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8 Mar 2007 : Column 542WH—continued

The Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Ms Harriet Harman): We have had an extremely interesting and productive debate. I thank the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) for his leadership of the Select Committee and for his
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attention to the subject. I welcome the Committee’s work, because its focus, which has provided an opportunity for all organisations to consider where we are going and to broaden the debate, enables the Government to acknowledge the subject and to take it forward with the seriousness and importance it deserves.

I welcome the Committee’s work, despite the fact that it described my responses to it as evasive. I do not plan to evade any questions today. There is some disagreement about the practicalities of the structure and the way forward, but there is a lot of agreement about the problems. I shall say a little about what we all think the problems are. There is a lot of agreement about what should be the end result of the processes of change that we want to see. I want to say something about what I am doing in the meantime to try to improve the system, and I shall conclude by saying something about progress on the Bill on death certification.

There is a problem with the system. I think that we all agree that we would not start from here if we had the choice. Although we all recognise that important work is done in the system, it is incredibly variable. My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test(Dr. Whitehead) said that the fact that there are so few complaints—despite the fact that 30,000 inquests a year take place, against the background of a shambolic, antiquated structure—is testimony to the dedication of coroners, coroners’ officers, the voluntary organisations that support them and local authorities and police authorities, all of whom have put their shoulders to the wheel. I agree absolutely and pay tribute to that work. However, I agree, too, with my hon. Friends the Members for North Durham (Mr. Jones) and for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), who have highlighted some real horror stories. Both are true: for the most part some incredibly good work is going on, but some terrible problems occur in the system that no bereaved person should come up against.

Let me identify some of the agreed problems with the system. First, I shall deal with the question of delay. It is unacceptable that it should take years after a death and after the opening of an inquest for the family to able to come to that inquest, sit in the coroner’s court and hear answers about how their relatives died. Many relatives have told me that, if they are trying to fight for answers, they cannot start the grieving process. They have to fight the system, rather than moving on and mourning the person whom they have lost. The idea that the delay can sometimes last years is totally unacceptable. We have started to collect and collate the figures by coroner’s area to find the average length of delay and the oldest case in each area, and it has become clear that the variation is unacceptable.

We must work with our colleagues in the Coroners’ Society of England and Wales and in local government to try to iron out that variation, as some areas have a prompt system, while unacceptable delays are the norm in others. I shall deal separately with the situation in Oxfordshire. People do not want delay, because not only can they not get on with the grieving process, but if lessons are to be learned, it is better that they are learned at the time and not six or seven years later. We have inquests, and they are important, not only for the bereaved relatives but for the public interest, as we
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learn lessons about how someone has died in order to do things differently in future.

Simon Hughes: Is the Minister willing to argue that, when there might be criminal case or a public inquiry, the inquest could take precedence? It could start, rather than having to wait for the other two processes. Of course, if further evidence were to come to light in the inquiry or criminal case, the inquest could be reopened at the instigation of the family, but they would not have to wait five years for a public inquiry that might or might not bring anything new.

Ms Harman: That is something that a chief coroner could assist with. There will not be one blueprint for dealing with situations when a number of different agencies are involved. As the hon. Gentleman said, two agencies might be involved in the investigation—perhaps the Health and Safety Executive and the Crown Prosecution Service, or the British Transport police and the coroner’s officers. There is no blueprint, but if something is snarled up locally, we need a chief Crown coroner to bring it together and to say, “In this case, I suggest that we do this, this and this, in this order.” That is something that the Director of Public Prosecutions, leading the CPS, often does. The role of chief coroner could be very important.

Mr. Kevan Jones: I am intrigued by that statement. What happens if local resources are the problem—for example, if a police authority or councillors have cut resources, thus causing delays? Could the chief coroner direct a council or police authority to put more money into a service?

Ms Harman: I was going to speak later about resources, but as my hon. Friend has raised the subject I shall deal with it now.

If anyone were to ask the Chancellor for more resources, the first thing he or the Chief Secretary to the Treasury would want to know is how much was being spent now, how much was being spent in each area, why was there a variation in the amounts being spent in each area and whether there was any correlation between the amount being spent per inquest and the outcome—in other words, how well the system was running.

As Minister with responsibility for policy concerning coroners—I have no operational responsibility—I want to improve the system. I am drawing together all that information. That is something that chief coroners would do, and I look forward to their being appointed. At the very least, however, we need to understand the present situation, because there is no evidence as yet that the difficulties in various areas are the result of resourcing problems. We do not yet know whether some coroners are doing a good job with relatively modest resources or whether others with adequate resources are not doing as well.

I do not disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham that resources are a problem, but we have to drill down into the system to see what is being spent area by area. There are no national guidelines on what the level of service should be, so resources are being addressed in the most general way.
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The answer to the question of how much a coroner needs per inquest is as long as a piece of string. There is no central guidance.

Mr. Beith: The Minister poses an important question, and she admits that she does not know the answer. It will not do to wait for the chief coroner; the answer is fundamental to deciding whether the scheme that we are setting up will work. She needs to carry on the work—I am glad to hear that she is doing it—of considering what is put in by local authorities and police authorities, and what would have to be replaced if coroners’ private practice offices no longer provided underlying service support for individual coroners. We need that figure in order to know whether what is proposed in the Bill will be workable. We really cannot wait for the chief coroner to be appointed in order to find out.

Ms Harman: I assure the Chamber that I am not waiting for anything. I am getting on with addressing the issues, not only so that I can be better informed on what is the right policy solution for the Bill, but so that we can make a difference now by working with coroners and local authorities. I want an open and transparent understanding of how the system varies from area to area, and realistic dialogue and discussion with local authorities about why that is so and how things can be improved.

I move on to another point that concerned all Members—the question of disclosure, which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli. The problem is two fold. The bereaved families whom we met, who suggested how to run inquests into those in the armed forces who lost their lives in Iraq, and those bereaved families who helped us with our pre-legislative scrutiny told us that, at the inquests, they would sometimes see that the coroner had a thick pile papers on his desk and that the counsel for the military had an equally thick pile, while they had only two or three sheets of paper.

I also heard a complaint from someone whose daughter was killed by a speeding police car. The police authority, the chief constable and the Police Federation representative each had great wodges of documents, reports and legal representation—I shall deal with that point in a moment—and the bereaved family, who cared most about that death, had only a small amount of information.

The problem is that information is not being given to relatives in advance. We are analysing the reasons for that, and we intend to issue guidance to coroners on ensuring that information is given to them in advance. We do not want bereaved families to find themselves unable to follow proceedings because they do not have the same documents as everyone else. On the one hand we have inadequate advance disclosure, and on the other we have disclosure to people who are not entitled to it. That points up the problem of not having a national standard. In my daily work as Minister with responsibility for coroners policy, I am trying to assist the process; I want people to recognise what the minimum standards should be in the absence of a national system. I want to move the situation forward. That is something that the chief coroner will be able to help with.

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We have an independent judicial system, and I am responsible for policy. However, when I receive complaints or when I hear of problems—for example, in relation to the armed forces deaths in Iraq—it is impossible for me to sit back and say, “Let’s wait until the next Queen’s Speech and see whether we have a Bill.” In the absence of anyone else, I and my officials—I pay tribute to them; they are from the Home Office—are doing what we can without encroaching on the independence of the system. I want to move forward, but I am explaining the situation as it is now.

I think that everyone agrees that, if there is a problem and people have a complaint about how they were dealt with by a coroner’s officer or a coroner, there is nowhere for such complaints to be considered and acted upon or for lessons to be learned. Sometimes, people simply want to complain so that the situation can be recognised and changed. At other times, they want to appeal a finding, or have it reviewed. However, as the Select Committee made clear, the ability to appeal is very restricted.

Hon. Members also spoke about the appointment system. Some parts of the coroners’ system can be seen as our only hereditary system—except, of course, for the monarchy. Sometimes, the job belongs within a solicitor’s firm, so one practice can hold the coronership. If that practice is a family firm, the job will go from father to son, and from son to daughter. None of us think that that is the right way to run the system.

I agree with the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham), however: not only is ours a non-appointment system, but some people regard it as a part of their local public service. I do not take anything away from those who do so. The hon. Gentleman is right also that many who are called part-time coroners have given up their other jobs and are acting as full-time coroners, but they are paid only as part-timers.

It is no disservice to those who do so to say that it is not acceptable to have a system with no proper appointments—one that can be run by the partners of a coroners’ firm in which the job can go from father to son. If someone can appoint their own deputy coroner, when the local authority comes to make an appointment, the only person qualified for the job has already been appointed; indeed, he will have been working alongside the coroner, perhaps for six years. That is how things work, and we do not think that it is acceptable for appointments to be made in that way.

We are also concerned about the lack of national training standards for coroners’ officers and that there is a postcode lottery. Those are the problems in the system. As previous mentioned, we recently carried out a poll of bereaved relatives to measure their satisfaction rating, because we only tend to see the complaints about those 30,000 inquests. There were some grave and serious complaints, however, in our survey, we also found that bereaved relatives judged their experience of the coroner service to have resulted in a higher level of satisfaction than their experience of the NHS.

Although nothing can overtake the misery of somebody who is badly treated in an inquest, people have an ocean of gratitude for those who go the extra mile and do not just treat the situation as being all in a
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day’s work but understand that it is an incredibly stressful and difficult time in people’s lives. For example, a woman who had worked in the coroner’s court and pathology system in Sheffield for many years told me that, when dealing with the death of a child, she prepared the child in the mortuary and asked the mother to give her the washing powder and fabric softener that she usually used on the child’s clothes. When the mother came to see her child and be with the body, the child’s clothes smelt not of formaldehyde or horrible chemicals, but like her child. There are stories from all over the country of people who have strained themselves to ensure that the system helps those who are dealing with a sudden, unexplained or violent death.

I will explain what I am currently doing to deal with some of the problems. As I have mentioned, I am trying to get to the bottom of the variation in the amount that is spent in different local authority areas. So far, that does not seem to be related to the number of deaths. I am also examining the variation in time that an inquest takes, as it does not seem to correlate to the amount of money spent. We will shortly introduce the cremation regulations, which will automatically allow relatives to have copies of the cremation certificate so that they can see if there are any problems. That was something that Ann Alexander, who represented the bereaved relatives of the Shipman murders, asked to be done. We will introduce those regulations for consultation in April.

We are also dealing with the situation in Oxfordshire. Hon. Members will understand that, when military fatalities are flown into Brize Norton, that is where the body lies, and once the coroner has opened an inquest, there is no possibility to transfer the body to another coroner’s area because each coroner’s jurisdiction is a law unto itself. Therefore, delays build up because a body cannot subsequently be transferred to the coroner in the jurisdiction where the person was stationed in the UK or where their relatives live. That has caused incredible difficulties for many relatives who have had to travel hundreds of miles at great expense to themselves and been unable to be supported by as many family members and friends as they would have liked because of travelling expenses.

Those military fatalities have led to many deaths from abroad coming into the Oxfordshire coroner’s jurisdiction. Often such deaths have occurred in complex circumstances and it is difficult to obtain the necessary evidence, much of which is very technical. Unacceptable delays have occurred and, because of an absence of transparency in the system, it took a while for us to recognise that there was a delay building-up.

No reporting system is in place to bring such a build up of cases to the relevant person’s attention, and I pay tribute to my ministerial colleagues in the Ministry of Defence, who raised this matter with me. They were particularly concerned about the service families involved. We were able to work with the Oxfordshire coroner and provide the resources for him to appoint extra coroners, so that we could have many inquests running at the same time to ensure that such a terrible delay was brought to an end. In many cases, people had been waiting four, five or six years for inquests.

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I pay tribute to Sir Richard Curtis—a retired High Court judge, who as assistant deputy coroner, dealt with one of the most complex technical cases involving a helicopter—and to Selena Lynch, a barrister, who was an assistant deputy coroner, and to Andrew Walker for the work that they are doing to ensure that the relatives of those who have died in Iraq get the answers to their questions.

One of the responsibilities of a chief coroner will be to back up an individual coroner in a particular jurisdiction when they need evidence from abroad or some other agency. If a coroner felt that they were not getting the information that they needed, a chief coroner at a level similar to that of the Lord Chief Justice will be able to contact the authority involved and say, “My coroner is not getting the information that they need from you”. In the absence of a chief coroner, that role is, to some extent, falling to me. I have taken it upon myself to see the American ambassador and ask him to give the relevant information to the Oxfordshire coroner, so that he can conduct a proper inquest into the deaths of those military personnel in Iraq.

Mr. Bellingham: I am glad that the Minister has paid tribute to the members of the judiciary who have been helping out with the backlog in Oxfordshire. Under the new system that she envisages, would it be possible for a national coroner—or chief coroner—to move the bodies in such cases to other areas, such as the garrison town where the serviceman was based or to the area where the family live?

Ms Harman: That will be possible under the system that we envisage because the statutory boundaries that make each jurisdiction entirely independent and hermetically sealed will change. It will be easy for the coroner to make that happen of their own volition without the intervention of a chief coroner.

Mr. Kevan Jones: The Oxfordshire case highlights the problems relating to resources and has demonstrated the need for more of them. What authority would the chief coroner have to transfer a case to another jurisdiction and force taxpayers in that area to take on that burden?

Ms Harman: They would not have that authority. I will come on to resources in a moment, but the coroner concerned would to able to see the coroner in the home town of the family and if the family wanted the inquest to be near where they live, or if it made more sense for the inquest to be near where the person was stationed, the legislative changes envisaged will mean that the inquest can be moved. The coroner cannot do that at the moment.

I will not be able to answer satisfactorily all the points that my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham and other hon. Members made about resources, but I will try to explain what I am doing now and what the Bill will change.

Simon Hughes: Every bit of the logic of the last section of the Minister’s speech—much of which is welcome—suggests that the coroner service should become part of the judicial system. Unless that happens, there
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cannot be rules to require evidence to be given equally to everybody, so that there is disclosure. That would be perfectly possible in the judicial system and the Minister could lay regulations to deal with that. Will she reconsider the fundamental question of whether the coroner service should remain a local authority service as opposed to a judicial service, and will she examine her power—the Government power—to introduce regulations to allow for disclosure, transfer and all the other things that could follow, which would result in a much better service?

Ms Harman: I have two observations to make on that. A system placed on a proper statutory footing, with a charter for bereaved relatives, with a system of inspection and monitoring, with performance standards and with a chief coroner, provides a huge amount more than we have at the moment. We do not want to make the best the enemy of the good. From my vantage point as a Minister, dealing with some of the problems, I can say that if we already had the measures in the Bill, we would not have nine out of 10 of the problems that we are discussing—I could tick them off because they would not be occurring.

We need national standards with local delivery. I know that there is disagreement on that. The high point of my support is a guarded welcome from the official Opposition, and I might have to be very grateful for that, but we are aiming for national standards, with local delivery. What might have to build on what we are suggesting, but it will be a million miles better than what we have at the moment. The difficulty is that if everybody argues that what we are doing is not enough, it makes the Bill seem unpopular and people think, “Well, then, let’s not do it at all.” I do not want to give too many insights into how the Government’s legislative programme is constructed, but I will say that I would appreciate a bit of warm support for the proposals. I want us to get on with them and not carry on with the current system. When we were consulting on the Bill, one coroner said, to the approval of many others at the conference, that all this business about standards for bereaved relatives and reducing delay was none of our business, and that:

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