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New Clause 5 - Coroner's courts

Courts Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:45 am on 10th July 2003.

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'The Lord Chancellor must, within 12 months of the coming into force of section 1, prepare and lay before both Houses of Parliament a report on the procedures, practice and systems for the carrying on of the business of Coroner's courts and make recommendations as to the desirability of extending his general duty under section 1 to Coroner's courts.'.—[Mr. Heath.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 11:00 am, 10th July 2003

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The new clause is a fairly artificial construct, as I suspect Committee members will realise as soon as they read it. However, I hope that it will give the Minister the opportunity to share a little more of his thinking on coroner's courts.

The fundamental and comprehensive review of coroner's courts system and death certification was well carried out. It came up with a series of

recommendations, with which I largely agree. It was overdue; we should have looked at coroner's courts some time ago. Those who use those courts identify serious problems with the way in which they work. That is not to impugn the work of individual coroners. It is simply that the system has become a little archaic and outdated. Certainly, it has not had the investment that it needs to do its job properly. Some aspects of its procedure do not meet the requirements of modern society.

One of the firm conclusions of the review is that responsibility for the coroner's courts should be moved to what was the Lord Chancellor's Department and is now the Department for Constitutional Affairs. Will the Minister's Department immediately have responsibility for carrying forward the work of the consultation paper, or will that responsibility remain with the Home Office for the time being? Certainly, at some stage, the Department will be responsible for administering the coroner's courts system, together with the changes that emerge from the consultation. Part of that process is the consequences of the Bill and the unification of the court system. That was not properly considered in the review, because the Department was not then in place.

It is argued that there are clear advantages to ensuring that the coroner's court is as comprehensive as, we hope, the other courts that come under the scope of the Bill. There are clear advantages to shared facilities, premises and, to an extent, staff, although coroner's courts' work is a very different field of work. A joint administration would have certain economic and systemic advantages in ensuring a unity of approach and better communication between coroner's courts and the High Court, county courts and local courts.

All that I am asking the Minister to do is agree to consider the matter in the context of the review, although perhaps the review has not reached his desk yet. [Interruption.] He has a copy, but that does not necessarily mean that he has studied it with all the care and attention that one would expect from a Minister of the Crown. I am sure that that is on his to-do list. I am suggesting that there is at least the possibility of further unification, with benefits for all concerned. Will he please consider that? Perhaps he can give us at least some idea of whether anything is likely to emerge from the review in terms of the results of consultation and further proposals in concrete terms for dealing with the coroner's court? Any changes would be widely welcomed across the country when we have new, more effective and efficient arrangements.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

I do not want to repeat what the hon. Gentleman has said; I agree with it. However, I wish to make one point, and I would be grateful if the Minister took account of it. He may not be aware that, for a year or so, I have been heavily involved in trying to introduce new measures against drug drivers, as opposed to drunk drivers. I was pleased that, last week, the Government accepted a group of amendments, based on the ten-minute Bill that I introduced almost a year ago, to the Railways and

Transport Safety Bill in another place, where my noble Friend Lord Dixon-Smith has been pursuing the matter. Late last Thursday, the Government accepted the substance of my Bill to provide fitness impairment tests at the roadside, so I did not need to move that it be read a Second time on Friday.

The second part of my original Bill sought to provide extra facilities for coroners to enable them to collect data on the number of deaths resulting from road accidents caused or contributed to by people under the influence of drugs. Having written to every coroner in the UK, I now know that they do not have the resources or the time to collect that data. The part of my Bill that the Government have not taken on board concerns the need to provide coroners with those facilities.

The Transport and Road Research Laboratory at Crowthorne stated in evidence, which my researchers and I were able to obtain, that it needs the statistics, so that it can report the extent of the problem to the Government. Only coroners and police forces can provide much of that information. Police forces are not relevant to the new clause, but I simply ask the Minister whether he will, when looking at the voluminous report and when considering the matters that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome raised, also look into the fact that the coroners want to provide the information, but do not have the resources or time to do so. If they were able to provide the data, the Government would have a better handle on the scale of the problem, which anecdotal evidence suggests and senior police traffic officers believe is worsening.

The Government have gone half way in giving police forces the powers I want them to have to carry out roadside fitness impairment tests, but the coroners need to have the necessary facilities. I should be grateful if the Minister took that on board as part of the further and continuing review, as well the important matters raised by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, with which I agree.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

I thank the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome for tabling the new clause. I shall explain why it should not be accepted, but it gives me the opportunity to put on the record our appreciation and thanks for the necessary work undertaken by the coroners' service in certifying and investigating deaths in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Many of the comments made by hon. Members reflect the importance of their work.

The new clause, as the hon. Gentleman suggested, would place a duty on the Lord Chancellor to investigate the practices and procedures of the coroners' service and make recommendations on the desirability of extending the general duty to include coroner's courts. That must take place within one year of the general duty coming into force.

The Luce report, chaired by Tom Luce, is a weighty tome with 122 recommendations. It has been published, but we are still working on our response. On 4 June, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East, published a wide-

ranging review of coroners and how they work. That report calls for fundamental changes to improve efficiency and one of the key recommendations is that, when the new national jurisdiction is introduced, the general responsibility for supporting and financing the coroners' service within central Government should be transferred to the Department for Constitutional Affairs. As my hon. Friend said, when we have considered its recommendations, we will publish a response to the report and the separate report by Dame Janet Smith, who chaired the Shipman inquiry, which is due later in the summer. As we discovered earlier in the Bill, the hon. Gentleman likes to pre-empt Government decisions, but it would not be appropriate to pre-empt the Government's wider response to the Luce report.

Furthermore, the new clause raises the possibility of going further than the report suggests. It is one thing to say that the coroners' service should be the responsibility of the Department for Constitutional Affairs, but it is another to say that the running of a coroner's court should fall under the general duty in clause 1, which is concerned with the ordinary courts—magistrates, county and Crown courts, the High Court and the Court of Appeal—and ordinary criminal and civil proceedings. That general duty does not cover those tribunals for which the Lord Chancellor is responsible. Like tribunals, coroner's courts do not always fall naturally within the ordinary courts system, so they may not fall naturally in the Bill.

Although I cannot give a definitive answer on the Government's proposals for the coroner's courts at this stage, I do not believe that those should automatically fall under the unified administration without further consideration. I take the hon. Gentleman's point about the ease of administration and the potential efficiency gains. Under unified administration, accommodation matters such as sharing courtrooms becomes easier. There may be scope for that to be considered further in respect of the coroners' service.

I am glad that the Government have been able to take up many of the suggestions made by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath. I am not familiar with some of the particular problems of data collection, although I am conscious that if any policy is ever to improve, a strong database is a vital first foundation. I will consider whether it is appropriate for us to include what he said in our wider approach.

With those comments, I hope that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome will withdraw the motion.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I thank the Minister for his response. I did not anticipate that he would accept the new clause as it is written, but its discussion provided a good opportunity to hear a little more about the Government's thinking.

The Minister accused me of trying to pre-empt policy. My party has often pioneered policy that is adopted by others. I make no apologies for being progressive and radical in my views and I hope that I can persuade the Minister to be less timid in his. There seem to be pre-ordained roles in this Parliament.

Having said that, the Government are working in the right direction.

It is not simply a matter of housekeeping. Real benefits are to be gained from better connections between the coroner's courts and the criminal justice system. There is little read-over between the cause of death and subsequent proceedings and there is not a good enough level of communication between the two systems. We must, however, wait until the Government have considered the matter.

I should welcome the shift in responsibility that is envisaged in the report, which would make it clear which Department is dealing with things and which will take forward the proposals. It is not entirely satisfactory that the proposals should currently be in a kind of cyberspace between Departments. The new Department is best placed to think through the consequences of the proposals and to make others in due course. An elementary shift in responsibility would be helpful in that process, rather than a hindrance. It is odd for a predecessor Department to make all the plans for the coroner's courts and then say, ''By the way, we are moving this to another Department to implement it.'' That is not an adequate machinery of government with which to provide seamless decision making.

I am grateful to the Minister for considering the new clause. I hope that we shall soon hear more about that from him and others. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.