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I pay tribute to the Minister, because as the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) pointed out, she has taken a great interest in the subject and has built up a huge amount of respect throughout the country among the people to whom she has spoken. I have had discussions with different organisations and numerous coroners who have all been very appreciative of the time that she has given up. I also pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) and his Committee on putting together such an excellent report. A great deal of time went into it, and the Committee can be very proud of the end result.

The case for reform is compelling. The existing system has been described as fragmented, insufficiently professional and characterised by variable standards. All those constructive criticisms are correct. I argue for some local variation, because that can be a strength. However, I am clear that we need a proper national framework with a much more focused national direction and, within that, better training. I agree with the Committee that the fact that the certification and investigation systems are separate from each other is a drawback. The Conservatives also feel that it does not make sense for a coroner to have no jurisdiction to investigate deaths not reported to him. The whole reporting process needs to be considered.

We have heard about changing public expectations. Families are now better informed, much more likely to demand clear answers, and more aware of their rights and of what they can do by way of litigation—claiming compensation, in some cases. The system must reflect the rights and expectations of the bereaved families. However, the right of the bereaved to demand clear answers often conflicts with the overwhelming imperative of proceeding quickly with funeral arrangements.

That is all in the context of an ever-growing terrorist threat. The right hon. Gentleman pointed out the huge challenges that resulted from the terrorist attacks in London a year and a half ago. Tragically, we are seeing many more deaths in prisons, and obviously human rights legislation has an impact. A number of hon. Members, including the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) and the former Defence Minister, the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Watson), raised the situation at Brize Norton. The bodies of many tragically killed servicemen and, in one case, a servicewoman, have been returned there at a time when this country is fighting in more theatres than it has since the last war. I fear that that will become ever more of a problem, particularly given that in the past servicemen were often buried in the battlefield where they fell. The vast majority of fallen servicemen and women are now brought back to this country at the request of their relatives. Hon. Members made the case for ensuring that the operation at Brize Norton is given extra resources and perhaps more flexibility. That could come about only through a national framework. Those arguments are very important.

The hon. Members for North Durham and for West Bromwich, East mentioned constituents who died in Rhodes. As a constituency MP, I hear time and again that families want closure. However, they also want something positive to come out of the coroner’s inquiry. They want lessons to be learned and, possibly,
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preventive measures to be put in place. We think that there is a case for better use of coronial information and for improvements to public health and safety.

There is a compelling case for reform. On the report and the Government’s proposals on death certification and referral to coroners, I believe that the death certification procedure should be standardised, regardless of whether the body is buried or cremated. I support that recommendation of the Select Committee. There is a need for a common certification process with a requirement for two professional opinions. I support the idea of a medical examiner giving that second opinion. I certainly agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the medical examiner should be sited in the coroner’s office.

We also need to consider carefully the £100 raised from the public for the doctor’s cremation certificate. I understand that the Minister is keen to abolish that. Given that she is keen to make the changes cost-effective and cost-neutral, what are the implications of abolishing it? What are the implications if that fee is extended to burials in the event that the requirement for the second professional opinion is put in place? As she has made clear on a number of occasions, her Department wants the changes to be cost-neutral. She will have to consider those two points carefully.

When I started looking again at the whole issue of the coroner service, having previously considered it carefully during my days at the Bar, I was staggered to see the number of deaths referred to the coroner— 45 per cent. in 2005. I do not know whether we have the figure for 2006; if we do, perhaps the Minister will tell us. However, that is far too many cases, and there is a great deal of confusion over whether doctors should refer. I would support a new set of statutory rules that would remove some of the confusion.

There is a need for much clearer legal guidance. I support Dame Janet Smith’s recommendation on that. She made the point very cogently in the Select Committee when she said:

That makes the issue very clear: we must aim to reduce the number of referrals so that coroners can concentrate their efforts and resources on those more serious cases and on cases for which referral is required by law. I would add that there is an argument for getting rid of the 14-day rules, as has been done in your country of Scotland, Mr. Weir.

There is an argument for much better training for doctors. An important point was raised by the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes): there needs to be more co-operation between the Department of Health and the Department for Constitutional Affairs. Tom Luce made that clear in his strong recommendation that there should be combined certification of burials and cremations. He also made a strong point about moving the whole certification process into the coroner service, so that there is one seamless process. I would certainly support that.

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The Government’s view is that the local service should be within a national framework, and I support them on that. Yes, there are many local variations; some coroners are well supported, while others are less so. The same is true of coroner’s officers. I had a look at the briefing given to the Committee by Her Majesty’s coroner for Essex and Thurrock, Caroline Beasley-Murray; the Committee Chairman also referred to it. She pointed out that when Tom Luce first investigated how her service was going, he

Essex that the full-time coroner was working out of her own home

She went on to say:

She added that, given the support of her MP, my hon. Friend the Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns), there is now a strong possibility that that new build will take place under a public finance initiative, and the coroner’s court would be part of the new magistrates court complex. Obviously, that is good news.

Up and down the country, there are many different levels of support and infrastructure. Personally, I feel strongly that localism is to be encouraged. Each coroner inherits local traditions. When I have talked to coroners, I have been struck by how important that is. I take on board the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) point that although he supports localism, he feels that the coroner service should be integrated into the judicial system. He argued—as did other hon. Members, in particular the hon. Member for North Durham—that rather than just having a national framework, there should be a national service. I would not go that far. What the Government propose makes sense, because we have the benefits of localism and of local sovereignty and discretion.

Mr. Kevan Jones: The hon. Gentleman says that it is okay to have a national chief coroner and a standard that we expect everybody to abide by, but unless there is some power over the delivery of resources at the local level, how will we get the system that I believe we all want, which is a first-rate coroner service of the same standard up and down the country?

Mr. Bellingham: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point—he argued it very well in his speech—but if the service were better funded at the local level, and if there were better facilities and consolidation of the certification process with the coroner service, we could have a national framework. There would be an appeals system—as far as that is concerned, there would have to be a clear, narrow process whereby appeals could go forward—and we could have far more national training as well. We could preserve the best of localism within a national framework. I support what the Government are trying to do in that respect.

Mr. Beith: Surely, at the very least, we must resolve the argument of who is paying. A situation in which
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chief constables sometimes provide coroners’ offices, and sometimes pay for them and sometimes do not, involves uncertainty that cannot survive for long.

Mr. Bellingham: The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. It is one that was put to the Select Committee and to me by Her Majesty’s coroner for Essex, Caroline Beasley-Murray. Indeed, every coroner I have spoken to has made the same point, but they have also said that if the service were better funded at the local level, there would be no reason why we could not have a national framework and a chief coroner, and preserve the best of what I describe as localism.

Simon Hughes: Is not the greatest weakness of the hon. Gentleman’s local funding argument the fact that the local authority and the police authority would have to ask for more money through the council tax? That is the only way that they can get it, but I have never heard his party say that council taxes should go up. No politician wants to say that. There are very few, if any, votes in better funding for the coroner service. It would be far better, surely, if the service were part of a national settlement, negotiated nationally, for which the Government would have to provide funding that followed the service.

Mr. Bellingham: We could delve into the hon. Gentleman’s argument at great length, but I shall not do so. The only point that I will make is that if one considers Norfolk, for example, the cost of providing the service in the context of the overall police and county budgets is a fraction—it is a very small amount of money.

We have to be realistic. We must consider the other pressures the Department faces on, for example, the legal aid budget, and the other changes that are taking place in the judicial system. That is why I give guarded support to what the Government are doing, but, obviously, we must look at things in much more detail when they publish the Bill.

I am not yet convinced that there is a need to change boundaries and appoint full-time senior coroners for each coroner area. The new boundaries will have quite an impact, particularly on remote areas, and they are already having an adverse impact on morale. I received a letter the other day from a coroner for an area in the north of the country. I will not mention his name. He said that the Minister

That reveals that there is a great deal of concern at the sharp end.

Another aspect to consider is the solicitors who provide the service. I take on board what the hon. Member for North Durham said about how the old-boy network kicks in, and the colourful point that the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey made about the coroner he met when he first became the Member for that constituency. Nevertheless, part-time coroners provide a hidden subsidy that is obviously worth a great deal of
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money. I do not know how much, but figures of up to £30 million have been suggested. That is something worth bearing in mind. The Select Committee report deals with the issue on pages 27 and 28.

There is an argument for keeping much of what is good in the local system, but ensuring that it is funded better. If that hidden local subsidy were removed, central Government would have to provide a great deal of extra resources. Is that realistic in the current climate? I would argue that it probably is not. We must be realistic, and Conservative Members strongly believe that we should not make spending pledges that we know are unrealistic.

On the death investigation, I said that fewer cases should go to inquest, and that has been backed up by all the reports that have been produced. The Government need to consider carefully what has been said on that front. There is a good possibility that the changes could be made on a cost-neutral basis if fewer cases went to inquest. Otherwise, the Government would have to provide a great deal of extra money.

On post-mortems, the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), in what I thought was a moving short contribution, raised a very sad local case. It supports the point that post-mortems should not be automatic. A post-mortem should be ordered only if one is necessary to clarify uncertainty about a death. At present, all the evidence is that far too many post-mortems take place, and not necessarily for the right reasons.

There has been much discussion about the position of the bereaved. I agree with the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey that Inquest has been active in briefing hon. Members and has been proactive in this debate. I would add the views of Victims Voice, which has been equally proactive and assiduous in ensuring that we are properly briefed.

I very much welcome the draft charter for deceased people. I know that the Minister has been active in promoting its benefits, and I hope that it will eliminate for ever the sort of arrogance and uncaring incidents to which the hon. Member for North Durham referred. I agree that such attitudes are completely unacceptable.

I agree with the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey about maximum time limits. I am dealing with a case that was referred to me by my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan). I cannot give the name because of the sub judice rule, but it involves a constituent of his who was killed exactly four years ago as a result of an armoured vehicle coming off a low-loader on the motorway. The inquest was opened and adjourned but has not yet started, four years later. There may well be important lessons to learn from a case like that. Such delays have a devastating impact on families, and we have heard that time and again in respect of the families of servicemen and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice.

There is also a debate about whether bereaved families should sometimes get legal aid when a case involves a lengthy, complex hearing and they will be up against a panoply of Ministry of Defence lawyers and QCs in an intimidating environment. The Minister has argued strongly that the essence of inquest procedures is that they should not be too formal or intimidating, but when Departments can appoint top lawyers and QCs and the
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bereaved family have to pay for their own solicitor, there will certainly be arguments for the chief coroner having flexibility in some cases to award legal aid.

Having said that, I appreciate the pressure that the Government are under on legal aid. The Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, the hon. and learned Member for Redcar, and I have had many discussions about it. She told me yesterday that I ought to look to the future, and I take that on board. Far be it from me to make extra pledges on legal aid, but it is something that should be carefully considered.

Simon Hughes: The hon. Gentleman made a point about delay, citing a constituency case of another of our colleagues. Does he agree that the knot that needs to be sorted out once and for all by the Bill is how we prevent the coincidence of inquests with actual or possible criminal proceedings and public inquiries, which spins out the process for years? Those three processes often follow a death, and they need to be brought together so that decisions can be made and they can all proceed as quickly as possible in an integrated manner.

Mr. Bellingham: I agree. The hon. Gentleman has made many sensible points, and that is another. It underlines the need for a national framework, because exactly such issues could be addressed.

The point has been made about how we must learn lessons from inquests. I was impressed by the Committee’s comments about how it learned from the evidence given by the state coroner’s office in Victoria, and how the collection of timely and detailed evidence led to sensible recommendations. The Committee gave many examples of how those recommendations have led to significant improvements in public health and safety. I find that compelling, and it is a great pity that we do not look more carefully at the data and evidence from inquests. If we did, and we had a more co-ordinated method of doing so, we could learn more lessons that could be spread around the country, which would benefit our constituents. That reinforces the argument in favour of a national framework.

In conclusion, there is certainly a need for a Bill. The Government have a golden opportunity to move forward, as they have support from all parties. It is not often that an issue gains so much cross-party support and that they have quite so much good will running in their direction. However, the various reports and the draft Bill have led to enhanced expectations among members of the coroner service, as well as among the public and many bereaved families. Unless the Government get their act together and move quickly, the uncertainty will continue, as will the poor morale in the service, and the good will towards their moving forward and taking action might well dissipate. Will the Minister not only answer the queries that have been raised in this well-natured debate, but use all her skills and her considerable contacts and credibility in the Government to ensure that the draft Bill becomes a reality soon?

4.22 pm

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