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Mr. Deputy Speaker: Before we come to the next group of amendments, I should offer a word of clarification to the House. A revised version of the white amendment paper has been issued, which affects this second group of amendments and the fourth group. The Government are moving to disagree to Lords amendment No. 133 and to agree to Lords amendment No. 113. The revised version should be available in the Vote Office for hon. Members if they have not already acquired it.
Mr. Coaker: As hon. Members will be aware, we share a common desire to resolve the issue of ensuring that an inquest can be held that is article 2 compliant and enables bereaved relatives and other interested parties to be involved to the extent that is necessary to safeguard their legitimate interests and to allow proper understanding of the circumstances of the death of the individual, while ensuring that sensitive material is properly protected. The issue of sensitive material arises in a very small number of inquests, but we need to ensure that the finder of fact can consider all the relevant material while ensuring that sensitive material, and the way in which that material was obtained, is protected from public disclosure. This is because disclosure could damage national security or ongoing police investigations.
In order to address this problem in relation to inquests, the Governments proposals, which we intend to bring forward in coroners legislation in the next Session, would permit the Secretary of State to issue a certificate requiring an inquest to be held without a jury if in the opinion of the Secretary of State the inquest will involve the consideration of material that should not be made public in the public interest, including to a jury or interested persons.
The Secretary of State may certify in relation to an inquest
and so on. Does he carry on the certification process privately, or is it susceptible to counter-argument, and is his decision to certify justiciable? [ Interruption . ] Can I take him to court if I disagree with his decision?
Mr. Garnier: They should already have been worked through. That is the whole point about the drafting of the Bill. I do not wish to be unduly aggressive, but the Minister ought to able to answer my questionsif not right now, then having taken advice on them.
The coroner, who would continue to be a fully independent judicial office holder, would be security cleared to receive all relevant material. Only those parts of the inquest involving the consideration of material that should not be disclosed publicly would be held in private in the absence of the next of kin. Wherever possible, the inquest would take place in public with the next of kin, other interested parties and their legal representative present.
Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab):
What reassurances can my hon. Friend give to those next of kin in relation to this part of the Bill and the new coroners Bill? I deal with many Army families through the all-party Army deaths group, and they see
the coroners inquest as their mechanism for getting to the truth of the death of their loved one. Can he reassure them that these procedures will give them the truth?
Mr. Coaker: The reassurance that I am sure other hon. Members want is that we will have discussions as that legislation goes through Parliament in the next Session. We will talk to my hon. Friend and have discussions with other hon. Members about its implications, and we will try to ensure that, as far as possible, we talk to them about the problems that they may raise. The only reassurance that I can give is that we will continue to discuss such matters with my hon. Friend and others.
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Can the Minister tell me, one way or the other, whether it would be possible under the legislation that we are discussing today for a coroners inquest to take place in which the family of the deceased would not know the evidence, so that it would be, in effect, a secret court?
Mr. Coaker: We are trying to take various aspects of the process out of this Bill, and some of the questions that my hon. Friend raises about inquests will be debated during the next Session of Parliament.
Jeremy Corbyn: I thank the Minister for that, and I understand that we are going to debate the matter in the next Session, but my concern is about what we are doing today. Are we about to pass legislation, if his proposals are agreed, that will in effect bring about secret coroners courts?
Mr. Coaker: We are trying to ensure that we protect intercept material and other secret material. It is perfectly possible that in doing so, processes and procedures may be required where these things take place behind closed doors.
For those parts of the hearing that need to be held in private, the coroner will be able to appoint independent security-cleared counsel to the inquest who would represent the interests of the next of kin and probe sensitive material on their behalf during the private sessions, thereby ensuring that their interests are properly protected at all times.
Mr. Hogg: I am sorry to press the Minister, but I am not sure to what point he is now speaking. Is it the proposals for coming legislation, or is he saying that such proposals are in the Billbecause they are not? If he is talking about future legislation, that is jolly nice, but we have not yet seen it.
Mr. Coaker: I am trying to reassure hon. Members about where we are going with coroners legislation, and about the serious points that have been made. I therefore ask the House to agree with the Lords in their amendments Nos. 103, 105, 107 and 132, which would remove the provisions from the Bill.
Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): I am slightly confused about the endless series of permutations about intercept as evidence. Will the Minister quickly give us an update on where on earth that stands now?
Mr. Coaker: I certainly can. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Chilcot review established a number of principles for the programme of work to be done, and a number of right hon. Members on the Privy Council are taking that work forward. There are three phases of work, and we are reaching the end of phase 1. The Minister who preceded me in my post, now the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty), said that we would report regularly to Parliament on where we had got to with regard to the Chilcot review and intercept as evidence, and I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we will bring that report to Parliament in the not-too-distant future, to update Members. I hope that that is helpful to him.
Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central) (Lab): Pursuant to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble), does the Minister accept that the families of the deceased may not be as happy as he hopes if an independent, security-cleared barrister represents their interests in cases where they cannot hear the evidence about how the person that they loved died? That is a quite human and understandable point, and the Minister has been a little blithe in saying, Oh, it will be all right because they will have a security-cleared barrister who will work on their behalf. They want to hear it. A person that they loved has died; they want to hear the facts.
Mr. Coaker: Obviously, what is said is not meant to be a disrespectful statement. We are trying to balance the needs of soldiers familiesthe needs of individualswith the security of sensitive material. We are trying to strike a balance between the needs of state security and the need to be fair and reasonable to the families of soldiers.
Jeremy Corbyn: I thank the Minister for giving way again; he is very generous. Is he aware that many people are concerned that inquests that take place where there is a jury are virtually always cases in which someone has died in police custody? Does he not consider the danger that when there is a death in custody there will be a temptation on the part of the authorities concerned to say, We would rather this whole thing was not made public, therefore we will apply for a secrecy clause and the appointment of a specialist barrister who will not be able to disclose to the relatives the evidence held? Does he not accept that a human element is involved with regard to soldiers families and the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mark Fisher), and a danger to society in granting such powers, which I do not believe are necessary?
Mr. Coaker: There is always concern and worry about such matters, and my hon. Friend is right to draw attention to them, but we are trying to strike a balance between state security and the need to ensure that an inquest can take place properly. A police shooting or a similar incident would be a difficult matter, but it is the balance struck between the two factors that is important.
Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): The Minister is being generous in giving way. Will he clarify something for me, because we are getting confused about access to information, especially for families who have lost relatives who are soldiers abroad? As he will know, in Scotland, we do not have coroners courts; we have fatal accident inquiries. However, coroners courts still cover the deaths of Scottish soldiers abroad. Indeed, one of my constituents was subject to such an inquest. Can the Minister guarantee that there will be full disclosure of information to families so that they can understand the reasons behind such tragic deaths?
In answer to the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), I point out that much of this debate will take place in connection with future legislation, which is part of the reason we agree with some of the Lords amendments. They take out many of the provisions concerned, which will allow us to discuss in the next Session many of the matters involved.
Mr. Heath: The Minister is intent on telling the House about future legislation, so I have one simple question about that. Will the future provisions relate only to matters of national security, or are the Government intent on extending them, as they did in the original draft of the Bill, to
the interests of the relationship between the UK and another country
otherwise in the public interest,
Amendment No. 106 would enable a High Court judge sitting as a coroner to require disclosure of sensitive material. The disclosure would not be limited to the coroner alone, but could also be made to the persons appointed as counsel to the inquest, members of the jury or to any properly interested person, such as bereaved families. While the amendment would, in principle, allow the jury as finder of fact to have access to all relevant material, it would do so at the expense of essential safeguards. It would create the potential for disclosure of all intercept material, regardless of sensitivity, to a wide number of people, thereby seriously undermining the ability to ensure the protection from public disclosure of sensitive intercept material and the capabilities and techniques by which it was obtained. The value of the techniques and capabilities would be diminished because targets would either know or could deduce when their communications might be intercepted and could take evasive action by using other, more secure means of communication. Such disclosure could undermine our ability to prevent future attacks or affect our ability to curb the activities of dangerous people.
It has been argued that disclosure as envisaged in amendment No. 106 would be no different from the existing disclosure permitted in criminal cases under section 18 of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. That provides for disclosure to a relevant judge in a criminal prosecution, when he is satisfied that the exceptional circumstances of a case make it essential in the interests of justice. However, that argument overlooks the difference between coroners inquests and criminal proceedings. The effect of section 17 of RIPA is that neither party in criminal proceedings can rely on or refer to the fact of interception of an individuals communications and the product of that interception. That protects the continuing value of interception while creating a level playing field, in that neither the prosecution nor the defence can gain advantage from the interception.
However, cases may occasionally arise whereby the prosecutor considers that he cannot secure the fairness of the proceedings without assistance from the relevant judge. In recognition of that, RIPA provides that, in specific limited circumstances, the prosecutor may invite the judge to order a disclosure to him of the protected information. The purpose of informing the judge is to put him in a position whereby he can ensure the fairness of the proceedings. However, section 18 does not permit the disclosure of warranted interception in criminal proceedings. If no action by the prosecutor or judge could prevent the continuation of the proceedings from being unfair, the prosecution would discontinue the case. That provides a genuine safeguard. No such discretion to discontinue proceedings exists if the death occurred in circumstances in which the European convention on human rights requires the UK to hold an article 2- compatible inquest.
The Bill sought to address the insurmountable difficulty that sensitive material that is relevant to how an individual met their death cannot be disclosed in open court with a coroner sitting with a jury. No other existing mechanisms, such as imposing reporting restrictions on proceedings and/or holding certain sections of the proceedings in camera with the jury, and other interested parties entering into confidentiality agreements, would address the problem or provide sufficient safeguards. We do not believe that an issue as important as national security should depend on individuals honouring agreements any more than we would consider such safeguards sufficient in criminal proceedings. If an individual inadvertently or deliberately discloses sensitive information, the damage is done.
Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): I am listening carefully to the Minister. He will appreciate that our concern is rather limited because coroners courts have limited jurisdiction for Scots, especially in the military. The Minister appears to be saying that information can be disclosed to the judge, the jury or a special prosecutor with security clearance, but what if the information is a material factor in the persons death? Can that be disclosed in the coroners judgment, or will that part of the judgment also have to be kept in camera?
Mr. Coaker: It may well still have to be kept in camera. It depends on the circumstances of the case, those surrounding the death and those surrounding any relevant material. The answer depends on the circumstances, but what the hon. Gentleman outlined could be the case.
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