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26 Jan 2009 : Column 93

The Constitutional Affairs Committee and its successor, the Justice Committee, have done an excellent job over the years. The Committee’s 2006 report criticises the lack of funding and is damning in its criticism of the system as a whole, and I can reinforce what it said.

A couple of years ago, the father of one of my constituents died, and he had wanted to be buried back in Pakistan. I remember the difficulty that I had to endure, and the time it took me to obtain a decision, or information, from the coroner. It was not his fault, but he was not available—and this was a Member of Parliament trying to elicit information from the system! That showed me more clearly than anything that the coroner system needed more funds.

At one time there was talk of named deputies in various locations, but not much has happened on that front in my area. The underlying obstacles include the lack of priority given to the service by many local authorities. They are not prepared to increase funding to enhance services, yet there is a much higher expectation of improvement in the service, not just among the general public but in central Government and in Parliament itself. What is required, in my view, is the imposition of, or heavy persuasion to adopt, more uniformity in the system. Why should someone in my area, or in Sandwell or Dudley, receive a lesser service than people living in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) or in Birmingham?

We should consider the number of staff who are engaged in the coroner service in Birmingham. Admittedly there are more deaths per year in Birmingham: 4,600, as opposed to 3,600 in the black country. However, Birmingham had nine officers—now it has eight—along with a host of administrative staff, while the black country has six officers and one administrative staff member. It is not fair that the service in the black country should have its hands tied by being so grossly understaffed.

I am sure that local authorities will be angered by what I am saying, but I represent my constituents rather than the council leadership. I asked them to look into this more carefully. I believe that it is a question not just of paying the bills, but of paying enough to the coroner service so that it can benefit my constituents by being able to provide a more professional service than it can currently offer. It is good, but it could be much better if it got more resources. In many parts of the country, the coroner service needs to be considerably enhanced. The constraints upon the poorer ones are debilitating, making them less functional, and unable to provide a better service.

I asked a friend of mine who is more adept at maths than me to look at the budgets of the local authorities in my area, and at what they provided for the coroner service. My friend reached the conclusion that there had been no real increase in resources in the last 25 years. This proposed legislation will impose more tasks on the coroner service, but will the money be increased? No, it certainly will not. I therefore say with absolute confidence that these inadequate resources in the black country have had a marked effect on the level of service the coroner service can provide, and we should not tolerate that for much longer. I recognise that there are considerable financial constraints upon local authorities, but I would have thought that they would put funding an adequate coroner service far higher up their list of priorities.

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I mentioned earlier that I produced a long report on Muslim burial practices. Clearly, there are groups in our constituencies who practise different religions and have very different burial practices. Those who are Catholic or Protestant might be perfectly happy with a period of five or six days—they might consider that to be ample time to say farewell to the deceased—but for those who are Jewish, Hindu or Muslim, the time scale is very different. In our society, we have an obligation to ensure that the human rights of all groups are properly respected. Local authorities should provide a service that does that—and many do. They can solve the problem of providing a burial service 365 days a year.

If there is any doubt about a death, the investigation of that must, of course, take as long as is necessary, but if there is no doubt about the death, things can be speeded up. There are many in the chain—the local authority, the registrar, the gravediggers, the hospital, the health service, the doctors—who could, if they wished, do as Leicester is doing and expedite the system by which the dead can be legitimately buried, in compliance with the law and the religion of those concerned. However, that is not the case in some authorities, including mine in Walsall, although it is under pressure—partly because of my report, I would like to think—to do what other authorities are doing.

Sir Alan Beith: Unnecessary post-mortems are a key factor in some such delays. That also affects groups who have a philosophical objection to post-mortem examination. That has to be overridden if there are serious grounds for doing that, but sometimes it is felt that post-mortems are routinely carried out when they are not necessary.

Mr. George: I have talked at length to the Muslim burial society in my constituency, and wonderful organisations in many other parts of the country who have responded to my surveys, and I know that none of them would want to make it difficult for the coroner, if he or she has to do their work. In the circumstances described, they would have to wait, but I would hope that where there is no problem, local authorities of any size would be prepared to expedite the system. That is how we should proceed, but it might be prevented by the underfunding of the coroner service, because if there are too few people and too many bodies to deal with, it will be impossible for it to provide the necessary paperwork and examinations quickly enough for a swift burial.

I can send Members a copy of the report I have mentioned, if they want a long read. However, I should say that there can be difficulties, even with the best will in the world. I know the coroner in the black country is more than aware of the requirements of Muslims, but at this stage he is unable to meet those requirements because he simply does not have adequate resources. I hope, therefore, that when the Bill is considered further, we do not consider only the issues that are politically contentious. As a number of Members have pointed out, issues relating to the coroner service might not be considered as important as some feel the other areas that we have heard discussed are—but everyone has an interest in our having an effective coroner service, and the Government might be able to do the necessary research to find out who the laggards are, and whose standards fall below an acceptable minimum. If the new system that the Bill will create cannot force higher
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standards on the laggards, we will wonder whether the Government’s commitment to voluntarism represents the right course to follow.

8.6 pm

Mr. Geoffrey Cox (Torridge and West Devon) (Con): The entrusting of information by an individual to the Government is an act of trust. It imposes upon the receiver of the information a solemn obligation of confidence. For many years, Government have observed that as an essential and cardinal principle of their activities in the maintenance of that trust. The right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) argues against those who take the view that the dismantling or relegation of that principle—which in my judgment this Bill is designed to do—will be an important retrograde step in the public life of this country, and he accuses us of over-dramatising or of unnecessary or gratuitous histrionics. When we remove from a wall a single brick, it is easy to stand around and say, “Look, the wall has not fallen.” Even if we remove from that wall one of its most important cornerstones, the wall will continue to stand for quite some time, and those who stand around can mock and say, “See, the wall remains standing.” However, the relegation of a principle upon which the freedoms, privacy and confidentiality of individual citizens have been based for so many years is an important step even if its consequences may not be visible straight away.

I believe that the Government have a solemn duty not to apply information that has been entrusted to the state for one reason to another purpose, unless, perhaps, the most compelling circumstances dictate that—circumstances that are so compelling that any reasonable citizen would be obliged to say, “Well, when I entrusted my information, yes, I expected the Government to keep it confidential and to use it only for the purpose stated, but I am driven inescapably to the conclusion that for the Government to use it this other way is a rational and necessary step.” I have no doubt that the Government and the Minister will argue that the safeguards in place require that kind of test, but I am not sure that they do.

I know that dozens of my constituents and many hundreds of others who have written to Members from all parts of this House are equally distrustful of the Government’s intentions in this respect. That is not because they believe the Government are doing this for a malign purpose, nor because they do not believe that the Government have a perfectly legitimate function and perfectly legitimate enhancements of public services in mind, but because when one replaces a governing principle with a pragmatic assessment and a balancing exercise in respect of what is important, one suddenly and fundamentally changes the balance, culture and protections that the citizen enjoys within government.

One hon. Member said—I am afraid I forget who it was—that this was a question of changing the culture. To take away a principle as important as this and replace it with a series of so-called safeguards and a practical or pragmatic balance of assessment of the functionality and utility of deciding to disclose other people’s information for another purpose is to deprive the citizen and the individual of a crucial protection. I
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agree with those on both sides of the House who have expressed caution about the step that we are about to take. The accumulation and pooling of knowledge and information about an individual by the Government, as happens in so many various ways—in respect of health, for the purposes of tax and for the purposes of social security—present a mighty tool in the hands of the state. I do not believe that the Bill achieves a sensible balance or a sufficient protection for the individual in that respect.

I welcome many of the provisions on coroners. I, like Members on both sides of the House, have had families who have been caught up in the tragic death of a loved one—a son, a daughter or another close member of the family—coming to my weekly surgeries. We have heard the constant refrain that they do not feel that there has always been the kind of liaison, disclosure of information and involvement of them in the process that allows them to feel easy in their minds that the process is transparent and that it allows them sufficient involvement. So I welcome the charter for bereaved people, which is a substantial step in the right direction. I understand that there are concerns that it might be a toothless tiger if it is not backed up by the resources and finances to provide the relevant services in all areas of the country, but it represents a significant and useful step. If it is clearly enough expressed, it will be useful for those families who have experienced the kind of grief and involvement with the inquest system that I have come across in my surgeries.

That brings me to an area of the Bill on which I have most experience and, in connection with my professional occupation, most practical involvement: the changes that the Bill seeks to achieve in the criminal law. If the Bill could be analysed in terms of the numbers of its provisions, it would be found to amount to another criminal justice Bill. One cannot even say it is a mini criminal justice Bill, because, by the standards of previous years, its provisions would have graced a full-sized Bill all by themselves.

The Bill seeks to make a number of changes to the law. It is worth observing that we have had one criminal justice Bill after another during the lifetime of this Government, and hon. Members on both sides of the House will fairly concede that those have not all been tremendous successes. Indeed, dozens if not hundreds of provisions from those Acts, as they have become, have not even been brought into force, yet we face even more changes in the criminal law.

The worst and primary change that the Bill seeks to make is one to the law of homicide. The proposed reforms adopt the Law Commission’s proposals for changes to the partial defence of provocation, but its proposals were to be part of an overall and comprehensive reform of the law of homicide. It proposed that there should be first-degree and second-degree murder, and that first-degree murder would cover the most serious cases, where there was an intention to kill, and that second-degree murder would be where a person had an intention to commit serious harm but where there may not have been an intention to kill. In dividing murder into first-degree and second-degree murder, it made sense to review the partial defences to murder, which provocation and diminished responsibility represent. It is only those changes into first-degree and second-degree
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murder that made sense of and justified the re-examination of the defence of provocation and the narrowing of its scope.

The Government appear to have plucked from the Law Commission’s careful, detailed and comprehensive review of the law of homicide a part of it that was only made sense of by the context that the Law Commission gave it and simply introduced it in a fragmented and piecemeal way in this Bill. The objections to that approach are clear: the narrowing of the partial defence of provocation makes no sense if we retain the single offence of murder with a mandatory life sentence, which is what the Government propose. Such an approach will mean that a great number of people to whom the defence or partial defence would have been available—the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) made this point well—will be affected by unintentional consequences; it might mean that many more will be convicted, and that those who are may not be those whom this House would wish to be.

I wish to say a word about the exclusion of sexual infidelity as a type of conduct that can trigger the partial defence, because it makes no real sense. Why should one exclude a form of human conduct that all literature and all human experience teaches us excites the greatest feelings of injustice and hurt that human life can sometimes produce? Why is it necessary, when defining the provocation of partial defence as something of grave circumstances that brings about a sense of serious wrong, to exclude the fact that, in certain circumstances at least, sexual infidelity can produce just such a sense of grievous hurt and wrong? It can be an appalling type of betrayal, so it makes no sense for that to be excluded.

It would have been a genuinely imaginative and bold step if the Government had taken on board the Law Commission’s proposals on the reform of homicide law generally and introduced those proposals—or something very like them—together with these partial defences and their revision as part of a comprehensive reform. That is why one feels a considerable sense of unease about this Bill. In parts, it contains some positive and constructive measures, such as the charter for bereaved people and many of the changes to the coroners system. However, the provisions on the criminal law appear to have been tacked on for reasons possibly of expedience or, as the hon. Member for Cambridge suggested, to be seen to be doing something about a topical problem. That is not the way in which the criminal law should be changed. That is why my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) was right to say that the Conservative party should approach the Bill with considerable caution. I hope that in Committee—I hasten to add that this is not an invitation to appoint me to it—many of these issues can be considered, especially the criminal law provisions that have not been adequately thought through.

8.21 pm

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate. We have had some well informed comments on a wide ranging piece of legislation. I intend to concentrate on the areas of the Bill that refer to coroners’ courts. I share the welcome that the Bill has received from those who have had direct experience of the coroner system,
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whether as a member of a bereaved family, a legal practitioner, a court reporter or one of the thousands of people who work in the system and who do their best. The latter have shared the frustrations and distress caused by a system that is almost universally regarded as—in that hackneyed phrase—not fit for purpose.

The 200 patients murdered by Dr. Harold Shipman, the conviction of Beverley Allitt for the murder of four children in her care, the Bowbelle/Marchioness disaster, the rulings by the European Court of Human Rights on so-called shoot-to-kill deaths in Northern Ireland, and the Hillsborough disaster, which was mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), all contribute to the view that the procedures in place to investigate shocking or controversial deaths have proved woefully inadequate. The coroners’ courts system dates back hundreds of years. It is time for change.

In 2001, Tom Luce was asked to head a fundamental review of coroner services, and his 2003 report serves us well. He found the systems in England, Wales and Northern Ireland for the certification of most deaths by doctors and the investigation of others by coroners had been

The systems, he said

He highlighted two essential changes above all others:

I believe that the Bill will mark a step change towards achieving those improvements. While I regret that it has not proved possible to create a national coroner service, the proposal to appoint a chief coroner to provide leadership and set standards is a critical development in the direction of constructing a thoroughly modern and professional service.

However, the Bill is not, nor can it be, the end of the story. Measures already introduced outside the structure of the Bill signal the Government’s commitment to the process of change. The amendment, in July last year, of coroners’ rule 43 underlines the requirement for the coroner to take steps to prevent future deaths. At the same time, the introduction of rule 57A gives guidance on the supply of information on deaths, reflecting the concern to provide additional protection for the rights of the child. Advance publication of the excellent draft charter for bereaved families speaks volumes for the focus of the process.

Thorough consultation with service users, victims’ groups and non-governmental organisations such as Inquest has been a vital part of this process so far. I would like the Minister to confirm that she will investigate structures to formalise this involvement, especially in the further development of rules and training programmes. I would also like to learn more about measures that can be taken to address gender and race equality issues in the service so that the public face of the coroners’ system may reflect the diversity of the community it serves. Change must continue.

While I welcome the message of this Bill, I also want to sound some notes of caution. The all-party parliamentary group on army deaths, which I am proud to chair, seeks
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to give voice to the concerns of bereaved service families who feel that bullying and institutional abuse continue to go unchallenged and suspicious deaths are still not investigated effectively. Families believe that the problems at Deepcut barracks were the tip of the iceberg.

In the matter of effective investigation, those concerned with the ill treatment of recruits in training establishments have found common cause with victims of suspicious deaths overseas. Too often, it seems, lessons could have been learned and deaths could have been prevented. Bereaved families are angry that action has not been taken despite warnings, whether the problem was heat exertion, “friendly fire”, lack of equipment or adequate protection of personnel. This community of victims is a critical audience to win over to create public confidence in a reformed coroners’ system. The Royal British Legion and the War Widows Association have listened to bereaved families and share many reservations about the proposals before us.

Let me express some of those reservations and concerns. First is the issue of secret inquests. I spoke against those proposals when they were put forward in the context of the Counter-Terrorism Bill and recognise that the Government have responded positively to criticism. Ministers have brought forward considerably modified proposals. Nevertheless, the Bill before us still gives the Secretary of State power to certify investigations to be held without the public, without the jury and without the involvement of the family of the deceased. I regret that it may not be possible to dislodge the perception that crucial evidence will be heard behind closed doors. While the grounds for certification are more carefully defined, the Bill still seems to suggest that the objection of another country and diplomatic relations will be placed above the need of a grieving family to find the truth.

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission has drawn attention to the weight placed by the European Court of Human Rights upon the role of the bereaved family in defining standards for the protection of life. One expert has said:

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