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Death Certificates

Volume 408: debated on Tuesday 7 October 2003

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If he will ask the Office for National Statistics to discuss with the Department of Health (a) the reliability of information contained in and (b) return of death certificates.[124644]

I can confirm to my hon. Friend that the Office for National Statistics is working with the Department of Health and the Home Office on planned changes to the system of death certificates. These will be set out in the Government's response to the fundamental review of death certification and the coroner service that was published last month. I can also confirm that the ONS has today published a consultation document on the legislation necessary to make such future changes. I have ensured that a copy of that document is placed in the Library of the House.

I am grateful for that reply, but can my hon. Friend tell me whether the brief that his Department gave him for this question contained the question that was asked of his predecessor on 29 March 2001 when I was promised that, from April that year, there would be an alteration in the ground rules for filling in death certificates, particularly in relation to MRSA? I would like his comments on when we are going to get the consistent filling in of death certificates when they relate to MRSA. Practice across the nation is patchy, and coroners and dependants are being deceived. Doctors are putting down pneumonia and septicaemia, which is true, but the contributory factor is MRSA. We need veracity in the statistics so I hope that he will tell his client Department—I was about to say something rude—to ensure that the certificates are filled in properly.

My hon. Friend is well aware of the difficulties of capturing MRSA and other such infections on death certificates. He also knows that the NHS has introduced a national management system for checking such infections in hospitals. He is right to draw attention to this concern. The particular problem that he highlights with death certificates is one of a wider set of problems with the certification process. That relates precisely to the system that we need to reform, and today's consultation document will help us to do that. I know that the ONS would welcome any further representations that he might choose to make.

My constituent, Dr. Payne, is very concerned that when information on death certificates is found to be insufficient, that has resulted in the Inland Revenue approaching him directly for medical information about deceased persons. I do not believe that a majority of members of the public are aware that all their confidential medical records can be accessed by the Inland Revenue after death. Does the Minister agree that confidentiality does not cease with death and that the disclosure of information should be limited? What steps is he prepared to take to ensure that the Revenue is able to access only those records that are relevant to the financial matter being considered and not all medical records, as is currently the case?

The hon. Lady will know that the certification legislation that covers many of these aspects is now 50 years old. It is increasingly obsolete, inflexible and inconvenient for many families that want to register births, deaths or marriages. The legal amendments that I explained to the House a moment ago will help us to make those changes.

On the hon. Lady's specific points about the Inland Revenue and her constituency case, I shall look into the matter further and respond to her if she writes to me with the details.

I am sure that all hon. Members welcome the review of the coroners service that has been conducted and look forward to the introduction of legislation to ensure that we have a coroners service that is consistent throughout the whole country and a death certification process that is much more sensitive to the needs of families at a tough moment in their lives. Will the Minister assure us that the process for the certification of drug-related deaths will be clarified, because the way in which coroners in different parts of the country record such deaths dramatically affects spending on drug-related issues?

My hon. Friend makes a good point and neatly encapsulates many of the aims of the reforms that we are putting in place. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), who mentioned MRSA, he draws attention to a condition that is often not included on death certificates. One of the problems with the system is that it does not capture all the information about a death and all the circumstances that might have contributed to it. That will be a problem when we consider future policy changes, and it is also important when dealing with the problems that underlie such sad deaths.