Schedule 21 — Repeals

Pension Credit and Personal Expense Allowance (Duty of Consultation and Review) – in the House of Commons at 9:00 pm on 24 March 2009.

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Votes in this debate

Amendment made: 131, page 228, line 34, at end insert—

'Section 10(1) to (7).'. —(Bridget Prentice.)

Third Reading

Queen's and Prince of Wales's consent signified.

Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice 9:14, 24 March 2009

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

This is an important Bill, which has been much improved by the process of scrutiny in the House. Let me record my thanks, and those of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend Maria Eagle, to all the Opposition Members for their constructive approach. Mr. Garnier, Mr. Bellingham, and the hon. Members for Cambridge (David Howarth) and for Cardiff, Central (Jenny Willott) have been ready to engage in debate in a helpful and positive way.

I commend the valuable and thoughtful contributions from my right hon. Friends the Members for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael) and for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) and my hon. Friends the Members for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon), for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) and for Hendon (Mr. Dismore). Let me also thank the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk for the kind words and good wishes that he sent to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston. She was very disappointed not to be here to participate in debates on matters that are her policy responsibility. However, I am sure she will be pleased that we have seen the Bill through this evening.

I thank all the officials who have been involved in the many different parts of the Bill. I thank the Public Bill officials, the Chairs of the Public Bill Committee, Hansard and the Public Bill Office—and, of course, my hon. Friend Ian Lucas and his counterparts, who, through the usual channels, ensured that the Bill had a smooth passage both in Committee and on the Floor of the House.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I said, on Second Reading and subsequently, that we would listen to those expressing legitimate concerns about a number of provisions in the Bill, and that we were open to constructive suggestions for improving those provisions. We have listened, and we have responded.

There were fears that the provisions in respect of certified coroners' investigations were drawn too widely and did not provide for sufficient judicial oversight. We have narrowed the criteria for certification of an investigation, and have removed from the Secretary of State the decision whether a certified inquest should proceed without a jury. As the Bar Council and the Criminal Bar Association have acknowledged, those and other changes to clause 11 have

"fundamentally recast the proposals for certified investigations".

There was concern about the scope of the power to make information-sharing orders. We have now withdrawn clause 154, and will consider carefully the views expressed by all interested parties. There was also concern about the possibility that the Sentencing Council would be required to operate within too rigid a structure for the formulation of sentencing guidelines, and that the requirement for sentencers to follow the guidelines was too inflexible. We have recast those provisions so that both the council and the sentencers will have greater flexibility.

Another worry was that the provisions in part 1 did not go far enough in monitoring the actions that coroners recommended to prevent future deaths, and that senior coroners were being unfairly denied the opportunity to apply for the post of deputy chief coroner. Again, we have listened and responded. As the Bill approaches the end of its Commons stages, we will continue to listen, to reflect and, when we are convinced by the arguments, to respond.

Although it is understandable that much of our deliberation has been focused on the provisions that divide us, we should not lose sight of the many other provisions that have attracted cross-party support. Too little has been said about the reforms of the coroner and justice systems, and the beneficial impact that they will have on bereaved families, victims and witnesses.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change

One of the matters about which nothing was said—because my amendments were not reached—was the question of complaints against coroners. Will the Minister assure me that the Bill, if enacted, will allow individuals to complain not necessarily about the decisions of coroners, but about the behaviour of coroners who have left families, as in the Marchioness case, or a family—as in the Jeremiah Duggan case—with no confidence in their work?

Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice

I will come to the charter for the bereaved in a moment. For me personally, it is one of the most important parts of the Bill. It puts the bereaved families at the heart of the coronial system. I have met the Marchioness victims and talked with many other bereaved family organisations. There will be an opportunity for families to appeal to the chief coroner if they feel that a coroner has been wrong in a decision. In addition, the charter will for the first time give bereaved families the opportunity to know what standard of service they should expect from coroners. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman intervened because I wanted to ensure that that was on the record. In modernising this ancient office, which has not been touched for the best part of over 100 years, we are putting the needs of bereaved families at the forefront of coroners' investigations.

Photo of Jennifer Willott Jennifer Willott Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

One of the other issues that was discussed at great length in Committee but that unfortunately we did not have an opportunity to debate on the Floor of the House was that of the disparities between funding in different coroner areas. There are concerns that the Bill does not tackle that strongly enough. Will the Minister give more thought to the possibility of allowing the chief coroner extra powers and some more teeth to be able to tackle problems arising when not enough funding is provided in a local coronial area?

Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice

The chief coroner will have a number of powers in setting the national standards and making sure that there is consistency across England and Wales. I spoke to the Local Government Association conference this morning. We will work closely with local authorities to ensure that resources are in place for coroners to be able to carry out their duties properly. As a result of the reforms, there may be fewer inquests for coroners to deal with: because of the introduction of medical examiners, who will look at the death certificates, many cases that presently go to a coroner may not need to do so. Resources may thus be freed up in that way.

The proposed charter will ensure that the next of kin is notified quickly when a death is reported to the coroner and it will be explained to them why a post-mortem is necessary. It will ensure that family members are given regular updates on the progress of a coroner's investigation, and enable inquests to be held closer to the home of the deceased's family. It will also ensure that family members have, on request and wherever possible, access to all documents relevant to the inquest and that they will be able to participate fully in the inquest proceedings. It will also confer new and accessible rights of appeal against coroners' decisions. I hope that that answers the proper questions that were asked by Simon Hughes on that matter.

Sitting above the locally delivered coroner service will be the new chief coroner providing strategic leadership, setting and monitoring national minimum standards, managing the operational response to unusual circumstances which crop up from time to time, and ensuring excellent training arrangements.

The death of a loved one is traumatic at any time. Where that death is violent or unnatural, it is all the harder to come to terms with. At such times, bereaved families want answers to the inevitable questions surrounding the death of their loved one and want to be treated with understanding and compassion. Coroners and their staff have a difficult task to perform, and many provide an excellent service to the bereaved. These reforms will help to ensure that all bereaved families have the high standards of service that they are entitled to expect.

This morning when I spoke to the Local Government Association, I said that the Bill was putting bereaved families at the heart of the coroner service and that that was the most important thing it could do. André Rebello, secretary of the Coroners' Society of England and Wales, who spoke after me, said that it does something else: it gives those families fairness and justice. He is absolutely right.

Victims and witnesses who come into contact with the criminal justice system are equally entitled to receive a high standard of service. The prevention and detection of crime and bringing offenders to justice is not the job just of the police or the prosecutors or the courts. They need the co-operation and support of the wider public. If a member of the public has a poor experience as a witness, who can blame them for not wanting to stick their neck out on a second occasion? So we must put the needs of victims and witnesses at the heart of the justice system. The provisions in the Bill are directed to that end.

The law should only allow a murder charge to be reduced to manslaughter in appropriate and clearly defined circumstances. Those who intentionally incite hatred against gay people by using threatening words or behaviour should not be able to excuse their actions on freedom of speech grounds. Those witnesses who bravely come forward to give information about a gang-related homicide should be able to do so in the knowledge that their identity will be protected. Vulnerable and intimidated witnesses should be given all necessary assistance to help them to give their best evidence in court. Victims and the wider public should have confidence that there is consistency in sentencing across the country.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change

The Minister is a neighbouring MP and she knows that in this context one issue that often comes our way is the need for the protection of witnesses, even to the extent of having to provide a safe place for them or their business to move to. Will she give an assurance that those systems that involve the police, sometimes the Court Service and often local government, are now robust enough to deliver as quickly as is necessary that safety and protection that our constituents periodically need?

Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice

Of course I agree with the hon. Gentleman about how important that is, and I think the witness protection programme is sufficiently robust to deal with exactly that.

I visited one of my local schools earlier this week. It has been doing some work on knife and gun crime, which the hon. Gentleman knows is very important in our constituencies. The people at the school referred me to the Children's Commissioner survey published last week, which showed that 37 per cent. of young people are afraid to come forward as witnesses in gun or knife crime-related situations. They conducted a survey in their own school, which revealed that 88 per cent. of them felt they would be fearful of being witnesses. This Bill changes that for such young people, and that is hugely important for them. Victims should not have to suffer a second time when they see the person who inflicted pain and suffering on them, perhaps by killing a loved one, being able to cash in on their notoriety. That, too, is dealt with in the Bill, and will be part of helping victims feel they are at the centre of the justice system.

It is through these measures that the Bill will help to deliver justice: justice for victims; justice for witnesses; justice for bereaved families; and justice for the communities we represent. It is for that reason that I hope Members will wholeheartedly give the Bill a Third Reading, and I commend it to the House.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Shadow Minister (Justice) 9:28, 24 March 2009

May I begin by thanking the Minister for her kind words about the way in which the Opposition have engaged with this Bill, and by joining my hon. Friend Mr. Bellingham in sending good wishes for a speedy recovery to the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, Maria Eagle, who cannot be here with us this evening?

As with every plum duff, this Bill has some good points that persuade us—just—to allow it to pass through to the other place, where its more hopeless, useless and egregious provisions can be removed or amended. I want to remind the House of a passage from a Government Green Paper published yesterday, as it tells us a lot about how this Government think, and what motivates them in coming to this House with legislation. The passage is from paragraph 4.2 of "Rights and responsibilities: developing our constitutional framework", published yesterday by the Secretary of State. It reads as follows:

"The possible range of approaches to a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities represents a continuum. At one end, it might take the form of a declaratory and symbolic statement. At the other lies a set of rights and responsibilities directly enforceable by the individual in the courts. Along the continuum there are options including some form of statement of principles which, endorsed by Parliament, might inform legislation—as well as public authority and court decisions—while not necessarily giving rise to enforceable individual rights. Ultimately, different categories of principles, rights and responsibilities could have different legal effects, so that a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities could encompass a range of legal effects and mechanisms for enforcement."

That is pretty vacuous, but if one were to substitute "Bill of Rights and Responsibilities" with "Coroners and Justice Bill", one would have an equally apt description of the vacuity behind much of the thinking that has created this Bill.

We welcome the reform of the coronial system in part 1 of the Bill, subject to our deep concerns about the fact that clause 11 remains; we have no doubt that the other place will give that a thorough investigation. We also welcome other aspects of the Bill, outside part 1, that deal with anonymity in investigations. As I said in Committee, we take on board and fully understand the need for anonymity in the stages of investigation into many of the gangland attacks and offences that take place on the estates in our inner cities.

We also welcomed the revival, if that is the correct expression, of the Criminal Evidence (Witness Anonymity) Act 2008 in respect of witness anonymity orders, which chapter 2—clause 70 and those following—provides for, subject to a number of matters of detail. We welcomed the measures on vulnerable and intimidated witnesses and the extension of live video links for the giving of evidence by vulnerable or frightened people. We have had discussions and disagreement this evening about the way in which the Sentencing Council will be required to arrive at conclusions and recommendations, and whether they should be followed or taken account of. However, as a matter of general principle, we do not object to the existence of a sentencing council; indeed, we have understood its positive features since 2003. We were prepared to welcome other matters, including those relating to the exploitation of criminal memoirs.

We are not only disappointed with the content of some of the provisions on important subjects such as murder—the Government's refusal to accepts amendments to do with developmental maturity in cases involving diminished responsibility, and in respect of youngsters as well as adult killers—but we are deeply concerned about the way in which the Government have refused to remove the issue of sexual infidelity from the loss of control provisions in clauses 41 to 43. They deal with what used to be called provocation.

The Bill has contained some good things, some less good things and some plainly dreadful things, one of which the Government did recognise through the withdrawal of what was clause 152 and what became clause 154. That was an appalling clause, but it was all of a piece with their attitude to individual rights and the relationship between the state and the citizen. Each time they come forward with a provision to increase the power of the state, to diminish the rights of the individual or to create some new criminal offence, they say that it is only a small reduction of liberty or a small new offence, but that it is strictly necessary in this particular case. When these things are looked at individually, they may not look too bad, but this is—

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Shadow Minister (Justice)

If I may finish the sentence, the Secretary of State may have as much time as he wishes— [ Interruption. ] Well, he is very good at asking long questions. He is also very good at giving long answers— [ Interruption. ] I forget the name of the Whip's constituency, but I do hope that his constituents realise what a valuable contribution he makes to our deliberations.

This is a salami-slicing approach to our rights and liberties. Consider the catalogue of infringements engineered by this Government—when one reconstructs the salami, one is left with bad meat.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

On the issue of rights, is the Conservative party committed to keeping the Human Rights Act on the statute book?

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Shadow Minister (Justice)

The Secretary of State knows precisely what the answer to that question is because he had a discussion recently with my hon. and learned Friend Mr. Grieve. Our Bill of rights will replace it.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Shadow Minister (Justice)

I know that the Secretary of State is deaf in one ear, but he heard the answer clearly yesterday. I repeat that we intend to remove it from the statute book and replace it with our better version—

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Shadow Minister (Justice)

It is a no; that is right. Well done! I am delighted. It is almost a no that this Bill will get a Third Reading. The other place will not suffer the same time constraints and will not be bullied by Government business managers, and I am sure that it will produce a far better Bill.

Yesterday, the Government's timetable motion allowed only the clause 11 discussion to take place. All the other stuff on homicide, assisted suicide and other aspects of the coronial system had to fall by the wayside, and that is not a good way to construct legislation. Today, we were not able to complete all the timetabled business. Is that because the Government did not want those issues discussed? Did they not have the self-confidence to allow that discussion? Either way, we are left with a duff bit of plum duff, a curate's egg. I hope that the other place will not feel in the least bit inhibited by the Government's attitude to civil rights or the proper way to deal with legislation, and I trust that when the Bill comes back to this place in a few months, it will be greatly improved.

Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Secretary of State for Justice 9:37, 24 March 2009

May I also send my best wishes to the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, Maria Eagle? I hope that she recovers quickly from her illness.

The Minister was right to say that several parts of the Bill have received all-party support. She was also right to say that it is a better Bill than when it was introduced, especially after the removal of the information-sharing provisions. As I said yesterday, the jurors' inquest provisions are slightly better than they were when we started. However, as we made clear yesterday, they have not improved enough. They still permit the exclusion of juries in cases in which it is essential that they are involved, and they still far too easily exclude the families involved.

The rest of the Bill has scarcely been scrutinised at all and it is scandalous that we should pass the Bill in its present form. Several of the matters that we have discussed tonight are still not right. The data commissioner, for example, still has insufficient powers, especially over the private sector. The Sentencing Council provisions are still biased in favour of an old-fashioned, backward-looking view of the criminal justice system. The anonymous witness provisions are still seriously flawed. They fail to recognise the importance of special counsel and the Government have not responded to the penetrating debate in Committee about threats to property and how they should be handled in this legislation. We have not even reached the provisions for criminal memoirs and, although they are fine in principle, many of the details are confused and will cause serious difficulty if they reach the statute book in their present form. Above all, however, what happened yesterday means that the Bill cannot be passed in its present form. The motion before us says that "the Bill be now read a Third time", and it is the word "now" to which I object. Virtually none of the provisions on coroners were reached. Amendments to do with the duties of coroners, the make-up of inquest juries and how the medical examiner system would work and be governed were simply not discussed. There are serious problems in all those elements of the Bill.

Even more important—and for me this is crucial—is the issue of the law on murder. The Bill reforms the whole law on murder, and the defences against it, but discussion in Committee revealed important weaknesses in the Government's approach to what is the most serious of crimes. We put forward an entirely different approach that took into account the Law Commission's original recommendations—which the Government ignored—and what was said in Committee. Those proposals have not been discussed at all.

In many respects, the law on murder—what counts as murder—remains too narrow for some cases and too broad for others. What counts as murder does not respond fully to what the public would understand by the word "murder". Many deaths that the law would see as murder would be counted as accidental by most people, yet many other deaths are counted by the law as only manslaughter when most people would regard them as murder. That aspect of the law, which the Law Commission attempted to reform, has not been reformed at all by the Bill.

The Government's diminished responsibility reforms are retrograde. They introduce far too much detail and specificity into a defence whose main function is to allow the jury to do justice. The introduction of an over medicalised form of defence—as Mr. Garnier said, it does not include any consideration of developmental immaturity in young people—is only part of the problem. Other difficulties include the fact that the Bill uses far too strict a notion of causation, with the result that the Government are restricting a defence that should not be restricted.

The Bill proposes that the notion of provocation to murder should be replaced by a defence of loss of control, but that is entirely unsatisfactory. In Committee, it became clear that the Government were jamming together two different types of situation. In one, a person can claim to have been justifiably angry at the victim of the homicide, with the result that the charge can be reduced to manslaughter. It is right in such cases that the defence—it is a sort of "blame the victim" defence—should be as narrow as possible. The test of loss of control remains perfectly proper in those cases, but the Bill confuses them with cases in which the defendant's fear of what might happen, rather than his anger, is at issue.

Cases in the latter category include those that involve abused wives, but the Government have insisted, in the way that the Bill has been drafted, on maintaining a requirement for loss of control in those cases. I do not think that justice can be done if loss of control is included in such cases. Many of us came to the conclusion that cases based on anger and on fear should be entirely separate, yet the Government have not allowed any debate on that. I think that we are on the edge of a historic mistake in the law on murder, and it has all come about thanks to the procedural foul-ups in the way that the Government set up the debate.

The Bill is still seriously defective. In one regard—the proposed secret, juryless inquests—it is objectionable, but it has not been scrutinised enough. I cannot vote for, and must vote against, a motion that includes that word "now".

Photo of Angus Robertson Angus Robertson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader 9:44, 24 March 2009

I should like to speak briefly in support of the aspects of the Bill, as amended, that have an impact on Scotland. Of course, some of the matters raised in the debate, and some amendments—some pursued, some dropped—were contentious, but they affect only England and Wales, although there are minor provisions affecting Northern Ireland. I want to speak about the amendments, tabled for the first time yesterday, on fatal accident inquiries into overseas military deaths.

For the past 41 years, the bodies of service personnel stationed in Scotland who suffered a military death overseas have been repatriated, but there have never been legal proceedings in Scotland. All bodies returned to the UK were returned to England, where coroners' courts undertook their duty of helping families to understand the circumstances of the death of loved ones. I have attended coroners' inquests in Oxfordshire, and I pay tribute to coroners who have spent time trying to get to the bottom of tragic circumstances.

The Ministers involved, both here and in Edinburgh, have recognised that the current situation is no longer tenable. It is not fair that the English and Welsh legal system should carry all responsibility for inquiring into the background of overseas military deaths, while the Scots legal system—an excellent legal system—plays no part. I am pleased that there has been a confluence of interest in getting the situation resolved. It has been a technical process, and there are issues between the legal systems. However, a mechanism has been agreed for the repatriation of bodies and the transferral of cases, should that be necessary. In truth, we do not know how the mechanism will operate, although it was agreed in good faith. I hope that the proceedings will never be needed. Of course, we hope that nobody dies overseas in military service, but at a time when the UK military has a very fast tempo of military operations, sadly there are too-frequent deaths. Unfortunately, it is to be expected that the amendments, now part of the Bill, will move into operation.

People have listened in recent months and years to the families of service personnel, whether it be to those involved in the recent tragic case of Nimrod XV230, to Rose Gentle or to many other service families in Scotland, who have said that the burden and stress put on their families by having to travel far to coroners' inquests down south was very difficult. The changes will remedy all that. We will look closely at how the system operates in practice.

Those are the only measures in the Bill that relate to Scotland; all the other matters of contention—data sharing, murder and assisted suicide—relate entirely to England and Wales. There are also some provisions that pertain to Northern Ireland. The only measures in the Bill that apply to Scotland relate to fatal accident inquiries into overseas military deaths, and that is why the Scottish National party will support the Government tonight.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons 9:48, 24 March 2009

There are elements of the Bill with which I profoundly disagree, and I shall have no hesitation in following the advice of my hon. Friend David Howarth this evening. I want to touch on the matters that were not debated yesterday on Report—the changes to the coroner system. I have no doubt that the system could be improved further, but I respect the Government's intentions in changing the architecture of the coroner system, and in making significant improvements to its operation.

My interest in the subject was sparked largely by the experiences of a constituent of mine, Mr. Alick Moore, who sadly lost his son on 15 October 2004 in a diving accident. Mr. Moore and his family had to wait four and a half years for an inquest to be held, with very little information on the protracted investigations of the Health and Safety Executive and the police into the circumstances of his son's death. There was little apparent co-ordination, and a very unsatisfactory conclusion at the end. That, and the treatment that Mr. Moore received at the inquest, persuaded me that serious questions need to be asked. I have been in a long correspondence on the subject with various authorities, including the Attorney-General and the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, Bridget Prentice. I should like to say how grateful I am for the way in which she addressed the concerns raised by Mr. Moore in her most recent letter to him. I know that he very much appreciates the care she took in responding to the points that he put.

I hope that the outstanding questions—work-related deaths—will be resolved in the further stages of the Bill, if it passes to another place. The work-related death protocol has been ineffective in ensuring proper co-operation between the investigating authorities, particularly the HSE and the Crown Prosecution Service. I am dismayed that the wait that Mr. Moore had to experience is so often seen as the norm. My question to Ministers is whether they believe the Bill will cure that chronic problem of delay in investigation and delay in inquests being held.

It is essential that the investigative period is substantially reduced in order to provide comfort to the bereaved family at an early stage, and so that at the time of the inquest they have clear and conclusive reasons for a prosecution being pursued or not. The key point that Mr. Moore would want to raise with the Minister is how we reduce that very long and entirely unacceptable period between the death and the results of any investigation.

Other issues include the degree to which bereaved families are represented in court. In work-related deaths, corporate respondents to the inquest are often well and expensively represented. The family do not have that opportunity. We should look at whether, within the guidance and the funding of the inquest system, we can provide for families to be properly represented where there are questions that need to be put on behalf of the family about the circumstances of death.

One of the things that my constituent found most difficult about the circumstances that he faced was the point-blank refusal of the coroner to communicate effectively with him until the inquest was completed, and even after that time, when he was not prepared to give any reasons for reaching his conclusions, having set aside what had already been accepted as a partial liability on the part of the company involved. That is unsatisfactory.

I hope the charter for the bereaved that the Under-Secretary mentioned will deal with some of those issues. Clear guidance must be given to coroners on the extent that they can communicate with and have a dialogue with bereaved families without prejudicing the conduct of the inquest. That seems to me to be a crucial point if we are to provide a proper service to bereaved families.

Despite my deep reservations about other parts of the Bill, I think the Government are moving in the right direction in the reform of the coronial system. I wish we had had a separate coroners Bill that dealt with that, rather than with all the other excrescences that have been added. Although I shall join my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge in the Lobby this evening against the Bill, I very much hope that reform of the coronial system will survive parliamentary scrutiny and will be improved in another place, and that we shall see a real improvement in the services offered to families in future.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change 9:53, 24 March 2009

I share the views expressed by my hon. Friend Mr. Heath, and the views that my hon. Friend David Howarth expressed about the Bill. I share the frustration of colleagues who found that they were unable to debate so much of what they wanted to debate yesterday.

I return to the subject on which I intervened on the Minister. One of the things that will be a tribute both to the Minister and to the Government and that I hope will survive in the other place is a better system of protection of witnesses. When Tony Blair was Prime Minister, he made it clear that he was committed to changing the justice system so that victims and witnesses were better protected, and the Secretary of State for Justice and his team have said the same.

One of the tests of whether the Bill becomes decent legislation after scrutiny by the House of Lords is whether all those who would like to give evidence but are frightened feel that they can do so. The Minister replied positively to me about that. But whatever the shape of the Bill when it finishes its passage through both Houses, information about the protection given needs to be clearly, simply and urgently disseminated—in particular that the witness protection service works, and works well. I am still dealing with a family who have not yet had a satisfactory resolution, because of the witness protection service's difficulty in achieving it, following a domestic violence case of great seriousness several years ago. Clearly, that is not a satisfactory state of affairs.

The coroner's court in my constituency has a good reputation, but that has not always been true of other coroners' courts around the country. The Minister shared with me her knowledge of the frustration of those such as the recently deceased and much lamented Eileen Dallaglio, who fought for so long to get what they regarded as justice for their children or relatives who died in the Marchioness disaster. As a result of their complaints, Mr. Prescott was eventually extremely helpful in providing a public inquiry. One of the reasons that a public inquiry was needed was that the coroner system, through delay, insensitivity and not allowing the families to take part in the process and get answers to the questions that they rightly wanted to ask—not just about the causes of death following that sinking in the Thames more than a decade ago, but about personal matters such as what happened when hands were chopped off bodies, which was unacceptable—had failed those families.

The Minister and her colleagues are well aware of the concern, expressed in cases that we are still dealing with, about what happens when a British citizen dies abroad and the investigation by the domestic authorities of a foreign country is thought to be inadequate. Sometimes the matter comes back to be considered by coroners' courts in this country—I am not talking about service deaths, which have been long debated. That issue is rightly a cause for concern among Members of Parliament, and by the time the Bill becomes law I hope that we will be able to say with confidence to our constituents that wherever a British person died, we will have a system that, at home or abroad, ensures the best possible investigation, answers to questions and a sense of closure, with justice. The Minister and her colleagues desperately want that, as do I and my colleagues.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister 9:57, 24 March 2009

In the three minutes remaining for scrutiny of the Bill— [Interruption.] It is unbecoming for Government Whips who have conspired—I choose the word carefully—to ensure inadequate scrutiny, to protest from a sedentary position when a Member wants to discuss the Bill. They should recognise what has happened.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights spent a lot of time scrutinising the Bill. We were pleased by the speed with which the Minister replied to our letters. It must also be noted that the Government were willing to provide extra days in Committee, and that they provided two days on Report, when the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill got only one day— [Interruption.] The Government Whip, Ian Lucas, says that it was him—congratulations. However, is it not a pity to spoil it all with the programme motion, whereby important chunks of the Bill were not scrutinised? Ministers have done an excellent job—

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

We have responded to the Joint Committee's report because many of the changes in the Bill reflect its recommendations.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister

So much was done well by the Government, it is a pity that they failed on the fundamental question of Members being able to amend and debate important parts of the criminal law such as murder. To fail at that hurdle is unfortunate. In a spirit of compromise, I ask whether the Government will reflect on whether programme motions can better be used, in consultation with the Opposition parties, to ensure that if there is failure, we all fail, rather than us having sometimes unseemly rows about the failure to scrutinise. That does not look good, particularly given what the Prime Minister has said about the importance of the House being able to scrutinise. The Bill involves important matters, and those who have not been in Committee feel that this is their only chance to get stuck in. We have had good debates about some of the other issues. I urge the Secretary of State, who is listening, to think about what I have said and talk to his colleagues about it.

Debate interrupted (Programme Order, 23 March).

The Speaker put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair (Standing Order No.83E), That the Bill be now read the Third time.

The House divided: Ayes 283, Noes 62.

Division number 87 Pension Credit and Personal Expense Allowance (Duty of Consultation and Review) — Schedule 21 — Repeals

Aye: 283 MPs

No: 62 MPs

Aye: A-Z by last name


No: A-Z by last name


Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill read the Third time and passed.