Coroners

– in the House of Commons at 10:17 am on 24 May 2024.

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Photo of Gareth Bacon Gareth Bacon The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice 10:17, 24 May 2024

I beg to move,

That the draft Coroners (Suspension of Requirement for Jury at Inquest: Coronavirus) Regulations 2024, which were laid before this House on 2 May, be approved.

Before I address the purpose of the statutory instrument, I would also like to congratulate Chris Webb on his maiden speech. His efforts to avoid being the subject of a pub quiz, honourable though they are, may be slightly forlorn: I cannot recall too many occasions on which an hon. Member made their maiden speech on the same day that Parliament rose for the next election, so I suspect that he may still be the subject of pub quizzes into the future.

This instrument is an important part of the Government’s ongoing support for coroner services in their continuing recovery from the covid-19 pandemic. It extends for a further two years the disapplication of the statutory requirement for any inquest into a death involving covid-19 to be held with a jury, which will have practical benefits for the coroner service. Although the real-time impacts of covid-19 have diminished, they are inevitably delayed in the coronial context, as inquest backlogs—some of which were built up during the pandemic in order to manage wider pressures—continue to be worked through.

Natural covid-19 deaths would not normally be reported to the coroner. However, where the cause of death is unknown or suspicious or has occurred in state detention, covid-19 may be suspected as a contributing factor. Save for the provision that we are seeking to extend, section 7 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 would require any inquest into such deaths to be held with a jury, because covid-19 is a notifiable disease.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour/Co-operative, Huddersfield

As the Minister may be aware, I had two tragic cases in my constituency involving an inquest. Does he not think it is about time that we modernised the whole system and gave it more resources? If somebody has lost a loved one, waiting for five or six years and never getting resolution is not good. Is it not about time that we looked at the process and the training and did something a bit faster for people?

Photo of Gareth Bacon Gareth Bacon The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, and I will take this opportunity to say farewell to him. His leaving will be a loss to the House. He makes a good point. The proposed measures will combat some of what he talks about, but there is a wider possibility for review as time moves on. We want coronial inquests to be carried out and expedited as quickly as possible.

As part of covid-19 easements, the Coronavirus Act 2020 removed the requirement for inquests into such deaths to be held with a jury, and the resulting resource pressures on coroner services, throughout the pandemic. To support continued pandemic recovery in the coroners’ courts, Parliament sanctioned the replacement of the 2020 emergency measure with a provision in the Judicial Review and Courts Act 2022 to amend the 2009 Act, so that for the purposes of jury requirement and inquests relating to notifiable disease, covid-19 does not count as a notifiable disease. That does not prevent the coroner from calling a jury in a covid-19 related inquest; they retain the discretion to do so, as with any other inquest.

The 2022 Act provision includes safeguards to ensure that covid-19 inquests are not treated differently on a permanent basis. Any extension is limited to two years, is subject to parliamentary approval, and must be justified by an assessment of the impacts on coroner services, were the provision to expire.

To evidence the need for extension of the provision, the Ministry of Justice asked all coroners in England and Wales to estimate their usage of the disapplication provision since June 2022 and to assess the impact on their case management if it is not extended. The response rate was only around 11%, but even among that small number of coroners, it was estimated that this provision has removed the requirement for a jury in around 530 inquests over the past two years. Without it, even that small sample would have increased the annual number of jury inquests across England and Wales—typically around 470—by about 50%. About half the respondents predicted a significant impact for their case management if this provision is allowed to expire. This is because, as the Liverpool and Wirral senior coroner put it,

“For each day of listing for an inquest without a jury, it takes a week’s listing with a jury”.

That wider context is important. Parliament is concerned about the impact of inquest backlogs on the bereaved, as Mr Sheerman highlighted. The extension of this measure for a further two years will support coroners in their continuing efforts to reduce those backlogs, thereby promoting the Government’s objective of putting the bereaved at the heart of the coronial process. That should mean that, subject to any assessment closer to the time, I do not expect any future Justice Minister to need to seek Parliament’s agreement to a further extension from June 2026.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Victims and Sentencing) 10:22, 24 May 2024

May I, too, put on record my thanks to you, Mr Speaker, and to the Deputy Speakers for looking after our interests during this Parliament? I congratulate my hon. Friend Chris Webb on his brilliant maiden speech. We learned that his wife is called Portia. That is quite appropriate as we are discussing a justice Bill, given that Portia gave one of the most famous speeches on justice in “The Merchant of Venice”:

“The quality of mercy is not strained;

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed;

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes”.

I am glad he aptly reminded us of his wife’s name during the course of his speech. I congratulate him, and I am sure we will be seeing each other again soon—without being complacent in any way about the electorate.

We will not divide the House on this measure. Given the state of the backlog impacting the coronial system, this is a sensible measure and the Opposition will not contest it today. However, it is worth discussing very briefly the reasons for the backlog and the Government’s complete inability to get a grip on any aspect of our justice system.

After 14 years of Conservative rule, we have significant and, in some cases, record high backlogs across the whole of the courts and tribunals system. Victims and their families are waiting years for answers and for justice. It has become the “Department of Justice Delayed”, and we all know what that means. Labour will work at pace to tackle the backlogs that are grinding our justice system to a halt, and to restore public confidence in the justice system, but we do not seek to divide the House on this measure.

Photo of Bob Neill Bob Neill Chair, Justice Committee, Chair, Justice Committee 10:24, 24 May 2024

Mr Speaker, I hope to catch your eye later in today’s proceedings in order to thank you and others, but now I will confine my remarks to this measure and to congratulating Chris Webb.

This is a sensible measure, and I am delighted to see my hon. Friend the Minister, who is my constituency neighbour—at least for a couple more days—in his place on the Treasury Bench. He will know that the Justice Committee published a substantial report on coroners some time ago, and that we recently did a follow-up. This measure is wise and sensible, but there are broader issues that need to be tackled in the coronial system. I hope that either my hon. Friend the Minister—if we come back into government—or any future Government will look again at our report, because the one thing that we have not done and that we need to do is tackle the root problem of the coroners system, which is that it is piecemeal and sits outside the rest of the normal judicial framework.

I hope that a future Government will revisit our recommendation that we should move to a national coroners service. That would ensure greater consistency and that the same service is provided to bereaved families right across the country, which is currently not the case. It would be a small investment but would do the right thing. There is, of course, a role for juries, particularly in important matters. I welcome the changes that the Government have made to the representation of families at inquests, but, again, I hope that we can go further, particularly where state agencies and public bodies are concerned.

This is a sensible measure in the right direction, but I hope that we will grasp the nettle and have a proper national coroners service—something that has been recommended overwhelmingly in the evidence to the Justice Committee and championed by both Chief Coroners with whom I have had the pleasure of working, His Honour Judge Mark Lucraft and the recently retired His Honour Judge Thomas Teague. Both have done a fantastic job as Chief Coroners, and I want to pay tribute to both of them.

Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson Conservative, Eddisbury 10:26, 24 May 2024

May I begin by echoing the comments by the Chair of the Justice Committee, my hon. and learned Friend Sir Robert Neill? In doing so, I pay my respects to him for his leadership of the Committee over the best part of a decade—we see so much change and churn in this place. I pay tribute to him for his knowledge, his experience, his humanity, his enthusiasm, and his ability to get things done on the Justice Committee, of which I have been privileged to be a member for the last 18 months, and to bring positive change to many aspects of the justice world. I have no doubt that, whatever he does next in his professional career, he will continue to make great waves for those who are touched in some way by the justice system.

As my hon. and learned Friend said, part of the Justice Committee’s work has included looking at the coronial system—first, in 2011 and, more recently, last year. We have looked at all aspects of the coronial system, not least the impact that covid has had on its ability to function in the way that we would all want. The Minister is right to take a pragmatic approach by providing some breathing space and capacity within the coronial system, so that many of the cases that need to move through the courts in a timely and compassionate way are able to do so. As has been alluded to, there are, of course, many other issues that need to be addressed.

Unfortunately, due to the sudden end to this Parliament, the report that the Justice Committee was on the very cusp of producing for the Government will now be in the form of correspondence that has gone to the Department. I hope that it will be looked at carefully in the next six weeks by Ministers, who will still be in post, as well as by officials, who, whatever hue the next Government happen to be, can put it straight on to the table of the next Minister—hopefully, it will still be my hon. Friend sitting on the Front Bench—so that we do not lose any of the momentum that, hopefully, the report will be able to achieve.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour/Co-operative, Huddersfield

I agree with what the hon. Gentleman, my Select Committee colleague, has just said about the Chair of the Committee, Sir Robert Neill. Everyone knows that he is a good friend of mine. We co-chair the all-party parliamentary group on miscarriages of justice, and he has been a brilliant champion against such miscarriages. I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees that the hon. and learned Member will be missed dreadfully by the House of Commons. Indeed, what will the House do, with Bob and me both standing down?

Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson Conservative, Eddisbury

The hon. Gentleman, my friend, was my first Select Committee Chair back in 2008, when I joined the Children, Schools and Families Committee—a baptism of fire, as it turned out. I have been fortunate enough to serve under a number of excellent Chairs over the years. I wish him well in whatever comes next in the varied and colourful life that I am sure lies ahead of him.

Some of the detail behind this statutory instrument needs the continued attention of Ministers and the Ministry of Justice. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst touched on the need to look at the potential unification of the service, the funding model, how it is resourced—we do not want to imperil the rule of law by making the service unworkable—potentially the need for an inspectorate so that we know how well the service is functioning and, as the Minister rightly said, ensuring that we put bereaved families at the very heart of the process. I hope that this measure will be part of enabling many of those changes to take hold in the ensuing years.

Mr Speaker, as you will know, this is my second time around in Parliament—often called a retread, unfortunately—but, unlike Arnold Schwarzenegger, this time I will not be back. This is the last time I will be standing up in this place, so I want to take the opportunity to thank you and all your team for your support and friendship over 14 out of the past 16 years. I also thank my staff up in Cheshire, in Eddisbury, and in Crewe and Nantwich my previous seat: Roz, Dan, Lynn, Joel, Amy and quite a few others who came before them, including Sean, who has recently got on the candidates list and I suspect has a reasonable chance of finding a seat, as we still have about 100 or so that have yet to find a candidate. If he is selected, I wish him and his campaign extremely well, as I do my own candidate successor, Aphra Brandreth, who will be standing in the new seat of Chester South and Eddisbury. She is a first-class candidate. I very much hope that she will be able to join colleagues here after the general election.

Photo of Bob Neill Bob Neill Chair, Justice Committee, Chair, Justice Committee

With characteristic modesty, my hon. Friend has not mentioned his own very significant contribution on the Justice Committee and as a Minister, and the contribution that he and his family have made to the justice system. Everybody knows the work that he, his brother and his father do to deal compassionately and humanely with those who go through prison. They and he are absolute role models. I am deeply grateful to him for his friendship and support, and we wish him all the very best for the future.

Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson Conservative, Eddisbury

I am extremely grateful to my hon. and learned Friend. I probably ought now to declare my interests, which are on the register, not least my brother’s chairmanship of the Prison Reform Trust. They are there for all to see. It is true that there is clearly a gene in the Timpson family that makes us want to reach out beyond our own family to help others, whether that is through fostering or helping ex-offenders into work. That is something that, beyond Parliament, I want to continue to do.

Finally, I congratulate Chris Webb on an excellent maiden speech. It took me back to mine in 2008, a nerve-racking moment, but he delivered his superbly. I wish him and his family all the very best. I had a very young child when I first came into Parliament, and actually I had another young child when I came into Parliament again—it is obviously a route to success in this place.

I want to thank my own family: my late mother Alex and my father John, for all the inspiration and guidance that they have given me, my wife Julia, and my four children, Sam, Elizabeth, Lydia and Nell. I hope that they will see a bit more of me now, and I hope that is the right thing to do.

Question put and agreed to.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Chair, Home Affairs Committee, Chair, Home Affairs Committee

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I wish to raise the statement that the Prime Minister made to Figen Murray, the mother of Martyn Hett, who was murdered in the Manchester Arena bombings. She had walked 200 miles from Manchester to London to mark the seventh anniversary this week of that terror atrocity. The Prime Minister rightly met Figen, at 1 o’clock on Wednesday this week. As you know, Mr Speaker, Figen has been campaigning for Martyn’s law for several years, and in fact she gave evidence to the Home Affairs Committee during our pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft Terrorism (Protection of Premises) Bill. We published our pre-legislative scrutiny report in July 2023, and we have not had a response from the Government despite there usually being a requirement for a response within two months.

The Prime Minister told Figen at lunchtime on Wednesday that the Bill would be rushed through Parliament before the summer recess—that was at 1 pm, as I understand it. Have you had any explanation, Mr Speaker, from the Prime Minister about why he would say that when four hours later he called the general election—clearly, no Bill could be rushed through before the summer recess—and about the fact that he misled Figen Murray?

Photo of Lindsay Hoyle Lindsay Hoyle Speaker of the House of Commons, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, House of Commons Commission, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Chair, Speaker's Conference Committee, Chair, Speaker's Conference Committee, Chair, Restoration and Renewal Client Board Committee, Chair, Restoration and Renewal Client Board Committee

First, we must be careful in the language that we use. I have no knowledge or information about what conversation took place. I will not speculate on what happened, and I know that the right hon. Lady would not expect me to speculate. However, she has put it on the record, and I think we will leave at that for now.

I will now suspend the House. The Division bells will ring to warn Members five minutes before the House returns.

Sitting suspended.

On resuming—