I ask the Serjeant at Arms to investigate the delay in the No Lobby.
The House having divided:
Question accordingly negatived.
Proceedings interrupted (Programme Order, this day )
The Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Question necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time. (
Amendment proposed: 33, page 22, line 17, leave out ‘Youth Justice Board for England and Wales.’.—(Robert Flello.)
Question put, That the amendment be made.
The House divided:
Ayes 219, Noes 301.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. It would be helpful to inform that House that, having considered the matter further, the Government will not move amendments 47 and 48.
I beg to move amendment 2, page 24, in schedule 5, leave out lines 9 and 10.
In the past few days, many Members will have received e-mails from their constituents about the important issue of the chief coroner’s office. I want to begin by thanking colleagues from across the House for their kind expressions of support for the amendment, and on the broader question of the necessity of change in the coronial system. I tabled the amendment with the full support of the Royal British Legion, Inquest and the British Medical Association, and I have recently found out that Liberty also supports it, which might divide opinion on this side of the House. All those organisations want to see a chief coroner appointed as soon as possible, and my amendment would achieve exactly what the British Legion and others are asking for. Put simply, leaving out lines 9 and 10 would ensure that the chief coroner—a post agreed on a cross-party basis—is left out of the Bill.
Before I elaborate on why I consider this such an important issue, let me explain what I think the issue we are debating today is not about. It is not about costs, certainly not about the untested costs that have been put about by the Ministry of Justice. It is not about bureaucracy and it is certainly not about seeking to delay urgent reform to the coroner system, the need for which is agreed on all sides. The crucial issue in leaving the chief coroner out of the Bill is the independent leadership needed in the coroner system to drive long overdue reform. It is also about respect for the families of those who have had to go through the system.
In less than a month’s time, our nation will pause and reflect on the bravery of our armed forces. Getting to grips with the failings in the coronial system is an opportunity for us all to reflect and pause together as parliamentary representatives to support the bereaved families of our service personnel.
I wholeheartedly support the hon. Gentleman’s amendment and congratulate him on tabling it. Does he agree that this is part of an evolving military covenant issue whereby we ensure that we fulfil our duty as parliamentarians to the people who serve our country in the most difficult circumstances at the front line and those who support them?
I do, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support. We all want to honour the military covenant; there is no doubt about that across the House. We might sometimes disagree about how best to achieve that, but I think sorting out our coronial system is key to it, and appointing a chief coroner, as agreed on a cross-party basis previously, certainly honours the covenant.
Some polling has been undertaken on this issue, so I can inform the House what the public appear to think about this important matter. Recent polling conducted by ComRes tells us that eight out of 10 people believe the way we treat bereaved armed forces families says a lot about our values as a nation. A further 85% say that families deserve as much support as we can possibly give through the system, while three quarters agree that Britain owes a great debt to the families of those who sacrifice their lives in the service of the country. Furthermore, more than three quarters say we must support the families of deceased armed forces personnel in order to honour the memory of those who have given their lives. That is something that I am sure is shared on all sides.
I am not quite sure what that means. Does my hon. Friend mean to say that independent coroners do not presently support the families or does he think that the imposition of a chief coroner will make it better for them? I am quite taken by the idea that we already have independent coroners who talk on behalf of the families and say some things we do not like. I am concerned that a chief coroner might put orders down that people have to obey. I like the independence of coroners.
I thank my hon. and gallant Friend for that intervention, as it demonstrates why the Government’s position does exactly the opposite to what he wants. By placing this in the hands of Ministers, which is what the Government propose, rather than in the hands of a chief coroner, we risk losing independence completely. As to going through the coronial system, sadly, some people have gone through it and have been treated appallingly. I shall provide some examples later. My hon. Friend’s intervention rather supports my arguments.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his amendment. He rightly emphasises its significance for military personnel and their families, but does he agree that it goes much wider than that? As to the need for a coronial system that is fully independent of the Government and their Departments, I refer him to the report of Dame Janet Smith on the Shipman victims. She came precisely to the same conclusion as him—that we need a coronial system that is fully independent.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman, who has pre-empted part of my speech, which the House will be pleased to know I no longer need to elaborate, so I can somewhat reduce my speaking time. That point was made previously and he is quite right to highlight it.
I want to talk about three key issues: independent leadership, training in oversight and the issue of appeals. Before I do, however, I want to deal with costs. As I said, the Ministry of Justice costings of £11 million for start-up and £6.6 million recurrent for the chief coroner are, in the view of many, inflated. Before I give two examples to prove my point, it is worth considering what the public told ComRes about what they think of costs for an issue like this one. I am second to none in arguing that we need to drive down the costs of government, but there is always a balance to be struck.
According to the ComRes poll, more than two thirds of the public believe that appointing a chief coroner is a matter of principle, not a question of costs. We would all agree that ensuring the most appropriate support to families going through the system must always come ahead of costs. There are two examples from the costings put about by the Ministry of Justice previously in 2008. One is that the IT system will cost £3.8 million, while the second is that £564,000 will be used on a public launch and other publications for this position. I know that the Royal British Legion would be particularly keen to have this discussion. In its alternative to the Government’s proposals, it stated:
“The Royal British Legion and INQUEST would share the Government’s concerns about costings if they were as high as the Ministry of Justice figures suggest”.
The answer is to challenge those costings in a way that the coalition Government have sadly not been able to do since they came to power and to look seriously at the alternative costings put forward by the Royal British Legion and Inquest. It is a bit difficult because I have not had access to all the necessary budget lines. Those organisations have proposed a slower roll-out so the costs can be challenged and spread across the Parliament.
The hon. Gentleman is putting his case well. On that point about costings, does he know that the Royal British Legion, Inquest, CRY and a whole host of other organisations, along with Members, have repeatedly tried—whether through parliamentary questions, freedom of information or whatever—to get the information from the Ministry of Justice, yet at every opportunity, it clams up and refuses to give the detailed figures?
I do not want to get into too much of a political spat, particularly when I am speaking from the Government Benches, but those organisations have repeatedly made the point that they have been unable to gain access to all the information. Perhaps they did not do so before the general election either. Perhaps it is a systemic problem, but having access to that information is important, particularly if so much emphasis is going to be placed on costs, as appears to be the case.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman would agree that the families are most important. The families need to have confidence in the system, and they indicated that their confidence would lie with the chief coroner rather than the independent coroner. Does he feel that that is what we should really be doing and that the families know best?
It is always easy to concentrate on the emotive issues in debates like this, and it can be very powerful, but I also believe there are less emotive reasons for pursing this policy. I would not suggest for a moment than anybody does not want to support families; it is a question of how we drive the reform forward. It is a bit like the discussion last night, when the Conservative party was united but had different tactics.
Does my hon. Friend recognise that it would be possible to have a chief coroner who could provide professional leadership by the designation of an existing coroner without going into the very large costs involved in the original proposal and without involving the chief coroner in running an appeals system, which might more appropriately remain a matter for reference under law to the courts?
My right hon. Friend makes a point that I was coming to. We have not identified where the savings could be in this system. Many would contend that the costs of adjourned and delayed hearings and of expensive judicial reviews could be taken out of the system by the chief coroner. My concern is that far too much emphasis has been placed on costs.
I said that I was going to talk about three particular issues. The first is independent leadership, which I think we all agree lies at the heart of the chief coroner’s appointment and is the reason for his status as linchpin of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009. Parliament accepted back then that if real reform was to be achieved, there must be an independent judicial leader with responsibility for spearheading that reform. Independence is key.
I was a member of the Committee that considered the Coroners and Justice Bill, and I remember that it was supported by not only the Government of the day, but the Front Bench of the hon. Gentleman’s party and the Liberal Democrats. One of the key points made by the Liberal Democrat Front-Bench spokesman was that the person concerned would be independent of Government.
The hon. Gentleman has pre-empted another stage of my speech. Although I was not here at the time, perhaps mercifully, I know that the matter was dealt with on a cross-party basis.
Paul Goggins referred to Lady Justice Smith’s report, and I want to refer to five issues that were raised in it. It found that the current system had offered inconsistent levels of service—which I think addresses the point made by my hon. Friend Bob Stewart—and that families and friends were insufficiently involved in coroners’ investigations. It found an absence of quality controls and independent safeguards—once again, we see the word “independent”—a lack of consistency, leadership or training, and, in some instances, an absence of medical knowledge. The report also stated that the
“coronial jurisdiction should be re-formed on modern judicial lines, as a national jurisdiction, small in size but comparable to other jurisdictions in having a Chief Coroner'”.
Although it could be claimed that that report said all that needs to be said about independent leadership, the desperate need to address the issue was perhaps put as well as it could have been by the Lord Chancellor in a written ministerial statement on
“As the functions to be transferred are limited, and the Office of Chief Coroner not filled, neither the judge nor any other individual will be responsible for the leadership, culture or behaviour of coroners.”—[Hansard, 14 June 2011; Vol. 728, c. 62WS.]
That cannot be right. The Lord Chancellor’s statement implicitly acknowledged the need for judicial, and thus independent, leadership to address the culture of coroners, while simultaneously refusing to address it.
If the three Front Benches were indeed in agreement in Committee, what has happened since to turn the position on its head?
The hon. Gentleman is tempting me down a path on which I should probably not embark, but I repeat that, in my view, the emphasis has been on cost. I agree with the Bill that there should be a burning of the quangos. Having spent 10 years as a local councillor, I know how overburdened the country has become, and I would support any measure that would save money. There is a debate to be had about costs, and I think that that is the debate we should be having, rather than a debate about whether the position exists at all.
The statement made by the Lord Chancellor back in June failed to recognise that the chief coroner’s office was a single senior judicial post with statutory powers. The Government’s proposals will dismantle the office and transfer some, but not all—by any stretch of the imagination—of those powers to other judicial and political figures, which risks creating another fragmented structure where lines of accountability are opaque and clear leadership absent.
The second issue that I want to raise is monitoring and training. That was one of the most important functions of the chief coroner under the Coroners and Justice Act, which gave him the job of both monitoring investigations of service deaths and ensuring that coroners who conducted such inquests were suitably trained.
I too was a member of the Committee considering the Coroners and Justice Bill, and I support the hon. Gentleman’s amendment. Another issue that should be considered is the inconsistency in the recording of verdicts, especially narrative verdicts, which has been creeping in increasingly. In some coronial systems, coroners are recording up to 59% deaths as “other”, which means that we are unclear about how those people died. Nationally, the average is 14%. That has a particular impact in cases of suicide. We must look ahead, because we know that we shall have a huge mental health problem when our troops come back from the front.
One of the most important tasks of the chief coroner would have been supplying an annual report to Parliament, which would have enabled issues such as that to be debated here and, indeed, in another place.
Let me return to monitoring and training. The Lord Chancellor’s written ministerial statement made it clear that the provision for ensuring that coroners were suitably trained and the monitoring of investigations would not now be transferred or implemented. Crucially, although the Government claim that their proposals will allow training to happen, the statement removes the requirement for training, and instead puts it under section 37 of the Act, which simply states that training regulations on training “may” be issued.
It also concerns me that the monitoring of service inquests is currently completed by the defence inquest unit. In the context of transparency and accountability, I understand why many would see a conflict of interests. The DIU is part of the Ministry of Defence, which in the case of the deaths of service personnel is also the employer, and it will therefore be an interested party in relation to such investigations.
I was responsible for the establishment of the DIU in an attempt to improve the service that we gave to coroners and thence the service that they could give to service personnel. However, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: there is a fundamental conflict of interests, given that the Ministry of Defence is attempting to assist an independent coronial service to such a degree. That separation of powers, coupled with the need to improve service and timeliness for bereaved service families, goes to the heart of the need for a chief coroner.
The right hon. Gentleman has much more expertise in this area than I do. His powerful comments will have been heard, and I think that they prove exactly why we want the chief coroner in post to ensure that there is monitoring and that it is completely independent of Government.
I have already mentioned the chief coroner’s parliamentary oversight through the annual report, so I will not dwell on that. Instead, let me turn to the issue of appeals. I do not deny that a key aspect of the chief coroner’s functions—hearing appeals—is a bone of contention both in the House and outside. My personal instinct was to be somewhat sceptical, which is why I examined the appeals system in a bit more detail.
I certainly would not advocate the removal of the chief coroner from the Bill if I did not also believe that a chief coroner—as Parliament agreed when it passed the legislation—would reduce the need for so many bereaved people to engage in expensive litigation, as they must at present, through judicial review. I do not think that anyone wants a system in which people’s experience of the system is extended through protracted appeals. However, it cannot be right that at present the only avenue of appeal that is open to the families of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice, and who want to challenge the decisions of coroners and their conduct at an inquest, is a complex and expensive judicial review system, or persuading the Attorney-General to exercise his power of fiat. Surely it would be much more cost-effective and efficient for a High Court judge as chief coroner to resolve some legal issue currently resolved in the administrative court. The alternative proposed by the Royal British Legion is to trial this. Therefore, it is accepted that there is a debate to be had about appeals. Adopting the joint RBL and Inquest proposal for an appeals trial is sensible.
Although my knowledge of the subject is limited, I have explained as best I can the most compelling arguments for leaving the chief coroner out of the Bill. I think this is the right way to proceed, and the ComRes poll to which I referred earlier illustrates that I am in good company. One of its findings is that 60% of the public believe a chief coroner should be appointed immediately—although polls must always be taken in the context in which they are asked, and all of us who are involved in politics know how they work. The theme running through the ComRes poll is that people want more support for bereaved families and a system that is independent of Government, and they want that quickly. I think all Members support that.
I readily concede that those who have been through the system are far better advocates of this case than me. In the last few days, we will all have received an e-mail from Gareth Turkington, the brother of Lieutenant Neal Turkington, who served in the Royal Gurkhas and who, sadly, died in Afghanistan. Gareth’s e-mailed letter to MPs contained some powerful phrases about the current system. He says:
“It was one of the most harrowing experiences of our lives…We as a family sought a full, independent, impartial inquest—precisely the function of the coroner—to establish how the event had happened and the circumstances of how Neal was killed. What we witnessed instead was a lack of rigorous investigation and a denial of any form of accountability or responsibility for duty of care towards Neal’s safety.”
Such situations do not only arise in respect of service deaths, as other people have similar experiences of the system. Sue Ainsworth, a lead midwife at the University Hospital of North Tees, also gave evidence on this issue. Her 21-year-old son died from sudden cardiac arrest. Her testimony is powerful. She states that the inquest took eight months and she found the system in many respects to be lacking in any empathy for the situation she had faced. She concludes:
“The coroner’s conduct was unacceptable. When I refused to be quiet at the Inquest and persisted in asking questions, it was then hurriedly concluded with the pathologist and the coroner abruptly leaving the room.”
If that is a manifestation of respect in the system, I would not like to know what disrespect is.
Sadly, such experiences are not isolated incidents. Many coroners fulfil their role perfectly well, but others do not. Although people can point to good and bad practice in the current system, the fact that there is bad practice suggests to me, taking a common sense point of view, that there has to be somebody at the top, such as a chief coroner—or perhaps someone holding a less expensive position—who is independent of Ministers and who can drive this reform, and who ensures there is accountability back to Parliament. That is why, at present, I intend to press this amendment to a Division.
I would like to begin by paying tribute to Andrew Percy on his excellent contribution and on tabling his amendment, which we will support. He articulated succinctly and powerfully why the Government are wrong on this issue and must think again. He made it clear that this is not about party politics; rather, it is a matter of national concern. We share that view.
The last time this Bill was debated in the Chamber, the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General said he was confident that the Government’s proposals to transfer certain statutory functions from the role of chief coroner would “gain widespread support”. He could not have been more wrong. I am not aware of a single organisation that has accepted the wisdom of the Government’s approach; instead, all remain highly critical. In fact, the Government have managed to manoeuvre themselves into a situation where they are pitched against the Royal British Legion, INQUEST, Cruse Bereavement Care, Victim Support, Action against Medical Accidents, Cardiac Risk in the Young, the Child Bereavement Charity, Disaster Action, Support after Murder and Manslaughter, Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide, The Compassionate Friends, RoadPeace and Brake, the road safety charity. It is a remarkable achievement for any Government to find themselves opposed on such an issue by so many organisations that do so much good work for so many people in this country.
It is also important to add to the list the Marchioness Action Group, the stillbirth and neonatal death charity and other charities and organisations who say with one voice that the Government have got this wrong and that they should change their mind.
My hon. Friend adds to the list, and a written answer from the Ministry of Justice to my hon. Friend states that it is calculated that at least 95% of responses to the Department’s consultation on the Bill support the RBL call not to abolish the position of chief coroner.
It is widely acknowledged that there are currently great variations in both the manner and quality of coronial inquests. It is clear that reform is long overdue. The creation of the post of chief coroner was at the heart of the new reforms introduced under the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, and that was the result of three years of review and consultation and proposed on the basis of cross-party support.
There is also inconsistency in the willingness of coroners to collaborate with academic research, which can be vital, such as in demonstrating health changes, in particular in relation to suicide, which is an area on which I focus. Some coroners are more than happy to open their records, so we can get an accurate picture of what some of the narrative verdicts actually mean. Others will not allow access to their records, and research is therefore skewed so we do not get an accurate picture of deaths in this country.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. Before the recent legislation, review after review into the coroner system recommended that a chief coroner was the only way to bring about the required changes. In 2003, the Luce review, a fundamental review into death certification and investigation, found that the coroner system was outdated, inconsistent and unsympathetic to families. One of its headline recommendations was for the establishment of a chief coroner position to handle appeals and oversee standards. That review was followed by Dame Janet Smith’s third report of the Shipman inquiry, which again proposed that leadership for coroners should come from an independent chief coroner.
I am slightly worried. I like the idea of having independent coroners, and I do not like the idea of instruction coming down to them; I like the idea of these coroners possibly saying something that we might not find acceptable. That is why I am slightly worried about the idea of a chief coroner imposing, or suggesting, rules downwards. I would like to make sure that that does not happen.
The hon. Gentleman knows that I have the utmost respect for him and especially for the distinguished service he gave to this country. I have to say to him that independence is at the heart of the proposal for the chief coroner. Introducing national leadership under the chief coroner’s post was rightly seen as a vital step towards tackling the problems of unacceptable delays, a lack of accountability and inconsistent standards across the country. The move would meet the interests of both bereaved families and the wider public in terms of quality, effectiveness of investigations and ensuring that knowledge is applied to prevent avoidable death and injury in the future.
Bob Stewart has a point, but it is not the poor coroners, of whom there are many, who say uncomfortable things and whose findings make Departments such as the Ministry of Defence very uncomfortable. It is the good coroners who do that. I am talking about people such as Mr Masters, the Trowbridge coroner, who does that very effectively. There is no consistency at the moment, as there is good and bad practice; there are two extremes of the spectrum. That is why we need a chief coroner to spread best practice throughout the system for the benefit of not only bereaved families, but government.
My right hon. Friend, who was an extremely good Secretary of State for Defence and did so much work to drive through improvements in this area, is of course right, which is why the reforms were universally welcomed by charities and professionals. It was on the basis of a political consensus on both sides of the House that it was determined that a chief coroner was needed. At the time, James Brokenshire, who is now a Minister in the Home Office, said:
“We all welcome the establishment of the chief coroner”.—[Hansard, 26 January 2009; Vol. 487, c. 111.]
The Government now want to go against those recommendations at a time when, if anything, inquests are becoming more complex. The Lord Chancellor has acknowledged the limited nature of the Government’s proposals, making it clear that no
“individual will be responsible for the leadership, culture or behaviour of coroners.”—[Hansard, 14 June 2011; Vol. 529, c. 66WS.]
That is precisely why we need a chief coroner in the first place.
The Government cite the costs of setting up and running the office of the chief coroner as the main reason for scrapping the role but, as has been said, the credibility of their own figures has been questioned on numerous occasions by third parties since the initial impact assessment was made some three years ago. The Government have not properly factored in the costs of failing to implement the reform, such as the £500,000 spent every year on judicial reviews or the costs associated with transferring some of the functions from the office of the chief coroner to the Lord Chief Justice. Most significantly, given that the current system is failing to learn from previous fatalities, the costs of repeated and expensive investigations and inquests into similar deaths are not included in the cost assessment.
I am aware that other hon. Members wish to speak, so I shall conclude. On Saturday, I had the great privilege of launching the poppy appeal in Barnsley with the Hoyland and District branch of the Royal British Legion, of which I am a proud member. I did the launch with members of the public, local councillors, volunteers and a number of veterans who have served this country in the armed forces with such distinction, and I pay tribute to their service and sacrifice. The director general of the Royal British Legion, Mr Chris Simpkins, has said that axing the chief coroner would be
“a betrayal of bereaved Service families”.
He is absolutely right, and I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, Mr Djanogly would want to listen to the words of the Royal British Legion. In case he missed the point, I repeat that Mr Simpkins said that this would be
“a betrayal of bereaved Service families”.
Honouring that commitment to create the office of chief coroner is the first test of the Government’s commitment to the military covenant—that bond between our nation and our armed forces. Failing in their duty to meet that test would make a mockery of the Government’s assurances of greater support for the military and their families. As hon. Members have mentioned, this is also about speaking up for those other organisations that represent families who have suffered bereavement in different circumstances.
I tend to agree with the general argument that the hon. Gentleman is making but I am not certain that I agree with some of the hyperbole about sticking up for our armed forces families, which every single Member of the House does whichever side of this argument they may be on. I am not sure that is a sound argument. Does he agree with his right hon. Friend the former Secretary of State for Defence? His point is that people like Mr Masters in Wiltshire and, indeed, the Oxfordshire coroner are great experts in military inquests and that that has been fine while the bodies have been coming back through Lyneham and/or Brize Norton but that if we are to spread out the inquests across England and the rest of Britain as we hope to do, we need to make sure that that degree of expertise is enjoyed by all the coroners across the area. That is why we need better training and a chief coroner.
The hon. Gentleman is right and he makes a powerful case for our argument. It is the inconsistency of standards that we are concerned about. There are good coroners but, if we are honest, looking back at recent cases there are many examples of where the system has not worked, and that simply is not acceptable. That is why the Opposition will stand firm behind the armed forces and their families, behind the Royal British Legion and behind other bereaved families who have been let down time and again in the past by the coroner system.
Before this debate, I received a message from the Royal British Legion that said:
“Here’s hoping MPs of all parties will do the right thing by bereaved families, especially bereaved Armed Forces families, at this poignant time”—[Interruption.]
Those are the words of the Royal British Legion. We will do the right thing and the Government should too.
I thank my hon. Friend Andrew Percy for initiating this important debate and I thank Michael Dugher for his contribution. I thank also stakeholders, particularly the noble Baroness Finlay, the Royal British Legion, INQUEST and Cardiac Risk in the Young for their passion and commitment to reform. I have met them all on numerous occasions and our discussions have helped to shape the Government’s thinking on our proposals for reform of the coroner system. I have to say that our discussions have not been just of the yes/no variety described by the hon. Gentleman.
We are all aware of the importance of the issue and the outcome of this debate has the potential to affect thousands of people who come into contact with the coroner system, often in exceptionally difficult circumstances. Honouring the memory of those who give their lives for their country is very close to the heart of this Government, as it is to all hon. Members I am sure, but I point out to my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole that our reforms go further, as they concern all coroners, not just military inquests.
Hon. Members will be well aware of the Government’s position on this. Urgent reform is needed to drive up standards across the piece and to learn lessons from the inquest process. This must be achieved through consistent training for coroners, by tackling the cause of delays in the inquest process, by setting a framework of standards that the bereaved have the right to expect from the coroner system and by removing barriers to hearing inquests at the most convenient location for bereaved families.
After the disgraceful comments of the Minister’s colleague, who said, “These people are a disgrace,” this Minister said that he had had many discussions with the Royal British Legion, INQUEST and the like. Will he comment on the observations of those organisations that following those meetings they discovered that what had been said to one group about one organisation differed from what that organisation had actually said? There has much sleight of hand.
I would disagree with that. I had meetings with them together as well as separately. It is true that they opposed our proposals on one hand, but they were also in discussions with us in order to make our proposals work better. I was very grateful for their input and I can tell hon. Members that what has come about has been based partly on the changes they suggested.
The Coroners and Justice Act 2009 enables us to do all the things I have outlined. I accept that the Act, as originally drafted, envisaged that some functions would be carried out by a chief coroner, but that is not the only way of implementing the reforms. Indeed, the transfer of functions to the Lord Chief Justice and the Lord Chancellor will ensure that they are taken forward quickly, effectively and without the cost associated with establishing the office of chief coroner. I assure hon. Members that the independence of the judiciary is every bit as secure in the hands of the Lord Chief Justice as it would have been in the hands of the chief coroner. Debates in this House and the other place, as well as my own stakeholder engagement, have clearly shown that there are widely held misconceptions about the extent of the chief coroner’s powers. In practice, the chief coroner’s powers to direct coroners would have been limited and any leadership would have been provided entirely through influence and persuasion.
Is the Minister not aware from his meetings with the various groups that have been mentioned that the current Government’s engagement with them on the issue has given them absolutely no confidence in the idea that some of these responsibilities would rest with the Lord Chancellor and some of his Ministers in future?
I have not come away with that impression when I have met those organisations.
Let me set out plainly that the chief coroner would not have had any enforcement powers to ensure authorities comply with actions to prevent future deaths that coroners may have reported to them. The chief coroner would not have had the power to investigate complaints about the conduct of coroners or, indeed, to direct a coroner on how to conduct an investigation. Complaints, quite rightly, will continue to lie with the Office for Judicial Complaints. The chief coroner would not, as some have suggested, have been responsible for managing or appraising individual coroners. On administrative issues, the chief coroner would not have been answerable to Parliament, as the Minister will be under our proposed ministerial board.
Mrs Moon said that, without a chief coroner, inconsistencies in the reporting of suicide verdicts and the increasing use of narrative verdicts would continue. The chief coroner would have had no remit to direct coroners in how they use narrative verdicts. Coroners are independent judicial office holders. Only coroners can decide on the appropriate form of verdict.
I served on the Committee that considered the Coroners and Justice Bill, and one of the things that I discussed throughout was the role of the chief coroner. One of my concerns was the totally fragmented nature of the system. I was given an absolute assurance in Committee that the chief coroner would have the capacity to oversee and call in verdicts and to ensure not only consistency but investigation, where there were suicide clusters in particular.
The hon. Lady is very involved with coroners. We have had several meetings on coroners. She is dedicated to coronial reform—I respect her for that—but I am afraid that what she thought was the position arising from the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 is not right. Such inconsistencies and misconceptions are rife, which is why I feel that it is so important to address them now.
Let me move on, otherwise I shall not get through.
Under the proposals announced to Parliament on
I found it somewhat sad to hear some hon. Members suggest that we are letting down service families. If we were leaving the office in the 2009 Act alone and not implementing the changes, I would agree with them. However, we are providing real and significant changes to the system that will directly improve the experience and treatment of service personnel families who come into contact with the coroner system.
The Government are making a huge mistake. The sooner the Minister realises that the better. He has been very evasive about the costings and has refused absolutely to interrogate the figures that he seems to have been given by his officials. Will he now explain what estimate he has made of the additional costs that will be incurred by transferring statutory functions from the chief coroner to the Lord Chief Justice?
I will come on to the costings and explain why the costings provided by the last Government were correct—we checked them—but let me finish what I was saying.
The powers will allow the Department of Health to proceed with its proposals to introduce a new system for examining the causes of death, thereby fulfilling one of the key recommendations of Dame Janet Smith’s report on the Shipman inquiry.
Concerns were expressed in Committee that I might not give this work the priority that it deserves. That could not be further from the truth. In particular, we have plans to establish a new ministerial board to drive these reforms, to provide oversight of the non-judicial aspects of the coroner system, and to provide a direct line of accountability on these matters to Parliament. We will also establish a bereaved organisations committee that will support the board and provide those who represent bereaved families with a direct line to Ministers.
One of the concerns of the Justice Committee has been about the uncertain and widely differing arrangements for providing financial support for coroners and the widely differing arrangements for providing coroners officers, who are sometimes provided by the police and sometimes by the local authority, with no uniform standard of training. Will the system that the Minister is describing deal with this problem?
Yes, the board will be there to address policy issues such as those that my right hon. Friend mentioned. It is important to keep in mind that the position of chief coroner would have had power over none of those.
The ministerial board will meet quarterly, with the dates fixed and publicised well in advance so that meetings cannot be cancelled without good reason. The board will also have a strong independent feel to it, with coroners and other members sitting on it, together with representatives from the bereaved organisations committee.
The new committee will be independently chaired and I have given commitments that the chair cannot be appointed or removed without the approval of committee members. I would expect the chair to become a powerful advocate for the bereaved and be a champion of coroner reform. If the Government are not delivering on this package of reforms, I would expect the chair to hold us to account.
The bereaved organisations committee will have a particular remit to monitor the new charter for coroner services. The charter, which we intend to publish in early 2012 following the recent consultation exercise, will set out for the first time the standards of service that those coming into contact with the system can and should expect. This will play a vital role in driving up standards of service and helping people to understand their rights and responsibilities in relation to the coroner system.
I am listening carefully because I, like others, need some persuasion. Why would it not be possible, compatible with all the other arrangements that the Minister is setting out, for one coroner to be designated as the chief coroner, to have the same sort of responsibility for the coronial service as a presiding judge has in a circuit or over one of the divisions of the High Court, and to be the route of communication up and down at no or no significant additional cost?
We would expect that to be the situation because we would expect the Lord Chief Justice, who would be responsible for the judicial aspects, to appoint someone, but that would be within current costings. I should also say, because this was raised by the hon. Gentleman’s right hon. Friend Sir Alan Beith in an earlier remark, that that cannot, under existing legislation, be an existing coroner. It can be only a High Court judge or a circuit judge. That would be at a cost of some £400,000 a year.
If the right hon. Gentleman does not mind, I do not have much time and I must proceed.
I want to reassure hon. Members that the Government have listened to concerns expressed here and in the other place and by a large number of organisations. We have responded to these concerns and we have compromised, so we no longer intend to abolish the office of the chief coroner. Moving the office from schedule 1 to schedule 5 means that we will retain the chief coroner in statute. We have listened to the views of stakeholders on the constitution and remit of the new ministerial board and bereaved organisations committee and we have amended our proposals accordingly. We are considering a requirement for the new board to produce an annual report to Parliament, as my hon. Friend Andrew Percy wished, strengthening further the accountability for and transparency of our reform proposals.
The Government’s decision not to proceed with full implementation was not taken lightly. My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole, I thought, made somewhat light of the costs of the chief coroner. The simple fact is that we cannot afford the establishment costs of £10.9 million and running costs of £6.6 million per year, especially when functions can be carried out from within existing resources.
I can get back to my hon. Friend on that. I will write to him. I do not have the figures to hand.
I note the concerns that hon. Members have raised about the establishment and running costs, which are of course drawn from the original impact assessment prepared by the previous Administration which accompanied the Coroners and Justice Act. However, even if Opposition Members now dispute their own figures, we cannot escape the fact that new funding is required at a time when the Ministry of Justice is facing budget cuts of some 23%. As Robert Flello knows very well, we placed a breakdown of our figures in the House of Commons Library months ago. The alternative package of reforms can, I firmly believe, deliver the policy intentions of part 1 of the 2009 Act, but without the expense of establishing and maintaining the office of the chief coroner.
I can confirm to my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole that I have considered the new Royal British Legion and INQUEST proposals for an elongated implementation timetable in order to spread the cost of the office of chief coroner, but their proposals would mean a delay to the urgently needed reforms of several years, and there is no guarantee that even then funding will be available to establish the office. At best there would be a delay to reform, and at worst there would be no reform at all.
I began by speaking of the urgent need for reform, and I would urge my hon. Friend to consider the ramifications of his amendment. If the office of chief coroner were to be removed from schedule 5, the office would be left in statute, but with no prospect of its powers being implemented. In turn, without the ability to transfer chief coroner functions elsewhere, we would be prevented from implementing all but a small handful of provisions in part 1 of the 2009 Act. That would leave us with the worst possible outcome: little or no meaningful reform. That would be unacceptable; not least to the families of the bereaved who deserve and expect urgent reform of the system.
I therefore urge my hon. Friend to withdraw his amendment so that we can proceed with the urgent and much needed reform of the coroner system.
I want to place on record, adding to what has been said already, my admiration for the speech of Andrew Percy. I speak as one of the Members of Parliament for Blackpool, a town which has had a strong focus on service issues and which was involved in the launch of veterans week. I also declare an interest as chair of the all-party veterans group.
The argument for retaining the office of chief coroner cannot be divorced from the trauma and tragedy of the unexplained deaths and unanswered questions around Deepcut barracks over a seven-year period. Deepcut is not the only place from which the grief and trauma of the families who galvanised the urgency for the office came. I was first involved in this issue through the work of my colleague, the former Member of Parliament for Blackpool North and Fleetwood, Joan Humble, who took up the case of Lance Corporal Derek McGregor, who died at the Catterick barracks in July 2003. His father was one of Joan’s constituents. She chaired the all-party group on Army deaths, which focused on peacetime non-combat deaths. She has not forgotten the issue, and nor have the bereaved families of service personnel. This Saturday there will be a conference in Blackpool for bereaved service families organised by the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association. Those bereaved families hoped and believed that the office of the chief coroner would have a team to look systematically at the other reports from coroners on Army deaths and to make recommendations to the Ministry of Defence. It is in that context that the whole issue of narrative verdicts on how a son or daughter has died is important, not simply in giving some comfort to the bereaved relatives, but crucially in the process of assessing and for transparency.
No, I will not give way because of the lack of time.
That is one of the issues that is at the heart of tonight’s debate. We have an opportunity to do something to respond to those views. The Minister’s response has been appalling. The Minister spent half of his speech on issues that were more or less off the subject, which is not surprising as he seems to have inhabited a parallel universe during most of his conversations with the groups who have put their case forward. At this of all times they urge the Government to do the right thing. I do not say this lightly, but in 14 years as a Member of the House I have seldom if ever read a more damning brief on the Government’s performance than that which many Members will have received from the Royal British Legion. It said:
“Any suggestion that a Chief Coroner just for military inquests could achieve the essential reforms needed would be misguided and would entirely miss the point. It is not what we are calling for….The Government’s costings are inflated” as many Members have said. It continues:
“Ministers have tried to imply that we are to blame for reforms supposedly being 'delayed'. We totally reject this misleading charge. It is the Government that is delaying reform. It was the Government who cancelled the Chief Coroner's appointment after the post had been filled…Why should they”—
“have to go to expensive judicial review when they could appeal to a Chief Coroner to resolve issues more speedily and cost-effectively?”
There seems to be no indication from the Government Front Bench that the building up of a body of evidence from the excellent coroners who have been referred to is a crucial part to the process. Instead, we have heard from a Minister on the defensive describing a whole collection of twisted and complex arrangements that will do nothing whatsoever.
I am sorry, but I will not.
The great military and diplomatic historian Garrett Mattingly said that to do justice to the dead as well as to the living is what matters. That is one of the issues at the heart of tonight's debate. I urge Members on both sides of the House to take those points on board, consider what the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole has said and support his amendment.
The Justice Committee has on two occasions—in its present and previous form—published reports dedicated not to the creation of an office or a title, but to fundamental reform of a system in which there are too many differences across the country. There are too many differences in the ability and efficiency of coroners, in how they are resourced and how their offices are provided for, and too little support and sympathy is shown for bereaved relatives, whether military or those who belong to any of the other categories that have been mentioned today. The important question is not the title, but whether the reforms are actually carried out.
The Minister left me a little confused on whether some High Court judge will ultimately have the words “chief coroner” added to his title. My primary objective is to see reform of the system, rather than someone acquire the title, merit though I see in there being someone who could exercise some professional leadership, just as the head of ACPO exercises professional leadership among police officers and the heads of other organisations.
I will not, as I want to be brief in order to allow another Member to speak in the time that remains.
The Justice Committee never wanted to see an office of the chief coroner that would be vast, expensive or become involved in the provision of an alternative appeals system, which in my view would never be a proper role for a chief coroner. A chief coroner could help to ensure that cases were handled by the right coroner and that the necessary advice had been given, but appeals against what happened in an inquest need to be to a superior court that has the capacity to examine the legal questions that will then arise.
The coroners system does not exist in Scotland. If military casualties were flown directly to Scotland, they would not be the subject of inquests, unless of course that were to be stipulated in the Bill, because the Scottish system depends on the procurator fiscal deciding that there is something to be investigated, which a wholly different approach. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, we have always assumed that having the coroner as an objective adjudicator of the cause of death in cases where that was in doubt, or where the state was involved, was a necessary part of our system. Making that system work effectively should be our primary objective.
I welcome the attention that the Royal British Legion has given the matter and remain of the view that it would be useful to have professional leadership from someone designated as chief coroner, but what I want more than anything is for the Government to go ahead with introducing proper, judicially based support for the coroners system so that we can ensure that coroners are properly resourced and are of even quality across the country.
The most telling intervention on Andrew Percy, who moved the amendment, was from Dr McCrea, who asked how we got to where we are. After three years of consultation, cross-party agreement and a full examination of what was needed, how did we get to a position in which that has been scrapped and thrown away by the Government as part of a bundle of measures intended to save costs—costs that they will not even share? How did we get to a position in which the Government continually say that there was constructive dialogue with organisations which basically claim that there has been skulduggery and no effective dialogue with them at all?
When Sir Alan Beith said he wanted clarification, the Minister made it clear from a sedentary position that no High Court judge would have the words “chief coroner” added to his title. There will be no independent leadership for the coronial system under what is proposed. It is the Government themselves who are causing that delay, not the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole or those of us who want to see the creation of the office of the chief coroner. It is the Government who are causing the delay and the only way to move them is to support the amendment so ably moved by—
Proceedings interrupted (Programme Order, this day)
The Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair (
The House divided: