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Coroners’ Courts

Volume 487: debated on Tuesday 3 February 2009

6. What recent assessment he has made of access to coroners’ court services in small towns and rural areas; and if he will make a statement. (253526)

We intend to review current coroner boundaries in consultation with local authorities as part of implementing the Coroners and Justice Bill, which is before Parliament. The review will take full account of local needs.

I am sure the Minister agrees that public access to a coroner is important for justice. Does he agree that we must retain at least a part-time coroner on the Isle of Wight?

I agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman has said. I can assure him that as part of the review, there are no plans to do away with the presence of a coroner on the Isle of Wight.

It is the number of rural coroners that is being cut from 112 currently sitting in 140 places to about 60. It is particularly they who are looking into military deaths, which may or may not be those that become secret proceedings in the future. The Secretary of State has gone to great lengths to say that only one or two a year would be heard in camera. Will the Minister give the House an example of one or two cases in recent years that were heard in public but which, under the new Act, would now be heard in secret?

May I assure the hon. Gentleman that, in relation to the review, we are fully committed to making sure that local access to the coroner service is retained. If we move to larger coroner jurisdictions, that does not mean the end of part-time coroners, and it does not mean that anyone in a rural area or anyone else will be denied access to the coroner services that they receive at present.

Already, the office of coroner for the county of Powys has been amalgamated with that of the coroner for Bridgend and the valleys. There is a feeling in Wales, and following on from the Coroners and Justice Bill, that there will be an over-centralisation of the service in Wales. Given the sensitivity that inquests often give rise to, will the Minister confirm that the issues raised by hon. Members, particularly that of rurality, will be looked into before the implementation of the Act?

I can certainly give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. It is fundamental, as I said, that people should continue to have access to the coroner service locally. We understand that that has particular resonance in rural areas. No changes will be made without full consultation with everybody concerned, including hon. Members of the House.

Helpfully, the Secretary of State has responded on the needs of families of deceased people when there is an inquest. Will his Department continue, with the Department for Work and Pensions, to make sure that the information on costs and allowances available to the families of those who have died becomes as easily available through a coroner’s office as it is through a registrar of deaths?