Clause 23

Coroners and Justice Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 7:00 pm on 24th February 2009.

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Provision of staff and accommodation

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

I beg to move amendment 117, in clause 23, page 13, line 36, at end insert—

‘(1A) In making provision under subsection (1), the authority must ensure that the minimum standards laid down from time to time by the Chief Coroner are fulfilled.’.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: amendment 261, in clause 23, page 14, line 4, leave out ‘(b) and (c)’.

Amendment 92, in clause 23, page 14, line 6, at end insert—

‘(4A) A senior coroner may report to the Lord Chancellor any failing by a relevant authority to discharge its duties under subsection (1).

(4B) The Lord Chancellor may from time to time publish guidance about the procedure for resolving any matter of dispute relating to a report made to him pursuant to subsection (4A).

(4C) The Lord Chancellor may give a direction requiring the senior coroner, and the relevant authority to take action within a period specified in the direction to resolve any matter of dispute relating to a report made to him pursuant to subsection (4A).’.

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

This is on similar lines to the previous group, but from the opposite perspective, requiring the local authority to take into account the minimum standards when providing funding.

My concern is that the wording of the clause, as it stands, is vague—it refers to the local authority having to “take into account” the staff that are needed and adequate accommodation. Clearly that is currently being interpreted extremely widely, as very varied staffing levels and accommodation are provided. I want to clarify that and to get the Minister’s response to the duties that will be held by local authorities to ensure that the provision is adequate, as it does not seem to be at the moment. She has already commented on many of the issues when we discussed the previous group of amendments.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney Labour, Stafford

The clause imposes a statutory duty on a local authority to provide adequate resources for the local coroner service, but what if a local authority does not provide adequate resources and is in breach of its duty? The Bill is silent. I asked the Minister that question when she gave evidence on the first day, and she thought that the ability of the chief coroner to make an investigation and recommendations, perhaps allied to the coroner service and the Government of the day putting that authority in a bad light to the public, might be sufficient pressure. However, the Government of the day might regret not having the ability to intervene and sort out such a problem, should the time arise. My amendment 92 proposes one way in which a Government might want to intervene to make a direction to solve the problem. I am open to the Minister saying that that is not the right solution, but there should be a solution.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Labour, Cardiff South and Penarth

I wonder whether I can make an allied point, which is more of a clause stand part point, but might be helpful for the Minister to reply to at the same time. I am looking for clarity about who is responsible for providing the coroner service in future. Something like 90 per cent. of coroners officers are currently employed by police authorities rather than local authorities. It is intended that coroners officers will continue to be employed by either police or local authorities, with the transfer of the two subject to local agreement, as is now the case.

The problem is that, reading the Bill as it stands, the wording appears to make it clear that local authorities are compelled to provide the service, if the police do not, but I am not absolutely clear that police authorities are obligated to carry on providing the service, if they do so at the moment. My question is, if the Bill goes through in its present form, police authorities that currently employ coroner officers must continue to do so unless a transfer to local authorities is agreed mutually. If that is not absolutely clear, will the Minister look at it again and seek to make it explicit and clear on Report, so that there is no doubt?

The police can be wonderful, but they can also change their arrangements quite quickly without looking at the impact on other authorities, which we have seen on a number of occasions. The hon. Member for Cardiff, Central will be aware of discussions about changes to some arrangements in south Wales at the moment, which the police have announced without, as far as one can see, discussing the matter with anyone. That example does not involve coroners, but the point is the same. If there are to be changes in the current arrangements, they ought to involve adequate notice and agreement between the police authority and the local authority.

I ask the Minister to consider removing any ambiguity on Report to clarify the Government’s intentions now. The police service already has heavy involvement in the matter of death investigation, which is going to continue, whereas it is not really a part of the daily business of the local authority. I would be happy to accept a short speech from her saying, “My right hon. Friend is right. The police authority will not be able to opt out unilaterally from providing the coroner service.”

Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice 7:15 pm, 24th February 2009

I am afraid that I cannot commend the amendments to the Committee, because I do not  think that it would be appropriate to give the Lord Chancellor and the chief coroner direct powers over local and police authority funding decisions. However, the Bill will confer on the chief coroner significant influence over such matters. We believe that his or her powers of persuasion and negotiation, together with the opportunity to name and shame recalcitrant local authorities, are probably a more appropriate and proportionate response to the issue addressed by the amendments. I am repeating what I said on the matter to my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford.

We know, as AndrÃ(c) Rebello made clear in his evidence, that some coroners are very well resourced. It is also important to acknowledge that the reforms of the death certification system are expected to lead to a significant reduction in the number of deaths referred to the coroner. That in itself should lead to significant savings, which can be reinvested to deliver an improved service for bereaved families.

The chief coroner’s powers as a result of the Bill go beyond any that coroners currently have when negotiating with their local authorities. In addition, the new inspection regime will examine and comment on the use of resources. A new complaints system will give a good indicator of the views of bereaved families and highlight trends pointing to resource deficiencies. The package satisfies me that the new arrangements will be sufficient to deliver proper resources to coroners. If I am wrong, we can return to the matter, but for now, I contend that the case for the amendment has not been made, and I ask that it is withdrawn.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth asked about police authorities. He is right that there must be an agreement between the local authority and the police authority before officers are withdrawn. If we need to strengthen that requirement and make it clearer in the Bill, I will certainly consider it.

Amendment 261 would compel a local authority to take into account the coroner’s view when providing not only accommodation but staff. Again, I do not believe that that is necessary. The Bill requires a proper provision of resources and provides a role for the chief coroner in that. Clause 23 already places a statutory duty on local authorities, in partnership with police authorities where relevant, to secure the provision of whatever officers and other staff the coroner for that area needs to carry out their function. It is therefore implicit that the coroner will be consulted on their need for coroner’s officers and other support staff. I therefore ask the hon. Lady to withdraw her amendment.

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

I thank the Minister for putting on record the fact that coroners should be consulted on staffing levels. With that, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 23 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 24 ordered to stand part of the Bill.