[Relevant Document: The Second Report from the Justice Committee, Session 2008-09, on the Coroners and Justice Bill, HC 185.]
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I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The measures in the Bill are designed further to strengthen and to improve confidence in our justice system, building on more than a decade of record investment and substantial cultural and institutional reform. As a result, crime is down by more than a third since 1997. This is the first Administration since the war to preside over a significant and sustained reduction in crime. The chances of being a victim are now the lowest since accurate recording began more than 25 years ago. This means that there were 4 million fewer victims of crime in 2008 than there were in 1998. Over the same period, many more offences have been brought to justice—nearly 1.5 million in the year to March 2008.
In the past, victims and witnesses fared badly within the justice system— prosecutors would barely even speak to their own witnesses, and victims and witnesses could be made to share a waiting room with the friends and family of the defendant. There was little or no help for vulnerable witnesses giving evidence. Since 1997, this Government have worked very hard to give a central voice and priority to victims and witnesses. We have increased investment threefold in support for them: for example, the amount for victim support alone has trebled. Victims have been given the legal right to minimum standards of service. There are victim personal statements in court and a victims' advisory panel to inform Government policy. We have made it easier and less traumatic for vulnerable and intimidated witnesses to give evidence in court.
Before I continue, let me say that I should have begun by welcoming Mr. Grieve to his new and elevated post as shadow Justice Secretary and shadow Lord Chancellor. I first noticed his quality and judgment more than 10 years ago when he was speaking vocally and eloquently in favour of what was then the Human Rights Bill. It is fair to say that ever since he has been a consistent supporter of what is now the Human Rights Act 1998 and the incorporation of those measures into British law. We congratulate the Leader of the Opposition on his judgment in elevating the hon. and learned Gentleman to this post. May I also put on record my thanks to his predecessor, Nick Herbert? We sometimes had our disagreements, but we had a very constructive relationship and I wish him well in his new post.
I have set out the Government's record in giving considerable support and improvement to the position of witnesses and victims, but there is plainly scope for further improvement. This morning, I made a written ministerial statement announcing the appointment of Sara Payne as victims' champion—an appointment made jointly by my right hon. Friends the Home Secretary and the Attorney-General and myself. The victims' champion is there to represent the views and concerns of victims and witnesses to Government, to the media and to Parliament and to challenge criminal justice agencies further to reform policies and practices in relation to them.
I am most grateful to the Secretary of State for his kind words of welcome.
Conservative Members welcome the appointment of a victims' champion, but would the Secretary of State care to comment on the fact that the victims' champion appears to be a temporary substitute in the absence of a victims' commissioner? I seem to recollect that a commissioner was first promised as far back as 2003 or 2004, yet we still do not have one. Is not the appointment of the champion an admission that the Government have not got their act together on this matter? [This section has been corrected on 11 February 2009, column 16MC — read correction]
No, it is not that, but I am pleased that the hon. and learned Gentleman welcomes this appointment. The Criminal Justice Act 2003 made provision for a victims' commissioner. There was a proper appointment process in 2005, but no suitable candidate was identified for the post, and it was decided that meanwhile the priority should be to build up and strengthen victims' and witnesses' services directly. I looked at the provisions in the 2003 Act and decided that they should be amended, and the Bill makes them rather lighter to ensure that less money is spent on what would amount to a bureaucracy for the commissioner. I hope that those changes commend themselves to the House and to the other place. Meanwhile, we judge that the gap should be filled by the appointment of a victims' champion. As soon as the Bill becomes law, we will take steps to begin the process for a permanent appointment of a victims' commissioner.
I shall now deal with each of the Bill's key provisions in turn, starting with coroners. In the past four decades there have been major reforms of both the civil and criminal courts, but the coronial service has so far remained unchanged. We consulted widely on the draft Bill and have listened carefully to the House, and the Bill will bring about the first major reform of the coroner service in more than 100 years. It will significantly improve the service for bereaved families, not least those of service personnel, and strengthen death certification procedures following the Shipman inquiries.
On overseas military deaths, the Secretary of State will be aware that there is currently no provision for inquiries in Scots law, but in recent months significant progress has been made in discussions on the matter between UK and Scottish Ministers. Will he confirm that the UK Government's intention is that they may table provisions during the Bill's passage to help to update the situation?
On the deaths of service personnel, I share with many Members concern about the resurrection of private or secret inquests. They hardly seem in keeping with the Obama zeitgeist. May I give an example of a case in which the Secretary of State might have been prevailed upon to issue a certificate on the grounds of national security? In June 1994, a Chinook crashed on the Mull of Kintyre, killing four air crew and Northern Ireland intelligence experts. The families have been fighting to reverse the RAF board of inquiry's verdict of pilot error ever since. I knew Mike Tapper, the father of Flight Lieutenant Jonathan Tapper. May I urge the Secretary of State to explain fully the potential impact of private inquests on the possibility of getting to the truth about the deaths of brave servicemen and women in such cases?
I am just about to come to the Bill's provisions on the special certification procedure. I fully understand, as all of us do, the deep concern and anxieties of the bereaved families of that terrible Chinook accident in 1994, but it happened in the territory of Scotland, which is not directly covered by the Bill and where there have long been separate procedures for fatal accident inquiries.
Does the Secretary of State agree that one aspect of military inquests about which bereaved families are deeply concerned is that the state can be represented by barristers, whereas they cannot except in exceptional circumstances and at the agreement of the Secretary of State himself? Does he agree that there should be room in the Bill for a clause allowing, or in fact requiring, families to be properly represented at inquests?
I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern, but the reason why successive Governments have resisted a general provision to make representation or legal aid available in inquests is that they are civil, inquisitorial inquiries. They are not judicial proceedings, and they work very differently even from other civil proceedings. That is why successive Governments have resisted the notion that legal aid should be made available. There are exceptions to that—I have been party to agreeing them—and although I do not give the hon. Gentleman an undertaking that we will accept an amendment on the matter, I certainly undertake that we will consider it.
The Secretary of State must be well aware of the hurt caused to families when there is an inquest into a death in police custody, for example, and they cannot be represented because they cannot get legal aid. They therefore feel that they have all the powers of the state against them when they are merely trying to achieve truth and justice for their loved ones. Will he think again about the policy of denying legal assistance to people who are going through a terrible crisis in their lives?
We are happy to think about it, but as I have said, there are some complexities. We must also consider the overall issue of cost, in the context that the legal aid budget for England and Wales is now the same amount that we spend on prisons, and legal aid per head in England and Wales is higher by a large margin than in any other country in the world, including common-law countries. That is the challenge that we face, but I understand the concern that has been well expressed by Members in all parts of the House.
I turn to the proposals in the Bill relating to coroners. There will be a new chief coroner, who will be a High Court judge and will preside over the reformed service and provide national leadership, and there will be separate independent inspection. For the first time, bereaved families and other interested parties will have access to a dedicated appeals system and will not have to rely on seeking a judicial review of an inquest. There will be far greater scope to transfer investigations from one area to another, taking into consideration the views and needs of bereaved families.
We entirely welcome the list of proposals that the Justice Secretary has just read out. However, he knows that some anxiety has been expressed about the fact that the post of deputy chief coroner will not be available to those working in the coroners system. I am surprised about that, although it is clearly right that the chief coroner should be a High Court judge, and I hope that we can consider the matter carefully during the Bill's passage.
I have thought about the matter a lot during the Bill's drafting. I fully accept that there is much to be said in favour of what is in the Bill and also of the hon. and learned Gentleman's comments. I am open to considering amendments on the matter in Committee.
Let me now deal with what is plainly the most controversial issue in the Bill—the proposition that, in certain limited circumstances, inquests should partly be held in private. In some circumstances, it is in the interests of justice to hold such inquests partly in private— for example, to protect highly sensitive information, such as a police source or intercept evidence.
During the debate about previous proposals in the Counter-Terrorism Bill—the substance of the current proposals differs markedly from those—it was suggested that there was no need for special provisions and that we could rely, as the criminal courts do, on the public interest immunity certificate procedure. I want to outline a fundamental difference, which means that that argument cannot apply.
In a criminal prosecution, there are many occasions on which the courts receive applications for public interest immunity certificates. As Home Secretary and as Foreign Secretary, I signed several. In most cases, because they are carefully thought through, the court grants a PII and the sensitive information is thus protected and kept from the jury. However, sometimes the PII is not granted. In that case, it is open to the prosecution to withdraw altogether—that sometimes happens. The prosecution therefore has an option to proceed without the PII or withdraw in the public interest.
That option cannot arise in the case of an inquest. The need for an article 2 inquest arises when somebody has died in specific circumstances, not least, as the Bill spells out, when a person has died in the custody or the detention of the state. If the court was not willing to grant a PII, it would be improper for the state to abandon the inquest. That is why a proposal has been presented to introduce a special procedure to deal with the problem, which has become more significant in recent years because the courts have quite properly insisted that the inquests become article 2 compliant.
In a small number of cases, there has been significant difficulty in ensuring that coroners have access to all relevant information, including highly sensitive material, which cannot be made public. Agencies have used public interest immunity to refuse to disclose such material. To make the best of a difficult—and, in my view, unsatisfactory—situation, I am told that some coroners have worked with the relevant intelligence and security agencies to secure as much information as possible to ensure that a viable inquest could take place. In some circumstances, coroners have been shown withheld material in private, although they have not been able to make use of it. They have also been prevented by law from seeing any material protected by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, including intercept material.
We have developed the proposals because we believe that the current state of the law and process is unsatisfactory. It has resulted in two inquests being unable to proceed because the coroners cannot comply with their article 2 obligation to conduct a broad inquiry into the circumstances of deaths resulting from an act or omission of the state. Given that coroners' inquests are increasingly being used to discharge those article 2 obligations, it is likely that that will continue to pose a problem in a small number of cases in future.
I do not claim to the House that the provisions in the Bill are the last word—indeed, we are open to amendments. However, I ask hon. Members to acknowledge that there is a problem and that PII certificates will not tackle it. The state is not in the shoes of a prosecutor in respect of an inquest. As I have said, in the case of a criminal trial, the prosecution can be withdrawn, but in the case of an inquest, that cannot happen.
Part 1 of the Bill seeks to ensure that there is a proper legal basis for inquests to consider protected information. As I have already said, proposals relating to this first surfaced in the Counter-Terrorism Bill. However, the proposals in the Bill represent significant changes to those original provisions, and we have tried to take account of the criticisms that were made. We have narrowed the criteria for certification, and introduced a requirement that consideration must be given to every other way of preventing the material from being made public before the new measures can be used.
I appreciate that this is an area of some difficulty, but I am sure that the Secretary of State will be aware that one of the reasons for holding an inquest is to satisfy the families as to the circumstances of a death. In an article 2 case, the provision and presumption is that there should be a jury. Indeed, that follows almost automatically at present. Frankly, the Government's proposals are really no different from their convening a secret internal inquiry of their own and then saying afterwards, "We are satisfied that everything is all right." The proposals, as drafted, for the secrecy clauses and for the lack of a jury completely undermine the purpose for which an inquest is convened in the first place. There must be a better way of resolving the Secretary of State's dilemma than going down that road.
If there is a better way, let us see it. I am not unsympathetic to the hon. and learned Gentleman's point, but I have looked at this matter. I am not saying that this is the last word, but this is a really difficult issue. I wholly reject his suggestion that the Bill provides for some kind of secret inquiry conducted by the Secretary of State. That is a parody of what it says. Moreover, as he knows, European jurisprudence—including the convention—does not require there to be a jury in any circumstances. We are very unusual, in England and Wales, in using juries as frequently as we do. That is a great strength of our system, but there is no requirement whatever, either in article 2 or in the Strasbourg jurisprudence, to do so.
The Bill does two different things. First, it removes the jury; secondly, it provides for an inquest to be held in private. Those are entirely different steps. The Secretary of State's arguments in favour of holding an inquest in private do not justify the removal of a jury, unless one believes that juries inherently represent some kind of security risk. Are not the Government taking the attitude that members of the public are incapable of keeping confidential the information that is put before them as jurors?
In extreme cases—I can think of cases in which I myself signed public interest immunity certificates— there would be a grave risk of death for some individuals if certain categories of information were to be held by more than a handful of people. That point cannot be trivialised.
I will of course give way in a moment, but, if the House will allow me, I want to make a little progress.
We have narrowed the criteria, and there will also be a requirement that consideration must be given to every other way of preventing the material from being made public before the measures can be used. It is true that these provisions were not on the statute book at the time of the de Menezes inquest, but it was perfectly plain that every effort was made, successfully, to ensure that that inquest could take place without the need to resort to similar measures or for the inquest to be deferred. That will be the default setting, as it were, and it is set out in the Bill.
The Bill anticipates that any decision by the Secretary of State to certify an inquest will be subject to judicial review by the courts. I have no doubt that any such review would be thorough. Indeed, the provisions include a requirement for the Secretary of State to notify interested parties of such a decision, followed by a period of grace to give them the opportunity to apply for judicial review. If judicial review proceedings are brought, the Secretary of State's certificate will have no effect until they are concluded.
Last Session's Bill provided that the appointment of a coroner should be made by the Secretary of State, but there were many objections to that, which I fully understand. This Bill provides explicitly for there to be no involvement—and this is entirely correct—by a Secretary of State in the appointment, which is to be made by the Lord Chief Justice and should be of a High Court judge.
David Howarth spoke earlier about instances where the jury is removed from inquest proceedings. If, however, the case were important enough to be covered by a public interest immunity certificate—I realise that that is not what is being proposed—the information contained in it would almost by definition be of a sufficiently high level of secrecy that a jury would not be privy to it in any case.
My right hon. Friend is correct. That is the problem and it explains why we run into the difficulties that I have outlined.
How satisfied is my right hon. Friend that if the secrecy option had been available in the de Menezes case, it would not have been used? I say that because the default position of those in authority when a mistake of that magnitude occurs is usually secrecy. My right hon. Friend will recall that in that case, the Metropolitan Commissioner wrote to the then Home Secretary the day after the shooting occurred and asked that there be no independent inquiry into the circumstances. He was apparently unaware that the Independent Police Complaints Commission was obliged by law to hold such an inquiry. The danger is that once one opens this little gap in the law, it will be exploited.
I do not deny the temptation, but it is for that reason that under clause 11(1)(b):
"The Secretary of State may certify an investigation... into a person's death if of the opinion that... no other measures would be adequate to prevent the matter being made public."
That is very explicit language and that provision would itself be the subject of very anxious scrutiny by the court on a judicial review of a Secretary of State's certificate.
I ask the right hon. Gentleman to come back to the issue raised by the Liberal spokesman, David Howarth. There have been instances in the past when jury trials have been held partially in camera—I am thinking back to times when the Soviet Union still existed and we had spy trials—and under those circumstances, of course lives were at risk. It was not always British citizens' lives, as agents in the Soviet Union and so forth were sometimes involved, yet jury trials were still held. Why is it not possible to reconstitute that sort of arrangement?
There were indeed such trials, but it is also the case that in such trials, some of the evidence that was otherwise material was denied to the jury altogether by the exercise of a public interest immunity certificate. As I said to my hon. Friend Mr. Mullin, the starting point should be how to work round the existing system of having a jury, including having a hearing in camera as part of the proceedings, but one then gets to the point where, under criminal trials, including even those held in camera, the judge agrees that certain relevant information is not disclosable to the jury. That is the difficulty. As I say, I understand the fact that the House is uncomfortable about this provision; it is not one that I am particularly comfortable with myself; it is a real difficulty. What we have to do is to try to find a way through it.
We all understand my right hon. Friend's problems with this issue, but I would like to return to earlier questions about the impact of these measures on service families. They are constantly told that they cannot have public inquiries, because they get answers to questions about the deaths of their loved ones through the coroner's inquest system. Now, however, they are told that they may only get a partial answer. Cannot my right hon. Friend understand the dismay felt by many service families about these issues?
First, the number of such inquests would be very limited indeed—probably one or two a year, if that. I think it would be very rare for those to be held in respect of service personnel, for good reasons. I understand the concerns, and what the Bill overall does is greatly to strengthen the facilities, services and rights of bereaved families.
One assumes that the exclusion of the public will extend to the family and relatives of the deceased. It is often difficult, even under normal processes, for such people to get closure when somebody has died in tragic and violent circumstances. In cases of the sort that we are talking about—the most sensitive of all—does my right hon. Friend really think that relatives will get closure when faced with an inquiry from which they have been excluded? Does he think that that complies with the requirements of article 2 of the European convention on human rights, particularly in the light of the case of Jordan, which said that families have to be involved in the inquest process?
The families will be involved. We are talking about exclusion from only part of the inquest in very limited and very specific circumstances, not about secret inquests. I would also say that those inquests, where held, will be conducted by an experienced High Court judge. Although I understand the concern of families that they will not get a verdict of the jury, what they will get instead, which they cannot get from a jury, is a detailed, reasoned explanation running over many pages, and a review of all the evidence, such as can be made public, as to why the learned judge has come to the view that he or she has.
If my hon. Friend does not mind, I need to make progress because this is quite a significant Bill.
May I go on to other aspects of the Bill? Part 2 deals with—
I want to raise a point about the way that coroners have dealt with incidences of domestic violence and deaths following those. My right hon. Friend may be aware of the tragic case of Julia Pemberton, whose family live in my constituency. Last year, the Pemberton homicide review concluded in the body of its report that domestic violence training should be made available for coroners. Can my right hon. Friend give the family any comfort that his Bill will insist on such training for coroners?
The Bill itself will ensure that there is a chief coroner, a charter for bereaved families and guidance given by me and by the Lord Chief Justice on how the coroner service should operate, so the short answer to my hon. Friend is yes.
I am sorry, but I am afraid that I must make progress, if my hon. Friends will allow me. I will give them an opportunity to come back when I have done so, if that is all right.
May I go on to deal with other aspects of the Bill? Part 2 proposes reforms to the law of homicide. In particular, it abolishes the partial defence of provocation and replaces it with a new partial defence, which applies to killings in response to a fear of serious violence and killings in response to words or conduct that cause a defendant to have a justifiable sense of being seriously wronged. Those provisions will not, as some have claimed, give abused women a licence to kill. They are designed, rather, to bring about just outcomes, irrespective of gender.
Let me turn to the law on assisted suicide.
Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that the use of diminished responsibility in relation to murders will be accepted only where a recognised medical condition is restricted and predetermined by the House when hon. Members go through the Bill in Committee, and is diagnosed before the murder takes place?
I did not entirely follow the hon. Gentleman's question, but I will ensure that it is answered in full during the winding-up speech. It is wonderful being a Minister in my Department, and Ministers thank God every day for the post.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way and I have to say that he has moved over the issue of provocation with a speed and nimbleness that rather belie the controversial and complex nature of the proposals. I appreciate that they may have to be looked at in Committee, but he will be aware that there is considerable anxiety about, for example, the proposal that sexual infidelity be excluded whereas so much else may be left to subjective views and the jury's reasoning. He will have seen what the former Lord Chief Justice said about that. Has he any comment to make at this stage that might help the House, and may we have an assurance that we will be able to examine this issue in considerable detail?
I am aware that there is much to be said about the issue on all sides, and I have thought about it very carefully. Of course it will be examined in great detail in Committee. I should be happy to make a speech for a couple of hours going into great detail now, but I fear that that would be considered an abuse of the privilege of the House.
I am sure my right hon. Friend will know that many Members on both sides of the House are fully sensitive to the difficulties that he faces in trying to amend an inquisitorial system while also trying to protect security, but I am also sure he will agree that whatever qualifications, experience and brilliance High Court judges may possess, they have nothing in comparison with the good sense possessed by juries. I welcome the opportunity to work with my right hon. Friend in trying to find an alternative to restricting jury trial.
I take note of that.
Both the Law Commission and an independent review identified confusion about the scope of the law on assisted suicide. I have also received strong representations on the issue from my hon. Friend Mrs. Moon, whose constituency has suffered the terrible tragedy of a series of suicides. Part 2 does not substantively change the law, but it does simplify and modernise the language of section 2 of the Suicide Act 1961 to increase public understanding and to reassure people that the provision applies as much to actions on the internet as to actions offline.
In the past 10 years, we have developed much greater protection for children from sexual abuse, but we must keep the law up to date with technological changes. The Bill therefore provides for a new offence of possession of non-photographic images of child sex abuse, building on the existing law in respect of indecent photographs.
Will the hon. Gentleman allow me to make some progress?
The Bill also completes unfinished business from the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 by proposing to remove the so-called freedom of speech amendment—which was inserted in the Bill in the other place at the last moment—in relation to the offence of inciting hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation. As the House will recall, that provision was defeated overwhelmingly by Members on both sides of the House—there was a majority of 200—but we had to accept the decision of the other place temporarily, because we had to secure Royal Assent by
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend.
In the face of much Government opposition, the other place did indeed insert "free speech" clauses in the part of the Bill dealing with the offences of religious and homophobic incitement. Clause 58, the final clause in part 2 of this Bill, seeks only to remove the "free speech" exemption in relation to homophobic incitement. Is that not a rather asymmetrical approach, and is it likely to survive challenges in the other place?
I shall certainly take account of what my hon. Friend has said, but there are differences and I think that that has been accepted by the House when the matter was debated.
The creation of the offence of homophobic hate crime—courtesy of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008, the effect of which was to amend the Public Order Act 1986—was very sound, and commanded widespread support. It was designed to catch, among other things, despicable homophobic lyrics in reggae songs, such as "Hang lesbians with a long piece of rope" and "All gay men should die". May I put it to the right hon. Gentleman that the so-called free speech amendment was at best superfluous, and at worst deeply objectionable? Some—although not all—of its supporters would not even know how to spell the word "equality", let alone sign up to it. It is right that clause 58 should remove the exemption.
A great many were on the Conservative Benches in the House of Lords. I shall pass on the hon. Gentleman's compliments to his noble Friends there.
I should like to make a little progress.
The offence of inciting hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation has a very high threshold. It currently covers only behaviour that is threatening and intended to stir up hatred. We are returning to this issue because we believe there are no circumstances in which the right of alleged freedom of speech should justify such behaviour.
The one thing the Secretary of State has not told the House is why he thinks the proposed saving clause introduced in the other place in any way undermines the intention and ability to prosecute under the main part of the clause, which we support. Unless I can be persuaded that it does so undermine it, I think that, as a saving clause, it has a great deal of merit, particularly in view of past history, which shows that individuals who have sought to express perfectly reasonable criticism have received visits from the police.
I simply do not accept that. The movers of that amendment were very clear that the words meant something; they were intended to make a conviction very difficult indeed. That was the purpose.
Clauses 52 and 53 relate to images used by paedophiles for their own excitement and for incitement. Clause 58 refers back to an earlier homophobic incitement measure, which can include the written word. Has the Secretary of State ever considered a similar law for paedophiles, in response to the appalling written material they use for similar personal and other incitements? If he has done, or is willing to do so, I will be happy to ask a certain well-known policeman in the Metropolitan police force to send him some copies of this disgusting stuff—and to do so directly, because I do not want to see it.
We seek all the time to ensure that what this House and the public regard as obscene, objectionable and extremely pornographic and corrupting is covered by the law, and I am happy to sit down with the hon. Gentleman to see whether this provision and the other provisions cover what he has in mind.
Turning to part 3 of the Bill on criminal evidence, investigations and procedure, in July last year, with agreement from all parts of the House, we acted decisively to allow evidence in criminal trials to be given anonymously, following the Law Lords decision in the Davis case. During the passage of the Criminal Evidence (Witness Anonymity) Act 2008, I said that Parliament would be given a further and fuller opportunity to consider the legislative framework for the use of such evidence. Part 3 fulfils that undertaking by re-enacting that emergency legislation, with some changes. It contains proposals to build on the 2008 Act by way of an "investigation witness anonymity order". This new tool will enable the police to provide early reassurance to witnesses that their identity will be protected during and after investigations of gang-related homicide.
In January last year, while on bail awaiting trial for the alleged murder of his wife, Garry Weddell killed his mother-in-law before taking his own life. That case highlighted the desperately difficult decisions facing judges and magistrates every day in granting bail to murder suspects. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister assured the House at the time that
"if any changes in the law are necessary, we will make them."—[ Hansard, 16 January 2008; Vol. 470, c. 925.]
Following a public consultation, part 3 sets out proposed changes to the law on bail, including the strengthening of rules on granting bail in murder cases and a requirement that the decision to grant bail in such cases is made by a Crown court judge. We believe that this strikes the right balance between protection of the public and protection of the rights of those who have not yet been tried. Combined, the measures in part 3 will ensure that the interests and safety of victims, witnesses and the wider public are put first, and that justice can be better in criminal cases.
On part 4 on sentencing, Parliament lays down the maximum sentence for every offence and, in a few instances, provides for minimum sentences as well, but the range of sentences for particular categories of offence is a matter for the discretion of the court. When I first looked at this issue in the mid-1990s, I found two things. First, for similar categories of offence and similar offenders, there were significant variations in sentence practice, unexplained by any factor other than the habits of different courts. Secondly, the guidance available to courts took the form of a digestion of decades of High Court decisions contained in dense textbooks such as David Thomas's "Current Sentencing Practice", which although an impressive and distinguished work of scholarship, now runs to five volumes.
I suggest that neither is the case—that work was already pretty substantial when I was in opposition.
The truth is that sentencing practice is complicated and is bound to be so, but I found that, without any other information, neither the public nor sentencers had a clear idea of the penalties for particular types of behaviour. That explains the significant variation in the attitude of the courts to similar offences and similar offenders. My view was that we needed a more explicit process, but one that fully respected the independence and discretion of judges and magistrates at the point of sentence. So, the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 established the Sentencing Advisory Panel. That was followed by the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which proposed the Sentencing Guidelines Council.
At the end of 2007, Lord Carter's review of prisons recommended the setting up of a working group to look at the advantages and feasibility of a structured sentencing framework and a permanent sentencing commission for England and Wales. In response, a working group was established under Lord Justice Gage, and I am extremely grateful to him and to his colleagues on that group. Our proposals in this Bill implement the unanimous and majority recommendations of that group.
Those arrangements would continue and we are, of course, open to suggestions about how they should be strengthened. I have thought about whether there should be arrangements for Parliament to approve by affirmative order the recommendations or decisions of the sentencing council in this Bill—I think there would be many objections to that. I think that there are ways of strengthening the work of the Justice Committee, and we are certainly ready to consider those.
I should like to make a little progress first. The Gage working group rejected the introduction of a United States-style sentencing grid and instead called for the strengthening of the Sentencing Guidelines Council. We support that approach. That is why we propose the new council in part 4 of the Bill. One of the purposes of the council has been explained with admirable clarity:
"there should be a new, formal mechanism whereby the impact of proposed sentencing changes is assessed by an independent body, so that the Government and Parliament are properly informed about the decisions they take, and to ensure that they understand what resources will be necessary to deliver those changes. But that is entirely different to proposing that sentences should be limited by the resources made available by the Government after the framework is set."
The matter that the Secretary of State glosses over is that it is the intention, in setting up this structure, to fetter the ability of judges to exercise their discretion within the parameters laid down by the Sentencing Guidelines Council and by considerations relating to the Government's number of prison places, for example. That is a profound change, and I must tell him that it will come as a shock to the public, because it has been an established principle for a long time that judges should pass sentences that reflect the period that a person should serve in prison. Are we going to hear anything about that this afternoon or will it simply be brushed under the carpet?
The hon. and learned Gentleman has just heard something about it, but he was not listening to the views of his party's former shadow Justice Secretary. What we are seeking to do is to reach a consensus on what he was proposing.
It is important that we examine what affects the public and not just what affects lawyers. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it ought to be made explicit that a sentencing council's work should include examining what is effective in cutting crime and reducing reoffending? After all, victims want to know, more than anything else, that they will not become victims again in the future. That has not necessarily been a prime focus of the courts system.
Ensuring the effectiveness of sentencing will be an important role of the sentencing council. The majority of the council's members will be judges or magistrates. It will have a permanent judicial majority, which is one important reassurance. The council will have an enhanced role in collecting data and monitoring the operation and effect of its sentencing guidelines. It will provide independent assessments of the impact of Government proposals on correctional resources. It was that function that Parliament and many others sought so that Parliament would be told when it was proposed to change sentencing practice—
It is part of the same issue. New proposals, wonderful though they might be, could result in increased demand for prison places, so the next question is whether the money is available to pay for them. That is a sensible way to proceed. The improved collection of data would also meet the concerns raised by my right hon. Friend Alun Michael that a better assessment should be made over time of the efficacy of sentences in terms of reoffending rates. The courts will be able to depart from the council's sentencing guidelines if that would be in the interests of justice. The Bill is deliberately silent on what is meant by the interests of justice because that would be a matter for the courts to determine.
May I come at the problem from a slightly different angle? There are already magistrates who are not able to sentence people to community sentences when that might be appropriate because the lack of resources from the Government has made certain courses unavailable. For example, in Staffordshire, magistrates have been unable to sentence people to particular community sentences for that reason, and I am told that that problem is not peculiar to Staffordshire. The Secretary of State must understand that the resources question attaches not only to custodial sentences but to community sentences. People who should be getting community sentences are, for the wrong reasons, being sent to prison.
The numbers are few and far between in our judgment. We increased the money—£40 million—available to the probation service, and not all of that has been spent. However, I am always happy to look at individual cases.
The Opposition need to make up their mind which side they are on when it comes to resources—
Well, that will not write the cheques. In individual departmental areas, the Opposition call for more resources, but overall they call for fewer resources. I remind the hon. and learned Gentleman—I look forward to his response later—that I wrote to his predecessor in November to point out that the shadow Chancellor and the Leader of the Opposition kept saying that they would cut spending in the future and would have cut it in the past. Where would the cuts have applied in this Department? Despite three reminders, not a word came back. We look forward to a response today.
In giving effect to the working group's recommendations, there is no question whatever of individual sentencing decisions being tied to the availability of prison or probation resources. I am aware that parts of the Bill are complex, and I am anxious to get it right. I aim to table some amendments in Committee and I will also listen closely to the debate today.
I have already referred to representations made to me by my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend, to which I have sought to respond. Now I want to refer to a matter that was brought to the attention of the House by Mr. Goodwill on the advice of Jan Woodward, whose daughter was tragically killed by a drunk driver. In a question to the Prime Minister, the hon. Gentleman drew attention to an anomaly in the law that means that if an offender has committed a serious crime that merits both a prison sentence and a period of disqualification, the latter runs from the point of sentence. The result is that the offender will often have completed a large part of the disqualification before he or she is released from prison. I commend the hon. Gentleman for bringing the matter to the attention of the House. In changing the law, which was of decades' standing, we have sought to ensure that offenders suffer the full punishment for their offences by requiring the courts to extend the period of any driving ban to take account of the time served in prison.
Although I recognise that the measure addresses the specific point of a person who is given a prison sentence and a ban at the same time, it does not address the other situation that might occur. A person might be sentenced, for example, for a burglary during a driving ban and would continue to serve that driving ban while in prison for the burglary.
The hon. Gentleman and I have discussed that and, if we can find a way through it—he acknowledges privately that there is a way through—we will do so. We all understand the point.
If I may, I want to make some progress, as I have already been on my feet for getting on for 50 minutes.
The Bill also deals with better supervision of knives by the court, which has also been drawn to the attention of the House, and with the issue of profiting from criminal memoirs.
Let me turn finally to the provisions relating to changes to the Data Protection Act 1998. In an age of instantaneous electronic information, it is fundamental that data held on individuals are secure and properly protected. That plainly has not always been the case. At the same time, provided security and scrutiny are guaranteed, better data sharing can greatly work in the interests of the public. It can help to improve opportunities for the most disadvantaged, provide better public services, reduce the burden on businesses, implement policies more effectively and detect fraud.
At present, when a family is bereaved they often have to contact Government Departments and local authority departments many times over to make the necessary arrangements, often providing the same information. Responsible data sharing between the relevant agencies would reduce the number of people who would need to be notified of a death, thereby helping to relieve distress at a difficult time.
Last year, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister asked Professor Mark Walport and the Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, to conduct an independent review of data protection and data sharing. The review recommended stronger safeguards to protect data and upgraded arrangements for data sharing. It said, in particular, that
"there is a lack of clarity about what the law permits or prohibits."
So, alongside new powers, clause 152 provides a new scheme for data sharing. Under those powers, an order may be made only in circumstances where sharing the information is in the public interest and proportionate to the impact it may have on the person affected. The Information Commissioner will provide independent oversight of the process, scrutinising draft orders and laying before Parliament a report of his findings. Every single order will have to be debated and approved by Parliament.
With his characteristic skill, the Secretary of State reduces a seismic change in the relationship between the state and the citizen to something utterly benign. Is it not the case that a great deal of the information that the state acquires from individuals is acquired for specific purposes that Parliament has set down? The Government are proposing to drive a coach and horses through the duty of confidentiality that the state owes to individuals in any case where a quite nebulous concept of public good decides to trump the private right. That is surely not a matter that we should be considering in a portmanteau Bill of this sort. It ought to be contained in separate stand-alone legislation. It has enormous implications for civil liberties and it is not right that the Government should come to the House and ask us to have it as a little add-on to another complex piece of legislation.
The hon. and learned Gentleman does nothing for his case with his gross exaggeration of the provisions. The measures follow the Walport-Thomas review, which was rather widely welcomed, as I recall. There was then a period of consultation. The Government published their detailed response, which effectively accepted what the highly independent reviewers had proposed, and that has now found its way into the Bill.
I should also say to the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield that this Bill is not about choosing between the private individual and the public good, as it were, but about helping private individuals, in many cases, through better data sharing. There are separate provisions for the use of anonymised data for statistical purposes, and the hon. and learned Gentleman needs to look at them.
In the interests of proper debate, I am about to finish my remarks.
The safeguards in the Bill will be complemented by additional proposals in part 8 to strengthen the auditing and inspection powers of the Information Commissioner. This Government recognise the need to strengthen the protection of personal data, and to restore public confidence in its security. It is right to consider the risks of data sharing, but these should not blind us to its potential benefits.
This Government have presided over a decade of very significant institutional and cultural reform to our public services that has seen them become better funded, better performing and much more efficient. To finish where I began, the result is that this is the first Administration since the war to see crime go down consistently, year by year. That is in contrast to the performance in government of the Opposition, when crime doubled during their 18 years in power.
The proposals before the House today are intended to make the coroner and justice systems more effective, responsive and accountable, and to enable them to meet the expectations of victims, witnesses, bereaved families and the wider public. I commend the Bill to the House.
The Bill's title suggests that it deals with matters that might command cross-party support. As the Secretary of State will be aware from my earlier interventions, it is widely agreed that the coroners system is in need of reform. Coroners themselves agree with that, as do the Opposition, and we all wish to improve the operation of our justice system. Change is needed, but this Bill fails to address the issues properly. There is certainly much that we wish to support that may strengthen the fight against crime, but some of the Bill's measures are an offence to justice and the preservation of freedom in this country.
I will in just a moment.
It beggars belief that the Government should be seeking a draconian transformation in our law to enable them to share private data about individuals. Those data will have been collected in confidence for specific purposes but their ability to be shared right across Government will be sanctioned merely by statutory instruments that will be unamendable in this House. The controversial nature of such a proposal cries out for stand-alone legislation, and I can tell the Secretary of State that we will seek to remove it from the Bill.
I am most grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman for giving way, and I welcome him back to his area of expertise. It is a promotion, I am sure, and I am glad to see him in his place.
Far from being too critical, the hon. and learned Gentleman's assessment of the effect of the section of the Bill in question was extremely modest. It is the most important part of the Bill, but did he notice that it was the one area on which the Secretary of State did not wish to engage in debate with the House? Does he agree that, whatever the merits of a modest sharing of information, the proposal before us is so broad that it will have a quite staggering effect in undermining the principles of the Data Protection Act 1998?
I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. We are clearly going to have to make common cause with his party and with hon. Members in all parts of the House as we try to make the Government see sense on this matter.
May I counsel the hon. and learned Gentleman, and his ally on the Liberal Benches, to avoid making over-hysterical comments on the issue of data sharing? Does he accept that there is an important need to have a balance between protecting data and using them, especially to prevent crime and reduce offending? Does he recognise that in many circumstances there is a reluctance to share data because of the sort of rhetoric that he and his colleague have used?
My experience of one or two examples of failures to share data, such as that which was highlighted in the Soham murder case, is that there was no requirement whatsoever for any legislation in the House to enable such sharing to happen. Perhaps a slightly greater understanding of what is and is not allowed is needed. However, the country has managed rather well historically by being extremely careful of allowing the Government to share data. Indeed, the right hon. Gentleman will recollect that, at one time, people were so concerned about preserving individuals' privacy that there were separate schedules to the tax Acts to ensure that a tax inspector could not have a complete picture of a person's finances. We have moved a very long way from there. The path that we are on raises really serious possibilities of the oppressive state, as every hon. Member should bear in mind when considering such proposals.
Before the Secretary of State intervenes, let me point out that I am not saying that the Government have malevolent intentions. I do not think that, but if the proposal is passed by the House, it will be a substantial accretion of state power that is available for misuse, and the benefits appear very slight in comparison, except possibly for the convenience of bureaucrats.
As I have said before, the hon. and learned Gentleman does his case no good by parodying what is in the Bill, and he seems completely ignorant of the provenance of the proposals, which came not from the Government, but from an independent review of data protection, undertaken by people who are profoundly committed to the provisions—the Information Commissioner and Professor Mark Walport. Moreover, the hon. and learned Gentleman must accept, first, the criticism by Walport and Thomas that the existing regime causes confusion—the proposals are designed to end some of that confusion—and that many of the problems that have arisen about whether data can or cannot be shared to protect the public, and secondly, that the Bill, although I am happy to consider how it could be strengthened—
Order. I am anxious not to curtail debate this afternoon, because these are complex matters, but I am sure that the Secretary of State will appreciate that he spoke for nearly an hour and that any intervention he makes should be extremely brief.
I am grateful for finally teasing from the Secretary of State some engagement in this debate, which is some progress.
Let me make the position clear. I do not deny that the arrival of the vast volumes of data that the state is now collating does not raise challenges. Indeed, the Information Commissioner is on record as expressing deep concern about the way in which, for example, data about a person's distant past may be raked up and used in ways that are detrimental to their well-being subsequently. I accept that there is a need for safeguards and supervision, and some of the provisions may do something in that respect, but that does not get us away from the enormity of what is proposed. As it appears in the legislation, this is in fact the moment when the doors are opened to massive and uncontrolled data sharing. We do not think that that is desirable. We certainly do not think it desirable that it should be included in a Bill of this kind.
Does the hon. and learned Gentleman share my concern at how the Government are presenting their case to the public? We saw an example this afternoon, when the Secretary of State talked about families suffering bereavement. I have also heard him give examples involving people moving house. That makes what is proposed sound like a very minor change, made just for people's own convenience. Does the hon. and learned Gentleman share my concern that, if that is what is going to be done, a change in the law is not needed; people just need to be asked to give their consent? The Secretary of State is using minor examples to cover what is, as the hon. and learned Gentleman has said, a huge change.
Yes, I agree entirely, and that is characteristic of the Government. It is just like identity cards, on which we were all told that it would be convenient for everyone to be able to prove their identity. None of these things is likely to take me in, and I do not think that they will take in the public either.
Before I move on to consider the clauses, I cannot entirely ignore the Bill's background, particularly as the Secretary of State has provoked a response in view of his opening panegyric about the Government's record on reducing crime and making everyone safer. We are entering a recession that is made far worse by Government debt, and it looks quite clear from the Government's information that that is likely to be detrimental to individuals' safety from crime as well.
In view of the Secretary of State's comments, I would be interested to hear whether he agrees with the Home Secretary, who wrote to the Prime Minister in September warning of the increase in crime in general, and violent crime in particular, brought on by current economic conditions. Given that matter, the Bill does not even scratch the surface of what the Government could or should be considering. Violent crime has almost doubled under this Government—a fact now openly acknowledged by the head of the Home Office in his memorandum to Ministers, but not, apparently, by Ministers themselves.
There has been failure to plan for, let alone fund, adequate prison capacity, and that is one of the reasons why the proposals relating to the sentencing council take the form that they do in the Bill. At a time when people are concerned about the increase in violence, the full impact of the Government's reckless early release scheme is becoming plainly apparent, for example in the ClearSprings fiasco; the issue was on the airwaves only this morning. The long-term failure to build the prisons that we need for our criminal justice system has led the Government to rely on weak non-custodial arrangements, and to fail to rehabilitate offenders or protect the public. I just point out to the Secretary of State that since 1999, nearly 400 people have been killed by criminals on probation.
A quarter of magistrates courts have closed under Labour; they were replaced by administrative measures that do not punish criminals properly and risk penalising the innocent. The mass expansion of penalty notices—again, this is something with which we are having to grapple—conditional cautions and warnings means that half of all criminal offenders avoid altogether court and proper assessment of what is required for them.
On the expanded use of spot fines, we now put shoplifters and those caught in possession of drugs on a par with someone accused of dropping an apple. Half the fines are not paid on time, in any event. One has the impression that Ministers are more interested in the taxation and revenue aspects of fining than in tackling the underlying causes, in relation to those who steal. Of course, the same approach is taken to cannabis, as the Government send out more mixed messages about that dangerous drug; they are reclassifying it on the one hand, but continue to make it the subject of fixed penalty notices on the other.
I notice that someone was recently ASBO'ed for singing in the bath, but on the face of it, real thugs do not seem to be particularly deterred by antisocial behaviour orders. The Government have repeatedly attacked the role of juries during their time in office. Each time, the Government have had to be fought off, but in the Bill there is yet another attempt to undermine the jury system, in relation to inquests. As I said, there is also the growth of the database state and creeping surveillance, despite all the evidence that the Government are more likely to lose or abuse our private information than to protect it. I am afraid that we see all the hallmarks of those serial failings in the details of the Bill.
Just to cheer up the Secretary of State, let me say that there are some measures that we welcome, as I have already hinted and pointed out. We agree that reform of the coroners' system is long overdue. The bulk of the proposals are clearly of great importance, and we will do our best to make sure that those aspects of the reform can work properly. We certainly support measures to prevent criminals from profiting from their crimes, and we will work with the Government to ensure proper protection for victims and witnesses, while safeguarding fair trials. There is much that is good in that part of the Bill. There may well be some challenging issues to do with investigation anonymity orders, but the intention behind them is clearly laudable.
We will also look carefully at the Government's proposals to reform the law on homicide. On that issue, we accept that the Government's intentions are good, but the provisions classically illustrate the problem of trying to cherry-pick important, carefully reasoned and crafted, but admittedly controversial, proposals from the Law Commission's report. There is clearly a need to provide a better definition of partial defences to murder, whether on the grounds of provocation or diminished responsibility. Those will be much harder to rationalise if the Law Commission's idea for two categories of murder is not followed, although, as I say, I have some sympathy with the Government on why they may have decided not to go down that road.
It is a little strange—I repeat what I said in my intervention—that the Government should propose a wide-ranging partial defence where things done or said could cause a defendant to have a justifiable sense of being seriously wronged, intended to be wholly subjective, yet we are asked specifically to exclude sexual infidelity as a ground for feeling wronged. The whole history of human society, whether one is reading "Othello" or considering the case of Ruth Ellis, suggests that that is a matter on which people who might otherwise be behaving reasonably appear to lose all sense of proportion and reason. Without in any way saying that I have a fixed view on the matter, I very much hope that these are issues that we can properly consider, because it will be important that we get them right.
None of the proposals goes to the heart of the matter. They paper over the cracks. The sentencing council papers over cracks. Let us be absolutely clear. The fundamental point about this reform is to ensure that sentencing is driven by Government expediency, rather than by the requirements of justice. If it were not, there would be no reason why the existing system could not be tweaked. Something far more radical is proposed, and it amounts to a substantial fetter on judicial discretion. The Magistrates Association put it this way, and I could not put it better:
"to engineer a reduction in the prison population rather than to deliver just sentences that fit individual crimes".
I make the point rightly made by my hon. and learned Friend Mr. Garnier: the measure applies not just to whether people are being sent to prison; it applies also to non-custodial sentences and whether community punishments are available. It is right across the board.
I am grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman. His suggestion that the proposal is driven by a desire to reduce the prison population is completely untrue. It is belied by the fact—we are often criticised for this, but I take it on the chin—that the prison population has increased by twice the rate at which it increased under the Conservative Government. It has increased by 2,000 places a year and rising, and we have plans right until 2014 for its further expansion. Moreover, his predecessor was proud to say that the Conservative party was the only party committed long term to reducing the prison population. Is that his policy?
Yes, I am entirely committed to the idea of reducing prison population in the long term. That is very desirable. My view has always been that the first step in reducing prison population is to provide adequate prison facilities for rehabilitation and training. That cannot be done in an overcrowded environment, which is why more prison places are needed at present. Moreover, when the Secretary of State quoted my hon. Friend Nick Herbert earlier, he failed to add the final sentence of the comment that my hon. Friend made at the time:
"That is entirely different from proposing that sentences should be limited by the resources made available by the Government after the framework is set."—[ Hansard, 28 November 2007; Vol. 468, c. 359.]
On that score, the attempt to suggest that there is a difference of view between my hon. Friend and myself is nonsense.
The Bar Council called the move that the Government propose on the sentencing council a "dangerous" politicisation. We will deny the courts the discretion that they need and one of the reasons for that is that the Government have squandered so much taxpayers' money that there is none left to discharge Government's first duty to protect the public.
The Secretary of State challenged us to say how the Conservatives would approach these matters differently. I had not intended to go into this, but I am sure we would not have wasted £70 million on a computer system to link prisons to the probation service, which does not work. We certainly would not have spent £100 million to put the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council into a new Supreme Court, which must be one of the greatest extravagances and wastes of the Government's period in office. Furthermore, we would not be spending £131 million to house the Secretary of State in his new accommodation. All that is quite apart from the £5 billion that has effectively been wasted on the National Offender Management Service—a subject that the Government are only too keen to gloss over. I note in passing that £27 million was spent on external consultants in 2007. If the Secretary of State wanted me to, I could run on with an endless list and point out all sorts of areas in which sensible savings can be made on foolish Government expenditure. If the Government had not been so profligate and foolish in some of the projects on which they embarked, the Secretary of State's Department would not have its spending crisis, which has been afflicting it for a considerable period.
In that case, I will now. Just so that we are clear, is the hon. and learned Gentleman saying that any future Conservative Government would guarantee that no IT project would fail to meet its objectives or its budget?
I very much hope—indeed, I believe —that by applying a bit of common sense, it is possible to avoid some of the pitfalls that have afflicted the right hon. Gentleman's Department. His Department has had many problems, one of which is that his two predecessors were heartily disliked by the Prime Minister when the Prime Minister was Chancellor of the Exchequer. As a result, certainly in respect of constitutional affairs, for example, and particularly on legal aid, the Department ended up constantly underfunded, because of the wickedness of the present Prime Minister. That remarkable story will take some time to be fully recounted, but it appears to have had a great deal to do with the Prime Minister's personal animus against those previous incumbents. That may have given the Secretary of State an unhappy legacy when he took over the Department; indeed, I suspect that it has given him problems from which he has never been able to escape. I am afraid that I am not in a position to help "holistically"—I think that that is the awful word, which is used in the House far too often—to cure the internal dissensions in Government, which go back a long way.
If the measure on the council passes, our concern is that serious offenders who should be in prison will be let out early or will not be sentenced to custody at all, and that the public will pay the price by suffering at the hands of offenders.
I understand well enough that the Government have considerable difficulties, because prison places will rise as a result of some of the measures. Indeed, it is worth remembering that responsibility for the drivers behind the increased costs of both prisons and the court system can be, at least in part, laid at the door of the Government and their zeal in inflicting tougher and tougher criminal offences on the population. Those offences require representation when they go to court and they require more prison places. I understand that well, just as I understand that the problem with ClearSprings at the moment is that half the ClearSprings places have been created either to deal with early release prisoners or as a substitute for prison, to avoid sending on bail people who probably ought to be in a more controlled environment. The evidence is that the people involved have chaotic lifestyles that they inflict on the local communities, and without properly wardened accommodation to help them. All that is part of the Government's general failure.
I turn to the proposals for bail reform. We accept that tightening up the legal criteria for bail is necessary, and to that extent we welcome the proposals, but they are not what we would have wanted in a wholesale reform: to make breach of bail a crime, to curtail the bailing of prolific and repeat offenders, and explicitly to make public protection a prime consideration when courts take decisions on bail. The Peart review talks of a "lackadaisical and nonchalant approach" to the granting and enforcement of bail. This proposal does not do justice to the scale of the problem, and I hope that the matter can be debated in greater detail as the Bill goes through the House.
That also applies to the proposal for a commissioner for victims and witnesses. The Secretary of State, being so nimble-footed, tries to get away from the issue. The position was first enacted in 2004. Five years on, the explanatory notes to the Bill cheerfully tell us that
"a Commissioner was never appointed and the legislation has not yet been commenced."
Today we learn that the appointment has effectively been postponed for another whole year, and that the Government have appointed a "champion". I welcome that, but I am left with the feeling that it was a fig leaf for their failure. It is another case of more talk and no action. If the Justice Secretary is really serious about victims, why does he not introduce what we have called for—a proper victims fund, funded through the earnings from prisoner work schemes and the proceeds of crime?
The Bill will do little to strengthen criminal punishment but plenty to weaken British justice. The proposal, in the part of the Bill dealing with coroners, to remove juries and hold proceedings in secret is an even broader version of the proposal defeated in the other place during the debate on the Counter-Terrorism Bill. The House will recall that in June Ministers failed to make the case that the security case justified this draconian step. What new evidence does the Justice Secretary offer up on this point? When the proposals were withdrawn—we greatly welcomed that—I was under the impression that the Government might embark on considerable consultation to see whether there was an alternative way forward, given the level of disquiet, which was brought home to them very clearly, yet I see no such consultation. Instead, they have just come back to the House and regurgitated the same proposals with some very minor changes.
The challenge of reconciling sensitive evidence with the demands of transparency and due process is not new, and I do not see the specific problem that cannot adequately be addressed within the current system. The Secretary of State said that this was an inquisitorial process, so we could not have the public interest immunity approach, involving an adversarial process. I accept that that is an issue, but substituting something that has all the hallmarks of a secret investigative process will never command the public acceptance and confidence that an inquest process must do if it is to have any relevance—or to be held at all. On that basis, we might as well say that there is no point in having an inquest.
If the Government were prepared to show the necessary flexibility—although I fully accept that it might in some cases mean that some evidence could never be brought before inquest juries—it would be possible to put in place a system with the flexibility that would still allow the process to be open, and would ultimately still enable the Government truly to say, "We have done our best to enable openness to be maintained." Without that, I fear that these proposals will simply undermine public confidence still further. We will therefore consider them very carefully, and it is most unlikely that they can command our support.
I am grateful for the hon. and learned Gentleman's recognition that there is a problem, and that the parallel with criminal trials is not really accurate. Since he accepts that there may be circumstances in which evidence would have to be kept from a coroner's jury, which is at the heart of these proposals, we are ready to consider any constructive suggestions that he or other colleagues make to us.
There is evidence that has to be kept from coroners' juries at the moment, but in almost all cases—I know that there may be two in which the Government see a particular difficulty—those problems have been overcome. The route that the Secretary of State is taking raises the probability that the number of secret inquests without juries will grow, and that they will then be deemed convenient. That is why we are so concerned about the proposals. I hope that there will be constructive engagement in Committee, and I know that my hon. Friends who will serve on it want that, but I would not be doing my job or expressing my own feelings if I were not to say that I find it difficult to see how the proposals could command our acceptance. Indeed, I think that there is considerable disquiet about them across the House.
I spoke earlier about opposition to data-sharing powers. The Government's track record of protecting the personal data that they hold on citizens is appalling. They have demonstrated serial, serious and systematic incompetence. They have lost the details of 130,000 prisoners held on a computer memory stick, and Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency information on 3 million learner drivers, not forgetting half the nation's child benefit records, which I believe were lost in the post. Members should view with deep scepticism the proposal massively to increase ministerial powers to share data across Government.
The clauses on data sharing are tucked away at the back of the Bill, but that should not conceal their dramatic impact. The Secretary of State said that I was exaggerating, but I take the view of Mr. Heath, who said that I was rather understating the matter. As a result of the proposals, Ministers will have carte blanche to expand data sharing between officials across Whitehall, local authorities and even companies in the private sector. Privacy International warns of the
"vast risks associated with governance, privacy, security," and the British Medical Association has stated that the proposals will strip patients of any rights in connection with the control of their medical records. As I tried to point out to the Secretary of State earlier, that goes to the heart of the relationship between state and citizen. The proposals would, if the public interest required it, allow a statutory instrument to be made allowing the sharing of medical records data with Departments that are not at all concerned with treating individuals, for other purposes. I believe that that is unacceptable. If there is to be change to take account of the growing amount of data, it should be made with great caution and should not be the "open sesame" to a vast increase in Government power.
It is worth bearing in mind the fact that the security case has not been made, that we do not believe that the safeguards are good enough, and that all this is being done at a time when, I gently point out to the Secretary of State, public trust in the Government's ability to protect data is at an all-time low. I recall the Prime Minister saying:
"we can't promise that every single item of information will always be safe".
Indeed not—and that is one reason why the House should be very careful about the powers that it gives the Government in this area.
Finally—I disagree with my hon. Friend John Bercow here—this would not be a new Labour justice Bill without some attempt to curtail freedom of speech. The balance between protecting society from incitement to homophobic hated, which I entirely applaud, and preserving legitimate public debate is delicate. I do not recall the Secretary of State, or the Home Secretary, who I believe was responsible, giving the impression that the decision to accept the Lords amendment to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill was a mere tactic for returning to the issue later. It appeared to involve an acceptance that the Lords amendment was sufficient to command acceptance.
If the hon. and learned Gentleman looks at what was said on that occasion—it was I who said it—he will see that I made it clear that we would return to the matter at a further opportunity as soon as possible.
I thought that the intention to return to the matter meant coming back with some other proposal that met the concerns that had been expressed about preserving freedom of speech. No case has yet been made—I wait to hear it—to show why the words that were included in the other place do anything to undermine the ability to prosecute the offence that has been created. If the Secretary of State or the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, Maria Eagle, can make that case cogently, we will listen. In the meantime, I simply do not see it.
I perceive the provision as a saving clause, designed to deal with the chilling effect that always arises when restrictions are placed on freedom of speech. We debated it and commented on it previously, when we considered issues such as incitement to religious hatred. I want individuals who incite homophobic hatred to be prosecuted just as much as the Under-Secretary does, but I do not want the circumstances that I am about to outline to be repeated, and I do not believe that the Government want that either. Old age pensioners living in Blackpool wrote to their local authority, as is their right, to say that they did not approve of its giving money to a gay organisation. Instead of getting a reply saying, "Terribly sorry. We were voted in, and this is what we believe in. We disagree with you," they got a visit from two police officers telling them that if they wrote such letters again, they might—even under the old law—be prosecuted. They recovered damages and got an apology, but only after a time. They received treatment that makes me ashamed of the system that we seem to be creating in this country. We must ensure that such things do not happen. A sensible freedom of speech clause would be helpful, to reassure those who want to continue to express views that are legal—even if I disagree with them.
If I heard the hon. and learned Gentleman correctly, he said that individuals wrote to Blackpool council about that matter. Although the individuals are my constituents, it was not Blackpool council but Conservative-controlled Wyre borough council with which they had a problem.
I am most grateful to the hon. Lady for putting me right, and I apologise for any calumny—it was unintended—against Blackpool. However, the hon. Lady reinforces my point. All the evidence shows that when the House legislates about such matters, the manner in which those who have some authority lower down the chain, and have to implement the legislation, interpret or understand it, is often at variance with what is intended. That is why problems have arisen. There was a street preacher in my constituency who said that people should repent and turn to God, and that if they did not repent they risked going to hell. The police came along and said, "You can tell them that they should repent and turn to God, but you shouldn't give them the other half of the message." [Interruption.] I agree with the Secretary of State that that is absurd, but the House must pay attention to the consequences of its actions in creating absurdities, which may appear amusing to us but are not amusing to those on the receiving end of individuals who take it upon themselves to interpret the law in a way that we did not intend.
Are not the hon. and learned Gentleman's comments proof of the point that some of us made when the matter was originally discussed? Surely the right way to deal with this matter is by issuing guidance to the police and the prosecution authorities, and procedural protection, rather than including a pointless but potentially dangerous blanket exemption in the Bill.
If the hon. Gentleman feels that the exemption is too wide and would therefore do damage, I encourage him to ascertain whether there is another way it can be drafted to meet my point; that may be possible. We have been content with such a provision in other cases where we have imposed restrictions on freedom of speech. I simply ask the House to consider the matter carefully, because I think that there is a genuine problem, which past experience has demonstrated. I hope that the Secretary of State will bear that in mind.
As my hon. and learned Friend knows, I yield to none in my admiration for his parliamentary and other talents. I have to say to him, however, that in this particular matter his memory serves him ill, and that the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, Maria Eagle, is entirely correct in her recollection of the sequence of events. The Government made it clear that they intended to bring back this provision in a later measure; there was no question of their backing down or qualifying their position. The point about the Government's policy on this matter, as encapsulated in the legislation, is that it is aimed at catching words or behaviour that are not merely insulting or abusive but threatening. The fact is that the Waddington amendment is a wrecking amendment; it is a menace, and it has to be defeated.
I am afraid that I do not agree with my hon. Friend that the amendment was intended as a wrecking amendment. Indeed, reading it, as I did at the time, and re-reading it, as I have done more recently, I do not believe that it would have that effect at all. If he wishes to discuss this with me in greater detail, I would be only too happy to do so. That said, I have made it clear that that proposal might not be the only available solution, but I believe that it is important for there to be safeguards. If there are none, the law of unintended consequences will lead to people who express views that are perfectly legitimate—even if they are views with which we disagree—feeling as if they are being persecuted. That is not something that the House should embark on lightly.
Does my hon. and learned Friend consider, as I do, that there is something anomalous in the Government's proposal to remove the clause that protects free speech in relation to the discussion of homosexuality, given that they are not proposing its removal in the case of religion?
There are indeed anomalies, and they were discussed at some length when this matter appeared previously, if rather bizarrely, in another piece of legislation. I very much hope that we will be able to look at those matters sensibly. There are no easy solutions, and I am the first to accept some of the examples that we have been given, including that of gangsta rap lyrics, which I regard as revolting. I have no difficulty at all in wishing to see them criminalised and stopped—absolutely none. Nor is this the pillar of some religious viewpoint; I do not think that it should be. I want to see a right for people to express their views, including views that other people might not like. That is what a free society is about, and the House must ensure that that can still happen, even when we have ensured that expressions of rabid hatred and incitement to hatred can be curbed. That must be the aim that we seek to achieve.
We will work constructively with the Government to improve the Bill, wherever that is possible. We agree that there are good things in it, and we want to facilitate their passage on to the statute book if possible. That is why we will not seek to oppose the Bill's Second Reading tonight. We will strive to improve it in Committee and on Report, and to remove those parts that are unnecessary or counter-productive, or that we deem to be merely offensive. I hope that the Secretary of State and the Government will listen, although in the light of past experience I am not altogether optimistic about that. I put the Government on notice that if the Bill is not substantially amended—particularly in the area of data sharing, but also in other areas—we will oppose it on Third Reading, because its mischief will wholly outweigh the undoubted benefits that it could confer if the Government would listen sensibly to the views being expressed right across the House.
Finally, I want to come back to something that I said earlier. The clauses of the Bill are littered with the tacit admissions of a decade's worth of failure. There is nothing in it to suggest that the Government, who have created a large part of this mess, have the slightest idea, or any overall plan, for how to put things right.
I am a member of the Justice Select Committee, which has considered many of these issues. I am sure that the Committee Chairman will, if he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, summarise some of the Committee's comments, but I want to underline some specific points and to make some personal observations.
I must say that I was disappointed by the rhetorical flourishes that we heard from the shadow Justice Secretary. Of course we would all agree that the line between free speech and protecting the public is a very fine one, but preserving that fine line needs a constructive approach rather than caricature. Bureaucratic insanity in the interpretation of legislation is a problem, even when the law is sensible and very precise.
Let me start by referring to data sharing and the Information Commissioner's work. As I said, the Justice Committee has made a number of helpful comments about that, and I think that the present Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, has worked hard in that role to achieve a constructive balance, while being both clinical and challenging.
The first intimation I had of the difficulty of getting the line right on this issue came when, both in opposition and as deputy Home Secretary—in that role I worked very closely with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice—I found that there was immense reluctance on the part of local government and the police to share data for the purposes of preventing crime. Indeed, we were so concerned about that that a clause went into the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 to say that preventing crime is a legitimate reason for sharing data. Lawyers told us that that was already the case, but, frankly, lawyers and data protection officers refused to accept that and to act on it, which is why we felt it necessary to put the provision in the legislation.
Mr. Grieve referred to the Soham case in his response to my intervention, but that case exposed a problem of systems failure and systems not speaking to each other between two police forces. Actually, what came out of the failure of the police collectively to use information that was available in one part of the police service and to share it with another was a "headline" view among the public that everything must be shared in order to protect the vulnerable, particularly children. On the other hand, news reports on data protection and the data loss that we have seen on a number of occasions led to the equal and opposite headline that nothing should be shared. Both of those arguments are untenable and inappropriate.
The advice still given on occasions by lawyers and data protection officers is, "If in doubt, don't share the data." That is wrong—and wrong in principle. It is just as wrong as saying, "All data must be shared without reservation." The important thing is that on every occasion, a balanced judgment must be made by those who have the information as to whether it is in the public interest, as well as in the interest of individuals, to share it. Nobody who is a holder of data can escape the specific responsibility to balance the pros and the cons and address the public interest. There is no escape from that responsibility. I fear that the shadow Justice Secretary went very wide of the mark by coming down on just one side of that equation.
The second issue is one of public confidence in the way that data are managed and shared. In that regard, I suggest to my right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary that the comments of the Justice Committee offer particular help. Parliamentary accountability is the answer. There is public suspicion of government, which is fed by the headlines of the press and media—it is a fact of life; we cannot get away from it—but Parliament can be a constructive and critical friend to government. I rather felt that in his early remarks, my right hon. Friend was looking for an answer along those lines. Giving a role to the Justice Committee and other instruments of the House is a way of ensuring that the Government are able to achieve the objective of protecting the public, while subjecting the management of data to transparency and scrutiny—both by the Information Commissioner and a Select Committee of the House.
I say to my right hon. Friend that I know we have seen, on occasion, Select Committees acting as a Rottweiler, but that more benign canine friend, the sheepdog, is the one that I would suggest if there were a properly understood role to be played between Parliament and the Government.
Does the right hon. Gentleman share my concern about not only what data are shared, but their integrity and accuracy? Research published last week shows how many errors there are in the data held by different Departments and the complete lack in any Department of a policy of checking those data for errors to ensure that they are up to date and accurate. Is there a role for Parliament in trying to ensure that the data, before they are even considered for sharing, are made accurate?
The hon. Lady makes a fair point. The problem has been not the aspirations of Ministers, but the fact that sometimes the machinery of government and of agencies of government has been poor in two respects: ensuring absolute accuracy of the data, because there is no point having them unless we can depend on their accuracy, and ensuring that there is a culture that, as I have suggested, balances protection of those data where it is not appropriate for them to be released—that is partly to do with methodology, but partly to do with the culture that needs to be put in place—with the need to share data where appropriate. That goes right the way across from situations where anonymised data are not being shared when they should be to inform public policy to the very local level, where specific information could assist in preventing crime. She is absolutely right: the accuracy of data must be part of that overall picture.
On the issue of the sentencing council, it is clear from the evidence that the Justice Committee has taken and published that careful work is needed to ensure that the outcome of having a sentencing council is the intention on which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State places such emphasis in his proposal. It is a rather sad fact of life that judges seem to be influenced by media debate, despite the importance of the judiciary being objective and independent. That is not a politician's criticism: it is significant the number of cases in which the senior judiciary effectively make that criticism by accepting the view of the Attorney-General that sentences have been too lenient. On the other hand, we see cases in which sentences are reduced by the Court of Appeal, so let us not pretend that the judiciary are perfect in the judgments they make or the decisions they reach in sentencing.
It is absolutely clear that more needs to be done properly to inform sentences, but I am keen that we should increase the confidence of sentencers in community sentencing. Community sentences can be extremely tough and very challenging, and they can change people, but we heard from the Lord Chief Justice in evidence that many sentencers do not have confidence in the effectiveness of community sentences or in the systems in place to apply them.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said in reassuring tones that the majority of those on the sentencing council will be sentencers, but I am not sure that I am wholly reassured by that because we want people who are challenging and objective in looking for evidence. Before I entered Parliament, I had the experience of seeing people on community service and seeing lives change. For example, one young man on community service was sent to work with a disabled swimming club. The experience of working with youngsters with severe disability totally changed his attitude to life because he realised that while he was a bit morose about some circumstances in his life, many people had a far worse time. Building relationships with those youngsters changed his attitude to offending. Many similar examples could be cited.
The problem with many offenders is that they have not created good relationships with other people. They do not see the victim as a person, and they do not see the victim's possessions as being owned by someone. They do not realise that stealing stuff or burning a house will damage people. That is why the concept of relational justice is so important. Bringing people up short by causing them to recognise that they are damaging other human beings, and turning that into a personal issue, can make a great difference.
Community sentences achieve that far better than custodial sentences, although I am not arguing for or against either. What I am saying is that if our system is to achieve the necessary balance, we need to understand the effectiveness of community sentences, and make sentencers understand how they can be used to the benefit of the public by reducing crime and reoffending. That is why I asked my right hon. Friend in an intervention whether he would make it a responsibility of the sentencing council to look at what works in terms of preventing reoffending. I do not just want to see judicial statistics relating to disposals, important though they are; I want "what works" to drive the way in which the council produces frameworks and encourages sentencers to adopt them.
We endeavoured to reflect exactly what my right hon. Friend is seeking in clause 102(11), which states:
"the Council must have regard to the following matters" and includes, in paragraph (d),
"the cost of different sentences"— that is the point that my right hon. Friend wanted to take up—
"and their relative effectiveness in preventing re-offending".
That provision is aimed at meeting exactly my right hon. Friend's concerns.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for underlining that point. What I want to do is raise it in the order of priorities, so that preventing offending and reducing reoffending are at the heart of the system. When my right hon. Friend and I were in the Home Office, we placed a similar responsibility on the youth justice system to prevent offending and reoffending.
I think that what we need to do in the debate is get away from the slightly abstract, arcane and, dare I say, Manichean divide between custodial sentences on the one hand and community sentences on the other. What is absolutely critical to the success of either is that, as part of the package, we provide the often serial offender with the equipment for future citizenship.
Dare I say to the right hon. Gentleman and the Secretary of State that when more than 60 per cent. of people on the young offender estate have speech, language and communication difficulties of a scale and intensity that prevent them from accessing conventional education and training courses, that is a problem and we have to tackle it?
The hon. Gentleman is quite right. I look forward to discussing these issues with him in the Public Bill Committee, if his Whips do not keep him off it because of the independence of his views. The need to address issues such as literacy is something that, in many instances, neither prison sentences nor community sentences have been very good at. I know that my right hon. Friend gives high priority to the need to ensure that it is built more effectively into both prison and community sentences in future.
I am well aware that my right hon. Friend also ascribes importance to making the benefit of community sentences visible. References have been made to luminous jackets enabling the public to see that people are undertaking such sentences, and I understand that wish, but I should like those undertaking community sentences to think of what they wear as a uniform in which they can take pride, and to start to show some consistency by turning up on time and so forth. The aim should be to help their rehabilitation rather than merely to shame them.
I recently visited a very good example of community sentencing at the Oriel cricket ground in Scarborough. I was told that the scheme was making relatively good progress in preventing reoffending. However, one of the magistrates present drew me up and said, "But, of course, the reoffending rates relate to the number of people who actually turn up to do the community service, not those who have been sentenced to it. We still have a large number of offenders who are given community sentences but do not turn up to do the time."
I take on board the hon. Gentleman's point, and that is why there must be swift and effective action if there are breaches. However, that action should not be too swift or else the early stages will not be passed, but it should be understood that failure to undertake a community sentence will be acted on very quickly. As with antisocial behaviour orders, the point is to say to people, "If you accept that you ought to stop that sort of behaviour and that you should do what the court has asked of you in passing sentence, then the consequence will be rehabilitation and support for re-engagement in the community, but if you don't, the deal is off." That has to be a part of the deal, and it has to be seen by the public as being so.
My main point is that our focus must be on what works. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has seen what happened in Cardiff when a clinical approach was taken and it was asked, "Where does violence happen? Are there facts about the incidence of violence that mean that we can intervene to reduce that offending and therefore reduce the likelihood of becoming victims?" That approach has been a great success, and has been taken up elsewhere.
The media will always go for the frightening and the specific. We will always see on the front pages of newspapers the faces of people who have been beaten up, and there will always be incidents of that. That is a fact of life and I do not blame the media for reporting that; horrific incidents are horrific. However, what we can do is seek to reduce crime rates by adopting a clinical approach and reducing the opportunity for crime, rehabilitating people and challenging their behaviour in the community, so that it is not a question of their going away and coming back into the same environment, but a question of changing their behaviour over time.
The sentencing council must be not a comfortable lawyers' club, but an evidence-based body that helps sentencers do the right thing in preventing reoffending. I bear in mind the evidence we heard from Victim Support. The question was asked, "In a sentence, what do victims want?" The answer that was given was, "Short of being able to turn the clock back and not be a victim of an offence in the first place, what victims would like to know is that it is not going to happen again." Therefore, the prevention of reoffending is not an alternative to supporting victims; it is, in fact, at the heart of supporting them.
Witness anonymity is an issue that requires great care. I appreciate the risks involved in that process, but intimidation and fear are very real factors that undermine justice. Many Members have had the experience of people coming to them and describing a series of events in their street or neighbourhood where a small number of individuals are able to get away with incidents of intimidation and cannot be brought to justice. Therefore, there is a need for the provisions on witness anonymity to be strengthened, albeit with care.
There is also a great need to address internet-related crime and nuisance, to which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State referred at the end of his remarks. It is, I think, easy to agree on the actions that are needed to prevent child abuse, although it was not easy in the early stages to get agreement between the police and the internet industry on ways of preventing the display of what were incidences of child abuse—not just pornography, but much more serious than that. There is a great need for a joined-up approach across Government Departments, where there is a great deal of duplication, in order to create a partnership right down to the local level to prevent internet-related crime and make the UK the safest place to do business online. A lot of work is going on, to which Parliament is contributing a great deal, such as through all-party groups in particular, and I commend those examples to my right hon. Friend.
I wish to highlight two points on coroners. One is the issue of resources. There is a need for adequate resources, but also for the capacity to move them to the right place at the right time. In the proposals before us, my right hon. Friend is grappling with the eternal dilemma of how to strike the balance between the national and local. It was suggested at one stage that if Nye Bevan had become Secretary of State for Education and Ellen Wilkinson had been Secretary of State for Health, we would have ended up with a local health service and a national education service. In both those services, the tension between the national and the local always exists.
That tension is inevitable in relation to coroners. There are not just the headline examples, which have been referred to in interventions, but very often there have been ordinary cases of people just wanting to know what happened and hoping that a coroner's inquiry will give them the answer. Our experience suggests that there is a need to amend the system in this regard.
The second issue that I wish to discuss relates to health: the need to ensure the independence of medical evidence coming before the coroner's court. Again, all Members of Parliament will have had experience not only of NHS trusts that are good and open when things have gone wrong, but of NHS trusts that are defensive and that seek to avoid getting down to the facts in difficult cases. We need certainty that medical evidence will be objective and based only on medical professionalism. I hope that as this Bill goes through its processes my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will find ways to increase the assurance about that independence of medical evidence, because I am sure he is as concerned as I am, and as the Committee has been, on that point. There is perhaps a need to re-examine that part of the Bill to ensure that objectivity can be built in.
The Bill addresses some important issues. It deals not, as I first thought, with a series of small issues, but with some of the big issues in relation to improving our justice system. It does so not in terms of great symbolic gestures that change the earth, but by dealing with things such as the sharing of information and way in which sentencing is undertaken, where we do need progressively to find more objective, more evidence-based means of finding the right way forward.
I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from "That" to the end of the Question and add:
"this House declines to give a Second Reading to the Coroners and Justice Bill because it provides for inquests in private and without a jury, at the behest of the Secretary of State and on grounds that are overbroad;
because it unduly restricts what coroners and inquest juries may say about a death;
because it proposes reforms to the law of murder that are ill-thought through and incomplete;
because it fails to deal with legitimate criticisms of the legislation on anonymous witnesses, and in particular because it fails to make adequate provision for the use of special counsel;
because the system of sentencing guidelines it proposes fails to incorporate adequately the aim of reducing re-offending;
because it will allow unlimited data sharing to occur between any organisations or persons for the purposes of supporting unspecified government policies, regardless of the safeguards contained in other legislation;
and because, to the extent that other measures proposed in the Bill are welcome and not merely symbolic, those measures should have been brought forward in separate Bills to allow them to be scrutinised more carefully."
I have waited a long time to move an amendment on Second Reading.
This is a hotch-potch of a Bill. A Second Reading debate is supposed to be about the principle of the Bill, but it is not clear how a Bill such as this, which at a conservative estimate deals with 28 different topics and amends 56 different Acts of Parliament can have any single principle at all, apart from being a sort of Christmas tree Bill, on to which the Government can hang any topic they think useful to debate from the point of view of the all-important media grid, the device by which future announcements are planned out for the year in advance and by which this country has been governed for the past 12 years . [Interruption.] The Secretary of State says if only life were like that, but to a great extent it has been like that; it has just been a matter of people getting their slot in the grid at the right time.
The other principle of legislative drafting that the Bill seems to follow is that of the red rag and the smuggle. A red rag is a provision in a Bill that is designed to attract the attention of hot-headed Members of this House, and about which the Government do not, in reality, care very much either way, while they smuggle in, largely unnoticed and unchallenged, a lot of significant stuff that otherwise might attract severe criticism. The problem with this Bill is that it is not entirely clear which provisions are the red rags and which are the contraband. Working on the general principle that to avoid scrutiny in Committee, the usual tactic is to put the contraband at the end and the red rag at the start, my guess is that the provisions on data sharing are the contraband and those on secret inquests are the red rag.
That is why I am going to start by discussing the provisions on data sharing, especially in the light of this morning's news that yet more personal information has been lost—this time with regard to the British Council. It is right to say that data sharing can be a good thing—I would not deny many of the remarks made by Alun Michael—but there is a massive downside and we need to bear in mind that it massively increases the risks if data are lost.
Clause 152 would create amazingly broad exemptions to the principles of the data protection legislation. If the issue were specific exemptions from specific powers, it would be a different matter, but it is not. The Bill would allow Ministers to authorise data sharing between any person and any other person, regardless of what any other legislation—apart from the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000—says. So that would be despite what the data protection and the human rights legislation say about privacy. Under clause 152 in proposed new section 50B(h), a data-sharing order would be allowed to "modify any enactment".
I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned the seriousness of this part of the Bill. In his view, is it possible that information could be shared between Departments about people's opinions, activities and knowledge, rather than any criminal actions or convictions?
That would appear to be possible, because of the power to allow any person to share any data despite what any enactment says. The Government say that the intention is to allow Departments, public bodies and other similar organisations to share data for good purposes, but that is not what the Bill says. The Bill is not confined to public bodies and would also allow the sharing of data with private organisations in any country.
The Bill would also allow a data-sharing order to confer a power on any person to share the information further, leading to a cascade of sharing. All that can be done in furtherance of any relevant Government policy. I want to know where we can find a list of those relevant Government policies that we will be able to compare with the purposes of any particular order.
The possibilities are absurdly broad. For example, the Government would be able to share our personal data with a foreign power. Some people might think that because Barack Obama has been elected President of the US, there is nothing to fear from having our personal data shared with the US Government. I do not think that. Presidents come and presidents go. A great American political thinker once wrote:
"It is in vain to say that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests and render them all subservient to the public good. Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm."
These provisions are based on the assumption that we are all good chaps together so the powers will not be abused. That is an assumption that we cannot make.
The provisions would also allow all the restrictions on data sharing in the Identity Cards Act 2006 to be overridden by order. Under that Act, identity data may be shared only with the bodies specified in sections 17 to 21 of the Act—the security services and, with important exceptions as to the type of data, other public authorities, departments and the police. Under the Bill, the Government would be able to authorise sharing the data collected in the national identity database with absolutely anyone without any of the safeguards in the Act. In theory, it will also be open for the Government to sell that data to the highest bidder.
The provisions also allow the override of any safeguards against the sharing of medical records and DNA records. That includes the provision of medical and DNA records not just to public authorities but to anyone, including employers, insurance companies and even the media. The same goes for tax records. Many Members will have received a briefing from Privacy International, which goes on to give yet more examples of what can be done under the provisions.
The Government say that the orders will be subject to scrutiny by the Information Commissioner and to an affirmative vote by Parliament. In extremis, all that will mean will at best be a 90-minute debate in a Committee, with the Government side of that Committee carefully chosen and a whipped deferred vote just after Prime Minister's questions.
The Government's main defence today has been that the provisions are in line with the recommendations of the Thomas and Walport review on data sharing, but that is not the case. That report did say that there should be a fast-track secondary legislation route to allow data sharing, but it also said that the power to do so should exist only in precisely defined circumstances, which is certainly not what has happened. Any person, any relevant Government policy and any enactment are hardly precise circumstances. The Thomas and Walport report expressly says at paragraph 8.47 that
"we believe this process would not be appropriate for large-scale data-sharing initiatives that would constitute very significant changes to public policy, such as those relating to the National Identity Register or the National DNA database."
That is exactly what the Bill as drafted would allow.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree with me about how the provisions of proposed new section 50A(4) apply? It requires that the
"sharing of information enabled by the order is necessary to secure a relevant policy objective", which is, I think, the point that he has made quite strongly. However, it goes on to require that
"the effect of the provision made by the order is proportionate to that policy objective"— and, and this is my point, that—
"the provision made by the order strikes a fair balance between the public interest and the interests of any person affected by it."
In other words, the requirement for balance in coming to a conclusion about whether data should be shared is clearly written into the Bill.
If the right hon. Gentleman is saying that a court might say that on judicial review, he is whistling in the wind. That is precisely the kind of provision that a court would say was plainly political and not for them to judge.
Would the hon. Gentleman's fears be somewhat allayed if there were an express restriction in the Bill stating the need for compliance with article 8 of the Human Rights Act 1998?
That would help a little, but I think that it is already implied in any legislation. The circumstances in which the power can be exercised need to be reduced to the precise terms that Thomas and Walport required.
Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that the argument comes back to the central point that the measure has completely bypassed any public debate on the circumstances in which Parliament would even contemplate public policy objectives overriding the privacy rights that are implicit in the existing relationship when individuals give information to specific Government Departments? We will be dispensing with that without any real debate about the principles and simply creating a system in which such things can be done at will by the Government based on single votes in this House.
That is a very important point that goes back to debates on other Bills that create such broad powers.
May I also say to the Government that it is somewhat alarming that the recently published impact assessment on the Bill seems to mention these provisions only in passing and fails to say what the intended costs and benefits of their specific use will be? Will the Government say precisely what they intend to use the provisions for? Some examples have been given, but there seems to be no limit to what that intention could be in the future.
My hon. Friend is making a very strong case. Does he agree that even if any malevolent intent on the part of anyone in putting together these databases is discounted, it is inherent that the more information that is put into a single database and the more accretions that are there, the bigger the impact of any accidental loss of data? We have seen material being put together and then lost by Departments time and time again, to the great discomfort of the people whose information has been supplied.
That is the inherent problem with data sharing—it increases the risks of things going wrong, not necessarily because of malice but by accident.
My conclusion on those clauses is that, as drawn, they are outrageous. They should be withdrawn, thought about again and introduced in a separate Bill. In my view they alone, in their present state, justify rejecting the Bill.
Let me now turn to the red rag—the provisions for secret inquests without juries.
The hon. Gentleman is right to cite a potential parliamentary tactic, in that those measures are at the end of the Bill. Can we as a House make it clear to the Government that any programme motion on Report should not put us in a position where that subject slips off the end of the debate, as has occurred on a number of occasions with important matters?
That is a very important point, and I hope that the Government and the usual channels are listening.
Let us turn to subject of secret inquests without juries. My starting point is that the Bill is already somewhat defective as it fails to guarantee that there will be a jury in any case where there is reason to suspect that the death occurred in any way at the hands of the state. Provisions in the Bill move in that direction, but they do not go far enough. Deaths at the hands of the police and in custody count, but a jury should be required in any case of any death in which state power is implicated. My starting point is therefore with the jury rather than with secrecy.
There are problems with secrecy and privacy—it is important to recall the points raised by Mr. Dismore, such as the question of how a family will get closure if it is excluded from the process—but the jury is at the heart of the question. The main historic function of the inquest jury is to provide a check on the abuse of state power and on the temptations for state officials to mislead and to gloss over the facts about what has happened.
The Secretary of State's defence of the provisions on secret inquests did not go to the heart of the problem about juries. In my view, the Government appear to think that juries are not to be trusted—that juries are members of the general public and that we need to have as few of them taking part in the process as possible. That seems to me to be entirely the opposite of the attitude that we should be taking. Instead, we should be looking for ways in which juries can take part in even the most sensitive cases. As Mr. Grieve said, if there is a limit to how sensitive the information might be, we can deal with that by excluding some of it from the information made available to the juries. Our initial reaction should not be that the best thing to do is to get rid of the jury.
Such matters are very important in a range of cases. They are not merely important in the politically embarrassing cases, although they are important in those cases, too: in the de Menezes case, the Baha Mousa case, the inquests into the deaths of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan and any repeat of the David Kelly affair. It is enormously important from the point of view of maintaining faith in the system that when the Government assert in such a case that nothing really went wrong, they should be able to say, even if all the facts do not come out in public, that the matter was decided by independent members of the public who were not part of the state or of the Government apparatus and that those people back up what the Government say.
I admit that the provisions in this Bill are better than those in the Bill that became the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008. Thankfully, the provisions in that measure that allow the Secretary of State to influence the selection of a special, trusty coroner have been removed from this Bill. I hope that whoever advised the Government to include those outrageous provisions will never again be allowed to advise them on a matter of constitutional importance, but we are still left with inquests that are not just secret but jury-less.
The conditions under which the Secretary of State may issue a certificate that bans or removes the jury from a case are still the enormously wide ones contained in the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008. They include anything to do not just with national security but with relations with another state, and anything that the Secretary of State thinks might cause real harm to the public interest. I suppose that one might wonder what unreal harm to the public interest might be but, even so, the conditions seem extraordinarily broad
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one thing that the Government could have considered, but did not, was requiring the Secretary of State to make an application to a judge to make an order?
Absolutely. It would be a far better procedure to put the whole question into the hands of the judiciary in the first place, rather than into the hands of the Secretary of State. Part of the background problem is that the Executive distrust almost everyone else. In the Counter-Terrorism Bill, they attempted to take control of the selection of judges: that proposal was got rid of, but they are still obsessed with having some control over getting rid of anyone in the process who they feel might not be on their side.
That leads me to another point—the link that the Bill makes between the use of intercept evidence and the absence of a jury. I and many other hon. Members favour greater use of intercept evidence in the criminal justice system in general, and I believe that many of the Government's objections to that are incomprehensible when compared with what happens in other countries. I welcome this small chink in the Government's previous opposition to the use of intercept evidence in court, but I do not like at all the way the use of intercept evidence is linked with getting rid of the jury. The idea that intercept evidence can be used only when members of the general public are excluded from a case would be a dangerous precedent to allow when it comes to the future development of this part of the law.
I object to the red rag, but the Secretary of State talked about the possibility of different proposals coming forward and of amendments being accepted. For that reason, I suspect that the person who holds the red rag will be tempted simply to put it away once the bull has charged, as it will have served its purpose and attracted our attention. Even so, if the Government are interested, I will take up their offer of trying to work towards a better solution to the problem.
I turn now to the rest of the Bill and all the square miles of text that separate the red rag from the contraband. Some of the material—such as the references to knives and criminal memoirs—is plainly designed for the media grid. By the way, the provisions relating to criminal memoirs contain an amazing section that enshrines populism in statute. When deciding what to do about criminal memoirs, the court will have to take into account whether the public would be offended by the criminal making money out of them. The Bill might as well say that the court should pay attention to what the editors of the Daily Mail and The Sun think.
I do not oppose everything in the Bill, as some of its provisions are to be welcomed, but I believe that parliamentary scrutiny of the rest of it will be largely prevented by the fact that so many different subjects have been jammed together. However, some of the material in the Bill needs more than just tidying up, because it is seriously misguided. I am referring to the attempted reforms of the law of murder, which the Secretary of State passed over very rapidly in his speech.
The impact assessment reveals that the intention of the reform is to convict more people of murder and fewer of manslaughter. It talks about 100 to 200 more murder convictions over the next eight years, at a cost of between £4 million and £8 million. People will no longer be convicted of manslaughter: they will be convicted of murder instead, but who will those people be?
One group who will be convicted of murder rather than manslaughter might be mercy killers. At present, they are often—but not always, as a case last year showed—convicted of manslaughter, rather than of murder, by reason of diminished responsibility. That is because the present definition of manslaughter is fairly loose. It says that a person
"shall not be convicted of murder if he was suffering from such abnormality of mind" arising from inherent causes
"as substantially impaired his mental responsibility".
That is quite vague stuff, and it allows prosecutors and courts some leeway when deciding whether to go for a charge of murder or manslaughter. Under the Bill, however, the defendant will have to have suffered from a specific, recognised medical condition, and not just from some "abnormality of mind" or other problem. Moreover, the Bill requires the condition involved specifically to have caused the homicide, and not just reduced the defendant's responsibility for it.
There are different views on mercy killing. Personally, I oppose euthanasia, but I cannot see what good it does to hand out more mandatory life sentences to mercy killers as opposed to letting the judge decide the penalty. That penalty might be life, but need not be in any given case.
The current law includes a phrase about the arrested development of mind, but this Bill leaves it out. Combined with the strict causation requirement, and given what happens in the courts now, that seems to me likely to mean that another group of people—those with learning difficulties—will be convicted of murder rather than manslaughter. Why do the Government want that to happen?
I turn now from diminished responsibility to provocation. There is further confusion in the Government's proposals on provocation, which have been variously described as "a dog's breakfast" and "a pantomime horse". One group of defendants who under the new definitions might well find themselves convicted of murder rather than manslaughter—although that would be contrary to what the Government apparently intend—are abused wives. The Bill retains a condition in the current law that has often thrown into doubt an abused wife's ability to use a provocation defence. That condition is that there must be a loss of control.
I am not a criminal lawyer, so I have always been rather puzzled by the requirement in the law that there must be a loss of control for provocation to reduce murder to manslaughter. It seems to me that, apart from contract killings, all murders involve some sort of loss of control, but I am reliably informed that that is not the view that the law takes and that wives who kill their abusive husbands by waiting for them to go to sleep and then attacking them, for example, are usually said not to have lost control.
The Bill seeks to overcome that problem by declaring in clause 41(2) that
"it does not matter whether...the loss of control was sudden."
That does not seem to help at all. Loss of control must happen at some point. Someone has control, and then they do not. In some cases, there might be a longer lead-in time for the loss of control—it might take a longer time, rather than a shorter one, to lose control—but in the end, there comes a point where control is lost. A statute can do many things, but it cannot change reality. An abused wife will have to show that she lost control at the point that she killed to qualify under the statute. If she has not lost control at that point, she will still be guilty of murder.
The Government also say that clause 42(3) means that it is enough to convert murder to manslaughter through provocation, or what replaces it, to fear serious violence from the husband, but that is not what the clause says. It says that a loss of control can be attributable to such a fear. If there is no loss of control in the first place, the fear is not relevant. So I fear that, under the Bill, the 100 to 200 extra convictions for murder will include abused wives.
Another type of defendant—perhaps it is one with which Members will have less sympathy, but such cases happen—who will be convicted of murder under the Bill, as opposed to manslaughter, is those currently covered by the Doughty decision: parents who were previously loving and caring but who, under pressure of stress and fatigue over a long period, suddenly snap and kill their children. They are not threatened with serious violence, but neither do they have, in the words of the statute,
"a justifiable sense of being seriously wronged".
Such people would not be able to bring themselves at all within what those words describe. They lose their temper, although under serious stress. Perhaps the Government intend that such defendants should be convicted of murder, rather than manslaughter, and receive the mandatory life sentence, but they have not said so, and it is unclear to me why they would want that.
Who are the 100 to 200 people? The Government presumably think that there will be a whole new group of men convicted of murder, rather than manslaughter, by virtue of the sexual infidelity clause. I doubt very much whether there are many cases of that sort at all, at least in England. There was one such case in Scotland not so long ago. As far as I can tell from the past 10 or 20 years, that attempted defence usually fails. These days, if sexual infidelity is relevant at all in a murder case, it is relevant in terms of diminished responsibility, rather than provocation, so I do not think that the prisons will be filled with men who previously would not have received a mandatory life sentence by reason of a crime passionnel. In fact, as the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield mentioned, the existence of that clause is somewhat puzzling. Why has that form of provocation been picked out for legislative treatment when other forms have not?
The other form of provocation and loss of control that has not been picked out for special mention and been ruled out by the Bill relates to honour killings. I am surprised that the Government seem to have gone that way. Disturbingly, the Bill seems to be almost designed to allow honour killings to count as manslaughter, not murder. The Human Rights Watch definition of honour killing is
"acts of violence, usually murder, committed by male family members against female family members, who are held to have brought dishonour upon the family. A woman can be targeted by individuals within her family for a variety of reasons, including refusing to enter into an arranged marriage, being the victim of a sexual assault, seeking a divorce—even...allegedly committing adultery."
Let us take the example of a woman who refused to enter into a forced marriage. The Bill potentially treats such a case as one of losing control by reason of having a sense of being seriously wronged. Admittedly, the word "justifiable" comes into the definition, but the question is: justifiable to whom? The Bill does not say, and in any case the issue seems to be left eventually to the jury. The same point applies to other parts of the definition. In picking out sexual infidelity, but not picking out honour killing, the Bill is doing something quite disturbing. The whole attempt to deal with the law of murder seems to be arbitrary. I urge the Government to recognise that clauses 39 to 43 are a mess and should be withdrawn.
I do not want to take much more time going through the other 28 topics in the Bill, but I should like to make a few brief comments on the rest of the Bill. On suicide websites, I note with alarm that the relevant clauses are not in any way confined to the specific issue of suicide websites but will replace the whole of the present law on encouraging and assisting suicide, by removing any sense that the encouragement or assistance of suicide must be aimed at a specific person or group of people.
No one, especially parents, can condone those irresponsible and dangerous websites that encourage possibly unstable young people to take their own lives, but encouraging suicide, which is what those websites do, and assisting suicide are different things. Encouraging suicide takes place before the person has decided to commit suicide and is entirely reprehensible, whether it is aimed at a specific person or at the world in general. In that sense, what the Government are doing is right, but assisting suicide can, by contrast, occur after the person has autonomously decided to commit suicide.
Many hon. Members think that assisting suicide is also wrong, but if it is wrong, it is a different sort of wrong from encouraging suicide. Other hon. Members think that assisting suicide is not necessarily wrong if the right sort of safeguards are in place. That, of course, is the position of my party. Admittedly, some forms of assisting suicide could amount to encouraging suicide in some circumstances, but that is precisely what the debate on safeguards is about. I should like the two issues of encouraging suicide and assisting suicide to be clearly separated, and the Bill simply does not do that.
On anonymous witnesses, I simply note that the Bill does not deal with the central problem that was raised when we discussed the temporary Bill last summer: the provision of independent or special counsel, which would overcome many of the difficulties that that Bill produced.
The provision on the anonymity of witnesses in investigations seems useful, but will it really help? There is a serious problem with witnesses not coming forward in gang-type crimes, but the Government are suggesting that it will be a crime for someone to give the name of someone about whom an order has been made to another person, where an investigation has taken place into gang crime. The question is: who will be the defendant in such a prosecution? The answer, it seems, is that it could only be a police officer, so we are making it a crime for a police officer to give out the name of a potential witness. Let us think about the reality of the situation. Will it really have a big effect on potential witnesses from estates threatened by gang violence if the police can say to them, "Don't worry, we'll make an order protecting your identity, and if it is broken, the police will prosecute the police"? That does not seem a very practical idea to increase the confidence of witnesses. Witnesses are certainly threatened; I do not deny the existence of the problem, but the measure seems more symbolic than real.
I urge the House to look at clause 87, which deals with the examination of the accused through intermediaries. It is about the problem of what happens when someone is suffering from a mental illness or other disability and cannot give evidence. There is already provision for ordinary witnesses to be asked questions through intermediaries; that is there to help them. The Bill extends that facility to defendants, but there is a serious question: if a defendant cannot understand the proceedings to the extent that they need that help, why are they on trial? Why are they not unfit to plead? So far, the Government have produced no explanation on that.
The Bill contains a lot of good stuff about video-recording evidence and live links, but I have a question on clause 94, in which the Government propose a subtle amendment to section 138 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003. It looks good, except for the fact that the provision has never been brought into force, although the Government have had six years to do so. Why are they amending something that they could not be bothered bring into force in the first place?
I have a similar question on the bail provisions. I can find no impact assessment on what effect changing the rules on bail for those charged with murder is expected to have. At any one time, about 50 or 60 people accused of murder appear to be on bail. How many of those people do the Government expect to be remanded in custody as a result of the Bill, and what change do the Government expect that to make to a person's chances of being the victim of murder?
My final point is on the sentencing council. The Government are to be congratulated on not falling for the most prescriptive models for sentencing guidelines, although they have chosen a fairly restrictive model. They are also to be congratulated on the provision that the Secretary of State mentioned, under which the council should take into account the relative effectiveness of sentences in preventing reoffending. I agree strongly with what the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth said about what works; that has to be built into the criminal justice system from top to bottom.
The problem is that the Government seem to be pursuing two entirely different criminal justice policies in the same Bill. The model of the grid that they put forward seems entirely predicated on the seriousness of the offence and the harm caused. When it comes to carrying out the guidelines in practice, as opposed to talking vaguely about them, the guidelines have no room for preventing reoffending. For the success of restorative justice programmes, what matters might well be whether the offence was committed against a specific human victim—the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth mentioned this point—who is willing to take part in a process of restorative justice.
For treatment options, such as treatment for drug and alcohol misuse, the personal characteristics of the offender might matter more than the nature of the offence. The sentencing ranges that the Government have chosen are built entirely on the retribution view of sentencing. In practice, that view will completely squeeze out all the things that the right hon. Gentleman and I want to see in those guidelines. That matters, because although the Secretary of State is right that putting the victim at the heart of the criminal justice system is important, it is also important that we consider not only present and past victims, but future ones. The purpose of the criminal justice system must be to ensure, as far as is possible, that there are as few future victims as possible.
I therefore ask the House, for the reasons set out in our amendment, not to pass the Bill today. It contains some good proposals, but also dangerous proposals on data sharing, and proposals on secret inquests that are, though a red rag, undesirable. A lot of the rest of the Bill seems ill-thought-through, rushed and muddled.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I shall try to follow your advice as closely as possible; I know that it makes sense. It is a pleasure to follow David Howarth. Some of his points are sensible, others less so. I shall make just one point on what he said about anonymous witnesses. He must be aware that there are hundreds, or more likely thousands, of violent gangsters and others in this country who do not get brought to justice because everybody is far too afraid to act as a witness. He needs to be aware of that fact. As the provisions that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is trying to introduce on anonymous witnesses are meant to address that specific problem, the hon. Member for Cambridge should not be so squeamish about the means of dealing with the issue.
My point about anonymous witnesses in investigations was not that there is not a problem; there is a very serious problem. My point was that I do not think that the provisions will work. They will not make things any better.
The hon. Gentleman has at least gone part of the way with me in recognising the problem, but having recognised it, he must at some stage will the means to resolve it. If he does not think that the proposals are the means, he needs to come up with something that will address that very real problem.
I did not intend to go off on that diversion. I intended to begin by commenting briefly on the Bill's provisions for reform of the coroner system. I come to this subject from the perspective of having a number of constituents who tragically lost loved ones in the Hillsborough disaster on
The individual mini-inquests were held on the revolving door principle, with approximately eight cases being heard a day. That was a horrendous experience for the families involved. The gross insensitivity of focusing on the blood alcohol readings created the wholly false impression that that was a significant contributory factor in the disaster, when it had already been established by the Taylor inquiry that
"the main reason for the disaster was the failure of police control".
I mention this not to rake over the coals of the tragedy, but to highlight why the coroner's procedure caused such distress and offence to the bereaved families. For this reason I welcome the reforms proposed in the Bill, at least in principle. However, I ask Ministers to reflect on my comments on the Hillsborough mini-inquests and see whether the Bill can be improved to ensure that that situation is never allowed to occur again. I hope there will never be another disaster on that scale, but I also hope that if there ever is, the bereaved families will not be put through the wringer as the Hillsborough families were.
I turn to the sentencing provisions in part 4. I had the privilege of serving on the sentencing working group which, following the Carter report, was charged with examining the merits and feasibility of a structured sentencing framework and establishing a sentencing commission. The group, which was expertly chaired by Lord Justice Gage, made a number of recommendations, many of which, I am pleased to say, have found their way into the Bill.
Because sentencing has such an immediate and real effect, it is one of those areas where there should be a clear link between the detail of the policy, the underlying principles and the practical consequences that follow. We have a duty to ensure that sentencing policy is fair to the victims of crime, that society as a whole has confidence in our justice system, and that offenders recognise that the sentences that they receive are proportionate to their crimes and are consistently applied. Regrettably, a lack of consistency is a significant contributory factor to the alarming decline in public confidence in the criminal justice system in recent years, and we must recognise that.
We should also recognise that sentencing has a direct impact on offending in three ways. First, the most direct impact, surprisingly, is the most overlooked. It is difficult for most offenders to commit further crimes while they are serving a custodial sentence. As Mr. Howard put it when he was Home Secretary, prison does work—in that context, at least.
Secondly, sentences should, wherever possible, include the potential for practical and effective rehabilitation. I use the words "practical" and "effective" advisedly. We must be honest. Not all rehabilitation, and not all community sentences, are effective. We should not believe that in every case they are a panacea. In some cases they are not. Thirdly, sentences act as a deterrent that reduces reoffending and discourages offending in the first place. All three impacts are too often overlooked.
On the practicalities of sentencing, Mr. Grieve seemed to get himself in a muddle. I say that with regret. When I listen to him in the House, he is usually fluent, tolerant and logical, but in his speech he created a muddle between the idea of balancing correctional resources and the sentences that are passed. He railed, rightly, against early release schemes. I agree with him. There is nothing worse than an early release scheme for undermining the whole sentencing system. By definition, releasing anyone early without good reason undermines the sentence that the court passed on them.
However, the hon. and learned Gentleman ruled out any predictability in the need for correctional resources. He said that it was up to the courts to decide what those should be, but if we do not predict with more accuracy than in the past how many prison places are needed, or how many places are needed on community sentences, the inevitable consequence is that sometimes we will get it wrong. If we under-provide, there is only one way to deal with that—by means of early release schemes. That is what has happened repeatedly in the post-war history of sentencing. At some point, there is no alternative. The hon. and learned Gentleman cannot have it both ways. Either there is predictability in the system so that we have a reasonable idea what correctional facilities are necessary, or there is no predictability, and at some point in the cycle, early release schemes will have to be introduced.
While serving on the sentencing working group, I was surprised and disappointed to discover—this is another point that the hon. and learned Gentleman failed to take into account—how little we know about, and how little we are able to measure, the variations in sentencing. We commissioned a limited survey of our own, which I do not claim was the last word on the subject. It revealed a number of interesting facts, the most notable of which was that almost half the sentences passed by the courts in England fell outside the guideline ranges.
Courts need to have some flexibility and to exercise some judgment, but do we really think that 50 per cent. of their sentences falling outside the guideline ranges is a good thing? Does any hon. Member want to interrupt me and say, "Surely we should celebrate that"? If nobody is prepared to do that, there must be a general acceptance that it is not a good thing. Whether courts are over-sentencing or under-sentencing, that cannot be right. We need far more information and a clearer picture of what is going on throughout the country. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and other Ministers have accepted that we need more data so that we can be clearer about how the sentencing system is working. I welcome the fact that the Bill provides for that.
Four key issues are pertinent to the Bill. The first is the challenge of balancing consistency with judicial flexibility in individual cases. The second is the challenge of ensuring that there are adequate correctional resources available to meet demand without compromising justice in individual cases. The third is the role of the Lord Chief Justice in the new sentencing council, and the fourth is the role of Parliament in setting guidelines.
On the challenge of balancing consistency and flexibility, the group on which I served was extremely clear that there needs to be improved consistency in sentencing, while still allowing for judicial flexibility in individual cases. We recommended, for example, that there should be definitive guidelines for all major high-volume offences, and further narrative guidance on the treatment of previous convictions and aggravating and mitigating factors. To be fair, we were less clear about how to deal with cases where the intended sentence departed from the normal range.
At present, the court is required to have regard to any guidelines relevant to the offender's case. Discretion to stray from those guidelines can be granted only if the court can give reasons for such a departure. There is an alternative approach, which gives the courts more flexibility and simply requires guidelines to be followed unless the court is satisfied that that would be contrary to the interests of justice. Although the majority of the sentencing working group supported that approach, my own view, as indicated in the report, is that the existing requirements should be retained because they provide more consistency while still allowing flexibility in individual cases.
Clause 103 sets specific requirements on how sentencing guidelines should be laid out by the sentencing council. In my view, the clause contains little, if anything, that is not already covered in at least some of the sentencing guidelines. However, specifying the requirements in the Bill will help to achieve the aim of greater predictability and assist attempts to collect relevant data on actual sentencing practice across the whole country. Having a greater understanding of that practice will help the planning of correctional resources to be more effective, and give us the opportunity to revisit the issue of consistency in sentencing in a more informed way in future.
That leads to my second point, which is about the challenge of ensuring that adequate correctional resources are available to meet the demands of the criminal justice system, while also ensuring that individual circumstances are taken into account. The sentencing working group recognised that it is important to match the supply of correctional services to the demand for them. We considered the practicality of giving the sentencing council a duty to design guidelines that would match capacity. However, given the lack of systematic information available on sentences passed, we concluded that that would be impractical. Instead, we recommended that Parliament should express its intentions with regard to correctional resources at regular intervals. Personally, I believe that Sir Alan Beith and his Select Committee could have a role in that, although to make that case in this debate would probably stretch the point too far; perhaps it would be better to debate the issue in Committee.
Our view was that the effect of such an obligation on Parliament, combined with an assessment by the sentencing council of the effects of guidelines on correctional resources, would allow for more rational planning. As I outlined earlier, the ability of the correctional system to cope with demand is an essential element in achieving justice.
The third issue that I wish to cover is the role of the Lord Chief Justice in the new sentencing council. There has been some debate about that. Our working group studied the matter carefully, and we were clear that the workload of the chair of the sentencing council would be too substantial for the Lord Chief Justice to be appropriate; it would require a commensurate time commitment. However, we did recommend that the chair should be a member of the senior judiciary, appointed by both the Lord Chief Justice and the Lord Chancellor. It is clear to me, however, that the Lord Chief Justice should have a transparent and formal mechanism so that he can have some input into the work of the council. Perhaps that could be achieved through an appointed representative empowered to speak on his behalf during any deliberations in the council.
My final point is about the role of Parliament in setting sentencing guidelines. The working group did not come to a unanimous view on the role of Parliament. The majority believed that it would be inappropriate for there to be a duty requiring the sentencing council to consider Parliament's intentions on resources when formulating guidelines, and that Parliament should have no role in approving any guidelines before they are implemented. The minority view of the group—a view that I share—supported a more active role for Parliament, perhaps including the Justice Committee, in relation to both those points. That would mean that the sentencing council would have a statutory duty to consider Parliament's intention in relation to resources, and that Parliament would be able to approve guidelines before they came into practice. The obvious rationale for that approach is that, ultimately, Parliament is the only mechanism available for public accountability in relation to sentencing and its implementation. Manifestly, an independent judiciary cannot be held accountable in the same way.
We need to recognise that a fair sentencing system requires the application of clear principles. In turn, a more consistent approach, flexible enough to take individual circumstances into account, will reduce unexplained variation and reoffending, and could increase public confidence. I welcome and support the Bill, but I give notice that at a later stage—and subject to further consideration of the issues to which I have referred—I might well table my own amendments.
I intend to be succinct, as requested. I am encouraged in that by my awareness that there are a plethora of lawyers here straining at the leash to gnaw at this amalgam of a Bill. I shall touch on just two points. First, I support my hon. and learned Friend Mr. Grieve on clause 152, about which I am deeply concerned. Personally, I feel that it is a further step down the "brave new world" path.
Last year, I put it to Mr. Hanson, a Minister at the Ministry of Justice, that the more the Government increase personal data and centralise them, the more valuable those data will become to those whom we would all wish not to have them. The Minister answered that there would be tough safeguards. That is utterly inadequate. First, the Government's record on losing data is spectacularly poor. Secondly, if the Pentagon computers can be hacked into, I suspect that Ministry of Justice files and many of the others can also be hacked into, perhaps more easily.
Thirdly, and more fundamentally, there is no real safeguard against an individual with key access being paid or politically persuaded to provide illegal access. When, last year, I put that concern to the Association of Chief Police Officers representative leading on the central records, such as DNA records, of criminal—and now, increasingly, non-criminal—individuals, he admitted that that was his one greatest area of fear, deep fear. Many of us have watched with deepening concern the Government's increasing collection of personal data on individuals and the consequential state intrusion into our personal lives. I see this step as representing an appalling risk of further infringement. It would be nice to think that, under persuasion, Ministers would step back—but somehow, I doubt whether they will. I hope that the next Government—a Conservative one—will draw back on that issue, and on others.
I now turn to a more positive issue for me personally. My main interest in the Bill is about the aspects that relate to children and crimes against them. I shall pick only one of them—the provisions relating to images of children. Those provisions represent a new change, one that for some years I have been trying to put on the statute book through discussions with Ministers and attempted amendments, and I welcome them. It has been well known for some time that the quality of computer-generated images is such that computer-literate paedophiles have been using software to produce pseudo-images of child abuse pornography. I am delighted that, at long last, Ministers have recognised the concerns; hence the new legislation.
However, I should also like to suggest some concerns. Clause 53 outlines the penalty for the new offence. Interestingly, as I read the clause, the convicted offender will not automatically be placed on the sex offenders register. As he winds up, will the Minister say whether I am correct? If I am, could such a provision be added at the appropriate stage? Secondly, the maximum penalty for making or distributing indecent photographs or pseudo-photographs of child abuse is 10 years, while the maximum penalty for possession of such photographs or pseudo-photographs is five years. Clause 53 sets a maximum penalty of three years. It seems more appropriate that the maximum penalty in the clause should be similar to those that I mentioned—five years for possession, and 10 for making and distributing. I anticipate that in cases involving pseudo-photographs, the defence will argue that they were generated by computer images, involving a lesser penalty of three years. I ask the Ministers to think carefully about that.
Finally—and succinctly—I would like to draw the Minister's attention to a missed opportunity. The success of this clause, and others concerning similar photographs, depends on detection. One of the difficulties is the increasing use of encryption. Under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, the maximum penalty for failure to produce, on request by the police, the key to access such data is two years. It is blindingly obvious that any individual arrested on suspicion of having encrypted data relating to sexual abuse of children, including under these clauses, will refuse to give the key and risk a penalty of two years instead of revealing the key and risking a penalty of three, five or 10 years, as appropriate. I have raised this concern many times before, and perhaps the simplest way of concluding is to draw the Minister's attention to my private Member's Bill, which he might like to pick up and adapt to this Bill at the appropriate time.
I share many of the concerns expressed by Sir Paul Beresford about how we legislate for activities on the internet. We are having to make progress in this area slowly and develop our legislation accordingly.
I am keen to raise several issues that stem largely from my experiences last year, when a cluster of suicides in and around my constituency reached international attention through the media.
The purpose of the coroner is simple and well defined in the draft charter for bereaved people published alongside the Bill. A coroner's investigation is required if a death is violent, unnatural, of unknown cause or takes place while the person is detained by the state. It is the duty of the coroner service to establish whether an investigation is required and, if so, to ascertain the identity of the person who died, how, when and where they died, and—for me, most importantly—to assist in the prevention of future deaths and to provide public reassurance. Those requirements accord with article 2 of the European convention on human rights, which establishes the right to life. I will focus my three areas of concern on the last two requirements.
I welcome the fact that the Bill provides coroners with additional powers, but there is, sadly, a case for further powers: first, to assist with the building of national, universal data collection frameworks to ensure that an increased range of information is routinely gathered; and secondly, to enable coroners to instigate, conduct and co-operate with psychological autopsies, especially where we have a cluster of deaths. Members may be aware that in England, but not in Wales, there is a national primary care suicide audit tool kit. All PCTs in England are required to show trends in suicide rates and trajectories and to provide action plans for delivery towards the national target of reducing suicide rates by 20 per cent. by 2010. However, PCTs give different priority to the suicide audits and use different methods of data collection, and therefore fail to develop a national, universal database. The suicide audit was rolled out by the Department of Health, and Members may question what relevance this has to a coroners Bill. The national suicide prevention strategy advisory group has acknowledged the need to record more detailed information in a number of areas and is monitoring suicide rates following self-harm, among different ethnic minority groups and occupations, and in relation to inequalities in social class. Currently, available data do not give information about whether an individual has had contact with statutory services in the period prior to suicide. We know that one in four people is likely to have had contact with the health service before they die and that many more will have had contact with the criminal justice system.
It is essential that such information is collected in order to identify the potential for intervention through the points of contact that those who take their lives had with available services and where lessons can be learned to help to prevent future suicides. The coroner service provides an excellent possible source for the development of these databases, and it is important that we develop its data collection provision. There has been a rise in the number of narrative verdicts being delivered by coroners, which, unlike open verdicts, are not included when suicide data are collected. Recent statistics provided by the Ministry of Justice indicate a greater use of open verdicts over a number of years by some district coroners. The coroner service is in a crucial position, and coroners' verdicts provide essential information for monitoring public health. Consistent recording of causes of death is a vital component of the service, and I hope that the Bill will introduce the potential to develop it.
The problem was exemplified by Bridgend, where no detailed research has been carried out to examine the reasons why a cluster of suicides occurred and no research-based remedial action has been recommended. Importantly, Bridgend is not alone in needing that analysis. Bridgend did not have the highest suicide rate in Wales; in fact, it was 48th worst in the UK in 1998 to 2004, and four Welsh unitary authorities ranked higher. None of the inquests into the suicides across Bridgend has provided an explanation as to why the young people died in increasing numbers. Around the world, Bridgend was labelled a suicide town, the suicide capital of the UK, even a death cult town. The media stepped into the gap left by a failure to explain why the deaths were happening and ran with the story of an internet-based death cult. That story had no basis in fact, but since there had been no in-depth investigation of why the deaths occurred, it had—as I am told the expression is—legs.
The deputy children's commissioner for Wales, Maria Battle, shared my concern and wrote to the Welsh Minister for Children, Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills a year ago asking for a thorough investigation into each of the young persons' deaths, to include all the agencies, and a thorough investigation into whether there were any links and, if so, what they were. She stressed that it was important that the investigations be as comprehensive as possible, in a local and a national context. As the local MP, I am not aware of any such investigation being undertaken. I am aware that, locally, people have been left anxious and confused, and that each new death brings fear and anxiety that a new cluster may be about to form.
I believe that the Bill can ensure that, in the future, such investigations are conducted in the form of psychological autopsies. Much is known about the risk factors that may play a part in the lead-up to a suicide, and much of that knowledge has been accrued through psychological autopsies that have taken place, notably under Professor Keith Hawton and England's mental health tsar, Professor Louis Appleby. Psychological autopsies are a method of research that reconstructs the lifestyle and personality traits of the person who committed suicide, including the collection of detailed information from a number of different sources. We need to understand the reasons why clusters occur, so that things could be done to improve services locally, nationally across the UK, and even internationally. Perhaps health or education services could be adapted to meet the needs of the more vulnerable. Under the Bill, organisations and agencies will have a duty to respond to recommendations made by the coroner and to outline actions that they will take to prevent further deaths. That extremely positive way forward would be welcomed by everyone.
Information and knowledge are the key to finding answers and solutions to complex questions such as why X decided that their life was no longer worth living. Information must routinely be collected by coroners, providing universal data on all suicides, open verdicts and clusters of death. A universal data pool may be able to highlight trends that were not immediately identified by the local coroner, as nationally collected data provide opportunities for comparison and further learning.
I am aware that Liberty has argued that an extension of narrative verdicts would provide better answers to the questions of the bereaved about the circumstances of a death, and prevent further fatalities. However, unless we have a national system of psychological autopsies, we will not have the in-depth analysis that parents so often desire. To achieve such a system will require additional resources, and I am keen for the Bill to be expanded to allow senior coroners to be adequately resourced and staffed to commission such autopsies. It is vital that researchers and coroners can work together effectively, so that opportunities to prevent further needless deaths are not missed.
The second issue that I wish briefly to address is the protection of young and vulnerable people online. Like other Members, I would like to thank Professor Tanya Byron for guiding me through that new world, and I congratulate the Government on taking forward a number of the recommendations in her review "Safer Children in a Digital World". Professor Byron recommended that the law on internet material should be clarified and enforcement responses explored, and that
"sites which exist to promote suicide in a way that contravenes UK law should be taken down once the relevant internet service providers have been notified" and the illegality of the sites has been confirmed. The clarification of the law on suicide in the Bill and the increasing public understanding that the law applies as much online as offline provide legal parity and an opportunity for reassurance.
It is important to stress that the internet is a vast, worldwide web of information. To use Professor Byron's words again,
"in this new world it is us who are the digital immigrants and our children and possibly in some cases grandchildren who are the digital natives. We must open ourselves up to this technology, get engaged and do more to enable the best use of this resource."
A balance needs to be struck between protecting those who are vulnerable and enabling the freedom of the majority.
Ministers will be aware that by coincidence, I chaired the second meeting of the all-party group on suicide prevention last week. The role of the internet and new technology in suicide was a theme of the meeting. Representatives from across the industry were present, and a lively discussion took place. There was no unanimous verdict, and strong feelings were expressed both for and against the banning of pro-suicide and suicide recipe sites.
Two phenomena need attention: the possibility that the internet may induce suicide or encourage someone vulnerable to commit suicide, and the possibility that it may provide details of suicide methods to someone who wishes to die. Those two types of site are commonly grouped together, but there is a grey area between the encouragement of suicide and the active engagement of individuals in suicide and the promotion of their death, and we need to ensure that we protect people by addressing it.
The Samaritans have expressed concern that the legal definition of "encouraging or assisting suicide" could create a difficulty for young people who use the internet, text messages and e-mail to discuss their suicidal thoughts and intentions. My reading of the Bill suggests that that will not happen, but there will be those who are anxious about attempts to bring the use of that new technology within the Bill. In contrast to the view of the Samaritans, Papyrus is concerned that the word "intent", used in the Bill, needs further clarification to ensure that the wording is strong enough to ensure that prosecutions are successful.
There is limited research in the area, and it is provided mainly by Professor Keith Hawton and his colleagues from the centre for suicide research. They have searched online for sites providing information on suicide methods and found that one in five were dedicated suicide sites, half of which encouraged or promoted suicide and half of which contained personal and other accounts of methods. Only 13 per cent. of the sites that they found offered support or preventive action, which I find a really frightening statistic. Google and Microsoft tell me that they use search engine optimisation to try to promote support sites, but it is still not too difficult to find more worrying sites if one delves past the first page. Those companies indicated that they were not averse to doing more, but that they were keen not to lose their conduit status. We have to address that.
I commend the hon. Lady's work as chairman of the all-party suicide prevention group. As an act of interest, this afternoon I Googled the expression "how to kill yourself". The first several pages of sites were detailed, explicit recommendations about how to kill oneself, and none of them were support sites at all.
That confirms the statistic that only 13 per cent. of the sites found provided supportive information. I commend the hon. Gentleman for taking the time to look at those sites, some of which are really frightening. Imagine a vulnerable youngster who is troubled about themselves and their future, and uncertain about their life, accessing the information on such a site. That is why the steps that the Government are taking in the Bill are so right. The existence of such recipe sites must be addressed, and we are right to do that.
I appreciate that there are difficulties, given that many of those sites are not located in the UK and that many are located outside the EEC. It will be a complex task to account for those sites and have them taken down, but if the House is worth anything, it has to be worthy of taking to task new technology and finding a way of framing legislation that will allow us to protect vulnerable people, while still allowing technology to develop and expand so that we have new ways of exploring ideas. We must take seriously our responsibility to protect the vulnerable.
There has been much talk about autopsies and the need for privacy, but not really any talk about the effect on families, especially when a child dies. A lot of concern has been expressed in the debate about the holding of coroners' hearings in private, but I want to represent my constituents who have come to me and described how their children have taken their own lives, and how they felt. They are angry, distressed and aggrieved that if their child had committed a crime, their privacy and anonymity would have been respected, but because they took their own life, the facts of their life were made public and spread across the media. We desperately need to consider how we can ensure that the coroner system protects the privacy of children who, because of their frailty, vulnerability and confusion, take their lives. That is a matter that I will wish to consider during the Bill's passage.
When my father-in-law was in the police force, one of the jobs that he dreaded was being sent to somebody's house late at night to knock on the door and inform them that their son or daughter had been killed, usually in a motor accident. We all expect to outlive our children, and it is every parent's nightmare to get that knock on the door. Sadly, many young people learn to drive, but they do not learn to use alcohol responsibly. Despite the fact that the most recent figures for deaths on our roads have fallen to a record low—below 3,000 for the first time—460 fatal accidents involve drink-drivers. It is important to send a clear message to those who flout the drink-driving laws that the criminal justice system will deal with them severely.
Last year, I was contacted by a lady from Billingham, called Jan Woodward. Indeed, we were all contacted by Jan, who sent us an e-mail about her campaign to highlight a specific matter. I visited her and learned about the Kelly campaign. On
What appalled Mrs. Woodward more than anything was the fact that the ban did not start on the young man's release, but from the date of the trial. If he served his full sentence, the ban would be for only six months—not a strong message to send to people in such circumstances. I was fortunate to catch Mr. Speaker's eye during Prime Minister's questions on
Another aspect has not been tackled, and I hope that the Government will consider it. The Bill changes cases when a sentence and a ban are issued at the same time, but does not address circumstances in which someone who is banned from driving, perhaps for causing death by dangerous driving, subsequently commits another offence and goes to jail. The ban continues to operate while the person is in prison. In some cases, the sentence may use up the entire ban, and the person can drive home from prison. I hope that we can consider methods of addressing that.
I am told that one of the problems is that data are not shared in the justice system so that there is no way of knowing whether someone who goes to prison for, for example, burglary has a driving ban. Although the Bill provides for sharing information with almost anyone in the world, it is strange that the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency and the courts do not seem able to learn who exactly is banned at any one time.
I am grateful to the Government for listening to Jan and responding to the Kelly campaign. I pay tribute to Jan for her campaigning and for working with the emergency services in Cleveland on their Christmas drink-drive campaigns. It is sad that the circumstances that have brought the campaign to Parliament are so distressing.
In thanking the Secretary of State for Justice, I have no wish to diminish our criticisms of other aspects of the Bill, which my hon. and learned Friend Mr. Grieve outlined so well. The Secretary of State has just returned to his place, so I thank him for responding to the issue so positively and relatively promptly, given the way in which Governments work.
I am pleased to follow Mr. Goodwill, who succinctly made the one point he wanted to make in the debate, and my hon. Friend Mrs. Moon, who has been an admirable leader of her community at a time when intense international attention has focused on her constituency. I praise her for her work on suicide.
I want to speak about the reforms of the coroners' courts system. I would be happy if the Bill dealt only with such reform. That would be true to the spirit of the draft Bill that was published for consultation a little while ago. It would also emphasise the importance of the coroners' courts system in this country. Although it is 700 years old, there has been no modern reform of it until now. Its significance is seen on the news almost every day in, for example, police shootings—the most recent example is the de Menezes shooting, which also involved the security services; deaths in custody, especially the tragic deaths of children in custody; and the immensely important results of coroners' inquests on some of our service personnel killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan. If we think back to Dr. Shipman's killing of his patients, the case revealed some of the weaknesses in the current system and the pressing need for reform.
As long ago as
It has taken a while, but the Bill makes welcome changes to the law and practice relating to coroners' courts. I mentioned the draft Bill and I congratulate all those who were involved in publishing alongside it a plain English explanation of the legal language. That was a bit of a first at the time, and very welcome.
I want personally to thank Mr. Andrew Haigh, the coroner in Staffordshire, who has had several discussions with me about the reforms, which helped clarify my thinking and my attitude to them.
Let me deal with some of the important reforms. First, I want to speak about the national service—or the national head with the local service. Some people would prefer a completely national service, believing that that brings the reach, clout and resources necessary to make a success of a national coroners' system. Others are happy with the set-up in the Bill, with a national position of chief coroner, supported by several deputy chief coroners, but with the administration at local authority level. I am not sure which is better. Those who argue for more localism prefer the latter arrangement. If we can make a success of it, it will probably be a model, which we may want to follow in future, for services beyond coroners' courts. Obviously, much depends on getting the detail right and monitoring what happens afterwards.
Secondly, I want to consider the new range of possible investigations under the Bill. I like the proposal for the new medical examiner role. We have the prospect of two professionals from different specialisms—the lawyer as the coroner and the medical practitioner as the medical examiner—working together with the same aim of establishing the truth and recording an accurate description of the cause of a death. I like the fact that they will have wider powers—for example, the ability to require non-invasive scans, such as MRI scans, as well as autopsies, and the new legal power for the coroner to enter premises, search them and seize items of evidence. The new powers all look good. The relationship between the coroner and the medical examiner will be crucial. I note that the current proposal is for primary care trusts to appoint the new medical examiners. Given the crucial relationship with the coroner, it is important to have some formal involvement of coroners in the appointments. I hope that that will happen.
Does the hon. Gentleman recognise the concern of quite a few people in the relevant professions that the primary care trust that employs the medical examiner might be the same primary care trust that runs the hospital in which the death that is the subject of the inquest took place?
Yes, I do recognise that point. One of my wishes for the new relationship that will evolve between coroners and medical examiners is that they should be seen as a team that is independent of any other body, and free from any vested interests, when carrying out their investigation. Perhaps that will mean using medical examiners from outside the area in which the coroner is based, or perhaps, as I have suggested, the coroner will have a greater involvement in the appointment of the medical examiner. Those decisions will be significant, as will the question of who pays for the medical examiner. I have already mentioned resources, and I shall come back to that subject in a moment.
My third point relates to the new charter for bereaved people. There has been very good consultation on the charter, and it was great to learn today of the appointment of Sara Payne as a victims' champion. Obviously, there are many people to congratulate on that appointment—not least Sara Payne herself, on her persistence on the issues that she has pursued in recent years.
I would like to point out that there are other interested parties at coroners' inquests who are not legally represented as a matter of course, and it is important that they, too, should be looked after sensitively and properly by the coroner. The present guidance does not extend to such people, and I am not sure whether it should, or whether there should be a second guide for other people who are interested in the outcome of a coroner's investigation. The matter certainly needs further attention.
My fourth point concerns the effects of the new responsibilities of coroners' courts towards bereaved people, the possible requests for reviews, and the appeals that we are implementing for the first time in the Bill. These all have the potential to add significantly to a coroner's work load, and, as the Bill passes through Parliament, I want to investigate whether that means that coroners will have a greater ability to delegate their present duties to other members of their staff, whether there will be new funding for additional staff and for the upgrading of their information technology systems to enable them to deal with the additional work load efficiently, and whether there will be sufficient resources overall for them to carry out this extra work. If not, the danger is that we will be imposing a new source of delay in the coroners' system, and delay has been a worry in the past.
My fifth point is on funding. A national system would have placed the responsibility for adequate funding on central Government. It is not even clear whether all local authorities currently fund their coroner service adequately, and if there are to be new duties and functions for coroners involving extra expense, will those local authorities continue to step up to the plate and pay their fair share? The Government have the idea that, if a local coroner does not get the necessary funding from a local authority, the chief coroner will step in and support the coroner. I wonder how much weight a local authority would give to representations from such a person from outside its area.
I also wonder whether many people appreciate how much support the police give to the coroners service around the country. The briefing note for today's debate says that 90 per cent. of the funding for a coroner's local office comes from police resources, rather than from local authority resources. There is odd wording in the Bill that makes me wonder whether the police have an eye to saying that they would pull out of funding the coroner service because it was the local authority's responsibility to do so. I would not like to see that happen, not least because of the value that police officers and retired police officers add to the work of the coroner's office when they become coroners' officers.
It is good that there will be a greater ability for coroners to share their work load across coroners' boundaries, and that there is going to be a more formal arrangement for the training of all coroners. I am also pleased that there are to be inspections of coroner services. I am not thrilled one way or the other about retaining the treasure trove duty on coroners, but I note that the ability to share that work load across boundaries might be significant in a few cases.
Like many Members who have spoken today, I am concerned about the provisions relating to secrecy and to sharing data. There is a great deal of work still to be done on the former, for sure. Because the Government have dropped the proposal to give coroners the power to prohibit the publication of certain details, the issue that my hon. Friend Mrs. Moon raised remains and too much detail about suicides and other traumatic events in a family's life could be published to the world. I am not sure whether the Government have given up not only on the idea of giving coroners the power to control such publication, but on asking the media to exercise a bit more restraint through a change in the Press Complaints Commission's code of practice for reporting. That issue still needs to be debated by all of us.
As a footnote, I should like to note that some reforms have been implemented ahead of the Bill. A good example is the rule 43 reports. When a coroner feels that a case involves something of significance to the wider world, rather than just the death being investigated, they can now send a report to an organisation and ask for a response. At the moment, there is no power to enforce such a response, but the Bill will give us an opportunity to ensure that that provision is more rigorously enforced, because it is a very welcome reform. As these are major reforms, I hope that there will be some arrangement for post-implementation scrutiny, so that we can see whether what we thought would happen actually has happened, and so that we can make changes speedily if some things are not as we expected. So far, so good, however, in terms of most of the proposed reforms of the coroners' courts system.
I hope that the Justice Committee will carry out just the kind of post-legislative scrutiny to which Mr. Kidney has referred. We did a great deal of pre-legislative scrutiny on the Bill, and I want to refer to that in moment, particularly in the context of the short report on the Bill that the Committee produced for the assistance of Members on Second Reading and in Committee. It will be an aide-mémoire for some of the issues that we have raised, and for the Government's response to them. I shall deal mainly with the coroners' system when referring to the report.
The coroners' system is greatly valued in this country. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, it has been around for 700 years, and families attach a great deal of importance to it—so much so that it is now used in circumstances that were previously not envisaged. For example, deaths in military service are now the subject of inquests. That was not the case at the time of the Falklands war, and still less so during the first and second world wars. The entire system would have collapsed if it had been expected to cope with the horrific number of deaths of service personnel in either of the two world wars. We have now placed that new responsibility on the service, however.
The coroners' system does not operate in Scotland at all, and I have found no appetite in England or Wales to move to the Scottish pattern, in which only the most significant and unusual deaths are the subject of a fatal accident inquiry. Any other deaths that require further scrutiny are examined by the procurator fiscal, who decides whether any criminal proceedings should follow, or whether to secure a fatal accident inquiry, which is itself rare.
Whereas there is no appetite in England and Wales to move away from coroners and inquests, there does appear to be an appetite in Scotland to hold inquests, at least in respect of military deaths. That is the subject of an ongoing consultation with the Government. If people are brought back from Afghanistan—following the Nimrod crash, for example—some of them might have been based in Scotland and others in England. The secondary decision of where the plane lands seems a pretty poor determinant of whether there should be an inquest or not. That is an illustration of the importance that people attach to inquests, especially when the state, in the form of our armed services, is relevant to the death.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that military inquests are so important because the coroner might well point the finger at the state, in one way or another? The Nimrod inquiry is a good example of that. If such inquests were to be held in secret, it would remove one of the most fundamental reasons for holding them—namely, determining what is wrong with the state that sent the soldiers to their deaths.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. I do not think that holding such inquests in secret is actually the purpose of the clauses in the Bill that have caused so much anxiety. They are the clauses that my hon. Friend David Howarth referred to as a "red rag", and I still think that they are profoundly unsatisfactory, but they have a rather more limited purpose than that and I shall return to it shortly.
Of course, not all families want inquests in all circumstances. I have talked to many family members who say, "I hope that there is not going to be an inquest." In some circumstances, usually when the death has occurred in some form of medical care, families do not want to extend the issue further. Our system does not require inquests to be held in all circumstances—far from it—and it would be bad if that idea got around. Nevertheless, the importance of inquests in cases where the reason for death is in some way uncertain cannot be underestimated.
The Bill brings some benefits in that field through the appointment of a chief coroner, an appeals system, inspection and a charter for the bereaved, as well as by resolving some of the issues of jurisdiction that have caused real practical problems to coroners which they have asked to be sorted out for many years. There are situations, for example, in which the coroner has to break the law to get the body of a child to a place where appropriate skills are available to carry out an autopsy. Thankfully, that sort of thing will be sorted out.
The Committee had some concerns, and I shall identify a few of them. Although we understood the decision to stick with a locally organised rather than a national service, we felt that the expectations for the reforms might well not be met by the limited amount of central involvement that the Bill produces, particularly in the light of the great diversity of funding that exists. In some areas, coroners' offices are provided and paid for by the police; in other areas local authorities play that role. In some cases, coroners are serving police officers; in others they are retired police officers. It is not necessarily wrong to have a degree of diversity, because what works in a rural area is very different from what works in an urban area, but it is clear that there is little certainty that the right level of resources will be available in all areas. The Government are relying on the chief coroner and the inspection system to achieve that, and I hope that consistency of standards is achieved, but there is an awful lot to be sorted out in respect of providing the resources that coroners will need to meet the expectations generated by the Bill.
My second area of concern—I raised it in an intervention during the previous speech—is the position of the medical examiner. The fact that he will be employed by the primary care trust does not provide the direct line of accountability to the coroner and the coronial system that we think is appropriate. That is worrying. PCTs run community hospitals and employ salaried dentists and physicians, alongside dealing with the general practice service and other services that they purchase from other health bodies. They are very much involved. However well the professionals carry out their duties, there will remain a concern in the public mind, which these provisions are intended to address, that the medical advice to the coroner is not independent of those who had care of the patient who died.
We have to find a way of resolving that problem. One way of doing so, even within the Government's proposed structure, would be for the medical examiner at least to be employed by the coroner or the judicial system as a whole-time employee or to be employed in respect of the medical examiner work—a separate duty in respect of which they are paid by and accountable to the coronial system, not the health authority.
I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman has mentioned that point. I am very concerned about the desire for full-time coroners. I notice that part-time coroners are proposed for Northumbria, Cumbria and Cornwall, and I hope that that will also be allowed on the Isle of Wight.
The hon. Gentleman is a member of the Justice Committee and he knows that we have discussed this issue quite a lot. I was talking about medical examiners, but let me come straight on to the point about part-time coroners in rural areas. The Committee is concerned that flexibility should remain. We do not want a family living 50 miles from the headquarters of the area coroner to have to travel all those miles in order to speak to the coroner or even to his staff. Present arrangements, which use locally based deputy coroners, provide a service that must not be lost when the system is changed. Part-time assistant coroners are provided for in the Bill, but they need to be available in the appropriate areas. The hon. Gentleman's constituency has some of the problems that are experienced in even greater measure in areas such as mine in Northumberland or, indeed, in Cumbria. Those areas need to be provided for.
I come now to the provisions that originated in the Counter-Terrorism Bill of 2008, which relate to holding some inquests without a jury, in secret and in circumstances in which even the family will not be party to some of the proceedings. In fairness to the Government, I recognise that the proposal arose when it became clear that at least two inquests were not proceeding because of the lack of some provision of this kind. I do not think that the Government started from the wrong motives, but as so often happens in these cases, once the system starts to provide an answer, it comes up with procedures that have many other faults and failings and are wide open to use far beyond what was originally envisaged. I think that the sheer breadth of the provisions worries everybody.
There is also a parallel concern that engages me. I have been involved in the attempt to make intercept as evidence available in our criminal courts. It is a difficult process—indeed, more difficult than people sometimes appreciate. The Government have accepted that it is desirable to allow such evidence and they have charged the same group of people, with just one change, to oversee work by civil servants to try to bring that about. I am engaged in that work.
I have to say that it is still not clear to me how Ministers can be assured that the tests set out by the Chilcot group, of which I am a member, are fully satisfied in respect of the use of intercept evidence under the procedures in coroners' inquests. Some of the tests relate to the problems of retention and transcription that would arise if it were possible to use intercept material in criminal cases. The same problem can arise in the coroners' courts.
The Secretary of State drew attention to one difference that does not affect the retention and transcription issue, but does affect issues about revealing certain matters. In a criminal prosecution, the prosecution can say that if it has to produce certain material, it cannot proceed, so the case goes no further, but that does not happen in an inquest. Conversely, the coroner is not going to say, "I am going to stop this inquest because the material I need cannot be made publicly available, so I will not have an inquest." That is almost the situation that we are in now.
In trying to find a solution, the Government are somewhere between a rock and a hard place, but we have to find one that is clearly confined to areas where the production of material could very seriously undermine the ability of intelligence agencies to protect the country's security and the safety of the people who work in it, and which meets the tests that have to be applied to those procedures if we are going to get intercept into court as evidence. The two points are quite closely related. What happens in an inquest may, of course, give rise to a criminal case if it becomes clear from that inquest that criminal proceedings should follow. In that case, the same evidence will be relevant, so we cannot separate the two.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, and I listened with care to what he said. On his immediate point, there are certain circumstances in which an inquest will be followed by a criminal prosecution, but the usual practice, as he will be aware, is the other way around. That particular issue thus rarely arises in practice. On the more general issue, I am grateful to him for recognising that we have not invented the problem that we are seeking to address by the Bill. He disagrees with the solution and he is right to describe the position in which I find myself as somewhere between a rock and a hard place. It is not his business or that of the official Opposition to make my position any more comfortable, but I would ask him—I know that he has a very constructive approach—to respond as constructively as he and his colleagues can to the invitation I offered the House, including the Opposition, earlier. If it is recognised that there is a problem, and it cannot be resolved in the way that criminal cases can, what is a better solution—there may well be one—than the one in the Bill?
As my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge said, we have taken one step forward by getting away from the idea of the Secretary of State simply appointing the coroner. That is a beneficial change. As my hon. Friend also said, we now need to separate having or not having a jury from the other issues to which this matter gives rise—they are not the same. This is still a difficult matter and we will probably achieve a solution that can be used only in very few cases, but there are only very few cases in which it will be appropriate to use such a procedure. In such cases, there are families who want the inquest to be completed and want closure, which is why we must look at this matter rather carefully.
I want to discuss the Information Commissioner. I am glad that we now have some idea of how much money will be available for data protection work—that is one of the things we asked for, and just before the debate started the Government sent me a letter about it—because our Committee's recommendation that we put an end to the absurd state of affairs whereby an individual Member of Parliament's data protection fee is £35, with the same fee applying to the entire Ministry of Justice, has been accepted. Clearly, that fee should be graded. It now will be, which will raise significant sums of money. Indeed, I now know that the Government intend that this should be a virtually self-financing process because of the graded fee.
We welcome the acceptance of that point, but we are concerned about the data-sharing powers in the Bill for reasons similar to the one that I have just mentioned in another context: they are very broad and the parliamentary procedures to which they will be subject are too limited to achieve the protection that most of us would want. The negative procedure is hopeless from that point of view and even the affirmative procedure, which is not normally open to amendment unless the statute makes that possible, will be inadequate if there is to be anything other than narrow applications of the idea of data sharing to areas where it is relevant and necessary.
On the broader point about data sharing, apart from its being considered illiberal, there is public concern about having little confidence that the data will stay exactly where they are supposed to be. Once data have been put out there, having been authorised to go to a third party, they might go to who knows where. We would have to be completely confident that those people's data sharing and data protection were watertight. That is where I would lose faith completely, because I do not think that any assurances that the Government could give us would mean that that was the case.
The hon. Lady is right to point out that all this takes place against a background of lack of confidence in the ability of organisations to look after data properly, so the more people who have them, the more there are to lose them in the ways that various bits of the Government have lost them.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge drew a distinction between public and private organisations in this context. I understand why he did so, but it is a difficult distinction to draw because the number of private organisations with a legitimate reason to handle Government data is quite large. A general practice in the health service is a private business. So, too, is a charity carrying out work on behalf of the Government. Therefore, there is no nice, neat line between the public and private sectors. There are even more bodies in which data can be lost.
The Committee is concerned—Alun Michael made the point—that when data sharing is necessary to protect the lives of the public, for example, we should not get to a situation whereby there is so little confidence that we cannot do it when we really need to do it, or a situation whereby assumptions about not sharing data are spread dangerously, as they were in the Soham case. The problem there was caused not by the law, but by a mistaken assumption, even within an organisation, about what the law was. We want a system in which people can have confidence, but in which there is appropriate provision for carefully monitored data sharing in circumstances in which the public would wish it to happen.
The point in relation to Soham is that the systems were the biggest problem because they were not designed for the sharing of data. Public perception was undermined as a lack of confidence in appropriate sharing was encouraged. Getting such coherence into the public debate is important, is it not?
Yes, it is indeed, but it will not be achieved if people believe that the Bill will further open the door to their data being scattered abroad. That is why the Bill must be improved, tightened and strengthened, if it can be. Some hon. Members have suggested that if that is not done, certain clauses should be withdrawn and brought back to the House. One way or another, that improvement has to be achieved.
I want briefly to mention the sentencing provisions. The working group on sentencing practice was divided as to precisely what role Parliament should have in the development of sentencing. There was objection—rightly, I think—to the idea of sentencing being precisely determined by Parliament, because that is not our role. Our role is indeed to provide a range of sentences and to decide what the criminal offences should be. Experience to date is that we can play a useful role in contributing to the development of sentencing guidelines in a process in which the judiciary has primary involvement, but in which others who are affected and have an interest also play a part. We need to continue that and I am glad that we have received some reassurance on the point, but the Bill is not entirely clear about it. I would wish the Justice Committee to continue to play its role.
I want to make one last point, which is personal and not a Committee point at all, or even a party one. It relates to clause 58, which removes the free speech protection that was added to the homophobic hatred provisions in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008. I simply put it this way: given that that legislation has not yet been brought into effect and we therefore have no experience of what its effect will be, we have no evidence that what was intended to be a free speech protection will in any way undermine the ability to prosecute the crime and the evil against which that part of the original legislation was directed.
If there were such evidence, or even clear indications that the ability to prosecute would be undermined, we ought to look at the provision again and word it better, but I believe deeply in free speech and I want to ensure that people who express views that are not threats or threatening are not caught by the legislation or by mistaken assumptions about what it does. I voted for the free speech provision in the first place. Nothing has happened in the meantime to make me change my view that there were indications of inappropriate actions potentially arising from the original wording and we have no evidence on which I should change my mind in that regard. Therefore, I will not support clause 58. We should see what the experience is before trying to change legislation that Parliament has already passed.
I shall certainly follow your advice on short speeches, Madam Deputy Speaker, although having listened to three hours of Front-Bench speeches, I feel confident that you would agree that droning on is not a monopoly of the Celts.
I was reluctant to join in the debate for fear of being dragooned into serving on the Public Bill Committee, but I have been quite excited by what I have heard. Clearly, according to some fantasists, the Bill is the greatest attack on democracy, human rights, constitutionalism, transparency and good governance since Charles I, so it must be worth going along—but please do not tell the Whips!
I really feel that what the Front Benchers were saying was an entertaining listen. The Opposition spokesman, Mr. Grieve, thought he was making an election speech, and some good points were obliterated by his descent into fantasy. However, he was the victim of one of the best put-downs I have heard in this place since I came here 35 years ago. One element of his rhetoric having been undermined, one wonders what proof there was behind the rest of it, and whether, if Members of Parliament had been here in good numbers, they might have punctured it all.
We heard some knockabout stuff, and now I feel that the Opposition have an opportunity—although the Opposition spokesman who delivered that ferocious speech is not present, and has not been since he made it. A colleague of mine came into the Chamber and asked whether there would be a vote. I said, "Of course. I've just heard the most ferocious speech imaginable," only to be profoundly disappointed by the fact that, despite that speech, the Conservatives are to sit on their hands, or go home for an early night.
The speech by David Howarth, representing the Liberal Democrats, could not have been described as ferocious by any stretch of the imagination, and it seemed that none of the other Members who had signed the amendment was present to support it. We could have an interesting time—but instead, in the limited time available to me I shall focus on a part of the Bill that I consider quite sensible.
I am sure that those who examine the Bill carefully enough will find an integrated theme, although I have not quite found it yet. Certainly the legislation relating to coroners has been a long time coming. Perhaps we should approach reform of the system—which has been glacially slow—from the perspective of reform of the coroner service. There have been endless inquiries and reports, excellent documents have been published by Select Committees, and specific inquiries were conducted after Shipman's near-genocidal activities. It cannot be said that there has not been an enormous amount of discussion and consultation on the part of the Bill that relates to the coroner service.
I see that the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield has returned. I welcome him back to the Chamber.
Much of what the Government have done in seeking to reform burial practice should be seen as part of the same process, because it indicates that there is a great desire to reform the system as a whole. The same applies to human rights legislation, and to a variety of other Government initiatives. We must not, of course, forget the enormous and sad input in relation to the activities of "Dr. Death", which at least compelled people to look afresh at possible solutions to problems raised by the way in which coroners operated.
I welcome the Bill. I am not an expert on the law relating to coroners and their work, but I chaired the Defence Committee for eight years and was a member of it for 25 years, and in that time I learnt a great deal about coroners in connection with the military. I also learnt a great deal when I conducted a study of Muslim burial practices, not just in my constituency but in 25 other local authority areas. I observed the integral role of the coroner in each of those systems.
Unfortunately, as we all know, standards vary. A coroner service that is well funded may provide a range of activities that are denied to coroners working without that excessive funding, or even a sufficiency of funding. I am sure that anyone who went along to talk to such coroners would realise what they are unable to do as a result of the paucity of funding. We know that local authorities are under enormous financial pressure, and the price of being able to ensure properly that the relatives or friends of the deceased know that the death was accidental, or a result of ageing or natural causes, is fairly high. Some local authorities are not prepared to pay that price. Perhaps they think that the dead do not vote—although, having observed elections throughout the world, I can assure Members that the dead are voting in enormous numbers, including some in inner-city areas in this country of ours. However, I will not pursue that further.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned local authority funding. Does he agree that an issue arises when funding is spread across two local authorities? Although my constituency is in Cardiff, the coroner is funded by Vale of Glamorgan council, which has far less interest in the matter because the vast majority of inquests are carried out on Cardiff residents. That serious imbalance underlines the right hon. Gentleman's point.
I appreciate that intervention enormously.
My constituency is in an area called the black country—although at least half my constituents would punch me on the nose if they heard me describe Walsall as the black country. Three boroughs are bound together with a single service provided by a coroner. The coroners used to be part-time, and I have spoken to some who feel that they were better resourced then because, being lawyers, they could use the services of their own law practices. In the absence of those resources, I do not think that—with the best will in the world—the merged coroner service can do the job that it is obliged to do.
I have looked carefully at the part of the Bill that deals with governance, and I approve of much of it. For instance, the chief coroner will be responsible for training arrangements, maintaining a scheme for the investigation of complaints and an appeal system, and producing an annual report. A coronial advisory council will be established. Those and other measures represent a great step forward, but I see a problem that reminds me of what I observed in the United States over the Christmas period, when I examined the activities of election organisations. I was able to talk to representatives of 13 such organisations, because there are no Boxing day breaks in the United States, or even Christmas eve breaks.
The position in the United States is almost exactly the same. Power rests more with the localities. Central Government—the federal Government—can pass legislation, but they are circumscribed by the tradition that things must be left to those in local government, which has a considerable downside, about which I shall say more shortly.
The Constitutional Affairs Committee and its successor, the Justice Committee, have done an excellent job over the years. The Committee's 2006 report criticises the lack of funding and is damning in its criticism of the system as a whole, and I can reinforce what it said.
A couple of years ago, the father of one of my constituents died, and he had wanted to be buried back in Pakistan. I remember the difficulty that I had to endure, and the time it took me to obtain a decision, or information, from the coroner. It was not his fault, but he was not available—and this was a Member of Parliament trying to elicit information from the system! That showed me more clearly than anything that the coroner system needed more funds.
At one time there was talk of named deputies in various locations, but not much has happened on that front in my area. The underlying obstacles include the lack of priority given to the service by many local authorities. They are not prepared to increase funding to enhance services, yet there is a much higher expectation of improvement in the service, not just among the general public but in central Government and in Parliament itself. What is required, in my view, is the imposition of, or heavy persuasion to adopt, more uniformity in the system. Why should someone in my area, or in Sandwell or Dudley, receive a lesser service than people living in the constituency of my hon. Friend Mr. Kidney or in Birmingham?
We should consider the number of staff who are engaged in the coroner service in Birmingham. Admittedly there are more deaths per year in Birmingham: 4,600, as opposed to 3,600 in the black country. However, Birmingham had nine officers—now it has eight—along with a host of administrative staff, while the black country has six officers and one administrative staff member. It is not fair that the service in the black country should have its hands tied by being so grossly understaffed.
I am sure that local authorities will be angered by what I am saying, but I represent my constituents rather than the council leadership. I asked them to look into this more carefully. I believe that it is a question not just of paying the bills, but of paying enough to the coroner service so that it can benefit my constituents by being able to provide a more professional service than it can currently offer. It is good, but it could be much better if it got more resources. In many parts of the country, the coroner service needs to be considerably enhanced. The constraints upon the poorer ones are debilitating, making them less functional, and unable to provide a better service.
I asked a friend of mine who is more adept at maths than me to look at the budgets of the local authorities in my area, and at what they provided for the coroner service. My friend reached the conclusion that there had been no real increase in resources in the last 25 years. This proposed legislation will impose more tasks on the coroner service, but will the money be increased? No, it certainly will not. I therefore say with absolute confidence that these inadequate resources in the black country have had a marked effect on the level of service the coroner service can provide, and we should not tolerate that for much longer. I recognise that there are considerable financial constraints upon local authorities, but I would have thought that they would put funding an adequate coroner service far higher up their list of priorities.
I mentioned earlier that I produced a long report on Muslim burial practices. Clearly, there are groups in our constituencies who practise different religions and have very different burial practices. Those who are Catholic or Protestant might be perfectly happy with a period of five or six days—they might consider that to be ample time to say farewell to the deceased—but for those who are Jewish, Hindu or Muslim, the time scale is very different. In our society, we have an obligation to ensure that the human rights of all groups are properly respected. Local authorities should provide a service that does that—and many do. They can solve the problem of providing a burial service 365 days a year.
If there is any doubt about a death, the investigation of that must, of course, take as long as is necessary, but if there is no doubt about the death, things can be speeded up. There are many in the chain—the local authority, the registrar, the gravediggers, the hospital, the health service, the doctors—who could, if they wished, do as Leicester is doing and expedite the system by which the dead can be legitimately buried, in compliance with the law and the religion of those concerned. However, that is not the case in some authorities, including mine in Walsall, although it is under pressure—partly because of my report, I would like to think—to do what other authorities are doing.
Unnecessary post-mortems are a key factor in some such delays. That also affects groups who have a philosophical objection to post-mortem examination. That has to be overridden if there are serious grounds for doing that, but sometimes it is felt that post-mortems are routinely carried out when they are not necessary.
I have talked at length to the Muslim burial society in my constituency, and wonderful organisations in many other parts of the country who have responded to my surveys, and I know that none of them would want to make it difficult for the coroner, if he or she has to do their work. In the circumstances described, they would have to wait, but I would hope that where there is no problem, local authorities of any size would be prepared to expedite the system. That is how we should proceed, but it might be prevented by the underfunding of the coroner service, because if there are too few people and too many bodies to deal with, it will be impossible for it to provide the necessary paperwork and examinations quickly enough for a swift burial.
I can send Members a copy of the report I have mentioned, if they want a long read. However, I should say that there can be difficulties, even with the best will in the world. I know the coroner in the black country is more than aware of the requirements of Muslims, but at this stage he is unable to meet those requirements because he simply does not have adequate resources. I hope, therefore, that when the Bill is considered further, we do not consider only the issues that are politically contentious. As a number of Members have pointed out, issues relating to the coroner service might not be considered as important as some feel the other areas that we have heard discussed are—but everyone has an interest in our having an effective coroner service, and the Government might be able to do the necessary research to find out who the laggards are, and whose standards fall below an acceptable minimum. If the new system that the Bill will create cannot force higher standards on the laggards, we will wonder whether the Government's commitment to voluntarism represents the right course to follow.
The entrusting of information by an individual to the Government is an act of trust. It imposes upon the receiver of the information a solemn obligation of confidence. For many years, Government have observed that as an essential and cardinal principle of their activities in the maintenance of that trust. Mr. George argues against those who take the view that the dismantling or relegation of that principle—which in my judgment this Bill is designed to do—will be an important retrograde step in the public life of this country, and he accuses us of over-dramatising or of unnecessary or gratuitous histrionics. When we remove from a wall a single brick, it is easy to stand around and say, "Look, the wall has not fallen." Even if we remove from that wall one of its most important cornerstones, the wall will continue to stand for quite some time, and those who stand around can mock and say, "See, the wall remains standing." However, the relegation of a principle upon which the freedoms, privacy and confidentiality of individual citizens have been based for so many years is an important step even if its consequences may not be visible straight away.
I believe that the Government have a solemn duty not to apply information that has been entrusted to the state for one reason to another purpose, unless, perhaps, the most compelling circumstances dictate that—circumstances that are so compelling that any reasonable citizen would be obliged to say, "Well, when I entrusted my information, yes, I expected the Government to keep it confidential and to use it only for the purpose stated, but I am driven inescapably to the conclusion that for the Government to use it this other way is a rational and necessary step." I have no doubt that the Government and the Minister will argue that the safeguards in place require that kind of test, but I am not sure that they do.
I know that dozens of my constituents and many hundreds of others who have written to Members from all parts of this House are equally distrustful of the Government's intentions in this respect. That is not because they believe the Government are doing this for a malign purpose, nor because they do not believe that the Government have a perfectly legitimate function and perfectly legitimate enhancements of public services in mind, but because when one replaces a governing principle with a pragmatic assessment and a balancing exercise in respect of what is important, one suddenly and fundamentally changes the balance, culture and protections that the citizen enjoys within government.
One hon. Member said—I am afraid I forget who it was—that this was a question of changing the culture. To take away a principle as important as this and replace it with a series of so-called safeguards and a practical or pragmatic balance of assessment of the functionality and utility of deciding to disclose other people's information for another purpose is to deprive the citizen and the individual of a crucial protection. I agree with those on both sides of the House who have expressed caution about the step that we are about to take. The accumulation and pooling of knowledge and information about an individual by the Government, as happens in so many various ways—in respect of health, for the purposes of tax and for the purposes of social security—present a mighty tool in the hands of the state. I do not believe that the Bill achieves a sensible balance or a sufficient protection for the individual in that respect.
I welcome many of the provisions on coroners. I, like Members on both sides of the House, have had families who have been caught up in the tragic death of a loved one—a son, a daughter or another close member of the family—coming to my weekly surgeries. We have heard the constant refrain that they do not feel that there has always been the kind of liaison, disclosure of information and involvement of them in the process that allows them to feel easy in their minds that the process is transparent and that it allows them sufficient involvement. So I welcome the charter for bereaved people, which is a substantial step in the right direction. I understand that there are concerns that it might be a toothless tiger if it is not backed up by the resources and finances to provide the relevant services in all areas of the country, but it represents a significant and useful step. If it is clearly enough expressed, it will be useful for those families who have experienced the kind of grief and involvement with the inquest system that I have come across in my surgeries.
That brings me to an area of the Bill on which I have most experience and, in connection with my professional occupation, most practical involvement: the changes that the Bill seeks to achieve in the criminal law. If the Bill could be analysed in terms of the numbers of its provisions, it would be found to amount to another criminal justice Bill. One cannot even say it is a mini criminal justice Bill, because, by the standards of previous years, its provisions would have graced a full-sized Bill all by themselves.
The Bill seeks to make a number of changes to the law. It is worth observing that we have had one criminal justice Bill after another during the lifetime of this Government, and hon. Members on both sides of the House will fairly concede that those have not all been tremendous successes. Indeed, dozens if not hundreds of provisions from those Acts, as they have become, have not even been brought into force, yet we face even more changes in the criminal law.
The worst and primary change that the Bill seeks to make is one to the law of homicide. The proposed reforms adopt the Law Commission's proposals for changes to the partial defence of provocation, but its proposals were to be part of an overall and comprehensive reform of the law of homicide. It proposed that there should be first-degree and second-degree murder, and that first-degree murder would cover the most serious cases, where there was an intention to kill, and that second-degree murder would be where a person had an intention to commit serious harm but where there may not have been an intention to kill. In dividing murder into first-degree and second-degree murder, it made sense to review the partial defences to murder, which provocation and diminished responsibility represent. It is only those changes into first-degree and second-degree murder that made sense of and justified the re-examination of the defence of provocation and the narrowing of its scope.
The Government appear to have plucked from the Law Commission's careful, detailed and comprehensive review of the law of homicide a part of it that was only made sense of by the context that the Law Commission gave it and simply introduced it in a fragmented and piecemeal way in this Bill. The objections to that approach are clear: the narrowing of the partial defence of provocation makes no sense if we retain the single offence of murder with a mandatory life sentence, which is what the Government propose. Such an approach will mean that a great number of people to whom the defence or partial defence would have been available—David Howarth made this point well—will be affected by unintentional consequences; it might mean that many more will be convicted, and that those who are may not be those whom this House would wish to be.
I wish to say a word about the exclusion of sexual infidelity as a type of conduct that can trigger the partial defence, because it makes no real sense. Why should one exclude a form of human conduct that all literature and all human experience teaches us excites the greatest feelings of injustice and hurt that human life can sometimes produce? Why is it necessary, when defining the provocation of partial defence as something of grave circumstances that brings about a sense of serious wrong, to exclude the fact that, in certain circumstances at least, sexual infidelity can produce just such a sense of grievous hurt and wrong? It can be an appalling type of betrayal, so it makes no sense for that to be excluded.
It would have been a genuinely imaginative and bold step if the Government had taken on board the Law Commission's proposals on the reform of homicide law generally and introduced those proposals—or something very like them—together with these partial defences and their revision as part of a comprehensive reform. That is why one feels a considerable sense of unease about this Bill. In parts, it contains some positive and constructive measures, such as the charter for bereaved people and many of the changes to the coroners system. However, the provisions on the criminal law appear to have been tacked on for reasons possibly of expedience or, as the hon. Member for Cambridge suggested, to be seen to be doing something about a topical problem. That is not the way in which the criminal law should be changed. That is why my hon. and learned Friend Mr. Grieve was right to say that the Conservative party should approach the Bill with considerable caution. I hope that in Committee—I hasten to add that this is not an invitation to appoint me to it—many of these issues can be considered, especially the criminal law provisions that have not been adequately thought through.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate. We have had some well informed comments on a wide ranging piece of legislation. I intend to concentrate on the areas of the Bill that refer to coroners' courts. I share the welcome that the Bill has received from those who have had direct experience of the coroner system, whether as a member of a bereaved family, a legal practitioner, a court reporter or one of the thousands of people who work in the system and who do their best. The latter have shared the frustrations and distress caused by a system that is almost universally regarded as—in that hackneyed phrase—not fit for purpose.
The 200 patients murdered by Dr. Harold Shipman, the conviction of Beverley Allitt for the murder of four children in her care, the Bowbelle/Marchioness disaster, the rulings by the European Court of Human Rights on so-called shoot-to-kill deaths in Northern Ireland, and the Hillsborough disaster, which was mentioned by my right hon. Friend Mr. Howarth, all contribute to the view that the procedures in place to investigate shocking or controversial deaths have proved woefully inadequate. The coroners' courts system dates back hundreds of years. It is time for change.
In 2001, Tom Luce was asked to head a fundamental review of coroner services, and his 2003 report serves us well. He found the systems in England, Wales and Northern Ireland for the certification of most deaths by doctors and the investigation of others by coroners had been
"seriously neglected over many decades".
The systems, he said
"must undergo radical change if they are to become fit for the purposes of a modern society and capable of meeting future challenges."
He highlighted two essential changes above all others:
"One is to restore public confidence in the protection afforded by the death certification process. The other is to improve the response of the coroner service to families."
I believe that the Bill will mark a step change towards achieving those improvements. While I regret that it has not proved possible to create a national coroner service, the proposal to appoint a chief coroner to provide leadership and set standards is a critical development in the direction of constructing a thoroughly modern and professional service.
However, the Bill is not, nor can it be, the end of the story. Measures already introduced outside the structure of the Bill signal the Government's commitment to the process of change. The amendment, in July last year, of coroners' rule 43 underlines the requirement for the coroner to take steps to prevent future deaths. At the same time, the introduction of rule 57A gives guidance on the supply of information on deaths, reflecting the concern to provide additional protection for the rights of the child. Advance publication of the excellent draft charter for bereaved families speaks volumes for the focus of the process.
Thorough consultation with service users, victims' groups and non-governmental organisations such as Inquest has been a vital part of this process so far. I would like the Minister to confirm that she will investigate structures to formalise this involvement, especially in the further development of rules and training programmes. I would also like to learn more about measures that can be taken to address gender and race equality issues in the service so that the public face of the coroners' system may reflect the diversity of the community it serves. Change must continue.
While I welcome the message of this Bill, I also want to sound some notes of caution. The all-party parliamentary group on army deaths, which I am proud to chair, seeks to give voice to the concerns of bereaved service families who feel that bullying and institutional abuse continue to go unchallenged and suspicious deaths are still not investigated effectively. Families believe that the problems at Deepcut barracks were the tip of the iceberg.
In the matter of effective investigation, those concerned with the ill treatment of recruits in training establishments have found common cause with victims of suspicious deaths overseas. Too often, it seems, lessons could have been learned and deaths could have been prevented. Bereaved families are angry that action has not been taken despite warnings, whether the problem was heat exertion, "friendly fire", lack of equipment or adequate protection of personnel. This community of victims is a critical audience to win over to create public confidence in a reformed coroners' system. The Royal British Legion and the War Widows Association have listened to bereaved families and share many reservations about the proposals before us.
Let me express some of those reservations and concerns. First is the issue of secret inquests. I spoke against those proposals when they were put forward in the context of the Counter-Terrorism Bill and recognise that the Government have responded positively to criticism. Ministers have brought forward considerably modified proposals. Nevertheless, the Bill before us still gives the Secretary of State power to certify investigations to be held without the public, without the jury and without the involvement of the family of the deceased. I regret that it may not be possible to dislodge the perception that crucial evidence will be heard behind closed doors. While the grounds for certification are more carefully defined, the Bill still seems to suggest that the objection of another country and diplomatic relations will be placed above the need of a grieving family to find the truth.
The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission has drawn attention to the weight placed by the European Court of Human Rights upon the role of the bereaved family in defining standards for the protection of life. One expert has said:
"The Court views the protection of the legitimate interests of the next-of-kin as a driving aspect to the workings of all accountability mechanisms."
The changes brought forward so far owe much to the positive input from professionals working in the service, including the Coroners' Society. The Secretary of State asked for suggestions about how we can bring forward measures to deal with the difficulty that everybody acknowledges in terms of safeguarding the security of the country while meeting the need for clarity in the process. It has been argued by inquests and others that further refinements of the regulation of investigatory powers legislation might provide the necessary safeguards for witness safety and national security. We should certainly continue to search for positive solutions to difficult problems.
Secondly, let me turn to the circumstances in which an inquest must be held with a jury. Legal representations of bereaved service families argue convincingly that the investigation of a sudden death in a military establishment must be subject to the same protection as a death in prison or in a police station. Issues of isolation, vulnerability, potential abuse of authority, access to weaponry, military codes of silence and confinement in barracks all speak of the dangers of military life and the requirement for additional protection. Again, the issue of public confidence in serving the interests of bereaved families must be paramount.
Thirdly, on the matter of legal representations for bereaved families, no one would question the model of the inquisitorial regime in coroners' courts, but an investigation that throws up an article 2 issue—one that concerns the protection of life—in the case of a death in an army training establishment or on military service overseas is all too often met with a response from the Ministry of Defence that is judged by families as giving that Department all the protection. Well-paid barristers represent the MOD in court, while the families cannot gain similar representation to support them in trying to obtain justice and truth.
The father of Corporal Jason Pears, who died in barracks in Germany in 2002, spent a large part of his life savings on legal representation at an inquest that reached a verdict of unlawful killing. The family of my constituent, Lance Corporal Derek McGregor, who took his life in disputed circumstances at Catterick barracks, suffered a delay of five years before the inquest was finally concluded. The father came to me to ask for help with legal representation. Those families deserve legal representation when the MOD has barristers in court to represent it. I urge the Minister to consider what steps may be taken in future to assure bereaved service families that their voices and interests will be effectively represented and heard.
Fourthly, I want to comment on the transfer of jurisdiction. Bereaved relatives have welcomed the removal of barriers that have prevented inquests from being held somewhere accessible to their extended family and friends. I know that there are discussions with the Scottish Government about extending the role of fatal accident inquiries to investigate a military death overseas, but families are also concerned that the body of expertise built up by the Oxfordshire and Wiltshire coroners in particular should not be dissipated. The coroners in those two jurisdictions have established centres of excellence that are unmatched in Europe. Their courage has won the admiration of all who have served in their courts and inspired coronial staff to 100 per cent. commitment to the needs of the bereaved. I hope that the Minister will assure me that that expertise will be shared in the new coroner system so that families can be reassured that their needs are being addressed.
I applaud the Government for their commitment to change and praise the work of all who have contributed to the Bill. I urge Ministers to listen to the voices of veterans' groups and victims. Deaths of military personnel will always be devastating to the families but they should at least be reassured that each death will be investigated openly and effectively and that where lessons may be learned, they will be acted on.
Order. We have a little more than an hour to go before we embark on the wind-ups. May I urge hon. Members to modify their speeches if they can to allow as many people as possible to get in?
As David Howarth mentioned earlier, this is a Second Reading debate and we would normally deal with the broad thrust of the Bill, but as the Bill has been put together from 27 different varieties of provision, it is very difficult to do that. We have to look at its individual parts. I welcome some parts of the Bill: the idea of intercept evidence being introduced; the anonymity of witnesses during investigations; the charter for the bereaved; the provisions regarding child pornography; the idea that coroners will be better trained and inspected in the future; and the coroners appeal system. Some years ago, I was a deputy coroner and I saw then that, as in every walk of life, there are good coroners and those who are not quite so good. The ones who were not so good had a devastating effect on families, because they sometimes dealt with inquests in such an insensitive way.
Interestingly, there was a reference in the Gracious Speech to a Bill designed to improve the coroner service by introducing transparency into the system. However, clause 5 of this Bill prevents a senior coroner or an inquest jury from expressing any opinion on any matter other than the basic details of who the deceased was. I cannot square that with an attempt to introduce greater transparency. Moreover, inquests that come under article 2 of the European convention on human rights may say only what circumstances surrounded the death.
I do not know why that proposal has been put forward. It may be the result of the outspoken and rather brave comments made by the Oxfordshire coroner, in particular about the lack of co-operation by American forces in respect of the inquest into a friendly fire incident that he dealt with last year. However, it is important that coroners are able to speak out, because they often raise matters of important public interest, such as the neglect of consumer or workplace safety by a well-known company or a public authority's failure in its duty of care. Another example might be the actions or errors that lead to a person meeting their death in custody, while serving in the armed forces or while in contact with the police. Those matters are very important and things are much improved when they are subject to the glare of publicity; they should not be shuffled into a corner, with people who would speak about them gagged. I am very concerned about that aspect of the Bill.
The question of the so-called secret inquests has rightly engaged several contributors to the debate. The provision was brought forward first in the Bill that became the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008, although it disappeared thanks to the opposition that it attracted. I regret to say that the provision's effect means that, in any case in which the state might be alleged to be responsible for a person's death—for example, the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes, or the death of Baha Mousa at the hands of British soldiers in Basra—the Secretary of State will feel free to appoint a coroner, who will sit in closed session and without a jury. That can happen whenever the Secretary of State is satisfied that it is in the public interest, given the sensitive nature of the material likely to be considered.
That is a retrograde step and there must be a way around this conundrum. I appreciate that there will be times when sensitive information will be disclosed, but surely we can devise a better system than what is being proposed. The Bill will undermine public confidence in the coroners' system, because people out there will think that there must be something to hide if an inquest is held in secret. That will be the reaction when it is decided that a matter should be dealt with in private.
There was a discussion earlier about the use of public interest immunity certificates, which the Secretary of State said would not work. However, that approach routinely works in many criminal cases, and I do not know why it cannot be adapted so that it works properly when delicate matters are discussed in inquests. There should be no need to rule that such inquests should sit in secret. The involvement of the Lord Chief Justice in the selection of the judge does not ameliorate the unfairness that could be caused by the exclusion of a jury, members of the public and next of kin.
I feel very deeply that that is a flawed suggestion. I believe that the Government have overestimated the extent to which the European Court of Human Rights would allow the wholesale exclusion of public and next of kin from inquest proceedings for the sake of some "substantial public interest" in the non-disclosure of sensitive material. In the case of Rowe and Davis v. the United Kingdom, the Court said that, in the context of criminal proceedings, the entitlement to disclosure of relevant evidence was not absolute, but it never suggested that it would be appropriate to exclude the jury altogether for the sake of safeguarding the public interest in non-disclosure. So there are problems ahead; there is the question of article 2; and I have no doubt that there will be challenges to the Bill if it reaches the statute book in its current form.
I should like to deal briefly with the anonymity of witnesses. Although I appreciate that that is sometimes necessary, especially in the investigative process, I believe that a defendant has a right to know the identity of a witness against him or her in any criminal proceedings. That is vital, as both a common law principle and a constituent part of the right to a fair trial under article 6, which provides for the minimum right of a defendant
"to examine or have examined witnesses against him" in criminal cases.
The Court of Appeal has made it clear in the recent case of Mayers in relation to criminal evidence that, in its opinion:
"Notwithstanding the abolition of the common law rules, it is abundantly clear from the provisions of the Act as a whole that, save in the exceptional circumstances permitted by the Act, the ancient principle that the defendant is entitled to know the identity of witnesses who incriminate him is maintained."
Therefore, there is a legitimate concern, because people who give evidence sometimes do so for reasons other than honesty and public duty. That was shown in the recent Davis case, on which the Law Lords decided.
Iain Davis was convicted of murder, following the fatal shooting of two men in east London. The sole or decisive evidence against Davis was the testimony of three witnesses who identified him as the gunman but feared for their lives if it became known that they had given evidence. Davis believed that the witnesses were part of corrupt plot to implicate him in the murder, led by his ex-girlfriend and motivated by revenge. Davis's lawyers were, however, unable to pursue that argument during the trial, because the judge allowed the witnesses to testify under pseudonyms, with all particulars of their identity withheld from the defence. Furthermore, while cross-examining the witnesses, Davis's lawyers were not permitted to put to them any question that might enable them to be identified. They could not ask who the witnesses were, where they lived or the nature of their relationship with Davis. The House of Lords decided that, in such circumstances, the degree of anonymity rendered the trial unfair. That is a real case; that is a real concern. I hope that we will not make bad law that leads to an undermining of the whole system that the Bill is meant to attempt to improve.
I have flagged up a few of my concerns; other Members wish to speak; and I will draw my comments to a close. However, I am concerned that there are very good parts of the Bill, but those matters to which I have referred are of grave concern to many Opposition Members.
One of my interests in the House is road safety. I served on the Committee that considered the Bill that became the Road Safety Act 2006, and I cannot understand why we did not deal with the driving ban issue when that Bill was passing through Parliament. However, I strongly welcome the fact that, when the Bill is enacted, anyone banned from driving who has to serve a prison sentence cannot serve that ban while sitting in prison with no access to a vehicle. It has always been my belief and that of most of the public that those people should serve the ban when it hurts them most: outside prison. That is one of the things that I welcome in the Bill.
The second thing that I want to say about the Bill is that I have never understood why criminals—some of whom have committed extremely heinous crimes, such as dreadful murders—can benefit financially from writing their memoirs. The Bill will for the first time prevent that from happening, although we are not preventing them from writing their memoirs. Indeed, I dare say that forensic psychologists would welcome some thinking from people who have committed such heinous crimes.
Let me turn to the subject of suicide and assisted suicide. I have taken an interest in the issue because of a firm in my constituency called Zentek. It has three divisions, one of which is e-safe education. Having carried out detailed, forensic analysis of the way in which young people access the internet in scores of schools across north England, Zentek has found out that the filters in place are well nigh useless at preventing people from getting on to some of the most dreadful websites. Obviously, pornography constitutes most of the difficult material that students access. Even members of staff have been caught using school computers to access some pretty dreadful websites. All that a person has to do is google their way round on a public access site, scores of which are available, and within seconds they can be on any internet site in the world.
Zentek has found a system that will read, through the keyboard, what the student is doing. If the student is trying to access difficult sites such as pornographic websites, a black hand will appear, and a message will say, "You really shouldn't be accessing this site, and if you continue, you will have the weight of the authorities come down on you, starting with the head teacher."
Sadly, some of those students access sites that tell people how to commit suicide. Zentek has forensically analysed those sites, and it found that quite a number of students—not an excessive number, but worrying numbers—are dealing with websites that tell people how to commit suicide. That is rather sad, in a way. I went to the meeting that my hon. Friend Mrs. Moon attended just last week on suicide websites. Even the Samaritans do not want suicide websites banned. Interestingly, a young woman was there from the website Bebo, which is used by many young people. When a young person tries to access a suicide website, a widget will pop up directing them to advice sites such as that of the Samaritans. That means that young people who have suicidal thoughts, or who have the curiosity to access those sites, can perhaps be pointed to safe sites such as the Samaritans' site. Perhaps those who are feeling suicidal may be encouraged to ring the Samaritans and discuss their problems with them. It would be an excellent idea if, when any person—not just young people—tried to access one of those sites, widgets appeared directing them to the Samaritans or some other voluntary organisation.
I would like to give my backing to Victim Support, which has written to us all to suggest that we encourage Ministers to allow victim support organisations to support witnesses in coroners' courts in the same way that they do in the normal court system. For many people, some perhaps already traumatised by the loss of a loved one, it is intimidating enough to have to go to a coroner's court and listen to what happened to their loved one and why they died. Sometimes other witnesses can intimidate those witnesses who have been caused a loss. I plead with our Ministers to consider allowing Victim Support to extend its area of operation beyond the normal courts to coroners' courts.
I welcome the provision in the Bill allowing bodies to be moved between jurisdictions, so that coroners' cases can be heard in the most suitable one. I cite an example that I am dealing with at the moment: a person was transferred, with some difficulty, from my local hospital to a second and then a third hospital, where, tragically, they died. That third hospital is outside the jurisdiction of our coroner—or so I believe; I have to check that fact. If it is outside our coroner's jurisdiction, it would seem sensible to allow the case to be heard in our local coroner's court. After all, most of the family live within shooting distance of that court, and all the person's medical records are kept locally, too. The provision for dealing with such cases is another beneficial aspect of the Bill.
Lastly, I flag up the fact that I am chair of the Care Not Killing alliance, which regards clauses 46 and 48 as extremely responsible and reasonable provisions. They define more clearly the offence of assistance with suicide, and they ensure that those who seek to promote the culture of suicide via the internet must pay attention to these clauses. There are some pretty dreadful people out there putting some pretty serious things on the internet.
I mentioned the suicide sites, but there are also people such as 61-year-old Australian Philip Nitschke, who almost preaches suicide to young and old alike. He has written "The Peaceful Pill Handbook", which is up there on a website. He promotes suicide through the use of carbon monoxide in his plastic exit bag, and he will even provide an exit bag. The website describes his COgen device, which stands for carbon monoxide generation device, and he even describes how to substitute helium for carbon monoxide. It is all there on the internet for access by young and old alike who know how to access such sites.
The Samaritans and other organisations do not want such sites banned, but I would like to see them banned. I know they will not be banned, but some of the very extreme sites put up by the gentleman whom I mentioned, who is often called the "Dr. Death" of Australia, ought to be restricted. I am convinced that some people who have no suicidal tendencies in their mind when they stumble on to those sites, which is not difficult to do, may begin to think about suicide, particularly if they are already distressed.
I welcome the Bill. It has 162 clauses and 21 schedules. It is an extremely weighty Bill and those who sit on the Public Bill Committee will have an awful lot of work to do. There are some very useful and difficult decisions to make, and I look forward to the outcome of the Committee's deliberations when the Bill returns on Report.
Dr. Iddon spoke a great deal of sense. I shall return to his speech in a moment, largely to agree with him, but to differ in detail with regard to suicide websites. He was right to say that the Bill is gigantic. It is a Christmas tree of a Bill, a sweepings off the factory floor of a Bill, a hotch-potch of a Bill. There are all sorts of things in it, and the notion that in a Second Reading debate one could speak in favour or against the principle of the Bill is nonsensical, because there is no such thing as a principle in the Bill as a whole. It is a mixture of good things and bad things. I strongly agree with Mr. Kidney that it would have been better if we were dealing only with a coroners Bill.
For the sake of brevity I shall not address myself to some of the more controversial issues, although I agree with the remarks of a number of my right hon. and hon. Friends and others across the Chamber, particularly on the transfer of data. My hon. and learned Friend Mr. Cox summed up what many people feel about that. It is a fundamental undermining of our rights as citizens, and extremely worrying. I hope we will oppose it in Committee and on Report and Third Reading.
Equally, I shall not deal at length with the excessively emotional topic of freedom of speech and the way we are seeking to stop homophobic hatred. Of course we all want to stop homophobic hatred. At the same time, however, I have some sympathy with Rowan Atkinson and certain Christian groups, for example, who feel that unless the Waddington amendment remains in the original Bill, they will be prevented from doing and saying perfectly legitimate and sensible things that in no sense incite people to murder or commit violence against homosexuals or others. I very much sympathise with such views and, like Sir Alan Beith, I have seen no change since the original Act to suggest that we ought to amend it further now.
I want to focus on two aspects of the Bill. The first—the question of military inquests—was expertly covered by Mrs. Humble. I entirely agree with her that the excellent coroner for Oxford and in particular the retiring coroner for Wiltshire, David Masters, have developed huge expertise due to the geographical accident that multiple inquests, when the bodies of a number of soldiers are repatriated to the United Kingdom, are carried out by the coroner in the place where the plane happens to land. At the moment, that place happens to be RAF Lyneham in my constituency.
The two coroners have built up extraordinary expertise about military activities of one sort or another. The Bill makes no reference to military inquests, but it seems to me that it could go two ways. On the one hand, it would be possible, I suppose, to dissipate that expertise by saying that the inquest should be carried out in the places where the soldiers originally came from. That would be a legitimate line to take, and to some degree it is happening already: when a single body is repatriated to this country, the inquest is indeed carried out by the local coroner.
My inclination, however, is to say that we should seek to maintain the expertise built up by those two coroners over the years and, in doing that, make sure that the council tax payers in Wiltshire and Oxfordshire are not disadvantaged by it. I welcome the extra resources that the Government have pumped into the Wiltshire coroner service in the past year or so. That must be continued if operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are to continue in years to come. If that huge burden is to be placed on the coroner in Wiltshire, resources have to follow it, and some formal structure has to be put in place to make sure that that occurs. Equally, it would be wrong if civilian inquests in Wiltshire were delayed in any way because of the large number of military inquests.
I also very much agree with the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood that on occasion it is important for there to be legal representation. In the case of the crash of Hercules XV179, it was strange that originally the only person who was to have legal representation on the state at the inquest was the Australian soldier killed in the flight; the Australian Government chose to pay for a barrister to represent him. Initially, the British Government refused to pay for such representation, although under pressure the Secretary of State made special provision and there was lead representation. If the Ministry of Defence is to have legal representation defending its position in the inquest, surely it is only right that the families of the soldiers involved should have equal representation, and that that should be paid for by legal aid. I hope that the Bill will be able to address that imbalance in respect of legal representation at military inquests.
The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed argued that I had got the third aspect of military inquests slightly wrong. I am concerned about the possible secrecy of inquests. It appears that the provisions of the Bill are intended to make sure that grave, secret cases affecting the national interest could be heard in secret. There will, of course, be occasions when that is worth doing. However, we are concerned that when there was implicit criticism of the state—as in two or three of the Oxfordshire coroner's recent inquests, for example—the state would somehow or other seek to keep it quiet. It would not want criticism of military defence or the military in general and would seek to use the national interest as an excuse for making the inquest secret. Such inquests, and others—those into prison deaths, for example—involve exactly the kind of cases in which the public have a right to know what went wrong.
The state should overcome its natural inclination to keep that kind of inquest secret, and ensure that it does not do so. The Secretary of State might like to think about ways of narrowing the definition of secret inquests. The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed reckons that these fears are misplaced; if so, let us see a narrowing of the parameters so that the secrecy aspect of inquests can apply only to a very few. The whole question of military inquests is worthy of further development in the Bill.
The second subject that concerns me greatly is suicide. I am pleased to serve on the all-party group on suicide prevention and to have a close relationship with the organisation Papyrus, which represents the parents of the 38 people so far who have committed suicide using the disgraceful sites on the web, which really are extraordinarily bad. This afternoon, I googled "How to kill yourself", and the sort of stuff that came tumbling out was simply appalling, describing how to tie the piano wire around one's neck and how it is better to shoot or poison oneself in a river because one stands a better chance of success. Some of these sites not only describe how to do it but encourage people to do it, saying, "Oh, you're a bit depressed, well here's how to end it all." They are absolutely disgraceful.
In a civilised society such as ours we cannot allow that to continue, and there was a debate about how to set about the task in a meeting of the all-party group the other day. The hon. Member for Bolton, South-East correctly said that the Samaritans, among others, have reservations, because banning anything with the word "suicide" in it would by definition ban the Samaritans site, which we cannot do. However, it should not be all that difficult to analyse the dozen or 20 really wicked, vicious, nasty sites and find ways of banning them and having them taken down. The excellent report recently commissioned by the Government agreed that that was a worthwhile thing to try to do. Australia and Japan have, with greater or lesser degrees of success, found ways of achieving exactly that.
One of the problems with the clauses regarding internet-assisted suicide is that most of the sites come from overseas. It is fine to outlaw people who write these sites and threaten them with a 14-year prison sentence when they are based in the UK, but most of them are from elsewhere. The Government should consider whether extradition might be possible for some of these people. I put that forward as an idea; I am by no means recommending it. When people around the world are sending material into the UK designed to encourage our teenagers to kill themselves, surely there is an argument to say that we could enter into discussions with other nation states about possible extradition treaties so that these wicked people could be brought to justice here, even if writing such sites is not a crime in their countries. I hope that the example of the Bill may be followed by some other countries around the world, including America and in the European Union, so that this might be increasingly an international crime.
The other matter that the Bill needs to address is what we can do to allow and encourage the internet service providers to take these sites down, because at the moment it is extremely difficult for them to do that. The Bill makes no reference to ISPs. We should find a way of saying to them, "These things are wicked; we as a nation and as a Parliament deplore them. If they were written in this country they would be outlawed and the people involved would go to prison for 14 years. We require you, as ISPs, to take them down, get them stopped, block them and finish them." I do not know how to do that because I do not know enough about computers, but they are a blot on our society and they must be dealt with.
I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not, as two or three other people want to speak and he spoke for quite a long time earlier.
The sites I am referring to are disgraceful. The Bill is our opportunity to get them stopped, and I hope that the Government will exercise themselves in finding a way to do just that.
This is a bit of a curate's egg of a Bill, but I support most of it. A great deal of strengthening should be done in the two areas of military inquests and suicide websites, and I hope that the Government will do that in Committee.
I will confine my remarks to issues that the Joint Committee on Human Rights has already reported on. We will be carrying out a detailed scrutiny of the Bill, and many aspects are of interest, but I could not possibly do them all justice today.
I should like to start with the question of coroners and inquests. There is much to be welcomed in that respect. I know from my own work when I was in practice, when I sat through far too many inquests representing bereaved families, how overdue some of these reforms are. My hon. Friend Mr. Kidney outlined a lot of the positive developments in that respect.
On jury trials, the list of cases requiring a jury in clause 7 is a little short. It ought to include deaths resulting from acts or omissions of other public bodies, such as mental health institutions when a voluntary patient dies. Military inquests have already been dealt with in the debate. My main concern is secret inquests, and the House will know that I tabled a series of amendments when the issue arose regarding the Counter-Terrorism Bill, ultimately leading to the Government withdrawing their proposals. Now, those proposals have returned with relatively little modification.
The starting point must be article 2 of the European convention on human rights as tested in Jordan v. United Kingdom, which set out the positive obligation of a state to provide adequate, effective investigation when an individual is killed as a result of the use of force, particularly when the force was used by state agents. The investigation should be instituted on the initiative of the state, the person conducting it must be independent from those implicated and there should be sufficient public scrutiny to secure accountability in practice as well as in theory. The next of kin must be involved to the extent necessary to protect their legitimate interests, and the investigation must be prompt and proceed with reasonable expedition. My concern is that the new proposal will not achieve that.
A certification could be allowed in the interests of national security or of relations between the UK and another country. A new provision is that it could be allowed in the interests of preventing or detecting crime or of protecting witnesses or other persons. As a catch-all, it could be allowed for reasons otherwise in the public interest. The effect, of course, will be having no jury. I am pleased that the Government have accepted one of the amendments that I tabled to the Counter-Terrorism Bill, suggesting that the Lord Chief Justice should appoint a High Court judge as the coroner, but that is about as far as it goes.
The problem is that the proposals will apply to exactly the sort of cases that, above all others, should have the breath of fresh air from the open window of transparency blowing through them. The most serious and contentious arise when the state or a foreign Government are implicated. We have heard about the de Menezes case and the deaths of service personnel, and the Royal British Legion has mentioned friendly fire incidents. There are cases involving soldiers in training, such as at Deepcut, which my hon. Friend Mrs. Humble mentioned, and deaths at the hands of foreign Governments' torturers or security services. In the Mubarek case, when a young man died in Feltham, an inquiry was resisted tooth and nail until the Government were ordered to hold one. Exactly the sort of cases that should be held in the open run the risk of being held in secret. We do not have criminal trials without juries in terrorism, national security or espionage cases, so why do we need such inquests without them?
I believe that the Government have misinterpreted the requirements of article 2 and its case law. They are arguing for a counsel of perfection. Article 2 does not require an absolute finding of fact using every last scrap of evidence. Inquests do not operate to the criminal standard of proof beyond all reasonable doubt. What is required is an adequate and effective inquiry that is independent, constitutes public scrutiny and involves the next of kin. The system will not give the public confidence that lessons have been learned. Equally importantly, if not more so, it will not give closure to relatives if they and their lawyers of choice are excluded. It is sometimes difficult for relatives to get closure even under the existing arrangements, and it may well be difficult under the reformed arrangements. Are relatives seriously expected to take the specially appointed coroner's word for what happened to their loved one? A jury is an essential part of the closure process.
Aside from the fact that the coroner will be not just any old coroner but a High Court judge, does my hon. Friend accept that a consequence of what he suggests is that some relevant evidence could not be put before a jury?
That may be necessary. The question is whether there can still be an adequate and effective investigation without that last piece of evidence. That evidence may not be necessary, but we have the system of public interest immunity certificates and the Government can persuade the coroner to withhold sensitive material. Both those provisions were upheld in two cases against the UK, those of Jordan and McCann. It has been stated that those restrictions are compatible in principle.
Another concern is that under clause 29, the new inspection arrangements will be excluded from investigating inquests such as I have mentioned, as inspectors cannot be present when people are excluded under subsections (3) or (4) of clause 34, which specify the direct exclusion of persons. That is a serious matter.
I want briefly to consider data protection, about which the Joint Committee on Human Rights has made many recommendations over the years. I welcome the provisions for spot checks of public bodies, the tougher powers for the Information Commissioner and the proposed code of practice. Our approach, which is set out in numerous reports, is that, when there is a demonstrable need to permit data sharing, the Government's intentions should be clearly set out in primary legislation, including the necessary safeguards, to enable proper scrutiny. Secondary legislation cannot be amended and cannot improve or question the safeguards.
Article 8 of the European convention on human rights contains the right to private life provisions, and I am concerned about clause 152 on information sharing. It is difficult to imagine a provision that would contradict more the basic views of the JCHR and—more important —the requirements of the Human Rights Act 1998 and the European convention on human rights. It is too broad and unspecific; no safeguards are specified.
The Bill contains a power to amend by secondary legislation any Act of Parliament—the Data Protection Act 1998, the Human Rights Act and, presumably, the new safeguards in the Bill. We should at least have provisions such as those in the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 to exempt from amendment by such a process those Acts and the Bill's additional safeguards.
The data-sharing provisions allow the Secretary of State to permit any person, department or company to share information, including personal information, about anyone if that serves a Government policy objective. They are not restricted to Departments, to the original reason for obtaining the data, or to a statutory duty or power. The provisions would cover all personal data, including ethnicity, credit history, medical records, DNA, tenancy records and tax and benefit records. A general, blanket discretionary power is not proportionate or necessary and does not justify departure from article 8. No legitimate purpose is specified—it remains an open question.
To depart from article 8, there must be a legitimate purpose. Departure must be proportionate and necessary. I am interested to learn the Government's justification in anticipation of the very long letter that I expect to write on behalf of the JCHR, which will pose those questions in more detail than I have time to set out today.
My last point is about witness anonymity. We debated it at length previously and I do not want to go over the old points that were made during the discussions on the emergency legislation, save for one. The Government promised to come back on the recommendations about independent counsel that my Committee made for the 50 or so so-called civilian cases in which credibility is an issue. One suggestion was for a voir dire process. Why have the Government decided not to proceed further with that? My Committee may wish to return to the matter, and it would be helpful to have an explanation now, if there is one, of the reason for not addressing that. The recommendations would provide a basic safeguard in the 50 or so cases involved, allow trials to proceed with greater confidence and enable the interests of justice to be more adequately served.
I have flagged up a few items on behalf of the JCHR, to which I suspect we will come back: secret inquests in particular; data protection, which is fundamental, and witness anonymity.
I want to confine my comments to the provisions on coroners, and to refer to the Data Protection Act 1998. I agree with many points that Mr. Dismore made about the ambit and other aspects of that measure.
Clearly, there is much in the Bill that we can welcome about the reform of the coroners' courts system. I believe that this is the first reform since 1285, so those who have said that it is long overdue are probably correct. We all welcome the establishment of the chief coroner, the modernisation of the coroner's powers of inquiry and investigation, and the creation of rights for interested parties, including bereaved families. Those provisions will improve the service.
I hope that we will reflect on one aspect of the charter for the bereaved: most of the focus is on the coroner's service. From my experience of dealing with cases of bereaved families, who are trying to get through a difficult time, some of the issues often involve the relationship between the coroner service and, for example, the police service. If the release of a body is requested or required from the police, getting them to respond appropriately in relation to the coroner's activities is important.
I wholeheartedly endorse and welcome the charter for the bereaved, but it needs to take account of the relationship with other agencies, so that the bereaved do not have to chase the police for the release of the body—as happened in a case that was recently brought to me—and almost have to go through the funeral to the cremation without it. As a separate issue, the charter also needs to take into account inquests that might take place in several weeks' or months' time.
There still seems to be a distinction relating to the requirements for allowing a cremation to take place. Death certification is required, but in the case of a cremation, additional requirements and certificates are needed. That matter does not appear to be touched on in the Bill, but the recommendations that came out of the Shipman and Luce inquiries suggested that those questions would be dealt with. If that has not been reflected on to date, I hope that it will now be considered and addressed.
There is also the question of the proper recognition of the coroner service. I was grateful for the note that I received from the coroner for Essex and Thurrock, Caroline Beasley-Murray, who stressed the importance of the service while emphasising the need for training and a career structure. She hoped that that aspect would be dealt with through regulations, even though the Bill is silent on the issue. Perhaps the Minister will be prepared to reflect on that aspect of the service as the Bill goes into Committee.
I want to come back to clause 11 and the certification that would do away with a jury and enable an investigation to be held in private. I do not want to repeat the important points that have been made by other hon. Members, except to comment on the Secretary of State's point about the availability of judicial review. He said that there would be a right to challenge a decision on whether certification could take place. I have one fundamental question on that. If such a decision had been made on the basis of information that, by its very nature, had to be kept secret, how could someone challenge it on an ex parte basis and argue before a judge that there had been a procedural irregularity or that the decision had been unreasonable or irrational? A high hurdle would have to be overcome in order to gain protection in such circumstances, particularly in the context in which that right is intended to be framed.
I also want to talk about the thorny issues of data protection and data sharing. The last time I had the opportunity to debate these issues was during our consideration of the Serious Crime Act 2007, when we actively considered the use of data sharing and data matching to combat serious crime and fraud. The rules that were put in place by that Act were carefully crafted, and recognised as being there for a specific purpose. However, this Bill effectively drives a coach and horses through certain provisions, and does not properly take account of the fact that there are rights of ownership involved when we give personal information to other agencies, or that that information is given for a specific purpose. It is all very well to say that codes of conduct will buttress the provisions in some way, but the proposals are very wide-ranging and overarching. Once they are in place, there will be no real ability to change them.
I will not give way, unfortunately.
The Bill seeks to justify some of the big databases that the Government propose to create. To my mind, this underlines a new concept for the Government in the creation of large databases and the storing of information at potential risk. They seem to be saying that in order to deliver services, they need to know almost everything. That is what is driving the creation of these databases. However, if that information is already at risk, because of the honeypot effect that makes it vulnerable to attack by cybercriminals and those who want to use it to perpetrate cybercrime—one of the fastest-growing kinds of crime in the country—we need robust measures to ensure that those data are properly protected.
If we then factor in the idea that the data will be shared with other agencies for those specified purposes, the chain is only as good as its weakest link. Information may have been provided to a particular agency in the knowledge that data protections would be in place in that area, but if it is then shared with other agencies, the standard of vigilance and the standard of data protection may not be as high. That alone shows how data sharing may create a further risk of cybercrime. Equally, there is the issue of insider risk in terms of the integrity of the information, where it resides, and the role of individuals who may take the information and sell it on for their own personal gain to those who may wish to misuse it.
Because we are going down this route, those activities may make us all less safe as individuals, which shows why this whole approach needs to be considered very carefully. It also shows why it is so important that the definition of what information is used for, and to whom it is provided, is framed in primary legislation. As currently framed, it seems as if this law will enable the Government to drive a coach and horses through fundamental legislation, including the Data Protection Act itself, and the protections encompassed within it. To my mind, that simply cannot be right. If those provisions remain as they are, it is difficult to see how they can possibly be acceptable.
My reading of the Bill is that it seems not only to allow the transmission of information between Government Departments, but to envisage that the information could, if it were serving a certain purpose, be transferred outside the UK—even though normal protections in the Data Protection Act would ring-fence it within the EU.
With the Government asking for that information and those rights, it almost comes down to a question of trust: do we trust the Government to use them appropriately? Sadly, the Government's record in holding our data, securing them and making sure that they are not misused is not good. The trust that we have put in the Government to do that has been misplaced. Until we can have confidence in how our data are stored, how they are used and how standards are maintained—and, as I believe they should be, raised—many people will ask, "Why should we trust the Government to receive those wide-ranging powers if at this stage we cannot even trust them to keep our information secure?" Until the Government can answer that question, they need to go away and think again.
I would like to speak about a very narrow area of this legislation—the Bill makes the tiniest of references to it—as it might have an even greater impact than the other proposals on many people. I am talking about non-invasive surgery.
My attention was drawn to the issue of non-invasive post-mortems following the information that such surgical practices were happening in the Manchester area. I was approached by members of my local Muslim community to find out what was happening there, and whether it was possible for it to happen in Bradford. To that end, I established a steering group of local people, involving Ghulam Rasool of the Bradford council for mosques, Councillor Imran Hussain and Maulana Fazal Dad of the council for mosques, Idris Bashir, Aurangzeb Khan, a community activist, and Michael Levy, a solicitor from Manchester and legal adviser to the group.
The group considered a range of issues, which I will try to summarise. First, it considered technological advances such as the MRI scanner, which made non-invasive post-mortems possible. Secondly, it noted that for certain religious groups, such as Muslims and Jews, the integrity of the body was paramount. Thirdly, it found that Muslims and Jews, in particular, must bury the body as soon as possible, and that in some cases the MRI scanner could make that possible. Fourthly, the group also felt that people of other faiths, and no faith, would in some cases also prefer to have non-invasive post-mortems.
Before I continue, I want to thank the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend Bridget Prentice, for meeting me privately to discuss the issue and for agreeing to meet a delegation from the Bradford steering group. We hope that Jennifer Leeming, Her Majesty's coroner for the west Manchester district, will also attend that meeting. Her contribution has been invaluable, and I applaud her and her staff for the pioneering and groundbreaking work that they have done in the Manchester area. I hope that she will see the fruit of her labour enshrined in legislation. If any hon. Member thinks that this is an awful idea, they know who to blame.
MRI scans of deceased persons are done out of hours, usually in the evening or early morning. They do not therefore prejudice or delay any access by live patients to the scanner, nor do live patients come into contact with the deceased or their attendants. In the Manchester jurisdiction, the option of non-invasive post-mortem by MRI scan is discussed with all who object to invasive post-mortems for whatever reason. If a request for non-invasive post-mortem by MRI scan is then made, it is discussed by Her Majesty's coroner or her staff with the consultant radiologist, who carries out the procedure to ascertain whether the medical and other history of the deceased person is such that an MRI scan is likely to reveal the cause of death.
If a scan is undertaken but is unsuccessful in revealing a cause of death, Her Majesty's coroner will consider proceeding to an invasive post-mortem. The bereaved are advised that that is the case before the scan is agreed. Some cases are entirely unsuitable for scan. For example, a scan is not suitable if a police investigation that necessitates an invasive forensic post-mortem is taking place.
The cost of a scan is borne by the family or other party requesting it. That is understood by the Bradford steering group, and would probably apply across the country. When the scan is concluded, a disc recording the result is retained. Thus a scan has, to that extent, an advantage over the invasive post-mortem, of which there is no permanent record.
I shall now move on from scans to the out-of-hours service. If we want to speed up post-mortems and burials, which is especially important for the Jewish and Muslim communities, we need an improved out-of-hours service. I understand that the Greater Manchester West jurisdiction is the only jurisdiction in England and Wales offering a service that includes non-invasive post-mortems and invasive post-mortems out of hours. I press the Minister to look into out-of-hours service and, with regard to scans, to consider specifying radiologists as people who could be officers responsible within the legislation.
I have already received many representations about clause 152, on information sharing. One constituent wrote:
"I object in principle to personal information being given out without my express permission. Leaving aside the fact that the only people who seem to hang on like grim death to various bits of information about me are the biggest generators of junk mail, I would still like to be able to decide who needs to know all about me. This Bill changes my position in a way that suggests that I was somehow a person in need of monitoring".
In similar vein, another constituent wrote:
"I do not consent to such an abuse of my personal information...Our personal details should remain fully protected by the Data Protection Act."
I ask the Minister to look again at the proposal.
Finally, I thank the Minister for introducing in legislation the non-invasive option. That is important to my Muslim and Jewish constituents, but equally to those of other faiths and no faith.
I thank the last few speakers for being so commendably brief. I am sure that I am the only person here who has ever signed a death certificate or cremation forms—both the first and second parts—so I am desperately keen to get in to speak. I think I have eight minutes, so I will cram as much as I can into them.
To prepare for the debate, I looked at the current death certificate, which is headed "Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953". I do not think that that has been changed since 1953, and it is certainly the same as the last death certificate that I signed, which was at least 13 years ago. I looked back also at Dame Janet Smith's brilliant and comprehensive third report following the Shipman inquiry. I shall remind the House of one or two things that she said.
First, the current system depends on the honesty of the doctor. Dame Janet said:
"Many of Shipman's patients died suddenly in circumstances in which no honest doctor could have claimed to know the cause of death. Yet Shipman, who had killed them, was able to certify the cause of death, avoid a report to the coroner and thus also avoid any official enquiry into the death."
She went on to stress the importance of training, observing:
"A further problem with the current system is that the quality of certification is poor. Doctors receive little training in death certification."
Certainly the training that I received was not really about the accuracy of the death certificate. It was about the terms that were acceptable to the registrar examining the certificate, who would be entirely unqualified.
The death certificate still contains some helpful notes. In very small writing at the bottom is the following advice on completing the certificate by giving the cause of death:
"This does not mean the mode of dying, such as heart failure, asphyxia, asthenia, etc: it means the disease, injury, or complication which caused death".
I do not think that anyone nowadays would use the terms "asphyxia" and "asthenia". Shipman, however, used the term "natural causes" in two of his death certificates. Dame Janet Smith draws attention to the fact that, amazingly, the registrars in Tameside did not know that "natural causes" was not acceptable as a cause of death. They had to get in touch with their superiors, who felt that it was acceptable, so Shipman got away with "natural causes".
Another unacceptable term—some of us are probably already beginning to suffer from it—is "senile decay". Even Shipman did not try to use that one. We were told that an acceptable term was "bronchopneumonia", and that as long as that condition was put first on the death certificate of any elderly person, whether he or she had had it or not, the registrar would accept it. It is clear from those examples that death certification is very inaccurate.
The form still asks whether the person certifying has arranged a post-mortem. Since Alder Hey, the rate of hospital non-coroner post-mortems has dropped remarkably. That has a tremendous downside. The first recommendation in the Health Committee's 2005 report on venous thromboembolism states:
"We are concerned that the number of post-mortems being performed has decreased since Alder Hey. As a result the true cause of death is not being determined in many cases."
I believe that it is very important to allow a number of hospital post-mortems to continue. If a senior clinician who has been looking after the patient approaches people for consent, that will not be too unacceptable. There are many good points on the certificate at present, but I want to know whether the Bill picks up Dame Janet's recommendations.
At least cremation forms have been changed. One that I saw recently was drawn up in 2008. Cremation form 4 is now the first to be filled in by the first doctor. There is much more space for details of the cause of death and the examination carried out. Form 5, the old second form filled in by the confirming doctor, contains the same questions, but places a little more emphasis on asking the referee doctor to talk to the relatives or others involved. Question 6 reads:
"Please state the date and time that you saw the body of the deceased and the examination that you made of the body."
Dame Janet Smith makes some play of that, feeling that examination at that stage is essential.
One must be realistic, and at present, all one can do at that stage is go into the mortuary and ask the mortuary attendant where the body is. If it is already wrapped up and in the fridge, all one can do is identify that it is, let us say, a white male or female with the right label on it. What examination can one conduct to help establish the cause of death? It is crucial that there is a system for the medical examiner who is to be appointed to conduct a proper examination at this stage, if no post-mortem has taken place.
Dame Janet Smith concludes with the recommendation that there should be one system of death certification applicable to all deaths, regardless of whether the death is to be followed by burial or cremation. There should be a requirement that the fact that a death has occurred be confirmed and certified. I welcome the parts of the Bill that go a good way towards fulfilling her requirements. However, along with many others, I do not welcome the parts that imply secrecy, or those that ride rather roughshod over data protection measures. And there I must finish, having used my allocated few minutes.
First, I should declare an interest: I am a former barrister.
We have had a well informed and constructive debate, and we have covered a lot of subjects. That is unsurprising, however, as this Bill has clearly been cobbled together and covers many different subjects under one heading. As David Howarth pointed out, it covers 28 different topics. I fear that the Bill will lack direction and focus, and I think it would have been much better if the Government had come up with four or five separate Bills.
On coroners, it is bad enough for our constituents to lose a loved one in a violent incident or accident, but all too often the resulting inquest is a thoroughly traumatic and bewildering experience. Reform is, therefore, long overdue. I noted that the Coroners' Society said:
"If the coroner service is neglected, then society also neglects the bereaved."
I think it was Edmund Burke who said:
"The true way to mourn the dead is to take care of the living who belong to them."
I am indebted to Victims' Voice for that quote, which is highly pertinent to the Hillsborough families, whom Mr. Howarth referred to so movingly.
As I have said, the coroner service is long overdue for reform. The Shipman inquiry under Dame Janet Smith and the excellent Luce review both took place almost five years ago. They were followed by the Government's draft proposals in 2004. Reform is better late than never, however.
A great deal in part 1 of the Bill is to be welcomed. I agree with the comments of Mrs. Humble, who made a well-researched speech, and I congratulate her on the work she has done on behalf of bereaved service families. I welcome the creation of the posts of chief coroner and deputy chief coroner. We welcome the new appeals system, too, and the powers to transfer investigations of deaths to another coroner. That is highly relevant to military inquests, and I was very impressed by what Sir Alan Beith had to say on that subject. I have always found it strange that inquests involving the deaths of fallen servicemen and women could not be transferred to the district of the bereaved families, although I take on board the point made by my hon. Friend Mr. Gray that it is important to recognise the expertise that exists in certain areas—he referred to Brize Norton in Oxfordshire and RAF Lyneham in Wiltshire. There needs to be more flexibility, however, and the Bill allows for that.
We welcome the new charter for the bereaved, but I agree with my hon. Friend James Brokenshire and Mr. Kidney, who both said that, in future, it is important for there to be far better co-ordination between the different agencies. The people putting together that charter should look carefully at the suggestions made by Mr. Singh and at the points that he made about the use of MRI scans.
Conservative Members have always been in favour of local delivery by local coroners, but within a national framework that provides effective guidance. Of course, there will be cost implications for the Government's proposal, and the points made and questions posed by the hon. Member for Stafford and the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed need to be examined carefully. The Jean Charles de Menezes inquest alone cost more than £1 million. There must be a very strong case for central Government providing funds for court accommodation, and at a time when the private finance initiative is coming under a great deal of pressure, I hope that the Minister will look carefully at that suggestion.
We also welcome the new procedures in clause 2, which allow for the appointment of medical examiners who will oversee the independent scrutiny and confirmation of medical certificates of the causes of death. That was recommended in the Shipman inquiry report and it is long overdue. However, the Coroners' Society points out that both the Shipman report and the Luce report recommended the integration of the coroner and death registration services, but that has been ignored in the Bill. I hope that the Minister will take a close look at that issue and at the points made by Dr. Taylor, who is highly respected—careful note should be taken of his expertise and insight. Obviously, the medical examiners need to be truly independent, as a number of hon. and right hon. Members have said.
On recommendations by coroners, paragraph 6 to schedule 4 gives coroners the power to make a report to the person or organisation whom they believe may have the power to take the necessary action to prevent future deaths—that was covered by Mrs. Moon in a moving speech containing a number of well-informed remarks about suicide victims based on the tragic constituency experience that she went through. Such a person or organisation must then give the coroner a written response. The explanatory notes state:
"Further provision may be made in rules enabling reports...to be published."
That is not good enough. Surely one of the key roles of the coronial service is to improve public safety by ensuring that obvious mistakes, omissions and bad practices are not repeated. We must take on board the suggestions and comments made by the hon. Members for Bridgend and for Stafford. Surely schedule 4 does not go far enough, because no mechanism is in place to ensure that the recommendations are properly recorded and implemented—we should look at this carefully in Committee.
If one examines the part of the Bill dealing with coroners, one finds that it is about snakes and ladders; the Government have put in place some good ladders and we praise them for that, but there is a nasty snake that may come crashing down in clause 11. That clause, which many right hon. and hon. Members have discussed, provides for the Secretary of State to issue a certificate that allows inquests to be held without a jury. That provision will gravely limit transparency and increase Executive control over the inquests process. The measure was first introduced in the 2008 Counter-Terrorism Bill, but it was withdrawn, and I greatly regret its reappearance. I say that because the grounds for removing the jury are very broad indeed—if anything, they are broader now than they were in that original Bill, because the Coroners and Justice Bill provides for its removal for reasons
"otherwise in order to prevent real harm to the public interest."
That is a catch-all phrase, as was pointed out by the hon. Member for Cambridge, my hon. and learned Friend Mr. Grieve and Mr. Llwyd. He is a former deputy coroner and we should listen to him very carefully. Others to make that point included the hon. Members for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood and for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), and my hon. and learned Friend Mr. Cox. They all pointed out that the Bill will undermine public confidence in the inquest system. It was right, for example, that the inquest into the death of Jean Charles de Menezes was held in public, but under these proposals it would almost certainly have been held in private. I am worried that the number of inquests heard without juries would grow, and what was meant to be an occasional fall-back option could become the norm. That is why we need to strike that clause from the Bill when the time comes.
I will not give way as I am pressed for time.
In 2004, the Law Commission published its report "Partial Defences to Murder". That was followed by its fundamental review of murder and manslaughter in 2006. The Bill is a piecemeal, fragmented and unsatisfactory approach to the issues of murder, infanticide and suicide. I listened carefully to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon, who is an expert on criminal law. As well as putting in a strong bid to serve in Committee, he gave some good reasons why this aspect of the Bill needs to be improved. A step-by-step approach is not good enough. As my hon. and learned Friend said so eloquently, in spite of the Government's good intentions, there are always dangers in simply cherry-picking important, carefully reasoned and crafted, but highly controversial Law Commission proposals. That is why we must examine those provisions carefully.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire has some excellent ideas for combating the existence of overseas suicide sites. Surprisingly, the Government did not properly consult on the provisions on suicide, and they must be looked at again in much more detail.
The Government did consult on sentencing, but I agree with Alun Michael that we need to look carefully at what really works, especially when it comes to community sentencing. We have no problems with plans for a sentencing council, but we are concerned about the guidelines that it will issue. At the moment, the courts are required to have regard to the guidelines, but in future they will have to follow the guidelines unless satisfied that to do so would be contrary to the interests of justice. That is a proposal for strict compliance and I share the concerns about that which have been raised by the Bar Council, the Magistrates' Association and many other organisations.
The Bill contains some good ladders, but it has one appalling snake—it is a 50-ft python—in the form of the data protection proposals, and I hope that the Government will rethink that part of the Bill. I will not rehearse the arguments now, but the proposals are very worrying, because they would undermine the whole essence of the data protection legislation. That is why so many Members on the Opposition Benches have spoken against them.
We have several expert lawyers on the Conservative Benches. I am surrounded by top QCs and other lawyers, and we will do what we can to help the Government to improve this ill thought-out and flawed Bill. We will do our best to make it better legislation.
As Mr. Bellingham said, this has been a constructive and intelligent debate, not least because my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State took 26 interventions. We have been through the Bill fairly thoroughly as a result. I welcome the many positive comments that have been made about many of the provisions in the Bill, such as the establishment of the post of chief coroner, the introduction of national standards, a new appeals system and the charter for bereaved families. They will all help to ensure that the coroner system, which dates back to the reign of Richard I, as James Brokenshire said, will be made fit for the 21st century.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. Sadly, I was not lucky enough to be called to speak in the debate or to intervene on my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. However, my hon. Friend mentioned the coroner system. Will she give some thought as the Bill progresses to allowing some form of support or representation for families of the bereaved in the coroners' courts, as has been suggested by Victim Support?
A number of Members have raised that issue as well as my hon. Friend. We will reflect on it and we will look to see what we can do to give bereaved families more support when they find themselves at inquests. At the moment, they have very good personal support in many areas from some of the coroners' officers and so on, but I know that hon. Members want us to go further than that.
We recognise the issue that has been identified in terms of private inquests, and I am glad that other hon. Members recognise the problem that we face. Sir Alan Beith, in particular, described those difficulties in a very reasoned way. We will welcome constructive dialogue on that subject. If hon. Members have suggestions about how we can make that section of the Bill better, we will be happy to look at the provisions again.
There are very few occasions when a coroner's investigation will involve highly sensitive information, for example, intercept evidence or the identity of a human intelligence source that simply cannot be made public. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, inquests are unlike criminal trials as one cannot decide not to proceed with an inquest. We have to go ahead with an inquest and so we have to find a way to deal with the problem posed by such information properly and sensitively. We have made significant changes to the original proposals and I hope that in reflecting on what we can do to make the provisions better, colleagues will recognise that we have moved some distance from the proposals in the Counter-Terrorism Bill. We have also made it explicit in this Bill that all other ways of enabling an inquest to be held in public have to be considered fully before the PII certificate is considered. If that is not possible, we have tied in the criteria for triggering the certification and placed a duty on the Secretary of State to notify interested parties of the certification decision so that they can lodge an application for judicial review. There are already important safeguards.
David Howarth said that the Bill was made up of red rags and contraband—I rather liked the images that he conjured up. On the "red rag" provisions, he asked when the jury would be called. If he looks at clause 7, he will see that there are specific situations where juries would have to be called. We are open to discussion about how best to cover the arrangements for what most Members agree are difficult issues regarding sensitive material. Families would be excluded from the inquest only at the points when that sensitive material was being discussed. They would be present for every other part of the inquest.
My right hon. Friend Mr. Howarth made a moving speech about the victims of Hillsborough. He rightly highlighted the distress and offence that has been caused to bereaved families. Under these reforms, an inquest would almost certainly be held under article 2 conditions. In future, the chief coroner will maintain links with prosecuting authorities, including the Crown Prosecution Service and the Director of Public Prosecutions, to ensure that investigations into large-scale disasters progress as quickly as possible.
I would be grateful if my right hon. Friend would allow me to move on.
My hon. Friend Mrs. Moon was an excellent advocate for her constituents in a very tragic situation. I reassure her that all coroners will be required to provide statistical information to the chief coroner, who will be advised by the medical adviser on the interpretation of that information.
We will do further work on verdicts as part of a detailed development of the rules. Coroners will be given powers in the Bill to make reports to prevent further deaths—a change very similar to the one made last year to the current rule 43. Organisations will be required to respond: the chief coroner will collect and monitor their responses, and identify trends. I hope that that answers the several Opposition Members who asked what the chief coroner's reports will contain. The chief coroner will also issue national standards on how to investigate particular types of death, including suicide or apparent suicide. Provision for psychological autopsies could be included in that.
In his very measured contribution, my hon. Friend Mr. Kidney welcomed the section of the Bill devoted to coroners. Like my hon. Friend Mr. Singh, he asked about MRI scans and the new powers that the Bill will give coroners and medical examiners. I think that he was also the first to mention the charter for the bereaved, which has been widely welcomed by organisations supporting bereaved families, and I in turn welcome my hon. Friend's support for the training that coroners will get.
Various hon. Members mentioned media intrusion. I can assure them that we continue to speak to the Press Complaints Commission about how it can strengthen its code of practice to ensure that families are not unduly upset by the way that cases are reported.
The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, the Chair of the Justice Committee, rightly highlighted inadequacies in the present Scottish system. We are awaiting a response from Scottish Ministers about how we can take matters forward. The right hon. Gentleman made some very reasoned points about why there was no need for an inquest in every case, and he spoke about resources and diversity at local level. We will work with the chief coroner to ensure that that is progressed properly.
My right hon. Friend Mr. George made a very comprehensive speech in which he mentioned the varying standards in the coroner service at present—
I do not want to interrupt the Minister for too long, as it is very late, but the Bill also contains a number of criminal justice elements. Both she and the Secretary of State have seemed reluctant to talk about them, even though they are part of the Bill. Will she condescend to tell us her views on those matters?
I remind the hon. and learned Gentleman that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State spoke for nearly an hour and took 26 interventions, many of which concerned all the other issues raised in the Bill. However, I want to turn to the provisions on data sharing that have been so central to this debate. Once more, I shall be very happy to look in detail at the issues that a number of hon. Members have raised in that regard. I shall also be happy to meet hon. Members to discuss some of those matters in detail, but I must say that I see data sharing as a positive thing. It will make people's lives better because they will not have to go through 50 different gateways to get their information through to the right person.
I accept what the hon. and learned Gentleman says about the other aspects of the Bill. We will deal in detail in Committee with homicide and witness anonymity, to which a number of hon. Members have referred. For example, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice wrote to Nick Herbert on special counsel, and I believe that he copied that letter to my hon. Friend Mr. Dismore, who raised the issue during the debate.
I want to turn very briefly to some of the other issues that have been raised in the debate. For example, a number of hon. Members have made constructive suggestions about suicide websites. Again, we will look carefully at what we can do. It is a difficult area of work, but it is something that we want to tackle. I am pleased that we have addressed the driving ban issue raised by Mr. Goodwill, and we will look further at how we can address the other issues that he has raised.
At its heart, the Bill is about delivering more effective and responsive public services to victims, witnesses, bereaved families and all those who come face to face with the justice or coroners' systems. I commend it to the House.
Question put, That the amendment be made.
The House proceeded to a Division.