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Amendment 47 is the second arm of these two amendments, and would put the onus on the Lord Chancellor to report to Parliament. The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, talked about the importance of that for extra ministerial scrutiny of these matters. We welcome it because it is also important for the extra parliamentary scrutiny that would be allowed if Ministers themselves had to see why there were unnecessary delays and had to iron out the problems. Although we accept that the amendments will not solve all the problems of delay, they would do an awful lot to help to rectify those problems, and we support them. We are hoping for honeyed words from the Minister as he welcomes them, or at least explains why the Government will do something else that will make them unnecessary.
Baroness Finlay of Llandaff: For the record, I am grateful to those who have quoted me from Committee stage. I would have added my name to Amendment 1, but because of my personal bereavement I have not attended to parliamentary matters in the past week; however, it has my full support.
Viscount Slim: My Lords, perhaps I may follow up on what the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, said. I am quite concerned about this very long delay for armed services coroners' reports. In my view, it is, for a member of the Armed Forces, deplorable that the family, a widow or a mother, should be kept waiting for two to three years for the final report. I also am perturbed because should, God forbid, the casualty rate increase out of Afghanistan and anywhere else the Armed Forces serve, I see an even further delay. In the second paragraph of the amendment, the noble Baroness proposes that the coroner keeps a registration. I would like to see the Chief Coroner have a plan and do something about quickening the process.
The Minister knows my concern about this from the previous post he held. I do not see much improvement in the system overall. Either we want more coroners or we want a better system. With great respect, I would remind noble Lords that I cannot recall a coroner's report on each and every one of the 30,000 dead from the German bombings of this country during the war, or on airmen who were shot down on our land, or on those of us who fought abroad and certainly not on those in the Merchant Navy who were killed or sunk in our own waters by enemy submarines. The whole question of the Armed Forces and how they are dealt with in this matter wants a thorough examination.
Lord Tunnicliffe: Amendments 1 and 7 concern an important issue in the investigation of deaths; that is, the time taken by a coroner to complete an investigation. I fully acknowledge that the delay involved in some investigations is unacceptable and we have already included provisions in this Bill to assist with those situations. It is inappropriate to make a Second Reading-type speech at this late stage, but the whole essence of this Bill is to make the coroners' system more effective and more efficient so that these times can be reduced. Our objectives and the objectives of everyone who has spoken are congruent.
The introduction of a Chief Coroner will provide operational leadership for the first time and the introduction of the new medical examiner service will mean that fewer deaths are reported to coroners in the first place. Nevertheless, as noble Lords have pointed out, we already know that certain types of investigations are far more likely to lead to delays. In general, these will be where coroners depend on other organisations to provide investigation reports-not just the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, but organisations such as the Health and Safety Executive or a transport accident investigation branch-or when there is a requirement to investigate a death abroad, particularly a death in a country which does not understand the role of British coroners. However, as my noble friend mentioned in Committee, the vast majority of inquests, some 64 per cent of the total, are completed within six months and 91 per cent are completed within 12 months.
I support the policy objectives that the amendments are aiming to achieve, but I hope I can convince the House that there are better ways in which they may be
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In relation to overseas deaths, the Chief Coroner, with the help of our consulate service overseas, will play an important role in representing the interests of the coronial system and will help to secure information on behalf of particular coroners. The Chief Coroner will therefore monitor the oldest or lengthier cases, and is likely to publish information about them for inclusion in his or her annual report. I therefore believe that these amendments are unnecessary, and suggest that the regulations-on which we will be consulting fully at a later stage-would be a more fitting place for them.
Similarly, as the annual report would be laid before each House of Parliament, we do not believe it to be necessary for the Lord Chancellor to make half-yearly statements to the House. The Chief Coroner's report will be laid before each House of Parliament and should be self-explanatory. Of course, the Lord Chancellor may be questioned on any aspect of the contents of this report and how he or she intends to react to any issues raised through the normal procedures, such as Oral and Written Parliamentary Questions.
The Chief Coroner will be involved in drafting the regulations, which will be properly consulted on so that they are fit for purpose. A particular question is what will happen to the present system of quarterly Written Ministerial Statements on military inquests. In the short to medium term-two to three years-we anticipate that those statements will continue. However, once the new system is implemented, particularly with the appointment of the Chief Coroner, we may review that. Decisions are likely to be dependent on a number of factors. The first and most obvious is that the situation in theatre may be quite different in two to three years. Secondly, it may be more appropriate for the Chief Coroner, as operational head of service, to recommend to the Lord Chancellor the best and most appropriate method of collating and disseminating this information. Thirdly, some of these deaths may in future be dealt with by way of fatal accident inquiry in Scotland rather than by way of inquest in England and Wales, so that would also need to be considered when publicising this information.
There is always a conflict between putting something on the face of the Bill and including it in regulations, but we recommend the latter because the regulations would be better as a result. Our objectives coincide with everyone who has spoken-to improve the efficiency of the coroner service and as part of that, reduce the time that people have to wait. On that basis, and
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Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, one normally hears an argument against an amendment from quarters of the House other than simply the Government, but on these amendments we have heard a great many expert opinions-from the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, in Committee, and from the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, with his knowledge of deaths in custody and the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, with all his expertise on Armed Forces in today's debate.
I am encouraged by the support from the noble Lord, Lord Henley, and his Benches. I will particularly miss the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, when I come to move Amendment 4. I am extremely saddened to be conducting this Report stage without him. I also express my condolences to the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, who I am very glad can be here this afternoon to take part in this debate.
The Minister gave no good answer as to why the provision should not be in the Bill. Given the overwhelming strength of opinion, I am astonished that the Government should continue to resist this practical measure. For that reason, I should like to test the opinion of the House.
"The Chief Coroner may direct a senior coroner (coroner A) to conduct an investigation under this Part into a person's death even though, apart from the direction, a different senior coroner (coroner B) would be under a duty to conduct it".
The amendment returns to a topic that we debated fully in Committee, where my noble friend Lord Kingsland made it clear that he expected the Government to think about it over the summer. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Bach, indicated that he would do so. There is not much that divides the parties on this. The
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There will be situations which arise that place a great strain on one coronial area, and we agree that it should be possible for that strain to be shared. The Government, in turn, agree that coroner A-as he is referred to in the Bill-who is there to help ease the strain, must not himself be swamped by a new workload. In Committee, the Government resisted our amendment. If we are convinced that the concern has been sufficiently addressed through other means then we will not necessarily insist that this wording be included in the Bill. However, we need to hear what the Government will do to ensure protection for coroner A.
Clause 3 can only function-the directions can only sensibly be made-if they are made to people who are in a position to carry them out. The responsibility for making that assessment is the responsibility of the Chief Coroner. Inevitably, that assessment will have to include the terms of my amendment".-[Official Report, 9/6/09; col. 583-84.]
That seems to be a matter of common sense. However, if the Government feel that this can be better set out in regulations or by some other means, I am sure the Minister will welcome this opportunity to explain what concrete proposals they have to ensure that existing coronial resources are used as equitably as possible. I beg to move.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Bach): My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for moving his amendment. Clause 3 of the Bill provides for the Chief Coroner to direct that an investigation be transferred from one coroner, coroner B, to a coroner in a different area, coroner A, and the noble Lord's amendment would mean that the Chief Coroner would have to consider the ability of coroner A's relevant authority to resource the investigation before doing so. As the noble Lord said, the late and very much missed Lord Kingsland tabled this amendment in Committee and indicated that he would retable it on Report.
In Committee, my noble friend Lord Davies of Oldham explained that the general principle when the Chief Coroner transfers a case under Clause 3 would be for coroner B's area to retain responsibility for funding even after the investigation transfers to coroner A. My noble friend said then that there would be some exceptions to this and that regulations would set out in more detail where the responsibility for funding would rest following such a transfer. We have given the issue further thought over the summer, and I shall outline-shortly, but in a little more detail-how we envisage these regulations working. Of course this will be subject to change as we will consult on the regulations once the Bill has received Royal Assent. However, I hope the
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In summary, we think that there are three possible funding arrangements-the first will be the general rule, and the other two arrangements will be exceptions to this general rule. These will be set out in regulations made under paragraph 9 of Schedule 7. The general rule will apply to most transferred cases. Regulations will say that when an investigation is transferred, coroner B's relevant authority will be required to meet the expenses of coroner A. This will apply, for example, where the Chief Coroner transfers a case to coroner A to reduce a severe backlog in coroner B's area, or where a bereaved family lives far from where their loved one died and the Chief Coroner directs a coroner who is more local to the family to carry out that investigation. I hope that reassures the House that in the vast majority of cases there will be no extra resource burden on coroner A, who will be hearing the case.
The regulations will also set out two exceptions to the general funding principle. The first is where the relevant authority for coroner A will be responsible for meeting the expenses of the investigation. When a death occurs overseas and the body is brought back to England and Wales, the coroner for that area-coroner B-initially has a duty to carry out the investigation. However, the investigation may transfer to a different coroner who is nearer the family, coroner A, whose relevant authority will then fund it.
The second exception is where relevant authorities for coroners A and B agree to share expenses. We think that this is likely to happen in only a few cases. An example might be where two or more people are ultimately killed in one incident, such as a car accident. If, while still alive, one person was moved to another coroner area where they later die, the legislation would require investigations to happen in the two areas where the bodies are lying. However, the Chief Coroner may decide that both deaths should be investigated jointly by the coroner in whose area the incident occurred. Funding arrangements could then be agreed between the relevant authorities.
I shall briefly outline-helpfully, I hope-other related matters that we envisage regulations covering. These could include procedures for notifying interested persons of a transfer, and a provision for coroner A to be accountable to coroner B's relevant authority for expenses incurred in a case transferred to them, as they would normally be accountable to their own authority. We will of course work with local authorities, the Local Government Association and the Coroners' Society, among others, to develop these regulations. I hope that, in the light of what I have said, the noble Lord might be content that the regulations will sufficiently address the concerns he has rightly raised about resourcing transferred cases, and that he might withdraw his amendment.
Lord Henley: My Lords, I shall make it easy for the Minister: I am more or less happy, and I will certainly not be pressing this amendment. I am also interested
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The Minister stressed-I know that the department is keen on this-that there will be consultation. However, if the Government have already more or less made up their mind about how the regulations should work, one wonders whether the consultation is necessary on this occasion. He stressed at the end that he would be consulting a number of different bodies, so perhaps I am being unfair to the poor old Ministry of Justice in saying that this is yet another of consultations with no purpose because the Government or the department have already made up their mind.
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