Skip to main content

Office of the Chief Coroner

Volume 532: debated on Tuesday 13 September 2011

5. Whether his Department has undertaken a cost-benefit analysis of the implementation of the office of chief coroner. (71310)

19. Whether his Department has undertaken a cost-benefit analysis of the implementation of the office of the chief coroner. (71326)

An impact assessment for part 1 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 was published by the Ministry of Justice in December 2008. It summarised the full costs and benefits of implementing the coroner provisions in the Act.

I am grateful for that answer. Baroness Finlay, working with the president of the Royal College of Pathologists, proposed a model with much lower running costs—just £300,000—than those that the Government are talking about. So will the Minister accept that the costs for the office he is proposing could be reduced?

I have met and discussed this point with Baroness Finlay on a number of occasions. The previous Government said that the set-up costs were going to be £10.9 million and the running costs would be £6.6 million a year. We looked at that those figures and we agree with them. The problem is that as we have to maintain the independence of the judiciary, the chief coroner—if there were to be one—could, unfortunately, not be based in the Ministry of Justice, as Baroness Finlay wanted.

The delays and current practice in the coroner system is having a direct impact on bereaved families, particularly in the Teesside area. What costs to the UK health services arise as a result of the current coroner system?

We remain committed to fundamental reform of the coronial system. I know that there are particular issues to address in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, and they are being dealt with. Implementing the office of the chief coroner would require new funding, which simply is not available in the current economic climate. Our proposals will allow us to deliver those reforms, but without those additional costs.

Does my hon. Friend recognise that there is a much cheaper and more cost-effective way of raising professional standards and creating a head of the coronial profession? That would involve designating a serving coroner as chief coroner and giving just minimal assistance to support him in that role.

Unfortunately, the existing legislation would not allow that; the job would have to be done by a High Court judge or a circuit judge. The point of the matter is that we are putting in place a ministerial committee, which will answer to Parliament in a way that a chief coroner never could.

As the repatriation of fallen soldiers through RAF Lyneham and Wootton Bassett in my constituency comes to an end, I know that the Minister will wish to join me in paying tribute to the first-class work done by the Wiltshire coroner over some four or five years. Will the Minister also now work closely with the Royal British Legion to ensure that the maximum possible support is available for bereaved families as these inquests proceed?

I certainly congratulate the coroner on his work in tough circumstances. I also wish to tell my hon. Friend that I have met representatives of the RBL on a number of occasions. I believe that our reforms will improve the situation for the armed forces tremendously, through the national charter that we are providing and the ability to train coroners to military standards.

There is a long list of organisations that wish to see a chief coroner in post and just the Minister who thinks he knows better. The Government’s fragmented proposals for the coronial system contain no mechanism to improve the appeals and complaints process—that was to be a key function of the chief coroner’s office. Nobody really believes that the proposed coronial board, reporting to Ministers, will fulfil that role. Does he think it acceptable to expect families to have to continue to pursue expensive judicial reviews and litigation in respect of coronial decisions, at great cost also to the taxpayer, and have no way of holding to account those coroners who do not deliver for bereaved families?

As I have said, the Government are committed to urgent reform of the coronial service, and this is exactly what we are going to be doing. We are putting in place all the provisions under the 2009 Act, except the appeal process, which was going to cost £2.2 million a year. We feel that the existing processes are adequate.