As my right hon. Friend will know, Lord Carter is reviewing legal aid in the Department for Constitutional Affairs. I totally agree about information being made available at the outset as a matter of routine. I agree that excessive delays are not acceptable. Sometimes one sees a report of an inquest and on looking further down one realises that the death was two
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or three years previously. My right hon. Friend makes an important point about the seniority of coroners dealing with difficult or complex cases. Perhaps he is the one person who has spoken today who has been complaining about coroners services even longer than I have.
Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking) (Con): I commend to the Minister the work of the Surrey coroner, Mr. Michael Burgess, and his excellent deputy Mr. Nick Benger. Their problems over the past few years have been essentially practicalshortage of staff, IT problems, shortage of coroners offices and difficulty in finding a place fit for a jury where an inquest can be held. Will the Minister ensure that her reforms address some of the practical problems faced by that excellent coroner and his deputy?
Ms Harman: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments about the Surrey coroner and his deputy. He has described the problems of a service that has been affected by blight. Everyone has been so expecting something to change that it has been very difficult for coroners and officers to have any certainty for the future. I hope that, as from this statement, there will be an end to the blight and that we can support much better the work of the many dedicated coroners officers. I pay tribute to the Coroners Officers Association, which throughout the years of blight has tried to improve professionalism with precious little support. I hope that those things will be sorted out.
Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): I warmly welcome my right hon. and learned Friend's statement. For seven of my eight years in this House I have asked for reform of the coroner's office, because on Teesside we have waited years and years for a coroner's report. When a 12-year-old girl dies in an accident while playing with a swing, that is a tragedy; when her mother has to wait two years and three months to find out the cause, that is desperately bad for all of us. I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend's reforms will change it. I seek reassurance that the national framework will ensure that coroners have the power to fill gaps in the service so that we all benefit from a professional service.
Ms Harman: The chief coroner will be able to issue practice directions and to set out what is expected of coroners. It is nowhere set out nationally that timeliness matters. We have to be sure, and we will be, that the situation that my hon. Friend described cannot occur.
Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): The right hon. and learned Lady will be aware that the Oxfordshire coroner is responsible for inquests into the deaths of our servicemen who are returned from Afghanistan and Iraq via RAF Brize Norton. She will also be aware that there is a huge backlog of those inquests and that that is causing wholly unnecessary suffering to the families. Will she assure me that that situation is under control and further outline how her changes will prevent it from happening in future?
The hon. Gentleman has raised this on a number of occasions and it is of great concern. When we get rid of the boundary restrictionscoroners cannot sit
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outside their jurisdiction and are prevented from working where there is a backlogthat problem will be easily solved, but I do not expect people in the circumstances that he described to wait until we have legislated on that. We must address ourselves anew to do what we can within the current creaking system to sort out that situation.
Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on her excellent statement, but may I press her on the issue of qualifications and training? Surely, it is not enough just to say that qualified solicitors should be employed and to give coroners a pot of money so that they can seek training themselves. Will she look at the possibility of an additional qualification or, at the very least, a course of training for coroners organised by the new Commission for Judicial Appointments?
Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): In framing her proposals, will the right hon. and learned Lady look at the Potter's Bar rail crash, as it is expected that the inquiry will take the form of a coroner's inquest, even though the families wanted a full public inquest and the Hertfordshire coroner had concerns about the holding of an inquest? Almost three years after the crash, it has just been announced that a judge is to be released to hold the inquiry. Three years is too long to wait for an inquiry into such a major incident involving many families.
Ms Harman: As the hon. Gentleman rightly points out, what we lack is the capacity for leadership and certainty, which would enable the right inquiries to be made at the earliest possible opportunity. I agree that it is unfair that an inquiry has taken so long. The national leadership of the chief coroner means that there will be someone at a national level to liaise with the relevant parties and ensure that what the hon. Gentleman says does not happen in future.
Vera Baird (Redcar) (Lab): May I strongly welcome the proposals for proper appointments, training and discipline for coroners? The people of Teesside have long suffered under a part-time coroner, now aged 76, who has never seen the need to acquire any administrative skills or management experience, and has often had a backlog of 200 or 300 cases over six months old. All the MPs in the area have witnessed people crying at their surgeries because they are quite unable to grieve while waiting two, three or four years for an inquest to understand what happened to their loved ones. Can my right hon. and learned Friend give me an absolute assurance that the proposals will guarantee that my constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor), who has mentioned the problem, will never suffer again under what is, after all, a public service?
My hon. and learned Friend's persistence on behalf of her constituents is one of the driving forces behind the proposals. Hon. Members have tabled parliamentary questions, and many have
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written letters that include anguished stories. We are determined to make absolutely sure that people have a proper, effective and humane service. Everyone who goes to a coroner faces a sad and often tragic situation, so the current system is not acceptable. My hon. and learned Friend's complaints have been well understood, and the legislation will deal with them.
Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Following the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer), why is it not possible to re-allocate some of the work from the Oxfordshire coroners to county coroners nearer the homes of the relatives? After the reforms, does the Minister intend to have at least one coroner in each county town?
Ms Harman: We expect that there will be more than one coroner in cities. There will be at least one coroner in every county, and usually more than one, depending on the population. I cannot give a specific answer, but I accept the point that the hon. Gentleman has made. Coroners have mediaeval jurisdictions, which they controlno one else is allowed to sit there, and they are not allowed to sit in anyone else's jurisdictionso it is impossible to do something simple and straightforward such as reallocating a coroner to another jurisdiction to deal with a backlog. That is the problem with the statutory legal framework, and it is a simple but important thing that we will change.
Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): Like my right hon. and learned Friend, I compliment Tom Luce and Dame Janet Smith on their influence on the reforms. As for the family charter that my right hon. and learned Friend promised, must it wait for the legislation or can a first edition be published now?
Ms Harman: The family charter does not have to wait. I have had meetings with family organisations of the bereaved, which have been incredibly helpful and are very clear about what they want. The problem is that it is not enforceable, so we cannot ensure that it is given to relatives or that coroners abide by it. We will certainly give the family charter extra momentum, but it is not until we legislate that we will be certain that we can apply those standards. There will also be an inspection system, and one of the things the inspectors will do is look at whether each coroner is properly implementing the family charter. I endorse my hon. Friend's remarks about Tom Luce and Dame Janet Smith.