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The reason we believe that this is so important is in the test that I would have for anybody who says that this is a minor point. The test would be-I open this up to anybody-to find the telephone number of the legal adviser to eBay between now and Third Reading. If your Lordships can achieve that small task, I shall obviously take it on board that this issue is irrelevant. However, if your Lordships cannot, then I expect those noble Lords to be with us in the Division Lobby if this is rejected. However, on that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
38: Schedule 5, page 132, line 35, leave out from "Part" to end of line 40 and insert "may authorise a police officer or any other specified person to enter and search any land specified in the authorisation and shall record such authorisation in writing"
Baroness Butler-Sloss: My Lords, Amendments 38 to 40, to which I speak, are new amendments, as is Amendment 50, which is consequential upon the earlier amendments. The Coroners' Society is extremely concerned at the likely loss of the power to search and seize relevant material at an early stage, when the coroner's officer has gone to the scene of a death. It is generally the duty of the coroner's officer to remove the body. At that time, he is likely to look at what is around it and ring the coroner-sometimes in the middle of the night-to ask, "Should I remove this material?". He can get an immediate okay on that.
It is fair to say that there is some doubt over whether coroners actually have that power under common law; the fact is that they have used it. The effect of paragraph 3 of Schedule 5 is to take away from individual senior coroners the right to instruct the coroner's officer, or the police, to seize material that is neither needed for health and safety regulations, nor needed for a potential crime. That is because such a removal of relevant material will require the written consent of the Chief Coroner. One only has to think of when, in the middle of the night, someone rings up the police or the ambulance, who always ring the coroner's officer, who arrives to find a dead body. The police say, "We think that this is a suicide, and we have no power to remove any material"-because under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act they are able to move nothing that is not needed for a crime. It may not be a situation in relation to health and safety.
I am told by coroners that there are various occasions on which they would need to remove material. The Government have serious reservations about these amendments and think that they are not necessary because they would be seldom needed and can be met either by the police or by health and safety officers. That is not the view of the coroners, who are the people on the ground who require the material to be able to deal appropriately with the inquest.
Briefly, because I do not want to waste time, I shall go through some occasions when the coroners would want to do this and where no crime was likely to have occurred. They include, for instance, a suicide note, which the widow may not wish them to take away; in the absence of consent under Schedule 5, they would be unable to do so. They might wish to remove a rope or other ligature, in order that tests could be done to see whether the marks on the neck meet its shape. Again, if it is an obvious suicide the police would not remove the ligature or take away the suicide note. These are actual events that have occurred.
There may also be mobile phones showing text suicide notes, where there is some doubt; computers, with emails and visits to relevant websites; correspondence, where there may be threatening letters from financial institutions, or personal correspondence showing a state of mind, or bank statements showing considerable indebtedness and the possibility that that is why the person has taken his or her life. There may also be utility bills showing that the gas is about to be cut off. If the gas is about to be cut off, that is not a matter for the police or for health and safety regulations, but it is highly relevant to the inquest.
There are two other examples, one of which is medication prescribed for the deceased. It is often useful for the coroner if the tablets that are left are counted and a comparison made with the dispensing date. Lastly, where the deceased was using an air tank, the air tank of a companion in a diving accident can be checked to see whether the nature of the contents is relevant, as both may have been filled with the wrong air mixture. These are not necessarily matters where other organisations will have the power to remove the relevant material. It is hardly likely that the Chief Coroner will be telephoned in the middle of the night, and the need to get the written consent of the Chief Coroner or one of his deputies may lead to valuable evidence being lost.
Coroners say that they need such evidence and they are very concerned that it will be lost. They are judicial officers but under the Bill they would not have the powers of a lay magistrate, who can issue a warrant. However, coroners are unable to do so, and such a power is required to be in primary legislation. If I may respectfully say so, it seems that the Government underappreciate a real need that coroners have, and I ask the Minister to think again about the points that I have made. I beg to move.
Lord Henley: My Lords, I rise to comment briefly on the amendment and to say how grateful we all are to the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, for introducing it. This point was not discussed at any previous stage of the Bill either here or in another place, and she highlights a real concern on which we would very much welcome hearing the Government's views. Certainly, we will make up our minds on this matter once we have heard what the Government have to say about it.
However, I ask the noble Lord to confirm that there have been a number of cases where what was first thought to be suicide was some time later alleged to be murder. In the time between such a case being thought to be suicide and someone later thinking that it was a
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Lord Elystan-Morgan: My Lords, I respectfully suggest to the House that the case put forward by the noble and learned Baroness is wholly unanswerable. I am not at all sure, and certainly do not pretend to have the background knowledge to know, whether all residual powers under common law have disappeared in this case. It seems to me that they have and that therefore the powers that exist are those specifically spelt out in statute. If I am wrong, nothing is lost. It means that the status quo is still there and that, by double-banking it with the adoption of the amendment, nothing at all will be lost. However, I have a substantial suspicion that those common-law powers have gone and that the system will now be extremely cumbersome and self-defeating so far as concerns its object.
The object of a coroner's hearing is to determine cause of death. That is the basic question under common law as it was and as it is now under statute. Therefore, it is axiomatic that any piece of evidence, particularly physical evidence, that fails to be preserved when it could have been defeats the very objective of the hearing. In many cases, as indeed the noble and learned Baroness has pointed out, it would be purely by accident that such evidence is overlooked. Once it has disappeared, there is no way in which it can be recovered. In other cases, there may be bad faith when persons who have an interest in the ultimate finding of a coroners' court would be motivated to remove certain objects.
The system under statute is cumbersome and self-defeating, while the defective system under common law that still operates works. One is not asking police officers to be given wide powers, although magistrates' powers, to which the noble and learned Baroness, referred, in parallel circumstances are certainly comparable. We are asking for a power to be exercised under the imprimatur, as it were, of a senior coroner. I cannot see that that in any way infringes any principle, whereas if the amendment were not carried, it would place at risk the whole validity of an examination.
Lord Lloyd of Berwick: One does not want to increase the number of persons who can authorise entry, search and seizure, but the noble and learned Baroness has made a strong case that the coroner should be able to do so in certain cases-probably a limited number-without having to go to the senior coroner for written authorisation. I therefore support the amendment.
Lord Bach: I understand that with this group of amendments, which I am grateful to the noble and learned Baroness for moving, she is aiming to ensure that coroners have the powers of search, entry and seizure that they need to obtain evidence. We wholeheartedly endorse that sentiment, as it is vital
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The noble and learned Baroness is concerned that when the Bill comes into effect the police may for some reason stop removing evidence from the scene of death as they may conclude that items, such as suicide notes or drug paraphernalia, cannot be removed without either the owner's consent or authorisation from the Chief Coroner. She is concerned that this may lead to evidence being lost or destroyed. Her amendments therefore explicitly give coroners powers to authorise a police officer, or any other specified person, to enter and search land and seize anything or inspect and take copies of documents. They remove the requirement for the Chief Coroner or a nominated senior coroner to authorise every use of these powers. Amendment 50 makes the decision to authorise such entry and search appealable to the Chief Coroner.
We have a number of concerns, which I shall mention shortly, but I take this opportunity of offering a meeting before Third Reading-which will have to take place this week, and there is no reason why it should not-with the Coroners' Society of England and Wales, myself and my officials and, I hope, the noble and learned Baroness, to see whether we can come to some kind of accommodation on these matters. At present, I am bound to oppose the amendment, which I do not want to do unless it is absolutely necessary. It is better to come to some kind of agreement, although I make no promises. It seems as if our Third Reading debate may be almost as long as Report at this rate. These are serious issues; they must be if the Coroners' Society has concerns, and we want to resolve them peaceably rather than walking though the Division Lobbies.
First, I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Henley. I am extremely sorry that the amendments came so late-they did not come from me. The Coroners' Society realised that this was a lacuna in the other points that it has been making. I am very grateful to those who have supported me on these amendments. With the view that the Minister is prepared to talk to officers of the Coroners' Society, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
41: Schedule 5, page 134, line 15, leave out "(criminal conduct)" and insert "(or section 70 of the Army Act 1955 (3 & 4 Eliz. 2 c. 18), section 70 of the Air Force Act 1955 (3 & 4 Eliz. 2 c. 19) or section 42 of the Naval Discipline Act 1957 (c. 53))"
Paragraph 6 of Schedule 5 heightens the profile of coroners' reports to prevent future deaths, by putting the existing provision, which is currently contained in coroners rules, into primary legislation. These reports by coroners aim to improve public health and safety by identifying and publicising action which the coroner considers should be taken to prevent future deaths.
As currently drafted, the Bill stipulates that the coroner "may" make such a report if he or she is of the opinion that action should be taken to prevent the occurrence or continuation of circumstances creating a risk of other deaths occurring in the future, or eliminating or reducing the risk of death created by such circumstances.
In Committee, the late Lord Kingsland contended that it was not sufficient to confer a power on the coroner to issue a report where he or she had formed such an opinion and that in such situations the coroner ought to be under a duty to make a report. Our initial concern was that requiring a coroner to issue a report in certain circumstances could, perhaps, fetter the coroner's judicial discretion. However, having considered this matter carefully, we agree that if the coroner has formed such an opinion, we can fully understand that he or she should then have a duty to make a report. Accordingly, our Amendment 42 replaces the discretionary "may" with the obligatory "must". I believe that that is what Lord Kingsland was seeking when he raised this matter in Committee and we adopt his suggestion. I commend the amendment to the House and I beg to move. I shall respond to the amendment that I hope will be spoken to by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham.
Lord Ramsbotham: My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the Minister for his comments and in particular for replacing "may" with "must". I discussed the matter with the late Lord Kingsland and am aware of a frequently expressed concern. It is that in relation to Schedule 2 deaths, particularly those in custody, it takes some time to have an inquest. That frequently means that afterwards, when lessons learnt are discussed, it is alleged that during that passage of time the Prison Service may have introduced changes and that there is therefore no point in referring to a matter that took place, say, four years ago. Frequently, that is proved to be wrong because it is not always the case that the Prison Service has done what it says, or has imposed what it says ought to be in place.
It would therefore seem incumbent on a coroner, irrespective of what the Prison Service might have done, to make his report and recommendations based on the incident itself because it is the incident which will be picked up by senior coroners, the Chief Coroner and ultimately in the reports made to the Lord Chancellor.
It may well be that in the body of the reports coming from senior coroners and the Chief Coroner are lessons learnt which should be imposed on the Prison Service, on the Police Service, on the Armed Forces or on special hospitals, through their various Secretaries of State. Therefore, the amendment is intended to refine the proposal in the Bill, rather than to propose anything new. The analysis referred to in Amendment 46 is, as I said, very much based on what we hope that coroners will report, so that all the lessons are learnt and there can be a general improvement in the systems which are subject to investigation. I therefore commend the amendment.
Lord Alderdice: My Lords, I simply give some support, because Amendments 46 and 48 are in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford as well as in that of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham. One of the really important roles of the coronial service is investigating and inquiring into not just particular deaths and how they occurred but how we can prevent such things happening in future. A coroner may produce a verdict and assume that it is so blindingly obvious that he does not need to take the matter further, but there is an incumbent duty on him to carry that forward and report it to those who can do something about it. Therefore, we are extremely grateful to the Minister for tabling his amendment and placing it under the section on the prevention of other deaths. We regard that as extremely helpful.
Lord Henley: My Lords, I briefly intervene to say on behalf of my late noble friend Lord Kingsland that we, too, are very grateful for the concession from the Government. As my late noble friend pointed out in Committee, one of the primary benefits of the coronial system is its capacity to learn from mistakes. Therefore, it seems to us correct that if the coroner feels that someone is in a position to make changes which might prevent another death and has powers to do so, it ought to be incumbent on the coroner to act on that opinion. That is a simple change to make to the Bill, but one that we feel will have important consequences.
The other two amendments in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Ramsbotham and Lord Alderdice, add sensible further actions that ought to be included in the Chief Coroner's report. "An analysis of findings", as included in Amendment 46, will help to inform the Lord Chancellor of what has been going on in the coronial system during the year. On the basis that information, transparency and improvements to the service are all linked, we certainly support the amendment.
Amendment 48 also has our support. The Bill directs the Lord Chancellor to publish reports and lay them before Parliament. That should not be the extent of his obligations. If there is action which the Lord Chancellor should take, he ought not to sit on his
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Lord Bach: My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords who have spoken. Under Clause 32(4)(b), the Chief Coroner's annual report to the Lord Chancellor must contain a summary of coroners' reports to prevent deaths, and responses to them. Amendment 46 would require the Chief Coroner's annual report to contain an analysis of coroners' reports to prevent future deaths and responses to those, as well as an analysis of jury findings.
I said in Committee in response to amendments tabled by other noble Lords, and I now repeat, that we are confident that the amendments are unnecessary. Regarding an analysis of jury findings, that is because the Chief Coroner's report will inevitably contain details of findings in different coroner areas, on all such findings and not just the small minority of inquests-which we discussed the other day-where juries are summoned. This will inevitably be necessary for the Chief Coroner to assess how these are similar or vary across the country.
Regarding an analysis of reports to prevent deaths, Clause 32(4)(b) already provides for the Chief Coroner to summarise the year's reports to prevent deaths and the responses to them when putting together his or her annual report to the Lord Chancellor. I hope that noble Lords are content that in doing so for the annual report and more generally to assess differences in standards between coroners, the Chief Coroner will in any case analyse the raw data he or she receives from coroners.
Amendment 48 requires the Lord Chancellor to take any action he thinks appropriate in response to the Chief Coroner's annual report. I reassure noble Lords that this is also unnecessary because any reasonable Lord Chancellor would do this as a matter of course without being told to do so in legislation. Our tradition of Lord Chancellors leads us to believe that all future Lord Chancellors will be reasonable.
I hope that explanation, together with our Amendment 42, reassures noble Lords that the Bill already addresses their concerns about reports to prevent deaths and the Chief Coroner's annual report. To summarise, we are strengthening reports to prevent future deaths and accountability more generally by: first, putting a greater duty on coroners to issue reports to prevent deaths; secondly, ensuring that the reports are responded to; thirdly, giving the reports prominence in the Chief Coroner's annual report; and, lastly, by providing for the Lord Chancellor to support the Chief Coroner's work by publishing the annual report and raising any concerns he has about how the coroner system is operating. On that basis, I hope that the noble Lord will not move his amendments.
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