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Volume 489: debated on Tuesday 17 March 2009

3. What recent representations he has received on his Department’s plans to exclude juries from some inquests. (263748)

On Second Reading of the Coroners and Justice Bill, I told the House that the Government were open to amendments and suggestions about the proposals. Many hon. Members from all parts of the House have responded to that invitation. In consequence, I am this afternoon tabling amendments fundamentally to recast the proposals. First, the criteria for the Secretary of State’s certification will be significantly tightened. Secondly, the Secretary of State’s certificate will trigger consideration by a High Court judge sitting as a coroner. It will then be for the judge, not the Secretary of State, to decide whether it is necessary to hold an inquest without a jury or whether special measures with a jury would be adequate to protect the sensitive information concerned. There would in any event be a right of appeal to the Court of Appeal.

I am very grateful to the Secretary of State for the mini-announcement that he has made. [Interruption.] No, I am thanking him for it—it is good. He will know that his original proposals caused a great deal of disquiet, so I am grateful that he has tabled those further proposals. I am sure that my hon. and learned Friends will want to look at those amendments in detail as the Bill is discussed next week. Does the Secretary of State think that the amendment he will table reflects the concerns that people had about how removing the jury could effectively remove the reason for an inquest in the first place?

I in turn am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his response. I might be old-fashioned, but I take the view that the place to make announcements is in the House of Commons—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] One does one’s best in that regard.

Of course I understand that the whole House—not least those on the Opposition Front Bench and the Liberal Democrat spokespeople—will wish to reflect on the detailed wording of the amendment, but I hope and believe that it will meet the concerns that have been expressed. First, there was concern that the criteria for the initial certification by the Secretary of State were too wide. The criteria have been narrowed, and it will no longer be sufficient for the Secretary of State to have the opinion that a non-jury inquest is required; they will need to decide themselves that it is necessary.

Secondly—this is crucial, as this objection was raised on both sides of the House—the decision about whether to hold a non-jury inquest will not be a matter for the Secretary of State. It will be a matter for the High Court coroner, and I am sure that he or she will, in every case, look first at whether special measures of the kind adopted in the criminal courts—including the gisting of secret information to a jury—would be adequate. It is my hope that, in most cases, they will.

Would I be right in thinking the special measures will include the use of public interest immunity certificates? The last time this matter was discussed on the Floor of the House, the Justice Secretary said that this would not work because the judge might decline to make the order. However, that would have been appealable, as is this proposal. Am I right in thinking that these measures will include PII certificates?

The difficulty with using just public interest immunity certificates is that, when a PIIC is refused in a criminal case, the prosecution can, in extremis, withdraw the prosecution, but there is no possibility of withdrawing an inquest. That is because an inquest is triggered by a death, not by a discretionary criminal charge. That is why we have come up with this proposal. There will be circumstances—although I think they will be very few and far between—in which the learned judge might decide that the only way the protected information can be the subject of a proper judgment by the court while remaining protected will be for the judge to sit alone without a jury. I hope, however, that in many cases, the judge will come to the view that it will be adequate for the protected information to be gisted or summarised in a safe way to the jury.

Any movement on this issue by the Government is to be welcomed, although Opposition Members will have to study the details of the proposals. Will the Secretary of State confirm that he now accepts the point of principle that there is a difference between removing a jury and holding proceedings behind closed doors? Does he acknowledge that those are different issues that need to be decided separately? Will he also confirm that one possible special measure would be to security-vet the jury?

Special measures involving a jury and the removal of a jury are part of a continuum. The most extreme measure is for a judge to sit alone, and the decision to do so will have been reached in order to protect information that cannot be made public. A judge could decide to protect that information in other ways, however, and it would be for the judge to come to a view on that. I doubt very much that they would form the view that the vetting of the jury would be adequate, but they might do so.

Does the Secretary of State acknowledge that he has consistently argued his case in favour of secret inquests on the basis that two inquests had to be halted because the existing safeguards were inadequate? That is the argument that he put to the House on 26 January on Second Reading. Is he aware, however, that the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), has now written to the Committee to explain that one of those inquests—that into the death of Terry Nicholas—was resumed on 6 January? Is that not quite staggering? Surely his argument must now fall apart, because he gave the House inaccurate information.

I think the hon. Gentleman will find that the second inquest was resumed on 6 February, which is a non-trivial fact because it is after I made my Second Reading speech rather than before. This is what the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), has just told me, and if she is wrong she will be given career advice at the end of Question Time and I will make a grovelling apology. In any event, we have always made it clear that the circumstances in which a non-jury inquest might be necessary would be few and far between. I hope that the House will regard it as a good thing rather than a bad thing that, as a result of further examination of the original circumstances that led to the judgment that two of the inquests had to be held without a jury, we have now got the number down to one. Surely that is a good thing.