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26 Jan 2009 : Column 106

I want to focus on two aspects of the Bill. The first—the question of military inquests—was expertly covered by the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble). I entirely agree with her that the excellent coroner for Oxford and in particular the retiring coroner for Wiltshire, David Masters, have developed huge expertise due to the geographical accident that multiple inquests, when the bodies of a number of soldiers are repatriated to the United Kingdom, are carried out by the coroner in the place where the plane happens to land. At the moment, that place happens to be RAF Lyneham in my constituency.

The two coroners have built up extraordinary expertise about military activities of one sort or another. The Bill makes no reference to military inquests, but it seems to me that it could go two ways. On the one hand, it would be possible, I suppose, to dissipate that expertise by saying that the inquest should be carried out in the places where the soldiers originally came from. That would be a legitimate line to take, and to some degree it is happening already: when a single body is repatriated to this country, the inquest is indeed carried out by the local coroner.

My inclination, however, is to say that we should seek to maintain the expertise built up by those two coroners over the years and, in doing that, make sure that the council tax payers in Wiltshire and Oxfordshire are not disadvantaged by it. I welcome the extra resources that the Government have pumped into the Wiltshire coroner service in the past year or so. That must be continued if operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are to continue in years to come. If that huge burden is to be placed on the coroner in Wiltshire, resources have to follow it, and some formal structure has to be put in place to make sure that that occurs. Equally, it would be wrong if civilian inquests in Wiltshire were delayed in any way because of the large number of military inquests.

I also very much agree with the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood that on occasion it is important for there to be legal representation. In the case of the crash of Hercules XV179, it was strange that originally the only person who was to have legal representation on the state at the inquest was the Australian soldier killed in the flight; the Australian Government chose to pay for a barrister to represent him. Initially, the British Government refused to pay for such representation, although under pressure the Secretary of State made special provision and there was lead representation. If the Ministry of Defence is to have legal representation defending its position in the inquest, surely it is only right that the families of the soldiers involved should have equal representation, and that that should be paid for by legal aid. I hope that the Bill will be able to address that imbalance in respect of legal representation at military inquests.

The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed argued that I had got the third aspect of military inquests slightly wrong. I am concerned about the possible secrecy of inquests. It appears that the provisions of the Bill are intended to make sure that grave, secret cases affecting the national interest could be heard in secret. There will, of course, be occasions when that is worth doing. However, we are concerned that when there was implicit criticism of the state—as in two or three of the Oxfordshire coroner’s recent inquests, for example—the state would somehow or other seek to keep it quiet. It
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would not want criticism of military defence or the military in general and would seek to use the national interest as an excuse for making the inquest secret. Such inquests, and others—those into prison deaths, for example—involve exactly the kind of cases in which the public have a right to know what went wrong.

The state should overcome its natural inclination to keep that kind of inquest secret, and ensure that it does not do so. The Secretary of State might like to think about ways of narrowing the definition of secret inquests. The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed reckons that these fears are misplaced; if so, let us see a narrowing of the parameters so that the secrecy aspect of inquests can apply only to a very few. The whole question of military inquests is worthy of further development in the Bill.

The second subject that concerns me greatly is suicide. I am pleased to serve on the all-party group on suicide prevention and to have a close relationship with the organisation Papyrus, which represents the parents of the 38 people so far who have committed suicide using the disgraceful sites on the web, which really are extraordinarily bad. This afternoon, I googled “How to kill yourself”, and the sort of stuff that came tumbling out was simply appalling, describing how to tie the piano wire around one’s neck and how it is better to shoot or poison oneself in a river because one stands a better chance of success. Some of these sites not only describe how to do it but encourage people to do it, saying, “Oh, you’re a bit depressed, well here’s how to end it all.” They are absolutely disgraceful.

In a civilised society such as ours we cannot allow that to continue, and there was a debate about how to set about the task in a meeting of the all-party group the other day. The hon. Member for Bolton, South-East correctly said that the Samaritans, among others, have reservations, because banning anything with the word “suicide” in it would by definition ban the Samaritans site, which we cannot do. However, it should not be all that difficult to analyse the dozen or 20 really wicked, vicious, nasty sites and find ways of banning them and having them taken down. The excellent report recently commissioned by the Government agreed that that was a worthwhile thing to try to do. Australia and Japan have, with greater or lesser degrees of success, found ways of achieving exactly that.

One of the problems with the clauses regarding internet-assisted suicide is that most of the sites come from overseas. It is fine to outlaw people who write these sites and threaten them with a 14-year prison sentence when they are based in the UK, but most of them are from elsewhere. The Government should consider whether extradition might be possible for some of these people. I put that forward as an idea; I am by no means recommending it. When people around the world are sending material into the UK designed to encourage our teenagers to kill themselves, surely there is an argument to say that we could enter into discussions with other nation states about possible extradition treaties so that these wicked people could be brought to justice here, even if writing such sites is not a crime in their countries. I hope that the example of the Bill may be followed by some other countries around the world, including America and in the European Union, so that this might be increasingly an international crime.

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The other matter that the Bill needs to address is what we can do to allow and encourage the internet service providers to take these sites down, because at the moment it is extremely difficult for them to do that. The Bill makes no reference to ISPs. We should find a way of saying to them, “These things are wicked; we as a nation and as a Parliament deplore them. If they were written in this country they would be outlawed and the people involved would go to prison for 14 years. We require you, as ISPs, to take them down, get them stopped, block them and finish them.” I do not know how to do that because I do not know enough about computers, but they are a blot on our society and they must be dealt with.

Alun Michael: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gray: I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not, as two or three other people want to speak and he spoke for quite a long time earlier.

The sites I am referring to are disgraceful. The Bill is our opportunity to get them stopped, and I hope that the Government will exercise themselves in finding a way to do just that.

This is a bit of a curate’s egg of a Bill, but I support most of it. A great deal of strengthening should be done in the two areas of military inquests and suicide websites, and I hope that the Government will do that in Committee.

9.4 pm

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): I will confine my remarks to issues that the Joint Committee on Human Rights has already reported on. We will be carrying out a detailed scrutiny of the Bill, and many aspects are of interest, but I could not possibly do them all justice today.

I should like to start with the question of coroners and inquests. There is much to be welcomed in that respect. I know from my own work when I was in practice, when I sat through far too many inquests representing bereaved families, how overdue some of these reforms are. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) outlined a lot of the positive developments in that respect.

On jury trials, the list of cases requiring a jury in clause 7 is a little short. It ought to include deaths resulting from acts or omissions of other public bodies, such as mental health institutions when a voluntary patient dies. Military inquests have already been dealt with in the debate. My main concern is secret inquests, and the House will know that I tabled a series of amendments when the issue arose regarding the Counter-Terrorism Bill, ultimately leading to the Government withdrawing their proposals. Now, those proposals have returned with relatively little modification.

The starting point must be article 2 of the European convention on human rights as tested in Jordan v. United Kingdom, which set out the positive obligation of a state to provide adequate, effective investigation when an individual is killed as a result of the use of force, particularly when the force was used by state agents. The investigation should be instituted on the initiative of the state, the person conducting it must be independent from those implicated and there should be sufficient public scrutiny to secure accountability in
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practice as well as in theory. The next of kin must be involved to the extent necessary to protect their legitimate interests, and the investigation must be prompt and proceed with reasonable expedition. My concern is that the new proposal will not achieve that.

A certification could be allowed in the interests of national security or of relations between the UK and another country. A new provision is that it could be allowed in the interests of preventing or detecting crime or of protecting witnesses or other persons. As a catch-all, it could be allowed for reasons otherwise in the public interest. The effect, of course, will be having no jury. I am pleased that the Government have accepted one of the amendments that I tabled to the Counter-Terrorism Bill, suggesting that the Lord Chief Justice should appoint a High Court judge as the coroner, but that is about as far as it goes.

The problem is that the proposals will apply to exactly the sort of cases that, above all others, should have the breath of fresh air from the open window of transparency blowing through them. The most serious and contentious arise when the state or a foreign Government are implicated. We have heard about the de Menezes case and the deaths of service personnel, and the Royal British Legion has mentioned friendly fire incidents. There are cases involving soldiers in training, such as at Deepcut, which my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) mentioned, and deaths at the hands of foreign Governments’ torturers or security services. In the Mubarek case, when a young man died in Feltham, an inquiry was resisted tooth and nail until the Government were ordered to hold one. Exactly the sort of cases that should be held in the open run the risk of being held in secret. We do not have criminal trials without juries in terrorism, national security or espionage cases, so why do we need such inquests without them?

I believe that the Government have misinterpreted the requirements of article 2 and its case law. They are arguing for a counsel of perfection. Article 2 does not require an absolute finding of fact using every last scrap of evidence. Inquests do not operate to the criminal standard of proof beyond all reasonable doubt. What is required is an adequate and effective inquiry that is independent, constitutes public scrutiny and involves the next of kin. The system will not give the public confidence that lessons have been learned. Equally importantly, if not more so, it will not give closure to relatives if they and their lawyers of choice are excluded. It is sometimes difficult for relatives to get closure even under the existing arrangements, and it may well be difficult under the reformed arrangements. Are relatives seriously expected to take the specially appointed coroner’s word for what happened to their loved one? A jury is an essential part of the closure process.

Mr. Straw: Aside from the fact that the coroner will be not just any old coroner but a High Court judge, does my hon. Friend accept that a consequence of what he suggests is that some relevant evidence could not be put before a jury?

Mr. Dismore: That may be necessary. The question is whether there can still be an adequate and effective investigation without that last piece of evidence. That evidence may not be necessary, but we have the system of public interest immunity certificates and the Government
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can persuade the coroner to withhold sensitive material. Both those provisions were upheld in two cases against the UK, those of Jordan and McCann. It has been stated that those restrictions are compatible in principle.

Another concern is that under clause 29, the new inspection arrangements will be excluded from investigating inquests such as I have mentioned, as inspectors cannot be present when people are excluded under subsections (3) or (4) of clause 34, which specify the direct exclusion of persons. That is a serious matter.

I want briefly to consider data protection, about which the Joint Committee on Human Rights has made many recommendations over the years. I welcome the provisions for spot checks of public bodies, the tougher powers for the Information Commissioner and the proposed code of practice. Our approach, which is set out in numerous reports, is that, when there is a demonstrable need to permit data sharing, the Government’s intentions should be clearly set out in primary legislation, including the necessary safeguards, to enable proper scrutiny. Secondary legislation cannot be amended and cannot improve or question the safeguards.

Article 8 of the European convention on human rights contains the right to private life provisions, and I am concerned about clause 152 on information sharing. It is difficult to imagine a provision that would contradict more the basic views of the JCHR and—more important —the requirements of the Human Rights Act 1998 and the European convention on human rights. It is too broad and unspecific; no safeguards are specified.

The Bill contains a power to amend by secondary legislation any Act of Parliament—the Data Protection Act 1998, the Human Rights Act and, presumably, the new safeguards in the Bill. We should at least have provisions such as those in the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 to exempt from amendment by such a process those Acts and the Bill’s additional safeguards.

The data-sharing provisions allow the Secretary of State to permit any person, department or company to share information, including personal information, about anyone if that serves a Government policy objective. They are not restricted to Departments, to the original reason for obtaining the data, or to a statutory duty or power. The provisions would cover all personal data, including ethnicity, credit history, medical records, DNA, tenancy records and tax and benefit records. A general, blanket discretionary power is not proportionate or necessary and does not justify departure from article 8. No legitimate purpose is specified—it remains an open question.

To depart from article 8, there must be a legitimate purpose. Departure must be proportionate and necessary. I am interested to learn the Government’s justification in anticipation of the very long letter that I expect to write on behalf of the JCHR, which will pose those questions in more detail than I have time to set out today.

My last point is about witness anonymity. We debated it at length previously and I do not want to go over the old points that were made during the discussions on the emergency legislation, save for one. The Government promised to come back on the recommendations about independent counsel that my Committee made for the 50 or so so-called civilian cases in which credibility is an issue. One suggestion was for a voir dire process. Why
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have the Government decided not to proceed further with that? My Committee may wish to return to the matter, and it would be helpful to have an explanation now, if there is one, of the reason for not addressing that. The recommendations would provide a basic safeguard in the 50 or so cases involved, allow trials to proceed with greater confidence and enable the interests of justice to be more adequately served.

I have flagged up a few items on behalf of the JCHR, to which I suspect we will come back: secret inquests in particular; data protection, which is fundamental, and witness anonymity.

9.13 pm

James Brokenshire (Hornchurch) (Con): I want to confine my comments to the provisions on coroners, and to refer to the Data Protection Act 1998. I agree with many points that the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) made about the ambit and other aspects of that measure.

Clearly, there is much in the Bill that we can welcome about the reform of the coroners’ courts system. I believe that this is the first reform since 1285, so those who have said that it is long overdue are probably correct. We all welcome the establishment of the chief coroner, the modernisation of the coroner’s powers of inquiry and investigation, and the creation of rights for interested parties, including bereaved families. Those provisions will improve the service.

I hope that we will reflect on one aspect of the charter for the bereaved: most of the focus is on the coroner’s service. From my experience of dealing with cases of bereaved families, who are trying to get through a difficult time, some of the issues often involve the relationship between the coroner service and, for example, the police service. If the release of a body is requested or required from the police, getting them to respond appropriately in relation to the coroner’s activities is important.

I wholeheartedly endorse and welcome the charter for the bereaved, but it needs to take account of the relationship with other agencies, so that the bereaved do not have to chase the police for the release of the body—as happened in a case that was recently brought to me—and almost have to go through the funeral to the cremation without it. As a separate issue, the charter also needs to take into account inquests that might take place in several weeks’ or months’ time.

There still seems to be a distinction relating to the requirements for allowing a cremation to take place. Death certification is required, but in the case of a cremation, additional requirements and certificates are needed. That matter does not appear to be touched on in the Bill, but the recommendations that came out of the Shipman and Luce inquiries suggested that those questions would be dealt with. If that has not been reflected on to date, I hope that it will now be considered and addressed.

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