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We have to find a way of resolving that problem. One way of doing so, even within the Government’s proposed structure, would be for the medical examiner at least to be employed by the coroner or the judicial system as a whole-time employee or to be employed in respect of the medical examiner work—a separate duty in respect
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of which they are paid by and accountable to the coronial system, not the health authority.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman has mentioned that point. I am very concerned about the desire for full-time coroners. I notice that part-time coroners are proposed for Northumbria, Cumbria and Cornwall, and I hope that that will also be allowed on the Isle of Wight.

Sir Alan Beith: The hon. Gentleman is a member of the Justice Committee and he knows that we have discussed this issue quite a lot. I was talking about medical examiners, but let me come straight on to the point about part-time coroners in rural areas. The Committee is concerned that flexibility should remain. We do not want a family living 50 miles from the headquarters of the area coroner to have to travel all those miles in order to speak to the coroner or even to his staff. Present arrangements, which use locally based deputy coroners, provide a service that must not be lost when the system is changed. Part-time assistant coroners are provided for in the Bill, but they need to be available in the appropriate areas. The hon. Gentleman’s constituency has some of the problems that are experienced in even greater measure in areas such as mine in Northumberland or, indeed, in Cumbria. Those areas need to be provided for.

I come now to the provisions that originated in the Counter-Terrorism Bill of 2008, which relate to holding some inquests without a jury, in secret and in circumstances in which even the family will not be party to some of the proceedings. In fairness to the Government, I recognise that the proposal arose when it became clear that at least two inquests were not proceeding because of the lack of some provision of this kind. I do not think that the Government started from the wrong motives, but as so often happens in these cases, once the system starts to provide an answer, it comes up with procedures that have many other faults and failings and are wide open to use far beyond what was originally envisaged. I think that the sheer breadth of the provisions worries everybody.

There is also a parallel concern that engages me. I have been involved in the attempt to make intercept as evidence available in our criminal courts. It is a difficult process—indeed, more difficult than people sometimes appreciate. The Government have accepted that it is desirable to allow such evidence and they have charged the same group of people, with just one change, to oversee work by civil servants to try to bring that about. I am engaged in that work.

I have to say that it is still not clear to me how Ministers can be assured that the tests set out by the Chilcot group, of which I am a member, are fully satisfied in respect of the use of intercept evidence under the procedures in coroners’ inquests. Some of the tests relate to the problems of retention and transcription that would arise if it were possible to use intercept material in criminal cases. The same problem can arise in the coroners’ courts.

The Secretary of State drew attention to one difference that does not affect the retention and transcription issue, but does affect issues about revealing certain matters. In a criminal prosecution, the prosecution can
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say that if it has to produce certain material, it cannot proceed, so the case goes no further, but that does not happen in an inquest. Conversely, the coroner is not going to say, “I am going to stop this inquest because the material I need cannot be made publicly available, so I will not have an inquest.” That is almost the situation that we are in now.

In trying to find a solution, the Government are somewhere between a rock and a hard place, but we have to find one that is clearly confined to areas where the production of material could very seriously undermine the ability of intelligence agencies to protect the country’s security and the safety of the people who work in it, and which meets the tests that have to be applied to those procedures if we are going to get intercept into court as evidence. The two points are quite closely related. What happens in an inquest may, of course, give rise to a criminal case if it becomes clear from that inquest that criminal proceedings should follow. In that case, the same evidence will be relevant, so we cannot separate the two.

Mr. Straw: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, and I listened with care to what he said. On his immediate point, there are certain circumstances in which an inquest will be followed by a criminal prosecution, but the usual practice, as he will be aware, is the other way around. That particular issue thus rarely arises in practice. On the more general issue, I am grateful to him for recognising that we have not invented the problem that we are seeking to address by the Bill. He disagrees with the solution and he is right to describe the position in which I find myself as somewhere between a rock and a hard place. It is not his business or that of the official Opposition to make my position any more comfortable, but I would ask him—I know that he has a very constructive approach—to respond as constructively as he and his colleagues can to the invitation I offered the House, including the Opposition, earlier. If it is recognised that there is a problem, and it cannot be resolved in the way that criminal cases can, what is a better solution—there may well be one—than the one in the Bill?

Sir Alan Beith: As my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge said, we have taken one step forward by getting away from the idea of the Secretary of State simply appointing the coroner. That is a beneficial change. As my hon. Friend also said, we now need to separate having or not having a jury from the other issues to which this matter gives rise—they are not the same. This is still a difficult matter and we will probably achieve a solution that can be used only in very few cases, but there are only very few cases in which it will be appropriate to use such a procedure. In such cases, there are families who want the inquest to be completed and want closure, which is why we must look at this matter rather carefully.

I want to discuss the Information Commissioner. I am glad that we now have some idea of how much money will be available for data protection work—that is one of the things we asked for, and just before the debate started the Government sent me a letter about it—because our Committee’s recommendation that we put an end to the absurd state of affairs whereby an individual Member of Parliament’s data protection fee is £35, with the same fee applying to the entire Ministry
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of Justice, has been accepted. Clearly, that fee should be graded. It now will be, which will raise significant sums of money. Indeed, I now know that the Government intend that this should be a virtually self-financing process because of the graded fee.

We welcome the acceptance of that point, but we are concerned about the data-sharing powers in the Bill for reasons similar to the one that I have just mentioned in another context: they are very broad and the parliamentary procedures to which they will be subject are too limited to achieve the protection that most of us would want. The negative procedure is hopeless from that point of view and even the affirmative procedure, which is not normally open to amendment unless the statute makes that possible, will be inadequate if there is to be anything other than narrow applications of the idea of data sharing to areas where it is relevant and necessary.

Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): On the broader point about data sharing, apart from its being considered illiberal, there is public concern about having little confidence that the data will stay exactly where they are supposed to be. Once data have been put out there, having been authorised to go to a third party, they might go to who knows where. We would have to be completely confident that those people’s data sharing and data protection were watertight. That is where I would lose faith completely, because I do not think that any assurances that the Government could give us would mean that that was the case.

Sir Alan Beith: The hon. Lady is right to point out that all this takes place against a background of lack of confidence in the ability of organisations to look after data properly, so the more people who have them, the more there are to lose them in the ways that various bits of the Government have lost them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge drew a distinction between public and private organisations in this context. I understand why he did so, but it is a difficult distinction to draw because the number of private organisations with a legitimate reason to handle Government data is quite large. A general practice in the health service is a private business. So, too, is a charity carrying out work on behalf of the Government. Therefore, there is no nice, neat line between the public and private sectors. There are even more bodies in which data can be lost.

The Committee is concerned—the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael) made the point—that when data sharing is necessary to protect the lives of the public, for example, we should not get to a situation whereby there is so little confidence that we cannot do it when we really need to do it, or a situation whereby assumptions about not sharing data are spread dangerously, as they were in the Soham case. The problem there was caused not by the law, but by a mistaken assumption, even within an organisation, about what the law was. We want a system in which people can have confidence, but in which there is appropriate provision for carefully monitored data sharing in circumstances in which the public would wish it to happen.

Alun Michael: The point in relation to Soham is that the systems were the biggest problem because they were not designed for the sharing of data. Public perception was undermined as a lack of confidence in appropriate sharing was encouraged. Getting such coherence into the public debate is important, is it not?

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Sir Alan Beith: Yes, it is indeed, but it will not be achieved if people believe that the Bill will further open the door to their data being scattered abroad. That is why the Bill must be improved, tightened and strengthened, if it can be. Some hon. Members have suggested that if that is not done, certain clauses should be withdrawn and brought back to the House. One way or another, that improvement has to be achieved.

I want briefly to mention the sentencing provisions. The working group on sentencing practice was divided as to precisely what role Parliament should have in the development of sentencing. There was objection—rightly, I think—to the idea of sentencing being precisely determined by Parliament, because that is not our role. Our role is indeed to provide a range of sentences and to decide what the criminal offences should be. Experience to date is that we can play a useful role in contributing to the development of sentencing guidelines in a process in which the judiciary has primary involvement, but in which others who are affected and have an interest also play a part. We need to continue that and I am glad that we have received some reassurance on the point, but the Bill is not entirely clear about it. I would wish the Justice Committee to continue to play its role.

I want to make one last point, which is personal and not a Committee point at all, or even a party one. It relates to clause 58, which removes the free speech protection that was added to the homophobic hatred provisions in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008. I simply put it this way: given that that legislation has not yet been brought into effect and we therefore have no experience of what its effect will be, we have no evidence that what was intended to be a free speech protection will in any way undermine the ability to prosecute the crime and the evil against which that part of the original legislation was directed.

If there were such evidence, or even clear indications that the ability to prosecute would be undermined, we ought to look at the provision again and word it better, but I believe deeply in free speech and I want to ensure that people who express views that are not threats or threatening are not caught by the legislation or by mistaken assumptions about what it does. I voted for the free speech provision in the first place. Nothing has happened in the meantime to make me change my view that there were indications of inappropriate actions potentially arising from the original wording and we have no evidence on which I should change my mind in that regard. Therefore, I will not support clause 58. We should see what the experience is before trying to change legislation that Parliament has already passed.

7.47 pm

Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South) (Lab): I shall certainly follow your advice on short speeches, Madam Deputy Speaker, although having listened to three hours of Front-Bench speeches, I feel confident that you would agree that droning on is not a monopoly of the Celts.

I was reluctant to join in the debate for fear of being dragooned into serving on the Public Bill Committee, but I have been quite excited by what I have heard. Clearly, according to some fantasists, the Bill is the greatest attack on democracy, human rights,
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constitutionalism, transparency and good governance since Charles I, so it must be worth going along—but please do not tell the Whips!

I really feel that what the Front Benchers were saying was an entertaining listen. The Opposition spokesman, the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), thought he was making an election speech, and some good points were obliterated by his descent into fantasy. However, he was the victim of one of the best put-downs I have heard in this place since I came here 35 years ago. One element of his rhetoric having been undermined, one wonders what proof there was behind the rest of it, and whether, if Members of Parliament had been here in good numbers, they might have punctured it all.

We heard some knockabout stuff, and now I feel that the Opposition have an opportunity—although the Opposition spokesman who delivered that ferocious speech is not present, and has not been since he made it. A colleague of mine came into the Chamber and asked whether there would be a vote. I said, “Of course. I’ve just heard the most ferocious speech imaginable,” only to be profoundly disappointed by the fact that, despite that speech, the Conservatives are to sit on their hands, or go home for an early night.

The speech by the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth), representing the Liberal Democrats, could not have been described as ferocious by any stretch of the imagination, and it seemed that none of the other Members who had signed the amendment was present to support it. We could have an interesting time—but instead, in the limited time available to me I shall focus on a part of the Bill that I consider quite sensible.

I am sure that those who examine the Bill carefully enough will find an integrated theme, although I have not quite found it yet. Certainly the legislation relating to coroners has been a long time coming. Perhaps we should approach reform of the system—which has been glacially slow—from the perspective of reform of the coroner service. There have been endless inquiries and reports, excellent documents have been published by Select Committees, and specific inquiries were conducted after Shipman’s near-genocidal activities. It cannot be said that there has not been an enormous amount of discussion and consultation on the part of the Bill that relates to the coroner service.

I see that the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield has returned. I welcome him back to the Chamber.

Much of what the Government have done in seeking to reform burial practice should be seen as part of the same process, because it indicates that there is a great desire to reform the system as a whole. The same applies to human rights legislation, and to a variety of other Government initiatives. We must not, of course, forget the enormous and sad input in relation to the activities of “Dr. Death”, which at least compelled people to look afresh at possible solutions to problems raised by the way in which coroners operated.

I welcome the Bill. I am not an expert on the law relating to coroners and their work, but I chaired the Defence Committee for eight years and was a member of it for 25 years, and in that time I learnt a great deal about coroners in connection with the military. I also learnt a great deal when I conducted a study of Muslim
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burial practices, not just in my constituency but in 25 other local authority areas. I observed the integral role of the coroner in each of those systems.

Unfortunately, as we all know, standards vary. A coroner service that is well funded may provide a range of activities that are denied to coroners working without that excessive funding, or even a sufficiency of funding. I am sure that anyone who went along to talk to such coroners would realise what they are unable to do as a result of the paucity of funding. We know that local authorities are under enormous financial pressure, and the price of being able to ensure properly that the relatives or friends of the deceased know that the death was accidental, or a result of ageing or natural causes, is fairly high. Some local authorities are not prepared to pay that price. Perhaps they think that the dead do not vote—although, having observed elections throughout the world, I can assure Members that the dead are voting in enormous numbers, including some in inner-city areas in this country of ours. However, I will not pursue that further.

Jenny Willott: The right hon. Gentleman mentioned local authority funding. Does he agree that an issue arises when funding is spread across two local authorities? Although my constituency is in Cardiff, the coroner is funded by Vale of Glamorgan council, which has far less interest in the matter because the vast majority of inquests are carried out on Cardiff residents. That serious imbalance underlines the right hon. Gentleman’s point.

Mr. George: I appreciate that intervention enormously.

My constituency is in an area called the black country—although at least half my constituents would punch me on the nose if they heard me describe Walsall as the black country. Three boroughs are bound together with a single service provided by a coroner. The coroners used to be part-time, and I have spoken to some who feel that they were better resourced then because, being lawyers, they could use the services of their own law practices. In the absence of those resources, I do not think that—with the best will in the world—the merged coroner service can do the job that it is obliged to do.

I have looked carefully at the part of the Bill that deals with governance, and I approve of much of it. For instance, the chief coroner will be responsible for training arrangements, maintaining a scheme for the investigation of complaints and an appeal system, and producing an annual report. A coronial advisory council will be established. Those and other measures represent a great step forward, but I see a problem that reminds me of what I observed in the United States over the Christmas period, when I examined the activities of election organisations. I was able to talk to representatives of 13 such organisations, because there are no Boxing day breaks in the United States, or even Christmas eve breaks.

The position in the United States is almost exactly the same. Power rests more with the localities. Central Government—the federal Government—can pass legislation, but they are circumscribed by the tradition that things must be left to those in local government, which has a considerable downside, about which I shall say more shortly.

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