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(7) Any examination of the accused in pursuance of a direction under subsection (3) must take place in the presence of such persons as Criminal Procedure Rules or the direction may provide and in circumstances in which
Section 10(1) to (7).. (Bridget Prentice.)
This is an important Bill, which has been much improved by the process of scrutiny in the House. Let me record my thanks, and those of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), to all the Opposition Members for their constructive approach. The hon. and
learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier), the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham), and the hon. Members for Cambridge (David Howarth) and for Cardiff, Central (Jenny Willott) have been ready to engage in debate in a helpful and positive way.
I commend the valuable and thoughtful contributions from my right hon. Friends the Members for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael) and for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) and my hon. Friends the Members for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon), for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) and for Hendon (Mr. Dismore). Let me also thank the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk for the kind words and good wishes that he sent to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston. She was very disappointed not to be here to participate in debates on matters that are her policy responsibility. However, I am sure she will be pleased that we have seen the Bill through this evening.
I thank all the officials who have been involved in the many different parts of the Bill. I thank the Public Bill officials, the Chairs of the Public Bill Committee, Hansard and the Public Bill Officeand, of course, my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) and his counterparts, who, through the usual channels, ensured that the Bill had a smooth passage both in Committee and on the Floor of the House.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I said, on Second Reading and subsequently, that we would listen to those expressing legitimate concerns about a number of provisions in the Bill, and that we were open to constructive suggestions for improving those provisions. We have listened, and we have responded.
There were fears that the provisions in respect of certified coroners investigations were drawn too widely and did not provide for sufficient judicial oversight. We have narrowed the criteria for certification of an investigation, and have removed from the Secretary of State the decision whether a certified inquest should proceed without a jury. As the Bar Council and the Criminal Bar Association have acknowledged, those and other changes to clause 11 have
fundamentally recast the proposals for certified investigations.
There was concern about the scope of the power to make information-sharing orders. We have now withdrawn clause 154, and will consider carefully the views expressed by all interested parties. There was also concern about the possibility that the Sentencing Council would be required to operate within too rigid a structure for the formulation of sentencing guidelines, and that the requirement for sentencers to follow the guidelines was too inflexible. We have recast those provisions so that both the council and the sentencers will have greater flexibility.
Another worry was that the provisions in part 1 did not go far enough in monitoring the actions that coroners recommended to prevent future deaths, and that senior coroners were being unfairly denied the opportunity to apply for the post of deputy chief coroner. Again, we have listened and responded. As the Bill approaches the end of its Commons stages, we will continue to listen, to reflect and, when we are convinced by the arguments, to respond.
Although it is understandable that much of our deliberation has been focused on the provisions that divide us, we should not lose sight of the many other
provisions that have attracted cross-party support. Too little has been said about the reforms of the coroner and justice systems, and the beneficial impact that they will have on bereaved families, victims and witnesses.
Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): One of the matters about which nothing was saidbecause my amendments were not reachedwas the question of complaints against coroners. Will the Minister assure me that the Bill, if enacted, will allow individuals to complain not necessarily about the decisions of coroners, but about the behaviour of coroners who have left families, as in the Marchioness case, or a familyas in the Jeremiah Duggan casewith no confidence in their work?
Bridget Prentice: I will come to the charter for the bereaved in a moment. For me personally, it is one of the most important parts of the Bill. It puts the bereaved families at the heart of the coronial system. I have met the Marchioness victims and talked with many other bereaved family organisations. There will be an opportunity for families to appeal to the chief coroner if they feel that a coroner has been wrong in a decision. In addition, the charter will for the first time give bereaved families the opportunity to know what standard of service they should expect from coroners. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman intervened because I wanted to ensure that that was on the record. In modernising this ancient office, which has not been touched for the best part of over 100 years, we are putting the needs of bereaved families at the forefront of coroners investigations.
Jenny Willott: One of the other issues that was discussed at great length in Committee but that unfortunately we did not have an opportunity to debate on the Floor of the House was that of the disparities between funding in different coroner areas. There are concerns that the Bill does not tackle that strongly enough. Will the Minister give more thought to the possibility of allowing the chief coroner extra powers and some more teeth to be able to tackle problems arising when not enough funding is provided in a local coronial area?
Bridget Prentice: The chief coroner will have a number of powers in setting the national standards and making sure that there is consistency across England and Wales. I spoke to the Local Government Association conference this morning. We will work closely with local authorities to ensure that resources are in place for coroners to be able to carry out their duties properly. As a result of the reforms, there may be fewer inquests for coroners to deal with: because of the introduction of medical examiners, who will look at the death certificates, many cases that presently go to a coroner may not need to do so. Resources may thus be freed up in that way.
The proposed charter will ensure that the next of kin is notified quickly when a death is reported to the coroner and it will be explained to them why a post-mortem is necessary. It will ensure that family members are given regular updates on the progress of a coroners investigation, and enable inquests to be held closer to the home of the deceaseds family. It will also ensure that family members have, on request and wherever possible, access to all documents relevant to the inquest and that they will be able to participate fully in the inquest proceedings. It will also confer new and accessible
rights of appeal against coroners decisions. I hope that that answers the proper questions that were asked by the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) on that matter.
Sitting above the locally delivered coroner service will be the new chief coroner providing strategic leadership, setting and monitoring national minimum standards, managing the operational response to unusual circumstances which crop up from time to time, and ensuring excellent training arrangements.
The death of a loved one is traumatic at any time. Where that death is violent or unnatural, it is all the harder to come to terms with. At such times, bereaved families want answers to the inevitable questions surrounding the death of their loved one and want to be treated with understanding and compassion. Coroners and their staff have a difficult task to perform, and many provide an excellent service to the bereaved. These reforms will help to ensure that all bereaved families have the high standards of service that they are entitled to expect.
This morning when I spoke to the Local Government Association, I said that the Bill was putting bereaved families at the heart of the coroner service and that that was the most important thing it could do. André Rebello, secretary of the Coroners Society of England and Wales, who spoke after me, said that it does something else: it gives those families fairness and justice. He is absolutely right.
Victims and witnesses who come into contact with the criminal justice system are equally entitled to receive a high standard of service. The prevention and detection of crime and bringing offenders to justice is not the job just of the police or the prosecutors or the courts. They need the co-operation and support of the wider public. If a member of the public has a poor experience as a witness, who can blame them for not wanting to stick their neck out on a second occasion? So we must put the needs of victims and witnesses at the heart of the justice system. The provisions in the Bill are directed to that end.
The law should only allow a murder charge to be reduced to manslaughter in appropriate and clearly defined circumstances. Those who intentionally incite hatred against gay people by using threatening words or behaviour should not be able to excuse their actions on freedom of speech grounds. Those witnesses who bravely come forward to give information about a gang-related homicide should be able to do so in the knowledge that their identity will be protected. Vulnerable and intimidated witnesses should be given all necessary assistance to help them to give their best evidence in court. Victims and the wider public should have confidence that there is consistency in sentencing across the country.
Simon Hughes: The Minister is a neighbouring MP and she knows that in this context one issue that often comes our way is the need for the protection of witnesses, even to the extent of having to provide a safe place for them or their business to move to. Will she give an assurance that those systems that involve the police, sometimes the Court Service and often local government, are now robust enough to deliver as quickly as is necessary that safety and protection that our constituents periodically need?
I visited one of my local schools earlier this week. It has been doing some work on knife and gun crime, which the hon. Gentleman knows is very important in our constituencies. The people at the school referred me to the Childrens Commissioner survey published last week, which showed that 37 per cent. of young people are afraid to come forward as witnesses in gun or knife crime-related situations. They conducted a survey in their own school, which revealed that 88 per cent. of them felt they would be fearful of being witnesses. This Bill changes that for such young people, and that is hugely important for them. Victims should not have to suffer a second time when they see the person who inflicted pain and suffering on them, perhaps by killing a loved one, being able to cash in on their notoriety. That, too, is dealt with in the Bill, and will be part of helping victims feel they are at the centre of the justice system.
It is through these measures that the Bill will help to deliver justice: justice for victims; justice for witnesses; justice for bereaved families; and justice for the communities we represent. It is for that reason that I hope Members will wholeheartedly give the Bill a Third Reading, and I commend it to the House.
Mr. Garnier: May I begin by thanking the Minister for her kind words about the way in which the Opposition have engaged with this Bill, and by joining my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) in sending good wishes for a speedy recovery to the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), who cannot be here with us this evening?
As with every plum duff, this Bill has some good points that persuade usjustto allow it to pass through to the other place, where its more hopeless, useless and egregious provisions can be removed or amended. I want to remind the House of a passage from a Government Green Paper published yesterday, as it tells us a lot about how this Government think, and what motivates them in coming to this House with legislation. The passage is from paragraph 4.2 of Rights and responsibilities: developing our constitutional framework, published yesterday by the Secretary of State. It reads as follows:
The possible range of approaches to a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities represents a continuum. At one end, it might take the form of a declaratory and symbolic statement. At the other lies a set of rights and responsibilities directly enforceable by the individual in the courts. Along the continuum there are options including some form of statement of principles which, endorsed by Parliament, might inform legislationas well as public authority and court decisionswhile not necessarily giving rise to enforceable individual rights. Ultimately, different categories of principles, rights and responsibilities could have different legal effects, so that a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities could encompass a range of legal effects and mechanisms for enforcement.
That is pretty vacuous, but if one were to substitute Bill of Rights and Responsibilities with Coroners and Justice Bill, one would have an equally apt description of the vacuity behind much of the thinking that has created this Bill.
We welcome the reform of the coronial system in part 1 of the Bill, subject to our deep concerns about the fact that clause 11 remains; we have no doubt that the other place will give that a thorough investigation. We also welcome other aspects of the Bill, outside part 1, that deal with anonymity in investigations. As I said in Committee, we take on board and fully understand the need for anonymity in the stages of investigation into many of the gangland attacks and offences that take place on the estates in our inner cities.
We also welcomed the revival, if that is the correct expression, of the Criminal Evidence (Witness Anonymity) Act 2008 in respect of witness anonymity orders, which chapter 2clause 70 and those followingprovides for, subject to a number of matters of detail. We welcomed the measures on vulnerable and intimidated witnesses and the extension of live video links for the giving of evidence by vulnerable or frightened people. We have had discussions and disagreement this evening about the way in which the Sentencing Council will be required to arrive at conclusions and recommendations, and whether they should be followed or taken account of. However, as a matter of general principle, we do not object to the existence of a sentencing council; indeed, we have understood its positive features since 2003. We were prepared to welcome other matters, including those relating to the exploitation of criminal memoirs.
We are not only disappointed with the content of some of the provisions on important subjects such as murderthe Governments refusal to accepts amendments to do with developmental maturity in cases involving diminished responsibility, and in respect of youngsters as well as adult killersbut we are deeply concerned about the way in which the Government have refused to remove the issue of sexual infidelity from the loss of control provisions in clauses 41 to 43. They deal with what used to be called provocation.
The Bill has contained some good things, some less good things and some plainly dreadful things, one of which the Government did recognise through the withdrawal of what was clause 152 and what became clause 154. That was an appalling clause, but it was all of a piece with their attitude to individual rights and the relationship between the state and the citizen. Each time they come forward with a provision to increase the power of the state, to diminish the rights of the individual or to create some new criminal offence, they say that it is only a small reduction of liberty or a small new offence, but that it is strictly necessary in this particular case. When these things are looked at individually, they may not look too bad, but this is
Mr. Garnier: If I may finish the sentence, the Secretary of State may have as much time as he wishes [ Interruption. ] Well, he is very good at asking long questions. He is also very good at giving long answers [ Interruption. ] I forget the name of the Whips constituency, but I do hope that his constituents realise what a valuable contribution he makes to our deliberations.
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