Coroners and Justice Bill

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Q 23Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): My first question for Mrs. Prentice is about the new framework. Obviously, broadly, we shall have national oversight—a national coroner and a national service—but also, quite rightly, we shall keep the best of the localism that is in place. One of the concerns that local authorities or police authorities will have is funding and resourcing. Expectations will be raised by the changes in the Bill, but how are resources going to be made available to ensure that we have, across the country, an effective and efficient service?
Bridget Prentice: Mr. Bellingham makes an important point about the national and localised parts of the new coroner service. There has been a debate about whether it should all be nationalised or localised. We think that having a national chief coroner who can set standards and give guidance and direction will raise standards across the board, because in the past there has been a great differential in the different coronial areas. On the whole in the consultations it was felt that keeping a localised service was still what most people preferred. It will therefore be funded locally, as it is now, by local authorities or police authorities. However—I am pleased that Mr. Bellingham has raised that question—money will be forthcoming from the Department in setting up the service. There will be something in the region of £10 million in set-up costs and another £6.5 million in annual running costs, so we shall be putting in a substantial amount of money to ensure that the service makes the kind of difference that we want it to make for bereaved people.
Q 24Mr. Bellingham: There are some detailed questions that we shall come on to in Committee, but will you explain why you feel that it has to be a lawyer—a barrister or a solicitor—who fills those posts, rather than a suitably qualified medic? Some coroners practising today are doctors, and they are doing a superb job. I note that the Bill says that they will be able to continue, but that there will be a phasing-out of the medics. My concern is that we may be excluding a potential pool of good coroners in the future, if we do not allow medics to fill such positions. I speak as a lawyer, so I have a vested interest.
Bridget Prentice: If you wish to become a coroner, Mr. Bellingham, I am sure that we can arrange suitable training. I am sure that you would be an excellent coroner.
This is a balance of judgment again. The chief coroner and deputy chief coroner will be High Court judges, so it is probably appropriate that coroners are judicially trained, if I may put it that way—legally trained. Yes, there have been some very good coroners from a medical background but, alongside the coroner service, medical advisers will be able to give that medical input and advice to the coroners. In the consultation on this part of the Bill, of which there was a lot, it was felt that it was appropriate that they should be legally trained, because it would give them the understanding of the justice system in a way that was perhaps not always available in the past.
Q 25Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): If, in the future, a local authority were unreasonably to starve a coroner’s service of resources, would the Department back the local authority in undermining the coroner service in that way? Do you accept that there are no provisions in the Bill enabling you to do something about it, even if you did not agree?
Bridget Prentice: We certainly would not back a local authority that starved the coroner service of funding. There is a provision in the Bill that allows the chief coroner to investigate and make recommendations, which will highlight where an authority is under-resourcing the service. Through the whole panoply of Government resources and communications with local authorities, we would make it clear very quickly to a local authority that they could not continue to behave in that way.
Q 26Mr. Kidney: Should there be a power, eventually, for the Ministry to step in if that is the case—especially if the chief coroner is saying that that is unacceptable?
Bridget Prentice: That is something that we would have to consider. We would have to discuss the matter with colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government, if a local authority were to behave that badly, which would be similar to the situation with, as I believe that you are suggesting, schools and other services.
Q 27Mr. Kidney: These things happen, Minister.
Bridget Prentice: They do. It is certainly something that we would have to consider for the future. But I would hope that, as a result of this, local authorities would take their coronial service very seriously—I believe that most of them do.
Q 28Mr. Kidney: I have a few more questions about resources. The Secretary of State seemed quite sympathetic on Second Reading about the limited access to representation currently at the inquest. He clearly does not want to open the floodgates to every coroner’s court hearing, with lots of lawyers being unnecessarily present.
Bridget Prentice: Certainly not.
Q 29Mr. Kidney: Would you be willing to consider an amendment that widened the present discretion that the Legal Services Commission has to grant legal aid to people with good reason for representation at an inquest?
Bridget Prentice: The discussion on Second Reading was a good one, and we want to look at it more closely. It is also important to put on the record that legal aid is available at inquests at the moment. Admittedly, it is in a limited fashion, but it is available, including at military inquests. That is not always as well known as it ought to be. We would certainly look at further representation. However, we must remember that inquests are not adversarial—they are inquisitorial and involve findings of fact. I do not want to see panoplies of lawyers at inquests, if we can possibly avoid that. It is the job of the coroner to find the fact.
Q 30Mr. Kidney: That is a helpful answer. My last point is about resources. On Second Reading, I mentioned the rule 43 reports that coroners can make now to draw attention to ways in which we might prevent similar deaths in the future. That is continued in schedule 4, but Liberty says that at the moment it is a weedy proposition—there is a report, but nothing seems to happen as a result of it and no one takes any notice. Do you agree that there should be some strengthening of the procedure to highlight the fact that the coroners have made these recommendations and that someone, somewhere should do something about it?
Bridget Prentice: I am certainly open to strengthening it, if it were felt that that was necessary. But the chief coroner will lay a report before Parliament, so it can then be highlighted through the parliamentary procedure. However, I would be happy to consider strengthening that part, if it were felt that it was not going to achieve what we want to achieve, which is a better service as a result of a rule 43 investigation.
Mr. Kidney: Again, that is helpful, thank you.
Q 31Jenny Willott (Cardiff, Central) (LD): I want to return briefly to the issue of resourcing and pick up on the issues that Mr. Kidney just raised. There seems to be potential for a problem between lack of local resourcing and the implementation of national standards. Are there any proposals to do things such as lay down more prescriptive minimums for local authorities, taking account of the funding already available, when doling out the money that the Minister has mentioned in respect of the central subsidy to run services? Some areas have problems with a lack of resources. Higher standards are obviously to be welcomed, but what can be done to guarantee that?
Bridget Prentice: I think that one of the first things that the chief coroner might do, although I do not want to pre-empt them, is to look at resources across the country and see what is available and what local authorities are providing. I know that there are examples of coroners who do not have adequate offices or places to conduct an inquest properly. There is a lot of work and discussion to be done to ensure that we raise standards right across the board. I think that we will probably find that some of that can be done without additional finance. With a bit more imagination in the use of public buildings, the quality of accommodation could be improved.
The other thing that the chief coroner will be able to do is to look at exactly how a local authority spends its resource for coroners and give advice on how best to do that. As I have said, with the report to Parliament and the Department, we would have to have discussions with colleagues about whether local authorities were funding the service properly.
Q 32Jenny Willott: How does that relate to the introduction of the proposed medical examiner system? It seems to me that it has been widely welcomed, but it will build in some of the problems in the coroners system. It will be locally funded but centrally monitored. We already have local authorities and police authorities providing support and resourcing to coroners. The ME provision will be resourced by local health boards in Wales and primary care trusts in England. There seems to be quite a lot of potential for nobody to fund it properly, for everybody to think that someone else will put in the resources and for us to end up with a gap. What can be done to ensure that that does not happen?
Bridget Prentice: I feel as though I am burdening the chief coroner with a great deal—indeed, I probably am—but part of the reason why we are going to have one is to ensure that that resourcing is available. You have mentioned the medical examiners, which is an important point. The medical examiners will be able to look at deaths and death certification in the process. As a result, there will probably be a significant reduction in the number of cases that have to go to the coroner. At the moment, there is a great deal of confusion among some medical practitioners about whether they need to report deaths to the coroner. With the medical examiner as the gateway, fewer cases will go to the coroner, which will free up resources that would otherwise be used on unnecessary inquests.
Q 33Jenny Willott: One thing that appears to have happened in the past 10 years or so is that the number of inquests seems to have increased by more than 40 per cent., so clearly reform is needed.
I suspect that the answer to my next question is, “It will be given to the chief coroner.” Improved standards and higher quality expectations are laid out in the Bill. Will there be any way to ensure that the standards will be met, if the number of inquests rises further? Will there be regulations concerning the number of coroners, or will additional resourcing be tied somehow to ensure that quality continues rather than dropping, if the number of inquests increases?
Bridget Prentice: Yes. On the point about increasing inquests, in recent years there has been in some parts of the country an over-cautious response to sending cases to the coroner. One big factor will be proper training for coroners, which will be funded centrally to ensure that standards are raised and maintained. I hope that you are assured that we will ensure that that happens. Again, if we need more coroners, we will have to recruit more coroners.
Q 34Jenny Willott: My final question is about the posts of chief coroner and deputy chief coroner. Why does the Bill make it clear that coroners will not be able to apply for those posts, and that they will have to be filled by High Court judges? It suggests that there is a question about the ability of coroners, but that is unfair. The Coroners Society has flagged up a concern that the expertise coroners build up would be lacking from the central oversight.
Bridget Prentice: We made the chief coroner and deputy chief coroner posts open only to High Court judges after discussions with the Lord Chief Justice, and it was felt that such people would have the appropriate leadership skills and judicial experience. I understand the Coroners Society’s concern that there now seems to be a ceiling on whether they can become the deputy chief coroner, so I should like to explore that matter further. We want to have high-quality coroners and there ought to be a career path for them. At the moment, however, there are some practical difficulties with opening the positions up to senior coroners, but I should like to have further discussions with the judiciary about whether there is a way for coroners to get other judicial experience. The way in which the Bill is currently set out and the system will work means that they would have to become district judges, for example, get their experience that way and return to the coroners system. I would look to see if there was another way of achieving that, however, because I understand that there are some excellent senior coroners, and it would be a shame if that expertise were not kept and used in the whole system.
Q 35Mr. Boswell: Briefly, Minister, I have three quick questions. First, in carrying out investigations, the chief coroner will presumably have the right either to do so privately or to make conclusions public. You talked about transparency earlier, but I imagine that there might also be cases whereby a coroner’s competence to continue, whether because of medical illness or otherwise, was raised. There might need to be discrete inquiries and a retirement might take place. I presume that the default mode will be a public investigation and a conclusion on the record both for you, as Minister, and for us, as the general public.
Bridget Prentice: Yes, absolutely.
Q 36Mr. Boswell: Secondly, on resourcing, you will be familiar with the discussions about military inquests and the strain on the coroners involved. That may not be the only case in which a particular need arises, however. For example, there could be a rash of industrial-induced deaths, from mesothelioma or whatever, and it might concentrate in a cluster. Would it be for the chief coroner to make public recommendations to you, and, ultimately, for you to resource that spike in the workload in a coroner’s area?
Bridget Prentice: There was a problem with the military inquests and we resourced that by putting extra money into the two areas where they were being held. Under the new system, such inquests will not necessarily be concentrated in Oxford or Wiltshire, as there will be the opportunity for bodies to be repatriated closer to their families. That is one change.
The example that you gave—or a terrorist attack, or something big that could be termed a national emergency—would put great strain on a particular coroner. We are in discussions about how that could be resourced and funded.
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