Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): Coroners' courts are, as the Minister said, undoubtedly a very important issue. In the context of Harold Shipman, the Hatfield rail crash and the more recent example, which she mentioned, of the July bombings, effective coroners' courts and the investigation of death are highly sensitive issues. Alongside the registration of deaths, coroners' courts should provide a reliable system for collecting data on deaths and monitoring trends in deaths. They should provide appropriate investigation into suspicious deaths in order to uncover
6 Feb 2006 : Column 609
wrongdoing and offer a thorough and sensitive service for relatives of those who die suddenly and unexpectedly.

However, they also need to provide for large cases, in relation to which capacity has been an issue. Will the Minister explain how the proposed system would have helped the investigation of the deaths of Harold Shipman's patients and those who suffered in Hatfield, the types of inquest where picking up patterns of behaviour is needed and capacity has been a problem?

Reform of the coroner and death certification service has been under consideration for some time and it is about time that an effective system was put in place by the Government. The Luce report concluded that the system was not fit for purpose in modern society. The Government's position paper, published in March 2004 following the review by Tom Luce and the Shipman inquiry in the summer of 2003, has left us waiting for some form of Government action for nearly two years. The Government have acknowledged the need to avoid long delays to inquests into deaths in custody and the need for reform in general. Although today's statement is welcome, what, may I ask, has been happening all this time when the Government have been saying for years that legislation is on its way, if not imminent?

I make no judgment, as the Minister did not, on the 120 or so coroners, their support staff and investigators. I would point out, however, that the statutory powers and procedures under which they work were established in a different era. The Shipman inquiry described a situation in which coroners work from home, where there is virtually no training, and any training that is available is not compulsory.

The Government's position paper published in March last year made some good recommendations, which were reflected in the Minister's statement; a system based on full-time coroners with legal qualifications, closely supported by appropriate medical expertise, together with tighter rules for death certification, notification of all deaths to coroners and stronger support for scrutinising cases and investigation where necessary. However, will the proposed new system allow for judges to sit as coroners when required, as recommended by the Hatfield inquest?

Dealing with death will always be, and should always be, a sensitive issue that requires and deserves efficiency, speed of process and accuracy. The reform of the coroner's court system to deliver those objectives is long outstanding. To that extent, the Government's proposals are generally welcome, although there is a clear need for careful review of the proposals, which are light on detail so far. We welcome the Government's offer and suggestion of pre-legislative scrutiny. Will that take place in the spring? I think that is what the Minister implied.

Finally, I note that parallel scrutiny is proposed by families who are experienced in the process. That is welcome, but will it take place before parliamentary scrutiny so that the House can have the benefit of its findings?

Ms Harman: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his response and I agree with much of what he said. I agree
6 Feb 2006 : Column 610
with his critique of the system and we share the view that he put forward. I also agree that it has taken too long for us to reform the coroners system. Indeed, when I was legal officer at the National Council for Civil Liberties, working alongside its general secretary—now my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health—we argued that these changes should happen, and that was some 30 years ago. Of course, as people will be well aware, the Broderick report of the 1970s has yet to be implemented. We have a system that still looks pretty much as it did in the 18th century.

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that instructions have gone to parliamentary counsel. The Bill is just about drafted and it will be with the House in draft form in April to May. We expect to have the Bill proper in November or December, so that we will have enough time for parliamentary scrutiny. We shall actually get on with it this time; it is long overdue.

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman made a point about capacity, which is very important. We want a local system of coroners because most inquests can be dealt with best at local level by qualified legal coroners who are professionally supported. However, there will be some cases where that is not the right approach. Instead of making relatives and everybody involved go through a local coroner first before, inevitably, ending up in the High Court, we envisage a situation in which coroners themselves can say, "I would like a High Court judge to take this case in the first instance", or the chief coroner can say, "I shall take the case in the first instance" or "I shall appoint a High Court judge to take the case in the first instance", or the relatives can say, "We think this will end up in the High Court so why don't we start with a High Court judge?"

Thirdly, the hon. Gentleman asked about investigation. As well as the 200,000-plus families involved in the coroners system every year, we have special thoughts about how to be absolutely sure that we avoid the situation that befell so many of Harold Shipman's patients. That is about investigation. People are well aware that if a doctor recommends a serious operation or radical treatment, it is not a hostile act against the doctor to ask for a second opinion; it is normal. But there has been no possibility for people to challenge a death certificate without the implicit accusation that the GP has been responsible for murder or malpractice. It is important that there is a light-touch ability so that relatives can say, "Can we have a second look at that?" That will be an important contributor towards ensuring that we do not have situations where people have concerns but there is no way in which they can call in a coroner to take a second look at the case.

The Lord Chancellor is strongly concerned that we get a move on and reform the system. It is well overdue for modernisation, which is what our proposals will achieve.

Chris McCafferty (Calder Valley) (Lab): Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to speak on behalf of my constituents and also those of the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (James Purnell).

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State and welcome her historic proposals, which will for the first time provide a national framework for the
6 Feb 2006 : Column 611
work of coroners and, most important, will empower bereaved relatives so that they have a legal right to challenge a coroner's ruling or to ask for a second opinion. The changes will be welcomed by any family whose relatives have died suddenly or violently, but especially by our constituents whose relatives were the victims of Harold Shipman.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend clarify the time scale for the introduction of the reforms on the ground? Will bereaved families have a right to see cremation forms? Will she implement the suggestion made by families that a simple leaflet be provided for bereaved families so that they know what their rights are? Will the   families of Shipman's victims be able to join the family scrutiny panel and, lastly, will the Government make a wider statement on the progress of the inquiry's recommendations as a whole?

Ms Harman: I thank my hon. Friend for her welcome for the proposals. I, too, acknowledge the concern felt by the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, our hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Paul Goggins). I have held a number of discussions with them and they have urged me and the Minister of State, Department of Health, my right hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy), to meet the relatives of those who suffered at the hands of Harold Shipman to ensure that they play a part, by looking at the proposals and giving us the benefit of their too terrible experience.

My hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Chris McCafferty) made a proposal about cremation forms. I see no reason at all why relatives, or anybody with a justified interest, should not see cremation forms. That is a practical proposal. A simple leaflet, which could be a summary of the family charter, would be extremely worthwhile, and we shall ensure that every family involved has not only the benefit of the rights of the new charter for families, but a summary of it.

My hon. Friend talked about empowerment for bereaved relatives. One of the problems has been that there is nothing that relatives can do when the system goes wrong except wait until the end of the process and go to the High Court to ask for the inquest to be overturned. They cannot challenge whether an inquest should be held, whether a jury should be empanelled or which witnesses should be called. In the Bill, we will put in place the opportunity for relatives to ask the chief coroner to review the case so that it can be remitted back to the coroner with an instruction from the chief coroner. We do not want to leave it until the end of the process, when things might have gone wrong, to require people to go to the High Court. Early intervention is needed to make it possible for relatives to have their say at an earlier stage.

Next Section IndexHome Page