Report (1st Day)

Coroners and Justice Bill – in the House of Lords at 3:37 pm on 21st October 2009.

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Clause 1 : Duty to investigate certain deaths

Amendment 1

Moved by Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

1: Clause 1, page 2, line 20, at end insert—

"( ) A senior coroner shall inform the Chief Coroner if completion of an investigation is likely to take more than 12 months from the time that the coroner was notified of the death.

( ) The Chief Coroner shall maintain a register of prolonged investigations."

Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Spokesperson for the Home Office 3:38 pm, 21st October 2009

My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendment 47. I shall not repeat the arguments deployed in Committee on either of these issues, arguments which were very ably put by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff. With her permission, I have tabled a similar amendment to the one which she tabled in Committee and I shall speak to them both. I remind the House that we spoke at length about the great difficulties caused when inquests are delayed. Over time, witnesses may become more unreliable, thereby obscuring the search for truth, and making families wait prolongs and intensifies their pain.

These amendments reflect the Minister's comments in Committee. They ensure that a monitoring system will be in place to highlight problems within the coronial system. If particular jurisdictions are struggling with workloads or resources and not completing inquests in a timely manner, the Chief Coroner would be able to take action. As the Bill intends to modernise the coroners service, the long delays suffered by a very few inquests—I accept the comments the Minister made in Committee—surely must be addressed. The Minister said that inquests should be held as soon as possible when all the relevant information is to hand. Some of the problems identified in the examples given in Committee were because various authorities dragged their feet in providing the relevant information. That needs to be resolved.

The Minister also argued that the Chief Coroner will be able to carry out the functions that the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, spoke about so persuasively because the Lord Chancellor and the Chief Coroner will be given power in regulations to require information to be provided to them by senior coroners. If the Government intend to lay that out in regulations, why can they not put it in the Bill? Not having that in statute undermines the comeback that families would otherwise have to obtain a judicial review where an inquest has dragged on for year after year for no reason. Finally, it would focus attention on ensuring that delay in relation to deaths in custody or otherwise in state detention is addressed. Many of them address Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights. This issue has been highlighted year after year by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, beginning in 2004, and I remind the House that the committee commented in March 2009 that it had recently received evidence that many of the issues and delays not only remain, but are getting worse. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Williamson of Horton Lord Williamson of Horton Crossbench

My Lords, I support this amendment but shall not speak at length. I think we sometimes underestimate the importance that bereaved families attach not only to the results of the inquest but to the fact that it represents closure that enables them to put their life ahead on an even keel. We probably will not have another coroners Bill for 25 years, so it is right that we should take the opportunity to reduce delays in the opening and completion of inquests.

I am pleased that the Government have included in the Bill the appointment of a Chief Coroner with powers to intervene in specified circumstances, the introduction of senior coroners for each area and the possibility of some transfer between areas. Those are good proposals that will cut logjams and reduce delays. However, this amendment on monitoring the situation is a useful addition, and I hope that the Government will accept it. I know the Minister may say that only about 10 per cent of inquests last beyond a year, but that is a lot of inquests and some delays are very long indeed. This amendment demonstrates an intention to do our best to correct the situation and deserves government support.

Photo of Lord Ramsbotham Lord Ramsbotham Crossbench 3:45 pm, 21st October 2009

My Lords, I added my name to these amendments because, as the Explanatory Notes say:

"The purpose of the Bill is to establish more effective, transparent and responsive justice and coroner services for victims, witnesses, bereaved families and the wider public".

In Committee, the Minister said that the average time for an inquest was 26 weeks. That, of course, is not so for Schedule 2 inquests, particularly those involving prisons, the police and the Armed Forces, for which two years is the average time.

Very recently, a very complicated case involving the police was brought to a conclusion within one year, because all those involved put their minds to getting the thing done quickly. That suggests that if greater pressure was put on the system to speed it up, it would be possible to avoid some of the dreadful cases that we know about in which inquests are taking four-and-a-half, five and even six years. Imagine what that does to closure for the families.

There is an example of this in the case of the Armed Forces. Since 5 June 2006, there have been regular Written Ministerial Statements with information about inquests into the deaths of military personnel. I welcome the amendments and commend them to the Government, but I particularly welcome Amendment 47—with its suggestion that the Lord Chancellor should make six-monthly reviews to Parliament—because Parliament could then be aware of delays, particularly in outstandingly long cases, and perhaps imposing ministerial scrutiny on the system could help to speed it up and reduce delay, which is one of the reasons for this Bill.

Photo of Lord Henley Lord Henley Shadow Minister, Justice

My Lords, I would like to intervene before the Minister speaks, partly because I want to make sure that I comply with the strictures of his noble friend the government Chief Whip.

It seems quite a long time since the beginning of June when we were in Committee on the Bill. The Minister might remember that my late friend Lord Kingsland dealt with this matter at that stage, when the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, talked about the need for timely inquests. The Minister will accept that there is agreement right around the House about the need for timely inquests; we all think it desirable.

We support these amendments, moved this time by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, in that they would make no extra demands on the resources of coroners but would help them, and indeed everyone else, to get a clearer idea of where and why blockages are arising in the system. It is in the interests of everyone that we have such expeditious inquests, not least for bereaved families. I particularly remember the somewhat voguish word used by the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, when he talked about the need for "closure" in these matters. He was right to use it, and it is something that we should all pursue.

Amendment 47 is the second arm of these two amendments, and would put the onus on the Lord Chancellor to report to Parliament. The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, talked about the importance of that for extra ministerial scrutiny of these matters. We welcome it because it is also important for the extra parliamentary scrutiny that would be allowed if Ministers themselves had to see why there were unnecessary delays and had to iron out the problems. Although we accept that the amendments will not solve all the problems of delay, they would do an awful lot to help to rectify those problems, and we support them. We are hoping for honeyed words from the Minister as he welcomes them, or at least explains why the Government will do something else that will make them unnecessary.

Photo of Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Crossbench

For the record, I am grateful to those who have quoted me from Committee stage. I would have added my name to Amendment 1, but because of my personal bereavement I have not attended to parliamentary matters in the past week; however, it has my full support.

Photo of Viscount Slim Viscount Slim Crossbench

My Lords, perhaps I may follow up on what the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, said. I am quite concerned about this very long delay for armed services coroners' reports. In my view, it is, for a member of the Armed Forces, deplorable that the family, a widow or a mother, should be kept waiting for two to three years for the final report. I also am perturbed because should, God forbid, the casualty rate increase out of Afghanistan and anywhere else the Armed Forces serve, I see an even further delay. In the second paragraph of the amendment, the noble Baroness proposes that the coroner keeps a registration. I would like to see the Chief Coroner have a plan and do something about quickening the process.

The Minister knows my concern about this from the previous post he held. I do not see much improvement in the system overall. Either we want more coroners or we want a better system. With great respect, I would remind noble Lords that I cannot recall a coroner's report on each and every one of the 30,000 dead from the German bombings of this country during the war, or on airmen who were shot down on our land, or on those of us who fought abroad and certainly not on those in the Merchant Navy who were killed or sunk in our own waters by enemy submarines. The whole question of the Armed Forces and how they are dealt with in this matter wants a thorough examination.

I would ask the Chief Coroner and the Minister to see what can be done to hasten that process. The length of time a family waits for this report is cruel and deplorable.

Photo of Lord Tunnicliffe Lord Tunnicliffe Government Whip, Government Whip

Amendments 1 and 7 concern an important issue in the investigation of deaths; that is, the time taken by a coroner to complete an investigation. I fully acknowledge that the delay involved in some investigations is unacceptable and we have already included provisions in this Bill to assist with those situations. It is inappropriate to make a Second Reading-type speech at this late stage, but the whole essence of this Bill is to make the coroners' system more effective and more efficient so that these times can be reduced. Our objectives and the objectives of everyone who has spoken are congruent.

The introduction of a Chief Coroner will provide operational leadership for the first time and the introduction of the new medical examiner service will mean that fewer deaths are reported to coroners in the first place. Nevertheless, as noble Lords have pointed out, we already know that certain types of investigations are far more likely to lead to delays. In general, these will be where coroners depend on other organisations to provide investigation reports—not just the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, but organisations such as the Health and Safety Executive or a transport accident investigation branch—or when there is a requirement to investigate a death abroad, particularly a death in a country which does not understand the role of British coroners. However, as my noble friend mentioned in Committee, the vast majority of inquests, some 64 per cent of the total, are completed within six months and 91 per cent are completed within 12 months.

I support the policy objectives that the amendments are aiming to achieve, but I hope I can convince the House that there are better ways in which they may be delivered. We intend to make regulations under Clause 38(3)(e) that will require information to be provided by senior coroners to the Chief Coroner, which will include information on inquests that have been delayed, to enable the Chief Coroner to have operational oversight of the service. The Chief Coroner is likely to take a particular interest in the details of coroners' oldest cases, or those where the indications are that the investigation has stalled. This will enable the Chief Coroner to assist in any liaison which may be necessary with other organisations investigating the circumstances of the death, or to improve the protocols which are, or will be, established between coroners and particular organisations.

In relation to overseas deaths, the Chief Coroner, with the help of our consulate service overseas, will play an important role in representing the interests of the coronial system and will help to secure information on behalf of particular coroners. The Chief Coroner will therefore monitor the oldest or lengthier cases, and is likely to publish information about them for inclusion in his or her annual report. I therefore believe that these amendments are unnecessary, and suggest that the regulations—on which we will be consulting fully at a later stage—would be a more fitting place for them.

Similarly, as the annual report would be laid before each House of Parliament, we do not believe it to be necessary for the Lord Chancellor to make half-yearly statements to the House. The Chief Coroner's report will be laid before each House of Parliament and should be self-explanatory. Of course, the Lord Chancellor may be questioned on any aspect of the contents of this report and how he or she intends to react to any issues raised through the normal procedures, such as Oral and Written Parliamentary Questions.

The Chief Coroner will be involved in drafting the regulations, which will be properly consulted on so that they are fit for purpose. A particular question is what will happen to the present system of quarterly Written Ministerial Statements on military inquests. In the short to medium term—two to three years—we anticipate that those statements will continue. However, once the new system is implemented, particularly with the appointment of the Chief Coroner, we may review that. Decisions are likely to be dependent on a number of factors. The first and most obvious is that the situation in theatre may be quite different in two to three years. Secondly, it may be more appropriate for the Chief Coroner, as operational head of service, to recommend to the Lord Chancellor the best and most appropriate method of collating and disseminating this information. Thirdly, some of these deaths may in future be dealt with by way of fatal accident inquiry in Scotland rather than by way of inquest in England and Wales, so that would also need to be considered when publicising this information.

There is always a conflict between putting something on the face of the Bill and including it in regulations, but we recommend the latter because the regulations would be better as a result. Our objectives coincide with everyone who has spoken—to improve the efficiency of the coroner service and as part of that, reduce the time that people have to wait. On that basis, and underlining the Government's commitment to tackle the issues, I invite the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, to withdraw her amendment.

Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Spokesperson for the Home Office

My Lords, one normally hears an argument against an amendment from quarters of the House other than simply the Government, but on these amendments we have heard a great many expert opinions—from the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, in Committee, and from the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, with his knowledge of deaths in custody and the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, with all his expertise on Armed Forces in today's debate.

I am encouraged by the support from the noble Lord, Lord Henley, and his Benches. I will particularly miss the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, when I come to move Amendment 4. I am extremely saddened to be conducting this Report stage without him. I also express my condolences to the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, who I am very glad can be here this afternoon to take part in this debate.

The Minister gave no good answer as to why the provision should not be in the Bill. Given the overwhelming strength of opinion, I am astonished that the Government should continue to resist this practical measure. For that reason, I should like to test the opinion of the House.

Division on Amendment 1

Contents 173; Not-Contents 119.

Amendment 1 agreed.

Division number 1 Coroners and Justice Bill — Report (1st Day)

Aye: 171 Members of the House of Lords

No: 117 Members of the House of Lords

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Clause 3 : Direction for other coroner to conduct investigation

Amendment 2

Moved by Lord Henley

2: Clause 3, page 3, line 2, at end insert—

"( ) Before giving a direction under this section, the Chief Coroner must take into consideration the resources available to coroner A."

Photo of Lord Henley Lord Henley Shadow Minister, Justice

This amendment, which stands in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Hunt of Wirral, would insert a new subsection into Clause 3 after subsection (1). Clause 3(1) states:

"The Chief Coroner may direct a senior coroner (coroner A) to conduct an investigation under this Part into a person's death even though, apart from the direction, a different senior coroner (coroner B) would be under a duty to conduct it".

Under that provision, in a separate subsection, our amendment would add that,

"the Chief Coroner must take into consideration the resources available to coroner A".

The amendment returns to a topic that we debated fully in Committee, where my noble friend Lord Kingsland made it clear that he expected the Government to think about it over the summer. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Bach, indicated that he would do so. There is not much that divides the parties on this. The Government seem to accept the principle that the availability of resources is indeed a consideration that must be taken into account, which is entirely reasonable.

There will be situations which arise that place a great strain on one coronial area, and we agree that it should be possible for that strain to be shared. The Government, in turn, agree that coroner A—as he is referred to in the Bill—who is there to help ease the strain, must not himself be swamped by a new workload. In Committee, the Government resisted our amendment. If we are convinced that the concern has been sufficiently addressed through other means then we will not necessarily insist that this wording be included in the Bill. However, we need to hear what the Government will do to ensure protection for coroner A.

On that occasion my noble friend made it clear that,

"This has got nothing ... to do with increasing resources"— we have all been made very much aware of the need not to impose extra costs on the budget—

"either centrally or locally. It has simply got to do with the functioning of Clause 3.

Clause 3 can only function—the directions can only sensibly be made—if they are made to people who are in a position to carry them out. The responsibility for making that assessment is the responsibility of the Chief Coroner. Inevitably, that assessment will have to include the terms of my amendment".—[Hansard, 9/6/09; col. 583-84.]

That seems to be a matter of common sense. However, if the Government feel that this can be better set out in regulations or by some other means, I am sure the Minister will welcome this opportunity to explain what concrete proposals they have to ensure that existing coronial resources are used as equitably as possible. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice 4:15 pm, 21st October 2009

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for moving his amendment. Clause 3 of the Bill provides for the Chief Coroner to direct that an investigation be transferred from one coroner, coroner B, to a coroner in a different area, coroner A, and the noble Lord's amendment would mean that the Chief Coroner would have to consider the ability of coroner A's relevant authority to resource the investigation before doing so. As the noble Lord said, the late and very much missed Lord Kingsland tabled this amendment in Committee and indicated that he would retable it on Report.

In Committee, my noble friend Lord Davies of Oldham explained that the general principle when the Chief Coroner transfers a case under Clause 3 would be for coroner B's area to retain responsibility for funding even after the investigation transfers to coroner A. My noble friend said then that there would be some exceptions to this and that regulations would set out in more detail where the responsibility for funding would rest following such a transfer. We have given the issue further thought over the summer, and I shall outline—shortly, but in a little more detail—how we envisage these regulations working. Of course this will be subject to change as we will consult on the regulations once the Bill has received Royal Assent. However, I hope the detail will allay the concerns of the noble Lord and the House about this small but significant aspect of the Bill, which will benefit bereaved families and ensure that the system operates with more of a national dimension than is possible at the moment.

In summary, we think that there are three possible funding arrangements—the first will be the general rule, and the other two arrangements will be exceptions to this general rule. These will be set out in regulations made under paragraph 9 of Schedule 7. The general rule will apply to most transferred cases. Regulations will say that when an investigation is transferred, coroner B's relevant authority will be required to meet the expenses of coroner A. This will apply, for example, where the Chief Coroner transfers a case to coroner A to reduce a severe backlog in coroner B's area, or where a bereaved family lives far from where their loved one died and the Chief Coroner directs a coroner who is more local to the family to carry out that investigation. I hope that reassures the House that in the vast majority of cases there will be no extra resource burden on coroner A, who will be hearing the case.

The regulations will also set out two exceptions to the general funding principle. The first is where the relevant authority for coroner A will be responsible for meeting the expenses of the investigation. When a death occurs overseas and the body is brought back to England and Wales, the coroner for that area—coroner B—initially has a duty to carry out the investigation. However, the investigation may transfer to a different coroner who is nearer the family, coroner A, whose relevant authority will then fund it.

The second exception is where relevant authorities for coroners A and B agree to share expenses. We think that this is likely to happen in only a few cases. An example might be where two or more people are ultimately killed in one incident, such as a car accident. If, while still alive, one person was moved to another coroner area where they later die, the legislation would require investigations to happen in the two areas where the bodies are lying. However, the Chief Coroner may decide that both deaths should be investigated jointly by the coroner in whose area the incident occurred. Funding arrangements could then be agreed between the relevant authorities.

I shall briefly outline—helpfully, I hope—other related matters that we envisage regulations covering. These could include procedures for notifying interested persons of a transfer, and a provision for coroner A to be accountable to coroner B's relevant authority for expenses incurred in a case transferred to them, as they would normally be accountable to their own authority. We will of course work with local authorities, the Local Government Association and the Coroners' Society, among others, to develop these regulations. I hope that, in the light of what I have said, the noble Lord might be content that the regulations will sufficiently address the concerns he has rightly raised about resourcing transferred cases, and that he might withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Lord Henley Lord Henley Shadow Minister, Justice

My Lords, I shall make it easy for the Minister: I am more or less happy, and I will certainly not be pressing this amendment. I am also interested in the detail he gave about how the regulations will work and what will be in them to deal with this matter.

The Minister stressed—I know that the department is keen on this—that there will be consultation. However, if the Government have already more or less made up their mind about how the regulations should work, one wonders whether the consultation is necessary on this occasion. He stressed at the end that he would be consulting a number of different bodies, so perhaps I am being unfair to the poor old Ministry of Justice in saying that this is yet another of consultations with no purpose because the Government or the department have already made up their mind.

As I said, I believe that the Government have used their summer break wisely on this matter. I am grateful to the Minister for having considered it and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 2 withdrawn.

Clause 5 : Matters to be ascertained

Amendment 3

Moved by Lord Alderdice

3: Clause 5, page 4, line 6, at end insert—

"( ) The senior coroner may determine that the purpose of any investigation shall include ascertaining the circumstances in which the deceased came by his death where—

(a) the senior coroner is satisfied that there are reasonable grounds to determine that the continued or repeat occurrence of those circumstances would be prejudicial to the health and safety of members of the public or any section of it, or

(b) the senior coroner is satisfied that there are reasonable grounds to consider such circumstances to be in the public interest."

Photo of Lord Alderdice Lord Alderdice Liberal Democrat

My Lords, Amendment 3 is in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford. During earlier stages of the Bill it was repeatedly drawn to noble Lords' attention—particularly by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and by others—that the genesis of at least some of the momentum behind this Bill was the events of the Shipman inquiry, subsequent to the horrible and terrible events that had occurred. One important failure of the coronial service at that time was to see each death that came to its attention solely as an individual item. It did not pay proper attention to the fact that a whole series of deaths were occurring that formed a pattern which could quite clearly have pointed to what happened. Afterwards there was a great focus on the negligent medical contribution, and properly so, but remarkably little focus in the public mind on the failures of the coronial service.

One problem with Clause 5 is that it draws the scope of inquests quite narrowly in Clause 5(1), to look only at the individual, and only widens it in Clause 5(2) in order to address deaths that raise implications regarding the European Convention on Human Rights. The amendment seeks to make clear to the senior coroner involved that, if there are reasonable grounds—for example, the death of a vulnerable elderly person in a private nursing home, a death in a private workplace, or concerns about transport and workplace safety—these ought to be investigated because of the potential that they were part of a wider pattern and could have implications for public health, welfare and safety.

This issue was raised before by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and has also been pressed by the JCHR. I know that at that stage the Minister made clear that the coroner had the discretion to deal with matters in the way that I have described. However, it is not in the Bill. If part of the whole purpose of this legislation is not only to change the legal structure but to send a message to the community at large and to the officials involved as to what the community expects should be done, it seems that there is no case for not putting it clearly in the Bill. In this amendment we make it clear that if the senior coroner is satisfied that there are reasonable grounds for determining that the continued or repeated occurrence of the circumstances led to the death, and that these are in the public interest, he should proceed. We heard what the Minister said before, but it does not, without this amendment, send the kind of message that would be extremely helpful, particularly in light of the events that led to the current legislation. Therefore, I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Henley Lord Henley Shadow Minister, Justice

My Lords, I have a degree of sympathy for the sentiments expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice. The new requirements do not seem unreasonable. After all, if there is a continued risk to the public, something ought to be done about it, the "somebody" in this case being the senior coroner. However, I wonder whether the amendment will expand Clause 5 to a broader remit than is intended by the spirit of the Bill. This is why I say that I have only some sympathy to offer the noble Lord. Clause 5 is deliberately—as I understand it—narrow so that matters to be ascertained are the circumstances surrounding the death of the individual who is the subject of the inquest. I fully accept that the Minister will explain at greater length why he will resist the noble Lord's amendment, but I ask simply to add to the debate the question of whether the amendment would increase a degree of inconsistency in inquests if senior coroners made different decisions on which matters ought to be ascertained. That may cloud the purpose of Clause 5, which we believe is currently a straightforward direction of matters to be ascertained. For those reasons, as I said, it is only a degree of sympathy that I can offer to the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice.

Photo of Lord Tunnicliffe Lord Tunnicliffe Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, the amendment would increase the number of Article 2-style investigations if a coroner believes he or she needs to investigate the broader circumstances of the death for reasons of public safety or public interest. Although Clause 5(2) specifies that deaths engaging Article 2—where the state is implicated in the death—should have a wider investigation, this does not mean that the coroner cannot have such an investigation in other cases if he or she takes the view that circumstances demand it. In addition, it is likely that the Chief Coroner would issue guidance on cases where a broader investigation would be appropriate. This might include those situations specified in the amendment; for example, a death which raises wider and significant issues of public health and safety, such as when he or she is investigating clusters of deaths from a similar cause. The deaths in Stafford hospital would be a good example of that.

The key issue here is that the coroner will have the discretion to require a wider investigation if he thinks fit. He will continue to have the discretion to set the scope of any inquest and may decide to investigate the broad circumstances. We do not think that it is in the interests of the vast majority of families for coroners' investigations to be extended. Many already find inquests intimidating and to have the scope expanded would mean that it would no longer be a relatively straightforward inquisition. There are also, of course, resource implications. The wider the scope and the longer the inquest takes, the more coroners would be needed. It is also argued that more legal representation would be required to ensure that family interests are better represented, thus removing families from the heart of the process.

In the light of these reassurances, I do not think that it is necessary to include this amendment in the Bill. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, will consider withdrawing it.

Photo of Lord Alderdice Lord Alderdice Liberal Democrat 4:30 pm, 21st October 2009

My Lords, I hear what the noble Lord says in this regard. However, it is not simply a matter of saying that only the family should be involved at the heart of the inquest. The whole point is that it does not involve just the family of the person who has gone; other families might find themselves in similar circumstances if the matters are not resolved and clarified. That is also an important heart of any inquest.

As regards discretion and the opportunity for the coroner to use it, that has always been the case; it is nothing new. It was the failure to use that discretion energetically in situations where it was necessary that led us precisely to the problems that were the genesis of this Bill. I rather doubt that coroners in general will read the Bill, and particularly the debate in your Lordships' House, in detail. My only hope is that a Chief Coroner will be appointed who will not only read the Bill but the debate and the injunction of the Minister that he should put in place guidance for others which would include this specific issue. With that hope as regards this new Chief Coroner, whoever he or she may be, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 3 withdrawn.

Amendment 4

Moved by Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

4: After Clause 5, insert the following new Clause—

"Information for inquests

In section 15 of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (c. 23) (general safeguards), after subsection (4)(c) insert—

"(ca) it is necessary to ensure that an inquest has the information it needs to enable the matters required to be ascertained by the investigation to be ascertained;"."

Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Spokesperson for the Home Office

My Lords, this group of amendments returns us to the use of intercept evidence and its place at inquests. We have had much debate about how the Bill rightly modernises the coroner service. Of course, it should make it a service for the 21st century, so it should not duck a central fact of 21st century security and policing; namely, that intercept evidence plays an increasing part in much of that policing and security work. The coronial service must be enabled to work with that, which is the aim of my amendments.

In Committee, the noble Baroness, Lady Ramsay of Cartvale, said that I was barging in in a cavalier fashion in trying to introduce intercept in coroners' courts. She will be happy to hear that I have met the intercept as evidence implementation unit about which she talked. I appreciate that its work is necessary and complex. However, does this House have the will to put at the heart of the Bill a single coronial system that operates when somebody dies, or will it accept the parallel system which the Government prefer because they cannot bring themselves to accept an adapted form of intercept that would work within the coronial system?

The House will recall that this problem was highlighted by the Azelle Rodney inquest, but the increasing use of intercept means that this is a growing problem. The Rodney inquest has been outstanding for four years and we have already talked this afternoon of the effects of this delay, not only on family but also on witnesses. Four years is a long time for a witness to remember any facts accurately and it must seem like a lifetime in hell for the mother whose child has been killed. This inquest cannot be heard, we are told, because of the intercept evidence and/or the method of gathering it. The revelation of this evidence would jeopardise national security or the ability to detect and investigate further crime activity.

We certainly accept on these Benches that there will be occasions when evidence cannot be openly heard and this is not a new problem. In Committee we were reminded that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd, first proposed lifting the ban on this evidence 10 years ago. The Chilcot review recommended lifting the absolute ban on Section 17 of RIPA in February 2008. We tried in this House to address these problems in legislation in the Counter-Terrorism Bill in 2008 when the Government proposed secret inquests. In fact, in the face of united opposition, they withdrew that proposition, very sensibly. Today they propose a solution using the Inquiries Act to solve this problem, which we believe is an even worse solution than their previous unacceptable idea of secret juryless inquests. Under the Inquiries Act they will have far too wide-ranging powers to restrict public access to hearings and documents which will restrict the final report.

I do not believe that the Government paid sufficient attention to what the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Jones—then shadow Minister for Security and now shadow Home Office Minister—said from Conservative Front Bench when she explained why she supported the amendments we tabled then, which were similar to those before your Lordships' House today. She said:

"The point is not simply that inquests should be institutionally independent, but that they should be prompt".—[Hansard, 10/6/09; col. 721.]

She put her finger on the two overriding issues. Institutional independence is exactly what would be lost if we were to accept the Government's solution of an inquiry substituting for an inquest because the state can be heavily involved in the inquiry process—setting the remit, deciding on exclusions, and so on.

These amendments have been carefully drafted to ensure that all evidence, including that gathered under RIPA, can be heard by a judge sitting as a coroner. He is independent from Government and seen to be so. He has the power to address the fact that some of the evidence may need to be heard in private and may never see the light of day. But importantly, the whole process remains within the coronial system with all its independence from the state. This point was eloquently explained in Committee by the late Lord Kingsland in his usual forensic and concise manner when he said:

"The Opposition would much prefer a solution in the coronial context to the one in the context of the Inquiries Act".—[Hansard, 10/6/09; col. 725.]

He also pointed to a good compromise in an attempt to meet the Government's concerns when he said:

"There may be room for an amendment that advances the possibility that, in certain circumstances, intercept evidence could be used in a traditional coronial context, with appropriate safeguards. However, if it is considered that the security nature of that evidence is such that relevant matters should be withheld from the jury, the Government could go to the second stage and initiate an inquiry—as long as the amendments that we tabled to the inquiry system were accepted by the Government".—[Hansard, 10/6/09; col. 727-28.]

Government Amendments 21 to 23 miss the central point that Lord Kingsland made so concisely. They also miss the point made in Committee so cogently by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, that there are powerful safeguards already in our amendments but that if the Government feel that additional safeguards are needed, they should explain what they are and table those. The Government have ignored the constructive suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, and instead simply invite us to accept the unacceptable.

We believe that our coronial system ensures that the coroner sets the remit for an investigation into a death, and not the state. Our coronial system is there to ensure that citizens as jurors are involved in violent or unnatural deaths at the hands of the state. The fact is, they are there as the eyes and ears of society to make sure that the state has not overstepped the line. Ensuring our security may sometimes involve police shooting to kill, for example. We would all accept that there is a fine line between ensuring our security in such a way and impunity for agents of the state when things have gone wrong. It is not for the Government to have any part in deciding where that line is or, indeed, when it has been overstepped. Our amendments would ensure that the coroners system remains at the heart of the most difficult and controversial deaths. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale Labour

My Lords, the noble Baroness referred to the Committee stage, when we had quite a debate on this issue. Amendments 4 and 5 are identical, word for word, to the two amendments that were tabled in Committee and withdrawn after a discussion. I said then that I was puzzled to have to discuss amendments to RIPA to allow intercept as evidence in coroners' courts, as is again proposed in Amendments 4 and 5. I am no less puzzled now than I was in June.

I am puzzled because the committee of distinguished privy counsellors, chaired by Sir John Chilcot and comprising my noble and learned friend Lord Archer, Sir Alan Beith MP, the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, who has now been replaced by the right honourable Michael Howard, reported to the Government in January 2008 after six months of detailed investigation, taking written and oral evidence from an impressive array of those who know about interception, including Members of your Lordships' House, that nine conditions would have to be met—the noble Baroness did not mention this—before intercept could be used as evidence in court. As my right honourable friend the Prime Minister made clear in the House of Commons in February 2008, the Government accepted the report in its entirety, including its conclusion—again, the noble Baroness did not mention this—that, if the nine conditions were not met, intercept as evidence should not be introduced in courts.

The Home Office intercept as evidence implementation unit was set up and I am pleased to hear that the noble Baroness has visited it and got to know what its work is about. However, as she no doubt discovered, it has not yet completed its detailed work. Anyone who knows anything about interception in all its complexity of operational and other problems is not surprised that such a task is taking this kind of time. Anyone who thinks otherwise fails to appreciate the importance and the enormity of the problems. No one whom I know has ever been against using intercept as evidence as a matter of principle. The practical problems and dangers in its implementation are and have always been the difficulty. When this issue has come up in another place, both the right honourable Alan Beith and the right honourable Michael Howard have made it clear that they, too, think that the Chilcot conditions must be met before there can be a change in this.

The noble Baroness is right that I said in Committee that I thought it cavalier to rush in and do this. She took exception to the word "cavalier" but I have to say to her that, if I substituted another word, it would be even less acceptable, because I find it irresponsible to try to use intercept in coroners' courts in this way, with no regard to—

Photo of Lord Lloyd of Berwick Lord Lloyd of Berwick Chair, Ecclesiastical Committee (Joint Committee)

I am grateful to the noble Baroness. I wonder whether, with all her knowledge of this subject, she could give us some idea of when the implementation committee is likely to report.

Photo of Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale Labour 4:45 pm, 21st October 2009

My Lords, I have not been in contact with the implementation unit. It will take as long as it takes. It is doing very detailed work and I am not surprised that it is finding it very difficult, for all the reasons that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, has heard me bring forward many times in this House. It is an extremely complicated, difficult problem, with a lot of dangers involved.

I will conclude now, because I do not want to make a long speech. As I said in June, I find myself wholly in agreement with the final sentence of a letter from Mobile Broadband Group, which represents the UK businesses of O2, Orange, T-Mobile, Virgin Mobile, Vodafone and 3. The mobile operators form a significant constituent part of the communications services providers, whose importance is frequently recognised in the reports of interception commissioners. The last sentence of the letter states:

"If intercept as evidence is to be introduced into any court (criminal, civil or coroners) it should be done in a comprehensive way, meeting the nine conditions of the Privy Council review in their totality, including a detailed implementation plan which incorporates safeguarding the critical interests of partners' legitimate needs".

I could not put it better myself. I oppose the amendment.

Photo of Lord Pannick Lord Pannick Crossbench

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Ramsay, makes some powerful points, if I may respectfully say so. However, I suggest to the House that the answer to the points is that Section 18 of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act already allows for the use of intercept material in courts in a number of exceptional circumstances. All that the amendment proposes is that there should be a further exception allowed by reason of the exceptional circumstances of the cases that we are talking about, and the desperate need for the coronial jurisdiction to function effectively. It may be that further conditions should be added to the provision suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller; but if further protective provisions are needed, the Government should come forward and explain what protection is further required in order that this intercept evidence may be used in the coronial jurisdiction.

Photo of Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale Labour

My Lords, I will reply to that. There is all the difference in the world between now adding the provision to allow a coroners' court to hear intercept evidence, and the careful, detailed and complicated negotiations and consideration that took place in preparing the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000—I do not know if the noble Lord was involved in that. The Chilcot committee report says that intercept could be used in court under nine conditions. To circumvent that by coming in sideways and saying, "Well, it could come into a coroners' court because we think that is a good idea" is quite unacceptable.

Photo of Lord Robertson of Port Ellen Lord Robertson of Port Ellen Labour

My Lords, I am tempted to say, "Here we go again", and suggest that the participants in this debate—we are virtually all the same—could say simply "Speech number 10" and sit down. First, I declare an interest as an adviser to Cable & Wireless. However, I speak not in that regard but with reference to the positions that I held in government and in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.

I worry about this debate, because it seems to be a continuation, relentlessly pursued in the hope that one day, accidentally, the measure will pass. At the Prime Minister's instigation, the House—and Parliament generally—set up a committee of privy counsellors to look into this fraught business. The Prime Minister made it clear at the time that, in principle, he was in favour of intercept as evidence. However, he said that he had had strong representations, especially from the intelligence services, indicating that there were serious reservations about the use of intercept that might affect national security.

At that point, the Prime Minister said, "Right, we will set up a committee of distinguished privy counsellors", and the members of that committee were by any standards distinguished. They looked at the matter, pored over it and came to a conclusion. They said that, again, in principle, intercept as evidence should be used in court, but they said that there had to be nine conditions in order to protect what they defined as protectors of national security. I thought that we had arrived, exhaustingly over a period, at a consensus that we should let the process proceed to see whether the nine conditions could be satisfied. The Home Office has set up a department, and the noble Baroness has been to see it, as have I, to give an opinion on that, but as yet a conclusion has not been reached and the Chilcot committee members have not yet come back to us on whether the nine conditions can be satisfied.

I think it would be entirely wrong if today the House were to make a decision that pre-empted the careful, detailed and sensitive consideration that is going on inside the machinery of government. It is all very well saying that a bit of tweaking here and a bit of tweaking there will satisfy one particular case, because it appears that this campaign revolves around one case, but we all know that one case does not necessarily justify a wholesale change in legislation, especially when a committee of privy counsellors has concluded that conditions must be established. The committee of privy counsellors was not alone. The interception commissioner, who was established precisely to look after the interests of the country, has clearly and emphatically stated that there should be no change in the current situation unless and until the nine conditions are satisfied.

Therefore, I hope that the noble Baroness will reflect on this debate and other debates and withdraw her amendment. Perhaps she will consult her party colleague, Sir Alan Beith, withdraw the amendment and allow the process, taking into account the Chilcot recommendations, to go ahead and not press it to a vote in this House today.

Photo of Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Labour

My Lords, perhaps I may say a few words as the one Member of this House who currently sits on the Intelligence and Security Committee, which oversees the work of MI5, MI6, GCHQ and the Defence Intelligence Staff. We are, by the very nature of our work, permitted to see intercept in connection with these inquiries. I have come to the conclusion, as have other members of the committee—Sir Alan Beith served with great distinction on it for a long time—that it would jeopardise very sensitive intelligence sources if we passed this amendment today. I am not overdramatising when I say that people's lives could be put at risk.

The noble Lord, Lord Pannick, said that there is already one example of where such evidence can be used, although it is clearly a very limited one. When he intervened, it made me think even more about my concern that this is the thin end of the wedge. The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, is moving this amendment now and I have no doubt that next year she will push further forward, but I repeat that I think it would jeopardise our intelligence sources.

Strangely, noble Lords have heard almost in succession three Scots voices. We Scots are very cautious about taking this kind of dramatic step. Ironically—I hope that the Minister's reply will confirm my understanding—these amendments would apply only to England and Wales. Therefore, they would not apply in Scotland, which raises an interesting and difficult anomaly.

As my noble friends have said, Chilcot, with representatives from all parties, was very cautious about the recommendation. The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, said that it recommended that intercept should be used as evidence. It did not. It put huge qualifications on it—nine, as my noble friend Lady Ramsay said—and the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, did not even refer to them. She brushed them aside as if they were of no consequence, yet they are absolutely vital and crucial. If they are able to be satisfied, the intelligence services would go along with it but, until then, it is quite irresponsible to press ahead with this amendment.

I do not say this in relation to anyone present, of course, but when someone is a government Minister they realise the importance of these kinds of safeguards but, once they are free of the office, they somehow take a different view. We need to recognise that Ministers and heads of the intelligence services have day-to-day responsibility and we should be very careful about ignoring their advice.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, asked a very relevant question about when the implementation group would report. No doubt the Minister may be able to deal with that in his reply. I am sure that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd, and others would agree that we should not prejudge and pre-empt the work of that implementation group. If we were to pass this amendment today, we would be doing just that, and I think it would be a very unwise course of action.

Photo of Lord Henley Lord Henley Shadow Minister, Justice

My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, would allow an Englishman to comment on this issue. We have debated this matter on many occasions; as the noble Baroness, Lady Ramsay, made clear and as the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, said, the same participants have appeared again and again. I am new to this debate as I am taking over from my late friend Lord Kingsland. I hope that I shall take much the same line.

This issue has caused considerable unease in the House and elsewhere. As the Minister will be the first to admit when he comes to reply, the Government have clearly recognised that unease and have drawn back from some of their earlier and, dare I say, more offensive proposals. If the noble Lord remembers, the original Clauses 11 and 12, which swallowed up a great deal of time in another place, were then dropped without so much as a squeak by the Government when they realised that they would not be able to push them through your Lordships' House. In a Written Statement which the noble Lord will remember, which was slipped out by the Lord Chancellor, we learnt that in difficult cases the Government would instead make use of the Inquiries Act 2005.

In Committee, my late friend made it clear that he was still uneasy with those proposals and suggested the minimum changes that would need to be made to the 2005 Act for the Government's proposals to be in any way acceptable. The first of those requirements was that, where an inquiry is to be used as an inquest, it will always be chaired either by a High Court judge or by a more senior judge. My late noble friend also considered that it would be an outrage if the Secretary of State attempted, in the course of an inquiry looking into the death of someone under Clause 5, to seek to change the terms of reference of that inquiry. In their Amendments 21 and following, the Government have sought to address those concerns. For that, at least, we are grateful and we are happy to accept the concessions which the Government have made, so far as they go, to make the use of the Inquiries Act more palatable. However, we do not believe that they have addressed the underlying problem which is the use of the coroner's court as the first choice to hear an inquest, not an inquiry established by the Executive.

As a matter of principle, the Opposition would much prefer a solution based in the coronial context than one based in the context of the Inquiries Act. The Government want to use the Inquiries Act to fulfil the obligation to have a process to examine deaths at the hands of the state that cannot currently be dealt with by an inquest because of their refusal to budge on allowing certain types of information to be heard at an inquest. As the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, explained, the information and the methods by which it was collected fall under RIPA. We are very sympathetic to the noble Baroness's amendments that allow RIPA material to be part of an inquest and create special provisions to protect the national interest in matters of true national security.

When we debated the Counter-Terrorism Bill, we had a similar debate. My noble friend Lady Neville-Jones expressed the support of the Opposition for allowing intercept evidence to be admissible in inquests. She said:

"There is widespread support for this measure across your Lordships' House and in another place. It will address an anomaly in RIPA and ensure that all inquests comply with Article 2 of the ECHR. The point is not simply that inquests should be institutionally independent, but that they should be prompt. Part of the problem here is that we are delaying justice in several cases, which is not good for the reputation of British justice".—[Hansard, 24/11/08; col. 1298.].

The Government have cast about for different solutions to the problem. They have moved by degrees, but have yet to come up with anything that commands widespread support throughout the House or elsewhere. We all know that groups such as INQUEST, Liberty and JUSTICE have thrown their weight behind the case for allowing intercept evidence to be heard in inquests. We do not wish to delay justice any longer. I do not know what the noble Baroness intends to do with her amendment or how the Government intend to respond to it. We will listen carefully to the Government and to the noble Baroness's response, and if she is minded to test the opinion of the House, it is possible, depending on what the Government have to say, that we will support her.

Photo of Lord Harris of Haringey Lord Harris of Haringey Labour 5:00 pm, 21st October 2009

My Lords, we should be conscious that there are a number of different strands in this debate. There is the entirely right and proper concern for families where inquests have been delayed for an inordinate time because of this discussion about what can be presented in a hearing. We all have sympathy with that and would like to see it resolved in an appropriate way. Then there is a separate strand, a continuing campaign by a number of noble Lords and many people outside this House who believe that if intercept evidence could be introduced into the court system, it would provide a magic bullet that would resolve all sorts of other issues. We would not need quite such complicated and draconian terrorism legislation, we could resolve all sorts of serious crime issues and so on and so forth, and it would be absolutely wonderful.

The reality is that it would be much more complicated and difficult than that. That is why the Chilcot committee was set up to look at the practical issues involved. Its conclusion was to highlight a series of things that have to be done before, with safety, we could allow this principle to go forward. The Chilcot committee is still working on whether there are things that could be done to safeguard security and the ways in which things are obtained and to avoid a situation in which so much material is generated in evidential quantities that in practice less intelligence would be gathered on serious crime and terrorists. It would be premature for any change to be made that pre-empts that work. The seriousness of this issue is why the Chilcot committee was set up. It would be wholly unfortunate to pre-empt what it is doing, as with all due respect both strands of the argument in favour of this amendment are doing. Yes, we have to find a way of resolving these appalling delays for individual families who would like a resolution of the matters that concern them, but that must be separate. We must avoid prejudicing a much wider and important issue of public policy.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this excellent debate on what is an extremely serious subject, as has been appreciated on all sides.

The Government's amendments in the group follow on directly from our debate in Committee on 9 June, when we considered amendments tabled by the late Lord Kingsland that dealt with the relationship between a coroner's investigation and an inquiry established under the Inquiries Act to investigate the circumstances of the same death.

The Committee agreed government amendments to remove what were then Clauses 11 and 12, which sought to provide a mechanism for dealing with the very rare cases in which investigations into deaths must, as a matter of law, be held with a jury but in which there is sensitive material that may be central to the inquest but that should not be made public, including to the jury. In such cases, I indicated that the Government would instead consider establishing an inquiry under the Inquiries Act, thereby enabling an Article 2 complaint investigation to proceed.

It is fair to say, as we have heard in this debate, that there was and is some unease about our approach. The late Lord Kingsland put it this way:

"I am uneasy about using the Inquiries Act for this purpose because its procedures are initiated by an executive act by the Secretary of State, and the investigation flows from that act".—[Hansard, 9/6/09; col. 624.]

To address those concerns, noble Lords opposite proposed amendments to the Inquiries Act, which among other things sought to ensure that an inquiry established to investigate the circumstances of a person's death was chaired by a senior judge and to restrict the Secretary of State's power to vary the terms of reference of such an inquiry.

We thought very carefully about the points made by both the late Lord Kingsland and the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, in that debate, and the government amendments that I intend to move later today will, I trust, provide some reassurance. As I indicated in Committee, it was always our expectation that any inquiry established to investigate a person's death would be chaired by a senior judge, in much the same way that what was Clause 11 provided for a High Court judge to preside at a certified inquest. Moreover, we also expect the terms of reference for any such inquiry to include, as a minimum, the matters to be ascertained by a coroner, as set out in Clause 5.

These government amendments will give statutory force to our stated intentions. Under the amendments, the duty on a coroner to suspend an investigation pending the outcome of an inquiry would bite only where the inquiry was chaired by a High Court judge or a more senior judge. Moreover, where a coroner has suspended the investigation, the terms of reference of the inquiry must include, as an irreducible minimum, the matters to be ascertained, as set out in Clause 5. I hope that the amendments will reassure the House on that point.

The amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, come at the same fundamental issue from a different angle. They offer two alternative solutions, and I will address each of them in turn. Her Amendments 4, 5 and 122 put forward an alternative solution to holding an inquiry under the Inquiries Act in cases in which there is intercept evidence of central relevance to the circumstances of a death. These amendments seek to provide for the admissibility of intercept evidence in inquests by making amendments to the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. As we have been told, we have debated this issue on a number of occasions, both in the context of this Bill and when considering the Counter-Terrorism Bill during the last Session.

These amendments replicate those tabled in Committee, and the arguments we have heard—there is no harm in that at all—are clearly well rehearsed and familiar to us. It is clear that there is a shared appreciation all around the House that a very real problem exists and that we need to find a solution to that problem. But it is also clear that we have yet to find a consensus.

Our position, as the Government, on the use of intercept evidence in inquests has not changed. Allowing the use of sensitive intercept material as evidence at inquests allows a potentially very wide disclosure of this material, not just to a High Court judge who may be sitting as a coroner but to the jurors, the bereaved families, other interested parties and to the public at large. Even if the public were excluded, this would still be problematic.

We are not persuaded that such widespread disclosure of intercepted material, even if it was confined in the way suggested, is worth the real risk to national security and the fight against serious and organised crime which would ensue. Simply put, it could undermine the vital need to protect such sensitive material, the sources of that material, the capabilities available and the techniques used to obtain that material. On behalf of the Government, I must emphasise that the potential effects of disclosing any of those things cannot be underestimated and are, in our opinion, too high a price to pay.

I have previously acknowledged, and I accept, that it is not necessarily the intention of these amendments for all intercept material to be fully disclosed. However, in those very few cases where this is an issue it will be impossible to redact intercept material in such a way as to disguise the method or means by which it was obtained. Disclosure of intercept capabilities would clearly have a very real and damaging effect on our ability to gather intelligence that is vital to national security and the fight against serious organised crime.

Many distinguished speakers in this debate have referred to the Chilcot review, which, on intercept as evidence, has recognised the dangers of disclosing such material. That is why the Government are taking forward a detailed programme of work to ensure that we can meet the tests set out in that review and allow intercept to be used safely in the criminal courts without putting national security at risk. As I understand it—this came up in the debate—the intention is to provide Parliament with a final report from the Chilcot review in the next few weeks.

The protections offered in these amendments, which include only the possibility of redactions to material relating to the method or means by which the information was obtained, are, in our opinion, wholly inadequate to protect the public interest. Moreover, if we were able to identify a way to use intercept evidence safely in criminal trials, there is not an automatic read-across to inquests. I say that because, in a criminal trial the prosecution has the option of discontinuing the prosecution if there is a risk of disclosure of sensitive material or capabilities. That option does not exist in the same way in an inquest which has to be held. We argue that these amendments create the potential for public disclosure of all types of intercept material, including the sensitive techniques, capabilities and sources by which it was obtained, thereby undermining the very real need to protect this material in the public interest.

At present—and this will continue—in the reformed system, coroners and other interested parties are provided, wherever possible, with the gist or a summary of any relevant sensitive material at the outset of the investigation. This material can also be shared with the jury. The amendment does not resolve the problem for those very rare cases where intercept material is absolutely central to the investigation, but which it is impossible to gist or redact in such as way as to disguise the method or means by which it was obtained.

Of course, we recognise the importance of ensuring that bereaved relatives and other properly interested persons should be involved in the conduct of an inquest as far as possible. Ensuring greater participation in the coronial process for the families of bereaved persons is at the heart of these reforms. Proposals such as our plans for a new appeals process have been widely welcomed, as have the services outlined in the charter for bereaved people, and other measures we have taken to improve the standing of families. But we have to strike a balance between the interests of the families, in one or two exceptional cases, and the wider public interest when there is sensitive material that is central to the inquest. The amendments do not achieve that balance.

By way of contrast, the holding of an inquiry would permit, in exceptional circumstances, the disclosure of intercept material to the chairman of an inquiry established to examine the circumstances of a person's death in accordance with the existing provisions in Section 18 of RIPA. It would also permit disclosure to any inquiry panel members and to the counsel to the inquiry, but it would not permit further disclosure. It would permit the participation of families through counsel to the inquiry to the extent necessary to safeguard their interests. As a result, it would be possible to achieve our twin objectives of an Article 2-compliant investigation while safeguarding sensitive intercept material and preserving what has been described as the ring of secrecy.

Briefings previously provided on this issue by the notable organisations INQUEST, Liberty and JUSTICE have recognised the difficulties that we face, stating that under these amendments,

"it will remain possible for a judge conducting an investigation to ban or restrict the jury's or public's access to material that would be contrary to the interests of national security".

I welcome the recognition that we need to protect intercept material. However, the solution put forward here is flawed, since it does not resolve the central matter of how to proceed when the investigations must, as a matter of law, be held with a jury, but there is sensitive material which may be central to the inquest and which should not be made public—even to the jury—in the interests of national security.

If it is accepted that there will be circumstances where intercept evidence cannot be disclosed to a coroner's jury, it necessarily follows that, in such cases, the jury cannot be the finder of facts as it would be inappropriate and wrong for the jury to give a determination that is not based on all the relevant evidence. I suggest to the House that the logical consequence is that the jury would have to be dispensed with in such cases in any event.

Having thought about this matter at great length, the only viable way to conduct a full, thorough and Article 2-compliant investigation into deaths where sensitive intercept evidence cannot be made available to the inquest, is not by a blanket lifting of the bar on the admissibility of intercept evidence at inquests, which would put capabilities at risk, but by establishing an inquiry. Therefore, when the time comes, I ask the House to reject the amendments in the name of the noble Baroness.

I pray in aid that we have heard speeches in this debate from those who have great knowledge in various and different ways about how significant and serious this matter is—what the real effect might be should intercept evidence be allowed into our hearings too easily. I respectfully say to the noble Lord, in a friendly spirit, that his party, which is looking to come into power, should think very long and hard before supporting the amendments that we have been discussing.

Like the Government's amendments, Amendments 20, 24, 25 and 26 touch on the relationship between a coroner's investigation and an inquiry into the same death. It remains the view of the Government that it is entirely appropriate that, where an inquiry is established into the circumstances of a death, the coroner's investigation should be suspended and resumed only if the coroner considers that there are exceptional reasons to do so. To do otherwise would be illogical and a waste of resources. To have two separate investigations into the same death going on at the same time under different regimes would lead to confusion and inconsistency, as well as possibly causing added intrusion into the private grief of the family for no obvious benefit.

The Bill provides that an investigation may not be resumed after the completion of an inquiry unless—but must be resumed if—the senior coroner believes that there is sufficient reason for resuming it. We believe that these provisions are sufficient, as they are intended to cover situations where the terms of reference of an inquiry will not, or have not, achieved an inquest's statutory purposes.

Indeed, if the circumstances of the death had been fully investigated by an inquiry, I would have to question the value of resuming the inquest in such an event, particularly if the coroner would not have access to sensitive material, such as intercept evidence, which had been available to the inquiry. I would have thought that the concerns expressed around the House about delays in complex cases, if not in inquests generally, would be sufficient reason for not having two similar types of inquiry into the same case.

I have spoken long enough in answering this debate. I would ask the House to support the government amendments when they are moved in due course and, for the reasons that I have tried to outline, to oppose the other amendments.

Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Spokesperson for the Home Office 5:15 pm, 21st October 2009

My Lords, it has certainly been a very interesting debate. I think that we all share certain concerns, one of which is for the security of this country—I do not think that that is in question. However, what is in question is the way of arriving at a solution that not only provides for modernisation of the coroners system—and which, as I mentioned, recognises that the use of intercept will necessarily become an ever greater part of the evidence that is produced—but has at its very heart an independent coroners and inquest service, and not a parallel system.

I listened to the very informed comments from the government Back Benches. Noble Lords spoke about the Chilcot inquiry. That was an extremely important inquiry whose findings I would not belittle in any way. Nevertheless, it must be possible for the Government and all their advisers to work out a way to put those nine conditions into the Bill in such a way—it may not be possible next month, but we have been waiting for two years already—that they can stay within the inquest system and the conditions can be fulfilled. That has not been tried; nobody has come to us with a draft of possible ways in which those safeguards could be used.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, said that this is about having sympathy with the families. All of us of course have sympathy with the families, but today's debate has not been about that; it is about the principle of what should be at the heart of the inquest system in those most difficult cases where it is the state which, for whatever reason, has been the cause of the death of the person for whom the inquest is being held.

We cannot believe that the solutions offered are something that we should be considering, when the Bill will be on the statute books for 20 or 30 years. Chilcot has reported, and we know what the conditions are; for all that the noble Baroness, Lady Ramsay, says, the implementation team is getting on very well with its work and can come to a conclusion in the very near future. So it is practical to look at this within the inquest system.

The other thing that gives me great confidence that this is so is that, when we debated this matter before, the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Jones, whom the noble Lord, Lord Henley, and I have both quoted this afternoon, was in support of this solution. As noble Lords will be aware, she chaired the Joint Intelligence Committee for some years.

Noble Lords:

Two months!

Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Spokesperson for the Home Office

Well, she has been a member of it for some years, and she chaired it. I would be surprised if noble Lords were saying that she has less expertise in this matter than many of them.

What we come back to is whether this is a principle that the Government want to establish in the heart of the Bill. The Minister said that the Conservative Party should think long and hard before supporting these amendments. Actually, I think that it is extremely depressing that the Government, with their alleged support of open government and transparency, should try to establish a principle in the heart of this Bill that avoids having the coronial system as the gold-plate system, which we need to see when somebody has died at the hands of the state.

I understand all the practical arguments about the fact that mobile operators have a difficulty here, but that difficulty can be overcome, and we cannot allow important statutes to be dictated by the concerns of mobile operators. Of course, their staff have to be protected, but there are ways in which to do that. The noble Lord, Lord Pannick, put his finger on it when he said that there were already provisions under Section 18 of RIPA that allow such evidence in court, in exceptional circumstances. We are talking about only a handful of inquests; they will always be exceptional. People who have died deserve no less than those in court in other circumstances. Given those issues, I wish to test the opinion of the House.

Division on Amendment 4

Contents 158; Not-Contents 128.

Amendment 4 agreed.

Division number 2 Coroners and Justice Bill — Report (1st Day)

Aye: 156 Members of the House of Lords

No: 126 Members of the House of Lords

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Amendment 5

Moved by Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

5: After Clause 5, insert the following new Clause—

"Amendment to the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000

(1) Section 18 of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (c. 23) (exceptions to section 17) is amended as follows.

(2) In subsection (7), after paragraph (c) insert—

"(d) a disclosure to a coronial judge or to a person appointed as counsel to an inquest or to members of a jury at an inquest or to an interested person in which the coronial judge has ordered the disclosure."

(3) After subsection (8A) insert—

"(8B) A coronial judge shall not order a disclosure under subsection (7)(d) except where the judge is satisfied that the circumstances of the case make the disclosure necessary to enable the matters required to be ascertained by the investigation to be ascertained.

(8C) An order for disclosure made under subsection (7)(d) may include directions enabling the redaction of any material relating to the method or means by which the information was obtained."

(4) After subsection (13) insert—

"(14) In this section "interested person" has the same meaning as in section 38 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009.

(15) In this section "coronial judge" means a judge nominated by the Lord Chief Justice under the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 to conduct an investigation into a person's death and who has agreed to do so.""

Amendment 5 agreed.

Clause 7 : Whether jury required

Amendment 6

Moved by Lord Ramsbotham

6: Clause 7, page 4, leave out lines 25 to 27

Photo of Lord Ramsbotham Lord Ramsbotham Crossbench

My Lords, for much of the Bill so far we have been discussing improvements and additions. Amendment 6—I shall speak also to Amendments 9 and 10—slightly put the clock back by suggesting that we ought to revert in this legislation to the wording of the Coroners Act 1988, particularly its Section 8(3). That provision specifies that, regardless of initial classification of the cause of death, an inquest must be held with a jury if the death occurred in prison or police custody or following police contact. The Bill proposes that some causes of death should not require a jury but my amendment suggests that we should revert to the old rule where a jury was required in those circumstances. Amendments 9 and 10 also ensure that an inquest with a jury is required in particular circumstances.

Hidden among all of this is provision for including deaths in such places as psychiatric hospitals. My reasoning for such an amendment comes from a number of cases—one in particular, where a young man met his death in a secure hospital some two and a half years ago. There have been continuous efforts to have that case investigated. Unfortunately the checks and balances that are now in the system—for example, the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman is responsible for investigating unnatural deaths in prison, before inquests might be held—do not apply in psychiatric hospitals. The Care Quality Commission has recently been formed, and it is beginning to hold the sort of inquiry that the ombudsman has been holding for some time. However, I seriously believe that it makes sense to continue the status quo of the Coroners Act 1988. I therefore beg to move.

Photo of Lord Alderdice Lord Alderdice Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I do not wish to detain the House save to give support to the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, in the amendments that have been put down in his name and my name and that of my noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford. He addressed the question of the inclusion of a jury and the problem of deaths in psychiatric hospitals—something of which I am rather aware. The Government should seriously consider the proposition that these amendments put forward, and I shall leave it at that.

Photo of Lord Thomas of Gresford Lord Thomas of Gresford Shadow Attorney General

My Lords, Amendment 7, which is in my name, would add the need for an inquest jury where,

"a member of the security services", has been responsible for the death. The wording in the Bill is,

"in the purported execution of the officer's or member's duty as such".

I moved this amendment in Committee but it was dealt with rather disparagingly by the Minister at that time, who said, "Well, there has never been a recorded instance of a death caused by a member of the security services". That was a pretty wide statement. He said that it had not occurred in 50 years. Clearly, if a member of the security services is employed to carry out functions very similar to those of a police officer, it may well happen. If it should happen, it would be a travesty for it to be said that a jury was not needed in such a case because it does not come within the Bill. When a member of the security services operates as such in the execution of his duty, he may be involved in a fatal incident. It is easy to see how it could happen in these days of terrorism. Accordingly, the same protection should be given by a jury in those cases as exists in relation to any police officer. I am speaking to that amendment now and will move it in due course.

Photo of Lord Craig of Radley Lord Craig of Radley Crossbench 5:45 pm, 21st October 2009

My Lords, I speak to Amendments 8, 11 and 12 in my name. The substantive issue is in Amendment 11.

These three amendments to Clause 7 make provision for inquests to be held into the deaths of individuals undergoing military training, or that of a young person while training or serving with Her Majesty's Armed Forces, where the death is violent or unnatural or the cause of death is unknown. The House will be aware that any death of a young person in the Armed Forces is a matter of great sensitivity. The Royal British Legion and others who assist the bereaved in such circumstances report that the relatives of the deceased very much want a formal inquest and to be kept as fully informed as possible.

In 2007 the Blake report, following the deaths of four young servicemen at Deepcut barracks, recommended that the recruitment age of the Armed Forces be increased to 18, due to the inherent risks involved. Where such recommendations cannot be taken forward, surely additional protection must be necessary. Young adolescents and those undertaking training are particularly vulnerable as they come to terms with their new careers. The Government's duty of care has increased and if, sadly, something goes wrong, there should be additional scrutiny.

Clause 7(2)(b) already makes provision for deaths resulting from an act or omission of a police officer or service police officer. My amendments would ensure that, were the death of a youth to occur under training in the Armed Forces, additional scrutiny into the circumstances and lessons learned can be followed up and implemented. These safeguards would help to ensure fair treatment for the youngest members of the Armed Forces, in line with the undertaking in last year's Command Paper 7424, The Nation's Commitment: Cross-Government Support to Our Armed Forces, their Families and Veterans. Indeed, in the foreword to that Command Paper, the Prime Minister gave an explicit assurance to the Armed Forces. He was, he said,

"determined to ensure that they are fairly treated".

In Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, responding for the Government, said that,

"areas that cause significant public concern will be an issue".

He went on to say that,

"in due course and during the course of the Bill, we will seek to be more explicit".—[Hansard, 10/6/09; col. 698.]

I urge the Minister now to accept these amendments which are important to safeguarding the interests of young personnel who enter the Armed Forces, or to indicate what explicit steps are to be taken to ensure that the interests of the victims and that of their relatives are fully protected.

Photo of Lord Hunt of Wirral Lord Hunt of Wirral Shadow Minister, Business, Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills)

My Lords, the noble Lords, Lord Ramsbotham, Lord Thomas and Lord Alderdice, and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, have brought us now to debate Clause 7 on whether a jury is required. I declare my interests as set out in the Register, in particular as a partner in the national commercial firm Beachcroft LLP.

I am proud this week to be able to add to those interests the fact that I have just been elected a vice-chairman of JUSTICE, a post which my late colleague Lord Kingsland held with great distinction. He is sorely missed in many ways—for example, when we discuss juries. I share his belief that the jury system is fundamental and must remain, despite the Government's efforts from time to time to abolish trial by jury in certain instances. Having a jury sit with a coroner is always the exception rather than the rule because the logistical and cost implications render such a move impractical. That is a reasonable line to take. However, the noble Lords' amendments seek to extend the cases in which a jury is assembled. Although I have just said some cautionary words, we have consistently argued that inquests must be as transparent as possible. The jury system is an important feature of our coronial system; it is long established and well known. The presence of a jury in certain cases is a principle which we defend. For that reason we support some of the noble Lords' amendments in this group. We see the merits of Amendment 6, moved by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, Amendment 7, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, and those in the name of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig.

As has been explained, Amendment 6 would remove the qualification that an inquest be heard with a jury if a death took place in the custody of the state only if the death was violent or unnatural or the causes of death were unexplained. Amendment 7 includes deaths resulting from the act or omission of a member of the security services. The Government may well point out that these are unnecessary additions, as Clause 7(3) states:

"An inquest into a death may be held with a jury if the senior coroner thinks that there is sufficient reason for doing so".

However, the important point remains that the state bears a grave responsibility for the welfare of its citizens and of those who are supposed to enjoy—and who have every right to expect to enjoy—its protection. When something goes wrong as a result of an act or omission by an agent or institution of the state, public confidence is undermined. Juries are one way to help restore public confidence.

As my honourable friend Henry Bellingham said in another place, we worry that jury inquests will become ever fewer in number. That is why we want to see fairness and transparency enshrined in the system. The more narrowly Clause 7 is drawn, the less frequently, we fear, it will be used. By widening it, we indicate that juries should not become a vanishingly rare phenomenon. For us, that is the greatest attraction of the noble Lords' amendments.

The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, referred to troops who are killed in training. We endorse his amendments. When we debate amendments to Clause 12, we will again touch on that issue, but we support his Amendment 11 as an important step in raising confidence that troops are being treated openly and fairly. The noble and gallant Lord points out that to differentiate between soldiers who are training and those on the front line is spurious, as all our troops are training for active service. We hope that the Government will find a form of words that recognises the importance of the points which he made.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

I start by congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, on his promotion to vice-chairman of JUSTICE, if that is the appropriate title. It is an honoured organisation and he deserves the accolade. I know it is particularly important to him because he is succeeding Lord Kingsland, whose wise words we have missed already today.

At present fewer than 500 inquests a year across the whole of England and Wales take place with a jury present. That is less than 2 per cent of the total number of inquests—around 30,000 a year—across the whole of the jurisdiction. Under the reformed system the vast majority of inquests, as the noble Lord said, will continue to take place without a jury and to be heard by a coroner sitting alone. Coroners are already men and women of independence of mind and increasingly well trained. Under the new regime there will be improved recruitment procedures with the aim of appointing coroners of an even higher calibre. They will be even better trained and, under the leadership of the Chief Coroner, part of a more structured and better organised profession. It is therefore right that they should continue to hear most cases sitting alone and require a jury present only when a clear and demonstrable need for an additional independent level of public scrutiny demands it.

I remind the House, as the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, forecast that I would, that the Bill already contains clear provision at Clause 7(3) to give coroners discretion to summon a jury if they feel there is sufficient reason for doing so, even if the death concerned does not strictly fall into the categories mentioned in Clause 7(2). This is a discretionary power that we expect coroners to make use of in a variety of situations and scenarios as and when they see fit. In addition, we foresee the Chief Coroner issuing guidance as to when it would be expected that coroners may wish to exercise this discretionary power to call a jury, even if the coroner is not legally obliged to do so. There is also the safeguard of the provision in Clause 35(2)(g), where an interested person may appeal to the Chief Coroner if they feel that the coroner should have exercised his or her discretion differently. We therefore think that we have in place under the new regime a structure to ensure that cases that genuinely require it will have an inquest with a jury present.

On Amendment 6, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, we see no useful purpose in maintaining the status quo in relation to prison deaths and requiring that all deaths in prison, whatever their cause, should be investigated by way of an inquest held with a jury. If there is any reason to suspect the death was of violent, unnatural or unknown cause, the coroner will have to hold any inquest with a jury. I see no need for a jury inquest for a death from wholly natural causes in a prison hospital, for example, when a similar death, should it occur in a general hospital, would almost certainly not even warrant an investigation, let alone an inquest with a jury.

There would, of course, continue to be an inquest into deaths in prison which do not fall within Clause 7(2)(a). I am in danger of repeating myself, but if the coroner feels that there is a need to call a jury because, for example, concerns about the standards of care, even though irrelevant to the cause of death, emerge from preliminary investigations, then he or she may summon a jury under the discretionary powers outlined in Clause 7(3). It may be the case in future that investigating natural deaths in prison or other forms of state detention is an area on which the Chief Coroner chooses to issue guidance or arrange for further specialist training for coroners.

On Amendment 7, we entirely understand the argument that an inquest into the death of a person caused by an act or omission of a member of the security services should be held with a jury. I am sorry if I appeared disparaging to the noble Lord when we debated this matter last time; I certainly did not intend to be. However, I have to repeat that we are unaware of any such deaths being subject to inquests within at least the last 50 years. That being the case, I remain unpersuaded that there is a need for the amendment. The powers already contained in the Bill will be sufficient to ensure that any inquest into such a death in the future could take place with a jury.

Amendment 9 would retain the provision in the Coroners Act 1988 that requires that an inquest must be held with a jury if,

"the death occurred in circumstances the continuance or possible recurrence of which is prejudicial to the health or safety of the public or any section of the public".

We do not support this amendment because of the potential that it contains for substantially increasing the number of inquests that would require a jury to be summoned. This could include, for example, road traffic incidents. It has been argued by some campaigners that almost all road traffic deaths involve issues of public safety and that, therefore, all inquests into them should be held with a jury. At present, this is not usually the case, as many coroners choose to interpret the legislation so as not to include such deaths. In fact, if you were to interpret it otherwise, it could be argued that in very many cases you were predetermining the outcome of the inquest.

Should this provision remain on the face of primary legislation, as this amendment would allow, there are genuine concerns, I submit, that there would be considerable pressure for this criterion to be more widely interpreted and more generally applied, meaning that a jury would be required in a considerably greater number of cases. Obviously, this would have a major effect on the resources required to conduct a substantially increased number of inquests with juries, but it would not, in our opinion, enhance the effectiveness of those inquests.

Turning to Amendment 10, I again reiterate our view that only those cases that genuinely need a further and additional layer of independent scrutiny should take place with a jury. This amendment would mean that there would need to be a jury in all cases where it may be considered that an inquest might find that an act or omission on the part of the state or a public authority or its employees contributed to the death. Given the wide-ranging nature of what could be considered as a public authority, this could mean that, for example, all deaths reported to a coroner from an NHS hospital where the coroner felt than an inquest was required may in future require a jury, as an NHS trust would be considered as a public authority. Having a jury in each such instance where a public authority may be implicated would substantially increase the number of jury inquests, with a consequent dramatic and serious impact on resources.

Amendments 8, 11 and 12 were tabled by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley. The House will know that currently coroners sit alone for the most part when considering the deaths of military personnel on active service. Our understanding is that, on the whole, the bereaved families support this; they want the coroner to sit on his or her own when dealing with their cases. This has not, however, prevented coroners from successfully carrying out investigations into those deaths and investigating all such deaths with a commendable, if sometimes uncomfortable for the Government, degree of vigour and thoroughness; on occasions, they have passed judgments and made comments that have been critical of parts of government. There is no reason to believe that they do not and will not deal with any less rigour with the deaths of military personnel who have been undertaking training or who are under the age of 18.

As I said, the Bill already contains provisions giving coroners discretion to summon a jury if they feel that there is sufficient reason for doing so, even if the death falls outside the categories in subsection (2). There is also the safeguard of a right of appeal to the Chief Coroner if the family feels that the coroner should exercise his or her discretion differently. Our view is that these provisions are sufficient to enable the coroner to summon a jury when he or she feels that it is the correct thing to do.

On a more general point, if Article 2 is engaged in a particular inquest, there is nothing in the case law of the European Convention on Human Rights that requires such an inquest to be held with a jury. We maintain, therefore, that the state can meet its Article 2 obligations by a coroner sitting alone or with a jury where there is sufficient reason.

For the reasons that I have given, I invite noble Lords not to press their amendments.

Photo of Lord Mayhew of Twysden Lord Mayhew of Twysden Conservative 6:00 pm, 21st October 2009

I have a question about Amendment 6. If I heard the Minister aright, he said that there was no ground for maintaining the status quo, which, if I understand it correctly, requires that whenever a death takes place in state detention or in custody there shall be an inquest with a jury. Why does he suppose that there is such public confidence in our arrangements for state detention and custody as to warrant departing from the status quo, which has been in existence for a period of years?

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

As I understand it, in the Bill we are adding to the list of cases in which an inquest with a jury should take place. Clause 7(2)(a) refers to cases where,

"the death was ... violent or unnatural ... or ... the cause of death is unknown".

We are adding cases in psychiatric hospitals and immigration detention centres. However, our view is that, if a death in custody is quite clearly natural, there is no need for an inquest with a jury. There would not be one for any other natural death, so there should not necessarily be one for a death in prison. That is the change that we are making in the Bill. We are adding some areas of custody if the death was violent or unnatural or the cause of death is unknown, but we are saying that, if deaths in custody are natural, there does not need to be a jury, although there can always be one if the coroner feels that there should be one.

Photo of Lord Neill of Bladen Lord Neill of Bladen Crossbench

As I heard him, the Minister was objecting to the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, by using the argument that we should not maintain the existing system of a coroner's inquest automatically when there is a death in prison because—lo and behold—why would we not then want that for every death in hospital? Unless I misunderstood him, that was one of the arguments that he deployed.

Photo of Lord Neill of Bladen Lord Neill of Bladen Crossbench

Let me just finish the point; the Minister will demolish it, because he obviously thinks that I have got it wrong. The two obvious distinctions between someone who is in hospital and someone who is in prison are, first, that the prisoner has no liberty at all and, secondly, that he is quite likely to be surrounded by people of a violent disposition. The whole set-up of a prisoner dying in prison is totally different from that of a patient dying in hospital.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

I agree with the noble Lord: of course there is a difference between prison and hospital. We are saying in the Bill that, when someone dies naturally in custody, there should not necessarily be an inquest with a jury. There will be an inquest, of course, but there does not need to be one with a jury unless the coroner feels that in the circumstances of the case there should be one.

Photo of Lord Neill of Bladen Lord Neill of Bladen Crossbench

I am asking whether there should be a jury because of the nature of being a prisoner.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

We argue that, for natural deaths in custody, there should not necessarily have to be a jury in every case. With deaths in hospital, there might not even be an inquiry, let alone an inquest.

Photo of Lord Hunt of Wirral Lord Hunt of Wirral Shadow Minister, Business, Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills)

Coming back to deaths in prison, can the Minister give us examples of where there have had to be inquests with a jury but where, in his opinion, there should not have had to be? I am not quite sure of the justification for what he is saying.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, to have an efficient and workable system, what is necessary? Let us take the case of a prisoner who dies from old age or illness, where the cause of death is absolutely clear. Is it in the best interests of the coronial system to have an inquest with a jury? Why, in the majority of cases of natural death, should the coroner not decide on the form of inquest? There will always be an inquest when someone dies in custody: the issue is whether there has to be a jury. I repeat that the failsafe here is that if the coroner, in the case of what looks like a natural death, thinks that there should be a jury hearing, he is entitled to have one under Clause 7.

Photo of Lord Hunt of Wirral Lord Hunt of Wirral Shadow Minister, Business, Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills)

My Lords, I am merely asking whether the Minister has seen sufficient evidence to lead him to believe that there should be this change—because it is a change.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, there are tens of tens of deaths from natural causes of those in custody per year. Our argument is that it is sensible not to have a jury hearing in every case.

Photo of Lord Ramsbotham Lord Ramsbotham Crossbench

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his reply, and to all those who have taken part in the debate. I am particularly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, for mentioning juries in a wider context than I did. I came at this from the understanding that the purpose of a jury in these inquests is to see that incidents of possible negligence are properly investigated. When I was Chief Inspector of Prisons, I saw cases of negligence that led to prisoners dying. They may have died from natural causes, but, looking at the circumstances in which they had been looked after—I am thinking of one case in particular—people must have asked questions about their treatment. Therefore, I can see good reason for changing the rules that have been in existence since the Coroners Act 1988.

On Clause 9, I do not want to refer again to the case of road accidents, which the Minister mentioned. Reading the record of the Committee, it seemed that the argument was effectively destroyed, and I was surprised that it was raised again. I will come back to the question of the discretion of the coroner. Under current legislation, this discretion has frequently been a matter of contention, because it has contributed to inconsistency in practice. That is one purpose of the Bill, and of having a Chief Coroner: to try to eliminate inconsistency, particularly in cases where the death has been at the hands of the state. However, I am grateful that the issues have been raised and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 6 withdrawn.

Amendment 7 not moved.

Amendment 8

Tabled by Lord Craig of Radley

8: Clause 7, page 4, line 31, leave out second "or"

Photo of Lord Craig of Radley Lord Craig of Radley Crossbench

My Lords, the Minister spelt out a number of safeguards available to the Chief Coroner and to relatives of the deceased in the event that the circumstances of the death of a youth in the Armed Forces raise issues of greater public importance. Those safeguards are extremely important. They are now on the record, and I will not press the amendment.

Amendment 8 not moved.

Amendments 9 and 10 not moved.

Amendments 11 and 12 not moved.

Clause 8 : Assembling a jury

Amendment 13

Moved by Lord Tunnicliffe

13: Clause 8, page 5, line 2, leave out "six, seven, eight or nine" and insert "seven, eight, nine, ten or eleven"

Photo of Lord Tunnicliffe Lord Tunnicliffe Government Whip, Government Whip 6:15 pm, 21st October 2009

My Lords, the House will recall that in Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, tabled an amendment aimed at restoring the existing requirements in respect of the minimum and maximum number of persons on a coroner's jury. The Government indicated at the conclusion of the debate on 10 June that we would come back to the House on the matter. As explained previously, we had proposed a reduction in jury numbers in response to problems experienced in a number of coroners' districts with summoning jurors. The process is not centralised, as it is in the Crown Court, and we do not wish to create a new administrative burden by making it so. However, there have been occasions when inquests have had to be adjourned, causing unnecessary delay to bereaved families, because of a lack of sufficient jurors to comprise a properly constituted jury. Nevertheless, the Government have listened to the concerns raised by noble Lords in Committee, and to the view of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, and are persuaded by the arguments against a reduction in jury size for a coroner's inquest. We are happy to agree that the status quo should be maintained in respect both of jury sizes and the number of jurors required for majority verdicts, and to amend the Bill accordingly. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Thomas of Gresford Lord Thomas of Gresford Shadow Attorney General

My Lords, I raised these issues in Committee and I am very grateful that the Government have listened, and have conceded the amendment. I have nothing more to say than that, in this respect, the Government are a listening Government—that is not what I normally say.

Photo of Lord Hunt of Wirral Lord Hunt of Wirral Shadow Minister, Business, Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills)

My Lords, I agree.

Amendment 13 agreed.

Clause 9 : Determinations and findings by jury

Amendment 14

Moved by Lord Bach

14: Clause 9, page 5, line 20, leave out paragraph (a) and insert—

"(a) only one or two of the jury do not agree on it, and"

Amendment 14 agreed.

Amendment 15

Moved by Lord Thomas of Gresford

15: After Clause 9, insert the following new Clause—

"Publicly funded legal representation

The Secretary of State shall provide non means-tested funds to ensure that the family of the deceased is legally represented at inquests that engage article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights by virtue of the Human Rights Act 1998 (c. 42)."

Photo of Lord Thomas of Gresford Lord Thomas of Gresford Shadow Attorney General

My Lords, the amendment has the support of the Criminal Justice Alliance, which represents some 30 organisations that have been in correspondence with the Secretary of State for Justice on this important issue. I am grateful to the Minister for the opportunity to have a discussion with him prior to our Sitting today, and I hope to hear from him that he has listened to what we have said in relation to the amendment.

I owe it to the House to say something about the purpose of the amendment. In the European Court of Human Rights, in the case of Z v United Kingdom in 2002, the judgment says that there must be a sufficient element of public scrutiny of the investigation into a death and its results to secure accountability in practice as well as in theory. In all cases, the next of kin of the victim must be involved in the procedure to the extent necessary to safeguard his or her legitimate interests.

In the Lawrence inquiry, Sir William Macpherson emphasised, in paragraph 134 of his report, that:

"The Court considers that the right of the family of the deceased whose death is under investigation to participate in the proceedings requires that the procedures adopted ensure the requisite protection of their interests, which may be in direct conflict with those of the police or security forces".

In the 2006 report of the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, recommendation six states:

"Public funding must be provided for bereaved families for proper legal representation at timely inquests relating to deaths in state custody that engage the state's obligations under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human rights. Funding should not be means tested and any financial eligibility test should be removed whenever Article 2 is engaged. Funding should also cover reasonable travel, accommodation and subsistence costs of families' attendance at inquests".

In addition to those powerful voices, I refer to what was said by Miss Harriet Harman in March 2008 on the Floor of the House in another place. She said that the coroner system needed to be made fairer for bereaved families and that:

"We need to give bereaved relatives at inquests a real sense of fairness and support".—[Hansard, Commons, 13/3/08; col. 421.]

She also said that,

"it is important to improve the Coroner Service so that bereaved relatives can get answers to their questions".—[Hansard, Commons, 20/3/08; col. 1089.]

She said in addition:

"I agree with the hon. Gentleman that if bereaved relatives with no legal representation turn up on the steps of a coroner's court and find that the Ministry of Defence and the Army have a great battery of solicitors and QCs, they cannot help but feel that the position is unfair".—[Official Report, Commons. 13/3/08; col. 421.]

I respectfully suggest to the House that the importance of having bereaved families properly represented is always viewed one way. Why is that? It is because inquests that include bereaved families and public authorities, such as the police, the Prison Service or the military, involve highly contentious issues, one of which is often the question of disclosure—a matter that we discussed a little earlier today in the context of intercept evidence. At times it is necessary to make applications for the disclosure of information but the demands of the bereaved families are often at odds with what the state and public authorities wish to maintain. In military inquests, the MoD often raises national security as a reason for non-disclosure or redaction, but sometimes, upon challenge by legal representatives of the bereaved, this turns out to be nothing more than embarrassing or problematic evidence against the state. Therefore, when it is necessary to tease out problems of disclosure and the provision of information, legal representation is very necessary.

However, interested parties may sometimes face criticism. I remind your Lordships of the inquest into the death of James Collinson, a young recruit who died at Deepcut barracks. In that case, two soldiers who were on duty with the deceased at the time of his death were separately represented by independent counsel at the inquest, funded by the taxpayer, and advised by lawyers provided for them by the Ministry of Defence. These were two people who could conceivably be implicated in the death at Deepcut and they had full legal representation paid for by the taxpayer. That is in addition to the Ministry of Defence, which would always be separately represented, again at the taxpayer's expense.

In another Deepcut inquest into the death of Geoff Gray, members of the family were told by the coroners' office that did not need legal representation, so they did nothing more than accept that advice. The inquest was over in half a day, during which the bereaved family experienced witnesses being prompted from the public gallery, and there were no disclosure arguments. That is a matter of great concern.

Families that appear at inquests trying to find out what has happened to the deceased person are at a considerable disadvantage if they have no one representing them against the battery of lawyers who are provided by the state not just for the departments involved but also for people who might be implicated. It is quite wrong that they should be in that position.

That is the basis of my argument, but how much would it cost if the provisions set out in my amendment were carried through? The best estimate that we have is from the ministry, which says that the cost of representation at an inquest is about £8,000 a time, and we are dealing with a maximum of 400 cases. I think that the Ministry of Justice itself has suggested that the cost of providing this service would be some £6.4 million, some of which could be recovered under decided cases in the event of a family being successful in recovering compensation as a result of negligence or something else being proved against the department of state. Therefore, the cost of these provisions is not huge.

We come to the question of means-testing. There have been many cases under the present arrangement whereby the Minister in the case of the Army and the Legal Services Commission in the case of the police and the Prison Service have discretion to permit legal aid to be given to bereaved families subject to a means test. Very intrusive investigations have been made, and in some the home of a bereaved family, for example, has been taken into account. In one case, the money that was to be made available to the family as a result of the death of the deceased was also taken into account. We do not think that that is the right way to proceed. If the taxpayer pays entirely for the state departments to be represented, then, for the purposes of equality of arms, one would expect the state to allow the bereaved families not to have to undergo the indignity of means-testing and the taking into account of sums of money which may be very important to them in the position in which they find themselves.

Those are the reasons why all these organisations, fulfilling the demands of the reports to which I have drawn your Lordships' attention, suggest that the only proper way forward is to provide non-means-tested legal aid funds to bereaved families at inquests. That is the purpose of the amendment, and I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, I hope that the House will forgive me if I rise at this stage. I have spoken to the noble Lord, as he was kind enough to mention, and I am grateful to him, too, for speaking to me at short notice this morning. If the debate has to continue, it has to continue, but perhaps I may say at this stage that in principle we agree that there should be a right to legal aid at inquests into a death in custody or otherwise in state detention of military personnel on active service. In our view, any such legal aid would have to be means-tested, but I am mindful that it would be appropriate to waive that, save in exceptional circumstances. I add a rider that in the case of any inquest into multiple deaths, it would not necessarily be a good use of public funds to provide representation for each bereaved family.

If the House will give me permission, I shall examine the position further between now and Third Reading, and I shall of course be in touch with the noble Lord, bearing in mind his amendment. Obviously I cannot give any guarantees that I will be able to bring forward a suitable amendment at that point, but I shall certainly do my best.

Photo of Lord Hunt of Wirral Lord Hunt of Wirral Shadow Minister, Business, Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills)

My Lords, I simply want to say what a sensible intervention that was from the Minister. I greatly welcome it. I was about to express my support for the amendment, subject to the usual qualifications, but in the light of what the Minister has said, I warmly welcome his intention to consider the matter further.

Photo of Lord Ramsbotham Lord Ramsbotham Crossbench

My Lords, as my name is attached to this amendment, perhaps I may echo the words of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt. I very much welcome what the Minister has just said. However, I ask that others, including myself, also be involved in the consultations that take place with the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford. There are things that I was going to say but will not now be saying because of what has happened, and I think that this matter was going to attract support from all corners of the House, where there are extremely strong views about this issue.

Photo of Lord Thomas of Gresford Lord Thomas of Gresford Shadow Attorney General 6:30 pm, 21st October 2009

My Lords, I welcome the statement from the Minister that we have finally achieved a right to legal aid for bereaved families. I hear what he said about means-testing and that, in appropriate circumstances or in most cases, means-testing would be waived. Our discussions have to centre on the circumstances in which means-testing would not be waived. I certainly welcome anyone's participation in a meeting to work that out.

I say to the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, that had there been time this morning—I had about half an hour's notice—he would have been included in our discussions. On the basis of what the Minister has said, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 15 withdrawn.

Clause 10 : Determinations and findings to be made

Amendment 16

Moved by Lord Ramsbotham

16: Clause 10, page 5, line 38, leave out subsection (2) and insert—

"(2) A determination under subsection (1)(a) shall not affect the criminal or civil liability of any party and shall not be admissible as evidence of proof of criminal or civil liability in any subsequent legal proceedings; but an inquest is not inhibited in the discharge of its functions by any likelihood of liability being inferred from the facts that it determines in accordance with subsection (1)(a) or any recommendations that it makes."

Photo of Lord Ramsbotham Lord Ramsbotham Crossbench

My Lords, we move now to another part of the Bill which addresses the outcome of investigations. I refer to another Bill that addresses the issue of deaths in prison—the corporate manslaughter Bill. This House voted for the Prison Service to be included in that legislation and said that any managerial failure that resulted in death should be subject to the conditions of that legislation.

The issue in an inquest is responsibility for death and not liability; it is not up to the inquest to establish that. Currently there is a prohibition on inquests naming persons publicly. Although we think that that prohibition should be retained, a coroner or a jury should be free to describe acts or omissions by the particular public service—and I admit that I speak mainly from experience of prisons—responsible for that death. That emphasises the responsibility aspect of inquests. To protect the parties who might be criticised, the Bill should contain a clause that underscores the fact that a determination of the inquest should not affect anyone's criminal or civil liability and that a determination should not be admissible as evidence in any subsequent legal proceedings. In other words it would distance the matter from further action once responsibility has been laid.

It is difficult entirely to separate an inquest from all the duties on the state to learn about how deaths have occurred. In its briefing to us on this matter, Inquest has said that Scotland has a much better system. Under its fatal accident inquiry procedures, the sheriff is allowed to determine, among other things, where and when the death and any accident resulting in the death took place; the cause or causes of the death and any such accident; the reasonable precautions, if any, whereby the death and any accident resulting in the death might have been avoided; the defects, if any, in any system of working which contributed to the death or any accident resulting in the death; and any other facts relevant to the circumstances of the death.

In an earlier debate we discussed the fact that something that might be applicable in England and Wales was not applicable in Scotland. I have always thought it inexplicable that such clear direction and definition should be available in Scotland but not in England and Wales. I would certainly like to see that in any improved legislation, which this is.

There is also a debate as to whether a coroner may or may not use judgmental words such as "serious" or "unreasonable". Frankly, that debate is probably not worth having, because the various checks and balances that have been put in place have moved us on from that. All that is needed is merely a clear statement from a coroner that something has happened and that someone is responsible.

On investigations, and bearing in mind our previous brief discussion on the representation of families, I have always been concerned about the attendance of families at inquests. Frequently, they do not know anything other than that a relative has died. They expect an inquest to be an inquiry. They think that they will learn far more than they otherwise might. That is not a fault of the coronial system; that is a fault of the prison system, which does not pass on sufficient information. It is important that the coroners bear in mind the possibility that the families appearing before them are not as well informed as they might expect, or as well informed by the state as they might expect them to be. The families will always expect more to come out. The naming of names is prohibited but I believe that families will feel better served by the system if it is possible to name the acts or omissions that might have contributed to the death. And that is one of the intentions of the Bill. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Alderdice Lord Alderdice Liberal Democrat

My Lords, my name is attached to this amendment and I wish to give support to what the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, has said. In a sense we are returning to territory similar to that which we discussed under Amendment 3 and Clause 5 regarding the coroner's grounds for exploration, expansion and expressing his or her findings. One needs to be careful about other legal interventions, but it seems strange that a coroner—in making his or her inquiries about why a death occurred, what contributed to it and what could have been done to prevent it and, indeed, to avoid other deaths—should be discouraged from venturing into that terrain. This amendment seeks to open up that ground. As the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, said, that should not be a matter of great difficulty, because the situation in Scotland is pretty much the same as that described in these amendments. We need families to feel that there has been proper inquiry and investigation and that the outcome is stated as fully as possible in accordance with the requirements of all the legal processes, whether criminal or civil. My colleagues and I wish to express our support for the amendment.

Photo of Lord Hunt of Wirral Lord Hunt of Wirral Shadow Minister, Business, Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills)

My Lords, as always, the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, puts a very persuasive case. I appreciate the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, and I can see the advantage in seeking to do what he says—to set out what an inquest can and cannot do in relation to findings that could be said to relate to criminal or civil liability. In defence of the Minister—not that he ever needs defending—Clause 10(2) clearly states:

"A determination under subsection (1)(a) may not be framed in such a way as to appear to determine any question of—

(a) criminal liability on the part of a named person, or

(b) civil liability".

That seems right. The determination of criminal or civil liability for an act or omission on the part of an individual is a matter for separate courts, not the coroner's court. I would not want to see the risk arise of a trial—possibly, given the circumstances, a very serious trial for murder or manslaughter—being prejudiced by findings at a coronial inquest that is, according to Clause 5, an investigation into who the deceased was and how he came about his death. The blame element—who is liable—is a matter for other courts that apply different rules. I understand the reference made to the position in Scotland, and I share the resolve to ensure that an inquest gets to the bottom of the facts surrounding a death. Everything that can be done to seek out the truth should be done. However, I am cautious about the amendment because I am wary of allowing findings of fact to stray into comment upon matters that properly lie with another court. I am glad that we have had a chance to debate this, and I am looking forward to the Minister's reply.

Amendment 17, which makes clear that Amendment 16 should not prevent a description of the circumstances surrounding a death, reinforces the criteria that are to be looked at in Clause 5. I expect that we are going to hear from the Minister that that premise is upheld in the Bill, as it should be. I hope that he will be able to reassure us on the correct role of different courts and the independence of coronial inquests.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords who have spoken. We are concerned that these amendments might take the coroner system down the road of expressing opinion and possibly even attributing blame and assigning civil or criminal liability. That is not the purpose of a coroner's investigation and, in our view, that position should remain. The purpose of the investigation is to establish facts and responsibility, where appropriate; it is not to attribute blame or to decide matters of legal liability. As the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, said a minute ago, that is and must remain a matter for the civil and criminal courts.

I remind noble Lords of a perhaps somewhat painful memory. Noble Lords who have spoken to this amendment might be surprised to hear that, until the mid-1970s, coroners and their juries were not prevented from making reference to criminal liability.

Photo of Lord Thomas of Gresford Lord Thomas of Gresford Shadow Attorney General

My Lords, I once appeared in a case in which the coroner's jury sent my client to the assizes on a manslaughter charge. Various procedures were brought into effect, and the Director of Public Prosecutions became involved, but, in the end, no evidence was offered. It was quite something for a young man to be sent by a coroner's jury for trial.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, I imagine that it was also quite a moment for his counsel. The case that I was going to refer to was not the noble Lord's well known case, but another quite well known case, back in 1975, when a coroner's jury named the missing and—I should say it properly—noble Lord, Lord Lucan, as guilty of the murder of his children's nanny. There was widespread concern about that, so a possible repeat was prevented by the Criminal Law Act 1977, which excluded the question of criminal liability from the matters to be determined by an inquest. The purpose of Clause 5 is therefore to ensure that the coroners system remains based on an inquisitorial process charged with finding fact rather than apportioning blame or determining liability.

The prohibition on framing a determination that may appear to determine criminal liability on the part of a named person or to determine civil liability is to ensure that the proceedings are fair. An individual or body who might be identified as liable would not have been afforded the safeguards to enable them to defend such a conclusion, as they have no right to call evidence.

Photo of Lord Alderdice Lord Alderdice Liberal Democrat 6:45 pm, 21st October 2009

My Lords, the emphasis is on the word "determine" whereas the problem in the clause is the word "appear". The question is not whether the coroner would make a determination of this kind. The problem is that the clause states that he should not appear to make such a determination. Appearance, like beauty, can be in the eye of the beholder, and it can push back considerably how far a coroner may be tempted to go. He is likely to drive far away from the edge of the cliff rather than near to it. If the clause stated "to determine", we would not be having this debate. The issue at heart is that it states "appear to determine".

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, I do not think that we are attempting to change the law in this regard. This is what the law has been since 1977, and it has worked reasonably well. Undoubtedly a coroner has occasionally appeared to suggest that he or she might have made a certain finding, but, in the vast majority of cases, coroners know precisely what their role is and we are not suggesting any change to it. We think that, as far as this matter is concerned, the present system works fairly well, which is why we are resisting the amendment.

Photo of Lord Thomas of Gresford Lord Thomas of Gresford Shadow Attorney General

My Lords, I shall give the Minister an example. In my part of the world, the coroner frequently returns a verdict of pneumoconiosis in respect of miners who have died many years after they were down the pit. That might appear to determine civil liability. The wording concerns my noble friend.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, the problem with going further than that and making some kind of determination of civil liability is that the person who is identified as liable, or who may appear to be identified as liable, has no right to call evidence or to address the coroner or the coroner's jury on the facts. Evidence may not have even been disclosed to him in advance. We do not think that this amendment is a sufficient safeguard.

It is clear that a coroner must explore facts bearing on criminal and civil liability and ensure that relevant facts are fully and fairly investigated. Factual conclusions on such matters may be recorded, but in a way that does not infringe Clause 10(2). A finding that there was a failure to act in a particular way does not appear to determine a question of civil liability and would therefore be acceptable. Conclusions of a factual nature directly relating to the circumstances of death are not prohibited.

In relation to Amendment 17, some of the matters these amendments touch on are matters that are far more suited to coroners' reports to prevent future deaths than to any findings or determinations a coroner or a jury might make. A coroner could quite properly and legitimately give his or her views on such matters in any report to prevent future deaths. We place great store on these reports, which are currently made under Rule 43 of the Coroners Rules. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, asked me where this is to be found; it is under paragraph 6 of Schedule 5, as strengthened by the Government's amendments.

We understand the reasons why these amendments were tabled but, in the light of what I have said, I invite the noble Lord to withdraw this amendment.

Photo of Lord Ramsbotham Lord Ramsbotham Crossbench

I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate and to the Minister for his reply. My understanding has always been responsibility, yes; liability, no. That is what I was seeking to enshrine. The Minister mentioned that the inquest is inquisitorial. It is not always seen as inquisitorial, particularly by families who take part. They see it as very adversarial. They are always at the back of what I am saying because this is at the heart of the Bill. They are as anxious as anyone else to find out precisely what has happened and who may have been responsible for any contributory negligence.

However, in view of all that the Minister has said, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 16 withdrawn.

Amendment 17 not moved.

Schedule 1 : Duty or power to suspend or resume investigations

Amendment 18

Moved by Lord Tunnicliffe

18: Schedule 1, page 119, line 25, after "(c. 52)" insert "(or section 70 of the Army Act 1955 (3 & 4 Eliz. 2 c. 18), section 70 of the Air Force Act 1955 (3 & 4 Eliz. 2 c. 19) or section 42 of the Naval Discipline Act 1957 (c. 53))"

Photo of Lord Tunnicliffe Lord Tunnicliffe Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, the provisions on coroners, investigation anonymity orders, witness anonymity orders and the treatment of convictions in other EU member states include various references to a service offence. This term is defined by reference to the Armed Forces Act 2006, which repeals the existing service disciplinary Acts. That definition is too narrow, and these technical amendments are principally designed to ensure that it is sufficiently broad for those purposes. I beg to move.

Amendment 18 agreed.

Amendment 19

Moved by Lord Alderdice

19: Schedule 1, page 120, line 11, leave out "an exceptional" and insert "a good"

Photo of Lord Alderdice Lord Alderdice Liberal Democrat

My Lords, the amendment relates to the part of Schedule 1, on page 120, that largely replicates Section 16 of the Coroners Act 1988, save that it dictates that a coroner can refuse to adjourn an inquest when there are parallel criminal proceedings only when there is an exceptional reason to do so. At present, the test is that there is a good reason not to adjourn. We are really not all at clear about the rationale for this change. When we suggested changes in the previous debate on this, the Minister said that it was working perfectly well. We wonder why there is a change, so our amendment would leave out "exceptional" and reinsert "good", as it currently is. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Henley Lord Henley Shadow Minister, Justice

My Lords, I cannot add much to what the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, has said. The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, tabled a similar amendment in Committee that sought clarification of the use of the word "exceptional". Again, the Government had a good long summer break and have had time to think about this, so perhaps they can assist the House on what exactly they mean by "exceptional".

Photo of Lord Tunnicliffe Lord Tunnicliffe Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, Schedule 1 provides for the suspension of a coroner's investigation. It allows for coroners to continue their investigation if they consider there to be exceptional reasons to do so when there is an ongoing criminal investigation. The amendment would lower this threshold to having a good reason not to suspend the investigation.

As the Government stated in Committee, we must begin with the proposition that it is appropriate for the coroner to suspend his or her investigation if a person is charged with a serious offence connected to the death. Otherwise, the coroner's investigation could duplicate a criminal inquiry and possibly even impede or lengthen it. In addition, the "exceptional" threshold is the right one, considering that the relevant offence is a homicide offence, a service equivalent, or an offence related to the death in some other way. However, even though the coroner's investigation may be suspended, matters relating to the post-mortem and the release of the body of the deceased person to families may still be dealt with by the coroner.

Schedule 1 also provides for the prosecuting authority to indicate to the coroner that it has no objection to the continuing investigation. However, coroners are very aware of the importance of criminal proceedings, particularly as part of the bereaved family seeing that justice is done, and will rarely want to continue an investigation in these circumstances. This might be another area in which the chief coroner issues guidance to cover the rare cases in which a coroner's investigation should continue.

I hope, given this explanation, that the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Baroness Butler-Sloss Baroness Butler-Sloss Crossbench

My Lords, perhaps the Minister could explain—to me at least, because I have not understood—the basis of the change. It was "good"; it is now "exceptional". I understand all the Minister's arguments, except that he has not, in my view, explained why there is a change of word.

Photo of Lord Tunnicliffe Lord Tunnicliffe Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, we have changed the word, as I understand it, because we want the test to be that little bit more forceful. It should be truly exceptional.

Photo of Lord Alderdice Lord Alderdice Liberal Democrat

My Lords, in the number of our earlier arguments and discussions in your Lordships' House—for example, on the inclusion of the Security Service—the Minister's response was that there has been no instance of a problem of this kind in 50 years. I am therefore a little surprised that he has not taken the opportunity, even when invited by the noble and learned Baroness, to explain when and at what stages there was ever any problem with what pertains at present. He has made his arguments, but he has not indicated in any way where they were alerted to this and why there was a problem. I understand why there might be a problem in theory, but I am at a loss to understand what the difference has been in practice. The Minister was invited to enlighten us.

My hope is that coroners who are used to operating on the basis of "good" will interpret "exceptional" in the light of their experience of "good", perhaps guided by the Chief Coroner, on whom we are putting yet further expectations. In that light, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 19 withdrawn.

Amendment 20 not moved.

Amendments 21 to 23

Moved by Lord Bach

21: Schedule 1, page 120, line 30, after "if" insert "(a)"

22: Schedule 1, page 120, line 33, at end insert ", and

(b) a senior judge has been appointed under that Act as chairman of the inquiry.

In paragraph (b) "senior judge" means a judge of the High Court or the Court of Appeal or a Justice of the Supreme Court."

23: Schedule 1, page 120, line 44, at end insert—

"3A (1) This paragraph applies where an investigation is suspended under paragraph 3 on the basis that the cause of death is likely to be adequately investigated by an inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2005 (c. 12).

(2) The terms of reference of the inquiry must be such that it has as its purpose, or among its purposes, the purpose set out in section 5(1) above (read with section 5(2) where applicable); and section 5 of the Inquiries Act 2005 (c. 12) has effect accordingly."

Amendments 21 to 23 agreed.

Amendments 24 to 26 not moved.

Amendment 27

Moved by Lord Bach

27: Schedule 1, page 124, line 1, leave out "six" and insert "seven"

Amendment 27 agreed.

Clause 12 : Investigation in Scotland

Amendment 28

Moved by Lord Craig of Radley

28: Clause 12, page 6, line 13, leave out from "(c. 52)" to end of line 18

Photo of Lord Craig of Radley Lord Craig of Radley Crossbench

My Lords, in moving Amendment 28, I shall also speak to Amendments 29 and 30 in my name and in that of the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford.

In Committee, I explained that I had two points of concern about Clause 12. One was the definition of active service in subsection (6), which relied on Section 8 of the Armed Forces Act 2006. This is a most inappropriate definition to use for those who have been killed on operational service, as Section 8 deals solely with the offence of desertion. The Minister agreed, and he has now proposed a new definition of active service in his Amendment 31. Although I welcome this change of heart, I raised a further point in Committee about this clause. Is it right to attempt to draw a distinction between service personnel who were killed or died of wounds while on active service or in training for active service, and other members of the Armed Forces, whose bodies will be repatriated following violent or unnatural deaths overseas and for whom inquests are required?

I remind the House of the Government's Command Paper 7424, which was published with much acclaim only last year. In this paper, all government departments and devolved Administrations have collectively undertaken to treat fairly all members of the Armed Forces, their families, and veterans. Surely it is a blatant breach of that promise to attempt to draw some dividing line between service personnel who die in one operational theatre and those who die overseas elsewhere. Indeed, the Minister's letter to me of 22 May, which was placed in the Library, said as much. He wrote:

"The families of service personnel who have died abroad other than on active service are no less deserving of consideration".

In Committee, I proposed amendments similar to Amendments 28, 29 and 30, which would remove references to active service. The Minister resisted my amendments on the grounds that to accept them would,

"pre-empt the outcome of the independent review of the fatal accident inquiry legislation that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Cullen,"—[Hansard, 10/6/09; col. 732.]

was undertaking. I have since spoken to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Cullen, who I am delighted to see on the Bench beside me, and he most considerately wrote me a note for which I am most grateful. I had his permission to pass the content of the note to the Minister, which I did last Wednesday. The Minister will therefore know what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Cullen, said in his note. He pointed out that legislation for the specific purpose of inquiring into the deaths abroad of Scottish members of the Armed Forces was not within the competence of the Scottish Parliament—defence not being a devolved matter, as indicated in paragraph (9) of Schedule 5 to the Scotland Act 1998.

The note from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Cullen, is clear. This subject is not within his remit. Indeed, he went on to say that, in view of the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Bach, about pre-emption, to which I have referred, so far as my amendments are concerned, if they fell within paragraph (9) of Schedule 5 to the Scotland Act, they would have no relevance to his inquiry. In so far as they went beyond paragraph (9), they would not be in conflict with the approach taken by the noble and learned Lord in his review. So, pre-emption there is none.

The Minister's Amendment 31 refers to Section 374 of the Armed Forces Act 2006 with a definition of the word "enemy" to flesh out the meaning of his amendment. This would say that active service means service against all persons engaged in armed operations, against all powers, armed mutineers, armed rebels and armed rioters. But Clause 12(2) goes much wider than active service alone. It includes activities,

"in preparation for, or directly in support of", and training for active service. I would contend that any service man or woman on duty is involved in training for, preparing for or supporting service against persons engaged in armed operations—against pirates, armed mutineers, rebels or rioters. That is what armed forces do.

It seems to me that this clause, with the Minister's revised definition for "active service" in subsection (6), introduces a distinction without a difference. However, by removing the references to active service in this clause, my amendments seek to correct this and be seen to treat equally fairly families of all members of the Armed Forces who suffer an untimely death overseas on duty, whether as a result of being killed in action, dying of wounds or due to some other mishap which proves fatal and requires an inquest following repatriation of the deceased. This would also accord with the heading for Clauses 12 and 13, Death of service personnel abroad.

I understand that Clauses 12 and 13 were rushed in to meet the general concerns of those most affected at the present time of high operational tempo and regrettable casualties. The way in which Clause 12(6) would be revised by Amendment 31, proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Bach, only serves further to highlight the fact that Clause 12 does not appear to meet the requirement to treat all service personnel fairly, nor does it tie in with the heading of this part of the Bill.

For the avoidance of doubt, I am fully in support of the unique and caring arrangements being made in Clauses 12 and 13 for the actual handling of inquests into the deaths of service personnel abroad. These introduce flexibility in the location of the inquest in order to meet the wishes of the next of kin of the deceased who want to attend. That is most important and highly desirable. I commend the Government for that approach, but it must clearly be seen to apply to all service personnel.

On reflection, I hope that the Minister will accept that the inquiry made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Cullen, is not being pre-empted. To introduce special arrangements for some classification of casualties in the Armed Forces overseas, but not for others, breaches the thrust of Command 7424 to treat all service personnel and their families fairly. Is this aspect not a defence matter and therefore not devolved to the Scottish Parliament? For the rest of the two clauses about the location of arrangements, both Governments are in accord and have wide public support for this arrangement. I urge the Government to accept my amendment. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Henley Lord Henley Shadow Minister, Justice 7:00 pm, 21st October 2009

I support the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, whose amendments we are discussing, along with government Amendment 31. But I suspect that the noble and gallant Lord has rather stolen the thunder from the government amendment. In saying that I support it, I want to make only a couple of points. First, I am grateful to the noble and gallant Lord for passing a copy of the note from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Cullen, to me. So I have seen it as well as the Minister. I agree entirely with its comments.

My second point I will put by way of a question to the Minister. I seem to remember from my time in social security when I was dealing with war pensions matters the qualification for becoming a war widow had nothing to do with the death on active service of her late husband. It applied to any death on active service or any death in training. Would that not be a far better model for the Government to look at, rather than the more restricted way in which the Minister is doing it? Will the noble Lord confirm that I am right that any death in training would have been sufficient for someone to qualify as a war widow as well as a death on active service? Therefore, a death of that sort would be covered by all the examples given by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley.

Photo of Lord Thomas of Gresford Lord Thomas of Gresford Shadow Attorney General

My Lords, we were somewhat surprised that the definition of active service was taken from the definition of desertion in Section 8 of the Armed Forces Act 2006, which we debated at length in this House. One might say that the Government have shot themselves in the foot over that one. Accordingly, the amendments proposed by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, are fully deserving of support and we support them.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

The amendments in the name of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, concern the scope of the Bill's provisions for fatal accident inquiries in Scotland into the deaths of certain service personnel abroad. Perhaps I may start by saying how grateful I am for the noble and gallant Lord's support in general for Clauses 12 and 13 and what they represent. As the noble and gallant Lord has said, Clause 12, in conjunction with the amendments to the Fatal Accidents and Sudden Deaths Inquiry (Scotland) Act 1976 in Clause 45, provides for fatal accident inquiries to be held in Scotland into deaths abroad of service personnel on active service.

We added these clauses to the Bill in the other place to respond to calls from service families in Scotland, from MPs and from MSPs to make provision for families in Scotland to attend fatal accident inquiries into deaths which have occurred on operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. This means that in most cases such families will no longer need to travel long distances to England for an inquest. Clause 12 seeks to address that human issue. Clause 12 arises out of an agreement reached by the UK Government and what is now called the Scottish Government. Our argument is around that agreement and whether it would be responsible to unpick that agreement, which is in effect what we would do unilaterally if this amendment were to be passed. Amendments 28, 29 and 30 would remove the requirement for the personnel covered by this clause to have been on active service or accompanying those on active service when they die, so that the Lord Advocate could permit a fatal accident inquiry into the violent or unnatural death overseas of any service personnel.

When considering similar amendments in Committee, I explained that I understood that Scottish Ministers would consider whether the Bill's provisions should be extended to cover the deaths of service personnel which occur in non-operational circumstances as part of their wider consideration of the recommendations of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Cullen. Noble Lords will remember that the noble and learned Lord's review of fatal accident inquiry legislation in Scotland is due to report later this year. His review is, of course, concerned only with devolved matters; and therefore will not relate to fatal accident inquiries into deaths of Armed Forces personnel.

I agree with the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, that we are not pre-empting the report of the Cullen inquiry, but we are pre-empting the Scottish Government's consideration of that report. It is for the Scottish Government—whether we like it or not—to consider what changes to make to the legislation governing fatal accident inquiries following the Cullen inquiry.

I remind the House that the provisions in Clause 12 seek to address a specific issue that has arisen as a result of our Armed Forces engagement in operations in the two theatres of Iraq and Afghanistan. The clause reflects the terms of an agreement between the United Kingdom Government and the Scottish Government on how best to respond to representations from service families. We are talking to the Scottish Government. The provisions in the Bill relate to the deaths of Armed Forces personnel on active service, and are the outcome, I emphasise, of prolonged negotiations between my department, the Ministry of Defence, the Scotland Office and the Scottish Government.

Speaking from this Dispatch Box, I cannot simply throw out of the window our agreement with Scottish Ministers, but I readily agree to have further talks before Third Reading with the Scottish Government. I cannot promise to change our position, but I would like to see what is possible. Anyone in government would agree that we need to bring Scottish Ministers with us on this issue, because, ultimately, the circumstances in which there must be a fatal accident inquiry in Scotland will be a matter for them. That would be true even if we were talking about an agreement made with an unfriendly Administration or Government. It cannot be for us to unpick something that has been agreed between Governments because it happens to suit us.

I invite the noble and gallant Lord to withdraw his amendment today. I will keep him fully informed of how the discussions go with the Scottish Government. If they are getting nowhere, of course he will put down his amendment at Third Reading and, no doubt if we still resist it, take it to a vote. However, today I ask him for a little further time to try to see if we can come to an agreement with the Scottish Government, with whom we have an arrangement on this matter. I invite him to desist from asking the House to express its opinion.

As the noble and gallant Lord was kind enough to say, government Amendment 31 responds to a concern raised by him in Committee about the definition of "active service" in Clause 12(6). That subsection cross-refers to the definition of "active service" set out in the Armed Forces Act 2006—a section which deals with the offence of desertion. The noble and gallant Lord argued persuasively—as he always does—that it was inappropriate to use that source definition for those who have been killed on operational service, serving their country. The noble and gallant Lord suggested that, rather than cross-referring to the Armed Forces Act, we should instead set out the definition of "active service" in full in Clause 12(6). That is exactly what we have done in Amendment 31, which places the definition of "active service" on the face of the Bill. I am grateful to the noble and gallant Lord for raising this issue, and I hope that our amendment will be welcomed in due course.

Photo of Lord Craig of Radley Lord Craig of Radley Crossbench 7:15 pm, 21st October 2009

I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken on this. I remind the House that I raised this issue in June and it has been clear for four and a half months that the use of the phrase "active service" was not satisfactory.

To be asked now to withdraw the amendment with a couple of weeks or so to go before the House prorogues and be led to feel that this will be resolved in that time is highly unacceptable. Defence is not a devolved issue. The agreement in Clauses 12 and 13 about where the inquest should be held is widely accepted and I do not see that moving this amendment in any way detracts from that. I wish to test the opinion of the House.

Division on Amendment 28

Contents 90; Not-Contents 92.

Amendment 28 disagreed.

Division number 3 Coroners and Justice Bill — Report (1st Day)

Aye: 88 Members of the House of Lords

No: 90 Members of the House of Lords

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Amendments 29 and 30 not moved.

Amendment 31

Moved by Lord Bach

31: Clause 12, page 6, line 37, leave out from "service"" to end of line 38 and insert "means service in—

(a) an action or operation against an enemy (within the meaning given by section 374 of the Armed Forces Act 2006 (c. 52)),

(b) an operation outside the British Islands for the protection of life or property, or

(c) the military occupation of a foreign country or territory."

Amendment 31 agreed.

Consideration on Report adjourned until not before 8.27 pm.