Committee (4th Day)

Public Bodies Bill [HL] – in the House of Lords at 3:08 pm on 14th December 2010.

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Votes in this debate

Schedule 1 : Power to abolish: bodies and offices

Amendment 24 not moved.

Amendment 25

Moved by Lord Faulkner of Worcester

25: Schedule 1, page 16, line 16, leave out "BRB (Residuary) Limited."

Photo of Lord Faulkner of Worcester Lord Faulkner of Worcester Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 3:09 pm, 14th December 2010

My Lords, I move Amendment 25 because I want to give the Minister an opportunity to describe what the Government envisage will happen to the powers, duties and assets of BRB (Residuary) Ltd if, or rather when, that body is abolished. The Committee may be aware that this company is all that is left of the once mighty British Railways Board, which oversaw the running and ownership of the entire state-owned railway from 1962 until privatisation. BRB (Residuary) Ltd was formed in 2001 to manage most of the remaining property, rights and liabilities of the BRB. These included a diverse property portfolio and the settlement of industrial injury claims submitted by former British Railways employees. The residuary company looks after 148 non-operational sites, many of which were bought in the 19th century to facilitate railway construction. It would like to sell these when market conditions are right. Therefore, my first question to the Minister is to ask him: what organisation will be responsible for selling these sites if BRB (Residuary) Ltd is abolished? Secondly, does he feel that this is the right time to get rid of a body that has operated successfully and profitably, at least until there was a revaluation of its assets in 2009?

I should also like to ask the Minister about the property held at the discretion of the Department for Transport for future operational use, such as the platforms and other structures at Waterloo International station, the North Pole international depot in west London, the Old Dalby test track, the Temple Mills bus depot and Glasgow Eastfield depot. What does he envisage will happen to those?

Perhaps most significant and difficult are the 4,000 bridges, tunnels, viaducts and other structures throughout England, Scotland and Wales which no longer form part of the operational railway but still have to be maintained. This is called the "burdensome estate". It includes structures such as the Thornton Viaduct in Bradford, which no longer carries a railway but is an important part of the Great Northern Trail cycle route. There has been speculation in the media about where these matters will reside once BRB (Residuary) Ltd has disappeared. It has been suggested that the Highways Agency might take over the burdensome estate, such as the redundant viaducts and stretches of land, and I should be grateful if the Minister could clarify that.

Finally, BRB (Residuary) Ltd is also responsible for handling compensation claims from former railway employees who suffered illnesses as a result of their working conditions. Many of these have been related to working with asbestos and other dangerous materials. At 31 March 2010 there were 459 disease and injury claims outstanding against the company. Who will take on the responsibility for the requirement to look after the industrial injury claims of these former railway employees? There are a number of issues here and I look forward to hearing the Minister's answer. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Rosser Lord Rosser Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

My noble friend Lord Faulkner of Worcester has raised a number of important points about the role and responsibilities of BRB (Residuary) Ltd and what the Government's intentions are in relation to those activities, not least its operational and non-operational property-its estate of some 4,000 bridges, tunnels, viaducts and other structures-and the management of industrial injury claims. I, too, look forward to the Minister's reply to the points raised by my noble friend.

As he said, BRB (Residuary) Ltd is a residuary organisation staffed mainly by former employees of British Rail who have a detailed and specialist knowledge of the assets and liabilities now managed by the organisation. The company is committed, for so long as it exists, to ensuring that the knowledge held by the former BR staff is retained for use by those who might be responsible for the management of the long-term assets and liabilities in the future. In the light of that, can the Minister say what will happen to the staff of BRB (Residuary) Ltd if it is abolished? Can he give an assurance that any information currently accessible through a Freedom of Information Act request will still be accessible through such a request following any transfer of BRB (Residuary) Ltd's duties and responsibilities elsewhere?

The criteria against which the Government said their review of public bodies would be carried out were: does the public body have a precise technical operation; is it necessary for impartial decisions to be made about the distribution of taxpayers' money; and does it fulfil a need for facts to be transparently determined independent of political interference? A public body would stay if it was deemed to have passed one of the three tests.

In June this year, the Minister for the Cabinet Office said that the Government wanted to cut the number of public bodies to increase accountability and cut costs. Can the Minister explain why the Government have apparently decided that the BRB (Residuary) body does not carry out a technical operation, does not have to make impartial decisions and does not need to establish facts independent of political interference, when one of its roles is managing industrial injury claims supported by former BR employees and its staff have the detailed and specialist knowledge of the assets and liabilities that BRB (Residuary) Ltd manages?

Finally, since the Cabinet Office Minister has said that one declared objective of this exercise is to cut costs, can the noble Lord tell us what the contribution will be to the reduction in costs made by abolishing BRB (Residuary) Ltd?

Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Liberal Democrat 3:15 pm, 14th December 2010

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner of Worcester, missed from his list of public sector burdens the stretches of track, which still exist and belong to the residuary body. He might have mentioned that-perhaps I did not hear him-but, as he is nodding, I think that he missed it out.

It is very important that some stretches of track should remain within the public sector in some way or other, pending the glorious day when the railway is returned to those lines that were closed down and had their tracks removed. Obviously, I refer to the Colne to Skipton line, much of which belongs to the county councils of Lancashire and north Yorkshire, because it was transferred from the old West Riding county council. However, the track between the old county boundary and Colne was never transferred to Lancashire, so it is very important that, at the very least, it remains in public sector ownership. I declare an interest as a patron of the Skipton East Lancashire Rail Action Partnership, or SELRAP. I merely add that point to the very important list of issues. Of course, because the Colne to Skipton stretch includes lots of bridges, the county council is reluctant to take over responsibility for the former line because it claims that liability for the bridges would cost a vast amount of money, although the residuary body has not spent much on them at all in the 15 years since privatisation.

I merely add that little pebble into the pond.

Photo of Lord Taylor of Holbeach Lord Taylor of Holbeach Conservative

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner of Worcester, for tabling Amendment 25, because it gives the Government an opportunity to put on record the decision to include BRB (Residuary) Ltd in the list of bodies to be abolished.

As the noble Lord may know, consultations on the decision have been ongoing for some time. Many historical obligations associated with railway structures continue to rest with BRB and cannot be transferred with title through the normal property conveyancing process but must be transferred to someone else, such as the Secretary of State or some other public body under a transfer scheme. That can be done only by primary legislation, which is why BRB is mentioned in the Bill. As the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, said, BRB is also liable for the industrial injury claims from former railway industry employees. It would be more difficult to transfer BRB to the Secretary of State for those claims to be dealt with without having a statutory transfer scheme, which is again why the body has been included in this Bill.

BRB (Residuary) Ltd is a public limited company that was created in 2001 to manage and dispose of British Rail's commercial property assets, to manage historical liabilities for industrial injury claims and to maintain some 4,000 or so railway structures that are no longer used for railway purposes-to which the noble Lord referred as the burdensome estate.

The intention to abolish BRB once it has achieved its objective of maximising money from the disposal of its assets has been in place for some time. The inclusion of the body in Schedule 1 is necessary in order to wind up the body fully, as otherwise it would not be possible to transfer certain liabilities relating to the burdensome estate. Its inclusion in Schedule 1 will also facilitate the transfer of residual assets and liabilities to other parts of the public sector in the most cost-effective manner. For example, the conveyancing of the individual structures alone would cost approximately £6 million in the absence of a statutory transfer scheme, which the Bill provides for.

The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, asked about the cost implications. Savings on staff costs, premises and accounts, audit et cetera are expected to be around £6 million in 2013-14 and £6.9 million per annum thereafter. On the number of jobs that may be involved, we currently envisage that roughly 30 posts would be made redundant as a result of these changes.

Although I have not provided detailed information on some of the structures that the noble Lord asked about-I hope that he will allow me to write to him when I have found out any detail on those that is available to me-in the light of the information that I have provided, I ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Lord Faulkner of Worcester Lord Faulkner of Worcester Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

I thank the Minister very much indeed for that helpful reply. A number of issues that remain unresolved were mentioned by myself, my noble friend Lord Rosser and, indeed, by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. If, on reflection, the Minister feels that he is able to give some more information in writing, that would be very welcome.

The decision to abolish BRB (Residuary) Ltd is not controversial-indeed, it was taken by the previous Administration-but I was anxious to ensure that things were not done in a rush or in a way that might result in the assets being sold for much less than is possible. I am satisfied by the Minister's response, and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 25 withdrawn.

Amendment 26

Moved by Baroness Finlay of Llandaff

26: Schedule 1, page 16, line 17, leave out "Chief Coroner, Deputy Chief Coroners, Medical Advisers to the Chief Coroner and Deputy Medical Advisers to the Chief Coroner."

Photo of Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Crossbench

My Lords, this amendment seeks to ensure that the long-awaited chief coroner, as set up in the Coroners and Justice Act, is not abandoned. I shall explain, first, why an independent chief coroner is essential for national functions to be adequately discharged and, secondly, why the cost basis of the decision to list the chief coroner, medical advisers and deputies is flawed, as dispensing with leadership to reform the coronial system will stack up costs, not save money. This amendment is strongly supported by all the experts in the field with whom I have had contact and by many from the voluntary sector, including INQUEST and the Royal British Legion.

The current system is not fit for purpose, being based on the 1887 Act. Even the 1988 Act was only consolidating, ignoring the Brodrick committee report. Repeatedly, fundamental reviews have been commissioned and, repeatedly, their key recommendation has been for a chief coroner with appropriate medical advice. In 2003, the fundamental review of death certification and investigation, the Luce review, was quickly followed by the third report of the Shipman inquiry. Both called for radical reform and leadership. As the Ministry of Justice's own impact assessment on the Coroners and Justice Bill said:

"The Shipman Inquiry ... and the Fundamental Review of Death Certification and Investigation"- the Luce report-

"found the level of service provided to bereaved people was inconsistent; family and friends were not always involved in coroners' investigations; there was a lack of leadership and training for coroners; and insufficient medical knowledge in the system as a whole".

Luce's headline recommendation was for a chief coroner from the higher judiciary to oversee standards and handle appeals.

Dame Janet found that to a large extent coroners are left to their own devices, with no guidance to coroners, no appeals system by which unsatisfactory decisions can be set aside, no job description and no appraisals. She proposed that leadership for coroners should come from a chief judicial coroner, with senior medical advice as appropriate, independent of the Government. Indeed, she said:

"In my view, it would no longer be satisfactory for the coroner service to be administered from within a Government Department".

Four weeks ago we had the Redfern report, again calling for co-ordination and leadership.

The Coroners and Justice Act took three years of review and consultation and was supported across all parties. It made provision for such leadership. Dame Janet has noted that, with no appeal mechanism, the only route to challenge decisions is judicial review, but that a quicker and cheaper means of appeal could and should be provided whereby decisions, whether in a report or at inquest, that are wrong can be set aside, and that such an appeals system should be run by the chief coroner.

Coroners themselves have estimated that there might be up to 1,000 appeals per annum but a better local complaints procedure would decrease these. Currently, however, with the only recourse being to judicial review, there are about 25 judicial reviews a year. Each costs somewhere around £40,000 to £60,000, although no one can provide me with a good costing on it. So our current inadequate system is costing at least £500,000 to £750,000, and with such an unmet need the numbers will only rise.

The coroners need leadership that they can respect to bring about change. Where a coroner has written a rule 43 recommendation to try to avoid further deaths, without a chief coroner, where are the levers to look at the public safety issues across the UK? Military deaths deserve an inquest by a coroner with military knowledge. Inquests into child deaths require specific skills. Inadequate post-mortems, as evidenced by the 2006 NCEPOD report, need an on-going audit to drive up standards. To do that, leadership is needed.

Freddy Patel did many post-mortems-many coroners used him, not just one-but, with no leadership from a medical adviser to the chief coroner, substandard practice goes largely undetected. A poor post-mortem can result in a wrongful conclusion, a lack of justice, miscarriages of justice and a failure to prevent avoidable deaths. Coroners have such a duty to prevent further deaths. The rule 43 recommendation can be issued but, without a national overview to map trends, outliers go unnoticed. We know that they have gone unnoticed for years.

Accurate data on deaths are essential. Deaths classified as drowning are sometimes due to an inherited heart problem that results in the heart stopping on hitting cold water. With that undetected, the wrong conclusions are drawn and the relatives of the deceased are left at risk of sudden death themselves.

The training of coroners is a major problem. Participation is purely voluntary. Training instigated by the Coroners' Society, and now supported by the Ministry of Justice, remains patchy, with some coroners, as Dame Janet said, never undertaking the voluntary training that is available because they believe that they know all there is to know. Leadership is needed for accountability and oversight to make the delays in inquests a thing of the past and ensure that inquests into complex cases such as military deaths, child deaths and incidents with multiple victims are conducted by coroners with appropriate expertise.

At a time of financial stringencies it seems sensible to disband as many costly organisations as possible, so I turn briefly to the cost basis for the decision. Set-up costs were estimated to be almost £11 million, of which almost £4 million was for IT and £2.5 million for recruitment, publications, additional coroners and transition costs. Transition from what? There is a yawning gap at present. The Ministry of Justice team has four people working on coroners' issues; by transferring them to the chief coroner, their costs would be offset, as would the training spend by the Ministry of Justice at the moment. Indeed, training could be more cost-effective by using simpler venues and local resources. Having consulted widely, I estimate that the whole set-up cost and per-annum cost could come within a £500,000 envelope. The deputy chief coroner and medical advisers can be drawn from respected senior coroners and local medical advisers already in post, therefore not incurring the costs of new appointments. Further developments can come later; it does not all have to happen at once.

Similarly, the estimated running costs were astounding. They contained a 20 per cent contingency fund of almost £1 million-more than I have estimated it would cost to set up the proposed system. By contrast, no estimate has been taken into account of the cost to the NHS of the morbidity in these bereaved people. They often end up with complicated grief needing NHS support, and the majority have periods when they are unable to work. Consider, too, the cost of bereaved children, who live feeling that justice was never done. They have a high risk of suicide, drug addiction, teenage pregnancy and acquiring a criminal record. These are all costs that are mounting against this so-called efficiency.

I am grateful to the Ministers and officials who met me and in particular for the time that the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, has spent with me on this. But even officials were unable to explain some of these budget lines. For want of a chief coroner, we are stacking up costs and problems that will cost far more than a chief coroner and medical adviser, who could even be a part timer. We ignore the numerous reports at our peril.

I am sure the Minister will say that the majority of functions will be undertaken by the Ministry of Justice, that the Lord Chancellor will oversee, that the only thing being abandoned is the appeals mechanism and that even that will be covered in part by a charter for the bereaved, which is going to be modified. He may even suggest that unless we remove the chief coroner and medical adviser, nothing can happen. But with no chief coroner to drive up standards and ensure training and no route of appeal for the bereaved to have justice, these problems will continue and the costs will escalate.

The Ministry of Justice's own impact assessment concluded that a chief coroner was the preferred option as this would make the best use of resources to improve service delivery. It would provide leadership to meet both the interests of bereaved families and the wider public interest in terms of the quality and effectiveness of investigations, and optimum understanding about the causes of unexpected deaths, ensuring that knowledge is applied to prevent avoidable death and injury.

To abandon having a chief coroner is to deny long-awaited improvements to the coronial system to those who deserve justice. It will leave us with a system that is unfit for 21st century society. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Thornton Baroness Thornton Shadow Spokesperson (Health) 3:30 pm, 14th December 2010

My Lords, I shall speak briefly to Amendment 26, to which I was very happy to add my name. As the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, was speaking, I was thinking that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, may have been very clever in putting these provisions in the Bill in the knowledge that the House would want to consider them very carefully. Perhaps this was a clever ruse on his part because really, in his heart, he supports us.

The creation of the post of Chief Coroner for England and Wales was at the heart of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009. The role was designed to ensure judicial oversight, enforce national standards and increase accountability. Introducing national leadership under the chief coroner's post was a crucial step towards tackling the unacceptable delays, inconsistent standards of service delivery and lack of accountability which plague the current system.

The NCEPOD report of 2006 reviewed, in detail, autopsy reports in hospitals and in the community. There had never before been a comprehensive review of the autopsy process and reports of death at the request of coroners. It was the first time that data had been requested directly from coroners. Indeed, 88 per cent of them contributed data to this report.

The report was a major contribution to the discussion about changes in the coronial system. It recommended, among other matters, that there should be nationally uniform criteria and standards for the investigation of reported deaths and made recommendations about training and the independent review process, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, referred. In many ways this was the final evidence that was needed to bring forward the reform to the coronial system proposed in the 2009 Bill, which had cross-party support.

The chief coroner is needed to act as a counterbalance, as it were, to the weight of the Chief Medical Officer. Does the Minister really think that a civil servant in the Ministry of Justice will have the necessary authority to operate at the highest quasi medical/judicial level which might be required from time to time, to say nothing of ensuring that a modern, compassionate and timely coronial system for families and relatives exists, given that it is absolutely necessary? The answer to that has to be no. That is why this amendment is so important, why these Benches will support it and why we think that it is very important to get on with reforming this system by appointing the chief coroner.

Photo of Lord Ramsbotham Lord Ramsbotham Crossbench

My Lords, I put my name to this amendment for two reasons: disappointment and respect. I am disappointed about this decision, given all the hours that we spent discussing the various stages of the Coroners and Justice Bill last year. The one constant throughout that process was a hope that, 109 years after the previous reform of the coronial system, a chief coroner would be appointed to lead us out of this morass. I say that because experience tells me that until and unless you have a named person with responsibility and accountability for actually making things happen, things do not happen. It is all very well saying that the Government intend to do this and the Government intend to do that, but that had been the situation for 109 years and it is not working. Only if a chief coroner is in place will there be a hope of leadership, consistency, drive and oversight of all the things that are listed. I refreshed my memory by reading the speeches of the late lamented Lord Kingsland, who I respected and who was so strongly in favour of the chief coroner in all our discussions. He, too, appreciated that at last this post constituted a way of reforming something that needed reforming.

At an earlier stage in the Committee, I mentioned that I was extremely disappointed in the impact assessment accompanying the Bill as it says that nothing that is proposed has any impact on either human rights or the criminal justice system. However, here we are, at Amendment 26, with goodness knows how many amendments to come, and already we have something which is driving terrible coaches and horses through both human rights and the criminal justice system. Then I looked at the so-called savings. They reminded me of a phrase that we used to use in the Army-"situating the appreciation". An appreciation comprises examining a subject and then deciding what you are going to do about it. Sometimes people know what they are going to do and write a report to suit their solution. The maths ruthlessly exposed by my noble friend Lady Finlay shows that these costings are a sham. There has been no attempt to say how much more it would cost to have a chief coroner than to have all the improvements allegedly to be made by the Ministry of Justice which will achieve the same end. Until and unless we have an honest appraisal, it is dishonest to overturn the ruling of Parliament that something should be done to put right a system which has affected us for so long, and to endorse the decision of noble Lords in all parties to put bereavement at the heart of the process. That will be the case only if someone is responsible and accountable for seeing that it happens.

I am not going to rehearse all the cases that we dealt with affecting military inquests and inquests involving prisoners, delays, training of staff, consistency and the fact that you cannot obtain establishments in which to hold inquests because you are not a member of the court system. We have all been through all that. To risk throwing all that away is very dangerous, and I very much hope that the amendment will be supported.

Photo of The Bishop of Lincoln The Bishop of Lincoln Bishop

My Lords, as you might expect from these Benches, I should like to offer a pastoral word in support of the amendment.

One of the recent features of the discourse around bereavement has been closure, and the number of times that people now say, "All I want is closure". There may be numerous reasons for that. It could be to do with the fact that we are now a society which is rather more distant from sudden and unexpected death than previous societies were, and therefore coping with those eventualities becomes that much more challenging. Closure becomes a significant dynamic in handling those kinds of bereavements. The need for closure could also relate to the culture of accountability in which we find ourselves, whereby people seem to need to be able to apportion not only a reason for why something happened, but perhaps a degree of blame and responsibility. That seems, rightly or wrongly, to be part of the culture of closure that matters to people these days.

I also have to say, of course, that another reason could be due to the declining reliance on the consolations of religion at the time of death, and therefore the search for other consolations would include a clear sense of what happened, why and at whose hand. If the amendment can enable the office of the chief coroner to add another dimension to the potential for people in their bereavement and sorrow to feel a sense of justice being done and, therefore, achieve a degree of closure, on those pastoral grounds, if no other, the amendment deserves support.

Photo of Lord Craig of Radley Lord Craig of Radley Crossbench

My Lords, I have also put my name to the amendment. If we look back at Second Reading of the relevant Bill on 18 May 2009, there was, as has already been said, broad cross-party support for the approach taken to bring better oversight, management and direction to the coronal service. The establishment of an independent chief coroner with such specific responsibilities was a key step that was widely welcomed, most particularly by organisations such as the Royal British Legion, which was concerned that there had been inadequate arrangements for the inquests of service personnel killed on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Assurances were given then that the new chief coroner would issue guidance and set standards in relation to certain types of deaths, including standards in relation to deaths on active service. Handling and investigations of highly sensitive and emotive deaths due to "friendly fire" always need special care. Coroners must have clear and considered guidance when inquiring into such tragedies.

Proper oversight and training in the holding of military inquests were also promised. That is all the more important, given that such inquests are now more frequently held near the homes of the deceased, so that the relatives can get there more easily. Those who followed these aspects of the Bill were reassured that improvements would be made and that the need for them had been fully accepted.

I am not clear what alternative arrangements are contemplated. If the chief coroner, his supporting staff and the accommodation that they would have occupied are all to be scrapped to achieve a saving, we shall be back where we were before the 2009 Act came in. I hope that the Government are not seeking to go down that road. It would be a deep and cavalier betrayal of bereaved service families. It would fly in the face of the Government's stated intention of strengthening the military covenant by statute, and would make a mockery of their assurances of greater support for the military and their families. Surely that is not contemplated. I hope that the Minister will confirm that today.

If the plan is to pass these responsibilities to others in the Ministry of Justice, or even to the Lord Chief Justice, they cannot take them on without additional staff and the IT and other support already contemplated for the chief coroner and his office. Where, then, would be the significant savings? Surely it would not be acceptable for an independent coronial service to direct responsibility to the Lord Chancellor or his Ministry of Justice. This would not, for example, provide an independent and transparent appeals process, which was to have been one of the roles of the chief coroner.

The three tests set by the Government for a public body to survive and continue in its role are whether it performs a technical function, whether it has political impartiality and whether there is a need for a body to act independently to establish facts. On these grounds, and having heard the excellent arguments produced by others in the debate, will the Minister signal the Government's intention to withdraw from the Bill the post of chief coroner and the associated posts listed in lines 17 and 18 of page 16 on Schedule 1?

Photo of Lord Lester of Herne Hill Lord Lester of Herne Hill Liberal Democrat 3:45 pm, 14th December 2010

I have not been able to take part in this Committee since the first day, when I stood on my head and managed to vote against my own amendment. My good and noble friend Lord Pannick managed to win my amendment while I loyally supported the Government. I do not intend in the rest of these debates to stand on my head again, and I have made that clear to the Minister. I took part in the debate that led to the creation of the chief coroner and I agree with everything that has been said on the subject, especially by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham.

There is a further reason why the amendment is very important: I refer to our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights, which have been referred to. We have been told again and again by the European Court of Human Rights that we need an effective and independent system of investigating deaths, especially the deaths of alleged agents of the state. The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, made it absolutely clear why, during the passage of the legislation under the previous Government, he, I and many others pressed for the creation of a chief coroner and an effective investigation process independent of the state.

I am now in a position where I have to act under some party constraints, which other noble Lords do not. However, I could not support the Government were they to resist this amendment and I very much hope that the Minister will show the wisdom and sense of proportion required on an occasion such as this.

Photo of Lord Christopher Lord Christopher Labour

My Lords, I support the amendment from the point of view of a layman who unexpectedly found himself consulted-if that is the right word-on an inquest. I suppose that all of us hope never to be the subject of an inquest, and very few of us wish to have any reason to be directly involved in one. The case was brought to my attention a couple of years ago-the noble Lord, Lord McNally, has a file on it in his office containing evidence from myself, the complainant and the Member of Parliament for the poor man who was deceased.

It was, in my judgment, a disgraceful occasion. The death was tragic and, because of the number of agencies and parties involved, the case had taken several years to come before the coroner. As a reasonable person looking at what was done by the coroner at the inquest, it seemed to me that he did not do his job properly. He allowed evidence that seemed irrelevant to what had been said before and that was hostile to the complainants, and he did not disclose what he knew: namely, that the parties involved in the actions that led to the death had admitted their role and made a settlement. That evidence was not allowed before the jury. As I said, I had never had any previous involvement of any shape or form with an inquest but it seemed to me that something was not right in the state of Denmark. However, the solution that has come from earlier discussions on the Bill in this House seems to offer some hope that things will be put right.

I understand that New Zealand, which, like many in our erstwhile empire, followed in our steps with its coroner system, has for some time had precisely what is sought in this Bill. I understand that a coroner from that country was here recently and was amazed that we have not gone down this route. It is appalling that ordinary people who may not be satisfied with the results of an inquest can only, as the noble Baroness said, have a judicial review. There is no other avenue for them to complain effectively.

Lastly-this may be of some comfort to the Minister-having looked at this particular case, I believe that some way can be found of dealing with the situation rather more economically. Where there are a number of official agencies-using that term in the broadest sense-it may well be possible, through the good offices of a senior coroner, to find a way of ensuring that inquests take less time than they do today, as that, again, is pretty disgraceful.

Photo of Baroness Butler-Sloss Baroness Butler-Sloss Crossbench

My Lords, I declare an interest as a former assistant deputy coroner-something that I did for as short a period as I could. Coroners, like judges and judicial officers, sit alone and quite often become isolated. If they always sit in the same place, there is a danger that their arrangements will not be consistent with those of adjoining coroners or indeed of coroners in other parts of the country.

Coroners receive a certain amount of training, as did I. As far as it went, it was good but it was not sufficient. The advantage for judges and judicial officers is that not only do they have the Judicial Studies Board but, infinitely more important, at the top of the ladder is the Lord Chief Justice, and under him are senior judges who keep the standards up and give very important guidance. That is absolutely essential. The purpose of the chief coroner and the deputies beneath him or her is to give important guidance to individual coroners right around the country who sit on their own and are isolated, and to offer guidance and keep the standards up, as the standards also vary. Losing a post not yet filled would leave coroners to carry on without that necessary help. It would also deny the public a sufficiently good coronial system.

In answer to a Question asked at Question Time some weeks ago, the Minister said that the guidance would be given by the Ministry of Justice. Like judicial officers and indeed judges, coroners are independent, and it is just not good enough for the Ministry of Justice to offer guidance to those who sit in a judicial or semi-judicial capacity. It just will not do. The Minister clearly did not understand-or perhaps, rather more importantly, the Ministry of Justice did not understand-that the sort of guidance it would give would not be good enough. Judges would not accept it, and why on earth should coroners accept it when it is possible to have a much better system? It is clear to me that the roles of chief coroner and the deputy coroners and so on are essential, as set out so ably by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, and that this amendment absolutely deserves to be carried.

Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Liberal Democrat

I declare an interest as patron of The Compassionate Friends, which is a support group both for parents whose child has died and for their families. I should have liked to put my name to Amendment 26, but three others got there before me. I support everything that the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, said.

I feel that the charter for the bereaved being offered by the Government will be a fob-off if it is not backed up with meaningful changes in the Coroners and Justice Act, so I do not think that what is being proposed is acceptable. What was striking when that Act went through was the degree of political consensus. Indeed, your Lordships' House was particularly important in pushing the Government to give a concession on the timeliness of inquests because, up until that stage, the chief coroner was not going to have the power or duty to enforce timeliness. That is an important issue not only for the bereaved but for witnesses, because when years have passed, it is much harder to recall the circumstances of what went on. I also echo the comments made on the costings. My noble friend Lord McNally gave us the costings on a previous occasion, but the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, has explained that those are the Rolls-Royce costings. All that we are asking for is a trustworthy car to get us from A to B, not a Rolls-Royce.

My second point concerns the independence issue. As your Lordships will remember, from time to time the Government come into conflict with coroners. For example, sometimes the Home Secretary might think that a secret inquiry would be better, as happened under the previous Government and under Governments before that-perhaps the most notorious being the so-called "death on the rock" case-and as I am sure will happen again. If such cases do not promote the need for an independent coronial system, nothing does. That is the reason why this House has a duty to stand firm and why I shall be supporting the noble Baroness's amendment.

Photo of Lord Harris of Haringey Lord Harris of Haringey Labour

My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of the advisory panel on deaths in custody. That is relevant because the panel made recommendations on the back of the legislation that created the role of the chief coroner that were endorsed by the ministerial board on deaths in custody.

There are a number of reasons why Amendment 26 should be supported. The first relates to process. Whereas the passage of the Coroners and Justice Act involved a very long process in this House that included a considerable period of debate on what was a major piece of legislation, the Public Bodies Bill seeks to overturn by means of what is almost a footnote-one line in Schedule 1-all the work that was done in both Houses, which considered the issues in great detail. In addition, the Coroners and Justice Act was regarded by many people as long overdue. The process point is whether it is right and proper that such a major piece of legislation should be dismembered by a single line in the Bill.

The second process point is that we have had no adequate explanation of why the Government regard the proposed abolition as being able to produce significant savings. I am aware that every death in custody costs the taxpayer, on average, £500,000 or so for the investigation process and all that goes with it. A good and effective coronial service that picks up the lessons from deaths in custody could easily save substantial sums of money. One of the problems, on which my panel made recommendations about the role of the chief coroner, is the need to draw out at national level the material that emerges from narrative verdicts and from Rule 43 reports and to identify the best practice that emerges from those.

Another reason why my panel felt that the role of the chief coroner is important is-as the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, has just referred to-the impact that delays can have on families. One issue that concerns me and the panel that I chair is the very long period that can elapse before a proper hearing or inquest is held into the deaths of people who die while in the custody of the state. Sometimes there are good reasons for such delays, but sometimes the reasons are extremely obscure. There is certainly a problem in the allocation of work among coroners. The appointment of a chief coroner provided the possibility of being able to allocate work more rationally by perhaps creating specialist coroners who could look in detail at particular types of death and thereby build up a body of experience. The chief coroner could also draw attention, where necessary, to the fact that some coroners might be inadequately resourced by local authorities, which is the mechanism by which coroners are funded.

Picking up on the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, about the charter for bereaved people, I understand that the coalition Government have said that they wish to make the charter even stronger. However, the key point about the charter is that, if a bereaved person feels that their charter rights have not been met, there is a mechanism or route that they can go to, which involves the chief coroner. Exactly how will that mechanism be strengthened in future?

We are assured that, by some magical process, civil servants in the Ministry of Justice will be able to fulfil the role that will now not be fulfilled by the chief coroner. How exactly will that be done? I hope that, when the Minister responds, he will give us chapter and verse on how that will happen. Like all other government departments, central administration in the Ministry of Justice is being reduced by 20, 30 or 40 per cent. Perhaps some of these things could have been done by Ministry of Justice civil servants before those reductions, but given that that has not happened, why should we believe that somehow, with reduced resource in future, the benefits that would have accrued from a chief coroner will magically be delivered from within the Ministry of Justice? The noble Baroness's amendment deserves the support of the House.

Photo of Lord Boswell of Aynho Lord Boswell of Aynho Conservative 4:00 pm, 14th December 2010

My Lords, I, too, share many of the reservations that have been expressed about what is a pre-emptive strike against the chief coroner and the centralised medical functions set out in the Coroners and Justice Act. Although, having been brought up in the days when we had to consider public expenditure cuts, I know that it is often a wise strategem to abort projects that have not been undertaken rather than to remove those that have become established, nevertheless I do not think that it is just my personal and extensive involvement in Committee on the Coroners and Justice Act in another place that leads me to the conclusion that we should have at least some unease about the Government's proposal. I will listen very carefully to my noble friend's justification of that.

As I understand it, the argument for a centralised chief coroner was essentially that, although coroners have performed their functions for centuries at local level, the demands of a more modern, more mobile society for a more technically and legally accountable service require a measure of concentration of effort, a perceived professionalism and-to paraphrase the argument of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham-declared leadership in a single figure, such as the chief coroner. Those requirements seem to me to be very difficult to discharge by committee. In that legislation, exactly the same argument resonated across the parties about whether there should be a coroner for treasure, which is a specialist area that also had to be considered.

The House needs to remember that, although coroners have little day-to-day impact on the bulk of the population, coroners have an intimate and dramatic impact on those who are bereaved, particularly in the case of a sudden death. That is the more enhanced whenever there is any suspicion-whether or not it is justified-that the authorities may have failed in their duty of care under Article 2 of the European convention. That is probably often, but certainly by no means always, an issue in military inquests.

I can imagine that some of the centralising functions that would have been otherwise attributed to the chief coroner or to his medical adviser under the Act could be carried out administratively within the Ministry of Justice-although if that happens, I hope that Ministers will get a grip in ensuring that the outturn administrative costs are less than those that are attributed to the chief coroner under the present schema-but I come up against the basic problem about whether it is wise to remove the judicial function of detecting the need for an appeal and to have that function carried out in a way that is not perceived as being independent of government. As the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, said in her introduction, the outcome will almost certainly be more expensive judicial review and more cases going to Strasbourg because of the apparent lack of integrity in the process.

Finally, we all accept that the need to tackle the Government's deficit means that some bodies-even those for which there is some justification-may need pruning or abolishing, but this process of pruning should never be a one-way street of unrequited losses. From time to time, it will still be necessary for us to introduce a modest but effective social advance. I regret that this particular initiative provided under the Coroners and Justice Act seems to be in any kind of danger.

Photo of Viscount Slim Viscount Slim Crossbench

I spoke in one of the previous debates on this issue. I think most of us had some hope that the previous Administration would change their mind and agree to the position of chief coroner. We had a tough debate and actually defeated the Government of the day. We were hopeful that the previous Administration had seen some sense and we felt that they would, eventually, give us a chief coroner. I have seen one or two new faces on Front Benches and in your Lordships' Chamber and I want to, if I may, for a few minutes come a little closer down to earth. After any military action, it is a fairly awesome job-not a pleasant job and a very moving job-to gather one's dead who have made the supreme and final sacrifice for King or Queen and country. They are dead. Dead is dead. Why then does it take one, two, three or more years to declare such a person, man or woman, officially dead? What about the grieving widow? What about the mother? What about the family waiting, not really understanding what a coroner's inquest is, not being told, not being supported, not being moved to the inquest, not being paid for, not being looked after? That is one of the reasons why we need a chief coroner.

We need a leader in this outfit somewhere. We need someone who can administer, speed the process and make certain that everything is done more speedily and correctly. The chief coroner must be rather special. He must be a leader and an administrator. I do not mind whether he is a judge or not, but he must be competent. He must grip these coroners who are scattered around the country, a little lethargic and not necessarily working every day of the week. There needs to be a little bit of cohesion here. The chief coroner is vital.

Is an unproven, newly constituted Ministry of Justice good enough to do this? I do not think so. Who is the leader who will emerge from this legal morass? I wonder. I do not think that this is possible. Surely the Government have heard enough today to realise that they are on the wrong track and that there has to be a chief coroner.

Photo of Viscount Eccles Viscount Eccles Conservative

My Lords, I offer a somewhat different point of view. What worries me particularly about the speech given by the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, is that the way in which the chief coroner is set up in the Act of Parliament will not deliver the things that this House so far in this debate seems to believe are within the power of the chief coroner to deliver. I am somewhat surprised when it is said that the problem is with officials. Surely if there is a problem, it is with the Lord Chancellor of England and not his officials. Why do we elect Secretaries of State and the Lord Chancellor, now that we elect the Lord Chancellor? We elect them presumably because we believe that they can deliver, not that they cannot.

I think that there is very general agreement across the House about the objectives. The situation has not been satisfactory, and that has been exposed at great length. When I reread the proceedings on that Bill at Second Reading, in Committee and on Report, my very strong impression was that the arrival of the chief coroner was a given; it was not debated in any depth or detail. That illustrates that we have got into the habit of believing that if we have serious problems, we cannot rely on our existing institutions. We must have a new one, a silver bullet institution, to solve problems.

I urge noble Lords to read Chapter 6 of and Schedule 8 to that Act. I have had quite long experience of having been on public bodies. I have been chairman, chief executive and vice-chairman on all sorts of public bodies. In fact, one of my noble friends said to me the other day, "I'm glad you're taking part in proceedings on the Public Bodies Bill, because there are hardly any bodies in it that you have not been on". As I think I told the House the other day, I once got a letter thanking me for being on a body that I had never been on. So I have had experience of advisory bodies, executive bodies and even a public corporation-an endangered species of which there are very few left.

The way in which the chief coroner is set up in that Act is more advisory than executive. It in no way puts the chief coroner in such a position that John Humphrys will wish to interview him or her, rather than the Lord Chancellor, if something goes wrong in the future. The accountability chain has not been changed in a way that dilutes the responsibility of the Lord Chancellor. All that has happened is that another step has been put into it, so I say to my noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill that the chief coroner does not have the independence that my noble friend is looking for. There is some space within which the chief coroner can operate, but there is no independence.

I give noble Lords only one illustration. The Lord Chancellor can decide how many staff the chief coroner shall have and what each member of staff shall be paid. In my submission, this is not just a done deal or a solution for doing the things that need to be done to improve the performance of the coronial system, to achieve consistency and to do all the things with which we would all agree to make sure that things are done in a timely fashion. If one reads that debate, and what the noble Lord, Lord Bach, and, I think, the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, said at the time, one will see that they qualified what they said very carefully all the way through. They talked about the problem of expense and the problem of it taking two to three years to set up the Chief Coroner's Office. They did not promise this House that the office would have executive authority, which I think is what people are looking for. I am not an expert on appeals, but it seems to me that even in that matter, the chief coroner is not the final word. I hope that he is not, or would not be. The final word is in the Court of Appeal.

Photo of Lord Lester of Herne Hill Lord Lester of Herne Hill Liberal Democrat 4:15 pm, 14th December 2010

As the noble Viscount was good enough to refer to me, does he accept and agree that under the European Convention on Human Rights we have an obligation to ensure that there is an effective, independent system of inquests, independent of ministerial interference, and that the previous Parliament, in creating the system that is now threatened, believed that it was giving effect to that convention obligation?

Photo of Viscount Eccles Viscount Eccles Conservative

My Lords, I fully agree that the separation of the powers of the Executive from those of the legal profession and our courts is absolutely central to our constitution. Unfortunately, this Bill does not affect that separation because the chief coroner does not have that independence. If one reads the terms under which he is employed and what he has to do to satisfy the Lord Chancellor, the real power has been left with the Lord Chancellor.

Photo of Lord Pannick Lord Pannick Crossbench

My Lords, I am puzzled by the speech of the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles. As I understand the Act, the chief coroner will enjoy considerable independence. He or she will be appointed by the Lord Chief Justice and will report to the Lord Chancellor. If the Lord Chancellor were to tell the chief coroner how to perform the substance of the duties, I have no doubt whatever that the courts would uphold the independence of the chief coroner under the Act.

The other point made by the noble Lord-

Photo of Viscount Eccles Viscount Eccles Conservative

On that point, the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, is correct. But the appointment can be made by the Lord Chief Justice only with the approval of the Lord Chancellor. All my experience of public appointments has shown that the power of appointment rests with the Lord Chancellor.

Photo of Lord Pannick Lord Pannick Crossbench

I remind the noble Viscount that the same is true of judges of the Supreme Court. There is no suggestion that people cannot be independent in their judicial role because the Government have a responsibility for their appointment or for the appointment of their staff. The performance of the function is what matters. The noble Viscount said that we elect Governments so that they can deliver. I suggest to noble Lords that there are some functions that can be delivered to the satisfaction of the public only if they are delivered by an independent body. The reason for that is that the decisions they are making are either judicial decisions or quasi-judicial decisions which often concern the relationship between the individual and the state.

These points were made with great power by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, in opening this debate. She referred to the support given by Dame Janet Smith in the Shipman report to the creation of the office of chief coroner. Dame Janet put her finger on the fundamental point which has provided the recurrent theme in the debates in this Committee so far and will continue to be the recurrent theme of the debates in this Committee unless and until the Government change their general approach. The point was made by Dame Janet at paragraph 19.22 of her third report on the Shipman inquiry. She said that,

"if coroners and the Coroner Service are to command the confidence of the public, they must be and must be seen to be independent of Government".

That applies also, as the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, said, to the views of the bereaved. They must have confidence in the coronial service if it is to perform its function. Dame Janet added:

"Although coroners investigate on behalf of the state, they might well reach verdicts and make recommendations unwelcome to Government".

That point was made by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller. Dame Janet went on to say that,

"it would no longer be satisfactory for the coroner service to be administered from within a Government Department".

But that is precisely what the Government are now proposing.

There are many functions under this Bill which the Government are seeking to bring within the Ministry of Justice, of which the role of the chief coroner is just the latest. These roles can effectively be performed only by bodies that are independent and are seen to be independent. The man or woman from the ministry simply does not know best and cannot be seen to know best. This core principle is being trampled on by the Bill. I have great sympathy for the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, because the Government's position in relation to the chief coroner is quite indefensible.

Photo of Lord Newton of Braintree Lord Newton of Braintree Conservative

My Lords, I rise to speak briefly. Having supported my noble friend Lord McNally as loyally as I could last night, I find myself in a slightly more difficult position today. I really do think that we need some sensitive answers to the questions that have been raised in this debate. I have a peripheral historic interest in that when I was chair of the Council on Tribunals, late of the Administrative Justice and Tribunals Council, I was consulted in the course of the review which started off the whole process of reforming coroners. There may have been some thought at that time of making the coroners' court arrangements a tribunal. We have not gone down that path, but it leads me to what I want to say.

Whether it is a tribunal, a court or sui generis, it is essentially part of the judicial process. That is why I think that the key issues in the debate are those that were raised by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and a number of others, including the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, about the need for independence. We are just seeing the full establishment of a Tribunals Service, part of whose merit was that it was led, for the first time, by a senior judge. We had the Lord Chief Justice as President of Tribunals, to whom the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, referred, and judicial leaders in different ways from all parts of the judicial system. Why is this being taken out and left to civil servants in the Ministry of Justice? I cannot see any answer to that question and, unlike the noble Lord, Lord Harris, with most of whose remarks I agree, I do not believe the Ministry of Justice could do it however much money and officials it has. It is an issue of principle.

I will not go quite as far as my noble friend Lord Lester and say that if the Government will not accept the amendment, I shall vote against them. However, if we are just given an intransigent response that says that we will not even take this away and look at it, I shall be in great difficulty.

Photo of Lord Lester of Herne Hill Lord Lester of Herne Hill Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I ought to point out that I said I would abstain.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Shadow Spokesperson (Justice)

We should be very grateful indeed to the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, for raising this matter. We on this side of the Committee support her amendment because we think it is sensible and right. As the Minister, along with my noble friend Lord Tunnicliffe, who took the Coroners and Justice Bill through this House, we understood clearly that reform was considered vital and not before time. The coronial system had failed to keep up with the demands of this century. There were flaws that were evident from the Shipman inquiry and other reviews. Both the inquiry and the reviews recommended a fundamental overhaul of the current arrangements and everyone agreed that reform was essential and urgently needed. After some time listening to evidence and considering the options, a consensus emerged and the Bill came to Parliament. The roles of the chief coroner and the chief medical adviser to the chief coroner sat at the heart of the reforms to which Parliament agreed. The chief coroner is intended to provide the necessary oversight, training and, above all, leadership for the coronial system and to be at the head of the appeal framework for people affected by the decisions that coroners make. While there was substantial debate in this House on many aspects of this part of the Bill, whether there should be a chief coroner or a chief medical adviser was, frankly, not an issue. Indeed, there was strong support on all sides of the House for these reforms.

The Government's decision to abolish these positions came as a shock to all those involved in the coronial reforms. Considerable concern has been expressed by bereaved service families and those who have lost loved ones who have died in custody, and many noble Lords will have received correspondence from groups and individuals. On behalf of everyone, I thank those who have bothered to write to us, including the Royal British Legion-I declare an interest as an individual member-and the organisation INQUEST for making the issue clear to the House in considering the Bill.

It is worth putting on record what the distinguished director-general of the Royal British Legion said when hearing of the Government's decision. He stated:

"We believe this decision would be a deep betrayal of bereaved Service families ... The Legion campaigned long and hard as part of its campaign to honour the Military Covenant for reforms to the inquest process-to guarantee bereaved Service families a modern, thorough and transparent investigation".

He concluded:

"The Chief Coroner's Office and role are absolutely central to this".

Will the Minister clarify whether it is really argued by the Government that people's concerns, which are centred on having inquests that are fair and just, will be assuaged by taking in-house the role of the independent chief coroner? The argument that the responsibilities of the chief coroner can be taken inside the Ministry of Justice and somehow, at the same time, be perceived to be independent of government is, frankly, fatuous; it is a laughable argument. Coroners are intended to be judicial officers, independent of government and impartial. The leadership of these bodies obviously warrants similar independence. The public of course expect justice to be done, but also justice to be seen to be done. Indeed, it is for this reason that a distinguished judge had been appointed as the prospective chief coroner before the Government's edict was announced.

There was a clear consensus about the role of the chief coroner and his team during the passage of the Bill and everyone looked forward to the start of the new framework in 2012-and now this. Surely, at the very least this proposal must leave a bad taste in the mouth; at the most, it is surely constitutionally inappropriate for important legislation, passed as recently as November 2009, having been through both Houses-a great amount of time was spent on it in this House-to be abolished by a mere affirmative order in council. That is what the House is being asked to approve today.

Why? It surely cannot be only a matter of costs. The noble Baroness skilfully took apart the alleged costs, as did the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, in his contribution. Moreover, as I understand it, the Government have already made it clear that this Bill is not really about cost savings and the chief coroner comes well within the Maude test for public body reform. My noble friend Lord Harris referred to the charter for bereaved people. The Government say that it will survive, but the powers of the chief coroner were central to the satisfaction and comfort of people who had been bereaved. And now, if the Government have their way, there will be no chief coroner.

We all know that Governments of all colours sometimes latch on to a policy and will not come off it when it is obvious to the world and even to themselves that it is wrong. Indeed, the more sensible the criticisms, the more likely are the Government to stick to their guns. Sometimes it is the role of Parliament to step in and save Governments from their own macho tendencies. This is one of those occasions. We support the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, because it is so obviously right and so obviously common sense.

Photo of Lord Taylor of Holbeach Lord Taylor of Holbeach Conservative 4:30 pm, 14th December 2010

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken for expressing the Committee's views so clearly. I thank particularly the noble Lord, Lord Bach, for putting the creation of the post of chief coroner in its historical and political context. Above all, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, for tabling the amendment and giving the Committee the chance to debate this hugely important issue.

Throughout the passage of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, the noble Baroness demonstrated her absolute commitment to improving the coronial system. Her amendment is another strong demonstration of that and provides a welcome opportunity for the Government to reaffirm their commitment to that same aim. I acknowledge that it seems counterintuitive for a Government to state on the one hand their commitment to improving the coronial system and, on the other, their plans to abolish the post of chief coroner. However, I reassure the Committee that when the detail of the Government's proposals are examined it will be seen why in the current economic climate we have no choice but to abolish the office and transfer its key functions. It represents the best and most cost-effective option for realising many of the improvements that were envisaged in the creation of the post.

The noble Baroness and other noble Lords have given eloquent testimony as to some of the weaknesses of the current system. It is an analysis with which we agree, and we are absolutely committed to addressing those weaknesses. Paradoxical as it may first appear, that is precisely why we must abolish the office of chief coroner, thereby allowing the Government to transfer key functions away from an office which is currently unaffordable and facilitating genuine improvements to the coronial system. It is right that we should justify our doing this and, in bringing forward the amendment, the noble Baroness has acted as the Government's conscience, but the debate has shown that a consensus exists about the need to improve the coronial system. I am grateful that the noble Baroness's amendment has established such a consensus on reform within the Committee, and I would seek to be a part of it.

The Coroners and Justice Act 2009 envisaged these improvements being led by a chief coroner. The Government are not suggesting that this is necessarily a bad model, although we do not believe that it is the only one. For the chief coroner to have achieved these improvements would have required substantially new investment, as indicated by the noble Baroness herself, of some £10 million at start-up and £6.5 million each year thereafter. The Government are facing severe cutbacks, meaning that the office is not financially viable in the current economic climate. Let me reiterate that this is new funding and a significant amount of money that must be found. In the current environment, there is simply no prospect of that funding being available. The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, asked about this. An experienced resource dealing with coroner's policy exists within the Ministry of Justice. We accept that it means that some work, such as guidance, may take a little longer to produce without the dedicated resource provided by the office of chief coroner. The actual functions that we propose to take forward will be deliverable within the existing resource of the Ministry of Justice. It should be recognised that setting up a new office always entails costs that are not there when the existing resource is being used.

In conversations with noble Lords, I have been asked whether we should leave the chief coroner on the statute book until such time as funding was available. Indeed, that was a question that I asked myself when I first considered the issue. However, I can tell the Committee that this is not a viable option. Many of the improvements that we wish to make are vested in the office of the chief coroner. Therefore, if we want to make real improvements to the coronial system, it is absolutely necessary and right to transfer those functions to another body. The abolition of the office through the Public Bodies Bill does precisely this. Not to do so will prevent a number of improvements to the system. This amendment, leaving the role latent, would mean that the service would continue to operate with many of the same flaws that noble Lords have highlighted.

We have a good set of proposals to improve the coronial system and address those issues that noble Lords have raised. We will consult on a new charter for the bereaved in the new year. It will set out standards of service that coroners are expected to deliver to bereaved families and others, including the right to be kept informed and participate in the inquest process. The charter will also set out how people may complain if these services are not delivered.

I refer to comments made by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss. It is worth noting that the only statutory guidance provided for in the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 was to be issued by the Lord Chancellor. That is the provision under which a charter will be produced, so it is not clear that this House felt that it was inappropriate for the Lord Chancellor to issue guidance.

I turn to the whole issue of judicial independence, which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, and many other noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Bach. There is a suggestion that judicial independence is compromised by the involvement of the Ministry of Justice, but the chief coroner was envisaged to have a number of functions that included some of a judicial, leadership and administrative nature. Discussions are ongoing with the senior judiciary as to which functions of the chief coroner should be transferred to whom. The Government fully recognise that judicial independence and functions, including rule-making and deployment, are a matter for the judiciary and not necessarily for the Ministry of Justice. In the same way, discussions are also ongoing with the senior judiciary on whether cost-neutral judicial functions may be transferred from the chief coroner to another body. However, the key reason for not proceeding with the national leadership office remains that no additional resource is available to fund the office of chief coroner.

As my noble friend Lord Eccles pointed out, the chief coroner would have had few powers of direction and those he would have had we intend to take forward. I confirm that discussions with the senior judiciary about where these powers should reside are ongoing. The important leadership functions include: more efficient arrangements for the transfer of cases from one coroner to another; transferring inquests in the case of service personnel deaths overseas to Scotland-at present, as noble Lords will know, all such inquests must be heard in England and Wales-and any deaths overseas to Northern Ireland; the making of regulations about the training of coroners and their staff; and, the strengthening of statutory monitoring of coroners' caseloads and backlogs, including the deaths of military personnel.

The main function of the chief coroner that will not be taken forward is that of a new appeals system. I know that a number of noble Lords have concerns about a lack of accountability and transparency in the absence of an appeals system operated by a chief coroner. In the current economic climate the costs are, I am afraid, not justifiable but it is important to note that people may still challenge the outcome of an inquest by judicial review and that an application to the High Court for a second inquest to be held can still be made by or with the authority of the Attorney-General. Complaints about the conduct of the coroner will continue to be made to the Office for Judicial Complaints.

My noble friend Lord Lester is greatly interested in the human rights implications of measures under the Bill and I respect him greatly. The coronial system has developed and will continue to be in compliance with human rights requirements, especially Article 2 on the involvement of the state in death. The absence of the chief coroner will not undermine this.

Perhaps I may return to a particular point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Findlay, when she questioned where the leadership might lie to look at public safety issues. Tackling public safety is delivered directly through reports from coroners to authorities, which can then take action to address problems. These rule 43 reports, as they are called, are sent to the Lord Chancellor, collated and published to promote public safety and they require a public response. The Act brings rule 43 from subordinate to primary legislation, promoting the importance of action to prevent other deaths.

I turn to my noble friend Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer. I thank her for referring to Section 16 of the new Act. That is in fact a provision requiring the chief coroner to report investigations not completed within 12 months, not an enforcement power.

The important changes that the Government want to take forward currently sit with the chief coroner and his office. In order for the functions that I have outlined to be taken forward in the most practical way, we must abolish the office of the chief coroner. With no prospect of funding to enable the position to function, this amendment will prevent the improvements to the coroner system by keeping the body on the statute books. Today's debate has clearly demonstrated that we agree improvements are necessary. We consider that, given current financial restraints, taking this approach offers the best value for money for the public if we are to deliver significant improvements to bereaved families and other interested people. I have met-

Photo of Lord Lester of Herne Hill Lord Lester of Herne Hill Liberal Democrat

I am grateful to the Minister. I am also grateful for the kind remarks that he has made about me personally, which are excessive, but would he accept that public expenditure problems are no justification for any undermining of the independence and effectiveness of the inquest system, whatever the cost, because we have international obligations to secure that? Does he also accept that that is the result we thought we were achieving during the last Parliament when we passed the Bill?

Photo of Lord Taylor of Holbeach Lord Taylor of Holbeach Conservative

I thank my noble friend for that intervention. Nothing that I have said talks about the undermining of the inquest system; we are talking about enhancing it. We are seeking to improve the service. We recognise that it is currently inadequate, and we need to find mechanisms within the Government's current financial restraints to take this matter forward.

I was just saying that yesterday I met Mr Chris Simpkins of the Royal British Legion. I said to him that I hoped that between now and Report we would have an opportunity for further discussions about this proposal, and I say the same to the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, who referred to the discussions that we have had on the proposal in the Bill. I think that noble Lords will understand that it is likely to take some time. We know that the Ministry of Justice has plans and proposals to bring forward in connection with the coronial service. This is an opportunity for the Ministry to demonstrate its determination to deliver what it is talking of.

Photo of Lord Pannick Lord Pannick Crossbench 4:45 pm, 14th December 2010

The Minister mentioned a figure of £10 million that would be required to set up the office of the chief coroner. Has the Ministry of Justice consulted with the judge who was to be appointed as chief coroner about whether he thinks that he could perform a useful role with the amount of money that is available? I say "is available" because many of these functions are to be performed, so we are to be told, from within the Ministry of Justice, which obviously will cost additional funds.

Photo of Lord Taylor of Holbeach Lord Taylor of Holbeach Conservative

I cannot reassure the noble Lord on precisely that point because I do not know whether the question of the budget has been discussed in detail. I can say that the whole question of the continuation of the responsibilities vested in the chief coroner have been discussed with the distinguished judge appointed to the post.

I was about to say to the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay-if I may, I shall say it now-that I hope she will consider withdrawing her amendment so that we can indeed return to this issue on Report, having had the opportunity to continue these discussions.

Photo of Baroness Butler-Sloss Baroness Butler-Sloss Crossbench

Before the Minister sits down, how does the Ministry of Justice intend to create consistency among the coroners? That is a matter that really would require judicial support and leadership.

Photo of Lord Taylor of Holbeach Lord Taylor of Holbeach Conservative

I do not want to go beyond my brief but I know the answer to that question. The Lord Chief Justice is in discussions with the Ministry of Justice, and the proposal is that regulations would be issued under the auspices of the Lord Chief Justice in order to require coroners to train and maintain a training and professional skill base, which, I think that we in the Committee all agree, is extremely variable at present. The best should not be an exception; they should be the rule. That is the process that the senior judiciary are currently discussing with the MoJ.

Photo of Lord Mackay of Clashfern Lord Mackay of Clashfern Conservative

Before my noble friend sits down, I would like to get this clear. Is it right that the Government's proposal is not that officials in the Ministry of Justice should take the place of the chief coroner if the chief coroner's position is removed but that the judicial role of the chief coroner, as was proposed in the Coroners and Justice Act, will in fact be discharged, after discussion with the senior judiciary, by an existing member of the independent judiciary? Is it right that the instructions or guidance given to coroners will be given under the statutory provisions of the Coroners and Justice Act? Am I right that there is no question of the judicial functions of the chief coroner, so far as they were provided for, being discharged by Ministry officials and that, rather, they will be discharged by the judiciary that is presently independent? Am I right in thinking that from time to time coroners' functions are performed at present by members of the judiciary? I think that one of the most important functions is performed at the moment by a senior judge of the Court of Appeal.

Photo of Lord Taylor of Holbeach Lord Taylor of Holbeach Conservative

I thank my noble and learned friend for that question. It gives me the opportunity to make it clear that to the extent that the chief coroner's functions are judicial, they will be carried out through direction from the Lord Chief Justice, not the Ministry of Justice. Therefore, the independence of the judiciary in respect of the coronial service is preserved.

Photo of Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Crossbench

My Lords, I am most grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken in support of this amendment. However, I fear that we cannot throw away in 109 minutes-we have two to go-what we have waited 109 years for, as the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, said.

The Coroners and Justice Act was duly taken through Parliament; we all miss Lord Kingsland, who led on the Bill from the then Conservative opposition Benches-now they are the coalition Government. I appreciate the Minister's response, but I am not convinced. I remain convinced that we need leadership; we cannot betray the bereaved, particularly where people have died on active service for this country. There must be complete independence and there must be consistency among coroners. As for judicial review, I just do not know how people can afford it. That is why there are not more of them taking place-people would have to sell their house to go for it.

As we come up to 109 minutes of debate, after 109 years, I beg to test the opinion of the Committee.

Division on Amendment 26

Contents 277; Not-Contents 165.

Amendment 26 agreed.

Division number 1 Public Bodies Bill [HL] — Committee (4th Day)

Aye: 275 Members of the House of Lords

No: 163 Members of the House of Lords

Ayes: A-Z by last name


Nos: A-Z by last name


House resumed.