Presumption of Death Bill

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chair: Dr William McCrea 

Beith, Sir Alan (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD) 

Bruce, Fiona (Congleton) (Con) 

Coffey, Ann (Stockport) (Lab) 

Corbyn, Jeremy (Islington North) (Lab) 

Donaldson, Mr Jeffrey M. (Lagan Valley) (DUP) 

Duddridge, James (Rochford and Southend East) (Con) 

Evans, Chris (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op) 

Flello, Robert (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Lab) 

Glen, John (Salisbury) (Con) 

Goldsmith, Zac (Richmond Park) (Con) 

Grant, Mrs Helen (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice)  

Havard, Mr Dai (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney) (Lab) 

Lefroy, Jeremy (Stafford) (Con) 

Phillips, Stephen (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con) 

Sturdy, Julian (York Outer) (Con) 

Tami, Mark (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab) 

Kate Emms, Committee Clerk

† attended the Committee

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Public Bill Committee 

Wednesday 21 November 2012  

[Dr William McCrea in the Chair] 

Presumption of Death Bill

8.55 am 

The Chair:  I welcome members of the Committee here this morning, all ready for another day’s business. We begin with clause 1. If members of the Committee are content to make any remarks they may have about clauses 2 to 24 and schedules 1 and 2 during the clause 1 stand part debate, I propose at the appropriate point to put the questions formally that the remaining clauses and schedules stand part of the Bill, on the basis that all the clauses and schedules will have already been debated. 

Clause 1 

Applying for a declaration 

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill. 

John Glen (Salisbury) (Con):  What a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. Given that we had an extensive debate on Second Reading, I do not propose to detain the Committee for long this morning. I am extremely grateful to have reached this stage and I hope the Bill will progress speedily through its subsequent stages. However, it would be helpful to set out now the Bill’s purpose and what I hope it will achieve. 

The Bill will introduce a new court-based procedure which will enable those left behind when someone goes missing to obtain a declaration from the High Court that the missing person is deemed to have died. The High Court will be able to make that decision if it is satisfied that the missing person has died or is not known to have been alive for a period of at least seven years. When such a declaration has been made, a copy will be sent to the Registrar General for England and Wales, and details of it will be registered in a new register of presumed deaths, which will be linked for research purposes to the register of deaths maintained under the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953. This certificate will be conclusive as to the presumed death, and will be effective for all purposes and against all persons. 

The Bill is needed because at the moment, England and Wales do not have a single-certificate procedure for situations where somebody goes missing and is presumed dead. Unfortunately, that contrasts sharply with Scotland and Northern Ireland, which have both already legislated in this field: Scotland has the Presumption of Death (Scotland) Act 1977, and Northern Ireland the Presumption of Death Act (Northern Ireland) 2009. If this Bill becomes an Act of Parliament, it will put England and Wales on a par with Scotland and Northern Ireland in this respect. Based on the experience in Scotland, we anticipate an average of 30 to 40 declarations per year. 

The Bill will go some way towards making it easier for families to resolve the various financial and administrative difficulties that arise from the extremely sad circumstances that can arise when a family member goes missing and is presumed dead. 

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There are certain things I would have liked to include in the Bill, particularly a provision on guardianship, which was rightly recommended by the Justice Committee and many of those who have campaigned on this subject. However, as I said on Second Reading, regrettably, it is the right decision at this point to exclude such a provision from the Bill, so that we can secure this basic provision. None the less, I want to state for the record that I take it as my responsibility to work with others to see this through and to apply the necessary pressure. 

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab):  I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on getting the Bill thus far. I agree with him absolutely about the guardianship issue, which was dealt with in the Justice Committee report. Hopefully, the Government will be able to return to it at a later stage and perhaps introduce such a measure by way of regulation. 

John Glen:  I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that, for his commitment to this cause, for his contribution on Second Reading, and for the work of the Justice Committee of which he is a member. 

It is also important to recognise that the Bill provides for a legal process that can be gone through if somebody is found to be alive, so that the presumption of death certificate can be revoked. Every reasonable circumstance is taken account of in the Bill. There is little else to say at this point. We had a full discussion on Second Reading. 

9 am 

Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab):  Before the hon. Gentleman sits down, the number of people actually affected each year is relatively low, which is clearly a good thing. However, I had someone come to see me about this. I was not fully aware—as I am sure the vast majority of people are not—just how difficult all the minor issues are: whether it is cancelling something, dealing with council tax or selling a property. There is a whole host of things—during a time that is traumatic for people to deal with anyway. 

John Glen:  Absolutely. We anticipate that 30 to 40 declaration certificates will be issued each year, but for the families concerned, the measures will be a massive step forward. As I said on Second Reading, my sister’s godfather went missing. The complications caused to the family were astonishing and extremely painful at a very difficult time. 

The Bill is a sensible move; there should not be anything controversial about it. I hope the Committee will agree and pass the Bill. 

Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Lab):  It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Dr McCrea. I congratulate the hon. Member for Salisbury, who has achieved what I did not with my own private Member’s Bill by getting his this far. In introducing the Bill, he has done a service not just to the House but to the wider country, especially the 30 to 40 families affected each year. I hope that if the Bill becomes an Act in due course, it will at least ease some of the suffering that they go through. The Bill is much needed. I congratulate the Justice Committee on its excellent report. It is yet another example of the superb work that goes on in such Committees. 

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It will be necessary to monitor how the Bill works in practice, and to ensure that it does what the House intends. I urge the Government to look quickly and properly at the guardianship provisions. As has been mentioned, they are a key element of what should be in the Bill. I do not want to delay the Bill’s progress in any way, because it is so important, but equally, I urge the Government to take that action. When the Minister rises to make her contribution, perhaps she will say at least a word or two about whether the Ministry of Justice will keep an open mind or, better yet, keep actively pursuing the introduction of guardianship provisions. 

I do not want to detain the Committee any longer. I want the Bill to speed on its way to enactment, so that it can ease the suffering and pain of the 30 to 40 families each year who go through this awful trauma. 

James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend East) (Con):  I rise briefly to raise the issue of foreign debts overseas, which I raised on the Floor of the House as I wanted to amend the legislation in Committee. Having spoken to my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury, I do not think that that is appropriate. Most of the cases that I was looking at are covered by clauses 1 to 3, and covering the few cases that might not be covered would add too much complexity to the Bill. I congratulate my hon. Friend and look forward to the speedy progress of the Bill as it stands. 

Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab):  Briefly, because I do not want to hold up the Bill’s passage, I congratulate the hon. Member for Salisbury on his efforts in bringing this important Bill so far and on his great skill in getting it to Committee. It is not always easy to negotiate around private Members’ Bills. It is a fantastic achievement. I am sure that he will succeed in getting the Bill on the statute book; it shows that the efforts of Back Benchers are important in Parliament. 

I also congratulate the charity Missing People for its campaigning over the years, and the great efforts it has made to increase parliamentarians’ awareness of the issues associated with missing people and the problems experienced by families when their adult relatives go missing. I was pleased to hear the hon. Gentleman talk about returning at a later stage to the issue of guardianship, which would provide a short-term measure to help deal with those practical problems. So, congratulations and well done to the hon. Gentleman. 

Mr Dai Havard (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney) (Lab):  It is good to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. I will try to behave. The hon. Member for Salisbury has done us a great service by bringing in the Bill and persisting as he has. I agree with the remarks about guardianship; they are absolutely correct. The Bill’s territorial extent is set out, but states that it 

“does not contain any provisions that fall within the legislative competence of the National Assembly for Wales and does not affect the functions of Welsh Ministers”. 

Some people in Wales might say that the hon. Gentleman was a little shy in his ambition. However, I make the serious point that, given the position in Northern Ireland and Scotland, it is important to have at least consistent, if not uniform, legislation across the whole of the UK in this regard. Families are not confined to a particular space. From the point of view of my own constituency work, I thank him for his efforts. 

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Often, Governments do not like the idea of Private Members’ Bills costing money. According to the impact assessment, the Bill involves a very small amount of public expenditure, yet it would bring a great deal of efficiency and do a great service to individuals who find themselves in difficult circumstances. I hope the Government take a favourable view of it, because it is an efficient way of spending public money. 

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mrs Helen Grant):  Dr McCrea, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. As you may know—members of the Committee certainly do—the Government support the Bill and hope it will have a speedy and successful passage through this House and the other place. Coping with a presumed death will never be easy for those closely affected by the disappearance of a loved one, but the law should not make it harder than it needs to be. The Bill will simplify and streamline the law to make the process as fair and effective as possible. On guardianship, we have opened discussions with the Law Commission and these will certainly continue. There needs to be a more detailed examination, and the matter should be subject to public consultation. I am instructed that primary legislation would ultimately be needed to introduce a guardianship provision. 

Jeremy Corbyn:  I thank the Minister for giving way and for her support for the Bill. How long will those discussions last and what is the likelihood of such a public consultation, so that this very important addition to the Bill can be made law? The guardianship issue causes unbelievable levels of trauma, compounded, obviously, by the trauma of a loved one disappearing. 

Mrs Grant:  That is a point well made. I hope to have another discussion with the Law Commission before Christmas. 

I, too, thank my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury for his work in piloting this important Bill. I also thank the chairmen and members of the Justice Committee, and of the all-party parliamentary group for runaway and missing children and adults, for their reports, without which we might not be considering the Bill today. I am pleased to see in her place the hon. Member for Stockport, whom I know has done some important work in her capacity as chair of the all-party group. Finally, I record my thanks to the charity Missing People, which does so much good work in relation to missing people and has been such an effective campaigner on the Bill. 

I strongly support the Bill and urge members of the Committee to join me in supporting it. 

John Glen:  I am very grateful for all the contributions. There is little else to add: we should simply proceed and move matters forward. I do not want to speak just for the sake of it, so I shall sit down. 

Question put and agreed to.  

Clause 1 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.  

Clauses 2 to 24 ordered to stand part of the Bill.  

Schedules 1 and 2 agreed to.  

Bill to be reported , without amendment.  

9.11 am 

Committee rose.  

Prepared 22nd November 2012