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23 Oct 2002 : Column 381—continued

10.33 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Ms Rosie Winterton): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond) on

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securing this debate. It is a matter on which he has campaigned for some years and I know how strongly he feels about it. He has made extremely important points. The right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo) also contributed as the constituency Member of Parliament for the Westminster coroner.

My hon. Friend spoke extremely movingly about the distress of the families and friends of those who died in the Marchioness disaster. I am sure that everyone in the House would join me in expressing our sympathy for the families of those who died. The passing of time can never erase their grief.

My hon. Friend drew particular attention to the concerns expressed about the conduct of the Westminster coroner, Dr. Paul Knapman, in the exercise of his duties. As right hon. and hon. Members will know, Lord Justice Clarke's inquiry into the identification of victims was established and his report was published on 23 March 2001. As Lord Justice Clarke emphasised at the outset of his report, the most important aim of the inquiry was to ensure that all the necessary lessons were learned for the future. Nevertheless, that report contained criticisms of the Westminster coroner.

It might assist right hon. and hon. Members if I explain the Lord Chancellor's powers in relation to coroners. Under section 3(4) of the Coroners Act 1988, the Lord Chancellor has the power to remove a coroner for misbehaviour or inability in the course of his duties. The Lord Chancellor can also take a lesser form of disciplinary action, such as suspension or admonishment. I should stress, however, that the Lord Chancellor cannot comment on, or intervene in, complaints received about judicial decisions, the process of reasoning underlying those decisions or any matter involving the exercise of judicial functions.

To return to Lord Justice Clarke's report, although he accepted that Dr. Knapman acted with the best of intentions and at all times in good faith, he concluded that Dr. Knapman could, and should, have acted differently in a number of respects. Lord Justice Clarke did not find that Dr. Knapman had been reckless, as was suggested by some at the time of the inquiry, but he considered that Dr. Knapman failed to give sufficient consideration to the likely feelings of the families in what was a most distressing situation.

Following Lord Justice Clarke's report, the Lord Chancellor gave careful consideration to the criticisms of Dr. Knapman to determine whether disciplinary action was appropriate. Taking particular account of Lord Justice Clarke's conclusion that Dr. Knapman acted at all times in good faith, the Lord Chancellor was not satisfied that there was evidence of misbehaviour or inability, which would warrant the exercise of his powers under the Coroners Act 1988.

However, the Lord Chancellor concluded that Dr. Knapman's conduct on that occasion fell below the standard properly expected of a holder of judicial office. In consequence, he determined that disciplinary action was appropriate and issued Dr. Knapman with a formal admonishment, as the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea said. As my hon. Friend said, that was made known to Parliament in my written response of 6 November 2001 to the parliamentary question that he tabled.

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The Lord Chancellor now considers that the case regarding Dr. Knapman's position as a result of actions taken in the aftermath of the Marchioness tragedy is closed. The Lord Chancellor deeply sympathises with the continuing distress of survivors and families of victims of the Marchioness disaster. None of us can imagine what it must be like to carry that burden of grief. However, it has to be said that Dr. Knapman's conduct has been examined in detail and at length by an independent inquiry. The criticisms made against him by that inquiry were considered most carefully by the Lord Chancellor, and appropriate disciplinary action was taken. The Lord Chancellor believes that we must now regard Dr. Knapman's conduct in respect of the Marchioness tragedy to be a closed issue.

My hon. Friend referred to tissue samples, and some of his comments also apply to the later case to which he referred. Lord Justice Clarke referred to that issue in his report, but he decided not to delay concluding the report, as it was felt that that matter fitted more properly into considerations of recommendations following the Bristol and Alder Hey inquiries. The Department of Health and the Welsh Assembly are consulting on changes to the law in this area. As hon. Members may know, the issue is also raised in the recent consultation paper from Tom Luce as part of the coroners review. I understand that Tom Luce is keeping in touch with the retained organs commission with regard to the progress of, and thinking behind, the review.

As I said, my hon. Friend has also spoken this evening about Dr. Knapman's handling of the inquest into the death of Susan Annis, which, as he mentioned, my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) has also raised with me. The Lord Chancellor was advised last year of a complaint about Dr. Knapman's handling of the inquest into the death of Susan Annis. However, that complaint turned on the exercise by Dr. Knapman of his judicial discretion. As I stated earlier, the Lord Chancellor has no power to intervene about decisions of this nature made by coroners in particular inquests. The appropriate remedy is an application for judicial review or an application under section 13 of the Coroners Act. Section 13 provides for an application to be made to the High Court for an order to hold another inquest when that is necessary or desirable, whether by reason of fraud, rejection of evidence, irregularity of proceedings, insufficiency of inquiry or discovery of new facts,

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evidence or otherwise. I note that my hon. Friend referred to certain factors that he believes have come to light, which may fall into that category.

I turn now to the review of the coroner system, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham referred. In summer 2001, the Government appointed Tom Luce to chair a review of the death certification processes in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The review is sponsored by the Home Office and the Northern Ireland court service, but is independent of Government. Tom Luce and his team published a consultation document on 30 August this year, having spent time with all the key professional bodies whose members work within the death certification and coroner system, as well as with voluntary bodies, support groups and private individuals who have experience of the system. To assist with its work, the review team has set up a reference group; among its members are two representatives from the Marchioness contact group. I know that Tom Luce plans to keep in touch with the group until the review is complete, and it is expected that a final report will be published next spring.

In view of the points made by my hon. Friend this evening, which are extremely important, I undertake to write personally to Tom Luce to draw his attention to those points and the comments that have been made about the coronial system. Therefore, before he begins the next stage of his work, he will be aware of my hon. Friend's concerns and the concerns of others that he has reflected.

This debate has highlighted very important concerns expressed by families in these most tragic circumstances. I hope that I have been able not only to highlight the powers that the Lord Chancellor has in such circumstances and the action that he has previously taken, but to emphasise the fact that lessons can be learned. We must do that.

I thank my hon. Friend and the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea for their contributions. My hon. Friend has clearly expressed the concerns of those involved in this tragic case. We all pay tribute to them for continuing to campaign for what they think is right and for changes to be made. We can learn many lessons and I trust that he will accept that my writing to the review will, I hope, enable us to take forward many of the ideas that have been expressed.

Question put and agreed to.

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