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Coroners’ Courts

Volume 487: debated on Tuesday 3 February 2009

Under proposals in the Coroners and Justice Bill, which is at present before the House, a Secretary of State wishing to proceed to a non-jury inquest with a High Court judge in the circumstances specified would have to be satisfied that no other measures would be adequate to prevent the matter from becoming public. Those other measures would include rule 17 of the Coroners Rules 1984, which allows for a judicial decision by the coroner to exclude the public from an inquest in the interests of national security. That and other safeguards proposed in the Bill are likely to mean that the number of non-jury inquests sought by a Secretary of State would be no more than one or two a year.

It is the national security aspect that worries me. Does the Secretary of State recall the tragic events revealed by the inquest into the death of Lance Corporal Hull, who died under US friendly fire, and how the US wanted to ensure that the cockpit video of that event was restricted to the coroner only and withheld from the press and public? It was subsequently made public only on account of its being leaked to The Sun. Does the Secretary of State agree that inquests in closed session must be absolutely the exception rather than the rule? Would he also say that embarrassment to the Government of the day or to our allies is not a sufficient reason for closed inquests?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s last point— embarrassment is in no sense a criterion. I also agree that the use of non-jury inquests or proceedings in camera should be kept to an absolute minimum, and that is our aim.

The Justice Secretary knows well that the whole purpose of the coroners’ courts was to bring transparency to bear on the circumstances surrounding a death. Many of us still do not appreciate his argument that we cannot use public interest immunity certificates instead of having proceedings in camera. Proceedings in camera will undoubtedly lead to a great deal of bad will and people will be suspicious of what goes on.

Proceedings can already take place in camera. The issue is whether one would have a more comprehensive article 2 inquiry before a High Court judge without a jury. I accept that it is obviously far better, if at all possible, for all the proceedings of an inquest to be in public. The duty will be on the Secretary of State, if he or she wishes to obtain one of these certificates, to show that there are no other practical alternatives available. As I explained on Second Reading last Monday, the analogy with a public interest immunity certificate process falls down because if a PII certificate is refused by the trial judge, the prosecution can simply withdraw the prosecution. What triggers an inquest is not the discretion of a prosecution but the fact of a death, and it is that issue which the House must address.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Bill applies to Northern Ireland? Would he agree that it is very important that provisions to allow inquests to be held in camera remain in that part of the United Kingdom?

I accept, of course, that there are exceptional circumstances in which inquests would have to be held in private. However, I do not understand why the Government link those circumstances to those where there would be no jury. The Government have asked for suggestions, so have they considered the possibility of security vetting inquest juries in the same way that juries can be vetted in criminal trials for espionage and terrorism? That procedure has been in place since at least 1989.

We are certainly open to examining other alternatives, as I have made clear. I think that the House now accepts that there is a problem that cannot be dealt with simply by PII certificates. I am therefore open to considering the alternatives, although I think that there are some practical problems because we are dealing with extreme circumstances in which there is a very severe risk, not of damage or embarrassment to the Government but of an individual—a covert human intelligence source, say—being killed. That is why it has been judged that such matters should not go to the jury. In a criminal trial, even when some of it is held in camera with a jury that has effectively been vetted, the operation of PII certificates means that part of such evidence will not be disclosed to the jury.

One way or another, we have to face up to the fact that, if we want full article 2 inquiries, part of the evidence must be safely excluded from the jury. The issue is not whether that should be so but how best to do it, and of course I accept that it should be done in a way that properly commands public confidence.

When he leaves the Chamber, will the Justice Secretary double-check on the reply that he gave to the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), who is Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee? I think that the hon. Gentleman was correct to say that the Coroners and Justice Bill extends to Northern Ireland, and that is buttressed by the fact that last week we had very powerful representations by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission about the Bill, particularly in relation to legacy issues. With the greatest respect to the Justice Secretary, I think that he is wrong.

If I am wrong, I shall of course correct the record. I have just been passed a note saying that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has said that he will not use the provisions in the Bill, and that they will not apply to legacy cases.

Does the Secretary of State accept that, if the new law had been in place, the inquests into the killing of Juan Charles de Menezes or the RAF Nimrod disaster would have been held in secret? Does he agree that, if that had happened, it would have caused outrage among the relatives of the deceased and that there would have been widespread public condemnation? Does he accept that, by pursuing the clauses in the Bill for the sake of one or two inquests a year, he is putting at risk public confidence and trust in the entire coronial system? Why will he not therefore listen to the voices of reason on the Opposition Benches?

I do not believe that either the de Menezes case or the Nimrod case would have been subject to the process that is proposed in the Bill. Those inquests self-evidently took place satisfactorily, without the need for such a system. As I have said already, in deciding whether to seek a certificate under the Bill, a Secretary of State would have to show that no other measures would be adequate to prevent the material concerned from being made public, so I simply do not accept what the hon. Gentleman says.

However, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that at present there are two inquests that cannot proceed because the arrangements made in the de Menezes and Nimrod cases are not regarded as satisfactory. The choice before the House is whether to have inquests—albeit conducted under the proposals in the Bill, or variations of them—or not to have inquests at all. I repeat to the House that I do not regard the proposals as copyright. We are happy to consider other alternatives, but the House has to face the fact that there needs to be additional provision that is currently not in the law, because otherwise some bereaved relatives will go without an inquest at all.