Amendment 121

Victims and Prisoners Bill - Committee (4th Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 9:15 pm on 7 February 2024.

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Baroness Thornton:

Moved by Baroness Thornton

121: After Clause 28, insert the following new Clause—“Victims of major incidents: registration of deathThe Secretary of State may by regulations make provision for a relative to provide information in the connection with the registration of the death of a person who was a victim of a major incident, even if an investigation is conducted under Part 1 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009.”Member's explanatory statementThis is a probing amendment concerning the need for a qualified informant such as a relative of the deceased to be permitted to provide information to register the death after a major incident.

Photo of Baroness Thornton Baroness Thornton Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

My Lords, in many ways, my Amendment 121 continues the discussion about the victims of major incidents; in fact, I think we have a suite of amendments that talk about the issues that surround those who have been involved in major incidents, whether they were quite some time ago, as my noble friend Lord Wills said, or more recently.

I refer to the work of my honourable friend Emma Lewell-Buck, as she raised this issue in the Commons. This is a probing amendment, because it is important that we start this discussion, and I think that everybody is aware that the issues of registering deaths are not uncomplicated. When she raised this in the Commons, the Government said that they

“intend to launch a full public consultation on the role of the bereaved in death registration following an inquest, including those impacted by a major disaster”.—[Official Report, Commons, 4/12/23; col. 138.]

In the Commons, the Minister told my honourable friend that it was no longer possible to accept her amendment

“due to the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill, which will digitalise death registration”.

I report that, because my honourable friend said that her amendment would

“give the Secretary of State the power to modify any provisions, which would enable the clause to be shifted to a digital state in future”,—[Official Report, Commons, 4/12/23; col. 122.] and the Minister at the time said that the Government were incredibly sympathetic to the purpose.

I will relate the reason why this is important. My honourable friend has been campaigning for this change for some time on behalf of her former constituents Chloe Ann Rutherford and Liam Thomas Allen-Curry, who were murdered in the 2017 Manchester Arena attack. She explained in her speech, which is on record, that in 2022, after sitting through the public inquiry and listening to every agonising detail of what their children went through, Chloe and Liam’s parents were told that they would be denied that right to register their children’s deaths due to outdated legislation that states that, where deaths require an inquest or an inquiry, death registration is to be done solely by the registrar. All that those devoted parents wanted was to be part of the final official act for their precious children, but they were denied that.

After meeting the Minister, they were given assurances that he would look urgently at whether and how those changes could be made. Emma Lewell-Buck said:

“With each change of Minister”— of course, that has been a feature of some ministries in this Government—

“the promises continued, yet nothing has changed”.—[Official Report, Commons, 4/12/23; col. 122.]

In February 2023, the bereaved families attended yet another meeting with Ministers, at which they felt they were treated with contempt, patronised and insulted, and that it was clear that they been misled by the Government for nearly a year, because despite it being entirely possible to change the law, the Government simply did not seem to want to do so.

In June 2033, Chloe and Liam’s parents watched, after six agonising years following their children’s death, as they were registered by a stranger. I think that is not acceptable, and that is the situation that this amendment seeks to change. I think it is not a very big change, myself, but I think it is something that the Government need to do for those families who want to be involved in the registration of the death of the victims of a major incident. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Newlove Baroness Newlove Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 9:30, 7 February 2024

My Lords, I support this amendment. The Manchester Arena terror atrocity in 2017 chilled every parent in the country. When you watch your children head off to a concert or a party, excited and happy, you are never at ease until they are safely home. I have met many victims from this concert, and I have to say that it saddens me every time I hear about it. What happened that night is every parent’s worst nightmare and our hearts go out to them. We can only imagine their grief, which is still there today, and it is a loss from which they will never recover.

All of us in this Committee will want to be sure that these parents have all the support they need—this is what the Bill is all about. It is therefore deeply upsetting to hear that, after these parents sat through what must have been a harrowing public inquiry, they were then told that the registration of their children’s deaths would be done not by them but by a local authority official. This is bureaucracy at its most cold. The treatment of bereaved families by the state will always have a profound impact on their recovery. For those parents, being able to register their children’s death was, for them, an important step in their grieving process and it should be their right, as the parents, to have that facility.

It would appear that under the Home Office’s Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953 and the Ministry of Justice’s Coroners and Justice Act 2009, it is standard practice for a registrar to register deaths involving an inquest or inquiry. I understand that, if a person dies in usual circumstances, such as due to a health condition, a close relative can personally register their death. I did that in September for my mother, so I know that it is important. However, I am told that if they die in a major incident, it falls to the registrar. I also acknowledge that not all relatives want to register the death of a loved one, as in most cases, an interim death certificate is given soon after the incident for funeral arrangements —something I know about personally as well—but I want to see families being given a choice.

Having been to see so many Ministers is an insult: not just that they have been told “Yes, yes, yes” and then something else has been done, but every time they speak to a different Minister, it drains them. That they are having to explain, as parents who have lost children in the most horrendous way, beggars belief. What I am asking the Government and the Minister—all that is being asked for in this amendment—is that they be given that choice: that an extra space be found in the toolbar for the certificate, so that when a close family member wishes to be noted on the certificate, this can be achieved, without interfering with the coroner’s findings.

I understand that, sadly, it is too late for the victims of the Manchester Arena bombing, but I feel sure it will bring some solace to them that they have achieved something for future victims and can actually say “Goodnight” to the children they have lost.

Photo of Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Justice)

My Lords, I wish briefly to add my support to this amendment. It seems to me that there is no good reason why the amendment should not be passed. We have heard from the noble Baronesses, Lady Newlove and Lady Thornton, about the emotional effect of suffering deaths of relatives in major incidents. It is quite clear that the emotional impact is severe. It is also quite clear that some alleviation, some relief, may be found in the process of registering the death. Why on earth should a relative not be able to register the death if they so choose? For that reason, I can see no reason to resist this amendment.

Photo of Lord Roborough Lord Roborough Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, Amendment 121, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, is intended to establish a regulation-making power to allow a qualified informant, typically a relative or close friend, to provide information to register a death where the death is the result of a major incident. I thank the noble Baroness for this intervention on such an important and complex issue. I also pay tribute to the Member for South Shields and the right honourable Member for Garston and Halewood for their commitment and determination in championing this cause on behalf of the families bereaved by the Manchester Arena attacks. I also extend my deepest condolences to the families who lost loved ones in that terrible incident.

The Government are committed to ensuring that bereaved people remain at the heart of the inquest process and are able fully to participate in it. Bereavement is never easy, but it is inconceivably difficult to lose a loved one in circumstances which, by definition, are unexpected and traumatic, so we fully understand the importance for bereaved families of having a role in the registration of their loved one’s death following an inquest. For them, as for all who are bereaved, this could be a vital part of the grieving process. In this regard, I agree with many of the comments from my noble friend Lady Newlove.

However, it is also our responsibility to uphold the integrity of the inquest process. While all deaths must be registered, not all deaths will be investigated by a coroner. Deaths which are subject to a coronial investigation and include an inquest cannot be registered until the inquest has concluded. That is because in such cases the inquest is where all the facts including the personal details of the deceased and the cause of death are established. The legislation requires the registrar to register the death following the receipt of a certificate from the coroner. The registrar has the sole responsibility to register all deaths.

The amendment does not disapply the registrar’s statutory duties in this regard and would exist alongside those requirements. So, while I fully understand and sympathise with the intent behind it, it is unclear what the statutory purpose of the relative’s provision of information and the status of that information would be.

In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Marks, I believe that there are a number of good reasons why we will not accept this amendment. We must be mindful that an amendment of this kind could inadvertently undermine the integrity of the inquest process, in particular where the bereaved family is not in agreement with the coroner’s conclusion at the inquest. Furthermore, the amendment is limited to those bereaved by a major incident. The distress of losing a loved one in this way is unimaginably difficult. However, I do not believe that it is right that we legislate for this now, knowing that there would be many who would not be able to utilise the new provision.

While I am sympathetic to the purpose behind the noble Baroness’s amendment, the Government cannot support it for the reasons I have given. That said, we are very aware of the sensitivities surrounding this issue and it is important that we identify the most appropriate way forward. In doing so, we must also take into account the practical implications of other legislation, such as the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill—referenced by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton—also currently before this House, which will enable implementation of remote delivery of registration processes in the near future.

For these reasons, I can confirm that—as my ministerial colleague the Minister for Prisons, Parole and Probation announced in the other place—the Government will undertake a full public consultation, as soon as practicable, on the role of the bereaved in death registration following an inquest. This will enable us to gather a wide range of views on potential ways forward. I hope that the noble Baroness will welcome my reiteration of this commitment, even if it goes no further as she has asked, and that, together with the Members who continue to champion this issue in the other place, she will work with the Government as we seek a solution to this sensitive and complex issue.

Photo of Baroness Thornton Baroness Thornton Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

I thank the noble Lord for that answer. If I understood him correctly, his key point was that there is concern that the registration process might be compromised, but he did not say how. I do not understand how that could be. There is no question that the death must be registered, and bereaved families know that that cannot happen until the inquest has been completed, even if it takes years, as it sometimes does. I do not understand how that process would be compromised under these circumstances. I would be reassured if I thought that the consultation the Government are initiating will ask that question and work out how to solve that problem.

Photo of Lord Roborough Lord Roborough Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

It might help the noble Baroness if I wrote with a fuller explanation of how it could compromise that process.

Photo of Baroness Thornton Baroness Thornton Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

That would be useful to the Committee, because then the legal eagles behind me and on other Benches could look at it and see whether it holds water. The noble Baroness, Lady Newlove—whom I thank for her support—and I are not convinced. However, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 121 withdrawn.

House resumed.

House adjourned at 9.41 pm.