In moving Amendment 75 I will speak also to Amendments 76 and 77. Amendments 75 and 76 belong together. They amend Schedule 3, which details the appointment of coroners. In particular, paragraph 2 allows the Lord Chancellor to appoint assistant coroners for an area. Before doing so, he must consult the Chief Coroner and every local authority whose area will be affected.
Our changes would make the senior coroner a consultee as well. Under paragraph 1 the senior coroner for an area is appointed by the local authority with the consent of the Chief Coroner and the Lord Chancellor. Given this deliberate interlocking of all the relevant parties, it is a curious omission that the senior coroner should not be consulted on the appointment of his assistants. It may be that the local authority is deemed to represent the views and interests of the senior coroner, whom it appointed. However, once that person has been established in the post, it would seem prudent, not to say courteous, to involve him in the process of appointing an assistant.
Amendment 77 is more important. Paragraph 3 of Schedule 3 sets the eligibility criteria for coroners. It allows for legally qualified coroners—that is to say, those who,
"satisfy the judicial-appointment eligibility condition"— but not for medical practitioners to become coroners. This is a reversal of current practice and would rule out many very able people. In another place the Minister, Bridget Prentice, addressed the latter point by saying:
"In future it will be increasingly important for coroners to be legally qualified. Given the duty of investigations that satisfy article 2, legal qualifications will become even more essential. They will also give the coroners the skill to examine evidence and conduct investigations in the most effective way".
"At the moment, a small number of coroners are both medically and legally qualified, and about the same number are medically qualified only. The Coroners' Society tells me that there are about four of each. Under the reformed system, it will not be necessary for the coroner to be medically qualified, as the medical examiners will be on hand to provide independent medical expertise. However, those who are currently medically rather than legally qualified will retain their posts under the reformed system and will simply be exempted from the legal qualification requirement. They will already have picked up forensic skills through experience and training, and that is not something that we want to lose".—[Official Report, Commons Coroners and Justice Bill Committee, 24/2/09; col. 310.].
As the Minister admitted that the, albeit, small number of medically qualified coroners do a good job and have picked up forensic skills through experience and training, why is it assumed that newly appointed medical coroners could not do the same? I beg to move.
I support in particular the first of the two amendments, although I support both. It is important that the coroner in charge of a particular area who will know the local people and lawyers should have a say in who should effectively be one of his deputies. The current system is that the coroner for a particular area chooses his deputy coroner and his assistant deputy coroners. It is important and he knows who are the suitable people to ask. It is possible that from further afield they would have to seek the advice in any event of a senior coroner for an area. It seems that they should be asking the coroner of the area who he would recommend. They do not have to accept it, but in the areas it is important.
Taking the second point, there are members of the medical profession who have acted extremely efficiently as coroners. They have acted with enormous enthusiasm and energy to learn about the law. Lawyers have to learn about medicine; in particular, lawyers sitting as coroners need to know something about how to understand what the medical examiner is saying or about medical evidence that may be given. It is possibly unjust to the medical profession to assume that a distinguished doctor would not be able to pick up as much law as a distinguished lawyer picks up medicine.
I must thank my noble and learned friend Lady Butler-Sloss for the compliment that she paid to my professional group. I have an amendment in this group, Amendment 110. It was tabled after some discussion with INQUEST, which feels that the Chief Coroner should be a high court judge. I do not feel that its reasons are as tight as have been represented, but it is concerned that the Chief Coroner's role should involve a High Court judge because it is a requirement in relation to the chairs of the Special Immigration Appeals Commission and the president of the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Tribunal; it should therefore involve someone of that same or equivalent standing, in view of the powers that he or she will have and the critical role that the Chief Coroner will play in the overall system. I would be interested to hear the Minister's response.
Schedule 3 provides for a clear structure for the appointment of senior area and assistant coroners. Amendments 75 and 76 would compel the Lord Chancellor to directly consult the local senior coroner as well as the Chief Coroner and relevant local authorities before making a decision as to the number of area coroners and minimum number of assistant coroners that should be in that area. I understand from the noble Lord that his concern is that the Lord Chancellor should not impose coroner quotas with no regard for what senior coroners feel is needed in their area. Our problem with these amendments is that they would add a layer of consultation that we believe is not necessary to have in the Bill.
In practice, a senior coroner's view will be taken into account as regards how many area and assistant coroners are required, by virtue of the Lord Chancellor consulting the Chief Coroner and local authorities concerned. First, the Chief Coroner, as head of the coroner service, will want to ensure that there are sufficient coroners and resources more generally to ensure that the standards of service he or she sets can be met across the country. It is highly likely that the Chief Coroner will be appointed during the implementation period of the Bill, but it is not possible at this stage to state precisely when that will be. He or she will therefore have the opportunity to work with coroners, as all current district coroners will, as part of the transitional arrangements in paragraph 3 to Schedule 20, become senior coroners when the Bill comes into force. The Chief Coroner will gain an overview of how many area or assistant coroners will be needed as new areas are created across the country. Under the Bill the Lord Chancellor must also consult the local authority that employs and funds the coroners, when making his decision. The local authority will be best placed to ensure that any particular local factors are taken into account.
Amendment 77 would restore the existing position whereby a coroner can be medically qualified only. We understand the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, about losing medical expertise in a reformed system. We do not believe that will be the case; if anything, medical expertise will be enhanced by the Bill. The noble Lord quoted my honourable friend in another place. My arguments are very much the same as hers. We believe it is becoming increasingly important for coroners to be legally qualified. The noble Lord referred to Article 2 in that regard. Legal qualifications, together with in-service training, will equip coroners with the necessary skills to conduct an investigation into a death in the most effective way, to weigh up evidence and reach the appropriate determination. However, the case working and court craft skills accumulated by current coroners who are medically qualified only—four of the current district coroners come into this category—will not be squandered. As part of the transitional arrangements, the four coroners who are medically qualified will become senior coroners for their area when the Bill comes into force.
Another reason that it will not be necessary for coroners to be medically qualified in the reformed system is that, under Clause 19, medical examiners will be on hand—as we have debated this afternoon—to provide independent medical expertise to all coroners, especially in medically complex cases, in addition to their main role of scrutinising deaths which are not referred to coroners. This is supplementary to the expertise that will continue to be provided by pathologists. This increased local medical support—that is an important part of the Bill—together with national support from the Chief Coroner's national medical adviser, will help ensure coroners have medical expertise to hand.
The final amendment in this group, Amendment 110, would make circuit judges ineligible for appointment as the Chief Coroner. The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, may have been prompted to table this amendment by a concern that a circuit judge would not have sufficiently senior judicial status to be the head of the coroner system in England and Wales. While we, of course, agree that the person the Lord Chief Justice appoints as Chief Coroner should have sufficient seniority to head the coroner system, we believe this amendment would be unduly restrictive. The person appointed as Chief Coroner may always be a High Court rather than a circuit judge, but we would not want to put a blanket restriction on senior circuit judges being considered, which is what this amendment would do. It might unnecessarily narrow the pool of qualified candidates that the Lord Chief Justice had to choose from when appointing the Chief Coroner. The most important consideration for the Lord Chief Justice will be that the person he chooses as Chief Coroner should have the judicial and leadership skills and competencies to carry out the role. The Bill as drafted provides for this and ensures that the Lord Chief Justice can appoint the best-equipped person for the job.
In this group is government Amendment 218E, which I will move in due course. This is an important transitional provision to enable us to move to larger full-time coroner areas in as efficient a way as possible. A current, solely medically qualified coroner, or any coroner over 70, will be eligible to stay in post if their jurisdiction merges with another in the reformed coroner system.
As I have said, currently four coroners, plus a handful of deputy and assistant deputy coroners, are medically qualified. Although we cannot foresee how many coroners over 70 will be practising when their areas are merged, there are likely to be very few, as most coroners step down between the ages of 65 and 70. Despite the relatively small numbers involved, this amendment is important as it will enable us to make the most of serving coroners and the experience that they have built up.
I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, and other noble Lords will not press their amendments.
The Minister drew attention to the fact that I quoted a substantial passage by the Minister in another place. I did that partly out of a sporting instinct, to put the argument of the other side, and partly to save the Minister from rehearsing it in your Lordships' House. He made a cogent point by drawing to my attention the new regime which embraces the concept of the medical adviser. I should like to consider Amendment 77 in that context when taking a view on whether I should bring it back on Report.
However, I feel much less sympathetic to the Minister's honeyed words about Amendments 75 and 76. As I understand it, the new system is supposed to be some ideal balance between the centre and the periphery. The Bill introduces an overarching Chief Coroner and deputy chief coroner and, under that, increasing degrees of localism. As the Minister knows, we have supported that concept. It seems perfectly sensible for the Lord Chancellor, in deciding to appoint a new assistant coroner, to consult the local authority in the area in which the new assistant coroner is going to work. However, if the local authority is consulted, why should the senior coroner for the area not be consulted as well? The Lord Chancellor is already going down to the grass roots so far as the local authority is concerned; so why is it so much more difficult for him to go down to the grass roots with respect to the senior coroner? I find that response uncharacteristically irrational of the Minister, to such a degree that I wish to test the opinion of the Committee on Amendment 75.
Clause 24 states that the relevant authority must secure the provision of whatever staff are needed by the coroner to carry out his functions. Implicit in that is the recognition that out-of-hours staff must be provided if necessary: for example, in the context of a non-invasive MRI scan. However, it is worth emphasising that coroners may be called on at any time; and it is vital that they can function properly in those circumstances. That necessitates a substantial commitment of time, preparation and, not least, money, from the authority.
This suggests a number of questions for the Government. What role will the Chief Coroner have in helping to secure that commitment? What happens should there be a financial shortfall? What recourse would the senior coroner have should the provision of staff be inadequate? I beg to move.
This amendment seeks to ensure that coroners' officers and other staff are available outside normal working hours.
Clause 24 already states that staff must be available to enable a coroner to carry out their functions. To do this, coroners must ensure that either they or a member of their staff are on call 24 hours a day almost entirely to ensure that a post-mortem can be urgently carried out where necessary and that arrangements are made to inform the family of the coroner's decision. This already occurs in the best areas under the present system, and coroners in particular already have a requirement, in Rule 4 of the Coroners Rules, to ensure that they or a deputy coroner are available at all times. In a reformed system, we expect the same level of cover. Indeed, the effect of Rule 4 is likely to be repeated in rules to be made under Clause 36.
The Government fully accept that there is work to be done in the implementation stage of the Bill to ensure that coroners have the necessary support from coroners' officers and other staff to enable them to meet the raised expectations that we have of them in the quality of service that is provided to bereaved families. I assure noble Lords that this is one of our main priorities, not least because it is the function of such officers to deliver most of the services to families, under the guidance of the coroner, which are set out in the charter for the bereaved. I think it would be most expeditious if I were to answer the noble Lord's specific questions by letter. I hope, in view of the assurances that I have given, that he will agree to withdraw his amendment.
I am most grateful for the noble Lord's response. I have one further question for him. I asked three questions at the end of my short intervention. Following what he said, will the answers to all three of those questions be found in regulations made under what will become the Act?
I am most grateful. In those circumstances I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 77A withdrawn.
Amendment 78 not moved.
Amendment 79 not moved.
Clause 24 agreed.
Amendments 80 to 85
Moved by Lord Bach
80: After Clause 24, insert the following new Clause—
"CHAPTERInvestigations concerning treasure
Coroner for Treasure and Assistant Coroners for Treasure
Schedule (Coroner for Treasure and Assistant Coroners for Treasure) makes provision about the appointment etc of the Coroner for Treasure and Assistant Coroners for Treasure."
81: After Clause 24, insert the following new Clause—
"Investigations concerning treasure
(2) The Coroner for Treasure may conduct an investigation concerning an object in respect of which notification has not been given under that section if he or she has reason to suspect that the object is treasure.
(3) The Coroner for Treasure may conduct an investigation concerning an object if he or she has reason to suspect that the object is treasure trove.
(4) Subsections (1) to (3) are subject to section (Exception to duty to investigate).
(5) The purpose of an investigation under this section is to ascertain—
(a) whether or not the object in question is treasure or treasure trove;
(b) if it is treasure or treasure trove, who found it, where it was found and when it was found.
(6) Senior coroners, area coroners and assistant coroners have no functions in relation to objects that are or may be treasure or treasure trove.
This is subject to paragraph 11 of Schedule (Coroner for Treasure and Assistant Coroners for Treasure) (which enables an assistant coroner acting as an Assistant Coroner for Treasure to perform functions of the Coroner for Treasure)."
82: After Clause 24, insert the following new Clause—
"Inquests concerning treasure
(1) The Coroner for Treasure may, as part of an investigation under section (Investigations concerning treasure), hold an inquest concerning the object in question (a "treasure inquest").
(2) A treasure inquest must be held without a jury, unless the Coroner for Treasure thinks there is sufficient reason for it to be held with a jury.
(3) In relation to a treasure inquest held with a jury, sections 8 and 9 apply with the following modifications—
(a) a reference to a senior coroner is to be read as a reference to the Coroner for Treasure;
(b) the reference in section 8(3) to the death of the deceased is to be read as a reference to the matters mentioned in section (Investigations concerning treasure)(5)."
83: After Clause 24, insert the following new Clause—
"Outcome of investigations concerning treasure
Where the Coroner for Treasure has conducted an investigation under section (Investigations concerning treasure), a determination as to the question mentioned in subsection (5)(a) of that section, and (where applicable) the questions mentioned in subsection (5)(b) of that section, must be made—
(a) by the Coroner for Treasure after considering the evidence (where an inquest is not held),
(b) by the Coroner for Treasure after hearing the evidence (where an inquest is held without a jury), or
(c) by the jury after hearing the evidence (where an inquest is held with a jury)."
84: After Clause 24, insert the following new Clause—
"Exception to duty to investigate
(1) Where the Coroner for Treasure is conducting, or proposes to conduct, an investigation under section (Investigations concerning treasure) concerning—
(a) an object that would vest in the Crown under the Treasure Act 1996 (c. 24) if the object was in fact treasure and there were no prior interests or rights, or
(b) an object that would belong to the Crown under the law relating to treasure trove if the object was in fact treasure trove, the Secretary of State may give notice to the Coroner for Treasure disclaiming, on behalf of the Crown, any title that the Crown may have to the object.
(2) Where the Coroner for Treasure is conducting, or proposes to conduct, an investigation under section (Investigations concerning treasure) concerning—
(a) an object that would vest in the franchisee under the Treasure Act 1996 (c. 24) if the object was in fact treasure and there were no prior interests or rights, or
(b) an object that would belong to the franchisee under the law relating to treasure trove if the object was in fact treasure trove, the franchisee may give notice to the Coroner for Treasure disclaiming any title that the franchisee may have to the object.
(3) A notice under subsection (1) or (2) may be given only before the making of a determination under section (Outcome of investigations concerning treasure).
(4) Where a notice is given under subsection (1) or (2)—
(a) the object is to be treated as not vesting in or belonging to the Crown, or (as the case may be) the franchisee, under the Treasure Act 1996 (c. 24), or the law relating to treasure trove;
(b) the Coroner for Treasure may not conduct an investigation concerning the object under section (Investigations concerning treasure) or, if an investigation has already begun, may not continue with it;
(c) without prejudice to the interests or rights of others, the object may be delivered to a person in accordance with a code of practice published under section 11 of the Treasure Act 1996 (c. 24).
(5) For the purposes of this section the franchisee, in relation to an object, is the person who—
(a) was, immediately before the commencement of section 4 of the Treasure Act 1996 (c. 24), or
(b) apart from that Act, as successor in title, would have been, the franchisee of the Crown in right of treasure trove for the place where the object was found."
85: After Clause 24, insert the following new Clause—
"Code of practice under the Treasure Act 1996
(1) A code of practice under section 11 of the Treasure Act 1996 (c. 24) may make provision to do with objects in respect of which notice is given under section (Exception to duty to investigate)(1) or (2).
(2) No civil liability on the part of the Coroner for Treasure arises where he or she delivers an object, or takes any other action, in accordance with a code of practice under section 11 of the Treasure Act 1996 (c. 24)."
Amendments 80 to 85 agreed.
Clause 25 : Powers of senior coroners
Moved by Lord Bach
86: Clause 25, page 15, line 31, at end insert "and the Coroner for Treasure"
Amendment 86 agreed.
Clause 25, as amended, agreed.
Moved by Lord Bach
87: Before Schedule 4, insert the following new Schedule—
"Coroner for Treasure and Assistant Coroners for TreasurePart 1Appointment, qualifications and terms of office of Coroner for TreasureAppointment
1 The Lord Chancellor may appoint a person as the Coroner for Treasure.
2 To be eligible for appointment as the Coroner for Treasure, a person must—
(a) be under the age of 70, and
(b) satisfy the judicial-appointment eligibility condition on a 5-year basis.
Vacation or termination of office
3 The Coroner for Treasure must vacate office on reaching the age of 70.
4 The Coroner for Treasure may resign office by giving notice to the Lord Chancellor.
But the resignation does not take effect unless and until it is accepted by the Lord Chancellor.
5 (1) The Lord Chancellor may, with the agreement of the Lord Chief Justice, remove the Coroner for Treasure from office for incapacity or misbehaviour.
(2) The Lord Chief Justice may nominate a judicial office holder (as defined in section 109(4) of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 (c. 4)) to exercise the functions of the Lord Chief Justice under sub-paragraph (1).
Remuneration, allowances and expenses
6 (1) The Lord Chancellor may pay to the Coroner for Treasure amounts determined by the Lord Chancellor by way of remuneration or allowances.
(2) The Lord Chancellor may pay to the Coroner for Treasure amounts determined by the Lord Chancellor towards expenses incurred by the Coroner for Treasure in performing functions as such.
Part 2Designation and remuneration of Assistant Coroners for TreasureDesignation
7 The Chief Coroner may designate one or more assistant coroners to act as Assistant Coroners for Treasure.
8 A person who is designated under paragraph 7 to act as an Assistant Coroner for Treasure may act as such for so long as the designation continues to have effect.
9 A person's designation under that paragraph ceases to have effect—
(a) when the person ceases to be an assistant coroner;
(b) if earlier, when the designation is terminated by notice given—
(i) by the person to the Chief Coroner, or
(ii) by the Chief Coroner to the person.
Remuneration, allowances and expenses
10 (1) The Lord Chancellor may pay to an Assistant Coroner for Treasure amounts determined by the Lord Chancellor by way of remuneration or allowances.
(2) The Lord Chancellor may pay to an Assistant Coroner for Treasure amounts determined by the Lord Chancellor towards expenses incurred by the Assistant Coroner for Treasure in performing functions as such.
Part 3MiscellaneousFunctions of Assistant Coroners for Treasure
11 (1) An Assistant Coroner for Treasure may perform any functions of the Coroner for Treasure—
(a) during a period when the Coroner for Treasure is absent or unavailable;
(b) during a vacancy in the office of Coroner for Treasure;
(c) at any other time, with the consent of the Coroner for Treasure.
(2) Accordingly a reference in this Part of this Act to the Coroner for Treasure is to be read, where appropriate, as including an Assistant Coroner for Treasure.
12 (1) The Lord Chancellor may appoint staff to assist the Coroner for Treasure and any Assistant Coroners for Treasure in the performance of their functions.
(2) Such staff are to be appointed on whatever terms and conditions the Lord Chancellor thinks appropriate."
Amendment 87 agreed.
Schedule 4 : Powers of senior coroners
Amendments 88 and 89
Moved by Lord Bach
88: Schedule 4, page 125, line 27, at end insert—
"(8) A reference in this paragraph to a senior coroner is to be read as including the Coroner for Treasure.
As it applies in relation to the Coroner for Treasure, this paragraph has effect with the omission of sub-paragraph (7)."
89: Schedule 4, page 126, line 19, at end insert—
"(6) A reference in this paragraph to a senior coroner is to be read as including the Coroner for Treasure.
As it applies in relation to the Coroner for Treasure, this paragraph has effect with the omission of sub-paragraphs (1)(b) and (5)."
Amendments 88 and 89 agreed.
Moved by Lord Alderdice
90: Schedule 4, page 126, line 41, at end insert—
"(7) The Secretary of State must issue a code of practice in connection with the entry and search of land and the seizure of anything on the land by a senior coroner."
In paragraph 3 of Schedule 4, senior coroners would acquire new statutory powers to enter and search land and seize items that are relevant to their investigations, with the approval of the Chief Coroner. We do not take any issue with the creation of these powers. However, when equivalent powers are available to the police, they are required to submit themselves to the Government's code of practice. We would seek some guidance from the Minister as to whether some similar safeguards would be set out in the case of coroners because is not clear to us that, if the police have to abide by a code of practice, why it should not also apply to coroners with these substantial but, as we understand them, necessary powers. I beg to move.
Amendment 90 would require the Secretary of State to issue a code of practice for senior coroners when searching and entering land and/or seizing items on it. I understand and share the wish to ensure that any powers of search, entry and seizure that coroners have under Schedule 4 are used proportionately. However, I can reassure the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, that the Bill already goes some way to ensuring that these powers will be used appropriately.
Clauses 35(3)(h) and 35(3)(i) make provision for regulations equivalent to provisions in Sections 15, 16 and 21 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. In its eighth report, which was published on
It is also likely that the Chief Coroner will issue guidance to coroners and their staff on the use of entry, search and seizure powers, which is akin to codes of practice issued in relation to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act. However, as with other guidance from the Chief Coroner, I believe that this should be left to the Chief Coroner's judicial discretion when he or she takes up post, rather than be in the Bill.
By way of reassurance, noble Lords may also be aware that Schedule 4 requires any coroner who needs to use search, entry or seizure powers as part of their investigation to obtain the written authorisation of the Chief Coroner or his nominee before doing so. This will provide an extra check to ensure that the power is used reasonably and only where necessary in the course of an investigation. I hope that this reassures the noble Lord and I ask him to withdraw the amendment.
I am certainly encouraged to hear that the Minister thinks it is likely that the Chief Coroner might do something of this kind and has promised that after Royal Assent there will be regulations and guidelines. But it suggests that one has to take all of this on trust. What we have requested in the Bill was not the content of a code of practice, but just the requirement of a code of practice, which does not seem to be a terrible lot to ask for. However, I hear what the Minister says about some other elements in the Bill pointing in the right direction and I shall look carefully at the precise wording that he has used in that regard to see whether or not we will come to this matter at the next stage. With that in mind, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 90 withdrawn.
Amendment 90A not moved.
Moved by Lord Alderdice
91: Schedule 4, page 127, leave out lines 27 and 28 and insert "the provisions of sub-paragraph (1A) shall apply.
(1A) The provisions referred to in sub-paragraph (1) are—
(a) the coroner may report the matter to a person who the coroner believes may have power to take such action;
(b) the coroner may make recommendations to the person referred to in paragraph (a);
(c) the coroner may report the matter and recommendations to the Chief Coroner, who must maintain a record of such reports and recommendations reported to him."
I shall speak also to Amendments 93, 94, 96 and 131, which are in this group in my name and those of other noble Lords. For the families and the community as a whole, there are a number of important purposes for coroners' inquests. It is not just a matter of the law being seen to be addressed. It is also important that bereaved families, friends and others feel some kind of satisfaction for themselves, which we can provide through the coroners' inquests, not necessarily because particular guilt is identified, although that can be valuable, but to ensure that the same thing does not happen again for other people as individuals or society as a whole. It is not infrequent for us to hear it said by families or friends, subsequent to the loss of a loved one, that they did not die in vain. We often hear it said in respect, of course, of our military personnel, but we hear in other circumstances as well that their death has made a difference in some way, however it came about.
It is also important for society as a whole that when deaths occur, if there are lessons to be learnt, those lessons are seriously taken up and not just put on a shelf in a report and forgotten about. There are a number of ways in which we could try through this Bill to press that. In these five amendments, there are two separate ways to address that. Amendments 91, 96 and 131 taken together identify the possibility of the coroner making material available, presenting it to relevant persons, forwarding it to the Chief Coroner and so on. But then there is a requirement on the Chief Coroner to collect that information, to seek out appropriate information from coroners around the country and to provide that to the Lord Chancellor and thence to Parliament. It has identified the timescales in which this might be done and so on.
Another way to do this is described in Amendments 93 and 94, which are in a sense more prescriptive because they require that the coroners forward the information, which would be put together by the Chief Coroner and provided to Parliament. These are two similar ways of doing things: one simply puts the responsibility for drawing together the material at a higher level and is more permissive of the lower level; the other requires coroners at the local level to forward the information.
However, whichever approach one takes, the purpose of the amendments is to ensure that if there are lessons to be learnt, those lessons will be taken seriously. For example, if someone has been negligent or has not been attending properly to a matter of health or safety or to some kind of procedure, the coroner will have some responsibility—and if not the coroner, the Chief Coroner will certainly have responsibility—to identify the problem or the pattern of the problem. He will be able to ensure that the people who need to know get to know, and that eventually it makes its way through to Parliament so that we are able to monitor these requirements and to hold people accountable for what they have done and for how they might learn from mistakes or inadequacies of the past. As I say, there are in these amendments at least two—one might argue three—ways in which this can be done.
We look with interest to see how the Minister will respond because it may be that he has already given the matter some consideration. We certainly hope so. I beg to move.
This is an important group of amendments because there is very little point in having any report if it is not appropriately acted upon. That is the principle behind the wording in the amendments. Amendments 117 and 118 concern the report that is to be laid before the House and require that appropriate action is taken in response to it. The amendments require that reports do not get shelved and gather dust, as so often happens—we know it and we see it only too often—but that they are acted upon. They establish a kind of audit loop whereby change is brought about.
There are several aspects of the anguish that bereaved families go through that never hit the press and never come to light. One which might seem tangential to these amendments—but which I would like to put on the record—is the way in which we record what happens in road deaths and the way in which we respond to the enormous catalogue of them which occur year after year. Action is often not taken appropriately. There is a great furore if there is a medical area, and rightly so; there is a great furore if there is child abuse, and rightly so; but we have become numb and almost inured to this repetitive toll of death on our roads.
This has been brought to my attention by a bereaved relative who wrote a moving letter to me on this subject knowing that we were debating the Bill. In memory of her son, Adam, who was catastrophically killed in a hit and run, she suggested that we should not call them "accidents"; we should call them "road traffic deaths" and, when people do not die, we should call them "road traffic incidents". She makes a very important point because it is not an accident if it is a hit and run. If you were genuinely in an accident you would be absolutely devastated; you would leap out of the car and want to get all the help that you can; you would feel terrible about it. But some people behave recklessly towards other members of society and kill people in the process and perhaps we need to change our language. As I read the letter, it also struck me that we need to respond to the reports. Too many times the newspapers have printed "lessons will be learnt", "things will have to change", and yet years later nothing has changed. I hope the Government will consider strengthening the role of reports, strengthen the ability to take action afterwards and ensure that people are empowered. What is already in the Bill may seem strong, but I hope that the Government will consider strengthening it a little more so that action is taken after an event, rather than people walking away from an inquest knowing what has been recommended but not feeling honour bound and law bound to do something about it.
Amendments 92 and 95, like the other amendments in this group, concern the action that ought to be taken to prevent other deaths. At present, the Bill leaves it at the discretion of the coroner to decide whether to inform a person in a position of power of any action which he feels might eliminate, or at least reduce, the chances of other deaths, other deaths which might occur in a similar way.
Given that one of the chief benefits of the coronial system must surely be the capacity to learn from mistakes, this is, in our, view a very lax requirement in the Bill. Our Amendment 92 changes the discretion to a duty. If the coroner feels that someone who is in a position to make changes which might prevent another death has the power to do so, it ought to be incumbent on the coroner to act on that opinion.
Amendment 95 is a follow-up provision. It allows the coroner to keep an eye on what action is being taken on his recommendation. While the amendment does not, in fact, confer any substantive power to compel action to be taken, the pressure it creates would presumably keep the matter from being kicked into the long grass.
"If one considers what happens elsewhere—for example, in New South Wales— recommendations are an integral part of the inquest process and are logged in a detailed document at the end of the inquest. The document is then available to the public and is tabled in Parliament. Doing so obviously exerts substantial political pressure on the Government to take action. In Ontario, for example, the inquest jury gives a verdict and makes recommendations, which are published centrally and sent to all the parties involved. Implementation is monitored annually by a department of the chief coroner's office. Although our amendment does not go as far as the provisions in Victoria, New South Wales or Ontario, it is a sensible move in the right direction. It would put a statutory duty on the coroner to make those reports. It would put the duty on the person involved—the Government agency, the Department or whatever it might be—to respond".—[Official Report, Commons, Coroners and Justice Bill Committee, 10/2/09; col. 171.]
I shall await the Minister's reply with keen anticipation.
I was moved by the powerful plea of the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, but I want to speak to the two amendments from the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland. I find it extraordinary, in paragraph 6 of Schedule 4, that where a senior coroner finds that an investigation,
"gives rise to a concern that circumstances creating a risk of other deaths will occur, or will continue to exist... and ... action should be taken to prevent the occurrence or continuation of such circumstances ... the coroner may report".
The wording of the paragraph is strong, but its conclusion is weak. That makes for an odd mix. If it is of sufficient importance under paragraph 6(1)(a), (b) and (c), then one would expect the coroner to have an obligation to report. The other amendment, Amendment 95, is a helpful addendum to what seems to be the absolutely necessary Amendment 92.
We wholeheartedly endorse the laudable objectives of all noble Lords who have moved or spoken to amendments in this group. The objective is to ensure that coroners are as effective as possible in their role in preventing future deaths. I reassure the Committee that in our view the Bill already provides for the measures that are proposed, although I accept that this may not be readily apparent from the way that Part 1 of the Bill is structured.
The first part of Amendment 91 seeks to extend the powers of coroners under paragraph 6 of Schedule 4 so that they may make recommendations, as well as issue reports to any person, in order to prevent future deaths. We believe that this is implicit in the existing drafting of the Bill, and that any report issued under that paragraph may include recommendations to prevent future deaths.
At present, coroners do not have any express power to make recommendations. Nevertheless, coroners make recommendations in reports made under rule 43 of the Coroners Rules 1984, revised, as we heard earlier, as recently as July 2008. Coroners are in no doubt that they may include recommendations in these reports, and frequently so do. The indications are that the new system is working well. My right honourable friend the Lord Chancellor will publish the first batch of reports and responses before the Summer Recess.
Staying with this issue, Amendment 92 could compel the coroner to make a report to prevent future deaths, rather than merely to permit this. Our concern is that this might fetter a coroner's judicial discretion in deciding when it is appropriate to issue such a report. I understand the points made so cogently by the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, and the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, but we think that where we can leave it to the discretion of the coroner, then as a matter of principle we should. In this case it would be better to leave such matters to the coroner's discretion because in our view the coroner will do the right thing.
Amendment 95 would give the coroner the power to request that the report's recipient provide an update after three months on action that they have taken. Amendment 94, in its turn, states that the report's recipient should provide an update within a period of 56 days. We agree that setting a time limit for a response, even an interim one, is important. That is what we did when we revised the current relevant coroners rule last year, and it states that the response to a coroner's report must be given within 56 days. I confirm that this rule will not be diluted as a result of the Bill, but I believe that, as now, such matters can appropriately be left to secondary legislation.
I move on to the second part of Amendment 91 and to Amendment 96, which seek to ensure that a national record is maintained by the Chief Coroner of all reports and recommendations to prevent future deaths, and that a digest of all such reports and recommendations is published annually. We wholeheartedly endorse such an approach and refer the noble Lord to paragraph 6(3) of Schedule 4 and Clause 29(4)(b), which already make like provision. Together, those provisions already provide for the Chief Coroner to receive all reports to prevent future deaths and the responses of the recipients of such reports, and for the Chief Coroner then to summarise them every year in his or her annual report to the Lord Chancellor.
Amendment 93, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, would require the senior coroner to send a copy of any report to prevent future deaths to the relatives of the deceased and any other interested person and to the Lord Chancellor, who may publish it. This is an unnecessary level of detail for primary legislation. Under Rule 43, bereaved people and other interested persons already receive reports and the responses to them. This too will not be diluted under the Bill.
As I have mentioned, Clause 29(4)(b) already provides for publication of a summary of the reports. I hope the noble Lord may in some way be reassured that the procedure for reports to prevent future deaths set out in his amendments is already catered for in the Bill and what will be the associated secondary legislation.
Staying with the Chief Coroner's annual report to the Lord Chancellor, Amendment 117, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, would require the report to contain an analysis of jury findings, and an analysis of reports to prevent future deaths and responses to them. Again, I want to do my best to persuade the noble Baroness that the policy behind her amendment is very likely to be followed in practice. We would certainly expect the Chief Coroner's annual report to contain details of verdicts in different coroner areas. Clause 29(4)(b) already provides for a summary of reports to prevent deaths, and of the responses to them, to be included in the annual report.
In the course of summarising and assessing all of these matters for his or her annual report, it is inevitable that the Chief Coroner will provide some analysis of the data he or she receives from coroners.
Amendment 118 would require the Lord Chancellor to take "any action" he thought "appropriate" in response to the Chief Coroner's annual report. I will explain what I believe will happen in practice and why this amendment is unnecessary. Clause 29(7) already provides for the Lord Chancellor to request advice from the Chief Coroner on any matter he wishes regarding the operation of the coroner system. The Chief Coroner must then respond to the Lord Chancellor's request. This is in addition to the annual report which the Chief Coroner will provide.
I am sure that any Lord Chancellor would wish to take whatever action is possible to support the Chief Coroner's analysis of particular problems. Certainly the present Lord Chancellor will wish to do so, particularly in the early years as the new system beds in.
Amendment 131 is an important amendment as it sets out in detail some objectives. We share entirely the objectives to ensure that in the reformed system the Chief Coroner, in conjunction with the medical examiner service, is well placed to identify clusters or trends of deaths, so that he or she can determine whether action is needed, at a local or national level, to prevent deaths in the future. Amendment 131 seeks to empower the Chief Coroner to order an investigation into the causes of a cluster of deaths, or a trend, and send the results of the investigation to an appropriate authority which could take action to prevent subsequent deaths. It would also provide for the Chief Coroner to require information from coroners and medical examiners and send the Lord Chancellor an annual report, which may include details of trends identified and actions taken. I want to persuade the noble Lord that this proposed new clause is unnecessary.
I will focus first on the proposed new subsections (1) to (3). Coroners regulations made under Clause 35 already provide for the Chief Coroner to require information from coroners. However, I would like to clarify that this will not extend to medical examiners, as the amendment suggests it should. The Chief Coroner will have no formal authority over the medical examiners, as his or her jurisdiction extends only to those deaths which are subject to investigation by coroners, namely those deaths of violent, unnatural or unknown cause, or those that occurred when someone was in state detention.
One of the Chief Coroner's key roles, however, as the national head of the reformed coroner service, will be to review national statistics on deaths and coroner verdicts. Working with the head of the medical examiner service and his or her own national medical adviser, the Chief Coroner will identify patterns or trends. In this way the Chief Coroner will be able to identify where there has been a particular cluster of deaths, or where it seems that reporting to a coroner is high, low or otherwise unusual in any area.
I return to paragraph 6 of Schedule 4. Under that paragraph, the Chief Coroner will receive copies of all reports, and responses from organisations to those reports, to prevent future deaths and not just those that appear to be part of a trend or cluster. This will ensure that the Chief Coroner has oversight of the causes of all the deaths that are subject to reports and of the action being proposed to prevent deaths in the future.
Subsections (4) to (6) of the proposed new clause deal with investigations where trends in deaths are identified. The Chief Coroner's work in identifying trends may include the commissioning of research or co-ordinating of research requests. These are important functions which the Chief Coroner's new national leadership role will make possible. We intend to develop protocols regarding research as we implement the Bill's provisions. This will include protocols about the action to be taken following the receipt of an independent report. I hope that noble Lords agree that that is more proportionate than detailing provisions for formal investigations on the face of the Bill.
Proposed new subsection (6) states that an authority that receives a report of an investigation carried out under proposed new subsection (4) must say what it intends to do to prevent future deaths. We think that that is overly prescriptive as there may be no further action that the organisation can take. Already under paragraph 6 of Schedule 4, an organisation that receives a coroner's report arising from an individual case to prevent future deaths must respond to the coroner, who will then send a copy of the response to the Chief Coroner. We think that that provides flexibility for a recipient to respond by describing action that it has already taken or setting out why no action can be taken if that is justifiably the case. We think that flexibility is important.
Finally, on subsections (7) and (8) of the proposed new clause in Amendment 131, Clause 29 already places a duty on the Chief Coroner to submit an annual report to the Lord Chancellor. Such reports must include any matters that either the Chief Coroner or the Lord Chancellor deems appropriate. We can be confident, therefore, that the Chief Coroner will use his or her annual report to publicise any trends in deaths and how they are being addressed.
I have attempted to reassure the Committee that our aim is to identify trends or clusters of deaths and to take action to prevent them, and that it is achievable within the framework already set out in the Bill.
Perhaps I may return to paragraph 6(1) of Schedule 4, a matter to which the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, also addressed herself. I simply want to understand exactly what the Minister is saying.
Here we have a situation where a senior coroner has been conducting an investigation. That investigation gives rise to a concern that there are circumstances that create a risk of other deaths, or that the risk will continue to exist in the future, and—and here I quote paragraph 6(1)(c)—
"in the coroner's opinion, action should be taken to prevent the occurrence or continuation of such circumstances, or to eliminate or reduce the risk of death created by such circumstances".
So he has reached that rather devastating conclusion, yet the legislation goes on to say that his obligation is only that he,
"may report the matter to a person who the coroner believes may have power to take such action".
The Minister justified the use of the word "may" by saying that it would be wrong to compel a judge to do anything in these circumstances. I must confess to being rather puzzled by that response. This Bill is littered with obligations imposed on coroners at all levels. So why in this case would it be wrong to say "must" rather than "may"?
Judges have discretion in relation to their judicial tasks; but in the context of coming to their conclusions in court, they are often faced with obligations. For example, a judge is obliged, before he sentences somebody, to take into account a probation report. That is not a discretion that he has, but an obligation. Why should judges have obligations laid down in legislation, whereas the coroner, in this case, is not obliged to report the matter to a relevant person?
The noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, makes a very powerful point—one that I have now had a chance to consider further. The point was bolstered earlier by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss. I will take that point back and consider carefully the argument that has been put. Perhaps I may talk to the noble Lord about this issue before we return on Report.
We must all be grateful to the Minister, and to other noble Lords who have contributed to the debate. When I introduced it, I said that a number of amendments in the group laid out various ways in which we could try to ensure that what came out of a coroner's inquiry and inquest was not forgotten or lost. That is the key thing. There are various ways in which it can be done. It can be done by putting an obligation on the coroner. It can be done by putting an obligation on the Chief Coroner. It can be done by putting an obligation on all of us to try to ensure that, when reports come annually from the Chief Coroner, they are properly scrutinised.
What the Minister has done in his final response is to indicate something of the route and direction that may be most efficacious. I will take that away and think about it, so that when we come back and see what the Minister's thoughts are, we might strengthen it, so that what is learnt is not forgotten but acted upon and implemented for the good of the community. As I said, there is often little more that one can do for the family and friends who have lost loved ones by whatever means. However, if they know that it is not forgotten and someone else will not suffer, that can often be a worthwhile and important thing, and something of great value to the community as a whole. With the positive encouragement that the Minister is going to think about this and come back—and all of us can think and come back—I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 91 withdrawn.
Amendments 92 to 96 not moved.
Schedule 4, as amended, agreed.
Clause 26 agreed.
Schedule 5 : Offences
Amendments 97 to 100
Moved by Lord Bach
97: Schedule 5, page 128, line 25, after "coroner" insert ", or (as the case may be) the Coroner for Treasure,"
98: Schedule 5, page 128, line 36, after "coroner" insert ", or (as the case may be) the Coroner for Treasure,"
99: Schedule 5, page 129, line 14, after "coroner" insert "or the Coroner for Treasure"
100: Schedule 5, page 129, line 35, after "coroner" insert "or the Coroner for Treasure"
Amendments 97 to 100 agreed.
Schedule 5, as amended, agreed.
Clause 27 agreed.
Amendment 101 not moved.
Schedule 6 : Allowances, fees and expenses
Amendment 102 not moved.
Moved by Lord Bach
103: Schedule 6, page 130, line 25, at end insert "or, where appropriate, the Coroner for Treasure"
Amendment 103 agreed.
Amendment 104 not moved.
Moved by Lord Bach
105: Schedule 6, page 130, line 29, at end insert "or the Coroner for Treasure"
Amendment 105 agreed.
Amendments 106 and 107 not moved.
Moved by Lord Bach
108: Schedule 6, page 131, line 33, leave out or "by a judge" and insert "the Coroner for Treasure or by a judge, former judge or former coroner"
Amendment 108 agreed.
Amendment 109 not moved.
Schedule 6, as amended, agreed.
Amendment 109A not moved.
Clause 28 agreed.
Schedule 7: Chief Coroner and Deputy Chief Coroners
Amendment 110 not moved.
Amendments 111 to 113
Moved by Lord Bach
111: Schedule 7, page 132, line 33, after second "judge" insert ", the Coroner for Treasure"
112: Schedule 7, page 133, line 3, at end insert "or the Coroner for Treasure"
113: Schedule 7, page 133, line 12, after "coroner" insert "or the Coroner for Treasure"
Amendments 111 to 113 agreed.
Amendments 114 and 114A not moved.
Schedule 7, as amended, agreed.
Clause 29: Reports and advice to the Lord Chancellor from the Chief Coroner
Amendment 115 not moved.
Moved by Lord Bach
116: Clause 29, page 16, line 22, after "32(1)," insert "(2A),"
Amendment 116 agreed.
Amendments 117 and 118 not moved.
Clause 29, as amended, agreed.
Clause 30: Regulations about training
Amendment 119 not moved.
Amendments 120 and 121
Moved by Lord Bach
120: Clause 30, page 16, line 36, at end insert—
"(aa) the Coroner for Treasure and Assistant Coroners for Treasure;"
121: Clause 30, page 16, line 38, at end insert "or (aa)"
Amendments 120 and 121 agreed.
Clause 30, as amended, agreed.
Clause 31: Inspection of coroner system
Amendments 122 to 124
Moved by Lord Bach
122: Clause 31, page 17, line 17, after "coroner" insert "or the Coroner for Treasure"
123: Clause 31, page 17, line 18, at end insert "or the Coroner for Treasure"
124: Clause 31, page 17, line 36, after "coroner" insert "or the Coroner for Treasure"
Amendments 122 to 124 agreed.
Clause 31, as amended, agreed.
Clause 32: Appeals to the Chief Coroner
Amendments 125 to 128
Moved by Lord Bach
125: Clause 32, page 18, line 11, leave out "or (4)"
126: Clause 32, page 18, line 16, leave out paragraph (k)
127: Clause 32, page 18, line 19, at end insert—
"(2A) An interested person may appeal to the Chief Coroner against a decision made by the Coroner for Treasure (or an Assistant Coroner for Treasure) in connection with—
(a) an object that is or may be treasure or treasure trove, or
(b) an investigation or inquest under Chapter (Investigations concerning treasure) concerning such an object, including a decision embodied in the determination of a question mentioned in section (Investigations concerning treasure)(5)(a) or (b)."
128: Clause 32, page 18, leave out line 21 and insert—
"(a) a decision that falls within subsection (2), or
(b) a decision of a kind mentioned in subsection (2A)."
Amendments 125 to 128 agreed.
Moved by Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde
128A: Clause 32, page 18, line 24, at end insert—
"( ) When making an order under subsection (5), the Lord Chancellor shall consult those persons whom he thinks appropriate."
In moving Amendment 128A, I will speak also to Amendments 132A and 206A. These are not technical amendments. They go back to Second Reading and my concern for the families of military personnel who have lost their lives in the service of the country. I accept, however, that amending the Bill will affect all families. My concern is that the Bill is intended to make the system more accessible, understanding and compassionate to families. It is particularly relevant for military families who lose their loved ones many hundreds or thousands of miles away and, as we are all aware, often have to wait a long time for an inquest. When multiple fatalities are involved, many of those families have to travel a long way to go to the inquest. It is very important that they are not faced with feeling—as many of them do, to judge from a consultation that I was fortunate enough to be part of last summer—shut out of the system, and that it is not accessible to them. They come away from the inquest all too often feeling that they have not got to the root of what happened. They really do not understand fully; do not feel that they have been treated fairly; and have not been part of what could have been part of the process of healing and moving on from a very traumatic period in their lives.
My first amendment would mean that the Lord Chancellor would be required to consult those he thinks appropriate, arising from any proposed amendment to subsection (2) on page 18. There are some quite profound statements here. I give as examples a decision to resume an investigation; a decision whether there should be a jury at an inquest; a decision not to request a post-mortem examination. Those are all profound points that go to the core of the issue. My amendment makes a simple but important request: to seek consultation with those families before changes are made. Amendment 132, to which I am speaking, would also require consultation before regulations are drawn up.
Amendment 206A on page 107, provides a new clause that requires the officials specified in the amendment to be consulted. They are three straightforward amendments. I will not trouble the Committee at this late hour going into a detailed case in support of it, because they are straightforward. With that, I beg to move.
I entirely agree with the sentiments behind the amendments; namely, that before the Lord Chancellor, the Chief Coroner, relevant Secretary of State, or Welsh Minister make regulations, orders and rules that they should consult with appropriate persons. However, I do not consider it necessary to go as far to state it in the Bill. I hope that it should be taken as read that when making secondary legislation the relevant Minister or Chief Coroner, as the case may be, would consult relevant interested parties, including coroners, local authorities, coroners' offices and third party organisations. With regards to Amendment 128, I remind the Committee that an order made under that clause to alter the grounds on which an appeal can be made to the Chief Coroner will be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. As such, the drafting of such an order would need to be debated and approved by both Houses.
In addition, for regulations made under Clause 36 the Lord Chancellor must also have the agreement of the Lord Chief Justice or his nominee. It is envisaged that the Chief Coroner will also be involved with the process along with the new statutory coronial advisory council, which will comprise all those with a strong interest in the coroner's service. It is our intention when the Bill receives Royal Assent that we will as soon as possible begin an extensive process of consultation that will continue for 12 to 24 months to inform the secondary legislation and associated guidance for which the Bill provides. The secondary legislation and guidance covering a wide public interest will be subject to written consultation during which the public and all other stakeholders will have the standard 12 weeks in which to respond. However, there will inevitably be some secondary legislation that is technical or of limited general interest, which will be subject to more targeted consultation. I hope that the comments give adequate reassurance to the noble Baroness and that there will be consultation on secondary legislation for which the Bill provides, and that she will withdraw the amendment.
I thank the Minister for the detail of that response. I did not hear every word of it, so I look forward to reading it in Hansard tomorrow. I accept the undertaking of consultation. The problem we have had is that good intentions do not always follow through with good actions. It is often not in the Minister's hands. The consultation is essential. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 128A withdrawn.