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Inquiries into Fatal Accidents and Sudden Deaths etc (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 24th September 2015.

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Photo of Elaine Murray Elaine Murray Labour

Indeed—and I think that there was a recent case of that type. However, an example does not provide a definition. In that case, the public interest is easier to understand, but there are other cases in which what the public interest is is less easy to understand. As Patricia Ferguson said, preventing fatalities is surely in the public interest—that is about learning the lessons of fatal accidents.

As has been mentioned, the Inquiries into Fatal Accidents and Sudden Deaths etc (Scotland) Bill is not the only bill that has been introduced to address Lord Cullen’s recommendations. Patricia Ferguson told us that she deliberately intended some of the proposals in her bill to be more radical than some of Lord Cullen’s recommendations. The Justice Committee recommended that the general principles of both bills be supported. Because of the time constraints that exist as we come to the end of a parliamentary session and the priority that is quite rightly given to Government bills—that has always been the case—Labour members of the committee were prepared to agree that the Government’s bill was the best vehicle to progress modernisation of the legislation on the fatal accident inquiry process in the few months of the session that we have left.

As we have heard, Patricia Ferguson has accepted that recommendation and withdrawn her bill with immediate effect. I would like to pay tribute to her for the work that she did on her bill. It must have been extremely difficult for her to decide to withdraw the bill after all the hard work that she and her staff and Patrick McGuire of Thompsons Solicitors had put into drafting and explaining it, especially given her experience with her constituents. She must have had a strong emotional desire to try to sort things out after going through that experience. I pay tribute to her for that. I am not quite sure what her decision means for Tuesday’s debate—I would have thought that it can no longer proceed, now that there is no bill to debate. I suppose that that will be a problem for the business managers on the Parliamentary Bureau to resolve.

I assure Patricia Ferguson that members of the committee will make their best efforts to fulfil her expectation that aspects of her bill will be progressed in the Government’s bill. I think that that commitment would probably be made across the chamber, although there is not uniform agreement on the areas in which amendments should be made to the Government’s bill. I look forward to the Government working with Patricia Ferguson to make the necessary amendments.

Many members, including Johann Lamont, Christian Allard and Mike MacKenzie, have spoken about the importance of the families of the deceased. We all agree that they must be central to the FAI process. Although the purpose of an FAI is to determine what lessons can be learned in the public interest, families must be kept informed about decisions, and decisions have to be made timeously. We must see an end to people waiting years just to be told that a fatal accident inquiry is not to be held. As Johann Lamont said, families have a desire for justice and their day in court; they seek explanations, not the sort of recompense that a civil action may result in. Often that is not what people want. Willie Coffey spoke about the journey of the family of his constituent Alison Hume and the lack of closure that the process had for them.

As we know, the bill does not take forward a number of Lord Cullen’s recommendations, such as the extension to include children who died in residential care other than secure accommodation and the deaths of people in compulsory detention by a public authority. A number of members asked questions about that.

Johann Lamont spoke about people who died in healthcare settings. Medical procedures may not have been followed, for example. I think that many of us have had cases—I certainly have—in which constituents have been unhappy about the fact that the health service investigates itself and there does not seem to be any independent arbiter. The deaths may be those of elderly people in healthcare settings, and families may have a suspicion that the elderly person was not considered important enough to receive some of the treatment that they might have received if they were younger.

Alison McInnes and Margaret McDougall made an important point about people who are detained under mental health legislation. Perhaps we should turn the process on its head and have mandatory inquiries in those circumstances but give the Lord Advocate discretion not to hold an inquiry when the cause of death is known—if it was by natural causes, for example—or there is no cause for concern. That was the Mental Welfare Commission for Scotland’s suggestion.