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To be presented by Privy Councillors or Members of Her Majesty's Household.
1 Dec 2004 : Column 748


Traveller Sites

7.40 pm

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): It is my privilege and honour to present a petition bearing more than 1,000 names taken in my constituency. It expresses the anger and frustration that many people feel about the Government's disjointed policy on Travellers' sites and travelling people. The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

Primary Schools (Stevenage)

7.41 pm

Barbara Follett (Stevenage) (Lab): It is my honour to present a petition on behalf of 11,000 residents of Stevenage who wish to express their anger and dismay at the actions taken by Conservative Hertfordshire county council to try to close four schools in the southern half of Stevenage.

The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

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Coroners' Courts

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Ms Bridget Prentice.]

7.43 pm

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): No one could reasonably say that coroners' courts are not important. When the Harry Stanley inquest said that Mr. Stanley was unlawfully killed, it threw into crisis the whole of the Metropolitan police's armed police response in London. When the coroner in the inquest on Joseph Scholes' death wrote to the Home Secretary requesting a public inquiry, it cast a spotlight on the dangers of suicide when we lock up children in detention. If our system for registration of deaths and coroners' investigations is inadequate, the impact can be severe. To illustrate, I pose this question: could we not have detected sooner the murderous activities of the general practitioner Harold Shipman? I add immediately that the third report of the Shipman inquiry made it clear that it was not the individuals working in the system who were to blame for Dr. Shipman's long run of murdering patients in Hyde, but the system itself.

I asked for this debate precisely because coroners' courts are important. Alongside the registration of deaths, they should provide a reliable system for collecting data on deaths and monitoring trends in deaths. They should provide an adequate investigation into suspicious deaths, to uncover wrongdoing or to provide reassurance as appropriate. They should provide also a thorough and sensitive service for the relatives of those who die suddenly and unexpectedly. Indeed, they should provide advice and guidance to us all on how to prevent avoidable deaths. They should provide the means of dealing with inquiries into mass deaths after major disasters.

The present system does not have the appearance of a modern and effective service able to respond to public concerns over deaths, whether of individuals or of groups, and to command public confidence. Nor does the Government's response to the reports that have exposed the failings of the present system and made recommendations for reform, which I shall come to, suggest that they are giving to the improvement of the system the priority that its importance demands.

In criticising the current state of the system for registering deaths, investigating them and holding inquests, I am not making any adverse judgment on the 120 or so coroners—their number fluctuates, but there are 23 full-timers—and their support staff and investigators. I am sure that most of them are hard-working and dedicated, but they are working with statutory powers and procedures that were established in a different era.

It is my case that there are serious and obvious flaws in the current arrangements, and that those have been drawn repeatedly to the Government's attention, yet the Government have not acted to put them right with the urgency that the situation requires. Action is required at two levels, legislative and administrative. I can understand that securing a slot in the Government's legislative programme may take time, but there is no reason why the urgency of the need for change cannot start to be met by administrative actions straightaway.
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I move on to the reports that show the need for reform. I shall call the first one the Luce report, after Mr. Tom Luce, the former head of social care policy in the Department of Health, who chaired the review team for the report called "Death Certification and Investigation in England, Wales and Northern Ireland—The Report of a Fundamental Review 2003", Cm. 5831. At the front of the report is printed the review team's letter to the Home Office, dated 28 April 2003, which states:

The first lines of the report read:

I would add to that that there are other high-profile cases that demonstrate the need for an effective system to be in place. I have already mentioned the case of Harold Shipman, whose unlawful killings were counted in hundreds. To that I would add great disasters like the Bowbelle/Marchioness incident, and more recently the rail crashes at Ladbroke Grove and Potters Bar.

In addition to these obvious demands for a modern service there are linked issues demanding a strategic response from a modern coroner system. For example, article 2 of the European convention on human rights is about a state's obligation to protect the lives of its citizens, which the courts have ruled implies an obligation to investigate deaths. There is the White Paper entitled "Civil Registration: Vital Change", and registration changes are happening now. A more weighty inquiry is needed where there are deaths capable of causing serious damage to public confidence—for example, the death of the Government scientist, David Kelly. Perhaps not everyone appreciates this, but the Hutton inquiry into the allegations surrounding the death of David Kelly was also the inquest into his death, thanks to an addition to the Access to Justice Act 1999 that was well secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore).

Most recently, the inquiries into the Shipman deaths provide more evidence for my arguments. The third report surveyed the present state of the coroners service and described coroners' resources as varying widely. It mentioned that some coroners worked from home. It describes a situation in which there is virtually no training, and the training that is available is not compulsory. It says that coroners operate in isolation, and receive little advice or guidance. There is no leadership structure and no reasonable process for complaints and appeals. In fact, a coroner's inquest can be challenged only through judicial review. The Shipman inquiry said that coroners should have consistent quality standards, training, leadership, a wider range of investigative methods and greater powers.

As for handling of the reports in the media, an article in The Guardian on the Luce report carried the headline, "Coroners face big shake-up after 800 years". It said that the report recommended a package of sweeping
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reforms—bereaved relatives would have much stronger rights at inquest, and coroners would be able to deliver fuller verdicts. It talked about the "forgotten" coroner service, and pointed out that it needed radical change after decades of neglect. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Paul Goggins), who will respond to the debate tonight, is quoted as saying:

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