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The noble Lord also asked about the budget of the Chief Coroner. He or she will have a budget, be supported by one or more deputies, and have an office with staff. Again, he or she will be funded to administer a new appeals system, administer training for coroners and their staff, introduce standards and best practice, and introduce the charter for the bereaved.
As to the important point of legal aid, raised first by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, and mentioned by the noble Baronesses, Lady Miller and Lady Fookes, our case is that the purpose of an inquest is actually to establish the facts. They are not adversarial proceedings in the same way as a trial, with a prosecution and defence, and coroners have ensured and will continue to ensure that the process is thorough and impartial. They are under a duty to assist families and ensure that their questions are answered.
We are not persuaded that legal aid needs to be routinely made available for coroners inquests. The ministry has provided legal aid in every inquest into the deaths of service personnel where the Legal Services Commission has recommended it, and I understand that it recommended it in every case where it has been sought. Since January 2003 it has been granted in 16 such inquests. However, legal aid is not currently available as a matter of course in other inquests and, as the legal aid Minister, with a very, very tight budget indeed, frankly I cannot see that changing in the immediate future.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Williams and Lady Finlay, asked about death certification and the independence of medical examiners. Of course it is vital that the public are confident that medical examiners will carry out an independent scrutiny of a medical certificate of the cause of the death. The Bill attempts to ensure this independence in two ways: first, by specifying that PCTs in England and local health boards in Wales can have no role in relation to the way in which medical examiners exercise their professional judgments as medical practitioners; and, secondly, by enabling regulations to specify what is required to demonstrate independence.
We think that two protocols will be required. A national protocolprepared in consultation with the medical royal colleges, the BMA and otherswill set standards on the minimal level of scrutiny for medical examiners. A second local protocol agreed by the PCT in consultation with the areas senior coroner will set out the minimum distanceincluding any relationships with the deceased or the attending doctorbetween the medical examiner and the dead. Our approach will ensure, we hope, that medical examiners are both properly independent and able to influence clinical governance arrangements where necessary.
There were many other questions on coronersone in particular was raised by the noble Lords, Lord Imbert and Lord Ramsbotham. Their complaint was about why we had not established a national coroner
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Moving on, I want to say a word about military inquests. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, and others were concerned about the Bill not providing for a specialist military coroner. I reassure them that despite this the Bill will ensure that the current expertise in military inquests will be retained and built on. First, the new Chief Coroner will issue guidance and set standards in relation to certain types of death. The draft charter for the bereaved states that we would expect that to include standards in relation to deaths on active service, and the guidance will ensure that all coroners are well equipped to investigate military deaths. If a particularly complex case arose that required specific skills or experience, the Chief Coroner would be able to transfer that case to the best qualified coroner. Greater flexibility in the new system should also, we think, minimise the backlogs that may occur at present and enable a case to be transferred to a coroner area nearer to a bereaved family than the place to which the body was repatriated. This will significantly benefit bereaved service families. My noble friend Lady Dean, I think, was concerned about this point, as well as others.
The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, asked when the Secretary of State would think it appropriate for a death to be investigated in Scotland. If the deceased is a member of the Regular or Reserve Forces who is on active service overseas or preparing or training for it or is a civilian subject to service discipline accompanying such a person, and the deceaseds family lives in Scotland, that is when it will be appropriate. At present, a death in these circumstances will be subject to an inquest, but if an investigation is able to take place in Scotland instead of an inquest it will obviously have beneficial effects, in that the deceaseds family will not have to travel to England.
Will medical examiners have specific qualifications? Will the Chief Coroner have a medical adviser? These questions were mentioned by various noble Lords, such as my noble friend Lord Turnberg and the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice. A detailed training curriculum has been developed by an intercollegiate group established by the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, led by the Royal College of Pathologists, about which a particular question was asked. Medical practitioners will be assessed following completion of the training and, if successful, accredited to act as medical examiners. Practice as a medical examiner will also be reflected by the arrangements for the revalidation and relicensing of medical practitioners when introduced by the General Medical Council.
I shall move rapidly on to Part 2, which deals with homicide. I heard clearly the points made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, on this issue; he queried our staged approach to the reform of the law of murder, as did other noble Lords. The Law Commissions recommendations for this important and sensitive area are indeed ambitious and wide-ranging, but we think it is better to stage our reforms to get them right. We will be looking in due course at the commissions other recommendations, particularly those for a new structure for homicide and complicity to murder, in the light of the effect of changes to the partial defences. I need to make it clear to the noble and learned Lord that the murder provisions in the Bill were debated in Commons Committee but, unfortunately, not on Commons Report.
We will undoubtedly refer to the partial defences in due course. I hope the House will forgive me if I quote some outsiders who seem, at least from the terms of these quotations, to be in favour of what we are attempting to do. On the question of provocation, the organisation Liberty, which is not often known for its support of what the Government intend to do, said this:
That was in October last year. The Law Commission itself said in the document Murder, Manslaughter and Infanticide in November 2006, after the important House of Lords decision that the noble and learned Lord referred to, which I think is called Holley, that,
I turn to provocation and the issues around sexual infidelity. The fact that the thing done or said constituted sexual infidelity is to be disregarded by the Bill. However, it may be taken into account in so far as it also amounts to something other than sexual infidelity. We will come back to these issues in due course.
The noble Lord, Lord Joffe, asked me why we are not using reform of partial defence and diminished responsibility as an opportunity to update the law relating to mercy killers. The Law Commission, in its report, made clear its view that the use of the defence of diminished responsibility should not be stretched so far that it becomes a back-door route to a partial excuse for caring but rational mercy killers. We agree with that position.
I come to Clause 61, which is, of course, a matter we will debate in full, and no doubt vote on. I think I am entitled to point to the fact that the House of Commons has voted twice by huge majorities in favour of what we are proposing in this Bill. That is something that, at least, this House has to take notice of, even if it decides to continue the attitude it took last year. I do not think there is any constitutional outrage at all in coming back this year with a proposition we had last year. It is quite clear why we did not come back to this House on it last year. The noble Lord will argue his case, no doubt with great passion as he did last year, but this matter should be decided on the issue itself. It is not a constitutional issue as such.
As far as the Sentencing Council is concerned, some very interesting comments were made. I am very grateful for the great support shown to it, and I think that is a fair adjective, by the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, and the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, whose speechif I may say sowas outstanding, in the course of a pretty outstanding debate. Their support is much appreciated. I know their concerns about this, which were expressed very clearly by the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan. Though I often agree with him, I think that on this occasion, he was slightly exaggerating the dangers involved.
The Bill makes clear that the court must follow the guidelines laid down by the Sentencing Council unless the court is satisfied that it would be contrary to the interests of justice to do so. That is stronger than the present duty on sentences, which is simply to have regard to guidelines. However, that enhanced duty is based on the Gage Commissions view that there should be a presumption that guidelines drawn up by a body with a judicial majority and chair should be applied to ensure greater consistency in sentencing.
We recognise, of course, as did the working group, that there has to be discretion to do justice in the individual case. That is why the Bill provides that, even where an offence is sub-divided into categories, the sentencer can sentence within the entire range of the guidelines. That means that, in the Sentencing Guidelines Councils current robbery guidelines, the sentence can be from one to 12 years; and even then, the sentencer can still depart from the offence range if it is in the interests of justice to do so. In the interests of justice is a very important expression. Again, we will debate sentencing views in due course.
The noble Baroness, Lady Stern, asked me how many new offences this Bill created. I am glad to be able to tell her that it creates 15 new offences. Eight are wholly new, and the remaining seven update offences in the Coroners Act 1988. We will have a debate about the number of imprisonable offences that have been invented, as she argued, by this Government. I think that even she would agree that some of those, in some of the fields where we have changed the law, were undoubtedly right and proper to create.
Many noble Lords spoke about genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanityall of them were in favour of movement on this issue. We know that the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, intends to table an amendment in Committee to make the offences of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity retrospective. We
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We heard many passionate speeches on assisted suicide, either for a change in the law or for maintaining the law as it is. I was asked whether there would be a free vote on the Governments side. The answer is yes. There will be a free vote on an amendment of the kind that my noble friend Lady Jay proposed. However, I must repeat the observation that I made many hours ago in my opening speech; namely, that we do not think this Bill is the appropriate vehicle in which to pursue a change in the law on this sensitive issue. Nevertheless, I look forward to listening to the debates in Committee.
We heard some interesting speeches on criminal memoirs. I think there will be interesting debates on that, too. I make it clear that this is not an attack on freedom of speech or on legitimate publishing businesses. We are not banning criminals from writing about their acts, no matter how ghastly they may have been. We are just saying that if a criminal publishes material about his crimes or an act that can cause distress to victims and their families, the court will have the powerif it wants to use itto order any benefit
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The noble Lord, Lord Lester, was delighted with what we had done with regard to conditional fee agreements. We are also pleased as we think that it is the right course and that it will be popular. I noted what the noble Lord said about sedition. This issue arose in the other place. We accept that there is a case for the abolition of these rarely used offences. We need to be confident that they can be abolished without further ado. It is open to the noble Lord to table a suitable amendment for Committee which would allow noble Lords an opportunity to debate the issue. I assure him that the Government would welcome such a debate, but I say no more about it tonight. Indeed, I say no more about anything tonight. I have gone on for longer than I meant to. Once again, I thank all noble Lords for the part they have played in a most illuminating and interesting debate and look forward to seeing them in Committee.
Lord Craig of Radley: My Lords, before the Minister sits down, I raised a point about active service and using the definition in the Armed Forces Act which relates solely to desertion, which seems a very inappropriate definition to be using in the context of this Bill.
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