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7.9 pm

Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): When my father-in-law was in the police force, one of the jobs that he dreaded was being sent to somebody’s house late at night to knock on the door and inform them that their son or daughter had been killed, usually in a motor accident. We all expect to outlive our children, and it is every parent’s nightmare to get that knock on the door. Sadly, many young people learn to drive, but they do not learn to use alcohol responsibly. Despite the fact that the most recent figures for deaths on our roads have fallen to a record low—below 3,000 for the first time—460 fatal accidents involve drink-drivers. It is important to send a clear message to those who flout the drink-driving laws that the criminal justice system will deal with them severely.

Last year, I was contacted by a lady from Billingham, called Jan Woodward. Indeed, we were all contacted by Jan, who sent us an e-mail about her campaign to highlight a specific matter. I visited her and learned about the Kelly campaign. On 16 July 2006 at 3.55 in the morning, Jan’s daughter Kelly was killed. She was one of four passengers in a car that was being driven back from a house-warming party. The driver, Andrew John Burrell, had passed his test only eight weeks previously and bought his car only four weeks previously, for £400. The car was travelling down Marsh House avenue in Billingham and the police estimated its speed as being 53 mph in a 30 mph area. Despite braking, it was travelling at 20 mph when it hit a tree. Of the passengers, Claire Dewar suffered serious head injuries, a broken leg and a broken pelvis and Kelly Woodward, despite wearing a seat belt and despite the fact that an off-duty nurse was at the scene very soon, sadly died of her injuries. Kelly was just starting out in life—she had completed a course in hairdressing in Hartlepool and was getting her feet on the ground when her life was so
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tragically cut short. The driver had drunk twice the drink-driving limit and was given a two-and-a-half-year prison sentence and a three-year driving ban. There was widespread outrage in the area that the sentence was not severe enough. On appeal, the sentence was increased to four and a half years in prison with a five-year driving ban.

What appalled Mrs. Woodward more than anything was the fact that the ban did not start on the young man’s release, but from the date of the trial. If he served his full sentence, the ban would be for only six months—not a strong message to send to people in such circumstances. I was fortunate to catch Mr. Speaker’s eye during Prime Minister’s questions on 19 March and raised the issue. The Prime Minister said that the Government would consider the matter. I was surprised to get a call just over a week ago from the Justice Secretary, who said that the Government had listened to me and the Bill would contain a provision to address the issue, so that if a judge imposes a ban and a prison sentence at the same time, a longer ban will be given. I am therefore grateful to the Government for listening—I suppose that it is another example of the way in which the Conservative party these days is a bit of a think tank for the Government on some issues.

Another aspect has not been tackled, and I hope that the Government will consider it. The Bill changes cases when a sentence and a ban are issued at the same time, but does not address circumstances in which someone who is banned from driving, perhaps for causing death by dangerous driving, subsequently commits another offence and goes to jail. The ban continues to operate while the person is in prison. In some cases, the sentence may use up the entire ban, and the person can drive home from prison. I hope that we can consider methods of addressing that.

I am told that one of the problems is that data are not shared in the justice system so that there is no way of knowing whether someone who goes to prison for, for example, burglary has a driving ban. Although the Bill provides for sharing information with almost anyone in the world, it is strange that the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency and the courts do not seem able to learn who exactly is banned at any one time.

I am grateful to the Government for listening to Jan and responding to the Kelly campaign. I pay tribute to Jan for her campaigning and for working with the emergency services in Cleveland on their Christmas drink-drive campaigns. It is sad that the circumstances that have brought the campaign to Parliament are so distressing.

In thanking the Secretary of State for Justice, I have no wish to diminish our criticisms of other aspects of the Bill, which my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) outlined so well. The Secretary of State has just returned to his place, so I thank him for responding to the issue so positively and relatively promptly, given the way in which Governments work.

7.14 pm

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill), who succinctly made the one point he wanted to make in the debate, and my hon. Friend the
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Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon), who has been an admirable leader of her community at a time when intense international attention has focused on her constituency. I praise her for her work on suicide.

I want to speak about the reforms of the coroners’ courts system. I would be happy if the Bill dealt only with such reform. That would be true to the spirit of the draft Bill that was published for consultation a little while ago. It would also emphasise the importance of the coroners’ courts system in this country. Although it is 700 years old, there has been no modern reform of it until now. Its significance is seen on the news almost every day in, for example, police shootings—the most recent example is the de Menezes shooting, which also involved the security services; deaths in custody, especially the tragic deaths of children in custody; and the immensely important results of coroners’ inquests on some of our service personnel killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan. If we think back to Dr. Shipman’s killing of his patients, the case revealed some of the weaknesses in the current system and the pressing need for reform.

As long ago as 1 December 2004, I secured an Adjournment debate in the Chamber, which is recorded at column 749 of Hansard. It pointed out the weaknesses in the system and called for reform. At the time, investigation powers were weak. There was no central monitoring of trends in deaths, no proper sensitive service for the relatives of those killed suddenly and unexpectedly, no advice and guidance on preventing avoidable deaths, and we were weak in this country on investigating major disasters or single incidents that caused large loss of life.

It has taken a while, but the Bill makes welcome changes to the law and practice relating to coroners’ courts. I mentioned the draft Bill and I congratulate all those who were involved in publishing alongside it a plain English explanation of the legal language. That was a bit of a first at the time, and very welcome.

I want personally to thank Mr. Andrew Haigh, the coroner in Staffordshire, who has had several discussions with me about the reforms, which helped clarify my thinking and my attitude to them.

Let me deal with some of the important reforms. First, I want to speak about the national service—or the national head with the local service. Some people would prefer a completely national service, believing that that brings the reach, clout and resources necessary to make a success of a national coroners’ system. Others are happy with the set-up in the Bill, with a national position of chief coroner, supported by several deputy chief coroners, but with the administration at local authority level. I am not sure which is better. Those who argue for more localism prefer the latter arrangement. If we can make a success of it, it will probably be a model, which we may want to follow in future, for services beyond coroners’ courts. Obviously, much depends on getting the detail right and monitoring what happens afterwards.

Secondly, I want to consider the new range of possible investigations under the Bill. I like the proposal for the new medical examiner role. We have the prospect of two professionals from different specialisms—the lawyer as the coroner and the medical practitioner as the medical examiner—working together with the same aim of establishing the truth and recording an accurate description of the cause of a death. I like the fact that they will have
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wider powers—for example, the ability to require non-invasive scans, such as MRI scans, as well as autopsies, and the new legal power for the coroner to enter premises, search them and seize items of evidence. The new powers all look good. The relationship between the coroner and the medical examiner will be crucial. I note that the current proposal is for primary care trusts to appoint the new medical examiners. Given the crucial relationship with the coroner, it is important to have some formal involvement of coroners in the appointments. I hope that that will happen.

Sir Alan Beith: Does the hon. Gentleman recognise the concern of quite a few people in the relevant professions that the primary care trust that employs the medical examiner might be the same primary care trust that runs the hospital in which the death that is the subject of the inquest took place?

Mr. Kidney: Yes, I do recognise that point. One of my wishes for the new relationship that will evolve between coroners and medical examiners is that they should be seen as a team that is independent of any other body, and free from any vested interests, when carrying out their investigation. Perhaps that will mean using medical examiners from outside the area in which the coroner is based, or perhaps, as I have suggested, the coroner will have a greater involvement in the appointment of the medical examiner. Those decisions will be significant, as will the question of who pays for the medical examiner. I have already mentioned resources, and I shall come back to that subject in a moment.

My third point relates to the new charter for bereaved people. There has been very good consultation on the charter, and it was great to learn today of the appointment of Sara Payne as a victims’ champion. Obviously, there are many people to congratulate on that appointment—not least Sara Payne herself, on her persistence on the issues that she has pursued in recent years.

I would like to point out that there are other interested parties at coroners’ inquests who are not legally represented as a matter of course, and it is important that they, too, should be looked after sensitively and properly by the coroner. The present guidance does not extend to such people, and I am not sure whether it should, or whether there should be a second guide for other people who are interested in the outcome of a coroner’s investigation. The matter certainly needs further attention.

My fourth point concerns the effects of the new responsibilities of coroners’ courts towards bereaved people, the possible requests for reviews, and the appeals that we are implementing for the first time in the Bill. These all have the potential to add significantly to a coroner’s work load, and, as the Bill passes through Parliament, I want to investigate whether that means that coroners will have a greater ability to delegate their present duties to other members of their staff, whether there will be new funding for additional staff and for the upgrading of their information technology systems to enable them to deal with the additional work load efficiently, and whether there will be sufficient resources overall for them to carry out this extra work. If not, the danger is that we will be imposing a new source of delay in the coroners’ system, and delay has been a worry in the past.

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My fifth point is on funding. A national system would have placed the responsibility for adequate funding on central Government. It is not even clear whether all local authorities currently fund their coroner service adequately, and if there are to be new duties and functions for coroners involving extra expense, will those local authorities continue to step up to the plate and pay their fair share? The Government have the idea that, if a local coroner does not get the necessary funding from a local authority, the chief coroner will step in and support the coroner. I wonder how much weight a local authority would give to representations from such a person from outside its area.

I also wonder whether many people appreciate how much support the police give to the coroners service around the country. The briefing note for today’s debate says that 90 per cent. of the funding for a coroner’s local office comes from police resources, rather than from local authority resources. There is odd wording in the Bill that makes me wonder whether the police have an eye to saying that they would pull out of funding the coroner service because it was the local authority’s responsibility to do so. I would not like to see that happen, not least because of the value that police officers and retired police officers add to the work of the coroner’s office when they become coroners’ officers.

It is good that there will be a greater ability for coroners to share their work load across coroners’ boundaries, and that there is going to be a more formal arrangement for the training of all coroners. I am also pleased that there are to be inspections of coroner services. I am not thrilled one way or the other about retaining the treasure trove duty on coroners, but I note that the ability to share that work load across boundaries might be significant in a few cases.

Like many Members who have spoken today, I am concerned about the provisions relating to secrecy and to sharing data. There is a great deal of work still to be done on the former, for sure. Because the Government have dropped the proposal to give coroners the power to prohibit the publication of certain details, the issue that my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) raised remains and too much detail about suicides and other traumatic events in a family’s life could be published to the world. I am not sure whether the Government have given up not only on the idea of giving coroners the power to control such publication, but on asking the media to exercise a bit more restraint through a change in the Press Complaints Commission’s code of practice for reporting. That issue still needs to be debated by all of us.

As a footnote, I should like to note that some reforms have been implemented ahead of the Bill. A good example is the rule 43 reports. When a coroner feels that a case involves something of significance to the wider world, rather than just the death being investigated, they can now send a report to an organisation and ask for a response. At the moment, there is no power to enforce such a response, but the Bill will give us an opportunity to ensure that that provision is more rigorously enforced, because it is a very welcome reform. As these are major reforms, I hope that there will be some arrangement for post-implementation scrutiny, so that we can see whether what we thought would happen actually has happened, and so that we can make changes speedily if some things are not as we expected. So far, so
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good, however, in terms of most of the proposed reforms of the coroners’ courts system.

7.26 pm

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): I hope that the Justice Committee will carry out just the kind of post-legislative scrutiny to which the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) has referred. We did a great deal of pre-legislative scrutiny on the Bill, and I want to refer to that in moment, particularly in the context of the short report on the Bill that the Committee produced for the assistance of Members on Second Reading and in Committee. It will be an aide-mémoire for some of the issues that we have raised, and for the Government’s response to them. I shall deal mainly with the coroners’ system when referring to the report.

The coroners’ system is greatly valued in this country. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, it has been around for 700 years, and families attach a great deal of importance to it—so much so that it is now used in circumstances that were previously not envisaged. For example, deaths in military service are now the subject of inquests. That was not the case at the time of the Falklands war, and still less so during the first and second world wars. The entire system would have collapsed if it had been expected to cope with the horrific number of deaths of service personnel in either of the two world wars. We have now placed that new responsibility on the service, however.

The coroners’ system does not operate in Scotland at all, and I have found no appetite in England or Wales to move to the Scottish pattern, in which only the most significant and unusual deaths are the subject of a fatal accident inquiry. Any other deaths that require further scrutiny are examined by the procurator fiscal, who decides whether any criminal proceedings should follow, or whether to secure a fatal accident inquiry, which is itself rare.

Whereas there is no appetite in England and Wales to move away from coroners and inquests, there does appear to be an appetite in Scotland to hold inquests, at least in respect of military deaths. That is the subject of an ongoing consultation with the Government. If people are brought back from Afghanistan—following the Nimrod crash, for example—some of them might have been based in Scotland and others in England. The secondary decision of where the plane lands seems a pretty poor determinant of whether there should be an inquest or not. That is an illustration of the importance that people attach to inquests, especially when the state, in the form of our armed services, is relevant to the death.

Mr. Gray: Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that military inquests are so important because the coroner might well point the finger at the state, in one way or another? The Nimrod inquiry is a good example of that. If such inquests were to be held in secret, it would remove one of the most fundamental reasons for holding them—namely, determining what is wrong with the state that sent the soldiers to their deaths.

Sir Alan Beith: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. I do not think that holding such inquests in secret is actually the purpose of the clauses in the Bill that have caused so much anxiety. They are the clauses that my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (David Howarth)
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referred to as a “red rag”, and I still think that they are profoundly unsatisfactory, but they have a rather more limited purpose than that and I shall return to it shortly.

Of course, not all families want inquests in all circumstances. I have talked to many family members who say, “I hope that there is not going to be an inquest.” In some circumstances, usually when the death has occurred in some form of medical care, families do not want to extend the issue further. Our system does not require inquests to be held in all circumstances—far from it—and it would be bad if that idea got around. Nevertheless, the importance of inquests in cases where the reason for death is in some way uncertain cannot be underestimated.

The Bill brings some benefits in that field through the appointment of a chief coroner, an appeals system, inspection and a charter for the bereaved, as well as by resolving some of the issues of jurisdiction that have caused real practical problems to coroners which they have asked to be sorted out for many years. There are situations, for example, in which the coroner has to break the law to get the body of a child to a place where appropriate skills are available to carry out an autopsy. Thankfully, that sort of thing will be sorted out.

The Committee had some concerns, and I shall identify a few of them. Although we understood the decision to stick with a locally organised rather than a national service, we felt that the expectations for the reforms might well not be met by the limited amount of central involvement that the Bill produces, particularly in the light of the great diversity of funding that exists. In some areas, coroners’ offices are provided and paid for by the police; in other areas local authorities play that role. In some cases, coroners are serving police officers; in others they are retired police officers. It is not necessarily wrong to have a degree of diversity, because what works in a rural area is very different from what works in an urban area, but it is clear that there is little certainty that the right level of resources will be available in all areas. The Government are relying on the chief coroner and the inspection system to achieve that, and I hope that consistency of standards is achieved, but there is an awful lot to be sorted out in respect of providing the resources that coroners will need to meet the expectations generated by the Bill.

My second area of concern—I raised it in an intervention during the previous speech—is the position of the medical examiner. The fact that he will be employed by the primary care trust does not provide the direct line of accountability to the coroner and the coronial system that we think is appropriate. That is worrying. PCTs run community hospitals and employ salaried dentists and physicians, alongside dealing with the general practice service and other services that they purchase from other health bodies. They are very much involved. However well the professionals carry out their duties, there will remain a concern in the public mind, which these provisions are intended to address, that the medical advice to the coroner is not independent of those who had care of the patient who died.

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