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Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I am grateful to the Minister of State for early sight of her statement. May I gently tell her, as she recognises the delay, that the March 2004 paper said:

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That, in itself, was two years ago, so there is a need for some expedition, but the reforms that she announces are entirely welcome. I am particularly pleased to see the focus on the bereaved, which is right. May I ask her a number of questions?

First, will the right hon. and learned Lady retain the local jurisdiction of coroners? I think that she implied that she would do so in answer to an earlier question, but it is important that coroners' courts be accessible to people, particularly in the circumstances of the death of a loved one. If that is the case, will there be a special arrangement—again, she implied this—for national disasters, such as the sort of thing that we saw on 7 July or previously with the Marchioness disaster, which allows not only a specialist coroner but the ancillary technical and scientific support to enable those matters to be investigated with expedition?

The right hon. and learned Lady mentioned archaic boundary restrictions. Can anything be done to stop difficulties when crossing national boundaries, both in the United Kingdom and in our relations with overseas jurisdictions? The proposal that all coroners should now have legal training is welcome, but does she recognise that they need to have at least an understanding of the vocabulary of science and to understand some quite technical matters? It is not good enough simply to be a lawyer nowadays; to an extent one must be a polymath.

Is there still a dearth of pathologists, particularly paediatric pathologists, in forensic work? If so, what is being done to address that? Will coroners' juries be retained? Will coroners' guidance be binding on public authorities? At the moment, coroners often make statements to public authorities, but there is no requirement for them to consider those recommendations. Will there be such a requirement in future?

Lastly—this is perhaps a minor matter—but what used to be known as treasure trove is an historical remnant of coroners' jurisdictions. Would it not be better to place that—though perhaps within a judicial process—in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport? I look forward to swift progress on the proposals, and the right hon. and learned Lady will have every support from Liberal Democrat Members in making swift progress.

Ms Harman: I thank the hon. Gentleman for making a number of important points. First, treasure trove is an ancient jurisdiction of coroners. Sometimes, such cases can take two to three years to resolve, because treasure trove is always put at the back of the queue and dealt with locally. That does not make sense. We will make one coroner nationally responsible for treasure trove and get that dealt with effectively.

The hon. Gentleman asks whether public authorities will take notice of coroners when they make a statement about what lessons they think should be learned after a death. The higher public profile and higher national standing of the coroner service that Dame Janet Smith thought so important—we certainly agree—will ensure that public authorities are not able perhaps to leave on one side proposals made by a much better respected coroners system. Yes, there will still be coroners' juries. In addition to the mandatory cases where coroners' juries are required, coroners will have the discretion to use juries.
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The hon. Gentleman asks whether coroners will have training, particularly in medicine and health issues. They will be qualified lawyers. All of them will have training, including medical training. In addition, they will have their own dedicated health advice, which they do not have at the moment. That will be part of a central budget which will be given to each and every coroner so that they have dedicated health support for medical issues. There is a dearth of pathologists, which also concerns colleagues in the Department of Health and the Home Office.

On foreign deaths, it is particularly distressing for bereaved relatives who have involved themselves in a full inquest in, say, France or Spain, to come back to this country and go through the process all over again. We plan to end that. If there has been a satisfactory inquest, albeit abroad, it does not have to be repeated.

Coroners will have a local jurisdiction and will be accessible. There will be fewer coroners, however, because they will be full-time. It will be their dedicated job and they will be professional coroners, so there will be fewer of them.

As far as national disasters are concerned, it is ridiculous to expect a fragmented local general service to deal with major national emergencies or disasters. It is not fair on the coroners' officers, the coroners and, above all, the relatives. Our proposals will enable that to be handled effectively.

I can only agree with the hon. Gentleman on timing. I have perhaps waited longer than most other hon. Members for this to happen because I first went on record as complaining about the problem 30 years ago. We have all waited a long time. Let me explain the timing because I was possibly not clear about that in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Chris McCafferty). We expect to put the draft Bill before the House in April or May. We expect to have the Bill proper available for the scrutiny of the House in November or December.

I perhaps did not answer the question of the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) about family scrutiny. I expect that to take place in the House so that colleagues who intend to involve themselves in the debate on Second Reading and in Committee can see a moderated discussion by people who have practical and recent experience. It will make for a much more sensible debate if we have that running alongside the Select Committee's important work.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I remind the House that Back Benchers should ask only one supplementary question.

Jon Trickett (Hemsworth) (Lab): I unreservedly welcome my right hon. and learned Friend's statement. I speak on behalf of the family of my constituent, Sean Hutchinson, whose body was left in a coroner's morgue for more than two years while the coroner's officers failed to discover his identity, leaving the family in a state of great distress, not knowing whether he was alive or dead. In subsequent conversations with coroners, I have come to the view that they are one of the remaining
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unreformed relics of feudalism—unaccountable, unmanaged and often arrogant. Will she press ahead with absolute urgency to bring comfort to families in the future?

Ms Harman: We will press ahead with that. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend's work on behalf of his constituents. He has tabled many questions to which most of my answers have been, "I don't have this information. Sorry, I can't tell you. I don't know." He has exposed that that is not good enough, especially when it comes to accountability to the House. The Bill will sort that out.

Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): In welcoming the statement, I assure the Minister that the Select Committee will start work tomorrow by taking evidence from Dame Janet Smith on the proposals. However, does the Minister accept that if she is not careful the removal of part-time coroners might lead to a situation in which bereaved relatives in small communities in remote areas do not have access to a coroner locally? What will it cost, bearing in mind the amount of cross-subsidy of counsel and the Court Service in the current system?

Ms Harman: It will cost—this is a rough estimate—something in the region of £5 million extra a year. The right hon. Gentleman asked whether changing to dedicated full-time coroners will mean that people have to wait longer—

Mr. Beith: Travel further.

Ms Harman: And travel further. One thing that has made families wait longer is that solicitors in private practice who are also coroners sometimes adjourn an inquest to deal with something in their private practice. There is no reason why coroners should not travel to the families. We will ensure that Her Majesty's Court Service buildings, county courts and magistrates courts are available for the coroners to exercise their jurisdiction locally, so that they can work around the families and circumstances, rather than expect the families to work around them or their private practice as solicitors.

Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West and Royton) (Lab): Although I very much congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on her proposals, will she ensure that in the most contentious cases jurisdiction is always placed in the hands of a group of the most senior coroners, who have full knowledge of human rights implications; that excessive delays of sometimes up to three years between death and a coroner's hearing are not allowed to happen in future; and that there is an obligation to provide information at the outset to families about their legal rights, as well as access to legal aid, as of right without a means test?

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