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8 Mar 2007 : Column 524WH—continued

Many hon. Members will agree that dealing with the bereaved is one of the most emotionally draining aspects of our work. For me, it has always been humbling to see the dignity and determination of families that are trying to rebuild their lives. We owe
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particular gratitude to those whose selflessness and concern for others makes them determined to improve circumstances so that families and loved ones need not go through what they themselves have suffered. That may be a private move or involve a very public campaign, such as improving road safety to try to prevent further tragedies.

One such high-profile campaign is that of my constituents Mr. and Mrs. Lucas, whose son drowned in a fast-flowing river in the Swansea city centre marina area. They have campaigned tirelessly to persuade the city and county of Swansea, as well as local businesses, to install safety railings to prevent similar tragedies in the future. Equally important, however, is the much more private campaign to focus on one of the coroner’s procedures.

As I have said, the aftermath of a death is a traumatic time for loved ones, and it is heartening to read the draft charter for bereaved people, which seeks to ensure that the bereaved are treated with dignity and sensitivity. I also welcome the opportunity for the bereaved people’s panel to scrutinise the draft Coroners Bill. That cannot have been an easy task for its members and must have brought back difficult memories. However, their experience and comments are invaluable in helping us to improve the service.

I want to concentrate on a tragic incident in my constituency. Three young people died in a road accident, and the family of one of them contacted me because they were very distressed to discover that the details of their son’s post-mortem had been given to the families of the other two victims. It was extremely distressing for them to think that other people would read details relating to their son; it was a complete invasion of his privacy.

As a result of my constituents’ concerns, I took the issue up with Dyfed-Powys police, who were very sympathetic. They replied:

It was made clear that when a family is given files in future, they will include only the post-mortem report for that family’s relative. I ask that the request for that to happen be taken very seriously, and I hope that the Minister will give the issue her full consideration.

3.13 pm

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) not only on his speech, but on a first-rate report. The Select Committee is doing a great job of scrutinising the draft Bill, and we need more pre-legislative scrutiny. The Committee is to be commended on the thoroughness of its report.

I also welcome the draft Bill, which is way overdue, and I congratulate the Government on introducing it. Unfortunately, I must concur with the Committee’s finding that a golden opportunity has been missed.
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Although the draft Bill attempts to correct some of the wrongs and the glaring problems with the coroner service, it will not do so if it is passed in its current form.

I want to concentrate on three issues and to refer to a case with which I have been dealing since I was first elected to the House five years ago. The draft Bill seeks to combine the best features of a national structure with the best features of local service delivery, and none of us could disagree with that aspiration, but the draft Bill will not achieve that. Although it stresses the need for local input, which I support, the reality is that most local councils and councillors do not know that they have responsibility for the coroner service. That was summed up in the evidence that the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers gave to the Committee. The society said:

I am perhaps one of the few people in the Chamber who has actually appointed a coroner, so let me tell hon. Members of my personal experience. When I was the chairman of the public health committee in Newcastle upon Tyne, it came as a great shock to be told one day by the director of public health that it was my responsibility to appoint a new coroner because the present incumbent was retiring. I inquired how that had come about and what the procedure was, and the chairman dutifully explained it to me. What shocked me was the lack of any need for legal or medical qualifications on the part of those seeking such appointments and the vague nature of the advice about how we went through the process of appointing the coroner. In the end, a sub-committee of the public health committee appointed David Mitford, who is an excellent coroner and who has proved a good and wise choice. Having looked through the applications of those who came forward, however, I must say that there were some very strange individuals. In one case, the applicant’s only connection with the job was that his grandfather had once been a coroner somewhere else in the country, and he obviously thought that it was a family trait.

The main issue has been raised already, and the nub of it is resources. The service is woefully under-resourced, and we cannot continue with the current system. The draft Bill as it is outlined does not and will not square the circle in terms of meeting the need for local accountability and proper resources. The Government must wake up to the fact that a proper, well-funded service will cost money.

I read the draft Bill when it first came out and I was intrigued by the so-called chief coroner’s role of standardising the service. If we leave what we have now largely in place, I am not sure that the chief coroner will have enough powers to direct coroners. If the chief coroner is appointed in the way set out, they may well be able to comment on what people should do at local level, but how, as my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) suggested, will they be able to argue with, for example, a local government treasurer who wants to cut the local coroner service’s budget, which is easier to cut than the social services budget or other things in the council’s remit? Although we shall have a figurehead, and we
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might have a lot of advisory councils and employ consultants to come up with proposals, that will have no purpose. I should like us to have a national coroner. That is important, but we should also have a national coroner service. We need a system under which local coroners are appointed and accountable and can be removed so that standards are uniform across the county.

Another issue that I want to raise has also been touched on. Let us be honest: we are dealing with people who are going through a traumatic time having lost a relative or loved one, but who, in my experience, must then face an over-bureaucratic and occasionally insensitive system. That is not down to unprofessionalism by some coroner’s officers; it is just the system.

The other side of the matter is that if we are to avoid the inconsistencies that have already been mentioned, customer care—the way loved ones are treated—must be thought about. I am not criticising coroner’s officers, because many are very good, but I know of a case from Durham in which a relative who was trying to get a body released for burial was told by the coroner, “This is not your body; it is my body, and I will decide what happens to it.” I am sorry, but that type of language is not acceptable in a modern society. I do not think that standardisation across the country, if we are to have it, can be achieved without some form of national service.

My next point is about clause 5 of the draft Bill, which relates to the duty of coroners when deaths occur outside the United Kingdom. The clause would limit the circumstances in which a coroner would have jurisdiction over those deaths. If I read it correctly, there are four main instances in which an inquest would be possible. One would be that circumstances in this country had contributed to the death—for example, medical treatment might have taken place in this country before the person went abroad. Another would be any case in which broader lessons might be learned from a death, such as a child dying while travelling in a foreign country in a school party. The third would be circumstances in which murder or foul play abroad were suspected, and the fourth would rightly require inquests when members of the armed forces were killed in action. If hon. Members want an example of why the service must be brought into the 21st century, it is the appalling way in which the families of servicemen and women who have died in Iraq or Afghanistan go through another hell waiting for inquests.

Mr. Watson: My hon. Friend makes some important points. In the short time that I was a Defence Minister I was perhaps more troubled by the problem of the Brize Norton backlog than by any other thing. It is still a justice issue that I hope can be resolved. I know that my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister has done all that she can in providing resources and trying to have the situation rectified, but there is a problem with the system. I hope that the Bill that is eventually passed will ensure that families will never again have to wait as long for post-mortems as those families who are still waiting for post-mortems at Brize Norton.

Mr. Jones: My hon. Friend speaks from direct experience of dealing with those families. If we are to ask men and women in the armed services to serve
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abroad, we should ensure that their relatives will be treated with dignity and respect. It is difficult to argue against what my hon. friend said.

A case that I have been dealing with since I was first elected to this House—my first Adjournment debate was about it—concerns the death of Christopher Rochester, one of my constituents. It shows why it is wrong for the Bill to limit the application of coroner’s inquests when deaths occur abroad. Christopher was a young man of 24.

Mr. Mike Weir (in the Chair): Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman of the sub judice rule. Is this a case that has been completed?

Mr. Jones: Yes, although it is in the Greek courts.

Christopher was born and bred in Chester-le-Street in my constituency and travelled to the island of Rhodes in June 2000, as many young people do. Unfortunately, on 11 June he fell from a balcony in Faliraki. I have seen where he fell, and how the hell he survived the fall is remarkable, but he did. He was taken to the local Andreas Papandreou hospital where he was allowed, through lack of medical treatment, to bleed to death. When Christopher’s body was returned to the UK the Durham coroner held an inquest. It was only after a post-mortem carried out by a very good doctor, Professor Redmond, that it was discovered that the reason given for his death by the Greek authorities—that he had a slight tear in the vein to his left kidney—was not the case. Professor Redmond’s conclusion was that he had been allowed slowly to bleed to death, and the death would have been preventable if Christopher had been properly treated on admission to hospital.

Christopher’s mother, Pam Cummings, and the family have been tenacious in trying to get justice for him. Their efforts resulted in the conviction of three doctors for manslaughter by medical neglect. The case is going to the High Court on appeal in Athens later this year. There is no way that that case would have been taken seriously by the Greek authorities—I raised it in the House in 2001—or that any of the evidence that came before the court would have emerged without a coroner’s inquest in this country. My fear is that under the draft Bill the injustice that was clearly perpetrated in Greece would have gone unresolved, and the families would have been left asking questions about how Christopher died.

Mr. Watson: I was present at my hon. Friend’s first Adjournment debate, having also lost someone on Rhodes, necessitating, on the body’s return, an autopsy and coroner’s inquiry. I hope that any Bill that comes before the House will take account of the coroner’s service abroad, so that if that is thought to be inadequate in doing its job, checks and balances in our system can be applied, so that such things never happen again.

Mr. Jones: I totally agree, but, alas, what is proposed will not achieve that. The attitude of the Durham coroner was such that he would not necessarily have conducted an inquest into my constituent’s case if he had not had to. Christopher’s family—like most families to whom I have spoken after they have lost
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someone—just want answers. They do not want vengeance. The family have never been concerned with compensation, although they are now pursuing a private compensation order in Greece. They just want answers to questions: what happened and how did the person die? That is the core of what the service should be about: getting answers for the next of kin about how people died, and learning lessons from avoidable accidents. I ask the Government to reconsider the clause.

I must declare an interest in making my final point, as the chair of the all-party group on cardiac risk in the young. It is about consistency of coroners’ findings and the usefulness of pooling the verdicts given by the coroner service. Cardiac Risk in the Young estimates that eight young people die every week of unexplained cardiac arrhythmia. Fit, healthy young men and women die playing sport, drowned or simply in their sleep. More often than not the deaths are put down to drowning, or are left unexplained. How the deaths happened is not examined. Expertise in dealing with such cases varies around the country. The real importance of identifying sudden cardiac death is that it makes the condition treatable for other family members. Not only are answers provided for the families, but it becomes possible to ensure that the young person’s siblings, and other family members, are checked for what is often a hereditary condition. With the best will in the world, with the current pressures on the coroner service—certainly financially—it is difficult to build up the necessary level of expertise. That is why I am pleased that, as a charity, CRY is investing £300,000 in coroners’ referrals to an expert cardiologist to try to build up that expertise and assist the coroner service in identifying why sudden cardiac death occurs.

If we could build up a body of evidence that showed how many people die each week from that disease, it would, as the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed said, put pressure on the health service and others to take it seriously. Cardiac Risk in the Young is doing a great job in highlighting that tragic disease, but without the statistics and the force of coroners and medical professionals, I do not think that a great deal will be done about it.

We are part way through the process, we are scrutinising the Bill, and the Government must take seriously the report and today’s debate to reframe it before it becomes an Act. If, as the right hon. Gentleman said, the issue is about limited resources, I am sorry but that is not acceptable in a modern society. If the issue is about money, money must be found to create a system of which we can be proud and which supports coroners. They are very good professionals who do a hell of a hard job in very difficult circumstances.

3.31 pm

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): I am very happy to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Weir.

I begin with some general thanks, but they are no less well meant because of that. The Minister has taken a particular interest in the issue, and I thank her for that. Her commitment is clear. I do not intend to
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criticise the Government’s very welcome initiative to try to address what is a muddle of a system and get it into better shape, but it is right that we discuss the issue and subject it to careful all-party scrutiny. Therefore, a very important job is done by the Committee, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) chairs and in which other colleagues participate. The fact that there was a difference of view means that it is right for us to be open about the issues and to debate them. We must not be afraid of that, and today’s debate is a helpful part of the process.

There are many excellent coroners to whom we ought to pay tribute. The Minister and I, because we represent the same borough, share the coroner in Southwark. When she and I were first elected, the coroner, who had been a GP in Kennington for many years, was a strong, well known character called Sir Monty Levene. He was known for his handlebar moustache and—I hope that I am not being rude to him—what was clearly a wig, which he wore at all times.

I think Sir Monty was a Yorkshireman—he was certainly a northerner—who came down south. He was a gruff, lovable northerner who presided over his court in a pretty robust and idiosyncratic way, but he was much appreciated by and large, and he was often very gentle in spite of a rather aggressive exterior. I had occasion to attend with families who were constituents and who appeared before him.

Dr. Selena Lynch then became coroner, and she was in the post until recently. There is now a new coroner whom I have not yet met or seen in action. By and large, the court and the coroner’s officers have done a good and competent job, and I thank them for that. Many other coroners have done a good job, too.

I also pay tribute to funeral directors, because they have not been mentioned and they are a very important part of the process. They are the people most likely to handle families with expertise and to advocate on their behalf. In my constituency—indeed, in our borough—we are fortunate to have some very good funeral directors. I pay tribute to one company in particular, and I declare an interest, because the person who runs it is a friend of mine. It is, none the less, good by objective judgment, and not just by local community reputation.

The firm is called F. A. Albin and Sons—a family-run firm that has been established for more than a century—and it is responsible for the contract with the Ministry of Defence. It returns all our service people who are killed overseas to RAF Brize Norton; it provides an absolutely superb personal service to the families, and it continues to look after them throughout all subsequent difficulties. Such a service, as the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) said, is very important to people at those times. For the first time ever, they come into contact with a system that they have been hitherto fortunate enough to avoid.

There are some very important participants in the system, but it has not worked well in many cases, and I shall identify what strike me as failures and what may be the remedies. I do not pretend to have the perfect answers, but I have clear views about where we ought to go.

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