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Session 2008 - 09
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General Committee Debates
Coroners and Justice Bill

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairmen: Frank Cook, Mr. Roger Gale
Bellingham, Mr. Henry (North-West Norfolk) (Con)
Boswell, Mr. Tim (Daventry) (Con)
Brown, Mr. Russell (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab)
Eagle, Maria (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice)
Garnier, Mr. Edward (Harborough) (Con)
Gray, Mr. James (North Wiltshire) (Con)
Hesford, Stephen (Wirral, West) (Lab)
Howarth, David (Cambridge) (LD)
Howarth, Mr. George (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab)
Iddon, Dr. Brian (Bolton, South-East) (Lab)
Kidney, Mr. David (Stafford) (Lab)
Lucas, Ian (Wrexham) (Lab)
Michael, Alun (Cardiff, South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op)
Moon, Mrs. Madeleine (Bridgend) (Lab)
Prentice, Bridget (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice)
Robertson, Angus (Moray) (SNP)
Willott, Jenny (Cardiff, Central) (LD)
Wright, Jeremy (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con)
Celia Blacklock, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Tuesday 10 February 2009


[Frank Cook in the Chair]

Coroners and Justice Bill

Written evidence to be reported to the House
CJ 12 Magistrates Association

Clause 1

Duty to investigate certain deaths
10.30 am
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take the following: new clause 9—Deaths occurring abroad
‘(1) The following provisions shall have effect in connection with the investigation of deaths of British subjects occurring abroad.
(2) When the body is returned to a coroner’s area, the senior coroner must conduct an investigation, when one is appropriate, under the Coroners Act.
(3) When there is no body, or when the body has been buried or cremated outside England or Wales, the relatives of the deceased may, within six months of the death (or the presumed date of the death), apply to the Chief Coroner for an investigation to be held.
(4) It shall be the duty of the UK consular authorities for the country where the death occurred to draw the attention of anyone reporting the death to them to the arrangements for investigation, and to liaise with local public agencies to ensure that all material facts connected with the death are ascertained and communicated.’.
New clause 19—Investigations into deaths: special circumstances
‘Where there are specific circumstances which make it unlikely that a senior coroner will be able to conduct an investigation or a series of investigations quickly and effectively, bearing in mind the concerns of the victim’s family or the wider community, the Chief Coroner shall draw the circumstances to the attention of the Lord Chancellor who shall make appropriate arrangements to meet the specific circumstances.’.
Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): A warm welcome to you, Mr. Cook. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
I would like to say a word or two about clause 1, which mirrors the requirements of section 8(1) of the Coroners Act 1988. The requirement to investigate deaths in prison has been altered to apply to deaths where the deceased died while in custody or otherwise in state detention, which makes sense. It is also sensible as it clarifies the situation where the death is in a police station, a mental hospital, an immigration hostel, or whatever. Obviously, there is a requirement that the death be sudden. All in all, clause 1 is a good start to the Bill.
We have identified a problem appertaining to deaths occurring abroad. That is why we have tabled new clause 9, more as a probing exercise than anything else. Obviously, losing a loved one abroad can be incredibly traumatic. We have all come across constituency cases where a family have had a loved one travelling abroad—perhaps on a gap year or working abroad—who has had a sudden, appalling accident and a tragic and perhaps unexplained death has occurred. That causes a huge amount of grief. It is dreadful enough to lose a loved one, particularly a young child, but to lose a young child abroad in a strange jurisdiction, with all the problems that might occur as a result, is even more dreadful for the family involved.
I am concerned that there is nothing in the Bill that covers deaths abroad. I accept that clause 1(4)(b) is perhaps a catch-all:
“the circumstances of the death are such that there should be an investigation into it”.
It does not say that it does not cover deaths abroad. I would like to draw the Committee’s attention to the draft Bill, which the then Department for Constitutional Affairs published in 2006. A number of clauses in the draft Bill related to deaths outside the United Kingdom.
Jeremy Wright (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that the difficulty with subsection (4) is that paragraphs (a), (b) and (c) are conjunctive? They relate to a senior coroner who has reason to believe that, first, a death has occurred in or near their jurisdiction; secondly, that the circumstances of that death are such that there should be an investigation; and thirdly, there is a duty to conduct an investigation. Therefore, a death that occurs abroad would almost certainly not be covered by that catch-all in paragraph (b).
Mr. Bellingham: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I was perhaps getting carried away in suggesting that the provision might cover that.
Clause 5(1) of the draft Bill addressed deaths outside the United Kingdom:
“The duty of a senior coroner to conduct an investigation into the death of a person under section 1 does not arise where the death occurred outside the United Kingdom”.
Clause 6 of the draft Bill was supplemental, and it explained exactly what should happen when a death occurs outside the United Kingdom. That is why new clause 9 makes it crystal clear that in that circumstance there will be a proper investigation:
“(1) The following provisions shall have effect in connection with the investigation of deaths of British subjects occurring abroad.
(2) When the body is returned to a coroner’s area, the senior coroner must conduct an investigation, when one is appropriate, under the Coroners Act.
(3) When there is no body, or when the body has been buried or cremated outside England or Wales, the relatives of the deceased may, within six months of the death (or the presumed date of the death), apply to the Chief Coroner for an investigation to be held.”
It spells out what should happen when a death occurs abroad.
We have all come across tragic constituency cases. I had one recently that involved a constituent whose son was murdered in India while carrying out aid work for a charity of which he was a founder member. My constituent contacted to me to press for action:
“We have had a total lack of information from the Indian police...the only information we have had is the post mortem result, which was very badly carried out. Our one source of information has been the coroners office, & even they have had a lack of co operation from the Indian police. So I hope you can understand my concern. Without the coroners office & the inquest (which has yet to be held) we would know nothing.”
I feel very strongly that when one loses a loved one abroad, the United Kingdom should make every conceivable effort to ensure that some closure is brought to the family. Although my constituent, Mrs. Mary Whitford, points out how competent and understanding the Foreign Office was, she feels that the Bill should spell out what should happen.
The Minister may well point us to provisions in the Bill that allow such inquests to take place as a matter of course. I feel, however, that although clause 1 is a good start to the Bill, new clause 9 is needed to complement it and to clarify what happens when a death occurs abroad.
Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab): I want briefly to discuss new clause 19 which stands in the name of my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth.
My hon. Friend the Minister helpfully wrote to members of the Committee in response to a request that I made last week about how the new arrangements would work in cases such as Hillsborough. That was a concern of one of my constituents, who spent a day at the mini-inquest that took place after that event. My right hon. Friend’s new clause helps in that respect, because it envisages a role for the Lord Chancellor in cases where there might be a question whether sufficient resources are available for a speedy and efficient inquest to take place.
New clause 19 also draws attention to the fact that there might be great concerns on the part of the bereaved or the wider community. I suspect that my right hon. Friend tabled it as a probing amendment, and, although I cannot speak for him, I do not expect that he would wish it to go to a vote. Nevertheless, it is helpful, and I wonder whether the Minister will address those concerns in that context. Perhaps she will put on the record how she envisages the new arrangements applying in cases where there are multiple deaths and legitimate public concerns about the causes of those deaths.
The Chairman: Order. It may help the Committee if I call to mind that, while it is proper that we debate new clause 19 today, it will not be put to a vote until much later in proceedings. It will be decided today whether clause 1 stands part of the Bill.
Jenny Willott (Cardiff, Central) (LD): We broadly support the bulk of clause 1. I rise to support new clause 9, which has been tabled by the official Opposition. It seems to be a very sensible addition to clause 1. It clarifies what seems to be an omission from the Bill as a whole, particularly since it was flagged up as an issue in the draft Bill that was previously published.
I am sure that no one in Committee disagrees with the intention behind new clause 9. If there is no mechanism to tackle a backlog and deal quickly with circumstances where there are a significant number of deaths—as happened in Hillsborough, which the right hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East has highlighted—it can cause untold hurt and distress to families. I am not completely convinced that the wording of new clause 19 is the right way to go, but I am sure that the Minister will be able to let us know the Government’s thoughts on how to manage such circumstances to ensure that families get the answers that they need as soon as possible.
The only other point that I want to raise concerns clause 1. We welcome the extension of the provision from when death occurs in prison to a broader list of circumstances—for example, areas of custody. There have been increasing concerns in the past couple of years about immigration detention centres, where there have been increasing numbers of reports of violence and of inmates experiencing problems at the hands of some guards. As I understand it, fortunately there has not been a death so far in an immigration detention centre, but it is welcome that these provisions cover those institutions, so we will be prepared if there is an unfortunate incident in the future.
We also welcome the removal of the requirement for the death to be sudden. There are lots of circumstances where a death is not sudden but is still deeply suspicious. Broadening the grounds on which an inquest can be called, and making sure that it covers as many of the possibilities as possible, is a positive way forward.
10.45 am
Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): I rise to discuss new clause 19. In looking at this Bill, we have discussed the role of the coroner in explaining the “how” of someone’s death. Often for the family, the explanation that they are seeking is the “why”—it is their desperate need to know why their family member died, particularly in cases of suicide.
I have mentioned several times my interest in the promotion of psychological autopsies and their role in helping to prevent suicide in wider society. We currently have in the Department of Health a national suicide audit toolkit. The toolkit is voluntary—it is for individual health authorities to design and use in their own way. It does not collect national data, and it does not pose a national strategy for examining suicides.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East spoke about events relating to Hillsborough. I do not consider the events in Bridgend to be of the same order as those at Hillsborough, but they pose similar issues of national concern as to what was happening and why. They provide us with an opportunity, as a society, to understand what we can do to prevent the needless deaths of young people. There have been studies of suicide autopsies, particularly by Hawton and Appleby, and a structure has been created for carrying out such autopsies.
New clause 19 offers us the opportunity to implement suicide autopsies nationally, so that we can gather data nationally, develop understanding and provide local authorities and local health authorities with the information, advice and guidance that they need to provide new services and ways of operating that would prevent clusters of deaths in the future.
I want to summarise the sort of information that is gathered. The study carried out by Appleby includes data from interviews with families and friends carried out by an experienced mental health nurse, along with an examination of inquest notes, medical records, psychiatric notes, social networks, demographics, previous self-harm—a particularly important issue when we are looking at suicide—education, work and certain life events. In cases of suicide, the motivator is often a life event in the previous three months—in many cases, it occurs in the previous week. Finally, it is important to examine the role of alcohol and substance misuse.
New clause 19 offers us an opportunity to take away from the local inquest into an individual death information that may well answer the question of “how”, which will enable us to look at the wider societal need to prevent further deaths and clusters of deaths. Hopefully that also answers for the family the much wider question of “why”.
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to follow the hon. Member for Bridgend, who obviously has particular constituency experience. The debate to date has been characterised by a serious tone, as one would expect, but it has also begun to bring out two essential points in relation to inquests.
First, inquests have a vital role in providing closure for the family and, to be honest about it, in certain cases they expose circumstances which may or may not give rise to subsequent private legal action. But that is not the only motive, by any means. Secondly, as the hon. Lady has just said, the coroner’s inquest and subsequent report may bring out public interest aspects of the case. Anyone who has ever been involved in any way would desire to ensure that that set of circumstances is, if possible, avoided and not replicated, and that lessons are learned for the future—we all approach this matter with that point in mind. I have signed new clause 9, which was tabled and elegantly discussed by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk, in relation to deaths occurring abroad, which I will primarily discuss.
It is right to treat new clause 9 as a probing amendment, and we look forward to the Minister’s response. As I read it, which is imperfectly as a lay person, the issue is not really rehearsed in the Bill in the way in which it was in the draft Bill. There appears to be an interesting disagreement of interpretation. The Library research paper implies that the thinking in the draft Bill, which would have limited inquests carried out abroad, has been dropped in favour of more or less leaving the status quo. I accept, if only by faith, that there will still be provision for inquests in relation to deaths abroad, but I wait for the Minister’s assurance to confirm that. For the reasons that I have given and wish to give, that is very important, and perhaps the Minister will explain the thinking on that point.
I know—again, the Library research paper refers to this—that there are some doubts. Without making use of an international provision—I think that there is no Hague convention in this area—no British court or coroner could draw on or compel foreign authorities to provide or carry out essential procedures, such as post mortems, in a consistent way or, if the event has occurred within British jurisdiction, according to their wishes. There is a need to clarify the powers and circumstances under which a coroner may proceed in relation to a death abroad. In new clause 9, we provide that on return to a coroner’s area, the senior coroner will conduct—indeed, must conduct—an investigation, if appropriate, under the Coroners Act 1988. In effect, that will bring the matter into British jurisdiction. New clause 9(3) addresses a situation where there is no body, or where the body has been disposed of before return to the jurisdiction, and subsequently, the family’s right to apply for an inquest. There is a separate provision in relation to consular authorities.
Perhaps I can speak in general terms about that matter. As I understand the thinking in relation to the draft Coroners Bill, one of the problems identified by the Ministry of Justice is that one cannot compel the giving of evidence. The suggestion is that the chief coroner would in effect, stand in and act as the internationally representative authority and would request his opposite number in another jurisdiction to provide the information—ideally, the information would be provided in a reasonably coherent and standardised form. That role is terribly important, because otherwise the nature of an inquest—even if carried out in the UK into a death occurring abroad—may be somewhat impaired and more difficult to conclude. I modestly suggested that point to my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk for his new clause. In terms of the thinking behind the charter for the bereaved and in the interests of the families involved, we should take a very close look at the ability of the consular service to advise family members as to their rights and responsibilities, if a death occurs abroad.
In conclusion, I would like to say a word from my own experience. Our constituents often feel—they sometimes write to us rather bitterly about this—that as Members of Parliament, we do not know anything about difficulties. If we have been MPs for any length of time, we know a great deal about the difficulties faced by our constituents, and, how ever sad they are for the individuals, they are invaluable in bringing up cases and problems. It just so happens that in this particular case—it is now half a lifetime ago, since I refer to events in March and April 1974—I have some personal experience of a death abroad involving a close member of my own family. To compound matters, the particular accident leading to subsequent death took place on a British-registered ship in United States territorial waters—the lawyers in Committee may wish to reflect on the particular interaction and conflict of laws and subsequent private litigation on the matter. But I do not intend to indulge myself or reveal any further details.
I make no criticism of the consular authorities, who were aware of the accident and subsequently notified of the death. A British death certificate was issued, as well as an American death certificate. Lessons could be learned from the handling of that case. We ended up with a situation where the US authorities conducted—without our involvement—what might be called a peremptory inquest into the circumstances of death. However, no substantive investigation of the facts took place either there or in the United Kingdom, other than what we were able to obtain through legal process.
It was suggested at the time that we might be able to ask for an inquest in the UK, but I never saw any specification in writing. We did not proceed with that, and I wish to say no more about it. But what I do want to say, informed by my experience of those many years ago—it is in the past, and I do not wish to go back to it—is that even relatively sophisticated people are very vulnerable in such circumstances, where they may find themselves in a forest of jurisdiction. It is self-evident that in a highly developed country with good medical and legal services, the same working language as ours and broadly the same legal system, it was easier to deal with the situation than it must have been in the case referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk, which involved a road accident in India with different languages and different public expectations.
It is important that we should be able, so far as we can, to offer the same kinds of services to bereaved families through the consular service and the activities of the chief coroner. We should seek an exchange of information in order to investigate such circumstances, where it is appropriate, not to a higher standard, but ideally to the same standard or to a broadly equivalent standard. That is important not only for the families—I have mentioned that the event actually took place on a United Kingdom-registered ship, and there were issues of potential liability and so forth—but so that lessons of failure or success can be learned for the future. As I have said, I do not want to pursue that point, but I think that it is valuable—it has certainly been valuable for me to at least get that off my chest. Nearly all bereaved families who have an interest in this Bill would say that whatever happened can actually serve to advance a better understanding of the circumstances and better practice for the future. That, frankly, is what we would all wish to see.
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