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House of Commons Hansard
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Public Disasters: Independent Advocate
29 June 2017
Volume 626
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5. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the role of an independent advocate to act for families after a public disaster. [900097]

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8. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential merits of appointing an independent advocate to act for families after a public disaster. [900100]

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It is of paramount importance that bereaved families and injured people are properly involved and supported following a disaster, which is why we announced in the Queen’s Speech that we will establish an independent public advocate to ensure that involvement and provide that support.

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Will the independent advocate be able to act for those affected by the contaminated blood scandal? What exactly does the idea of “assistance” and “support” mean? Does it mean a publicly funded lawyer for each family affected?

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I thank the hon. Lady for that point. This of course depends very much on how quickly we as a Parliament can pass the necessary legislation. It is certainly the Government’s intention that the independent advocate gets on with their work as quickly as possible. On the specific point, each case will depends upon its merits. Of course, legal aid is already available for families with regard to certain procedures, but I think the benefit of having a consolidated advocate will be to address the very questions she asks. I look forward to these issues being debated carefully when the necessary legislation is introduced.

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Will the Solicitor General confirm that if families who live in high rises, but who, thankfully, have not suffered the same disaster that Grenfell Tower has, wish to bring any legal action on health and safety grounds, they will be entitled to legal aid?

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Again, the hon. Lady asks a general question about the merits of particular cases. If indeed there are grounds—for example, a judicial review procedure might be appropriate in particular cases—that application can be made. The important point in the context of this question is whether we can do more for families and bereaved relatives. I think we can, and the precedent set by the horrific events at Grenfell will allow us all to learn important lessons: that families have to be put first.

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Can the Solicitor General help us on the practicalities? What discussions has he had with the Bar Council and the Law Society as to how an independent advocate or advocates might be identified; what levels of remuneration will be available, so as to ensure that there is proper equality of arms in representation; and by what means families will be able to give proper and fully discreet instructions?

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I thank my hon. Friend for that question. It is vital that we get these details right as we develop the policy. It is clear, certainly to the Government, that having quality advocacy so that the right documents are obtained and a proper challenge is made at all stages of the process is important, and it is what we seek to achieve. Therefore, fulfilling article 6 has to be at the heart of this.

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What assessment has the Solicitor General made of the efficacy of having an independent advocate after a tragedy such as Grenfell in trying to get to justice and truth for the victims, when this is coupled with the rather unhelpful remarks of the shadow Chancellor, which seem to be clouding the whole issue?

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It is vital at solemn and serious times like this that we all exercise our right to free speech responsibly, and that we are mindful that criminal investigations are ongoing, as well as concurrent inquests and, of course, the public inquiry. All of us have to make sure that we pass that very high test, and I am afraid that the shadow Chancellor failed that in his remarks this week.

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I am sure the Solicitor General would agree that it is vital that the independent public advocate has the powers needed to carry out the role. I pay great tribute to the work of the Hillsborough families over many years, but he will be aware that key to that were the findings of an independent panel in overturning the first inquest verdict. Will the independent public advocate have the powers to appoint an independent panel if they see fit to do so?

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The hon. Gentleman raises a very germane point, and we all need to bear the Hillsborough precedent very much in mind. I am keen, and the Government are keen, to ensure that the independent advocate has as powerful and as meaningful a role as possible. Each case will depend on its merits, but I am certainly prepared to look at all details, including the one he raises.

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Does the Solicitor General also agree that it is crucial that there is full public confidence in the role of the independent public advocate? As such, the role should be subject to appropriate scrutiny. Will he also promise that the independent public advocate will place reports before this House on an annual basis, so that Members can look carefully at the work in detail?

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Like many other appointments of this kind, I can envisage the sort of accountability that the hon. Gentleman mentions. The publication of annual reports is a regular and common occurrence. Again, it is a particular point that we will consider very carefully indeed.