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Mr. Clarke: I agree with that statement. That is an important aspect of everything that we have said on these matters. But I say again that incitement to violence, to hatred and to terrorism is, in my opinion, a step beyond the absolute freedom of speech and needs legislation if it is to be addressed properly.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): In the past, the Home Office has extolled the virtues of the stop forms that now have to be completed when officers stop people in the street. On Friday, however, on the one recent occasion when the information collated from such forms might just have been of value, it would appear that they were not being issued. Why? If the answer is that it would have been unsafe to do so, will the Home Secretary now consider abandoning them?

Mr. Clarke: As I said earlier, these are operational matters for the police to consider, and that was the judgment that they made. I will look at the matter in the round when the whole situation is analysed, but it would be a mistake for any Home Secretary to cut across the operational decisions made by the police in these circumstances.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Does the Home Secretary accept that, in the multi-faith, multicultural society of modern Britain, we should obviously condemn the ludicrous and obscene language that was used last week? Does he also accept that we should ask those with power in the media and elsewhere not to turn this into a condemnation of Islam as a whole, thus further damaging community relations in this country? Should they not instead extol the virtues of a free society in which everyone is free to practise whatever religion they choose?

Mr. Clarke: I agree with my hon. Friend. However, I shall now say something that is very rare for me: a word of defence for the media in these circumstances. Their coverage of these matters has generally not been a critique of Islam or the Muslim world as a whole. In fact, even some of the most vociferous newspapers have quoted prominently the position of Muslim leaders who oppose these actions. I agree with my hon. Friend, but I am not sure that the media have gone out of line with his views on this occasion.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Is it not significant that the very people who were behaving in the way that has so outraged the House are also the very people who would have supported the original atrocities that led to the ill-considered cartoons in the first place? Is not the one good thing to come out of all this the fact that
 
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the leaders of the moderate Muslim majority have passed with flying colours the test that so many people set when they asked them to come out and condemn the extremists? Let us hope that they will continue to do that.

Mr. Clarke: I am not going to make judgments about what the individuals at those demonstrations would or would not have done on any particular occasion. I have never doubted—and I do not think that most hon. Members have doubted—that the leadership of the Muslim community across the whole country would deplore acts of this kind, and that they would come out and state that. That is indeed what they have done.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): The Home Secretary keeps referring to the fact that the police have certain duties and that he has certain duties, and that ne'er the twain shall meet. Why is there one set of rules for those who engage in a holy war, while there is quite another for those who engage in a class war, such as the miners' strike of 1984–85? That highly volatile situation lasted for a whole year and 7,000 miners were arrested, some only for shouting, "Scab!" Why do the police have one set of rules for them, and another set for others? During that period, not one Tory Minister condemned the police for their actions.

Mr. Clarke: I hope that policing has moved on since those days, when, as I know my hon. Friend recalls, a Conservative Government were in place. It is important to emphasise that my hon. Friend is right to say that it is appropriate for policing decisions to be taken on policing grounds, and for politics to be done on political grounds. The question of what happened during the miners' strike remains a matter of debate.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): Does the Home Secretary agree that the restraint and objectivity that the media have shown in dealing with the publication of the cartoons, and with the events that have followed, have greatly assisted the police in their tasks over the past few days? Would it not be a good idea if that restraint continued? Does not this also show that the British media are not institutionally racist?

Mr. Clarke: I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the British media in this case, which is why I said "the response in Britain to publication of the Danish cartoons has, in general, been respectful and restrained". I think that that is correct. I also said, and meant, "I hope and expect that it will continue."

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): Did not this weekend's events show not so much the real face of Islam but a hideous distortion of Islam, effectively undermined by the fundamentalism that can affect any religion in the world and is not by any means the sole prerogative of Islam? Does my right hon. Friend accept that Sir Iqbal Sacranie had every right to say whatever he wanted about homosexuality on the "Today" programme, without the police having to visit him afterwards? Does he think that we need to ensure that people understand fully, and the police understand fully, their responsibilities as well as people's rights in regard to freedom of expression?
 
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Mr. Clarke: I do agree that in this flurry of different and difficult circumstances, the more clarity can be provided about how freedom of speech is operated in particular circumstances the better, and I am considering how better to achieve that.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): The conduct of most, of many, of the demonstrators was pretty atrocious, but should we not be very careful about invoking criminal law? After all, most of the relevant offences, particularly incitement, require specific intent. That is different in kind from hot-headed and unpleasant rhetoric. The truth is, surely, that in a democracy we have to put up with a great deal that we dislike and of which we disapprove, and in general we should not invoke the criminal law. Failed prosecutions, after all, tend to be extremely counter-productive.

Mr. Clarke: It is because I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman that we must be very careful when dealing with the criminal law in these areas that I believe the best people to make those judgments are the police and the prosecuting authorities.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): Does the Secretary of State agree that if we are to build a just and tolerant society we must also have a better understanding of the hurt that was caused in the Islamic world by the original cartoons? Had that incident not already shown, before the demonstration took place, that we should all recognise the need to engage in a much better and deeper dialogue with the world of Islam? Do not all of us, as Members of Parliament, have a responsibility to work out how we can better understand the world of Islam if we are to live peacefully in the 21st century?

Mr. Clarke: I agree, which is why I supported what was said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee. He said that we should view integration in that way. As a matter of fact, I think that various discussions that were held within the Muslim world and community after 7 July have been beneficial in achieving some of those understandings and addressing some of the issues, and I hope that that will continue.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): I want to praise the police for the way in which they handled the demonstration on the day. It is very good that they did not take action that would have provoked violent or criminal damage. However, I think that many of my constituents and others will want a reassurance, which I hope the Home Secretary can give, that the police were at the same time collecting names, addresses and evidence in relation to the small minority in the demonstration whose behaviour clearly went well beyond the normal conduct of peaceful demonstrations. Can the right hon. Gentleman give that reassurance?

Mr. Clarke: I can say that the police have indeed been collecting evidence and information. That is the basis on which they will make the decisions to which I referred earlier.
 
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Coroners System (Reform)

3.58 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Ms Harriet Harman): With permission, I shall make a statement on reform of the coroner service.

The coroners system is of great importance. When someone dies a violent or sudden death, when the cause of death is not certain or when the identity of a body is not known, there must, in the public interest, be a proper inquiry, and the bereaved relatives need to know what happened and why.

Coroners, and the officers who support them, deal with cases that are always sad and often tragic. That was exemplified most recently in the work of the three coroners and their staff who dealt so sensitively and expeditiously with co-ordination of the identification process in the tragic aftermath of the 7 July London bombings. I pay tribute to coroners and their staff, and acknowledge the difficult and important work that they do.

The service contains many coroners and staff who are dedicated and committed, but I think we all believe that the system within which they do their work could be much, much better.

There has been long-standing interest in and concern about the coroner service in this House, because all Members have constituents who involved them in cases that ended up in the coroner's court. I am sure that we all want a coroner service that enables committed coroners and their officers to ensure that the public interest is served in all inquests in every part of the country, and which enables bereaved relatives to have their answers; that is not the case at the moment.

Under the current coroner service, families frequently get overlooked during the inquest process. There is nowhere for them to turn when they think that something is going wrong; there is no complaints system. The system is fragmented, with no national leadership, and it is not accountable. We have no overview of the system as a whole, or of individual cases. Moreover, the system is not properly accountable to this House, which it should be. Standards are not uniformly good; everything rests too much on the personal qualities and abilities of individuals within the system. The legal framework is downright archaic. For most coroners, this is not even their principal occupation; it is a secondary one, added on to their main work as solicitors in private practice. Most coroner's officers have to learn on the job as they handle the most technically complex and personally difficult cases, with no systematic training. That is not fair on relatives or on the coroner's officers themselves.

The coroner service must serve the public interest and meet bereaved families' concerns in a way that, frankly, it currently does not. That is what these proposals aim to achieve and through them, we will do three things. First, we will put a proper focus on bereaved families and give them a clear legal standing in the system. We will set out the way in which the system should deal with families. We will give them the right to ask the coroner for a second opinion on a death, and to challenge coroners' rulings on how the investigation and inquest is run, and we will establish a complaints system.
 
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Secondly, we will strengthen coroners' work. There will be a proper system for appointing coroners, and all will have to be legally qualified. Moreover, the role of coroner will have to be their only job. They will have a clear power to investigate a death, even where a certificate has been issued, and they will have additional powers to obtain evidence for their investigations. Dedicated medical advice will be available to them, and there will be an end to archaic boundary restrictions, which cause unnecessary difficulties when major incidents occur or when specialised examinations need carrying out.

Thirdly, we will establish a national framework for coroners' work. For the first time, there will be a chief coroner, who will give leadership to coroners in the same way as the Lord Chief Justice does to judges. There will be a coronial advisory council, a system of inspection and a national training system for coroners and their officers.

The question of a second certification of a death was a key issue in the third report of Dame Janet Smith into the Shipman murders. The Government have continued to examine the proposal that every death in England and Wales—some 500,000 a year—should have additional medical scrutiny by the coroner service. The coroner reforms that I am announcing to the House today do not stand alone. They will be complemented by further work being taken forward in the Department of Health, which is aimed at improving patient safety and promoting quality in the NHS.

We need a system that can identify and investigate suspicious deaths, but which allows families to proceed quickly with funeral arrangements where there is no cause for concern. We are not sure that the proposal to have all deaths referred to coroners achieves that, but we will continue to look at this issue and we are not ruling out the possibility of further reform.

I should like to thank both Dame Janet Smith and Tom Luce for their work, and to thank the voluntary organisations that have advised me from the viewpoint of bereaved families. I have placed a background note in the House of Commons Vote Office and in the Libraries of both Houses. It gives more detail on the measures that I have announced today and it shows how we have built on the work of Dame Janet and Mr. Luce. We intend to proceed by way of a draft coroners Bill this spring to enable pre-legislative scrutiny, probably by the Constitutional Affairs Select Committee. In parallel with such scrutiny, I intend to arrange a separate strand of pre-legislative scrutiny that will greatly help to inform the House. This will consist of pre-legislative scrutiny by families who have recent experience of the coroner service. I commend these proposals to the House.


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