Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration etc.) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:58 am on 2nd February 2018.

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Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women 10:58 am, 2nd February 2018

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend, who shows his usual attention to detail. The proposals in this Bill do not in any way affect the laws relating to the availability of termination. They simply concern miscarriages in the circumstances we have described today. I thank him for allowing me to clarify that on the record.

I move on to coroners’ investigations. I should declare that in my previous life I worked with the chief coroner, His Honour Judge Mark Lucraft QC. On clause 4, let me first assure the House that the Government agree wholeheartedly with the need to look at the role that coroners could play in this regard. On 28 November last year, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, as he now is, made a statement in this House about the Government’s maternity safety strategy. This Bill potentially has an important role to play in promoting better outcomes for mothers and babies.

Currently, under the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, coroners do not have jurisdiction to investigate when a baby does not show signs of life independently of its mother. Coroners can commence an investigation if there is doubt as to whether a baby was stillborn or lived independently of its mother, but the investigation stops if the coroner’s enquiries reveal that the baby was stillborn. Clause 4 places a duty on the Secretary of State to prepare and publish a report on whether, and if so how, the law ought to be changed to enable or to require coroners to investigate stillbirths. It also gives the Lord Chancellor a power to make regulations amending part 1 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 so as to provide for when, and in what circumstances, coroners will investigate stillbirths.

I realise that the House may have concerns about a power to make regulations in this way, but the safeguards written into the clause will ensure that it is used appropriately. For example, the regulations will be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure, so there will be scrutiny by both Houses, and the regulations cannot be used to create any criminal offences unless the offence has an equivalent in part 1 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009.

The Government think that it is important to carry out a review and produce a report in this area before making any changes. There are important and sensitive issues to explore, such as the question of how far into a pregnancy coronial involvement should be triggered, and the potential role of other factors, such as violence to the mother or medical negligence. We need to hear a wide range of views, including those of coroners, including the chief coroner, medical professionals, researchers in the field and, of course, bereaved parents and the organisations that support them.

I referred earlier to the statement that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care made in the House last November on the Government’s maternity safety strategy. He set out improvements under way in the NHS, including the newly established Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch, which will investigate 1,000 cases per year of full-term stillbirths, neonatal and maternal deaths, and severe brain injuries during labour, in order to discover what may have gone wrong and to learn lessons. At the same time, he announced that the Government intend to look closely at enabling coroners to investigate stillbirths. My hon. Friend’s Bill today helpfully moves us forward in that regard.

This short Bill has grand ambitions. It deals with the happiest of times—the celebration of love and committed relationships—as well as the saddest of times: the loss of a much-cherished baby. My hon. Friend and others have dealt with the inevitable emotions that arise on such occasions sensitively and powerfully, and I thank them all. The Government want to work with him constructively and thank him for the assurances he has given on clauses 1 and 2. Accordingly, the Government are pleased to be able to support it.