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8 pm

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): I compliment my hon. Friend on his speech. In his capacity as Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, is he aware of any current procedure that allows an inquest to be held in camera, or allows denial of evidence to be made public, or anything remotely similar to what we have at the present time? Does he know of any other European countries that adopt the system proposed in the Bill?

Mr. Dismore: On my hon. Friend’s first question, public interest immunity certificates can be used, and I will refer to them shortly. I cannot help him with regard to the European experience, but bearing in mind all the arguments that we have had on the Bill about international comparisons generally, I prefer not to go down that route. If he has such knowledge, I will be happy to hear from him.

Mr. Grieve: The hon. Gentleman touched on an important point, which is the lack of clarity in respect of who the Secretary of State is. One might have expected that if this was a judicial process, it would be confined to the role of the Lord Chancellor, even though I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there are problems there because the Lord Chancellor is also the Secretary of State for Justice and in charge of prisons, so there can be a conflict of interest. But the Bill, as it stands and even as amended by the Government’s proposals, does not specify that it has to be the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice at all, which for me raises even greater anxiety about the fact that there seems to be a mixing of administrative and judicial process.

Mr. Dismore: The hon. and learned Gentleman is entirely right. That is why I gave two different examples. My understanding, based on what I have read and not on what is in the Bill, is that the list will be maintained by the Secretary of State for Justice. The hon. and learned Gentleman is right that it is not in the Bill, but it should be, if we are to go down this route. I hope that it will not be because I hope that the House will agree to my amendments to take all this out. But if it is not the Secretary of State for Justice, one can only assume that it will be the Home Secretary and, in those circumstances a whole raft of other possible conflicts of interest and therefore lack of independence potentially arise.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): The hon. Gentleman mentioned public immunity certificates in his response to the intervention of the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), but am I right in saying that rule 17 of the coroners’ rules 1984 enable a
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coroner to direct that the public can be excluded from an inquest or any part of an inquest if he considers that it will be in the interests of national security? If that is the case, what we are debating as part of the Bill is completely unnecessary and totally over the top.

Mr. Dismore: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. He is right, and it is a point that I intended to make later, but I am happy to have it made now.

The next comparison to make here is with criminal cases. We have criminal cases prosecuted before a jury and we have criminal cases prosecuted before a judge—not a specially selected jury and not a specially selected judge, but as part of the ordinary criminal process. In those cases, the Secretary of State cannot pick and choose his jury and cannot pick and choose his judge, even if they are dealing with sensitive security matters. All the terrorist trials that we have seen in the last several years have been conducted through the ordinary criminal courts, so why do we need a separate process for something that is rather less than a criminal trial—the inquest system?

We must remember that a criminal trial in a homicide case is, in effect, a substitute for the inquest anyway. An inquest will not normally follow a criminal prosecution for a homicide offence. The Minister may well say that in a criminal trial the prosecution always has the option not to proceed with a trial and it does not have that option in the inquest sphere, but I find it difficult to believe that we will find a case involving a terrorist that is not prosecuted because it is for the convenience of the Secretary of State to keep matters private.

What sort of cases are we dealing with? The European Court has looked at some of these. In the Mubarek case, Lord Bingham summarised the purposes of an inquest as follows:

This process does not provide any of that. The point that I would particularly emphasise is that this is not a counsel of perfection. Lord Bingham summarises it quite accurately by saying

Mr. Grieve: My understanding—it may be the hon. Gentleman’s—is that the reason why the Government suddenly came forward with these proposals was a problem encountered in one particular case, which interestingly enough is not terrorist related. Does he agree that the oddity is that the anxiety that the full facts should emerge in that one particular case, which is given as the justification for the change, seems in a way to be completely counterbalanced by the fact that even if the facts emerge correctly in that case and in the way that Government intend through this process, there will not be the transparency that will enable the verdict to be accepted?

Mr. Dismore: The hon. and learned Gentleman is right. I was going to refer to the fact that I understood that this was all triggered by one case in which the
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inquest has been stalled. So we run the risk of creating this whole part of the Act, and this whole new superstructure, for one case. That one case is clearly very distressing for the family concerned because of the fact that they do not know what happened to their loved one, but this is a matter of convenience. As the hon. and learned Gentleman says, supposing that that one inquest is then allowed to complete, the family will still not know what has happened to their loved one. They still will not know whether the lessons have been learned. They still will not have closure on the case, so it achieves very little for those people anyway. It makes far more sense not to legislate in haste, but to look at this as part of the overall comprehensive review of the coroners Bill, which we know is coming in the next Session.

That family may have to wait an extra year—an extra year of distress. I know what it is like because, when I was in practice, I dealt with dozens of fatal cases, and every one is special to the family concerned, but every one of those families wants to have closure in one way or another, and this process will not deliver that.

What sort of cases are we talking about? Deaths in custody, such as the Mubarek case, perhaps, or the de Menezes case, the shooting at Stockwell tube station. That inquest has been adjourned and is due to reopen later this year. If the Bill goes through, will the Secretary of State issue a certificate in relation to that case before the inquest resumes, because the process can be triggered in relation to an already opened inquest—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is well aware of the sub judice rules. He should be careful what he mentions at this stage.

Mr. Dismore: I take your constraints, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I simply say that the inquest is due to reopen later this year and that people can draw their own conclusions.

This process could, for example, apply to the Deepcut barracks case that was referred to earlier, or the death of the service people in Iraq, all potentially an embarrassment to the Government and the Ministry of Defence, as we have seen from some of the inquest verdicts so far. They are precisely the sort of cases that should not be subject to this process, which should have the transparency required by article 2 and not be swept into the secret inquest process being proposed by the Government through part 6.

Mr. Heath: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that these are exactly the cases that should be given publicity. Even if one were to accept the premise that there are circumstances in which evidence could not be put before an inquest on the grounds of national security, has his Committee considered any possible reasonable interpretation of the other provisions that an inquest should be held in secret because of the interests of the relationship between the United Kingdom and another country, or this vague term

Are we in the business of not holding inquests in order to save embarrassment to foreign princes?

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Mr. Dismore: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We have very interesting relations with Saudi Arabia, as we all know. Let us suppose that somebody died in Saudi Arabia in circumstances that might be embarrassing to the regime. Let us suppose that someone was even executed by that regime. In the end it could be very embarrassing indeed, and therefore we would have the inquest in secret.

We know that the jury will be excluded from special trials, and the implication is that the family will also be excluded and will not know what is going on. Are the family seriously expected to take the specially appointed coroner’s word for what happened to their loved one, which would extend only to what the specially appointed coroner could tell them? It is difficult enough for families to accept verdicts under the existing open system, given the number of challenges to coroners’ verdicts, and it will be more difficult under this process.

Mr. Hogg: The hon. Gentleman has made an important point, namely that the family will have great difficulty in accepting the verdict of the specially appointed coroner. That difficulty will be aggravated by the fact that the specially appointed coroner will be appointed by the Secretary of State, who may have a departmental interest in the matter. In other words, the public may see the specially appointed coroner as the Secretary of State’s man.

Mr. Dismore: The right hon. and learned Gentleman has made his point, and I do not disagree with it.

Juries are an essential part of the process. They are used in about 2 per cent. of inquest cases, which are the contentious ones—deaths at the hands of the police, deaths in custody, deaths in prison, health and safety cases and other matters to which I have referred. The situation is crazy, because the implementation of the process is unnecessary. Public interest immunity certificates apply to inquests, so, as has been said, the Government could persuade the coroner to withhold sensitive material or to exclude the public.

The use of PII certificates has been upheld in two cases against the United Kingdom, so it has been found that such restrictions are compatible in principle. In the case of Jordan v. UK, a father alleged that his unarmed son was shot and killed unjustifiably by a Royal Ulster Constabulary officer. When the European Court rejected a complaint about the frequent resort to PII certificates to prevent the disclosure of certain documents on the grounds of national security, it stated that

The best example is McCann v. UK—the death on the Rock case. The families of the three suspects shot dead by the SAS on Gibraltar alleged a breach of article 2 of the ECHR because of the use of PII certificates by the Government. If that incident had happened under the process in the Bill, it would be a prime candidate for the secret inquest process. At the time, the ordinary inquest process was used including PII certificates. Again, the Court rejected the complaint that the inquest had been an inadequate investigation, stating that

A council of perfection is unnecessary; returning to the original test, what is important is that the inquest is held adequately. An inquest does not have to consider 100 per cent. of the evidence, because its purpose is to establish the cause of death, and the matters that I have mentioned would not be met by those arrangements.

Mr. Bellingham: The hon. Gentleman is making a compelling case against the Government. Does he agree that his remarks reinforce the point that the Government should withdraw the provision and await the publication of the coroners Bill, which will come before the House in the next Session? It makes more sense to take a long hard look at the situation, rather than rushing through a provision in this Bill.

Mr. Dismore: That is my next point. Amendments Nos. 1 to 3 would ditch this part of the Bill, and I hope that the Government accept them. If we were to review the process in its entirety, we could examine PII certificates, the exclusion of the public and the role of the coroner in excluding evidence—we could even consider security- vetting juries. There is a series of other options that would enable an inquest to be held in public without going through the rigmarole of a secret inquest. The fact remains that the provision has nothing to do with terrorism; it concerns a secret system for investigating deaths that might be embarrassing for the Government, and that system cannot be allowed to stand. The measure is far too broad for inclusion in the Counter-Terrorism Bill, and it should wait for the publication of the coroners Bill. The situation will be difficult for the one family whose inquest has been stalled, but we should not legislate in haste to solve one case’s problems. Let us be sensible and throw out the provision.

8.15 pm

Mr. Grieve: I rise to support amendment No. 1, which is necessary and essential to preserve the integrity of the coroners’ courts system.

Uncharacteristically, I have a measure of sympathy for the Government, which I shall explain before I discuss why they have taken completely the wrong turn. I accept that the distinction between a coroner’s court and a criminal trial is that one involves an adversarial system from which the state can always withdraw itself, if it is so minded, whereas the coroner’s court involves an inquisitorial system designed to answer a certain number of questions. A coroner’s court does not include the option of not having an inquest.

In the light of the recent case where the inquest has been halted because the Government want to use intelligence material that is available to the police to present their case, I see that the Government have a problem. Some have imputed sinister motives to the Government given the way in which they introduced the provision, but I do not share that view. Faced with a particular issue—this
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is usual in bureaucracies—the Government have tried to find a solution, but they have failed to see the wood for the trees.

The Government have come up with a system that would immediately appeal to any Administration, because it seems to resolve the problem in a simple manner, but actually it will not meet the interests of justice. Leaving aside the way in which coroners are appointed—I will return to that issue, because the Government have made some sensible concessions, although they have not done enough to attract my support for the measure in its totality—the Government say that coroners need to use intelligence material in order to obtain a full understanding of the background circumstances to an individual’s death. They want to appoint a safe pair of hands, because that person will have passed all the necessary tests to handle such information and will come up with a fair conclusion based on the intelligence material and other facts.

As the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) has said, the difficulty is that such a verdict would be incomprehensible to the people most directly concerned. Such people would not have any faith in the verdict, because many of the building blocks on which it was made would have been kept secret from them. That is the issue with which the Government have to grapple. There will be the element of secrecy, and those secrets will be imparted to only one individual, however worthy and well appointed. Even with the Government’s safeguards on the manner of the appointment of the special coroners, absolutely nobody will be persuaded that there has been a fair process.

Having listened to what the Government said in Committee and, I might add, having had a briefing by Home Office and Ministry of Justice officials about the matter, I was in some ways quite sympathetic to the problem that the Government were facing. However, the more I reflected on the issue afterwards, the more convinced I became that I preferred a flawed and imperfect coroner system that was open over one brought in for these exceptional cases that turned out to be unacceptable to the people whom—in part, at least—it was intended to benefit; I am thinking of the relatives and others. Furthermore, such a system plainly would not provide public reassurance.

Mr. Bellingham: Obviously, my hon. and learned Friend’s discussions with Home Office and Ministry of Justice officials would have been totally off the record. However, did they give him any indication on why existing procedures and the existing situation were not sufficient to achieve the Government’s ends? That is what I find unfathomable.

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