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Lord Davies of Coity: My Lords, will my noble friend advise those in the House who are concerned with this Question of the precise details of accidents that have occurred to those who have been involved with drugs and drink?

Baroness Crawley: My Lords, there are increasing observations from the police, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and the Marine Accident Investigation Branch of cases where nuisance and accidents have been caused by people drinking too much.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy: My Lords, have the Government consulted the RNLI about this?

Baroness Crawley: Yes, my Lords, the RNLI is included in the organisations to which I referred.

Armed Forces: Inquests

11.35 am

Lord Astor of Hever asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, all casualties suffered by the UK Armed Forces are a source of profound regret. We are committed to assisting families of service personnel who have died on operations overseas when their loved ones are repatriated. Central government exceptionally provided a resource to help clear inquest backlog in the Oxfordshire coroner’s jurisdiction. I understand that the Wiltshire and Swindon coroner has only been receiving fatalities via RAF Lyneham since 1 April 2007.

Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, these delays are a disgrace. Last week’s announcement on the blue-on-blue incident took place four years after the event. The Government have a duty of care to the bereaved families. How long will it take to complete all outstanding inquests? Will the Government now make their support for coroners and families much more responsive and open?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I understand the seriousness of delays which I agree have caused a great deal of distress to the families concerned. It has to be understood that the coronial service is local and independent. The Government have given exceptional resources, enabling the Oxfordshire coroner to employ three assistant deputy coroners. That is having a positive impact on the number of inquests that have been dealt with. Other inquests have been transferred to coroners who are closer to the next of kin.

It is not possible for me to forecast when an inquest process will be completed; that is in the hands of individual coroners. However, I accept that we must do everything we can to encourage coroners, who are independent, to make sure that these matters are dealt with as speedily as possible.

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Lord Henley: My Lords, the Government have promised that they will give the Armed Forces everything they need for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Does the noble Lord not accept that that covers the closure that the families of those who lose their husbands, fathers or brothers in those wars need? Should not the Government provide yet further resources for the coroners not only in Oxfordshire but in Wiltshire and other areas to which the deceased come back, to make sure that the necessary closure can be achieved?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I certainly accept that we have a responsibility to the families concerned and I take the noble Lord’s point about closure. My honourable friends in another place have announced the support that we give families generally. The provision of resources falls to local authorities. We have given exceptional grants to Oxfordshire. The Wiltshire and Swindon coroner has written to Ministers about resources, and I understand that a meeting is to take place between them in the next week or so.

Lord Thomas of Gresford: My Lords, the Minister will be aware that his right honourable friend Ms Harriet Harman announced at the end of last year that families were charged hundreds of pounds to gain access to documents for the purposes of an inquest. Indeed, one father was charged £600 for access to official papers. Has this practice now stopped and do the resources to which the Minister referred include the reasonable cost of proper legal representation for families at inquests?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, on the general support given to families, my understanding is that we have increased from five to seven the number of family members eligible to receive travel, accommodation and subsistence at public expense to attend repatriation ceremonies. We are also providing travel, accommodation and subsistence payments for two members of the family to attend the inquest at public expense. We have extended this entitlement to enable two family members to attend any pre-inquest hearings.

Lord Craig of Radley: My Lords, in answer to a question yesterday, the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, said that our forces in Basra were increasingly becoming the target for the militias. In the unfortunate event that there are even more casualties, what arrangements have the Government made to ensure that there is no extra delay?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the matter is frequently discussed with the Ministry of Defence. The Government have acknowledged that we must do everything we can to reduce unacceptable delays. That is why we are working with the coroners. I stress that those coroners are independent, but we have encouraged them to consider the transfer of inquests where that appears to be appropriate. In Oxfordshire, where the big backlog of cases has been the major problem, we

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have given extra resources. That has enabled the coroner there to increase the number of deputy assistant coroners. We will continue to do everything we can to make sure that there are not unacceptable delays.

Lord Patel: My Lords, to whom is the coroners’ service accountable?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the coronial service is a local service. The coroners are independent and make their own independent judgments. A review of the coronial service has been carried out by Mr Luce. As a result of that and of widespread discussions, the draft Queen’s Speech published a few days ago contains a coronial Bill, which noble Lords will no doubt wish to consider. It will enhance the national nature of the coronial service, including the appointment of a chief coroner. It will ensure that there are national standards and that much more attention is given to the needs of bereaved families. For the future, we can see a major reform of the coronial service, but it will still have the essential independence of a local service as well, with coroners remaining independent.

Baroness Fookes: My Lords, can we have an assurance that, if additional funds are required, they will be forthcoming and timely, so that we avoid the ghastly situation which has already arisen? I declare a non-financial interest as president of the War Widows Association. I have seen what happens at very close hand.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I of course understand the question of resources. We have dealt with the situation in Oxfordshire. A number of other inquests have been transferred to other coroners. In Wiltshire and Swindon, we have received representations from the coroner. We are following them up, and Ministers will meet the coroner very shortly.

Lord Thomas of Gresford: My Lords, will the Minister kindly answer the question that I put to him? Are families still being charged for documents and are their proper legal expenses for representation at coroners’ inquests being met?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I shall write to the noble Lord with the full details of the current position. I certainly hope that everything is being done to enable those families to attend inquests. I have given some details of the support that is already being provided, but I will certainly check that and write to him.


11.43 am

Lord Grocott: My Lords, with the leave of the House, a Statement on Lords reform will be repeated at a convenient moment after 12.45 pm by my noble friend Lord Hunt.

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Statistics and Registration Service Bill

11.44 am

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I beg to move that the Commons amendments be now considered.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

commons amendments

[The page and line references are to Bill 53 as first printed for the Lords.]

Motion A(a) the circumstances in which, or descriptions of statistics in relation to which, pre-release access may or may not be granted;(b) the persons, or descriptions of persons, to whom pre-release access may be granted;(c) the period, or maximum period, during which pre-release access may be granted; and(d) the conditions subject to which pre-release access may be granted.

The Commons insist on their disagreement with the Lords in their Amendments Nos. 12, 13, 15, 20, 67, 68, 69, 70 and 72, do not insist on their Amendments Nos. 15B and 15C, but propose Amendments 15D, 15E and 15F to the words restored to the Bill by disagreement with the Lords in their Amendment No. 15.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I beg to move that the House do not insist on its Amendments Nos. 12, 13, 15, 20, 67 to 70 and 72 and do agree with the Commons in their Amendments Nos. 15D, 15E and 15F to the words restored to the Bill by their disagreement with Lords Amendment No. 15.

There was much discussion of these matters when the Bill was last before this House, and I understand that the other place had a full and robust debate on this issue only yesterday. As we discussed when we last considered this issue, the Prime Minister has announced the Government’s commitment further to reduce the length of time for which pre-release access is available to 24 hours for all UK-wide and reserved statistics, which is down from the previously agreed reduction to 40.5 hours. By committing to reduce pre-release access from up to five days, as is enjoyed at present, to a maximum of 24 hours, the Government are demonstrating that they have listened to the strong views on this issue expressed both here and in the other place.

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Under the Government’s proposals, as noble Lords know, it is for Ministers to set out in secondary legislation, and for Parliament to agree the precise content of the new pre-release arrangements under the new system. These arrangements will be set out in secondary legislation. This statutory instrument will set out rules and principles to restrict the number of people who receive pre-release access and the statistical series to which pre-release might apply. It will also restrict the length of time for which pre-release access is available to a maximum of 24 hours for reserved statistics.

We are not yet in a position to prepare a draft of this statutory instrument. The reason for that is, of course, straightforward. As I indicated when we last considered this issue, the Government intend to consult the shadow board when it has been established on the content of that order before laying it before the House. This provides a powerful role for the board in determining the new arrangements, and this role will—under the amendment made by the Commons that we are considering today—be confirmed on the face of the legislation. In this, as with so many of the other changes the Government have made through the Bill’s passage, we are accepting some of the arguments presented in this House. It has never been the Government’s intention to hand Ministers a free rein in this matter—indeed, quite the contrary. The legislation, together with this new legislative duty to consult the board in determining the content of the pre-release regime, will ensure a strong and meaningful role for the board, both in influencing the content of the pre-release regime itself and in enforcing the new arrangements.

We have a substantial degree of consensus on the importance and value of this Bill, which will govern the statistical system in this country. We have reached consensus on most of the key structures and processes that the Bill will establish. Wherever possible, the Government have moved to meet the views of all sides and have made real changes to the Bill.

We have amended Clause 25, on the board’s duty to produce and publish reports, to clarify that all reports must be laid before the devolved legislatures and the Scottish Parliament. We have changed the board’s objective in Clause 7 to underscore its role in promoting and safeguarding statistics that serve the public good. We have changed the name of the code of practice in Clause 10 to emphasise its applicability to all statistics. We have granted the board a duty to comment on those statistics that it felt should be subject to the assessment process, and clarified that when the statistics are produced by a Minister of the Crown, the Minister must respond publicly, stating when the board’s request will be complied with—and if not, why not. We have imposed a duty to comply with the code of practice. Amendments have been passed to clarify the separation of functions between assessment and the production of statistics and to clarify the role, responsibilities and functions of the National Statistician and the executive office. We have passed the residual responsibilities for the board from the Treasury to the Cabinet Office. On the face of the Bill we have made a commitment to consult the board on the content of the pre-release secondary legislation

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before it is laid before the House, and we have committed to consult publicly. At the highest level, there was the announcement that pre-release access will be tightened even further to 24 hours, as I have already mentioned. We have made a commitment in principle to create a central publication hub, through which all national statistics will be released in the new system, separating statistical releases from policy commentary; and we have committed to review the pre-release arrangements after 12 months, and to assess whether they hinder the broader objective of increasing trust in statistics.

The House will recognise that the Government have been responsive to arguments that have been presented here and in another place. Today we have suggested further clarification of the board’s important role in relation to pre-release. That is the last remaining area of contention. The Government propose real and significant reforms to the current pre-release regime, with a meaningful and strong role for the board in determining the new arrangements. The sooner the Bill receives Royal Assent, the sooner we can begin the important business of making a reality of the new system.

We have had very intensive and constructive debates on these issues and I thank all Members of the House who participated in them. I hope the House will recognise that the Government have listened to the strength of feeling on these issues. However, the Bill is too important to be put in jeopardy at this late stage. I hope it will be recognised that the best way to enhance confidence in our national statistical system is to ensure that the Bill gets a ready passage. Although I understand noble Lords will not be totally satisfied by this last response from the Government to the amendments that were tabled in this House on a previous occasion, I hope the House will consider that the Government have been sufficiently responsive and that the Bill is sufficiently significant for noble Lords not to press their Motion. I beg to move.

Moved, That this House do not insist on its Amendments 12, 13, 15, 20, 67 to 70 and 72, and do agree with the Commons in their Amendments 15D, 15E and 15F to the words restored to the Bill by their disagreement with Lords Amendment No. 15.—(Lord Davies of Oldham.)

Baroness Noakes: My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing the Motion. The other place continues to assert that the rules for pre-release are more appropriately made by Ministers. It has been the consistent position of your Lordships’ House that the independent Statistics Board, created by this Bill, should set the rules.

When we last debated the issue, the Minister said that the board would be consulted on the draft statutory instrument containing the rules, but he resisted the notion that consultation should be placed on the face of the Bill. We did not understand that then and we are not surprised that the Government climbed down on that in another place. Amendment No. 15F places consultation with the board in the Bill. It is not even as much as half a loaf, but we accept it none the less.

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The Minister has also made much of the Prime Minister’s announcement that pre-release would be reduced to 24 hours. The Government have resisted here and in another place putting that maximum in the Bill. The Minister explained that very succinctly on 9 July when he said:

That can mean only one thing: that the Prime Minister’s announcement of the 24-hour limit is not a maximum; it is a minimum to be varied upwards without statutory constraint. The Prime Minister’s 24-hour commitment, therefore, lacks substance. However, neither of these commitments, to consultation and to 24 hours, really addresses the core issue—that the Government should not be setting the limits at all; it should be done by the independent Statistics Board.

We have thought carefully about whether we should ask the other House to think about this again. We thought especially carefully about it in the light of the views expressed by Sir Michael Scholar, the Government’s nominated chairman of the Statistics Board, when he appeared before the Treasury Select Committee in another place yesterday afternoon. Sir Michael's very clear view was that it would be preferable for the Statistics Board to set the rules. He also expressed the view that less than 24 hours would be desirable. I should say at this point that we welcome Sir Michael Scholar as chairman. He is known to many of us in your Lordships' House as a man of exceptional integrity and ability. If the Government think that they have selected someone who will be a pushover, they had better think again.

The Minister in another place tried to argue that, because the Government had conceded a number of points in amendments to the Bill, that was a reason not to give in on pre-release. The Minister set out those changes again today though he did not go as far as claiming that that meant he did not have to change anything more. When the Bill was first presented it was not a good Bill, and it is now a much better Bill; but the fact that the Government accept that they got it wrong on several issues does not entitle them to remain in the wrong on the issue of pre-release. All of that led me to believe that we should fight on for the principle of pre-release not being in the hands of the Government. But we recognise that the other place has clearly expressed the opposite view. We have therefore reluctantly come to the view that your Lordships' House should accept the judgment of the elected House on the issue of pre-release.

The Government continue to toy with ideas of elections to this House, and we shall perhaps hear more of that later today. They should be very clear that if this House were wholly or mainly elected it is very likely that we would not give way on issues of principle such as this. So we cede this point today to the elected House. In so doing we express the strong hope and desire that the Statistics Board will act independently and forthrightly in relation to all its functions but in particular to pre-release. We want the board to speak out openly and fearlessly against the Government when necessary. The consultation on the

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draft statutory instrument creating the pre-release rules will give the new board an early opportunity to show us what it is made of. We shall be watching the board’s words and deeds with great interest.

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