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The Court views the protection of the legitimate interests of the next-of-kin as a driving aspect to the workings of all accountability mechanisms.
The changes brought forward so far owe much to the positive input from professionals working in the service, including the Coroners Society. The Secretary of State asked for suggestions about how we can bring forward measures to deal with the difficulty that everybody acknowledges in terms of safeguarding the security of the country while meeting the need for clarity in the process. It has been argued by inquests and others that further refinements of the regulation of investigatory powers legislation might provide the necessary safeguards for witness safety and national security. We should certainly continue to search for positive solutions to difficult problems.
Secondly, let me turn to the circumstances in which an inquest must be held with a jury. Legal representations of bereaved service families argue convincingly that the investigation of a sudden death in a military establishment must be subject to the same protection as a death in prison or in a police station. Issues of isolation, vulnerability, potential abuse of authority, access to weaponry, military
codes of silence and confinement in barracks all speak of the dangers of military life and the requirement for additional protection. Again, the issue of public confidence in serving the interests of bereaved families must be paramount.
Thirdly, on the matter of legal representations for bereaved families, no one would question the model of the inquisitorial regime in coroners courts, but an investigation that throws up an article 2 issueone that concerns the protection of lifein the case of a death in an army training establishment or on military service overseas is all too often met with a response from the Ministry of Defence that is judged by families as giving that Department all the protection. Well-paid barristers represent the MOD in court, while the families cannot gain similar representation to support them in trying to obtain justice and truth.
The father of Corporal Jason Pears, who died in barracks in Germany in 2002, spent a large part of his life savings on legal representation at an inquest that reached a verdict of unlawful killing. The family of my constituent, Lance Corporal Derek McGregor, who took his life in disputed circumstances at Catterick barracks, suffered a delay of five years before the inquest was finally concluded. The father came to me to ask for help with legal representation. Those families deserve legal representation when the MOD has barristers in court to represent it. I urge the Minister to consider what steps may be taken in future to assure bereaved service families that their voices and interests will be effectively represented and heard.
Fourthly, I want to comment on the transfer of jurisdiction. Bereaved relatives have welcomed the removal of barriers that have prevented inquests from being held somewhere accessible to their extended family and friends. I know that there are discussions with the Scottish Government about extending the role of fatal accident inquiries to investigate a military death overseas, but families are also concerned that the body of expertise built up by the Oxfordshire and Wiltshire coroners in particular should not be dissipated. The coroners in those two jurisdictions have established centres of excellence that are unmatched in Europe. Their courage has won the admiration of all who have served in their courts and inspired coronial staff to 100 per cent. commitment to the needs of the bereaved. I hope that the Minister will assure me that that expertise will be shared in the new coroner system so that families can be reassured that their needs are being addressed.
I applaud the Government for their commitment to change and praise the work of all who have contributed to the Bill. I urge Ministers to listen to the voices of veterans groups and victims. Deaths of military personnel will always be devastating to the families but they should at least be reassured that each death will be investigated openly and effectively and that where lessons may be learned, they will be acted on.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. We have a little more than an hour to go before we embark on the wind-ups. May I urge hon. Members to modify their speeches if they can to allow as many people as possible to get in?
Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): As the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) mentioned earlier, this is a Second Reading debate and we would normally deal with the broad thrust of the Bill, but as the Bill has been put together from 27 different varieties of provision, it is very difficult to do that. We have to look at its individual parts. I welcome some parts of the Bill: the idea of intercept evidence being introduced; the anonymity of witnesses during investigations; the charter for the bereaved; the provisions regarding child pornography; the idea that coroners will be better trained and inspected in the future; and the coroners appeal system. Some years ago, I was a deputy coroner and I saw then that, as in every walk of life, there are good coroners and those who are not quite so good. The ones who were not so good had a devastating effect on families, because they sometimes dealt with inquests in such an insensitive way.
Interestingly, there was a reference in the Gracious Speech to a Bill designed to improve the coroner service by introducing transparency into the system. However, clause 5 of this Bill prevents a senior coroner or an inquest jury from expressing any opinion on any matter other than the basic details of who the deceased was. I cannot square that with an attempt to introduce greater transparency. Moreover, inquests that come under article 2 of the European convention on human rights may say only what circumstances surrounded the death.
I do not know why that proposal has been put forward. It may be the result of the outspoken and rather brave comments made by the Oxfordshire coroner, in particular about the lack of co-operation by American forces in respect of the inquest into a friendly fire incident that he dealt with last year. However, it is important that coroners are able to speak out, because they often raise matters of important public interest, such as the neglect of consumer or workplace safety by a well-known company or a public authoritys failure in its duty of care. Another example might be the actions or errors that lead to a person meeting their death in custody, while serving in the armed forces or while in contact with the police. Those matters are very important and things are much improved when they are subject to the glare of publicity; they should not be shuffled into a corner, with people who would speak about them gagged. I am very concerned about that aspect of the Bill.
The question of the so-called secret inquests has rightly engaged several contributors to the debate. The provision was brought forward first in the Bill that became the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008, although it disappeared thanks to the opposition that it attracted. I regret to say that the provisions effect means that, in any case in which the state might be alleged to be responsible for a persons deathfor example, the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes, or the death of Baha Mousa at the hands of British soldiers in Basrathe Secretary of State will feel free to appoint a coroner, who will sit in closed session and without a jury. That can happen whenever the Secretary of State is satisfied that it is in the public interest, given the sensitive nature of the material likely to be considered.
That is a retrograde step and there must be a way around this conundrum. I appreciate that there will be times when sensitive information will be disclosed, but surely we can devise a better system than what is being
proposed. The Bill will undermine public confidence in the coroners system, because people out there will think that there must be something to hide if an inquest is held in secret. That will be the reaction when it is decided that a matter should be dealt with in private.
There was a discussion earlier about the use of public interest immunity certificates, which the Secretary of State said would not work. However, that approach routinely works in many criminal cases, and I do not know why it cannot be adapted so that it works properly when delicate matters are discussed in inquests. There should be no need to rule that such inquests should sit in secret. The involvement of the Lord Chief Justice in the selection of the judge does not ameliorate the unfairness that could be caused by the exclusion of a jury, members of the public and next of kin.
I feel very deeply that that is a flawed suggestion. I believe that the Government have overestimated the extent to which the European Court of Human Rights would allow the wholesale exclusion of public and next of kin from inquest proceedings for the sake of some substantial public interest in the non-disclosure of sensitive material. In the case of Rowe and Davis v. the United Kingdom, the Court said that, in the context of criminal proceedings, the entitlement to disclosure of relevant evidence was not absolute, but it never suggested that it would be appropriate to exclude the jury altogether for the sake of safeguarding the public interest in non-disclosure. So there are problems ahead; there is the question of article 2; and I have no doubt that there will be challenges to the Bill if it reaches the statute book in its current form.
I should like to deal briefly with the anonymity of witnesses. Although I appreciate that that is sometimes necessary, especially in the investigative process, I believe that a defendant has a right to know the identity of a witness against him or her in any criminal proceedings. That is vital, as both a common law principle and a constituent part of the right to a fair trial under article 6, which provides for the minimum right of a defendant
to examine or have examined witnesses against him
Notwithstanding the abolition of the common law rules, it is abundantly clear from the provisions of the Act as a whole that, save in the exceptional circumstances permitted by the Act, the ancient principle that the defendant is entitled to know the identity of witnesses who incriminate him is maintained.
Therefore, there is a legitimate concern, because people who give evidence sometimes do so for reasons other than honesty and public duty. That was shown in the recent Davis case, on which the Law Lords decided.
Iain Davis was convicted of murder, following the fatal shooting of two men in east London. The sole or decisive evidence against Davis was the testimony of three witnesses who identified him as the gunman but feared for their lives if it became known that they had given evidence. Davis believed that the witnesses were part of corrupt plot to implicate him in the murder, led by his ex-girlfriend and motivated by revenge. Daviss lawyers were, however, unable to pursue that argument during the trial, because the judge allowed the witnesses to testify under pseudonyms, with all particulars of
their identity withheld from the defence. Furthermore, while cross-examining the witnesses, Daviss lawyers were not permitted to put to them any question that might enable them to be identified. They could not ask who the witnesses were, where they lived or the nature of their relationship with Davis. The House of Lords decided that, in such circumstances, the degree of anonymity rendered the trial unfair. That is a real case; that is a real concern. I hope that we will not make bad law that leads to an undermining of the whole system that the Bill is meant to attempt to improve.
I have flagged up a few of my concerns; other Members wish to speak; and I will draw my comments to a close. However, I am concerned that there are very good parts of the Bill, but those matters to which I have referred are of grave concern to many Opposition Members.
Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): One of my interests in the House is road safety. I served on the Committee that considered the Bill that became the Road Safety Act 2006, and I cannot understand why we did not deal with the driving ban issue when that Bill was passing through Parliament. However, I strongly welcome the fact that, when the Bill is enacted, anyone banned from driving who has to serve a prison sentence cannot serve that ban while sitting in prison with no access to a vehicle. It has always been my belief and that of most of the public that those people should serve the ban when it hurts them most: outside prison. That is one of the things that I welcome in the Bill.
The second thing that I want to say about the Bill is that I have never understood why criminalssome of whom have committed extremely heinous crimes, such as dreadful murderscan benefit financially from writing their memoirs. The Bill will for the first time prevent that from happening, although we are not preventing them from writing their memoirs. Indeed, I dare say that forensic psychologists would welcome some thinking from people who have committed such heinous crimes.
Let me turn to the subject of suicide and assisted suicide. I have taken an interest in the issue because of a firm in my constituency called Zentek. It has three divisions, one of which is e-safe education. Having carried out detailed, forensic analysis of the way in which young people access the internet in scores of schools across north England, Zentek has found out that the filters in place are well nigh useless at preventing people from getting on to some of the most dreadful websites. Obviously, pornography constitutes most of the difficult material that students access. Even members of staff have been caught using school computers to access some pretty dreadful websites. All that a person has to do is google their way round on a public access site, scores of which are available, and within seconds they can be on any internet site in the world.
Zentek has found a system that will read, through the keyboard, what the student is doing. If the student is trying to access difficult sites such as pornographic websites, a black hand will appear, and a message will say, You really shouldnt be accessing this site, and if you continue, you will have the weight of the authorities come down on you, starting with the head teacher.
Sadly, some of those students access sites that tell people how to commit suicide. Zentek has forensically analysed those sites, and it found that quite a number of studentsnot an excessive number, but worrying numbersare dealing with websites that tell people how to commit suicide. That is rather sad, in a way. I went to the meeting that my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) attended just last week on suicide websites. Even the Samaritans do not want suicide websites banned. Interestingly, a young woman was there from the website Bebo, which is used by many young people. When a young person tries to access a suicide website, a widget will pop up directing them to advice sites such as that of the Samaritans. That means that young people who have suicidal thoughts, or who have the curiosity to access those sites, can perhaps be pointed to safe sites such as the Samaritans site. Perhaps those who are feeling suicidal may be encouraged to ring the Samaritans and discuss their problems with them. It would be an excellent idea if, when any personnot just young peopletried to access one of those sites, widgets appeared directing them to the Samaritans or some other voluntary organisation.
I would like to give my backing to Victim Support, which has written to us all to suggest that we encourage Ministers to allow victim support organisations to support witnesses in coroners courts in the same way that they do in the normal court system. For many people, some perhaps already traumatised by the loss of a loved one, it is intimidating enough to have to go to a coroners court and listen to what happened to their loved one and why they died. Sometimes other witnesses can intimidate those witnesses who have been caused a loss. I plead with our Ministers to consider allowing Victim Support to extend its area of operation beyond the normal courts to coroners courts.
I welcome the provision in the Bill allowing bodies to be moved between jurisdictions, so that coroners cases can be heard in the most suitable one. I cite an example that I am dealing with at the moment: a person was transferred, with some difficulty, from my local hospital to a second and then a third hospital, where, tragically, they died. That third hospital is outside the jurisdiction of our coroneror so I believe; I have to check that fact. If it is outside our coroners jurisdiction, it would seem sensible to allow the case to be heard in our local coroners court. After all, most of the family live within shooting distance of that court, and all the persons medical records are kept locally, too. The provision for dealing with such cases is another beneficial aspect of the Bill.
Lastly, I flag up the fact that I am chair of the Care Not Killing alliance, which regards clauses 46 and 48 as extremely responsible and reasonable provisions. They define more clearly the offence of assistance with suicide, and they ensure that those who seek to promote the culture of suicide via the internet must pay attention to these clauses. There are some pretty dreadful people out there putting some pretty serious things on the internet.
I mentioned the suicide sites, but there are also people such as 61-year-old Australian Philip Nitschke, who almost preaches suicide to young and old alike. He has written The Peaceful Pill Handbook, which is up there on a website. He promotes suicide through the use of carbon monoxide in his plastic exit bag, and he will even provide an exit bag. The website describes his
COgen device, which stands for carbon monoxide generation device, and he even describes how to substitute helium for carbon monoxide. It is all there on the internet for access by young and old alike who know how to access such sites.
The Samaritans and other organisations do not want such sites banned, but I would like to see them banned. I know they will not be banned, but some of the very extreme sites put up by the gentleman whom I mentioned, who is often called the Dr. Death of Australia, ought to be restricted. I am convinced that some people who have no suicidal tendencies in their mind when they stumble on to those sites, which is not difficult to do, may begin to think about suicide, particularly if they are already distressed.
I welcome the Bill. It has 162 clauses and 21 schedules. It is an extremely weighty Bill and those who sit on the Public Bill Committee will have an awful lot of work to do. There are some very useful and difficult decisions to make, and I look forward to the outcome of the Committees deliberations when the Bill returns on Report.
Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): The hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) spoke a great deal of sense. I shall return to his speech in a moment, largely to agree with him, but to differ in detail with regard to suicide websites. He was right to say that the Bill is gigantic. It is a Christmas tree of a Bill, a sweepings off the factory floor of a Bill, a hotch-potch of a Bill. There are all sorts of things in it, and the notion that in a Second Reading debate one could speak in favour or against the principle of the Bill is nonsensical, because there is no such thing as a principle in the Bill as a whole. It is a mixture of good things and bad things. I strongly agree with the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) that it would have been better if we were dealing only with a coroners Bill.
For the sake of brevity I shall not address myself to some of the more controversial issues, although I agree with the remarks of a number of my right hon. and hon. Friends and others across the Chamber, particularly on the transfer of data. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Cox) summed up what many people feel about that. It is a fundamental undermining of our rights as citizens, and extremely worrying. I hope we will oppose it in Committee and on Report and Third Reading.
Equally, I shall not deal at length with the excessively emotional topic of freedom of speech and the way we are seeking to stop homophobic hatred. Of course we all want to stop homophobic hatred. At the same time, however, I have some sympathy with Rowan Atkinson and certain Christian groups, for example, who feel that unless the Waddington amendment remains in the original Bill, they will be prevented from doing and saying perfectly legitimate and sensible things that in no sense incite people to murder or commit violence against homosexuals or others. I very much sympathise with such views and, like the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), I have seen no change since the original Act to suggest that we ought to amend it further now.
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