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Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953

Volume 715: debated on Wednesday 25 May 2022

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Rebecca Harris.)

Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker, for granting me this debate on the operation of the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953. This is not just a debate about the operation of an Act or our campaign to make changes to it; it is a debate about the enduring pain of loss. It is about unimaginable heartbreak and how the Government can inject some humanity and empathy into this decades-old legislation.

I commend the hon. Member for securing this debate on such a sensitive and important issue, and for the early-day motion that she has tabled. Losing someone, especially a child, is traumatic and can often make someone feel that their life has suddenly spiralled out of control. Does she agree that this is about dignity for the families, and a final opportunity to regain control over their last goodbyes?

I thank the hon. Member for that intervention, and I could not agree more. I will be echoing her comments later in my speech.

Last Sunday marked five years since 22 people were murdered in the Manchester Arena terror attack. My constituents Chloe Ann Rutherford, aged 17, and Liam Thomas Allen Curry, aged 19—a young couple deeply in love, full of hope for their futures—were brutally taken from their families in this attack. Since 2020, Chloe and Liam’s parents have spent days in the public inquiry, listening to every agonising detail of that horrific night. As the inquiry sessions have come to an end, they have been told that, owing to the Births and Deaths Registration Act, they cannot register their own precious children’s deaths.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. She is aware, I know, that I too have constituents who lost a child in those events. They have said to me that the lack of ability to register the death of their child has taken from them the last thing they felt they could do for her. Does my hon. Friend agree that reform of this provision would be a blessing for some of the families—although not all—who find themselves caught up in such dreadful public disasters, and feel that they are carried away with no control and no capacity to have an input in the final way in which their child is dealt with by the state?

I thank my hon. Friend for her powerful intervention. She is, of course, right: families need to be able to grieve, and they cannot grieve if they cannot carry out this final, official act for their children. Instead, the registration will be done on their behalf by a registrar, effectively a stranger, a person who never knew their children. As their mams say,

“Look in the mirror, look in your heart, and you tell me, as a parent, if it was your child, you would be happy with a stranger registering your child's death?

“It’s the last thing we feel we can do as parents. As Chloe’s Mam I want to be the person who gives that information, because it’s personal and she’s my baby”.

We have been told that the rationale for this arrangement is that it would be too distressing for the families to register their children’s deaths, but it is surely not up to Governments or Ministers to decide what is and what is not too distressing for a family. Only a family can know how they feel. My constituents registered their children’s births; they should be able to register their deaths. Being unable to do so is what is causing them distress. We have a two-tier system, in which those whose loved ones died outside such horrific events can register their deaths, yet those who are feeling a pain that most of us will never experience cannot. It is in the gift of the Government to change this legislation, to introduce choice for families and to let them decide whether they wish to register the deaths of their loved ones.

If you will permit me, Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to share some of Chloe and Liam’s story with the House. Their story, and their family’s pain, should help the Minister and those listening to understand the importance of the small yet very significant legislative change that we are requesting.

As a baby, Chloe was happiest swaddled and wrapped up in the love of her family, and Liam equally loved cuddles and being surrounded by the love of his family. Liam loved sport. He loved cricket, cycling and skiing. At just six years old, he picked up a cricket bat and never looked back, following in his dad’s footsteps as a left-handed batsman. In later years, it was at the cricket club that he made friends with Scott, Chloe’s older brother.

Chloe had always been a natural performer, her modesty making her talent even more striking. Chloe loved singing, dancing, playing the piano, ballet and tap. Being close to her big brother, she would sometimes pop along to the cricket, and it was there that she and Liam must have noticed each other, because it was not long before they started chatting to each other online. Dates followed, they fell in love, and their families were so happy that they had found each other. They said that they

“were made for one another, at their best when they were together”.

Their busy lives with work, study, sports and performing progressed in harmony, with Chloe at college and Liam at university, both also holding down jobs in the Hilton hotel in Gateshead. Liam’s cocktail-making skills earned him the enviable title of “the Tom Cruise of the Tyne”, while Chloe enjoyed the odd porn star martini and singing in her band, TwoNotes.

They also shared a love of travel. Chloe had an apprenticeship lined up at our local travel agent, Westoe Travel, and Liam was planning a future in the police force. Chloe and Liam had so many holidays planned—in fact they had planned their lives together, saving for a flat, marriage and children. It was all on the cards. In the words of Chloe’s dad, Mark, there was

“so much living to be done, all the stories not yet told, all the dreams not yet dreamt.”

Liam’s mam, Caroline, said:

“Two beautiful young people with so much love in their hearts and hope for their life together. The greatest thing we ever learn in life is just to love and be loved in return.”

On 22 May 2017, just eight weeks after Liam’s dad, Andrew, had sadly passed away, Chloe and Liam went to see Ariana Grande at the Manchester Arena and never came home. The lives of their parents Lisa, Mark and Caroline, their brothers Scott, Ryan and Zack and their entire families were shattered forever. These families have had everything taken from them. The whole inquiry process can leave people feeling powerless. As Lisa said, they feel like insignificant cogs in a very big wheel. To find that this one important final official act for their loved ones is denied to them feels cruel and heartless.

I sincerely thank the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Corby (Tom Pursglove) for meeting me and my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle), whose constituents also want the legislation to be changed. I also sincerely thank him for our meeting today with Chloe’s and Liam’s mams. I know he is in no doubt about how important this is and that he fully acknowledges how mentally exhausting and painful it is for them to be denied this choice. They and I know that legislative changes can take a long time, but we see no justifiable reason why this small change cannot be expedited, or at least why the families cannot be told whether it is possible. We have previously seen this Government rush through contentious and complex legislation for Brexit and covid, some of it in just one day. This does not seem overly complex or contentious, and I understand that it could be done though secondary legislation amendments to the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953 and the Coroners and Justice Act 2009. When the will is there, the Government can and do act, and from today’s meeting with the Minister I am reassured that the will is very much there.

Lisa, Mark and Caroline, in the time I have known them, always think of others. It is clear to see where their lovely children got their kindness, drive, intelligence and passion from, so it is not surprising that they used their pain and grief to set up the Together Forever Trust, which gives grants for sports and performance to young people so that their children’s legacy can help others to achieve their dreams. So far, they have handed out 250 bursaries that have changed the lives of hundreds of children. These are families who always give; they have never asked for anything until now.

In our meeting today, Lisa spoke about how at the outset they were told that their children did not belong to them, and that they belonged to the state as a crime scene. She said that, despite the rhetoric we always hear about families coming first, they do not, but by making this change the Government can prove for once that families do come first. Caroline explained that registering Liam’s death will allow her to begin grieving, and that if she cannot do this last thing for him, she will feel like she has failed him. Lisa rightly told her that she will not have failed him, as it is the state who has failed him.

I am convinced that the Minister will come good on his promise to the families that he will urgently look at whether and how these changes can be made, and I know that he will let us know as soon as he possibly can. South Shields is a small town with a big heart, and we are all pleading with the Minister to make this change, because Chloe and Liam will always remain in our hearts and minds, together forever. Their parents will never give up fighting for what is right for their precious children, and as their MP, I won’t either.

I thank the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) for securing a debate on this most difficult and sensitive of issues, and for the way in which she and the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) have approached the issue entirely constructively and in a spirit of wanting to resolve it on behalf of their constituents.

As the hon. Member for South Shields said, this debate marks the fifth anniversary of the terrible events at Manchester Arena, about which she spoke so movingly. I know the past few days have been particularly difficult for all the families caught up in that terrible tragedy. I know I speak for the House, and for the country as a whole, in saying that our thoughts are with them at this most difficult of times—I know it feels particularly acute as the anniversary is marked. Of course, our thoughts are also with those who were injured and with all those who responded so professionally and thoroughly on that terrible evening. We thank them for their heroic work in making sure people were safe.

I respond to this debate as the Minister responsible for coroner and inquest law and policy, but I am also privileged to be the victims Minister. It is in that capacity that I place on record my deepest sympathy and condolences to all those who lost loved ones or were affected by these shocking events five years ago. Their bravery is an inspiration to us all.

It is never easy to cope with bereavement in any circumstances, but I cannot imagine how difficult it must be to deal with the distress of losing a loved one—and, for many of those involved in the Manchester Arena tragedy, a child—in such shocking and traumatic circumstances. I pay tribute to the dignity and courage with which the families have faced their terrible losses and the subsequent investigations. As the public inquiry into these dreadful events continues, I take this opportunity to acknowledge the assistance and support provided to the bereaved, particularly by the inquiry team.

The chairman of the Manchester Arena inquiry has outlined that its report will be published in three volumes. Volume 1 was published on 17 June 2021 and addresses the security arrangements at the Ariana Grande concert. Volume 2 will examine the emergency response to the attack and what happened to each of the deceased. Volume 3 will consider whether the Security Service and counter-terrorism police could and should have prevented the attack.

The inquests into these tragic deaths are formally suspended pending the outcome of the public inquiry. Sir John Saunders, the chairman of the public inquiry, is also the coroner dealing with these tragic deaths. I assure the House that this is normal in such circumstances.

With the inquiry having completed hearing oral evidence and proceeding towards the publication of volumes 2 and 3, its chairman will, in due course, conclude his responsibilities as coroner for the victims’ inquests. At that stage, he will provide the relevant information to the registrar to enable each death to be recorded in the death register in the appropriate way.

I thank the Minister on behalf of my constituents for his swiftness in arranging to see them tomorrow. They very much look forward to putting their points to him directly.

Does the Minister agree that it is natural for families in such circumstances, no matter how helpful the state has been to them throughout the public inquiry and the coroner’s inquest, not to feel like a party to the proceedings, because they are not technically a party to them? Does he understand, therefore, how important it is for them to be able to come in at the end and do right by their lost children? That is the key to this. Does he agree that it is important that they have the choice? No one is saying that everyone should be forced to do this, but the families must have the choice. That is what is being sought.

I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention. Again, I feel privileged to be meeting her constituents tomorrow to discuss this and to hear from them precisely how they feel these matters have been handled. Of course, I would expect the investigations team to handle this with extreme care, real sympathy and due regard to the victims’ families, making sure that they are kept informed and that their needs are properly attended to. I hope that through what I am able to say in the remainder of my remarks, I will be able to provide her with reassurance about my thinking on this. I entirely take on board the point she raises about optionality, and the gravity of a death being registered and the desire for families to be involved in that process. I will continue with my remarks and I hope that they will help to provide some of the reassurance that I know she is seeking.

I have been truly sorry to learn, both in previous exchanges with hon. Members and directly from some of the families, that the requirements for registration in these circumstances have added to the pain and distress felt by some of the victims’ families. We have heard this evening about the commitment of the families of Chloe and Liam in fighting for the ability to complete this one final act for their children. I had the privilege of meeting Lisa Rutherford, Chloe’s mum, and Caroline Curry, Liam’s mum, earlier today, and I would like to put on record my thanks for their time and for setting out so clearly why this issue matters to help them with the grieving process. What they have been through is almost impossible to comprehend. Chloe and Liam were clearly exceptional young people who had great talents, and their lives were taken far too soon. That is a terrible tragedy for their families to have to bear and a huge loss not just to their families, but to their wider community, to which they were clearly contributing, in their different ways. In a moment, I will set out the reasons why that responsibility lies with the coroner, rather than the family, in cases involving an inquest, but first I want to restate the Government’s commitment to ensuring that bereaved families remain at the heart of the coroner service. With that in mind, I want to stress that I am committed to learning, both from the specific concerns we are debating tonight and from the families’ wider experience of the formal processes following the Manchester Arena attack.

But now let me explain the reasons behind the existing arrangements for registering a death following an inquest and, crucially, why they differ from the registration of deaths where no inquest has taken place. The Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953 requires all death registrations to be completed by a registrar. For the majority of deaths, a “qualified informant” provides the information recorded in the register, and this is supported by a cause of death certificate provided by either a medical practitioner or a coroner. The “qualified informant” is usually a family member, and I understand that it is this role that some families, such as those of Liam and Chloe, want to be able to fulfil. But where an inquest takes place, as it has for the Manchester Arena victims, it is, by law, the inquest process itself that must establish the deceased person’s identity and the details of how, when and where they died. To ensure that the inquest and registration details fully align, it is also a legal requirement that, following the inquest, this information is provided to the registrar by the coroner. Because of these requirements, there is no further information that the family can provide for the purposes of registration, over and above what has been established by the inquest and submitted by the coroner. I understand, of course, that the families whom the hon. Members for South Shields and for Garston and Halewood are representing, and others like them, want to have a role in the registration of their loved one’s death. So I also understand why they are pressing for a change in the law to support that. I can assure both hon. Members and the House more widely that I am actively following up on my commitment to consider, as quickly as possible, whether there might be an appropriate solution to this difficult and sensitive issue, with which I have real sympathy.

We must also remember that, as the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood alluded to, many bereaved families, having already experienced the inquest process, might find that the additional responsibility of registering the death adds to their distress rather than eases it. We know that to be the case in some circumstances and for some families, so choice is important. Some families may not want to have to attend the register office to be questioned again about the information they have already provided in the inquest. Some families might not be able to do so, or simply may not understand that they are expected to carry out the responsibility. We have some insight into this from the fact that a number of deaths—around 200 or so each year—remain unregistered because there has not been an inquest and the bereaved family, for whatever reason, do not follow up on the necessary process.

Given the need to balance different experiences and wishes, I have discussed with both hon. Members the possibility of providing families with the choice, rather than an obligation, to be involved in the registration arrangements. We have also discussed options relating to combining the family’s involvement with the coroner’s existing role. Those are possibilities but, as our discussion this evening has shown, this is a complex issue that involves more than one system. As such, we have to be mindful of a real concern about the potential for unintended consequences. This issue needs to be thought through carefully and sensitively. We must not make any changes that, although well-intentioned, might cause confusion or additional stress for bereaved families because of additional complexity in the system.

I absolutely reiterate my commitment to looking at this issue with the utmost priority and to keeping both hon. Members updated every step of the way. I hope that the families of Chloe and Liam will be able to take comfort from the fact that, by raising this very important issue for the sake of the loved ones they have lost, they have provided a voice not only for others bereaved by the dreadful events of five years ago but for the families who, sadly, will lose loved ones in difficult circumstances in times to come. I hope they will see this debate as part of the legacy they have been working to establish in their loved ones’ names and memories, to which I pay tribute. I also pay tribute to the charitable work that the hon. Member for South Shields set out.

In addition to looking at whether we can introduce choice for families, I will look at how information for the bereaved at inquests can be improved to ensure that the arrangements for the registration of their loved one’s death is clearly explained to them as early as possible in the investigation process—an issue we have touched on in previous conversations on this issue.

It remains for me only to thank hon. Members once again for the opportunity to discuss this issue tonight, and to say to the families of Liam and Chloe, to the constituents of the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood, and to all those affected by the terrible events of five years ago, that my thoughts are with you at this very difficult time, and for the future.

I thank the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) for holding this debate and for the manner in which she presented her argument. All our thoughts are with the families and friends of the victims—those who died and those who live with injuries—of that appalling attack.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.