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Mr. Grieve: The Minister may be able to amplify the position when he responds. I was left with a twofold impression. I hope that it is not unreasonable; the Minister will correct me if I am wrong. The first aspect was that a case had come to light—it had nothing to do with terrorism, I might add—in which there was a difficulty from the point of view of the state in having the inquest conducted; I emphasise that it was the state’s difficulty. In such circumstances, it would suit the state and the police if material likely to help explain the circumstances of a death could not be submitted—because it was intelligence-derived and would cause difficulties.
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Coupled with that was the fact that, given the problems in the context of terrorism and terrorist-related deaths, or other deaths, I detected that the Government saw a problem in trying to deal with that particular area, that that problem might grow in future, and that the problem was more germane to terrorism.

Mr. Beith: Also, any consequent legal proceedings—whether judicial review of the coroner’s decision or an attempt to mount a prosecution or civil action arising from the coroner’s verdict—would not have access to the evidence. Would not proceeding with the clauses before we have finished assessing whether we can use intercept evidence in court not make things even more absurd?

Mr. Grieve: The right hon. Gentleman pre-empts me; he is absolutely right. What he says must be the case. The provision would solve the Government’s problem in that they would end up with a verdict with which they were satisfied. The coroner would say, for example, “I am wholly satisfied that the police were justified in shooting this person. These were the facts and circumstances and in addition material that helps me to come to that conclusion has been given to me.” However, it would do absolutely nothing to enable relatives to challenge that decision or bring civil proceedings. The other interesting consequence is that if the verdicts seem to suggest that a criminal offence has been committed, that may in many cases be impossible to prosecute because the intelligence material would not be admissible.

Mr. Hogg: My hon. and learned Friend is making a point about the public acceptability of inquest decisions. He will have in mind the decision of Lord Justice Scott Baker that there should be a jury-based inquest into the death of Princess Diana. The reason was that, otherwise, the conspiracy theories would not be dispersed. The decision to have a jury in that inquest is the clearest possible evidence of the need to retain jury-based inquests in matters of public sensitivity.

Mr. Grieve: I agree entirely with my right hon. and learned Friend. I hope that he will forgive me; in developing my arguments I have tried to treat the two issues separately. I was moving on to the question of the jury. Even if one accepted that in some circumstances we should dispense with the jury—although it is normal to empanel a jury for consideration of controversial deaths—and even if one accepted the notion that an individual should come to the decisions, the burden to be placed on that individual would make his job intolerable in respect of commanding any public acceptance. He would be explaining decisions in a partial fashion, but they would not stand on their own, precisely because, as the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) said, other consequences might flow from it and make it even more profoundly unsatisfactory.

Mr. Heath: That task would be made impossible if there were a process of certification through the Secretary of State, rather than through an application to the court, and if the specific coroner had been selected by the Secretary of State. Even under the newly improved appointment process, it cannot be right that a Secretary
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of State should decide who would be the most appropriate coroner to hear a case in which that Secretary of State had an interest.

Mr. Grieve: I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman; we come back to the rather administrative way in which the whole thing seems to have been put together. Reading the original proposals, one sees that this was an administrative process, with the Minister wholly controlling it—the choice of the coroner, the selection of the special coroner and the special certification—without any intervention by the judiciary.

Perhaps we can go back over the history of how coroners’ courts have always been distinct from other courts in our country. However, if there is a way forward for coroners’ courts, I am absolutely sure that it is to bring them into the mainstream of our court system. I say that irrespective of these proposals. To move down a road that starts on the premise that we will put into operation a series of measures that appear to exclude the judiciary almost entirely—except that some of the decisions could be judicially reviewed—would be completely wrong.

In fairness to the Government, I should say that, having been lambasted in Committee on the issue, they have attempted to start to try to restore the situation. I am the first to accept that there have been improvements to the Bill and these measures as a result, particularly in involving the role of the judiciary and the Lord Chief Justice more fully in approving the special coroners and in changing some elements of how the process would operate.

For all that, we are merely tinkering at the edges of the problem. The longer this debate has gone on and the more I have thought about it, the more convinced I have become that the Government have simply taken a completely wrong turning. If this debate fulfils a purpose I hope that it is to persuade the Government that we are not ranked up against them to try to give them a hard time on these proposals—leaving to one side what will happen to the provisions in the other place, which may well find itself not very happy—but we genuinely think that if they go ahead and succeed in putting them on the statute book they will be an albatross around their neck and that of any successor Government. My gut reaction is that the process will constantly be thrown back in their face by people saying, “We have here a system which is unworkable and doesn’t command public confidence.”

Mr. Adam Ingram (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (Lab): May I ask the hon. and learned Gentleman to reflect on a point that relates to the Scottish element of this matter? This relates to national security and the way in which intercept and intelligence material could be presented to a particular court, in this case a coroner’s court. The Bill is strangely silent on the parallel process in Scotland. There seem to be no provisions relating to the fatal accident inquiry in Scotland. I suppose that part of the reason for that rests with the minority Administration who now reside in Holyrood. They have ducked this issue as well and kicked their review of the fatal accident inquiry off into some time in the far distant future. That may add grist to the hon. and learned Gentleman’s mill, and I ask him to take it on board.

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8.30 pm

Mr. Grieve: I very much take it on board. I hope that the Minister will provide an explanation of how the Government are approaching that. The situation is partly helped by the fact that Scotland has its own legal system, so mercifully, perhaps, we are not capable of interfering with it, or at least not interfering with it quite as radically as the Government might wish if they had the opportunity. This is a seriously flawed procedure.

Moving on to the issue raised by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), the jury system exists in coroners’ cases to give public confidence, and it works well. I have done jury cases in coroners’ courts, and in my experience juries are capable of taking in the evidence and giving verdicts that accord with the evidence. Indeed, the Diana, Princess of Wales inquest was a model of its kind. Although it was carried out in the most difficult circumstances, and was very costly, it appears to have commanded widespread public acceptance. A Lord Justice of Appeal was brought in because that expertise was required. All that was possible under the existing coroner system.

What is the point of suddenly dispensing with juries? As the hon. Member for Hendon said, it is possible to have specially vetted juries, to have public interest immunity certificates, and to treat these processes as ordinary hearings. I very much agreed with his point about the requirement laid down by the European Court of Human Rights, which is highly relevant—that is, to do one’s best in carrying out such inquiries, not to try to cross insurmountable obstacles. There is a considerable degree of understanding that there may be problems that make the evidence being presented to inquests inadmissible and one must do one’s best, in a human and fallible world, to come up with the best answers.

If we could get intercept evidence admitted in cases more generally, which we have frequently argued about, I have little doubt that we might start moving in the right direction on inquests just as on any other kind of trial. However, to try to create a short cut—with the best of motives, I am sure—is a mistaken road, and these proposals are not capable of being salvaged by anything that the Government can offer. We are expecting a coroners Bill. If we had a delay of a year while we went away and thought about what needs to be done and the Government came forward with other ideas and proposals in the context of their planned reforms to the coroner system generally, that would be a sensible approach. Legislating quickly and repenting at leisure is a big mistake.

I will listen with great care to what the Minister says. I have no animosity towards the Government on this issue. I can see that they have a real problem, but the answer that they have come up with is profoundly and fundamentally wrong. This House has a major responsibility in upholding confidence in the law and the rule of law and in ensuring that deaths are properly investigated, particularly where there are issues of sensitivity surrounding possible state intervention, and it should not have anything to do with a set of proposals that will ultimately bring the Government into disrepute.

Mrs. Humble: I listened with great care to my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), who made persuasive and cogent arguments on this important
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issue. He started by explaining the purpose of an inquest and asked what the purpose is of finding out the facts about a death if the circumstances are then to be kept hidden. The Government need to explain that key point in moving ahead with these provisions.

On Second Reading, I made the point that such issues should be debated when considering the coroners Bill. Since then, I have had the opportunity to examine the Committee reports regarding these provisions. In Committee, the Minister explained that he wanted to look at one particular case, and he feels that the provisions are the way to deal with it. We of course cannot know what that case is, but I do not question the fact that the Government want a way out of a problem, and are moving to solve it.

One of the issues that the Government must face is that most of the families affected by coroners’ inquests will be asking who else will be included in the remit of these provisions. Will loved ones be a part of it, or will they, too, fail to get the clarity and answers that they require? As has been said, many families who lose loved ones and attend a coroner’s inquest know that they will not get all the answers, but at least they will have an opportunity to hear the evidence, and the coroner can then make some determination, even if it is an open verdict or a verdict of death by misadventure. If they are not there, they do not even have that small solace.

I would like my right hon. Friend the Minister to address the issue from the family’s point of view. If it is decided that a coroner’s court will meet without a jury in special circumstances, what information can be given to the families so that they have details of what has happened? I mentioned the Deepcut deaths. I chair the all-party group on Army deaths and I have met the Deepcut and Beyond families. We have had coroners’ inquests under article 2 procedures with juries, and families have learned so much more from them. Even if they do not get a final answer, at least they are getting some answers. Recently, we had the second inquest into the death of Private James Collinson, and after that the families at least felt that their concerns had been listened to, which is what they want. Sir Nicholas Blake, in his report for the Government on the Deepcut deaths, saw coroners’ inquests as the way forward for those families and others. How can the Minister take forward families’ heartfelt wish for clarity and for closure, if they can find it? Will they be entirely excluded from the procedure or, in certain circumstances and with caveats, will information be released to them to satisfy their needs?

When it comes to Army deaths, I wonder how the boards of inquiry, and the fatal accident inquiries in Scotland, will link with secret coroners’ courts. The Army is increasingly involving families in boards of inquiry, sending them transcripts so that they have some idea of what happened in that internal inquiry. If an Army death is to be the subject of a secret inquiry, how will the BOI process link with that?

Mr. Ingram: I appreciate my hon. Friend’s great knowledge and her involvement in the issue, but I must correct her on one point: fatal accident inquiries in Scotland do not need to inquire into deaths abroad—in fact, they are precluded from doing so. There needs to be a change in the law in Scotland to deal with the point that she raises, but that is being ducked by the current Administration in Scotland.

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Mrs. Humble: I thank my right hon. Friend for that. I do not pretend to understand English law, let alone Scottish law. I am a non-lawyer. However, many of the deaths looked into by the families involved in the Deepcut and Beyond campaign happened in this country in peacetime. I doubt very much whether those deaths would fall within the remit of clause 65, but the problem is that we do not know, because it is drawn so widely. I therefore seek reassurances from my right hon. Friend the Minister that he will address the needs of those families.

Mark Durkan: Is not the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr. Ingram) made, about the possible anomaly created by the law that the Bill would introduce and the situation in Scotland, an argument for the withdrawal of the relevant provisions, so that everything can be considered properly in the context of the coroners Bill?

Mrs. Humble: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. On Second Reading, I argued for the withdrawal of the relevant provisions. However, I have read what was said in Committee and I hear what the Minister said about a special case that needs to be addressed in a special way.

I will accept what the Minister said, but if the Government are not going to withdraw clause 65, they need to consider what will happen when the coroners Bill finally comes before the House. We could be here debating the issue again in a year’s time. The Government will be looking into the wider parameters of the coroners Bill, because there are many problems with the coroners system and huge delays. Indeed, I know of a peacetime death in barracks in this country that happened five years ago next month that has still not been the subject of a coroner’s report. Things therefore have to move on.

Can the Minister give me any assurances that when the coroners Bill comes before the House, we will have an opportunity to engage with the issue again? What we are debating today will have consequences for the coroners Bill. If the Government do not withdraw clause 65, there will be an opportunity over the next few months to learn the lessons of this special case and see how it could be better addressed in a wider review and restructuring of the coroners system.

Finally, paradoxically, many families involved in Army deaths want special coroners, but they do not want them in the circumstances that we are discussing. I have spoken to individuals in the Royal British Legion and to the families involved in the Deepcut and Beyond campaign. They admire the work done on Army deaths by the Oxfordshire and Wiltshire coroners, who have built up a huge amount of expertise. If we are going to have special coroners, they should bring expertise and particular skills to a situation, not secrecy.

I therefore welcome the Government’s amendments to introduce a role for the Lord Chief Justice, but there are still too many questions unanswered. I read what my right hon. Friend the Minister said in Committee, but he needs to give a lot of reassurances about the breadth of the provisions that we are debating, particularly to the bereaved families who want answers, and about how we can take the matter forward when we debate the coroners Bill.

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David Howarth: It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble), who made a number of very important points. On this issue, it is also a pleasure and honour to follow both the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) and the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), who made devastating cases against part 6, which manages to be simultaneously repugnant, unnecessary, ineffective and premature.

8.45 pm

Part 6 is repugnant because it violates the principle of the separation of the powers. It is unnecessary because the means for effecting most of its ends—public interest immunity and the power of the coroner—already exist to allow the public to be excluded on grounds of national security. It is ineffective because, as the hon. Members for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood and for Hendon and the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield have already demonstrated, this system will not bring about closure for the relatives, who will not know the basis on which the decision has been made. From their point of view, the uncertainties will continue. It is premature because it is wrong to decide these issues before we know the full structure of the coronial system that the coroners Bill will set up and before we know the final resolution of the issue over the admissibility of intercept evidence in all forms of procedure.

I accept what the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield said—that the origins of these clauses may not have been badly motivated. There is a case—we do not know the details, but we know the outline—for saying that there have been blockages because of how the present system works, but that does not justify where the Government have ended up, because they have ended up with a system that grants extraordinary powers to the Secretaries of State.

I also accept what the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield said about coroners being different and about the system being one of investigation rather than an adversarial conflict between two sides in court. That means that the state, in the form of the prosecution service, does not have the power to withdraw a case. Nevertheless, the issue of the relationship between the investigatory arm of the state in general and the Government is raised here.

Jeremy Corbyn: The hon. Gentleman must be aware that under clause 65 the Government in power would be able to intervene during a case and suspend the jury; indeed, they could suspend the whole investigation, which I would have thought set an extremely dangerous precedent in any circumstances.

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