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The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): The Government have today published a consultation paper setting out proposals for improving the process of death certification in England and Wales.
The consultation paper sets out proposals to address the weaknesses in the current system for certifying death which were identified by the Shipman Inquiry. We believe these proposals represent a proportionate and affordable response that will provide greater protection for the public by identifying and deterring criminal activity or poor practice. The proposals will
also improve the quality and accuracy of death certification and remove current inequalities in the way burials and cremations are dealt with.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Ann Keen): A summary of the responses received during a public consultation exercise, based on the Chief Medical Officer, Sir Liam Donaldson's report, Bearing Good Witness: Proposals for reforming the delivery of medical expert evidence in family law cases, has been placed in the Library and is available on the Department of Health website at: http://www.dh.gov.uk/Consultations/Live Consultations/fs/en.
The report's key proposal is that protecting vulnerable children should be a public service, and that the National Health Service should develop a new resource for the family courts by establishing expert witness teams of specialist doctors and other healthcare professionals.
The consultation attracted responses from a wide spectrum of parties and organisations with interests in the family court system. The results from 135 responses received indicated that over 60 per cent., and almost all key stakeholder organisations, approved the proposal to introduce NHS expert witness teams and to commission the expert witness service through a public sector organisation.
The responses confirmed that the introduction of NHS teams should not reserve the work to the NHS, but should offer an additional source of expertise. Responses also suggested that the activity of these teams should be confined, at least for the present, to public law family cases where joint instructions apply, and be commissioned regionally to ensure the independence of NHS experts from the local authority and staff directly involved in the case.
Consultation responses raised concerns over the ability of the NHS to undertake this work within its resources, a shortage of doctors willing to act as expert witnesses, time constraints for those who chose to do so, and possible conflict between a requirement to assist the courts and clinical responsibilities. The availability of trained professionals, particularly those involved in child safeguarding, and shortages of consultants in child and adolescent mental health and in paediatric radiology were among concerns raised over NHS skill levels in some specialised areas.
A substantial number of respondents focused on the deterrent effect of referrals of expert witnesses, particularly paediatricians, to their regulatory body as an unwarranted consequence of their giving expert evidence in courtand regardless of any legitimate cause for complaint. Further measures are envisaged to counter this effect. The Government fully recognises that in order for health professionals to do their job properly and effectively, they need to be clear about the boundaries of the professional and legal framework in which they work. The issues here go broader than those
around expert witnesses, into the wider role of medical professionals in the detection and investigation of child abuse and neglect.
In order to help clarify the situation I have recently written jointly with my hon. Friend, the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Children, Schools and Families to relevant organisations with a statement setting out the Government's understanding of the legal position as considered in some recent judgements.
The statement, which outlines professionals' duty of care, the legal framework within which they operate, and the basis on which sound professional judgments should be made, has been placed in the Library and is available on the Every Child Matters website: http://www.everychildmatters.gov.uk/safeguarding.
The role of doctors and other healthcare professionals in acting as expert witnesses is both fundamental and vital to the safeguarding of children's welfare. Any diminution in this resource would be extremely detrimental, and especially to the most vulnerable children and those most at risk of abuse. We shall therefore be supporting the NHS in taking forward the introduction of teams. We envisage this will be through the introduction of path-finding teams in the first instance, but gradually increasing so that NHS healthcare expert witness services will eventually be available throughout the country.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Vernon Coaker): I am pleased to announce that the Annual Report and accounts of the Security Industry Authority (SIA), 2006-07, will be laid before Parliament on 24 July 2007 and published on that day.
The Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education (Bill Rammell): I would inform the House that the Learning and Skills Council for England has today published its Annual Report and Accounts for the period to 31 March 2007. Copies will be placed in both Libraries of the House
The agency has a clear strategic goal which is that all citizens are entitled to access justice, whether as victims of crime, defendants accused of crimes, consumers in debt, children in need of care, or business people in commercial disputes, as quickly as possible. This access should be provided at the lowest cost consistent with open justice so that citizens have confidence in, and respect, for the system of justice.
Over the last year, the courts have seen great change and have achieved much in conjunction with their partners. Significant progress has been made in protecting the vulnerable by tackling domestic violence through both criminal and civil courts, and victims and witnesses protected through better case management and improved safety arrangements. Justice is also being provided in other ways, such as mediation in both civil and family cases so disputes are resolved faster and in less adversarial ways.
During the year, a blueprint for delivering simple, speedy, summary justice in magistrates' courts was launched to reduce delay and make better use of every hearing. In the pilot areas where this was tested, the impact has been very positive with a large reduction in the time taken between first hearing and trial, an increase in guilty pleas at first hearing and those pleading guilty now being sentenced at first hearing.
The courts have continued with much success to address the challenge of maintaining and improving performance whilst meeting the requirement faced by all Government Departments to work within tight financial constraints.
The Report highlights these and other achievements made by the agency and looks to the future to sustain the momentum and pace of change, and has made a public commitment to deliver a palpable step change, a breakthrough in the public's experience of the justice system.
Copies of the report have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses. The report is also available on the Courts Service website at www.hmcourts-service.gov.uk
The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): I have today laid before Parliament the Annual Report and Accounts for the Tribunals Service covering the period for financial year 2006-07.
Tribunals are a vitally important part of our legal system, providing access to justice for a large community of users across a wide range of issues, from employment disputes and entitlement, to benefits to asylum and immigration rights. The Tribunals Service has created a new unified administration for the system, bringing tribunals together as an integrated part of our justice system, with the aim of making them more obviously independent and easier for the citizen to use. This first Annual Report sets out its progress over the first year of operation in developing plans to thoroughly modernise the way those services are provided.
Copies of the Report have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses. The Report is also available on the Tribunals Service website at www.tribunals.gov.uk/publications.htm/.
Copies of the Report are available on the Youth Justice Board Website at http://www.yjb.gov.uk/en-gb/yjb/Howwework/.
The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Peter Hain): I am pleased to announce that the Department for Work and Pensions has today laid in the House the 2006-07 annual reports and accounts for its executive agencies: Jobcentre Plus (HC712), The Pension Service (HC721), the Disability and Carers Service (HC805), and The Rent Service (HC684).
The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Peter Hain): The Disability Rights Commission's Annual Report and Accounts 2006-07 have been published today and laid before Parliament. The Annual Report demonstrates the DRC's continuing success in its important work to eliminate discrimination against disabled people; promote equal opportunities; encourage good practice, and to keep the working of the Disability Discrimination Act and the DRC Act under review.
The Report records that total gross expenditure in 2006-07, excluding Winter Fuel Payments, was £997 million. This included more than 271,000 non-repayable
grants and over 2.3 million interest free loans together worth over £827 million, and Funeral and Cold Weather Payments totalling more than £49 million. In addition around 237,000 Sure Start Maternity Grants worth almost £120 million were made, and 8.6 million households benefited from a Winter Fuel Payment at a cost of around £2 billion.
The report also confirms that reforms to the Social Fund loan scheme were introduced from April 2006, with extra net funding of £210 million over the three years 2006-07 to 2008-09 to support the changes.