behind the inclusion of clause 65 and its related provisions in the Bill. We are taking a very dangerous step: we are giving too much unaccountable power to Ministers to protect the state's agents, when the public rely on us, as Members of Parliament, to defend their interests, their procedures and their access to justice.

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