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Conservative Members have always been in favour of local delivery by local coroners, but within a national framework that provides effective guidance. Of course, there will be cost implications for the Governments proposal, and the points made and questions posed by the hon. Member for Stafford and the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed need to be examined carefully. The Jean Charles de Menezes inquest alone cost more than £1 million. There must be a very strong case for central Government providing funds for court
accommodation, and at a time when the private finance initiative is coming under a great deal of pressure, I hope that the Minister will look carefully at that suggestion.
We also welcome the new procedures in clause 2, which allow for the appointment of medical examiners who will oversee the independent scrutiny and confirmation of medical certificates of the causes of death. That was recommended in the Shipman inquiry report and it is long overdue. However, the Coroners Society points out that both the Shipman report and the Luce report recommended the integration of the coroner and death registration services, but that has been ignored in the Bill. I hope that the Minister will take a close look at that issue and at the points made by the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor), who is highly respectedcareful note should be taken of his expertise and insight. Obviously, the medical examiners need to be truly independent, as a number of hon. and right hon. Members have said.
On recommendations by coroners, paragraph 6 to schedule 4 gives coroners the power to make a report to the person or organisation whom they believe may have the power to take the necessary action to prevent future deathsthat was covered by the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) in a moving speech containing a number of well-informed remarks about suicide victims based on the tragic constituency experience that she went through. Such a person or organisation must then give the coroner a written response. The explanatory notes state:
Further provision may be made in rules enabling reports...to be published.
That is not good enough. Surely one of the key roles of the coronial service is to improve public safety by ensuring that obvious mistakes, omissions and bad practices are not repeated. We must take on board the suggestions and comments made by the hon. Members for Bridgend and for Stafford. Surely schedule 4 does not go far enough, because no mechanism is in place to ensure that the recommendations are properly recorded and implementedwe should look at this carefully in Committee.
If one examines the part of the Bill dealing with coroners, one finds that it is about snakes and ladders; the Government have put in place some good ladders and we praise them for that, but there is a nasty snake that may come crashing down in clause 11. That clause, which many right hon. and hon. Members have discussed, provides for the Secretary of State to issue a certificate that allows inquests to be held without a jury. That provision will gravely limit transparency and increase Executive control over the inquests process. The measure was first introduced in the 2008 Counter-Terrorism Bill, but it was withdrawn, and I greatly regret its reappearance. I say that because the grounds for removing the jury are very broad indeedif anything, they are broader now than they were in that original Bill, because the Coroners and Justice Bill provides for its removal for reasons
otherwise in order to prevent real harm to the public interest.
That is a catch-all phrase, as was pointed out by the hon. Member for Cambridge, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd). He is a former deputy coroner and we should listen to him very carefully. Others to make that point included the hon. Members for Blackpool, North
and Fleetwood and for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Cox). They all pointed out that the Bill will undermine public confidence in the inquest system. It was right, for example, that the inquest into the death of Jean Charles de Menezes was held in public, but under these proposals it would almost certainly have been held in private. I am worried that the number of inquests heard without juries would grow, and what was meant to be an occasional fall-back option could become the norm. That is why we need to strike that clause from the Bill when the time comes.
In 2004, the Law Commission published its report Partial Defences to Murder. That was followed by its fundamental review of murder and manslaughter in 2006. The Bill is a piecemeal, fragmented and unsatisfactory approach to the issues of murder, infanticide and suicide. I listened carefully to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon, who is an expert on criminal law. As well as putting in a strong bid to serve in Committee, he gave some good reasons why this aspect of the Bill needs to be improved. A step-by-step approach is not good enough. As my hon. and learned Friend said so eloquently, in spite of the Governments good intentions, there are always dangers in simply cherry-picking important, carefully reasoned and crafted, but highly controversial Law Commission proposals. That is why we must examine those provisions carefully.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire has some excellent ideas for combating the existence of overseas suicide sites. Surprisingly, the Government did not properly consult on the provisions on suicide, and they must be looked at again in much more detail.
The Government did consult on sentencing, but I agree with the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael) that we need to look carefully at what really works, especially when it comes to community sentencing. We have no problems with plans for a sentencing council, but we are concerned about the guidelines that it will issue. At the moment, the courts are required to have regard to the guidelines, but in future they will have to follow the guidelines unless satisfied that to do so would be contrary to the interests of justice. That is a proposal for strict compliance and I share the concerns about that which have been raised by the Bar Council, the Magistrates Association and many other organisations.
The Bill contains some good ladders, but it has one appalling snakeit is a 50-ft pythonin the form of the data protection proposals, and I hope that the Government will rethink that part of the Bill. I will not rehearse the arguments now, but the proposals are very worrying, because they would undermine the whole essence of the data protection legislation. That is why so many Members on the Opposition Benches have spoken against them.
We have several expert lawyers on the Conservative Benches. I am surrounded by top QCs and other lawyers, and we will do what we can to help the Government to improve this ill thought-out and flawed Bill. We will do our best to make it better legislation.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Bridget Prentice): As the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) said, this has been a constructive and intelligent debate, not least because my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State took 26 interventions. We have been through the Bill fairly thoroughly as a result. I welcome the many positive comments that have been made about many of the provisions in the Bill, such as the establishment of the post of chief coroner, the introduction of national standards, a new appeals system and the charter for bereaved families. They will all help to ensure that the coroner system, which dates back to the reign of Richard I, as the hon. Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire) said, will be made fit for the 21st century.
Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. Sadly, I was not lucky enough to be called to speak in the debate or to intervene on my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. However, my hon. Friend mentioned the coroner system. Will she give some thought as the Bill progresses to allowing some form of support or representation for families of the bereaved in the coroners courts, as has been suggested by Victim Support?
Bridget Prentice: A number of Members have raised that issue as well as my hon. Friend. We will reflect on it and we will look to see what we can do to give bereaved families more support when they find themselves at inquests. At the moment, they have very good personal support in many areas from some of the coroners officers and so on, but I know that hon. Members want us to go further than that.
We recognise the issue that has been identified in terms of private inquests, and I am glad that other hon. Members recognise the problem that we face. The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), in particular, described those difficulties in a very reasoned way. We will welcome constructive dialogue on that subject. If hon. Members have suggestions about how we can make that section of the Bill better, we will be happy to look at the provisions again.
There are very few occasions when a coroners investigation will involve highly sensitive information, for example, intercept evidence or the identity of a human intelligence source that simply cannot be made public. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, inquests are unlike criminal trials as one cannot decide not to proceed with an inquest. We have to go ahead with an inquest and so we have to find a way to deal with the problem posed by such information properly and sensitively. We have made significant changes to the original proposals and I hope that in reflecting on what we can do to make the provisions better, colleagues will recognise that we have moved some distance from the proposals in the Counter-Terrorism Bill. We have also made it explicit in this Bill that all other ways of enabling an inquest to be held in public have to be considered fully before the PII certificate is considered. If that is not possible, we have tied in the criteria for triggering the certification and placed a duty on the Secretary of State to notify interested parties of the certification decision so that they can lodge an application for judicial review. There are already important safeguards.
The hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) said that the Bill was made up of red rags and contrabandI rather liked the images that he conjured up. On the red rag provisions, he asked when the jury would be called. If he looks at clause 7, he will see that there are specific situations where juries would have to be called. We are open to discussion about how best to cover the arrangements for what most Members agree are difficult issues regarding sensitive material. Families would be excluded from the inquest only at the points when that sensitive material was being discussed. They would be present for every other part of the inquest.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) made a moving speech about the victims of Hillsborough. He rightly highlighted the distress and offence that has been caused to bereaved families. Under these reforms, an inquest would almost certainly be held under article 2 conditions. In future, the chief coroner will maintain links with prosecuting authorities, including the Crown Prosecution Service and the Director of Public Prosecutions, to ensure that investigations into large-scale disasters progress as quickly as possible.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) was an excellent advocate for her constituents in a very tragic situation. I reassure her that all coroners will be required to provide statistical information to the chief coroner, who will be advised by the medical adviser on the interpretation of that information.
We will do further work on verdicts as part of a detailed development of the rules. Coroners will be given powers in the Bill to make reports to prevent further deathsa change very similar to the one made last year to the current rule 43. Organisations will be required to respond: the chief coroner will collect and monitor their responses, and identify trends. I hope that that answers the several Opposition Members who asked what the chief coroners reports will contain. The chief coroner will also issue national standards on how to investigate particular types of death, including suicide or apparent suicide. Provision for psychological autopsies could be included in that.
In his very measured contribution, my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) welcomed the section of the Bill devoted to coroners. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Singh), he asked about MRI scans and the new powers that the Bill will give coroners and medical examiners. I think that he was also the first to mention the charter for the bereaved, which has been widely welcomed by organisations supporting bereaved families, and I in turn welcome my hon. Friends support for the training that coroners will get.
Various hon. Members mentioned media intrusion. I can assure them that we continue to speak to the Press Complaints Commission about how it can strengthen its code of practice to ensure that families are not unduly upset by the way that cases are reported.
The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, the Chair of the Justice Committee, rightly highlighted inadequacies in the present Scottish system. We are
awaiting a response from Scottish Ministers about how we can take matters forward. The right hon. Gentleman made some very reasoned points about why there was no need for an inquest in every case, and he spoke about resources and diversity at local level. We will work with the chief coroner to ensure that that is progressed properly.
Mr. Garnier: I do not want to interrupt the Minister for too long, as it is very late, but the Bill also contains a number of criminal justice elements. Both she and the Secretary of State have seemed reluctant to talk about them, even though they are part of the Bill. Will she condescend to tell us her views on those matters?
Bridget Prentice: I remind the hon. and learned Gentleman that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State spoke for nearly an hour and took 26 interventions, many of which concerned all the other issues raised in the Bill. However, I want to turn to the provisions on data sharing that have been so central to this debate. Once more, I shall be very happy to look in detail at the issues that a number of hon. Members have raised in that regard. I shall also be happy to meet hon. Members to discuss some of those matters in detail, but I must say that I see data sharing as a positive thing. It will make peoples lives better because they will not have to go through 50 different gateways to get their information through to the right person.
I accept what the hon. and learned Gentleman says about the other aspects of the Bill. We will deal in detail in Committee with homicide and witness anonymity, to which a number of hon. Members have referred. For example, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice wrote to the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) on special counsel, and I believe that he copied that letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), who raised the issue during the debate.
I want to turn very briefly to some of the other issues that have been raised in the debate. For example, a number of hon. Members have made constructive suggestions about suicide websites. Again, we will look carefully at what we can do. It is a difficult area of work, but it is something that we want to tackle. I am pleased that we have addressed the driving ban issue raised by the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill), and we will look further at how we can address the other issues that he has raised.
At its heart, the Bill is about delivering more effective and responsive public services to victims, witnesses, bereaved families and all those who come face to face with the justice or coroners systems. I commend it to the House.
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