Conclusions and recommendations |
1 Localised provision with national guidelines remains the Government's approach to the coroners service as set out in the Coroners and Justice Bill. We remain concerned that expectations raised by the Government's reforms may not be met by the proposed arrangements, particularly in the light of the diversity of funding and availability of facilities which exists across different areas.
2 The Government must make clear during the passage of the Coroners and Justice Bill what arrangements it intends to put in place to secure adequate and appropriate coroners' services and facilities in rural areas with scattered communities.
3 The Coroners and Justice Bill contains provisions designed to implement aspects of the Government's "Improving the process of death certification programme", which aims to establish: unified arrangements for burial and cremation; robust scrutiny of cause of death certificates; more efficient, transparent and convenient processes for the bereaved and for funeral directors; and better information for local clinical governance and public health surveillance.
4 Our view, supported by some medical practitioner bodies, is that the role envisaged for the new medical examiners contained in the Coroners and Justice Billindependent scrutiny of death certificationimplies a need for a line of accountability between examiners and the new national medical advisor to the new chief coroner, at the very least, if not complete independence from the NHS. If the need for more direct access to medical expertise by coroners is accepted, there is a clear case for medical examiners to be employed by the Ministry of Justice, or directly by the coroners service, rather than undertaking this work as NHS employees.
5 The Government withdrew the clauses providing for inquests without juries from the Counter-Terrorism Bill in 2008 but has re-introduced similar provisions in the Coroners and Justice Bill. However, we are not aware of any consultation on these provisions having taken place in the intervening period despite reservations having been expressed by the two most relevant select committees of the House. These clauses, and the changes made to them since their first appearance in the Counter-Terrorism Bill, will therefore merit close and careful scrutiny as the Coroners and Justice Bill passes through Parliament. The Government should be prepared to withdraw them once again if it cannot justify these provisions as proportionate and fully compatible with Article 2 of the ECHR.
6 We welcome the Government's latest proposals for a charter for bereaved people in contact with the coroner system. However, we have already expressed our concern about the risk that not all coroner areas will be able to fulfil the expectations raised by the Government's overall plans for reform. We are especially concerned that bereaved people in particular may be disappointed in circumstances where variable standards in service are likely to persist, despite a charter, as a result of continuing reliance on localised arrangements leading to diverse levels of funding and facilities in different areas.
7 We believe that it would be most helpful if the details of the resources to be available to the Information Commissioner via graduated data protection notification fees were to be published before the second reading of the Coroners and Justice Bill and we recommend that this information be made available at the latest before the relevant provisions in the bill are reached in public bill committee.
8 Given the significance of the proposed data-sharing code of practice in governing the practical application of policy in this area, we recommend that the Government bring forward amendments to the Coroners and Justice Bill to provide for Parliamentary scrutiny of any draft data-sharing code of practice, or amendments thereto, under affirmative resolution procedure, thus ensuring the opportunity for debate and a vote in both Houses.
9 In scrutinising the provisions of the Coroners and Justice Bill relating to data-sharing, we recommend that the House pays particular attention to:
- the scope of the data-sharing order-making powers granted to Ministers and the potential for safeguards in relation to such scope to be included on the face of the bill;
- the likely practical effects of a data-sharing code which will not be legally binding but may be taken into account by a court, tribunal or the Commissioner, in determining a relevant matter; and
- the likely capacity of the Information Commissioner, within the resources available, to undertake effective investigations, analyses and consultations, as well as the production of reports, within the 21 days notice set out on the face of the bill in relation to individual draft orders.
10 In addition, it is unclear whether the bill deals with the situation where it may be in the public interest for the personal data in question to be shared, but the body holding that data makes no application to do so.
11 We recommend that the Government bring forward
amendments to the Coroners and Justice Bill to allow for consideration
of the case for making the Information Commissioner directly responsible
to, and funded by, Parliament. (Paragraph 27)
12 We recommend the most careful consideration
of those provisions of the Coroners and Justice Bill relating
to the remit of the new Sentencing Council for England and Wales.
13 By convention this Committee has been consulted by the Sentencing Guidelines Council in advance of the issue of new definitive guidelines; and has taken evidence in specific instances when appropriate and practical to do so. It is not clear from the face of the bill what role is envisaged for Parliamentary scrutiny of draft guidelines in the future. In our view it is essential for Parliament to continue to be involved in the process whatever new structures are put in place.