Clause 3

– in a Public Bill Committee at 11:30 am on 10th February 2009.

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Direction for other coroner to conduct investigation

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Shadow Minister (Justice)

Clause 3 gives the chief coroner the power to direct another senior coroner to conduct investigations. I would be grateful if the Minister will give us examples of where this might be needed. Certainly, one can think of appalling accidents and disasters such as Hillsborough or Hungerford, where there was a tragic mass shooting in 1988. In those cases, the chief coroner would want to make sure that the inquests were moved to different areas—perhaps out of that particular county. Will the Minister give examples where a chief coroner might use the powers? Also, who will bear the cost of transfers? The chief coroner might direct an inquest which takes place away from the area in which a disaster happened; there would be substantial cost. Would the transferring coronial area pay, or would that fall to the area to which the inquest was transferred? The implications are significant, because we might be talking about an inquest lasting for many weeks and costing a large amount of money.

Photo of Jennifer Willott Jennifer Willott Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

Clause 3 gives chief coroners the power to co-ordinate work in different coronial areas. I would like to highlight the fact that, although this is a welcome provision—as was clause 2—it is only needed because the Government have dropped the proposal to have a centrally co-ordinated national coronial service. I would be grateful if the Minister were to respond to a number of concerns about that element.

This clause allows for a sharing of burdens and workload across coronial areas, if there is an issue with workload, backlog and so on. There have clearly been significant problems in the past in certain areas—in some areas, there is still a significant problem. I asked a parliamentary question in December 2006—I do not have more up-to-date figures—when some outstanding cases had been awaiting an inquest for more than five years, and some had been waiting for 10 years. That causes severe stress and distress for the victims’ families.

Although the provisions in this clause would make a difference, I am disappointed that the Government have not decided to go ahead with a single, national coroners service. A properly co-ordinated service would enable fair sharing of the burden of work, so backlogs would arise less frequently. It would also be able to tackle the significant issue of funding for coroners’ areas—we heard evidence on that in the sittings that we held last week. It is clear that funding and the provision of resources other than funding—space, offices and services for witnesses attending an inquest—are patchy across the country. We heard evidence from the coroner from Liverpool, who clearly has palatial suites and is very happy with his lot in life. However, I have visited the Cardiff coroner’s offices in the court in my constituency, which is, I would say, probably closer to the other end of the scale, given that it is located in a city centre and has a significant workload.

The coroner in Cardiff is a paired operation between the Vale of Glamorgan and Cardiff county council. Most deaths occur in Cardiff, and the Vale of Glamorgan  is reluctant to provide a lot of resources from which its residents will not benefit. The provision in Cardiff is in the central police station. The way in which you are greeted and how welcome you are made to feel depends on the desk sergeant. There are no toilet facilities for the jurors, no proper waiting area for the witnesses, very cramped offices for the coroners and so on. The provision would tackle some of the backlog issues, but it will do nothing to tackle that, because the power for the chief coroner to do so is not provided in this clause.

Regarding the backlog that clause 3 would tackle, serious issues are built into the system by the funding being provided on a local basis by local authorities. For example, the coroner in Cardiff is employed on a part-time basis, despite the fact that she actually works full time off her own bat—she is only paid to work part time. That is the only way that she has been able to manage the backlog. Clearly, the provisions in clause 3 would tackle that in some way, but I would be grateful if the Minister were to answer why the Government decided not to implement a fully national coroners service. Some of the fundamental problems that are built into the current system are not being tackled by this Bill and will therefore continue.

Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice

First, let me give some examples of when or why the chief coroner may direct that an inquest be held in a different area. One will be to deal with localised backlogs. I was a bit worried about what the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central was saying. I hope that she is not trying to give the impression that backlogs are springing up all over the country, because I do not believe that that is the case. However, backlogs and unexpected demand can occur—the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk gave the example of a multiple shooting. That might create a backlog and could be a case where a chief coroner directs that investigations be held in another area.

Another example is when the inquests took place into the deaths in the London bombings. They were taken by one coroner, which means that the coroner’s other work may have to be sent elsewhere. The main reason for that is to make sure that backlogs do not occur and that bereaved families get prompt investigations. A further example is where several deaths occur but the families live in different areas. In this case, the chief coroner may decide to allocate the inquest to a particular place that is most convenient for the families involved.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney Labour, Stafford

A moment ago, we heard about resources and backlogs. Should we not assert as a matter of principle that in the main the inquest should be in the place where the body is and where the death has occurred? That is the position in the Bill, and it has been the case in the history of the coronial service for ever. It should never simply happen for administrative convenience. In relation to clause 2, the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk asked about families that say, “We think the inquest should be here, where we and a lot of the witnesses are, rather than there, where the death occurred.” Is that a case where the chief coroner might be asked to step in, if the senior coroner did not agree to the family’s request?

Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice

That is a very good example of exactly the role that the chief coroner would have under clause 3, and given that direction—

Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Conservative, Daventry

Will the Minister confirm to the Committee that any one of these decisions on an instruction would be judicially reviewable, if somebody felt that that were appropriate?

Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice

Yes, such decisions would be judicially reviewable. The chief coroner will have the power to make those directions, irrespective of the views of the receiving coroner. That brings me to the issue of costs. I do not wish to repeat what I said earlier—basically, my position is the same as stated in a previous debate.

I want to turn to what the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central said about the relationship between different local authorities. I know we will come to this in greater detail under clause 23, when we will specifically discuss resources. I suggest to the hon. Lady that, as Cardiff city council is run by the Liberal Democrats, she might want to have a word about properly funding the coroners’ service in that area. I am sorry to bring party politics into it, but I could not help it.

Photo of Jeremy Wright Jeremy Wright Opposition Whip (Commons)

May I ask the Minister again about cost? I appreciate that she has told us that the position is the same as she outlined in relation to clause 2. However, I hope that she accepts that there is one important difference. Under clause 2, where a case is transferred from coroner A to coroner B, coroner B has to agree to carry out that inquest, and they may decide not to do so on the basis of inadequate resources. Under clause 3, as I read it, there is no opportunity for the receiving coroner, if I may put it that way, to refuse a request or instruction from the chief coroner. That is surely a difference in relation to resources. Will the Minister help us on the consequences for a coroner who believes that they have inadequate resources but who has been instructed by the chief coroner to take on an additional inquest?

Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice 11:45 am, 10th February 2009

The hon. Gentleman is right in his description of the difference between clauses 2 and 3. Regulations will be made later in relation to costs, which will be consulted on. I will say two further things. First, the transferring area will generally pay. Secondly, if a receiving coroner felt that they did not have the proper resources, one hopes that a reasonable chief coroner would not try to send investigations to an area that has its own problems with backlogs or whatever. The reasonable test would have to come into effect, and I hope that in that situation the chief coroner would not direct to an area where it would not be appropriate in those circumstances.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 3 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.