I beg to move,
That this House
does not insist on their Amendment No. 53 to which the Lords have disagreed and agrees to amendments 53A to 53C proposed by the Lords in lieu of that Amendment.
Under Commons amendment 53, we would have retained the office of the chief coroner in statute but transferred its functions to the Lord Chief Justice and the Lord Chancellor. However, we recognised the desire to have a single judicial figure responsible for leading the coroner system, a view that was expressed in both Houses and by a range of stakeholders. We therefore tabled further amendments in the Lords that would allow us to implement the office of the chief coroner without delay and bring into force the range of chief coroner powers envisaged under part 1 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009.
We will not, however, implement the appeals provision under section 40 of the 2009 Act, which will be repealed. That will leave in place the existing system of redress, so that decisions can still be contested by way of judicial review or by application to the High Court by, or under the authority of, the Attorney-General.
The proposal before us will provide the system with leadership and will bring further improvements to jurisdiction, training and monitoring, and it will allow us to bring about all those things without further delay.
I beg to move an amendment, to leave out “agrees” and insert “disagrees”.
This is a similar debate to the last one, in the sense that the Government have now withdrawn an unreasonable proposal. The truth is, of course, that they did not have a majority in the other place to deliver either proposal, so although some good grace has been shown, there are also mathematical reasons to do with how the votes were going to go in the other place.
Hopefully, Members will never have recourse to the coronial system as a result of a sudden unexplained death of a loved one. We can all imagine that if we did, we would probably be in a difficult emotional condition. We would hope that we would be helped in discovering the true courses of that sudden and tragic death by a modern, professional, strong and independent-minded coroner.
Unfortunately, there have been too many cases reported in which the families, friends and colleagues of a loved one have felt let down by the coronial service that they have received. I do not need to dwell on the many occasions when the service was felt to have failed, but it became clear that the whole coronial service needed to be modernised, made more professional and above all made more accountable.
The Opposition are totally in favour of modernising public services that need to be modernised. We are in favour of reform, and I will not have anything else said. The view that the coronial service needs to be reformed and made more accountable is not simply that of a few party hacks in this place or elsewhere. It is the view of, for example, the Royal British Legion and of Inquest, an organisation of which many Members will have heard. Between them, those organisations represent many bereaved families, including the families of our fallen heroes. So I have been perplexed throughout the Bill’s progress by the Government’s continuing failure to respond, not to our arguments, but to the voices of the bereaved and those who represent them, to the extent that, as the House knows, the Bill Committee refused to allow witnesses from the Royal British Legion to appear before it so that we could hear what they had to say on behalf of those families.
In the previous Parliament, it became the settled will of this House and the other place that the way to achieve far-reaching reform of the whole coronial service should be—at least in part—through establishing a new post, the chief coroner. The chief coroner’s tasks were well debated at the time and I will not rehearse them. Then, there was a change of Government and, bizarrely, as part of their review of quangos, this Administration decided to abolish the post of chief coroner, notwithstanding the fact that that post is not a quango. We repeatedly warned that that would be a major error and we therefore fully support the Government’s decision to take the office of chief coroner out of schedule 5, thereby securing the post’s existence.
I am happy that the hard work of organisations such as the British Legion and Inquest, as well as that of many individuals, has finally paid off.
Like my hon. Friend, I supported the British Legion’s campaign throughout the Bill’s passage. I want to put something on the record briefly. Many representatives of faith communities in the city of Leicester have approached me because of their concerns that coronial services need to be improved across the piece and be sensitive to faith communities’ needs. I wanted to put that to the Minister, but he was speedier than I anticipated. Does my hon. Friend agree that representatives of faith communities should sit on the bereavement committee that the Minister is establishing to advise on those matters?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who played a distinguished role throughout the Committee’s proceedings and spoke on Second Reading and on Third Reading. I know that he pays close attention to such matters as a hard-working constituency representative in the city of Leicester. I agree with his points.
Let me outline the reasons why we felt uncomfortable with the direction that the Government were taking. We heard that they were going to perform a fairly undignified climb-down on the post of chief coroner, and it looked like a wholesale victory, but, as is becoming the Government’s custom, the announcement was not made in this House or the other place, but to the media. We heard about it on the BBC the night before the Bill went into Committee in the other place. I think that that is deplorable.
Many people were misled into saying that it was a wholesale victory for common sense and that the Government had finally listened. However, when we saw the detail of the proposals, it immediately became clear that there was a flaw at their centre. The Government have decided not to delete the post of chief coroner—we welcome that—but they have also decided, as the Minister just said, to repeal section 40 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009. That means that there will be no right of appeal against a coroner’s decision—as we have heard, from time to time, those decisions are contested—to the chief coroner, as the House originally intended.
The Government know perfectly well that there is no need to repeal section 40, which will allow for appeals in due course, since the 2009 Act understood that such action had to be taken carefully. A procedure was therefore put in place so that the process of appealing to the chief coroner would not be invoked until the Secretary of State allowed that to happen. We strongly believe that that should continue. In effect, the removal of the right of appeal will reduce the office of the chief coroner to an administrative post with limited oversight of the coronial system, and that is to be regretted. We agree with Inquest, which has circulated a note to all hon. Members today, that section 40 of the original Act should be retained and that a pilot for the appeals procedure could then be undertaken by the chief coroner when the post is filled. That review could be undertaken alongside the Ministry of Justice’s review. That would allow the Government to make an informed decision on how to proceed with reform of the coronial system. It seems that the Government are unwilling to make an informed decision, but have just decided, dogmatically, that there will be no appeals system. I strongly believe that a pilot would prove beyond doubt the efficacy of a national appeals system to the chief coroner. Why on earth would the Government withdraw that power? It is baffling.
Now we turn to the reason that the Government have given for the abolition of the right of appeal. The argument has been made in different ways at different times by various Ministers. They have tended to talk about saving money. I will not dwell on the issue of trying to save money by failing to have a proper review of how people may have lost their lives. It is hard to argue that we should save money in such an important area. Be that as it may, the Government have talked about saving money, but their costings are based on an analysis from 2008 and show a total saving—from doing away with the whole chief coroner system—of only £6.5 million. However, the estimated saving on the appeals process alone was only £1.5 million. That is a lot of money, but the saving estimate fails to take into account the likely additional costs that will arise if the Government have their way today and the appeals system is abolished.
The problem is that if aggrieved parties are denied the right of appeal to the chief coroner, they will seek judicial review, as the Minister confirmed. I suggest that the cost to the taxpayer of abolishing the appeal process will therefore be far greater than the savings made.
The hon. Gentleman talks as if the appeals system exists and is about to be removed, but in fact it does not exist, because the chief coroner was not appointed and the clauses were not put into effect. The situation that he is describing as some strange and horrific future possibility is actually what we have now.
Of course it is, and I am baffled by that intervention, given that I have just said that section 40 allows for an appeals system to be introduced in due course. What was envisaged was a proper coronial system with an appeals process and a chief coroner who would have authority over the whole system. The Government are seeking to stop that logical process, which could be tested first by a pilot, and to put in an illogical system, with a chief coroner who would effectively be reduced to a purely administrative post.
In response to a series of parliamentary questions and freedom of information requests, Ministers have revealed that at no stage have the Government estimated the likely costs of additional judicial reviews, as opposed to an appeals system. On that basis, it is odd to argue that savings will be inherent in this decision.
Surely having a right of appeal would just mean more cost and delay. The really important role that the coroner has had historically is to make a judgment and provide closure. Is not that the most important of the coroner’s responsibilities?
The two interventions have been revealing. Both interventions, and the Minister’s original speech, envisage more judicial reviews taking place in the absence of a proper and orderly appeals process. The problem with judicial review is that it is more expensive than the appeals system. It can take years and it is burdensome, bureaucratic and emotionally painful to the bereaved families. The average cost to an individual is £30,000. We are talking about people, such as families of service men and women, who may want to contest the decisions of a coroner. Under clause 40 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, there is a simple system that allows for an appeal to the chief coroner, which would create a precedent for the whole coronial service. Rather than that, the Government are resting their case on the fact that the appeal process will go through judicial review. That is not an appropriate way in which to handle a very sensitive service.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. He is being typically generous and kind. Judicial review is not a form of appeal. Sometimes it is used as collateral challenge, but it is not a form of appeal. It is used when there has been a procedural irregularity. The key message must be that the whole point of the coroner system is to get closure so that people can move on with their lives. A person has to get leave to apply for judicial review, and they must show that there has been some procedural irregularity or proper grounds for that kind of action to be taken.
The British Legion, which is closer to any of the service families than we are, says that it would prefer an appeals system. The hon. Gentleman has to say why he thinks that he understands better the needs of bereaved families than the British Legion. I suggest that he does not understand better, and nor do I. It is better to defer to the judgment of the British Legion.
I will not take any more interventions because there are other people who wish to catch the Deputy Speaker’s eye. The Government clearly want judicial review, but the problem is that it is a complex system. We will have the individual coroner’s court, the chief coroner and then the intervention of the judiciary through judicial review. It is a complicated administrative and legal process. Families who are bereaved and who simply do not understand what happened to their loved one want an explanation and the matter to be brought to closure. A judicial review can take years before an issue is resolved and cost tens of thousands of pounds.
Will the hon. Gentleman explain to the House why he thinks that the chief coroner’s decision is less likely to be judicially reviewed than any other decision?
There may be some judicial reviews under the chief coroner, but they will be fewer in number. It will be a far more efficient system. At the end of the day, we want to do what the families want. The families are saying to us—the British Legion questioned individual families—that they do not want what the Government are trying to achieve. If the Government’s reasoning is to save money, it would be more efficient, better emotionally and cheaper to allow section 40 to remain on the statute book so that a decision can be made in the fullness of time, with all the options having been carefully considered.
It has been suggested that removing the right of appeal, which was in the original Act and which the Government now wish to achieve, will effectively neuter the role of the chief coroner. More sinister than that is a rumour that is now circulating that the Government intend simply to fail to fill the post of chief coroner. Will the Minister now tell the House when he intends to fill that post?
I have said that I will not take any more interventions. The Government have moved considerably during the course of this Bill, and we will support the decision to retain the post of chief coroner. We welcome the Government’s decision in relation to that matter. For the reasons that I have given already, I will seek your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, to divide the House on the question of the retention of the right of appeal to the chief coroner.
I shall try to keep my remarks as brief as possible. I begin by welcoming the decision—I will not call it a climbdown—to retain the post of chief coroner. I moved an amendment in this place to reinstate the post, and in that vote I was grateful for the support of the Labour Front-Bench team and some of my hon. Friends.
It is important to rehearse one or two of the arguments, as Jon Trickett did, about why we need this reform and why Conservative Members, at the time, supported the creation of the post of chief coroner. There have been numerous examples of people and families receiving appalling and disgusting treatment at the hands of the coronial system. On Report, I mentioned a couple of such examples, and consequently, since then, other people in my area have come forward with their own examples.
We agreed, therefore, that there was a definite need for the reform and for the post of chief coroner. Of course, had the post been filled before this all started, we would not be in such a weak position, having advanced that argument. Nevertheless, I welcome the decision—whatever the reason—to reinstate the post. I look forward to hearing from the Minister, who tried to intervene on the Opposition spokesman, when exactly the post will be filled. One of the reasons I wanted to speak was to get an answer to that question.
I thank the Minister for that.
The question of the appeals process is not quite as simple or clear-cut as has been presented. Despite referring to the appeals process when I moved my amendment a few weeks ago, it was not one of the main drivers behind my joining the campaign. The fact that under the previous legislation it was accepted that the process would not start for some time demonstrates the difficulties that arise. There is the perception or concern that some people might use the appeals process almost to continue the grieving process. Members have talked about getting closure, but actually the appeals process can postpone that closure, which can be difficult for families.
I understand, therefore, that this is a difficult issue. The Opposition spokesperson made a sensible proposal—about having a trial—but that is not necessarily the answer, because, as the Minister said, those decisions can be judicially reviewed. The key point about the chief coroner was his role in driving the necessary reforms, which can continue with or without the appeals process.
Is not one of the key points about the chief coroner, as envisaged by the Minister, that he will be responsible for training and monitoring? My hon. Friend mentioned constituents who have had disagreements with the coronial system. Those problems would be solved if we had a chief coroner to look at training and monitoring.
Of course, the position was created precisely to drive that top-down change and to ensure that people’s experience of the coronial system was even and equal across the country. That is the element that we have to focus on. We have to accept that we are where we are—the other place has determined the matter—and that there will be no changes to the appeals process, although I hope that the Minister will not take that possibility off the table permanently. Perhaps we could reconsider that matter further down the line.
We now need to focus on getting the position filled and driving forward that change. I welcome the position that we are in, and I join the Opposition Front-Bench team in paying tribute to the role of the Royal British Legion, as well as organisations such as Inquest and, interestingly, the British Medical Association, which supported, and continues to support, the post of chief coroner. The Royal British Legion has done an exceptional amount of work in raising the matter and doggedly fighting for it.
This is also a question of our commitment to the covenant. Obviously it is not just service personnel families who are affected, but they are uppermost in our minds when we think about the post.
I welcome the fact that we have this position again. I hope that the appointment will be made as quickly as possible and that the genuine change that all of us, in all parts of the House, have agreed needs to be made, is indeed made. Finally, let me again make a plea to the Minister to consider the appeals process in due course, although I fully accept the complex nature of such appeals.
Let me begin by adding my praise to Inquest, the Royal British Legion and a host of other organisations, which are almost too numerous to mention, that have been behind the campaign to ensure that the Government finally saw sense on refilling the post of chief coroner—not appointing someone to the post, because it was filled. Somebody was appointed, but then, shall we say, let go. I also pay tribute to Andrew Percy for the work that he did, which is much appreciated.
I am extremely disappointed that, having been told time and again, and shown the error of their ways, the Government waited until the 11th hour—or not quite the 11th hour: it was probably around half past 7—finally to change their mind. However, they then behaved like a small child. Having been found out, they now want to kick the toys around spitefully. Section 40 can be introduced over time, in a measured way, using pilots. However, simply saying, “Okay, have the chief coroner, but you can’t have appeals,” looks petulant and leaves the Minister and the Ministry of Justice looking stupid. [ Interruption. ] Allow me to rephrase that, Mr Deputy Speaker. I did not mean for a moment to say that the Minister looked stupid; however, the stupidity of the actions stands out.
Inquest has said as recently as today that it envisages that section 40 would
“remain on the statute book until, at a time to be agreed in the future, the provision would be brought into force by the Secretary of State under section l82 of the Act so a full pilot and review of the appeals process could be undertaken by the Chief Coroner.”
That is totally sensible. Inquest continues:
“This would enable a properly costed, informed decision to be taken about rolling out a new avenue of appeal across coroners courts in England and Wales. Terms of the pilot and review would be decided between the Chief Coroner and the Ministry of Justice and, under our proposal”— the proposal put forward by Inquest and RBL—
“an appeals process would not come into effect for several years.”
All that is eminently doable, and to say otherwise is frankly wrong. Inquest continues:
“An appeals process overseen by the chief coroner would offer families a route to resolve poor decision making.”
That relates to the interventions from Charlie Elphicke—[ Interruption ]—who is probably tweeting at the moment.
I have got his attention—marvellous.
As Inquest says, this is about
“poor decision-making by coroners before and during the course of the inquest so that any legal questions on these points could be dealt with quickly and efficiently. Currently, the only avenue of appeal for bereaved families about the decision-making of coroners and their conduct of an inquest is through judicial review which, as well as being expensive and complex, will often result in lengthy delays and adjourned inquest hearings while the issue is dealt with by the High Court.”
Let me give a quick example. Sheila Taylor bravely came to this House and spoke at a meeting with Inquest on
“The Coroner’s Office didn’t inform us that we had a right to be present at the post-mortem. That had already been done before we were informed of Mike’s death, which made us suspicious. Was there some sort of cover-up? Had he been murdered? Had he been given the wrong drugs? The Coroner’s Officer was so rude in response to our questioning that we had to get our solicitor to speak to him on our behalf. We decided we needed a second toxicology report, but that caused a delay of 8 weeks before we could hold the funeral. You can imagine how upsetting that was.”
We can also imagine how upsetting it is for a family who have something that they are not happy about—indeed, something they have deep concerns about—but for whom the only avenue currently open is the judicial review approach, as Sir Alan Beith said. Families such as the Taylors have to decide whether they want their son’s funeral delayed even further and the coroner to take even longer to look at their case, while they go through the expensive and lengthy process of judicial review. It does not need be like that.
The hon. Gentleman was kind enough to suggest that I was tweeting. In fact, I was looking up the difference between judicial review and section 13 applications under the previous arrangements and section 40 appeals under the current arrangements, and it struck me that there was not much difference between the two. I wonder whether we are actually talking about a slightly illusory right of appeal.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should go and use a fully sized computer to conduct some proper research, rather than using a small hand-held device in the Chamber, which is probably not allowed by “Erskine May” in any case.
The Government have previously referred to cost, but—this has been said several times already, but I shall say it again because it is so important—the whole cost issue is a nonsense in many respects. Answers to parliamentary questions, responses to freedom of information requests and discussions with the Ministry of Justice have shown that the Government have not analysed the current costs of judicial reviews of coroners’ decisions or made any attempts to ascertain what the future costs might be, and have thus been unable to make any comparison with the section 40 appeals process.
If section 40 remains on the statute book, things can be done properly, carefully, steadily and slowly. There is no need for them to be done tomorrow. There is no need to say, as the Minister has, “We want to ensure that all this can be done quickly, so we must omit section 40.” I am sorry, but that is wrong, and I suggest that he should read the Act again.
I do not know whether the Minister suddenly thought “We are going to lose at the other end of the Corridor”, or whether there was a moment on Remembrance Sunday when he stood thinking about the ultimate sacrifice that people had made, and about the small sacrifice that the House could make by doing the right thing. Whatever the reason for his decision, however, I know for certain that he will not want to upset the Whips today, and that he therefore will not tell the House that he will not press the amendment that would remove section 40. That is a tragedy.
No doubt the Government will win the vote despite the brave stance of many Government Members, but notwithstanding that victory and notwithstanding the removal of section 40, which I am sure will happen, I ask the Minister to ponder this: he may win the vote, but he will have lost the moral and ethical argument. He will also have lost any chance of being viewed positively by the—sadly—tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of bereaved families out there, and those who represent them, who know that section 40 is the answer. He has done the right thing in regard to the chief coroner, for whatever reason, and I now ask him to do the right thing in this regard.
I believe that the Minister wants the chief coroner to be able to ensure that coroners are fully trained and know how to deal with issues so that no mistakes are made. Appeals are necessary only if things go wrong, so is not the solution to ensure that they do not go wrong in the first place?
I do not disagree with the Minister—he did say that the Government wanted to provide for training—but the point was made time and again from the Dispatch Box that there was no need for the chief coroner to do any of the things that were mentioned by Stephen Mosley. Thankfully the Minister has seen sense in that regard. However, if the hon. Gentleman is right and the existence of a chief coroner means that all coroners will finally be up to standard, there will be few if any appeals, so where is the harm in including section 40? I suggest that there is no harm in it at all.
I think that the Minister needs to do the right thing. I know that he will not do it today, but I know that it will be done at some point in the future.
Order. Before I call the next speaker, may I point out that discreet use of hand-held devices is allowed in the Chamber? If it were not, I would have disallowed it in this instance.
The Select Committee on Justice has taken extensive evidence on the failings in the coronial system and the need for reform. We felt strongly that there should be a chief coroner and I continued to press that argument with Ministers on many occasions. The Government found alternative ways of trying to achieve the same things, and it would be wrong to suggest that in their use of the powers of the Lord Chief Justice they were not hoping to achieve significant reform.
Clearly there is consensus about reform. Anyone who has seen the experience of families who have had delayed inquests or poor service from coroner’s offices, and who is aware of the completely patchwork system of support for coroners around the country, realises that fundamental reform is required. That can now be achieved through the office of chief coroner, which I felt all along was the sensible way to do it. That involves professional leadership, training and tackling the jurisdictional issues so that, for example, the chief coroner can move inquests to a coroner who is in a position to provide the service when there is too much pressure in another coronial area.
Where there is not consensus is on the appeal issue. I know how strongly the Royal British Legion feels about that and I respect its campaign, but significant legal questions are raised by whether we substitute the decision of one coroner for that of another—that is a quite different process from judicial review. We do not have time to debate that in detail today, but I simply say that there is wide consensus on the need to reform the coroner system. There are many good coroners and many excellent coroner’s offices, but it is a very uneven system. The chief coroner should now be a mechanism for undertaking that reform, but the issue of appeals is one on which there is much more to be argued over and we might be holding out to families the false promise that they will somehow be in a better position than they would be with the present system. It would be wrong of us in this House to do that, so I urge the Minister to get on with the crucial reforms of the system, which the chief coroner can achieve.
I strongly endorse the views just expressed by my right hon. Friend Sir Alan Beith. I represent a coroner’s court in Southwark and we have had very good coroners—Monty Levine, who was very famous, and Andrew Harris, the current coroner, who is a friend of mine. However, like other colleagues, I have had experiences, involving constituents and others, of really bad coroner’s decisions. The Taylor family have been mentioned by Robert Flello, and Michael, who died, was a constituent of mine. I am also talking about the inquests after the Marchioness sank in my constituency, the battle that the lovely late Eileen Dallaglio had to fight on behalf of her daughter and the battles that all the others like her had to fight. In the end, they had to go through a judicial review because they were terribly treated by the coroner who dealt with that case.
I welcome the fact that the Government have changed their mind and that the scheme introduced eventually by Labour—we had to push but it was eventually put on the statute book—can now be implemented in respect of creating a chief coroner. I urged, as others have, that that decision be taken. It is reasonable to proceed gradually along the road that has now been accepted by the Government. They are clear that they are going to report back on Army coroner’s inquests—the Armed Forces Bill does that. As Lord McNally said in the other place, this is not just about training; it is about monitoring, reporting and direction. That will give us a good base. There will also be an annual report to Parliament.
May I end by saying that I also have the privilege of being the Member of Parliament for the headquarters of the Royal British Legion, and I know that Inquest has worked with the RBL very well. They are very honourable organisations, they have fought an honourable fight and they have won an honourable victory. The House owes its gratitude to them and to the Government for understanding the strength of feeling on this case.
With the leave of the House, Mr Deputy Speaker, let me just repeat that the Government are committed to urgent and meaningful reform of the coroner system to ensure that inquests are timely, efficient and effective and that bereaved families are provided with the information and support they need throughout this emotionally difficult process. I was pleased to hear Jon Trickett speaking in favour of reform. He needs to be aware that the position on the statutory basis for reform was the same between all the parties in the House, despite differences over the position on the chief coroner. I was very pleased to hear my right hon. Friend Sir Alan Beith recognising that and making the point strongly.
Jonathan Ashworth made the very good point that as important as coronial reform is for military inquests, this goes much further than military inquests. I acknowledge his concern that faith groups should be considered and I take that back with me.
Various hon. Members spoke about cost and the implications for judicial review. My hon. Friends the Members for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) and for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) pointed out the need for closure for families and made their points very well. I understand the concerns about the cost of judicial review, but the chief coroner would not have had the final word on appeals. The option of judicially reviewing the chief coroner’s decision would still have been available, and bereaved families might have been encouraged to exhaust all mechanisms for challenging the coroner’s original findings. As a result, we would not have expected any reduction in the number of judicial reviews; indeed, there could have been an increase.
One hour having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on the Lords message, the debate was interrupted (Programme Order, this day).
The Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair (
That the amendment be made.
The House divided:
Question accordingly negatived.
The Deputy Speaker then put forthwith the Question necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (
Main Question put and agreed to.
That this House does not insist on its amendment 53 and agrees with Lords amendments 53A to 53C in lieu.