Clause 27 - Functions of an independent public advocate

Victims and Prisoners Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:30 pm on 6 July 2023.

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Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Labour, Garston and Halewood 2:30, 6 July 2023

I beg to move amendment 74, in clause 27, page 20, line 27, at end insert—

“(e) an independent panel to establish the truth of what happened”

This amendment enables the Independent Public Advocate to establish a Hillsborough Independent Panel type process to get at the truth of what happened at an early stage following an incident.

Photo of Stewart Hosie Stewart Hosie Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Economy)

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 75, in clause 27, page 20, line 39, at end insert—

“(e) establishing an independent panel in consultation with victims to establish the truth of what happened”.

This amendment enables the Independent Public Advocate to establish a Hillsborough Independent Panel type process to get at the truth of what happened at an early stage following an incident.

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Labour, Garston and Halewood

Amendment 75 would insert into the clause, which sets out the functions of the advocate, a power to establish an independent panel such as the Hillsborough Independent Panel in consultation with the families affected. Amendment 74 would enable the public advocate to provide support to victims in respect of an independent panel-type process, if such a process is ongoing in respect of a major incident.

It follows from what I said about amendments 70, 72 and 73 that I think the public advocate should that I think the public advocate should have a broader range of functions and powers than the Bill currently sets out. Indeed, it allows only for liaison between families and organs of the state and signposting to support services. That is all helpful, but it is not sufficient to fully learn the lessons from the success of the Hillsborough Independent Panel and apply them when disasters strike. The only other real function for the public advocate in clause 27 is a report-writing one. We will come to that when we debate clause 29, so I will not dwell on it now.

A key lesson from the 23 years it took the Hillsborough families to get to the truth of what happened to their loved ones is that most of the usual processes following disasters failed them. The original inquests did not establish the cause of death for each of the deceased, although their basic function was to uncover the who, what, where and why. The families were prevented from finding the truth by the police cover-up and a coroner who, overwhelmed by the extent of the task—I am being kind—imposed a 3.15 pm cut-off, which led to material facts being ignored. The inquests left more questions than answers, and most of them were taken up by perpetuating the Hillsborough slurs that the police were on a campaign to spread, dealing with things such as blood alcohol levels, even though a third of the victims were children, and the slurs about fans being ticketless.

The families did not find out when and how their loved ones died until the Hillsborough Independent Panel answered those questions for them 23 years after the event. Some mums, such as Anne Williams, simply went and found out herself. She knew precisely what had happened to her son, Kevin—when, where and how he died—long before that truth was acknowledged by the findings of the second inquests. She spent the rest of her life campaigning to get a new inquest for her son. It was repeatedly denied her, despite the fact that it was clear he was alive after 3.15 pm and may well have benefited from medical intervention.

Anne Williams was unwilling to acknowledge that her son’s death had been an accident, and she never collected the death certificate that said so. She was right: he was unlawfully killed, but it took her the rest of her life to be vindicated and have the accidental death verdict overturned. She lived to see the original verdict quashed, but she did not live to see the unlawful killing verdict at the second inquests. That relates to a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley made this morning about the health consequences of these kinds of disasters on those affected by them. Anne Williams always knew that her son had been unlawfully killed.

When I first met my constituent Jenni Hicks as her MP in 1997, I was struck that she and her ex-husband, Trevor, were discussing a new bit of information that one of them had been passed about the movements of one of their daughters during her last moments. That was what the original inquests should have told them, but they did not even try to do so. As Jenni Hicks told us:

“We basically knew the truth but we could not get hold of the evidence; nobody could. It was not until the Hillsborough Independent Panel that we had that evidence, finally, and we finally—as I say, four years after HIP—had the correct inquest verdicts.”—[Official Report, Victims and Prisoners Public Bill Committee, 22 June 2023; c. 144, Q219.]

What a failure of our legal system.

For that reason, it would be an omission to legislate for a public advocate without enabling them to establish an independent panel in consultation with the families, to assist them in respect of an independent panel process, and to help if there are inquests or inquiries. As the Minister rightly said, the Bill puts transparency at the heart of proceedings occurring after disasters. Transparency for the families, freedom of information and the capacity for the public advocate to establish an independent panel are essential parts of what should be a successful reform if we get everything right.

Photo of Anna McMorrin Anna McMorrin Shadow Minister (Justice)

I rise to support absolutely what my right hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood says about the amendments. They are about getting to the truth of what happened, and ensuring there is true transparency and freedom of information. Bereaved families should see justice straightaway; they should not have to go through what many other families have tragically gone through.

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

Again, I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Garston and Halewood for tabling amendments 74 and 75, which I will address together. As she set out, the amendments would enable the IPA to establish an independent panel, akin to the Hillsborough Independent Panel, in consultation with victims. As we have said, those affected by the Hillsborough disaster had to wait far, far too long for truth. I again pay tribute to the Hillsborough Independent Panel, which played a crucial role in uncovering the truth and correcting the public narrative after so many years.

I turn to the substance of the amendments. As I mentioned previously, it is worth remembering that the Hillsborough Independent Panel was a non-statutory inquiry set up by the Home Secretary. Non-statutory inquiries are funded by public funds, so it is right that the decision to set one up remains with the Government. As I emphasised earlier, the Hillsborough Independent Panel did not have any data compelling powers. As Ken Sutton, who has been referenced previously and who led the secretariat for the Hillsborough Independent Panel, noted in our oral evidence sessions, the panel was able to access information and documentation without the need for data compelling powers. What is more, it is important to avoid any conflict between different investigatory functions. In my reading of them, the right hon. Lady’s amendments do not clarify what the role of an advocate would be in relation to the panel, how it would work in practice and, crucially, what impact it would have on the support available to victims.

I appreciate that the matter of debate between the right hon. Lady and I is whether the focus should be on support or the investigatory role, and how to draw that line, but if the IPA is primarily focused on supporting victims, signposting and building a relationship of trust with them, could they be considered to be truly impartial in an investigatory role? If they stepped away from their role as an advocate to focus on the work of the panel, would that affect the ability to support victims? I do not posit any direct answers to that, but I pose those questions, to which I suspect we will return subsequently, possibly on the Floor of the House or in discussions outwith this Committee.

I remind Members that the Hillsborough Independent Panel was established many years after the Hillsborough tragedy, which meant that it did not run the risk of undermining or prejudicing any ongoing formal legal proceedings. I note that in the helpful explanatory statement from the right hon. Lady, she states that she believes the panel should be established at an early stage following an incident. I am slightly wary of that and the possible interrelationship with other legal processes. Establishing an independent panel at an early stage—a panel that has the power to require disclosure of all relevant documents and information—could pose a threat to other investigatory processes, particularly criminal trials or other legal proceedings.

No one should suffer the same injustices as those affected by Hillsborough. Their tireless fight for the truth—and the right hon. Lady’s tireless fight for the truth on their behalf—is to be commended, but it should never need to be repeated. Victims and the wider public deserve to know the truth and to get answers to their questions. However, our concern is that the way to achieve this cannot be one that potentially puts a victim’s right to formal legal justice in jeopardy by duplicating or cutting across the work of other investigatory bodies. I recognise that there are questions about independence and the IPA’s power to get to the truth. I am happy to reflect on that further, and to reflect with the right hon. Lady on whether there are other ways that we can seek to achieve what she seeks without the potential legal jeopardy that might exist if it were done in this way.

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Labour, Garston and Halewood

I thank the Minister for his constructive approach to the amendments. I acknowledge that one of the big issues is that if an independent panel were established at an earlier stage, there might be questions about how it would interact with any inquiry, inquest or other ongoing legal proceedings. He is completely correct that by the time the Hillsborough Independent Panel was set up, it had 21 years of every possible legal proceeding imaginable—usually more than once—having taken place. I remember that in the newspaper article Andy Burnham and I put in the Liverpool Daily Post on the morning of the 20th anniversary, one of the reasons I said we should publish all the documentation was that no more legal proceedings were possible. That seemed to be correct at the time that I said it, although it did not turn out to be correct in the event. I acknowledge, though, that there is then an issue that has to be resolved—that is, how it would work if an independent panel were to be set up at an earlier stage and legal proceedings were still possible or ongoing. I acknowledge that my amendments do not deal with that; they were not intended to, but I acknowledge that it is a real public policy issue. I welcome the Minister’s offer to look at that more closely.

The advantage of having transparency at an early point is that one can torpedo cover-ups. There is significant public interest—and, over time, significant amounts of public money are saved—in managing to do so. That is desirable, and I hope we can work together in such a way that finds the best of both worlds. That is what we all want: the best of all possible worlds. If we can do that, we will be doing well. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

Photo of Stewart Hosie Stewart Hosie Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Economy)

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Clause 28 stand part.

New clause 1—Victims of major incidents: registration of death—

“(1) Notwithstanding anything in the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953 or the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, a qualified informant (within the meaning in those Acts) may register the death of a person who was a victim of a major incident.

(2) Subsection (1) applies even if an investigation is conducted under Part 1 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009.”

This new clause would enable a qualified informant such as a relative of the deceased to provide information to register the death after a major incident.

New clause 16—Functions and powers of the independent public advocate—

“(1) The advocate may provide such support to victims of a major incident as the advocate considers appropriate in relation to—

(a) the aftermath of the incident;

(b) an investigation by a public authority into the incident;

(c) an inquest under the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 into a death the incident may have caused or contributed to;

(d) an inquiry into the incident under the Inquiries Act 2005;

(e) an independent panel to establish the truth of what happened.

(2) The support provided under subsection (1) may include, for example—

(a) helping victims understand the actions of public authorities in relation to the incident, and how the views of victims may be taken into account;

(b) informing victims about other sources of support and advice, and services, ‘ that may be available in connection with the incident;

(c) communicating with public authorities on behalf of victims in relation to the incident;

(d) assisting victims to access documents or other information in relation to an investigation, inquest or inquiry referred to in subsection (1);

(e) establishing an independent panel in consultation with victims to establish the truth of what happened.

(3) The independent public advocate must report to victims or to such persons as the advocate considers represent one or more victims during any police or other authority’s investigation into the incident regarding—

(a) the progress of the investigation, and

(b) if there are no lawyers representing the families, the implications of engaging lawyers at that stage.

(4) The independent public advocate must report to Parliament—

(a) on an annual basis, summarising their work;

(b) at the conclusion of support relating to a particular event; and

(c) at any other time they identify a need so to do;

and the first such report must be laid before Parliament before the end of 2024.

(5) Following a further request to the independent public advocate by fifty percent plus one or more of the representatives of those deceased due to the event, the independent public advocate must set up a panel which must register as a data controller under the Data Protection Act 2018 and review all documentation relating to the event, the deceased and the representatives and report thereon.

(6) In establishing the panel under subsection (5), the independent public advocate must consult the representatives of those deceased due to the event about the composition of the panel.

(7) Subject to section [disclosure of information to the independent advocate’s panel], all relevant public authorities and other relevant organisations must provide documentation under subsection (5) to an independent advocate’s panel on request from the panel.

(8) An independent advocate’s panel must publish a report into its review of the documentation.”

New clause 17—Disclosure of information to the independent public advocate’s panel—

“(1) Nothing in this section detracts from the duty upon relevant public authorities to provide relevant information to an independent public advocate’s panel on request from the panel.

(2) For the purposes of this section—

“relevant information” includes all information which may reasonably be considered to be related to the cause of the event, the event, and actions taken after the event due to it;

“public authority” has the same meaning as in the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

(3) A public authority may only decline to provide information to the panel if disclosure of that information to the panel—

(a) is not possible for reasons of safeguarding national security;

(b) would, or would be likely to, prejudice the defence of the United Kingdom or of any Crown dependency or overseas territory, or the capability, effectiveness or security of the armed forces of the Crown;

(c) is prohibited by or under any enactment, or would constitute or be punishable as a contempt of court;

(4) A public authority may request that the panel provides an assurance that information provided to the panel will be secured to the same data security standard as used by that authority, and the panel may provide such assurance and use its best endeavours to maintain that standard.

(5) If information is withheld from the panel under subsection (3), the panel must be informed of the subject of the matter being withheld and the reason for that exemption.

(6) Upon receiving a notification that information is being withheld, the panel may apply to the Information Commissioner for a decision whether the public authority has assessed correctly that disclosure is not possible under subsection (3).

(7) Upon receiving an application from a panel under subsection (6), the Information Commissioner must consider the application and issue a decision notice to the panel and to the relevant public authority stating either—

(a) that the public authority has correctly assessed that the information should be withheld; or

(b) that all or some of the information should not be withheld, the steps that the public authority must take to provide the information and the period within which they must be taken.

(8) A decision notice issued by the Information Commissioner under subsection (7) may be appealed by the panel or the relevant public authority to the Tribunal.

(9) If on an appeal under subsection (8) the Tribunal considers—

(a) that the notice against which the appeal is brought is not in accordance with the law, or

(b) to the extent that the notice involved an exercise of discretion by the Commissioner, that he or she ought to have exercised his or her discretion differently,

the Tribunal shall allow the appeal or substitute such other notice as could have been served by the Commissioner; and in any other case the Tribunal shall dismiss the appeal.

(10) On such an appeal, the Tribunal—

(a) may review any finding of fact on which the notice in question was based; and

(b) shall notify the Lord Chancellor of its decision.

(11) An independent public advocate and any office or officials supporting the work of the independent public advocate are not a public authority for the purpose of the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

(12) In this section, “Tribunal” has the meaning given by section 84 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000.”

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I will speak to clauses 27 and 28, and will return to the new clauses in this grouping once they have been spoken to by the Members who tabled them. Clause 27 sets out that the support an advocate may provide spans from the immediate aftermath of the major incident through to any subsequent investigations, inquests and inquiries, including non-statutory inquiries.

Clause 27 provides an indicative and non-exhaustive list of functions that an advocate may undertake in supporting victims. Those functions include helping victims to understand the processes that follow a major incident and how they can engage with them. They also include: signposting victims to available sources of support and advice; communicating with public authorities on behalf of victims; and ensuring that victims can access the documents and information to which they are entitled. Advocates will act as a conduit between victims and public authorities so that we may know what victims actually need, rather than what we may assume they need.

In setting out the functions of the IPA, it is right not to be overly prescriptive. All incidents will be different, and the needs of victims will be diverse. That is why we have ensured that the clause provides the flexibility necessary to allow an advocate to provide any other support that they consider appropriate. There are only a few exceptions, which are set out in the clause.

Clause 27 prohibits advocates from giving any legal advice or assistance, providing financial support or providing healthcare. The purpose of the IPA is to be a supportive function; it is not intended to duplicate the work of existing bodies, nor to replace support or professional expertise that is already available elsewhere. Advocates will not be expected to be qualified lawyers or healthcare professionals, but they will be able to inform victims about accessing such support.

The IPA will work with investigative bodies to ensure that the views and needs of the victims are known and taken into account, but it will not be an investigative body. I have touched on that before, and I suspect we will return to where that balance should lie. To make it so would risk undermining or duplicating the work of existing bodies. The functions of the IPA as set out in clause 27 are consistent with the approach the Government consulted on in 2018. They provide for the IPA to effectively deliver its aims of advocating for victims with public authorities and allow it to fulfil its intent of supporting victims through the processes that follow a major incident.

Turning to who the IPA will support, clause 27 makes provision for advocates to support victims through a representative—for example, where a victim or a group of victims cannot speak English, or an injured victim is not able to engage directly. The clause prohibits the IPA from directly supporting people under the age of 18. We believe it is appropriate for advocates to work with a child’s parent or guardian, who ordinarily will be best placed to provide information and support in a manner that best suits the child. Clause 27 enables the IPA to support people under the age of 18 through a representative. That ensures that those under the age of 18 are not excluded. Once the individual in question reaches the age of 18, they can then receive the support directly.

Clause 28 amends section 47(2) of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 to allow an advocate to be an interested person in relation to an inquest into a death caused by a major incident. That will help the advocate to effectively carry out their support functions for the bereaved and to access information relating to the inquest to which they are entitled. Many people will have never had any interaction with the inquest process, and it will be unfamiliar and possibly daunting at a particularly vulnerable time. In order to help the IPA to signpost victims, to amplify their voices, and to ensure that they have access to information to which they are entitled, we believe it is important to amend the 2009 Act to allow an advocate to be an interested person. In practical terms, that will aid the IPA in helping the bereaved to get answers to their questions and to fully participate at inquests on their behalf. I commend clauses 27 and 28 to the Committee.

Photo of Anna McMorrin Anna McMorrin Shadow Minister (Justice)

I will speak to clauses 27 and 28 before moving on to new clause 1. Although the list of functions in clause 27 is welcome, I would like the Minister to assure me that the functions listed are non-exhaustive, and to ensure that the list is not designed to be applied in a rigid way.

I appreciate that clause 28 is designed to make the independent public advocate party to relevant information in relation to inquests. However, I would like the Minister to clarify that the independent public advocate will be allowed to participate properly in an inquest where the family involved want that to happen.

It is a privilege to speak to new clause 1, which was tabled by my hon. Friend Mrs Lewell-Buck. She and her staff have campaigned tirelessly on this issue, and her strong advocacy in this place for bereaved families has brought them a lot of comfort. Some of the constituents of my right hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood also tragically died in the same attack, and she has been heavily involved in the campaign, so I look forward to hearing her comments shortly.

On 22 May 2017, 22 people were murdered in the Manchester Arena terror attack. Two constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields were among them: Chloe Ann Rutherford, aged 17, and Liam Thomas Allen Curry, aged 19. Both were just teenagers. It is every parent’s worst nightmare, but after sitting through agonising hours of the public inquiry, the families were told that the registration of their precious children’s deaths would not be done by them, but by a stranger. That is what began the campaign. Chloe’s and Liam’s parents understandably feel that they have been denied this final act for their children, stripping them of a vital step in the grieving process.

Under the Births and Deaths Registration Acts 1926 and 1953, which lie with the Home Office, and the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, which lies with the Ministry of Justice, it is standard practice for a coroner to register deaths involving an inquest or inquiry. For the past year, the families have been campaigning to amend the legislation to allow grieving relatives the choice to register the death of a loved one. This issue was first raised in the main Chamber on 1 March 2022—a year and four months ago. The Government had ample time to make the relevant changes to the legislation before the death registrations for those killed in the Manchester Arena attack needed to take place, but as usual they have been too slow to react, despite the previous Justice Minister, Tom Pursglove, making promises to look

“at this issue with the utmost priority”.—[Official Report, 25 May 2022; Vol. 715, c. 396.]

Since March last year, my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields has had several meetings with many different Ministers due to the constant chaos and churn of the Government. First, it was Simon Baynes. Then it was back to the hon. Member for Corby, and now the Justice Minister, Mike Freer, is dealing with this issue. There was also a month in which my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields was faced with complete radio silence from all Ministers involved because of the constant conveyor belt of new Ministers coming in and out, with no listed responsibilities. To top it off, the main responsibility for this matter was moved from the Home Office to the Ministry of Justice and no one informed any of those involved. I am sure that the Minister agrees that this oversight is not acceptable, especially when dealing with such a tragic and sensitive case. I hope he will take a co-operative approach to new clause 1 and finally resolve the issue for the sake of the families involved.

On Wednesday 22 February 2023, both my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields and my right hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood met the Home Office Minister, Lord Murray of Blidworth, and the Justice Minister, the hon. Member for Finchley and Golders Green, alongside the bereaved families. During that meeting, however, both the Members and the victims’ families were told that no legislative change would be explored, despite the Government expressing their commitment to

“look at options to change the law in the longer term” in a letter just one month earlier. The families had waited almost a year for answers. They had travelled to Westminster at their own expense to meet Ministers, only to find the Government had changed their mind. They felt misled, patronised and let down, and they still do to this day. Ministers stated that the changes would be against public policy and would make the framework less effective. However, the changes could be narrow and targeted towards only a small set of circumstances, such as after a mass casualty event, as outlined in new clause 1.

As the inquiry has now drawn to a close with the final report complete, it is with great sadness that I can confirm those two children’s deaths were registered just last week. Their parents travelled to Manchester to be present at the death registration, but current legislation prevented them from doing it themselves. The heartbreaking reality for those families is that time simply ran out for them as they fought the Government on this minor legislative change.

A cruel and unfair two-tier system for death registration is in place. If a child dies in a common circumstance, such as due to a health condition, their parent can personally register their death. However, if they die in a major incident, their parents are denied that last official act. We understand that not all relatives would 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, but we advocate giving families the choice.

The Government stated in letters to my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields that it may be too distressing for relatives to register the deaths, but in normal circumstances a relative has no choice but to personally register the death. Now that the deaths of Chloe and Liam are officially registered, the families must request a copy of the death certificates from the registry office in Manchester. If the Government were genuinely concerned about causing distress to families, that step would not be in place either.

In the latest correspondence from the Government to the hon. Member on this matter in March, which I have a copy of here, Lord Murray set out what happens when the coroner records the death after an inquest has taken place. He said,

“This ensures that the inquest and registration details fully align, while also removing exposure to any risk of outside interference or alteration.”

That is heartless and an insult to those families who have lost loved ones. Bereaved families have no intention or wish to alter the findings of the inquest and the coroner. They simply wish to state their personal details on their child’s death certificate as a final step in their grief and to officially register them as dead. I am sure the Minister will understand that and what it means for parents to record the deaths of their loved ones, and I hope he will agree to the new clause. The Government prolonged Chloe’s and Liam’s parents’ grief; all those parents want is for their children’s legacy to be that no other family goes through what they did ever again.

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Labour, Garston and Halewood

I wish to say something about new clauses 16 and 17, but also new clause 1 because I have had an involvement in this matter. I have constituents who lost their 15-year-old daughter, Megan Hurley, in the Manchester Arena bombing. They were similarly upset to discover they would not be allowed to register the death of their daughter. As Megan’s mum said to me, “We were able to register her birth. This is the last thing we can do for her, but we’re not allowed.”

These parents caught up in the disaster have had to go through six years of this process. It has been an improved process because the inquest and the public inquiry went hand in hand and were led by the same judge—instead of being consecutive and thus doubling the length of time these things take and forcing families to listen to it all twice, they have happened in tandem—but although the overall timescale has been shortened, it has still been years. It simply adds to the feeling of powerlessness, and of something being done to them, that the Hurley family have been unable even to register the death of their daughter because they are barred from doing so by statute.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Shields and I had meetings with Ministers, and things were looking quite good. The first Minister we saw told us that they were very sympathetic and that it would not even take primary legislation, because a piece of secondary legislation could be used to make the relevant change. They showed every willingness to do so from a policy point of view. That was very encouraging. The Hurleys came down and had a meeting with Ministers, and left feeling encouraged. They were rather hoping that this could be done in advance of the end of the proceedings of the inquiry and the inquest, so that they could have registered the death of their daughter. That is what we were hoping to achieve. If only a statutory instrument were required, that would certainly have been a possibility.

However, there was then a certain amount of chaos in the Government. I will not go through all that, but the end result was that multiple Ministers came and went, some even in the Departments that were making decisions. The hon. Member for Finchley and Golders Green appeared to have been advised when he was doing the job that it would require primary legislation, so that was a backward step. Then my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields and her constituents, and my constituents and I, had a meeting with the hon. Member for Finchley and Golders Green and Lord Murray of Blidworth. We were basically told that it was against public policy, there would be no consideration of any change—and there was the door. I am being polite about what we were effectively told. I have never been in a meeting with Ministers as awful as that one. At a time when the inquiry was drawing to a close, the way those grieving parents who had all lost children in the Manchester Arena bombing, were treated, by that particular Minister was really callous. I was shocked, and it was quite hard for me to provide some comfort to my constituents after that.

I hope that today’s Minister can be a bit more positive and forthcoming about ensuring that, at least as a legacy of that sorry tale, my constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields will be able to comfort themselves with the thought that it will not happen to any other families in future. I hope that this simple change will be made so that families who have lost loved ones in public disasters, whose cause of death is therefore certified by the coroner, will have a choice to register the death, in a way that can assure us, in public policy terms, that there has been no interference. I hope that the Minister can be constructive about that.

New clauses 16 and 17 are intended to ensure that the public advocate has the capacity to help families if an independent panel has been established in addition to providing support during investigations, inquests and inquiries. The advocate can also establish a panel in consultation with victims. I have argued in some detail in our debates on earlier amendments that there should be that power and function, and the new clauses would turn the Bill more in that direction. I know that the Minister will not accept them today, but such arrangements would provide the additional important and desirable benefit of discouraging cover-ups.

Which public authority would embark on arranging a Hillsborough-style cover-up and false narrative in the wake of a disaster, at no doubt extensive effort, resulting in the significant paper trail necessary to fuel and organise such a thing? Who would do that, if they thought for a minute that those documents might be made transparent to the public sooner rather than later? My new clauses would keep the behaviour of public authorities in the aftermath of disasters on the straight and narrow from an early stage. They would stop the aftermath going wrong, usually at great expense, with the public paying for those caught up in such disasters.

I have often thought that the best way to prevent the Hillsborough families’ enduring agony over 34 years would have been to stop things going wrong in the first place. That is what this Bill should be about. That is what new clauses 16 and 17 are about: transparency and a search for the truth on behalf of families at an earlier stage than has happened, and a duty of candour and equality of arms in legal proceedings—we will come on to that later—under the Hillsborough law. Those would all help. Proper functions and powers, as set out in the new clauses, are essential to making that happen.

I hope that the Government will think about these issues, perhaps over the summer, with a little bit of additional help from me and others, and that we might be able to come back on Report and in the remaining stages with measures that strengthen the Bill.

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice 3:00, 6 July 2023

I thank the hon. Member for Cardiff North and the right hon. Member for Garston and Halewood for tabling their new clauses.

New clause 1 seeks to provide families bereaved by a major incident with a role in registering the death of their loved one. I pay tribute to the work of the hon. Member for South Shields, with whom I have spoken on a number of occasions. She is passionate in her advocacy on behalf of her constituents and for change in this area.

This is an important and sensitive but none the less complex issue. I pay tribute to the commitment of the families bereaved by the Manchester Arena attack in their campaign to secure a role for bereaved families in the registration of their loved one’s death following an inquest. I am very much aware that any action would come too late for them, as their children’s deaths have now been registered, following the conclusion of the inquiry and inquests.

The Government are committed to ensuring that bereaved people remain at the heart of the inquest process and are able to fully participate in it. It is also important that we uphold the integrity of that process. A death that is reported to the coroner cannot be registered until any inquest has been completed. That is where all the facts, including the personal details of the deceased, are established. The legislation requires the coroner to provide that information directly to the registrar. All death registrations, whoever reports them, are formally completed by the registrar.

May I gently correct one point made by the hon. Member for Cardiff North, who asked why it was only the victims of major incidents who are in this position? It is not: it is anyone whose death is considered by a coroner or an inquest. Coroners and inquests do not just look at these issues; they look at unexplained deaths in a number of other circumstances. We have to be a little bit careful about that.

The reason I mention that point is that the hon. Member made a point about a two-tier approach. We have to be conscious that there would potentially still be a different approach, depending on whether someone was the victim of a major incident, if this approach were adopted, or whether it was another unexplained death, where the coroner would still be the person reporting that to the registrar. I make that point for context, not necessarily with prejudice to what I am about to say.

The Government understand the seriousness of this matter. The Home Office has set out that it is committed to seeing what can be done via non-legislative means. The General Register Office has also offered the families bereaved by the Manchester Arena attack the option of being present at the registration of their loved one’s death. I appreciate that that does not go as far as they would wish and does not resolve the fundamental concerns, or go as far as the new clause would.

My concern, however, is that the new clause would not achieve its objective, because although it disapplies part of the complex framework provided for by the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 and the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953, it does not provide for an alternative new legal mechanism to achieve that objective—it removes the challenge but does not provide a new mechanism. It would also assign to a qualified informant the actual duty of registration itself. That goes well beyond the role of a coroner in an inquest death or of a qualified informant in a non-inquest death. Regardless of the context, the statutory responsibility for registration is, and must remain, the registrar’s alone. We are debating who it is that should give the registrar the information to complete the legal process.

The new clause is explicitly limited to those bereaved by a major incident. The trauma of losing a loved one in that way is unimaginable, but thankfully only a tiny proportion of inquest deaths occur in such circumstances. We would need to reflect carefully on the fact that the change that the new clause seeks to introduce would be unavailable to the vast majority of families whose loved one’s death is subject to an inquest. That is not to gainsay what the hon. Member for Cardiff North is trying to do, but it is important to highlight that there would still be a difference in approach.

Photo of Anna McMorrin Anna McMorrin Shadow Minister (Justice)

I understand the points that the Minister is making about the legal wording, but this is such a deeply rooted issue. He refers to a small number of families, but the impact goes far wider. I wonder whether he could seek to find a form of legal language that would allow the change to take place, or whether we could work together on the new clause to ensure that it takes place, so that the families can register the deaths.

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I am grateful to the hon. Lady; I was about to come to this point. A number of issues would need to be considered here, including whether a dual approach would be created for those bereaved whose circumstances are considered by an inquest such that a major incident qualifies for one route and others do not. We would need to reflect on that.

For the reasons that I have set out—drafting and the other factors that I have highlighted—the Government cannot support the new clause, but I am sympathetic to its underlying intent and the issues behind it. I recognise that the issue crosses over Ministry of Justice and Home Office ministerial responsibilities, so I commit to reconsidering, with ministerial colleagues across Government, whether there is more that can be done—and if so, how—with a view to seeing whether progress can be made prior to Report.

I do not want to raise expectations beyond saying that I will reconsider the position on this matter. As the right hon. Member for Garston and Halewood said, we have time over the summer to do so and to reflect on the issues with the new clause that I have highlighted. I commit to working with her and the hon. Member for South Shields and having another look at this.

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Garston and Halewood for tabling new clause 16, which relates to the functions and powers of the independent public advocate. In our view, clause 27 already covers the majority of new clause 16(1) and (2). Subsection (1)(e) refers to the power to establish

“an independent panel to establish the truth of what happened.”

Subsection (5) would require the panel to then register as a data controller.

The new clause, along with many of the amendments that we have debated today, whose intent I entirely understand, would move the focus of the IPA away from a support function and towards more of an investigatory function. In seeking to do that, the right hon. Lady has been dextrous in the drafting of her amendments. As I have set out, it is not something that the Government will support, because our focus is more on the support function, but I suspect that we will return to the matter. I also restate that the Hillsborough Independent Panel, which is what the new clause’s independent panel is modelled on, did not have data-compelling powers.

Subsection (6) stipulates that the families must be involved in deciding the composition of the independent panel. Subsection (7) would require all relevant public authorities and other relevant organisations to provide documentation to the independent panel. Subsection (8) would require advocates to publish a report on their review of the documentation.

Those measures do not clarify the role of the advocate in relation to the panel. If they build a close relationship with the families, would they be considered impartial enough to sit on or even lead an independent panel? I am not prejudging the answer to that question, but I pose it because it highlights some of the challenges around clarifying how this would work. For example, are there any parameters on when an advocate can publish a report? What if the material or timing would potentially prejudice an ongoing investigation or trial? Those are all matters that would require careful consideration to avoid unintended consequences.

On subsection (3), the policy intention is already for advocates to keep victims informed about any investigations, but it is only right that this is done in a manner and at a point that will not prejudice any such investigation.

On subsection (4), the Bill already includes provision on the IPA’s reporting function and duties in clause 29. I note that subsection (4) is duplicated in the right hon. Lady’s amendment 78 to clause 29, so it is perhaps more appropriate if I address it, along with the IPA’s reporting functions as a whole, when we discuss that clause.

In summary, many of the measures in new clause 16 are, in our view, already covered by the Bill. The subsections that refer to an independent panel and data controller powers change the purpose of the IPA. That is a matter for debate between both sides of this Committee, although I suspect it will be between the right hon. Lady and me in the first instance.

I turn to new clause 17. I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for tabling the new clause, which sets out the reasons why a public authority may decline to share information with an independent panel set up by the IPA, and the processes that the panel could then follow. It is, obviously, dependent on the IPA being a data controller and having the ability to set up its own independent panel akin to the Hillsborough Independent Panel. I reiterate my point about how that would fundamentally change the purpose of the IPA, as proposed in the Bill and consulted on in 2018.

Subsection (3) details the reasons why a public authority may decline to share information with an independent panel set up by the IPA; subsections (5) to (10) detail the processes that the IPA could follow. The IPA will be working in a system that already has other investigatory bodies, which will be carrying out their own investigations. We risk being left in a situation in which multiple bodies could be requesting information from the same public authority at the same time, complicating the process.

Subsection (4) states that a public authority

“may request…an assurance that information provided…will be secured to the same data security standard” that it itself implements. I note that that cannot be guaranteed. If sensitive information is being shared with the panel, it is important that it is securely held. I appreciate the right hon. Lady’s aim to ensure transparency and ensure that the truth is uncovered. I commit, as I have done previously, to considering what more the IPA can do to call for an inquiry—either a non-statutory inquiry like the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s or a statutory inquiry—and what more the IPA can do to ensure that when an inquiry is set up, it is fit for purpose.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 27 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 28 ordered to stand part of the Bill.