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Mr. Kidney: I thank my hon. Friend for all that he is saying. The main complaints from families concern great delays in getting an inquest at all and difficulties in getting access to the investigator's report to the coroner. Can those matters be dealt with without the need for legislation, and can my hon. Friend promise that they will be dealt with soon?
Paul Goggins: Later in my remarks I will show how, under plans to develop a family charter, we want to share more information with families. Of course, we want to speed up the inquest system, although in our current system it is hard to do that in cases where coroners have a backlog of cases, with all the difficulties that that entails. We need to carry out the fundamental reform, but there are things that we can do now and we will continue to do so.
In rural areas, there are sometimes very few suitable venues for coroners to hear their cases. Will the Minister lean on the Lord Chancellor and his Department when people who run the Crown courts, magistrates courts or county courts seek to oust a coroner from using a court although no suitable alternative accommodation is available?
Paul Goggins: I am aware that sometimes locating a suitable venue for an inquest can be problematic. That remains a responsibility for the local authority. None the less, in Government we do of course try to assist and support coroners where they have a particular difficulty. All they need do is approach us, and if we can help, we will.
As all Members have emphasised, we have much to learn from the experiences of families. Indeed, some of the most instructive and compelling evidence that I have received came during two discussions that I was fortunate enough to have with the families of Harold Shipman's victimspeople who have more reason than most to know of the shortcomings of the present system and who expressed themselves to me with remarkable clarity and calmness given the circumstances. I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (James Purnell) for arranging those important opportunities for me to meet them.
Under our proposals we will, for the first time, have a national system to oversee all deaths. In order to provide focus and direction for that new service, we will create a
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new posta chief coroner, who will lead the service by setting and driving up professional standards, deploying coroners within the national service, and, where necessary, undertaking the most complex cases himself or herself. The chief coroner will also have statutory powers to give directions to coroners in the interests of consistency and good practice.
There will also be a chief medical adviser, who will have particular functions in relation to the medical examiners and will ensure that the new service has access to the best possible medical expertise.
The chief medical adviser will provide top level medical advice to the chief coroner and link the new service with the regional directors of public health, who will provide additional oversight and scrutiny.
As I said earlier, we plan to publish a White Paper early next year. That will set out the basis on which we intend to legislateas soon as parliamentary time is availablefor a unified and reformed system.
We are carefully considering the resources that we will need. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford mentioned that. Our position paper expressed the hope that, in broad terms, the changes would be cost-neutral. Further detailed analysis suggests that there may be a need to identify further funding, over and above the blocks of funding that local authorities and the police allocate to the coroner service and coroners' officers. Given that those funding arrangements were designed to cope with around 200,000 deaths a year, while the new service will be required to deal with approximately 500,000, that should not be too surprising. We are, of course, examining the efficiency savings that will accrue.
We are also considering some of the payments made in the current system, including, for example, the £30 million paid privately to doctors for providing certificates prior to cremation, to ascertain whether some of that money could help to improve the scrutiny that families clearly expect. All that will be clearly set out in the White Paper.
As my hon. Friend said, we can do a great deal in advance of a fully reformed system and some of that work has already started. We are working closely with coroners to increase the focus of the service on bereaved familiesmany coroners already consult families as a routine part of their investigations. I am delighted with the way in which several coroners are taking that work forward. They are seriously considering the way in which families and others receive information about a death and how communications can be improved. I know that some coroners are reviewing the leaflets that they provide and are in discussion with groups and others who work with the bereaved to ascertain what improvements they could make.
In the longer term, building on such work, we will develop a family charter to set out the service standards that can be expected throughout England and Wales. We are also promoting the sharing of good practice. Using modern techniques developed by the Coroners Society of England and Wales, coroners are already making far more use of each other's experience. At the Home Office-funded training courses for coroners, we are making sure that sharing good practice is built into each course.
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I pay tribute to the coroners for the way in which so many have made real strides in ensuring that their work and that of their staff meets the increasingly high standards that the public and central Government now expect. Working with local authority funders and local police forces, many coroners have made significant progress in their case management systems and their approach to inquestsespecially those that take a long time to arrangein reviewing their performance and making sure that they work closely with other local services. For example, many coroners have been actively reviewing the number of post mortems that they request, and others have been developing important new links with registrars and primary care trusts as well as with voluntary groups who can support the bereaved.
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As I explained earlier, the next milestone in our programme is publication of a White Paper. That will set out the details of our reform programme. We will need primary legislation to give us the powers that we need and we will also need to develop the necessary professional leadership in the form of a chief coroner and a coroners council.