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House of Lords

Thursday, 27 March 2008.

The House met at eleven o'clock: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Ripon and Leeds.

Coroners' Inquests

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I reassure the Minister and the House that I am aware of the sub judice rules, both as they affect what the Minister can say and, indeed, what supplementaries may be asked.

The Question was as follows:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, the Government remain fully committed to coroner reform, and a Bill will be brought before Parliament when parliamentary time allows. Today my honourable friend Bridget Prentice published a briefing note outlining how the provisions in our draft Bill have changed following extensive consultation. Ahead of legislation we will strengthen Rule 43 of the Coroners’ Rules 1984.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I welcome the Government’s intention as regards new legislation. In approaching the new Bill, will they ensure that bereaved families are kept fully informed about inquests, that where possible very costly inquests are avoided altogether, that there should not be long delays in holding inquests and that it is not acceptable that inquests should be used to cause distress to the families of the deceased?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, my noble friend is right to suggest that the needs of families should be fully considered. I very much accept that proposition. We are committed to producing a charter for the bereaved alongside legislation. A draft of that charter will be produced later in the year and noble Lords will be invited to comment on it.

Lord Thomas of Gresford: My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord on the Government’s alterations to the draft Bill that were published today. They have significantly improved the Bill and done a lot of things that stakeholders—if I may use that expression—have asked for. But the families are still without a right of representation. They have a right of appeal but there is nothing in the Bill about a right of representation and a right to make submissions to the coroner, or to a coroner’s jury, about the evidence to assist the coroner in coming to his verdict. Will the

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Government take that on board before the full Bill is published and consider whether something should be done to ensure that families are properly represented and that at the end of the inquest they can make submissions on what the verdict should be?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his welcome for some of the changes that will be made to the Bill as a result of the consultation. He will know that legal aid for representation—that is one of the issues, as is representation in general—is not considered appropriate in many inquests because an inquest is a fact-finding process; it is not an adversarial conflict between different parties. That is why we are very reluctant to do down the path that he suggests.

Lord Maginnis of Drumglass: My Lords, as verdicts by coroners’ juries are restricted to prevent them reaching verdicts of guilt, will the noble Lord assure the House that those with authority will take steps to ensure that in future coroners’ inquests cannot be exploited by unstable or malicious individuals for personal gain or vengeance?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I do not think that I am going to comment on the specifics of what the noble Lord has suggested. Currently, 98 per cent of all coroners’ inquests are held with a coroner sitting without a jury, but I am sure that where juries do sit we can rely on the overall leadership of the coroner. Part of the proposals that will be brought forward in legislation is for there to be a national service, locally run, with a chief coronial officer who can give the professional leadership that is required.

Lord Elton: My Lords, will the charter to which the noble Lord referred be a statement of aspirations, or will it have legal force; and if so, what force will it have?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, it will depend on the Coroners Bill becoming law but, assuming that that goes well, our intention is that the charter for the bereaved would have the status of statutory guidance. It will have considerable strength as a result.

Lord Bramall: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the present arrangements for belated inquests on those killed on operations, with coroners who have little military knowledge speculating on what might have been done in equipment or command terms to avoid the death, are both misleading and very distressing for the families concerned? Why can there not be a roving coroner with some specialist knowledge who goes to the area of operations and, where appropriate, records a verdict of killed on active service?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the noble and gallant Lord raises a matter of considerable interest. He will know that there has been concern about the delays in the holding of a number of military inquests. We have taken action. We have provided extra funding

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to the coroners that are particularly concerned and we have worked very closely with the organisations representing families. There has been a big improvement in the progress of those inquests. I think the noble and gallant Lord is suggesting the creation of specialist military coroners. We are not persuaded that that is a route down which we should go. We believe that all coroners ought to be able to deal with all inquests. Our understanding is that coroners around the country have been handling these inquests effectively and quickly. The development of a national service with a chief coroner will enable there to be much greater consistency and professional leadership in the future.

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, will the Minister take into account the views of the Independent Police Complaints Commission in any reforms, particularly in relation to deaths in police custody?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: Yes, my Lords, I am very happy to do that. I am sure that when the Bill comes before your Lordships’ House we will want to debate that.

Lord Craig of Radley: My Lords, is it true that in inquests into killed in action cases, the Ministry of Defence has so far spent more than £1.5 million on legal representation, whereas relatives are unable to get any legal aid at public expense because a coroner’s court is not a court of law? Is that not grossly unfair and a betrayal of the military covenant? Will the Government cease to hide behind the arrangements for coroners’ courts in the case of those who have been killed in action and allow relatives to have legal aid at public expense when attending an inquest into the death of a loved one?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I understand the concerns expressed by the noble and gallant Lord. I have already said that legal aid is generally not available because an inquest should be seen as a fact-finding process. As for MoD representation, that is often because a coroner feels that it can assist the inquest in the finding of facts. There are provisions for allowing legal aid to be provided in exceptional circumstances for inquests in cases such as the noble and gallant Lord described. Legal aid funding has been given to a number of families of soldiers or Armed Forces personnel who have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, so I think that we have a proportionate system.

Zimbabwe: Elections

11.15 am

Lord Blaker asked Her Majesty’s Government:

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The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Malloch-Brown): My Lords, the conditions for elections in Zimbabwe are poor: the electoral register is not accurate; the electoral commission is not independent; and the opposition parties are not permitted to campaign and hold rallies freely, nor are they being given fair access to media. It is important for the credibility of those that do send observers that they ensure that Zimbabwe’s election meets the SADC principles and guidelines.

Lord Blaker: My Lords, I am sure the whole House agrees with what the Minister has just said. Are not the elections which will happen in the next few days regarded as particularly important because they are taking place under the auspices of President Mbeki of South Africa and at the instance of SADC? Was not one of the successes of those negotiations an agreement that the police would not be present in the polling stations while voting was taking place? However, is it not also true that President Mugabe has recently revoked that decision without consulting anybody as far as I know, certainly not consulting even his own Government? Does that not mean that the elections will take place without adhering to the SADC rules for elections, which are pretty good? Is the Minister aware of any complaint which has been made by a SADC member country or even by the secretary-general of SADC?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, the noble Lord’s characterisation of these elections taking place under the auspices of President Mbeki is one that I suspect President Mbeki would quibble with. The changes that he sought to secure in the election processes of Zimbabwe have been honoured more in the breach than the observance. Many of them, while put on to the statute book, have not been fully implemented by the Government and the fact is that the fundamentals of the SADC principles are not met. More than 3 million to 4 million people remain outside the country, which—as there are only 5.9 million registered voters for the election—means that at least one-third of the country is disfranchised. I could continue with the list. It is a very sorry situation.

Lord Morris of Handsworth: My Lords, on the assumption that the forthcoming elections in Zimbabwe may well replicate recent events in Kenya, will the Government say what steps are being taken to protect the interests of British nationals who may be living in Zimbabwe?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, my noble friend is right. We have to look at every possible eventuality. We very much hope that there will not be the violence that followed the elections in Kenya. We very much hope that the Government of Zimbabwe will allow free and fair elections and then accept the result. But if that does not happen and there is indeed violence and displacement, we have plans in place. It will not surprise the noble Lord if I say that it would be imprudent of me to go beyond that at this stage.

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Lord Avebury: My Lords, more important than what we or Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch or the International Crisis Group think, has the Minister noted—more importantly, does he think that the observer groups have noted—the comments by Mr Bongani Masuku, international affairs officer of the South African trade union movement, COSATU, that there have been blatant deviations from SADC principles, including, for example, the denial of access to the state-run print and broadcasting media, the printing of 3 million extra ballot papers, denial of access by the opposition candidates to the registers, and so on? How can one have a free and fair election in these circumstances?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, a wide range of independent observers—the noble Lord mentioned several: the International Crisis Group, Human Rights Watch and the United States State Department, as well as local observers in the region—have already declared that these elections cannot be free and fair. Given the British position, it behoves us to reserve our own judgment until after the election. I think that the ruling party would like nothing more than for me in this House today to declare the elections as already not free and fair. But the noble Lord is correct: the omens are dreadful.

Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, the World Food Programme has brought forward food distributions just in time to boost Mugabe’s campaign. In the light of the WFP’s claim that it has zero tolerance for political interference in its work, does the Minister agree that it should be unacceptable to it that reporters and election monitors from countries that pay for the food are banned from Zimbabwe?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, the World Food Programme, as the noble Lord knows, is a humanitarian organisation. I have every confidence that it is doing all it can to prevent the politicisation of its mission. While no British election observers, for example, are there, we contribute to the WFP and to its programmes for Zimbabwe. We have always felt that the poor of Zimbabwe should not be the victims of the heinous policies of their Government.


11.20 am

Lord Best asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Baroness Andrews): My Lords, the Government published Lifetime Homes, Lifetime Neighbourhoods—A National Strategy for Housing in an Ageing Society on 25 February. The response from stakeholders has been positive and supportive and the strategy has been welcomed as a major step in raising awareness of the need for better housing and related services for older people and for setting actions to help to achieve this.

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Lord Best: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, but I thank her all the more for the hard work and commitment that she has put into creating this excellent national strategy, which has indeed been well received by organisations representing older people. However, does she share with me a profound disappointment that the housebuilders have rejected the proposal in the strategy that by 2013 they should adopt the full lifetime homes standards of accessibility and adaptability for new homes? In view of the obduracy of the housebuilders, would she consider bringing forward changes to the building regulations so that, from now on, all new homes can enjoy the much higher and better standards of accessibility and adaptability that are prescribed within this excellent strategy?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his kind words. This is the world’s first strategy on housing and ageing and we have had global responses to it. We need such a strategy because one in five children born today is likely to live to 100. Therefore, we have to match our housing policies with our policies on ageing. I was disappointed with the reaction of the Home Builders Federation. I understand that the task is challenging but, on the other hand, there is a huge market for adaptable and flexible homes for older people. We consulted the federation informally and formally. I hear what the noble Lord says, but we think that the best way forward is for us to work with housebuilders by providing advice and support in the next two years to help them to adopt the standards voluntarily, after which we will review the situation, with a view to regulation.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market: My Lords, the report highlights the fact that the private rented sector is the most poorly performing part of the housing market. Does the noble Baroness feel that the sector is an appropriate place for frail elderly people? If it is, how can we monitor and raise standards in a sector that is dominated by individual private landlords?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, I have a lot of sympathy with what the noble Baroness says. Some of the poorest conditions and poorest people are to be found in the private rented sector. That is why we have commissioned Julie Rugg to have a thorough look at the whole issue of tenure and conditions in the sector. As we said in the report—and this is part of our health and social care strategy—we have put £33 million more into handyperson and handy van services, so that they can visit and repair the stairs, for example. People fall over loose stair carpets and are hospitalised. When one considers that a grab rail costs £50 and a hip operation costs £6,000, one sees why this is a cost-effective policy.

Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, while the adoption of the lifetime homes standards for all new buildings will undoubtedly be a welcome step, the reality is that the vast majority of people will inevitably grow old in existing homes, of which there are some 22 million or 23 million. Desirable as the new standards are, the

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real question that we have to ask is whether we can do enough to adapt existing homes, which have often been built to much lesser standards, to make it possible for the vast majority of the elderly to grow old in them in comfort. Are the Government acting in this field already? I suspect that they are not.

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, the whole strategy is a coherent approach to housing supply. The noble Lord is quite right—one of the problems for older people is that they do not know what the best choices are. Hence, we start with a national advice and information service, which makes it easy for them to make the right choice at the right time and not be forced into making the wrong choice. Housing information, alongside a much expanded service for repair and adaptations, will make the difference, but if older people had better, more adaptable homes to go to, they would be more likely to move out of larger, inappropriate housing. That would free up more housing for younger people as well.

Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, what does this strategy do for the severely disabled?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, lifetime homes standards make it much easier to make further adaptations. We have a whole section in this report on how we have been able to, I am delighted to say, put another £100 million over the next three years into the disabled facilities grant, which is a vital grant to enable big adaptations to be made for severely disabled people. We are also speeding up and streamlining the system so that it does not take so long to get the sort of stairlifts or downstairs adapted bathrooms that make all the difference between people being able to stay in their homes and being institutionalised.

Lord Low of Dalston: My Lords, talking of the disabled, the Minister will be aware that, in the past three years, the shared-space street concept has led to shared-surface streets, where demarcation between vulnerable pedestrians and vehicles is removed and they have to rely on eye contact to avoid one another. Guide Dogs research has demonstrated that shared surfaces affect the safety, confidence and independence of blind and partially sighted people. In some towns, no-go areas have been created. In promoting lifetime neighbourhoods, will the Government make a clear statement that shared surfaces discriminate against blind and partially sighted and other disabled people, effectively excluding them from the street environment, and that clearly defined pedestrian-only paths—a safe space—must be provided for safer and independent travel?

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