Coroners and Justice Bill

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Mr. Bellingham: I am grateful to the Minister for her explanation of the amendments’ raison d’ĂȘtre, but I have one question for her. We have had a long time to get the Bill right, including a three-year gap between the draft Bill and the Bill before us, so will she tell us where the amendments came from? They are sensible amendments, but I should like to know whether she suddenly thought them up herself or whether she was lobbied by various organisations. What is their provenance?
Bridget Prentice: The hon. Gentleman is right that this Bill has had a long incubation period. I cannot remember exactly the provenance of the amendments, but I suspect that having had all that time to mull the proposals over, the Coroners Society, among others, might have seen a gap such as that in the example that I have just given in the time. I shall tell the Committee in writing where we dreamed up the amendments.
Mr. Bellingham: I am grateful to the Minister for that. May I suggest that in future she gives us the amendments, so that we can table them and get the credit?
Amendment 24 agreed to.
Clause 31, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 8

Investigation by Chief Coroner or by judge at Chief Coroner’s invitation
Amendments made: 25, in schedule 8, page 135, line 35, leave out sub-paragraph (1) and insert—
Amendment 26, in schedule 8, page 136, line 1, leave out from beginning to ‘has’ in line 3 and insert
‘If a person nominated or requested under this paragraph agrees to conduct the investigation—
(a) that person is under a duty to do so;
(b) that person’.
Amendment 27, in schedule 8, page 136, line 9, leave out ‘judge nominated under this paragraph’ and insert
‘person who has been nominated or requested under this paragraph to conduct an investigation and has agreed to do so’.
Amendment 28, in schedule 8, page 136, line 15, leave out ‘a person who is not a senior coroner’ and insert
‘the Chief Coroner or some other person who is a judge of the High Court or a Circuit judge, or by a person who has held office as a judge of the Court of Appeal or of the High Court’.
Amendment 29, in schedule 8, page 136, line 21, leave out paragraphs (a) and (b) and insert—
‘(a) where the person mentioned in sub-paragraph (1)(a) is—
(i) a judge of the High Court, or
(ii) a person who has held office as a judge of the Court of Appeal or of the High Court,
a judge of the Court of Appeal;
(b) otherwise, a judge of the High Court.’.—(Bridget Prentice.)
Schedule 8, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 32

Guidance by the Lord Chancellor
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to consider new clause 17—Report to Lord Chancellor
‘(1) The Chief Coroner must give to the Lord Chancellor an annual report which—
(a) contains matters that the Chief Coroner wishes to bring to the attention of the Lord Chancellor,
(b) includes matters which the Lord Chancellor has asked the Chief Coroner to include in the report,
(c) contains an assessment for that year of the consistency of standards between the coroner areas,
(d) contains a summary for that year of the number, nature and outcome of appeals under section 30, and
(e) contains a summary of the recommendations made by senior coroners under paragraph 6(1) of Schedule 4.
9 pm
Jenny Willott: The new clause is closely related to the point raised a few minutes ago by the hon. Member for Stafford as it concerns the transparency, openness and accountability of the system on which the Committee took a lot of evidence as it was raised by a number of witnesses. We looked particularly at how to ensure that the system identifies patterns, not just in situations such as Hillsborough, where there are many people in a similar area, but in cases across the UK in which similar verdicts are recorded by different coroners. That will help us to tackle broader medical or health and safety issues as they arise. The new clause would place a duty on the chief coroner to produce an annual report that would be provided to the Lord Chancellor, who would be obliged to publish it and lay it before the House of Commons, so that it would be openly available and there would be opportunities for much broader oversight of any issues arising.
As the hon. Member for Stafford said, there are many examples around the world of coroners’ systems that operate effectively and openly, in which lessons are learned in a much more transparent fashion than has been the case up to now in the UK. He gave as examples the systems in New South Wales and Ontario, Canada, where verdicts and recommendations are made publicly available and are widely disseminated so that lessons can be learned and patterns identified. The new clause attempts to do something similar here.
I am prepared to accept that the Minister might not like the wording of the new clause, but I would be grateful if she gave her views on what could be done to ensure that we identify broader patterns as they occur across the UK, pick up on recommendations that coroners have made in different coronial areas, and ensure that greater transparency and accountability is built into the system.
Bridget Prentice: I hope that I can give the hon. Lady some assurances. I think that there are sufficient powers elsewhere in the Bill dealing with making annual reports. For example, clause 33(3)(d) and (e) allows for regulations to be made on the provision and disclosure of information, and for the Lord Chancellor or the chief coroner to require information from senior coroners. That measure will enable that information to be collated and published. I can also confirm that the regulations are likely to include the matters that the hon. Lady proposes in new clause 17. For example, each year the chief coroner will have to provide a report to the Lord Chancellor with an assessment of different coroners’ performance and on a range of other issues, which will then be published. That covers some of the hon. Lady’s examples. Having said that, there is no great principle at stake here, and although I will not undertake now to table a Government amendment at a later stage, I will reflect before Report on what the hon. Lady has said.
We anticipate that the first guidance that the Lord Chancellor issues will be the charter for the bereaved, and that is why I wish to speak a little on this now. We published a revised draft charter along with the Bill, and I am grateful for the many positive comments that hon. Members have made about it. That charter will set out the services that bereaved families can expect to receive under a reformed system and the means of redress if those services are not met, and it highlights other opportunities that families will have for involvement. Equally, it sets out families’ responsibilities, including information to be provided to the coroner. Given that our immediate aim for reform is to improve the service that bereaved people receive, the charter is specifically for the bereaved. However, it is likely that guidance will be issued on other aspects of, and participants in, coroners’ investigations, such as non-professional witnesses who have been involved blamelessly, in transport crashes for example. This clause is central to our aim to standardise and improve the service that bereaved people receive from the reformed coroner system and on that basis I commend the clause to the Committee.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 32 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clauses 33 and 34 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 35

Abolition of the office of coroner of the Queen’s household
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to consider new clause 8—Transfer of the office of coroner of the Queen’s household—
‘The office of coroner of the Queen’s household will, at the retirement of the present incumbent, be transferred to the Chief Coroner.’.
Mr. Bellingham: Clause 35 abolishes the office of coroner of the Queen’s household. The current holder of that office is Michael Burgess, who is also HM coroner for Surrey. We discussed earlier the great historic nature of the traditional post of coroner. The post of coroner to the King or Queen’s household is also an ancient one and I have worked out that it dates back to William I. It would be a great pity if it were abolished without good reason. Was this measure recommended in the June 2003 Luce report? What sort of discussions have take place between the Ministry of Justice and the Palace, at the time of that report and subsequently? I am well aware that there have been issues more recently, particularly relating to the summoning of a suitable jury in the inquest of the late Diana Princess of Wales. That obviously posed challenges. I suppose it could be argued that the exclusive nature of the office is difficult to integrate with the new national framework that is being put in place, and I understand why the Government may be keen to look at how the office has been held by different coroners throughout the country in the past. At the moment, it is held by the Surrey coroner, who will become the senior coroner for that area.
I am suggesting that, instead of getting rid of the post completely, it might be more sensible to retain it, because from time to time important and sensitive matters will have to be dealt with concerning the Queen’s or King’s household. It is important not to abolish the office, but to transfer it to the chief coroner. Under our amendment, the chief coroner would also be the Coroner of the Queen’s Household, which makes a great deal of sense.
Alun Michael: I am intrigued by the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion, which seems to run counter to the developments in the Bill. He referred to the fact that the Bill establishes a national framework, but it does not establish a national organisation. The purpose of my earlier questions to the Minister was to clarify that the amendments that she moved a short time ago were to extend the judicial competence of the chief coroner, not to give the chief coroner an organisational responsibility. The chief coroner is a judge, so he is not necessarily competent to run anything. I say that with some feeling, because I was the first Minister to be a member of a jury when the legislation changed to allow MPs and Ministers to be members of juries. The experience did not increase my confidence in the capability of judges to run anything.
The hon. Gentleman is suggesting that we pass responsibility to the chief coroner, who would then have to run something and to be the coroner, instead of merely being the overseer or regulator of the coronial service. Surely the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion is inconsistent with the rest of the Bill.
Mr. Bellingham: With respect, the right hon. Gentleman overestimates how onerous the duties of the Coroner of the Queen’s Household are. Mr. Burgess, who is currently the Coroner of the Queen’s Household and the Surrey coroner, probably spends 1 per cent. of his time dealing with the former office. It is much more a ceremonial post, and if the Government are keen to move it away from the senior coroners, I am suggesting that they keep the great ceremonial office in place. I know that the right hon. Gentleman is keen on getting rid of a lot of things, but I am more of a traditionalist.
Alun Michael: With respect, the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that the new post, which is innovative, should take on that activity, but surely he is describing a local coroner having responsibility as Coroner of the Queen’s Household. He is being far more dramatic and innovative than I am.
Mr. Bellingham: I am suggesting a compromise. I understand why the Government want to take the post away from what will be senior coroners. They want to tidy up the system. I do not know whether Luce suggested this in his report—the Minister may be able to touch on that—but one way of keeping alive a great historic, albeit a mainly ceremonial office would be to transfer it to the chief coroner, which would be neat. The Minister may say that my new clause is unnecessary, and that she will think again and keep the post of Coroner of the Queen’s Household with the senior coroners.
Jenny Willott: As well as the ceremonial functions, an operational function can be invoked. If the Government abolish the post, is the hon. Gentleman clear about where the operational side would go and who would be responsible for that?
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Prepared 25 February 2009