House of Lords
Tuesday, 9 June 2009.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Liverpool.
My Lords, the introduction of electronic identification is an EU obligation, which must be implemented on time to avoid national disallowance and/or infraction proceedings. We are working closely with the Commission and the UK industry to minimise the impact of these regulations. We have already secured significant beneficial changes, such as a two-year delay in implementation and the phasing in of individual recording.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply and wish him well in his endeavours, but why has it taken so long for the Government to comprehend the intense hostility to this measure from those breeding and slaughtering some 10 million of our sheep from the largest flock in Europe? Would he not consider, in view of the fact that full traceability of sheep movements already exists, that this might be an excellent opportunity for the EU to demonstrate its democratic legitimacy not only by granting a temporary derogation but by abolishing this costly, impractical, unnecessary and wholly nonsensical regulation?
My Lords, it is not fair to say that it has taken the Government a long time to recognise the concerns. We have been well engaged with the industry and we work hard with it to get appropriate derogations and variations. I accept that this regulation is probably, on balance, not a good idea. It will create more costs than benefits in most of the industry. Nevertheless, those costs have been significantly reduced by our negotiations. This is part of being in the club called the European Union, of which I am proud to be a member citizen.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a very small sheep farmer—I am not talking about my size—in that we have only six sheep at the moment, as the rest drowned a few years ago. Will the Minister please tell the House precisely the benefits of this electronic tagging? I add that I am delighted that goats are being let off the hook.
My Lords, I confirm that goats are off the hook. The modest benefits of the scheme are traceability in the event of a foot and mouth outbreak and the likelihood of reducing the cost of such an outbreak by between 3 and 13 per cent. As monitoring becomes widespread, some businesses will find benefits in better flock management and monitoring of breed performance.
My Lords, I declare an interest as an owner and landlord of agricultural land. I do not know whether the Minister is aware of this, but the average net income for a sheep farmer in the United Kingdom is about £8,000 per year. The estimated cost of one of these electronic tag readers is about £8,000. Who will pay this cost and the additional costs that will be imposed not only on farmers but on livestock markets and abattoirs? Will the Minister assure us that this regulation and a compulsory scheme will not be foisted on the United Kingdom?
My Lords, working backwards, I assure the noble Lord that a regulation will be introduced by the due date of the end of December this year. I am aware that sheep farmers have modest incomes. The cost per animal is likely to be about £1. The cost of readers is likely to be £400, not £8,000. The potential full cost is £50 million. The slaughter derogation that we already have will reduce this, if accepted by the Community, to some £20 million and, if we go to critical control point, that will reduce it to something like £12 million. So while it is an additional cost, it is modest compared with the overall size of the market, which is worth £650-plus million, perhaps approaching £800 million or £900 million in the present good years.
My Lords, why do we not hear from my noble friend and then from the noble Lord, Lord Plumb?
My Lords, I declare an interest as a farmer and as president of the National Sheep Association. The Minister said that contact had been made with the industry and that many negotiations had taken place, so he will know full well the frustration, concern and anger of many sheep farmers throughout the country. This scheme is nonsensical. It is totally impractical and cannot work. As we have heard, its cost is high, which is a problem for the sheep industry, although the industry is doing a little better now than it has been. Can the Minister tell me how on earth you get 5,000 sheep off a hill to identify them electronically without leaving 30, 40 or 50 behind the bracken on top of the hill? A compulsory scheme is nonsense. Surely the Government can consider a derogation that will help the whole sheep industry.
My Lords, it would be wrong of me to pretend that I had any knowledge of this subject 12 hours ago. Equally, my knowledge of getting sheep off a hill is pretty thin. However, I have gone through this with great care and I am totally convinced that it is practicable, given the derogations and variations that we have sought. The slaughter derogation, which means that stock under 12 months going directly to slaughter are derogated out of the scheme, and the critical control points system, which we are putting forward to the industry and which we hope to be able to negotiate with Europe, would move the paperwork away from the breeder to the slaughterhouses and markets. These matters are still in consultation. There is a consultation running now with our own industry, with which we will be having further discussions, but we are working very hard to make the scheme practical.
My Lords, contrary to the opinions of my noble colleagues, one effective method of identifying sheep used to be ear-notching, whereby shepherds could tell precisely where the sheep had come from and so on. Despite their objection to the scheme, it is important to know where sheep come from and to follow them for disease surveillance and disease control. Therefore, as a veterinarian concerned with the control of disease in sheep, I welcome this means of identification.
My Lords, Prison Service orders contain both mandatory actions and guidance. Compliance with the mandatory requirements is included in the establishments’ service level agreements, or contracts in the case of contracted prisons, and is monitored by directors of offender management, who are accountable to the chief operating officer.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer. As I understand it, Prison Service orders carry responsibility for the management and governance of prisons. What is their legal status and do they require ministerial clearance before they are issued?
My Lords, like Prison Service instructions, Prison Service orders are not in themselves legally binding, though of course some of them are mandatory instructions and have to comply with prison rules and other legislation. Prison rules are legally binding; they are made up of statutory instruments. Prison Service orders are not themselves legally binding, just as any organisation’s internal instructions are not legally binding, although I believe that Prison Service orders go through Ministers.
My Lords, can the Minister clarify whether PSOs cover secure training centres, which come under the Prison Service and take children as young as 12? Several reports have shown an inordinate and unacceptable amount of restraint being used in those centres. There is a Prison Service order, PSO 4950, which covers juveniles, but I am not aware of one covering secure training centres.
My Lords, which official body writes and implements these Prison Service orders and how often are they reviewed? I have in mind the order concerning prisoners with disabilities, which on one occasion, following the unannounced visit by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons, revealed that some disabled prisoners were unable to shower, one for more than a year.
My Lords, in answer to the noble Baroness’s first question, PSOs are written by a range of policy leads in the headquarters of the National Offender Management Service and are issued on the authority of that service’s agency management board. So far as concerns the reports of the treatment of prisoners with disabilities—I think that she is referring to Parkhurst—that particular PSO is currently under review as part of the work following the publication of the NOMS single equality scheme. The review of the PSO predates the publication of the report on Parkhurst by Her Majesty’s inspector but is ongoing so that the issues raised by the inspector’s report can be taken into account during the review process.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that giving prisoners one hour a day in the open air is a fairly uncontroversial basic entitlement? If he were imprisoned, which is quite unimaginable, would he not feel it reasonable to ask for at least one hour a day in which to breathe the fresh air? Prison Service Order 4275 requires that prisoners have time in the open air every day; yet the Chief Inspector of Prisons regularly reports that prisoners are sometimes out only twice a week, if that. So, is Prison Service Order 4275 an order? If not, what exactly is it?
My Lords, it is a statutory requirement that prisoners have time in the open air every day subject to weather and, of course, the need to maintain order and discipline. No amount of time is specified. The core day, as the noble Baroness knows, was introduced in June 2008 and is intended to provide greater consistency in access to activities by ensuring that adequate staff are available at the times when activities are scheduled. The figures for 2008-09 show an increase of 2 per cent in physical education over the previous year. PSO 4275 is, as I understand it, an ordinary PSO, and if it is breached, the prison governor is accountable.
My Lords, I know that this refers to a Prison Service instruction but the Minister has referred to instructions as well as orders. Can he tell us how governors are practically measuring and recording the reviews of what are described as “responsible members of the public” in relation to the programmes they are required to introduce for the rehabilitation of offenders?
Women: UN Special Rapporteur
My Lords, we want the United Nations to be the most effective instrument it can be in improving the lives of women across the globe. We think that the best way to do this is to support the United Nations in its discussions on reform of the UN gender architecture. We will consider any idea that promotes gender equality. However, we must be convinced that it adds value to existing UN organisations that are designed to promote gender equality.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that very helpful Answer. Would the Government consider appointing a rapporteur and follow the example of Ireland, where they have appointed a rapporteur for UN Security Council resolution 1325? Given that women are still considered to be the booty of war and that they are attacked, raped and violated in situations of conflict, someone needs to be there immediately to deal with it on behalf of the international community.
My Lords, I do not want anything that I say now to detract from the importance we attach to the United Nations contribution on this very important topic. However, rather than adding a rapporteur to the existing responsibilities in the field of eliminating violence against women and all forms of discrimination, we believe that the establishment of the United Nations agency that is being proposed, with the officer possibly at Under-Secretary-General level, is the right way to tackle this. There are already two people, in the committee and a person, in those roles. What we need is an overarching committee, which is suitably staffed at a high level. We are therefore not persuaded that an additional rapporteur is the answer to the UN’s position.
My Lords, am I right in thinking that the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, on which I represented this country, followed by my noble friend Lady Gardner, acts as a representative body of women on the United Nations, or has it packed up?
My Lords, we are discussing the question of executive action and how the United Nations can act effectively in this area. It will not surprise the House to learn that the rapporteur is a proposal from the French, from President Sarkozy. It has not won a great deal of support at the United Nations, because the United Nations has been concerned in recent months to create a fresh structure that will give real executive authority at a high level to the necessary actions to promote the equality of women.
My Lords, following on from the answers that the Minister has just given, a week ago the noble Lord, Lord Malloch-Brown, said that he spent a large portion of his last period at the UN working on just the structure that the Minister is talking about: trying to set up a strong and effective organisation for women to promote the rights of women within the UN. What is the nature of the backing from the UK Government for that proposal?
My Lords, I am happy to say that my noble friend’s efforts are, we hope, bearing fruit. The United Nations is involved in serious consideration of the structure necessary to promote effective action in this area. The ideas that my noble friend was involved in developing are being taken forward, and the British Government back that structure fully.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that by far the most successful form of organisation that really represents the voices of the individual nations is one where there is a committee on the ground in that country? I am thinking specifically of UNICEF, which has been an extremely effective organisation for children. Does he agree that that sort of organisation would make sense in what the Government are now discussing?
My Lords, certainly the advantage of UNICEF is that it is world-renowned in the contribution that it makes on behalf of the United Nations. We want a similar development for women. Progress thus far has clearly not been adequate. We are all aware that discrimination and violence against women is an all too common feature of all too many countries.
My Lords, we know that the United Nations is a weak organisation. Human rights are women's rights, but to this day, the United Nations has not taken that very seriously. It sits in committee and it refers this to the member states. We as a senior country must go with other countries to the United Nations to say that it must take a much stronger line on the question of the Congo and Darfur, where women are raped daily while people talk about the issue, and on the whole question of trafficking—I am involved in that issue too—where the United Nations sits back. We have to take a very strong line on that.
My Lords, of course I agree with the points that my noble friend raises. The issue is how effective action is to be mounted. As I said, the United Kingdom is playing a very full part in the development of an agency that will give greater effect to this than past efforts—I recognise that my noble friend’s criticism of past action or inaction is justified.
My Lords, does the Minister not realise that the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women has been an effective body, developing connections between women in all parts of the world? The United Kingdom was the first country to bring many things that are now being dealt with, such as violence, into the public domain. Since then, a great deal has been done in many countries, but there is still a conflict in getting the other countries which have different views on the subject to go along with the recommendations. I understand that the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, is the current representative for the United Kingdom.
My Lords, the noble Baroness is right that there are very different perspectives on the role of women in different parts of the world, but our commitment to human rights and to the equality of women behoves us to make every effort that we can to ensure that victimisation of and violence against women are greatly reduced. The important thing is that the United Nations should be equipped with a body that can take effective executive action; the UK Government are supporting that proposal.
Israel and Palestine: President Obama
My Lords, the United Kingdom welcomes President Obama’s early engagement and determination to work towards resolving the Israel-Palestine issue. We fully support President Obama’s emphasis on the need to end all settlement activity, the need for Palestinians to renounce violence, the importance of a two-state solution and the importance of stimulating the Palestinian economy.
My Lords, I am glad that the implication of the Minister’s reply is that the Government indeed welcome President Obama’s recent speech in Egypt, which opens a rare opportunity for progress on the two-state solution. While President Obama fully supports Israel’s right to a secure future, long-term peace and security are still jeopardised by the continued presence of some 500,000 settlers in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Does the Minister accept that the statement in the speech, that
“the United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements”
is the nearest that any President of the United States since President George Bush senior has come to acknowledging that all Israeli settlement activity in Palestinian occupied territory is illegal and must stop immediately, and that that statement is to be warmly welcomed?
My Lords, the noble Lord is very knowledgeable about these issues. I am therefore happy to concur with him that the UK Government welcome the position adopted by the President of the United States in his quite recent speech in Egypt. I would go a little further; the President also indicated that he regarded any extension to the settlements on any grounds as being unacceptable.
My Lords, does my noble friend not agree that one of the most telling points about President Obama’s intervention is that he has made it in the first six months of his first term, rather than leaving it to the tail end of a presidency, thereby demonstrating his determination to make this a key part of American policy? Can my noble friend also tell us how the United Kingdom will not only support President Obama with words but actively engage in that initiative?
My Lords, the contribution that the President of the United States makes is of very great importance but, as my noble friend has indicated, the United Kingdom has its role to play. She will also appreciate, as does the whole House, that the present situation is fraught with danger. There are difficulties over the existence of the ceasefire following the three-week intervention a few months ago, and the situation is very challenging. But what the President of the United States has done is given hope to the whole world that constructive action will be taken to resolve one of the most dangerous issues that still obtains.
My Lords, did not the President also say in his remarkable speech in Cairo, which we too greatly welcome and find extremely encouraging, that a good deal of truth-telling is now necessary? Is not the noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond, correct to focus on whether truth-telling is going to be required on the question of the settlements that have spread out over what in the future will be the separate state of Palestine? This is not just a question of a further extension of settlements, but of how to handle the existing ones that lie on what will be Palestinian land. Will we support the President when it comes to telling Israeli settlers that while they will not necessarily have to move, they will have to live under Palestinian law if there is to be a two-state solution?
My Lords, of course I welcome the fact that the Official Opposition agree with the Government that President Obama’s speech was important, constructive and offers hope for resolution of the difficulties in that part of the world. As the noble Lord said, not only does the truth need to be told, but realities have to be faced. The noble Lord is all too well aware, as is the whole House, that the present Administration in Israel is dependent on parties which are committed not just to maintenance of the settlements, but to their extension. The President of the United States is far too sophisticated a statesman not to recognise the challenges that still lie ahead.
My Lords, in his speech, President Obama also talked about a regional approach to this. We need to bring in the Arab League and Israel’s other neighbours if we are to get a secure, long-term settlement—not just a Palestinian state, but Israel living in peace and having good economic relations with her neighbours across the Middle East. Should that not include the new Lebanese Government along with the Governments of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan in any negotiations towards a long-term solution?
My Lords, the noble Lord knows that the speech was made in Egypt and that Egypt played a significant part in the immediate settlement of the most recent clashes. However, the noble Lord is right to say that we need to bring together the regional forces in a constructive approach towards peace, because it is certainly the case that some of them have been destructive in that regard by encouraging aspects of violence. The solution requires participation on the level indicated, but we can take some encouragement from the fact that recent work has involved countries with close connections with the area.
My Lords, I am afraid that we have reached 30 minutes.
Department for Business, Innovation and Skills
Private Notice Question
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what were the reasons for, and the benefits that will flow from, the merger of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills with the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, and the consequential ministerial responsibilities.
My Lords, the department will help the economy come through the recession stronger, more competitive and able to grow in the future, fostering our world-class system of higher education to help this objective and enrich our society. The merger expresses the commitment promised in our strategy set out in the document, New Industry, New Jobs, aligning government policies to support UK competitiveness, productivity and excellence. We will provide help to businesses, universities and colleges, and to UK workers and students through training, skills, lifelong learning, first-class science and technology, further education and research policies.
My Lords, is this not an astonishing combination of power in a mega department? Universities and further education colleges have always been in the Department of Education. As the Minister knows, there is a close relationship between industry and universities through beneficial research, but universities are not basically about improving competitiveness or building industrial strategy. They are essentially custodians of scholarship, intellectual rigour and world-class teaching. Where will his priorities come in his department? He is going to have to save Vauxhall, which will cost hundreds of millions of pounds. Do the universities come before, alongside or after Vauxhall? The Prime Minister said that there are 13 priorities for his department. Universities are fifth, FE colleges seventh. When he talks of expanding education, does he realise that this year we will see the largest number of applications by students to go to university in our history and that 50,000 will not go there because of education cuts in his department?
The major Bill affecting his department before the House at the moment is the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill. The Bill has 300 clauses and I do not expect him to be familiar with it. But if he could glance at one or two clauses it might be helpful, because the Bill changes the whole of our further education system. Last week, at Second Reading, the Bill was introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, who is not a Minister of his department. She is involved in education and children in the department of his close and now recent friend Mr Balls, so a Minister from another department is carrying through major legislation for his department. Where is the join-up? Who is in charge of this rattling train? May I ask one personal question before I sit down? I see that he has become Lord President of the Council. This was a post held until Friday by our present Leader of the House of Lords. With scant regard for her eloquent defence of the Prime Minister on “Question Time”, this must be the first example of window undressing. Will he say whether the Prime Minister is entirely aware that the noble Lord is not only a Secretary but also a President?
My Lords, it is rather difficult to know where to start in picking from the noble Lord’s extended question. All I can say is that this new department is not the first to have more than one priority, and this is not the first Government to experience a reshuffle. The noble Lord will remember his personal experience of many reshuffles in previous Governments. As a liberal arts university graduate, of course I fully appreciate the role played by universities in building up not only our country’s competitiveness but its character and its scholarship. I am committed to all of those things.
My Lords, will my noble friend affirm today and repeatedly in the future, and demonstrate consistently in his policies, that the Government value research, teaching, knowledge and ideas as goods in themselves, as aspects of civilisation, and not just as means to advance material prosperity?
My Lords, I fully concur with my noble friend’s remarks. I am very proud of this Government’s exceptional record on higher education, and I will certainly defend it. Investment in higher education is now at record levels, with more than £7.5 billion this year, an increase of 24 per cent over the past decade. It will not only be I who is defending that record and expenditure. It will be my colleague Pat McFadden in the other place as well, who will support me across the range of the department’s responsibilities. He will lead for the department in the Commons as well as being the department’s Commons Minister, attending Cabinet weekly.
My Lords, I first congratulate the Lord President of the Council and First Secretary of State on his remarkable accumulation of responsibilities, titles and junior ministers, of whom he can boast no fewer than 10, which is surely a record. I understand that he has also now added outer space to his portfolio. His ambition indeed knows no bounds. I have always understood that in the business world there is said to be no such thing as a merger; there are only takeovers. Does he agree that it is a shameful and retrograde development that further and higher education have been subsumed in this way, to be judged not worthy even of a single letter in the new departmental acronym? Also, in a country desperately in need of enterprise, when are we going to meet the so-called enterprise tsar? When will the sorcerer’s apprentice make his debut in this Chamber, or is he already a falling tsar?
My Lords, I am sure the sorcerer’s apprentice will be winging his way towards your Lordships’ House in due course.
The new department will combine BERR’s strengths in shaping the enterprise environment and analysing the strengths and the needs of the various parts of British industry, and DIUS’s expertise in maintaining world-class universities and expanding access to higher education, and its responsibilities and skills in developing our further education sector. We have a new phoenix in this department, which will take flight from the merger of two previously excellent departments and will be able, I hope, to extend its reach to outer space and beyond.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is a famous book about mergers called Disappointing Marriage, which points out that diseconomies of scale come in very quickly on such occasions? Does he think that his department may not encounter diseconomies of scale?
My Lords, no, I do not expect that to happen. In so far as there is a risk, I shall be on my guard to ensure that it does not. It became clear in the production of the Government’s framework policy statement, New Industry, New Jobs, which both departments and both Secretaries of State were responsible for bringing forward, that the two departments have completely complementary roles and even some duplication of expertise. The importance of a single, coherent government vision on building our capabilities and investing in productivity in a global economy means that this merger makes sense. If in addition it enables us to bring down some of the rather expensive overheads in government, so much the better for the taxpayer.
My Lords, my noble friend will be pleased to hear that both the Chancellor and I chair the lending panel, which brings together the Government and the banks. I am exercising that responsibility in the way that he suggests, but incorporating it fully into my department might be a move too far.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a graduate in dead languages, and a graduate in what some people regard as dead ideas, whose holy book has the words,
“be as cunning as serpents and as innocent as doves”.
I would not want to plug anyone in particular, but none of us would question the undoubted managerial abilities of the Secretary of State, nor the fact that we have to say from these Benches that higher education has fared in rather different ways under different Governments over the years. However, I am not sure that the Secretary of State has provided a philosophy for the merger of higher and further education with the rest of the departments. I go further and suggest, perhaps in the interests of creative facetiousness, that we might look forward to further mergers, such as a merger of the Exchequer with health.
My Lords, I appreciate the points made by the right reverend Prelate. In the Prime Minister’s view—it is a view I share—to compete in a global economy and to create the jobs in the future that we want to see, Britain requires an environment that encourages enterprise, skilled people, innovation and world-class science and research. The merger of these two departments puts the policy levers for these requirements in one place with one strategic commitment to building Britain’s future economic and educational strengths. I hope that the right reverend Prelate and other noble Lords will judge both the department and me not only by the philosophy that we deploy but by the results that we are able to achieve.
Business Rate Supplements Bill
Report (2nd Day)
Clause 16 : Interaction with BID levy
34: Clause 16, page 12, line 9, at end insert—
“( ) Schedule (BRS-BID arrangements) (BRS-BID arrangements) has effect; and—
(a) subsections (1) to (4) apply in relation to BRS-BID levy (within the meaning given by that Schedule) as they apply in relation to BID levy, but(b) the rules relating to BRS-BID levy need not be the same as the rules relating to BID levy.”
My Lords, I shall also speak to Amendments 37 and 42, which are grouped with Amendment 34. These amendments involve property owners in business improvement districts in areas where a business rate supplement is in place. I think that it would be helpful if I were to give a little bit of background first, so that noble Lords can consider the amendments in context.
One of the recurring themes during the passage of the Bill in this House and the other place has been the important relationship between BRS and BIDs. The debates in both Houses have underlined the strong support for BIDs. There is a genuine desire across all parties that BIDs should continue to thrive after the introduction of BRS. I understand that one of the main concerns of practitioners of BIDs and business supporters is that, if BID levy payers are faced with a BRS on top of any existing levy, ratepayers may be inclined to vote against proposals when they come up for renewal. Fourteen out of the existing 20 BIDs in London are due for renewal ballots by 2012, so there is real concern that the introduction of BRS could have a negative impact on existing and future BIDs.
As a response to these concerns, Nick Raynsford, the right honourable Member for Greenwich and Woolwich, tabled amendments during the Committee and Report stages of the Bill in the other place to strengthen the role of property owners in BIDs and to enable the contributions to the BID to be spread between occupiers and owners, providing an effective offset for occupiers against their BRS liability. Under the current BID arrangements, property owners may make voluntary contributions to BIDs, but they are not entitled to vote in a BID ballot and there is no way of ensuring that, if some property owners in an area make voluntary contributions, others do as well.
On 18 May, the noble Baroness, Lady Valentine, tabled amendments in Grand Committee on the same issue. The purpose of those amendments was to enable BID proposers or companies to decide whether property owners should be involved in, and have a chance to vote on, BID proposals for an area. It became obvious from the debates in Grand Committee that this is not a new idea. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, who is in his place, for reminding the House that the issue of property owner involvement not only arose during the passage of the Local Government Act 2003—the Act that sets the framework for the current BIDs system—but also featured in a Private Member’s Bill that he introduced in 1997.
The amendments that I will move today deal with the same broad issues that featured in the earlier amendments tabled by Nick Raynsford in the other place and by the noble Baroness, Lady Valentine. The amendments make arrangements for a new type of BID, to be known as a BRS BID. This is to distinguish it from the current BID arrangements. This new type of BID could be established in areas where both a BID and BRS exist and would allow for the owners of property to be involved in BID arrangements. It will be for those proposing BIDs or existing BID companies to decide whether they wish to involve property owners in their BID arrangements—I emphasise that it will not be compulsory.
A BRS BID could fund the same project as the main BID. Revenues from property owners could be used as additional income for the BID project or they could be used to offset the contributions of those ratepayers who are liable for both the BID levy and the BRS. Alternatively, the revenue stream from property owners could be used to fund a different project, quite separate from the BID project. As is the case for BIDs under the current arrangements, it will not be possible for a BRS BID to be established unless there has been a successful ballot on the proposals.
I am sure that the House will appreciate that these amendments are not quite the end of the story. Involving property owners in BIDs raises a number of complex issues. That is why the new schedule contains a number of powers that will allow the Government to include the detail on the BRS BIDs in secondary legislation. The regulations will deal with issues such as who should be considered a property owner, how the rateable value of non-domestic properties should be attributed to property owners for the purposes of the double-lock ballot, and the detailed arrangements for ballots.
In addition, I noted from Grand Committee that the noble Lord, Lord Bates, raised concerns regarding possible cost-shunting between owners and tenants, a concern that the Government share. The noble Baroness, Lady Valentine, when moving her amendment in Grand Committee on the involvement of property owners in BIDs, said that she thought that this would not be a significant risk. Her view was based on the experience of property owners making voluntary contributions under the existing BID arrangements, which she did not feel there was a need to address in the Bill. While I am encouraged by her experience on this issue in the context of voluntary property owner contributions, I recognise that there is some disquiet on the matter. As such, it would have been irresponsible of us as a Government to ignore these concerns. We have therefore taken a regulation-making power in the new schedule so that we can address the issue through secondary legislation if the need arises.
The amendment to Clause 29 provides that several of the powers in the new schedule will be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. This covers the important issues—for example, the rules on ballots and how votes may be weighted. We will of course engage closely with stakeholders as we develop our proposals for secondary legislation.
There is one specific point that I should raise before I conclude. I have already said that these amendments can apply only in those areas where a BRS is in place. I understand that there was a debate in Grand Committee about whether it would be possible to extend these provisions to BIDs in all areas. It might be helpful to clarify the position on that. We have pursued this matter with the Lords Public Bill Office, which has confirmed that amendments dealing with the inclusion of property owners in BIDs outside a BRS area would not be possible. The term that the Public Bill Office uses is whether an amendment would be “relevant”. The BRS Bill has a single purpose, which is to introduce the BRS scheme. The Bill refers to BIDs, but only to the extent that they are affected by the introduction of BRS. However, any stand-alone amendments to the BIDs regime unconnected to the introduction of BRS would not be considered “relevant”.
I hope that, with that explanation and with the amendments that I have brought forward, the House will feel that it is able to support the changes that we have made. Accordingly, I beg to move.
My Lords, I welcome these amendments, although I have a few comments to attach. I congratulate the Minister on the way in which he has grasped this complex issue in such a short period. Waiting for this part of the proceedings in the House to start, I saw that he was responsible for answering two Questions on foreign affairs. He has a vast amount of responsibility, so I am full of admiration for the way in which he has grasped the complex detail of this piece of legislation and I am grateful for the way in which he has taken us through it.
As the Minister mentioned, this amendment is a response to one tabled in Committee by the noble Baroness, Lady Valentine, to which my name was also attached on behalf of these Benches. We support this endeavour. I join the Minister in paying tribute to my noble friend Lord Jenkin of Roding, who has continuously played a significant role not only in the development of business improvement districts as a concept but also in fusing together how the business rate supplement, as proposed, would fit in with what is being discussed.
We had a vigorous debate in Committee. It is perhaps most striking that, when the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, accepted the proposal in Committee, it took two lines in about two pages of debate, yet these amendments run to some six pages in the schedule. A significant amount of a parliamentary draftsperson’s time has gone into putting this together. I do not want to be uncharitable, given that this is a concession from the Government, but tabling such a lengthy amendment and schedule at such a late stage in the process has made it quite difficult for people to get to grips with this and how it will work on the ground. We reserve the right to come back at Third Reading to look at it in more detail.
We are dealing with a great many regulation-making powers. As this has not been built into primary legislation, we would like reassurances about when it might come in. It is crucial that it is brought in as soon as possible because the BRS Bill will soon be an Act—sadly, from our point of view. Business improvement districts and property owners who want to contribute in this way need that protection as soon as possible. Can the Minister clarify those points? I give notice that we will touch on this at Third Reading.
My Lords, as this is the first time that I have spoken at this stage in the Bill, I must again declare my interest as an executive councillor in the London Borough of Sutton. As the Minister pointed out, these measures are of particular relevance and importance in London, although not with my council. Also, I have been asked to give the apologies of my noble friend Lady Hamwee. Like everyone else, she was not expecting to be here this afternoon and unfortunately has an unbreakable commitment outside London. I know that she is deeply sorry not to be with us for these continuing proceedings, although that gives me the chance to speak on this.
I welcome these proposals as far as they go. Following on from the noble Lord, Lord Bates, we understand the reasons why they have been tabled late in the day, but we have had relatively short notice of what are complex provisions. I am grateful to the Minister for his careful explanation. Would he consider not moving these amendments today but bringing them back at Third Reading? That would give people—particularly those outside this Chamber, ourselves and those who cannot be here because we were not expecting to be doing this today—more opportunity not only to consider the amendments but also to read and understand what the Minister has said. We can consider what further comments we—and they—may wish to make.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bates. This is probably the first time in a long political career that I have ever inspired a Conservative. It is never too late.
I ask the Minister seriously to consider my suggestion, not because we are opposed to this proposal—I am sure that we will not be; indeed, I welcome it—but because it would allow more time for understanding and consideration and would be a better way of bringing back any further questions and points that might be necessary next week.
The Minister explained carefully why it is possible under the Long Title to apply the amendment only to those areas with BIDs that will have a business rate supplement. We have to accept that limitation but, as the Government have now accepted the wider principle, it would be helpful to know what they will do—and when will they do it—to cover that wider principle for areas that are not currently covered by the Bill.
I have a few other, more detailed questions, which I will ask in the expectation of a reply not so much today as when the amendment is moved again at Third Reading, as I hope will be the case. Does paragraph 2(5) of the proposed new schedule restrict local discretion in terms of offsetting? Does paragraph 5(7) mean that, if an owner and an occupier vote, the rateable value is double for the purpose of the double-lock ballot? Can the Minister confirm that paragraph 6(4) requires a precise mathematical calculation and that the rating is not arbitrary or discretionary? In paragraph 7(2) on the regulations prescribing matters relevant to the veto, will this exactly replicate the veto arrangements provided by Section 51 of the Local Government Act 2003?
Perhaps asking those questions illustrates why it is a good idea not to continue to deal with the amendments today but for the Minister to move them at Third Reading and come back with the answers to those questions if he is not able to do so today. We welcome the amendment, despite the late stage of the Bill.
My Lords, I am very grateful for the generous remarks made by the Minister and my noble friend Lord Bates. Yes, we have been arguing this case for some time. However, by arguing the very simple proposition that owners as well as occupiers should be entitled to take part in a BID—something which appears to have been achieved by one and a half lines of print in the proposed new schedule under paragraph 2(6)—we are faced, as my noble friend Lord Bates said, with more than six pages of print in the amendment. I was quite shocked when I saw how much this involved and immediately sought advice. I am sure that Ministers who have been in this position before will recognise that if an amendment is tabled late one week with a view to being debated on the following Monday—in this case, Tuesday—it is exceedingly difficult to get advice over the weekend from those who are concerned with operating the legislation. I am sure that I am not the only one who fired off a lot of e-mails and left telephone messages to try to find out what happened.
I declare an interest as a joint president of London Councils; indeed, I was presiding at its annual general meeting this morning. The Minister will recognise that we have here in London a two-tier system for BRS. The levying authority will of course be the Greater London Authority, with the express purpose, as has been said throughout the Bill’s passage, of getting a substantial business contribution towards the Crossrail project. The authority is the levying authority but the boroughs will be the billing authority, and it is very important to draw the distinction between those two functions. It is the London boroughs, represented by London Councils, that are now expressing considerable anxieties about this amendment because of its apparent complexity and, in some cases, obscurity. I bow to the expertise of the noble Lord, Lord Tope, in being able to identify a series of specific questions. However, I discussed this matter this morning with members and officials in London Councils, and they are faced with a considerable problem. This amendment imposes on them as the billing authorities a whole new range of functions and duties once the Greater London Authority, in the person of the mayor, has decided to levy a BRS. That is what is causing me some anxiety.
Like my noble friend Lord Bates, I think that the proposal put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Tope, is a good one. During the morning I have been thinking: if the amendment goes into the Bill now, how can we bring the Bill back on Third Reading without in fact tabling more amendments? Perhaps we will want to table amendments, but it is too early to say. The experts in London Councils are busily poring over this to see how it will work. The question they asked me this morning—I could not answer them—was how it is intended to work. One only needs to look through, as I have been doing at the weekend and more recently, the complexities of all the paragraphs in this new schedule. I cannot answer the question of how it will work. I am not sure that I am any the wiser this afternoon despite the Minister’s very patient explanation of what it is about. He told us what it is intended to achieve but he has not been able to tell us—in the time available, as we are anxious to get on to other things—how it will work.
I believe that we have a date pencilled in for Third Reading. However, I really do ask that we should have enough time with all the various bodies. That includes not only London Councils. The British Property Federation is an obvious body to consult. The Greater London Authority is clearly involved, because it is relying on the London boroughs as the billing authorities. I have also been in touch with various other bodies. These bodies have been overwhelmed trying to grapple with this very substantial schedule in a few days over the weekend when people were not in the office. The boroughs will inevitably act as pathfinders on these provisions, because once the Bill gains Royal Assent and the mayor has made his proposal for a BRS, it is the boroughs that will be under the time pressures to bring the legislation into effect. Even at first sight, they said that they will be very hard-pressed indeed to get the new systems and software in place to meet the deadlines. The addition of these provisions adds to the uncertainty and threat of delays in an already very tight schedule.
I therefore ask the Minister—this might be something that we will need to come back to in more detail on Third Reading—whether he can give an undertaking that this will not extend the time limit or add extra time and cost burdens for the London boroughs acting as billing authorities. I was told this morning that London Councils has been in touch with the Scottish and London BIDs, which have told him that it is not straightforward to consult owners. I have said ever since I introduced the original Private Member’s Bill that I think that it is right that there should be an option to bring in owners. However, I have been told by those who will have to operate this scheme—namely the billing authorities—that this is not wholly straightforward. Suddenly to be confronted, as they were late last week, with this substantial, six-page government amendment, in order to achieve this one little change adding owners to occupiers for the purposes of a BID, makes them feel very hard done by. The Minister needs to recognise that.
I have sought to defend the proposal on the grounds that we wanted the option of adding owners to occupiers in BIDs. However, I could not possibly have anticipated that it would take six pages of legislation which was presented to this House less than a week—indeed, five days—before we were expected to debate it. This is not the way to legislate.
The Minister made it perfectly clear in Grand Committee that the Government have been minded to do this since Nick Raynsford moved the amendment in another place. Therefore, there seems to have been an astonishing dilatoriness in getting the amendment before this House. In those circumstances, I support the suggestion that the Minister might feel it right not to press the amendment on Report today but to re-table it, perhaps in the light of discussions that he and his officials may have over the next few days with, for instance, London Councils, so that we might consider it within a reasonable timescale and add it to the Bill before it receives Royal Assent. That is the least that we can ask in the circumstances.
I apologise if I appear to be overcritical but, having been faced this morning with the anxiety of London Councils—of which the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, and I are the joint presidents—I feel it right that we should represent to the House the very real anxieties that it feels about the administration of this complex schedule. I hope the Minister will be able to respond to the valuable suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Tope, so as to give us more time to consider these details.
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Jenkin of Roding fears that he may be overcritical, but the Minister may be reassured to hear that I may be undercritical. I have a particular admiration and sympathy for the Minister in that, as I said yesterday when I made my first contribution and I had my first exposure to the Bill, I am conscious of the enormous burden he is carrying by taking over responsibility for the Bill in the absence of the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews.
Arising out of that admiration, I would not think that anybody who has taken part so far in our proceedings on Report would not regard it as totally reasonable for the Minister to take this proposal away at this juncture. I cannot help feeling that the quality of the Bill would be better if he, like me, had a little more time to grapple with the issues.
My Lords, I am a little disappointed. As the noble Lord, Lord Bates, indicated when he first spoke, we are giving effect, in principle, to strong positions adopted in Committee and amendments that were tabled then. I think the noble Lord, Lord Tope, was also prepared to recognise this, as of course was the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin. The amendments followed those that were tabled in the other place. The Government have accepted the principle proposed by these amendments. The Committee stage was over a week away. We tabled these amendments last Tuesday.
I sympathise with the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, about the difficulties, in opposition, of responding to government legislation. It is a little while since I was last in opposition, and may years go by before I experience opposition again. From the dim and distant past I have a memory of the difficulties of responding to government legislation, but it as not as though the Government are involved in some sleight of hand to advance government policy against the wishes of the House—far from it. The Government are responding to pressure from the House, and tabled amendments, to adopt this principle. I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, if giving effect to a simple principle involves a fairly substantial schedule. That is the way of the world, as the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, knows rather better than I do, particularly with regard to local government. He will forgive me if I am not too exercised about that. I respect the anxieties of noble Lords.
I make the obvious point. If noble Lords are saying that they may feel obliged to raise the issue again at Third Reading if the Government press ahead today, I am modest enough to think that it probably does not matter what I say at the Dispatch Box at present. Third Reading beckons and so, no doubt, do a few amendments, as they should if noble Lords are anxious. It is right that the Government should respond to pressure from the Committee in the passage of the Bill. It is also right that I should protect the timetable for the Bill. There is nothing exceptional about the timetable. We are following Report stage, after Committee stage, for the proper duration. The noble Lord, Lord Tope, knows only too well that Third Reading will take place at its duly appointed time.
I understand the anxiety of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, about the mechanics, problems and burdens of implementation. If he asks me to give some assurance that there will be no burdens, of course I cannot do so. Of course such legislation imposes burdens on local authorities as billing agents. I recognise the validity of his point that, where local authorities are merely the billing agents, rather than the developers of policy, they may have rather more reservations because they have no direct say in resource allocation. That is true of local authorities in many instances, whether they are involved in billing arrangements for a superior authority or not. As an issue of principle, it is built into local government structures.
What can I say to noble Lords? I am not prepared to withdraw the amendments because we have not broken any issue of timetable. The principle behind these amendments is not only accepted in the House. The Government were persuaded of the principle and not the other way around. In responding as we have—on Report, at the proper stage—we are only fulfilling our duty. I understand that we will sustain a risk and I will enjoy the debate that I probably have to look forward to at Third Reading, when some anxieties may still be expressed on this matter. I am not prepared to withdraw amendments that are in line with what I detect the House to support in principle, and to which the Government are, in principle, giving effect.
A great deal of the noble Lord’s anxieties concern the mechanics of implementation. I agree with him that it is important that local authorities should have a full understanding of how the provision is meant to work. My department will give its fullest support to local authorities in working through these issues. However, we are not talking about implementation next week. The Bill must proceed to Third Reading, be considered further by the Commons and receive Royal Assent. The noble Lords, Lord Tope and Lord Bates, referred to regulations. We hope to deliver these in the autumn. However, that timetable is conditional on the fullest consultation with those who will have to give effect to this matter. Of course, we will consult on these matters and we have several months in which to do so. Given what the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, his noble friends and the noble Lord, Lord Tope, indicated, I have no doubt that views will be expressed fairly freely by those who will have to implement the legislation. However, our task today is to produce a Bill that gives effect to the will of the House, as the House sees the issues of principle.
I venture to say that although issues relating to the mechanics of implementation are not unimportant—I do not seek to dismiss them—if I thought that the Bill would arbitrarily impose duties for the day after tomorrow which people could not possibly fulfil, of course I would change my perspective on it. But we have time to deal with these issues. I emphasise that we have support in both Houses. I emphasise again that the British Property Federation fully supports these amendments. The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, has a very proud history of work in this area and recognises that the principle that we are putting forward is one to which he has long been concerned to give effect.
I recognise that it is a function of diligent and effective opposition never to frustrate the will of a duly elected Government. However, sometimes it is proper for them to delay processes to enable further consideration to take place. We still have Third Reading when these points of detail may be considered further. However, these amendments give effect to an important principle that represents a government concession to representations that have been made to us during the course of the Bill—a principle which it seems to me is supported on all sides of the House. It is always tempting to make life a little easier by agreeing with the opposition Front Benches and with the forceful contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, to say nothing of the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, who speaks with such knowledge on these issues. However, these amendments were tabled at an appropriate time—Tuesday of last week—and give effect to a principle which is widely supported. It is a beneficial and helpful development with regard to the Bill. Accordingly, I commend the amendment.
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, does he recognise that if this amendment is included in the Bill—despite our arguing that it could be postponed until Third Reading and the Government making it clear that they will not do that—we shall have no alternative but to table amendments to it in order to bring it back at Third Reading? There is no debate to agree a clause or a schedule at Third Reading. Given the procedural rules of the House, we can achieve this only by tabling amendments. There may be quite a number of amendments because we will want to look at the individual clauses in the light of the advice that we will get between now and then on the practicability of the scheme which the Government have embodied in this complex schedule.
If the Minister recognises that that is the process towards which he is now steering us, all well and good, but he has to recognise that if the billing authorities, which will bear the whole burden of the ballots and of sending out the billing notices and so on, are to be satisfied that this is a workable scheme, then his officials and the officials of London Councils will have to work very hard over the next few days in order to reach that position. That is where we have got to. We will have to do it by amendment and not by being able to discuss the clause.
Amendment 34 agreed.
Amendment 35 not moved.
Clause 22 : Administrative expenses
36: Clause 22, page 14, line 26, after “incurs” insert “(including expenses incurred in preparation for collection or recovery)”
My Lords, Amendment 36 stands in my name and that of my noble friend Lady Hamwee. I have already declared my interest but I think that I should make it specifically clear here. I am a member of the executive—known elsewhere as the cabinet—in a London borough council which will be directly affected by these proposals.
The purpose of the amendment is to make it absolutely clear and beyond doubt in the Bill that the subsection in Clause 22 that refers to the costs of collection or recovery also includes the set-up costs—the costs of implementing this procedure. As has already been said, London borough councils are the billing authorities and the GLA is the levying authority. We know that if and when the Bill is enacted, as I am sure it will be, London borough councils will be billing within a very short space of time. Indeed, the president of London Councils, the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding, has already made clear the considerable anxiety—certainly not unwillingness; on the whole we welcome this—in the organisation about the very short timescale for implementing all this and also about the additional costs of doing so. Most London borough councils are what are called “floor authorities”; in other words, although their grant entitlement may increase, the actual money that they receive will not. They will therefore be under particularly great financial pressure in the coming years, given the financial outlook, and that can only increase anxiety concerning the costs that will be incurred.
It is stated in the Bill, and reasonably so, that the costs of collection or recovery will be met from the levy raised, but it is not clear—and we want it to be made clear now—that the initial costs, which will probably be quite considerable, in setting up and initiating this proposal will also be met in that way. That can be made clear beyond doubt by including this amendment in the Bill.
A further issue arises. There may well be, let us say, differences of opinion between the levying authority—in this case, the GLA—and London borough councils collectively or even individually as to what are reasonable costs either of recovery and collection or, perhaps even more likely, of setting up the process. How does the Minister foresee those differences ultimately being resolved? I am sure he will say that with good will they should be resolved between the levying authority and the billing authorities. Of course that is the case, but I think that those of us who are realistic know that that is not always achievable. Does he foresee any role for the Government in quickly resolving any outstanding disputes about those additional costs?
I hope that the Minister can give us some comfort on this. There is considerable anxiety among London councils about the very short timescale for resolving all these issues, for carrying out the implementation and for recovering in full all the costs involved in so doing.
In moving this amendment, I have spoken specifically and exclusively about London because we know, without doubt, that London authorities will be the pathfinders for this. It will happen in London before it happens anywhere else. They are pathfinders, the only pathfinders. It will apply, in due course, to all other parts of the country that find themselves in a position of having levying authorities that are not also the billing authorities. I hope that the Minister will feel able to accept this amendment and, on that note of optimism, I beg to move.
My Lords, I am not quite sure whether I should support this measure. The noble Lord managed to inspire me as part of his previous contribution. At this stage of the Bill, reaching Clause 22 on administrative expenses, he has probably done something towards the opposite in terms of talking through on this amendment on collection or recovery.
There is an entirely serious point wrapped up in the amendment. It gives us an opportunity to talk about what the administrative costs would be. Clause 22(3) states:
“If the chargeable period of a BRS begins, or a variation of a BRS takes effect, later than the first day of a financial year, the levying authority may not, in respect of that financial year, act in reliance on provision made by virtue of subsection (1)”.
That will therefore probably be coterminous with the collection period for the business rates in general. As boroughs are the collecting authority, one would hope that efficiencies would be introduced so that costs could be minimised. Therefore, the maximum amount is made available to go into the given project by combining business rates into one bill. I am happy to listen to what the noble Lord says in response to that point, and I will lend our support if needed.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Tope, for moving the amendment. It enables me to clarify the issue that he raised, which the noble Lord, Lord Bates, also emphasised. It is an important issue and I recognise it to be so. It enables me to step a little way back from looking like I had no concern about billing authorities with regard to the previous amendment. I wanted to defend the positions set out in the government amendments. However, in representing that argument, I did not want in any way to present the problems facing the billing authorities as not being ones that the Government need to consider.
I want to reassure noble Lords that we recognise that certain costs could initially fall on billing authorities. They do not want to be out of pocket for those costs. Clause 22 of the Bill gives the Secretary of State the power to authorise the billing authorities to use a prescribed proportion of BRS revenues to meet their collection and enforcement expenses where the levying authorities levy the BRS for the beginning of the financial year. That is what we expect to happen in most cases. The noble Lord, Lord Bates, said that he hoped that it would happen in all cases. That might be expecting a little too much. He is right, however, that we would want that to be the norm.
Where BRS is levied part of the way through a financial year, these costs cannot be recovered from BRS revenues. Instead they would have to be met by the levying authority. Clause 22 provides that the Secretary of State may make regulations prescribing the proportion of BRS revenues that may be retained by billing authorities when the supplement is collected as part of the normal billing round. Where costs have to be met by the levying authority, the Secretary of State may cap the amount that the levying authority is required to reimburse the billing authority. Amendment 36 would enable billing authorities to recover the costs they incur in preparing for the collection and recovery of BRS.
We have issued a consultation paper with our proposals for secondary legislation, which will clearly be needed to enable BRS to be levied. The consultation paper covers the arrangements for the collection and enforcement of BRS, including the costs of collection, and envisages that those costs will cover set-up costs as well. The consultation paper floats different options for calculating the costs of collection. It invites views on whether those costs should be a fixed percentage of the annual total amount of BRS to be collected by the billing authority or whether they should be a fixed amount. A third option is for it to be agreed locally between the levying authority and the billing authority, subject to an upper limit to provide reassurance for business. The noble Lord, Lord Tope, suggested that there might be agreement between the authorities on that, although he may be sceptical of it being obtained in every case.
Our intention, subject to the outcome of that consultation, is that the billing authority should be able to recover its reasonable costs incurred in preparing, collecting and enforcing BRS. The three-month consultation period will give stakeholders the opportunity to express their views on those options or to come forward with alternative ways to address the issue—or any of the proposed arrangements for administering BRS. That gives scope for the point emphasised in the previous amendment: we will not set out to implement the legislation until we have had that full consultation.
I should draw attention to another provision where costs may initially fall to the billing authority as part of the preparatory work involved in establishing a BRS. Clause 25 enables levying authorities to obtain certain information from billing authorities for the purposes of setting a BRS and drawing up a prospectus. Such information may include the addresses and rateable values of non-domestic properties in the area. The costs of providing that information may vary according to the type of information requested by the levying authority. We have therefore provided in Clause 25(3) for billing authorities to make a charge for providing that information, but it will be for the billing authority to decide whether it would be appropriate to make such a charge.
I therefore hope that the noble Lord will accept that we have considered the issues. In discussing the previous group of amendments, I did not intend to be cavalier about implementation—and I hope that I was not—in seeking to defend the amendments. This amendment has given me the chance to show that the Government have thought about the issues. There will be full consultation. There will be options with regard to collection. I hope that the noble Lord feels that he can safely withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, before the Minister sits down, I am very grateful to him for that response. We have already made it clear that time is now very tight. Can he say more specifically about when the Government expect to be able to give their response to the consultation? He said in reply to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, “the autumn”. We know from experience that autumn, like any other season, can extend for quite a long period. I know that the Minister is aware of the very tight timescale in London. I hope that he may be able to say now that, at the very least, it will be early autumn, not late autumn.
My Lords, the noble Lord appreciates that we are offering a period for the consultation process. He is asking me how quickly the Government will be able to be definitive in their conclusions on that. We all have an interest in getting the legislation effective as early as possible.
My Lords, autumn is later than the summer, and the noble Lord knows why it is not possible for us to deliver that this summer. Given the period of consultation we need and the necessity of evaluating that consultation, autumn is the best that I can do for him.
Amendment 36 withdrawn.
37: Before Schedule 2, insert the following new Schedule—
“BRS-BID arrangementsPreliminary1 (1) This Schedule applies in the following four cases.
(2) The first case is where—
(a) a levying authority whose area is in England imposes a BRS, and(b) at the time of the imposition, all or part of the authority’s area is comprised in a business improvement district.(3) The second case is where—
(a) a levying authority whose area is in England may impose a BRS (the conditions in section 4 having been satisfied), and(b) all or part of the authority’s area is comprised in a business improvement district.(4) The third case is where—
(a) a billing authority whose area is in England makes BID arrangements, and(b) the business improvement district in respect of which the arrangements are made comprises all or part of an area in which a BRS has been imposed (and the imposition has not come to an end).(5) The fourth case is where—
(a) a billing authority whose area is in England makes BID arrangements, and(b) the business improvement district in respect of which the arrangements are made comprises all or part of an area in which a BRS may be imposed (the conditions in section 4 having been satisfied).Arrangements2 (1) The billing authority may make arrangements under this Schedule (“BRS-BID arrangements”) in respect of the business improvement district.
(2) For that purpose, it does not matter whether the BID arrangements in respect of the district are yet in force.
(3) The purpose of BRS-BID arrangements is to enable—
(a) the projects specified in the arrangements to be carried out for the benefit of the district or those who live, work or carry on an activity in the district, and(b) those projects to be financed (in whole or in part) by a levy (“BRS-BID levy”) imposed on persons who have a relevant property interest.(4) A project specified in BRS-BID arrangements need not be a project that is specified in the BID arrangements.
(5) Where a project specified in BRS-BID arrangements is a project that is specified in the BID arrangements, the ways in which the project may be financed by BRS-BID levy include offsetting the amount of a liability for BRS-BID levy against the amount of a liability for BID levy.
(6) A person has a relevant property interest if the person has an interest of a prescribed description in a hereditament that is—
(a) situated in the district, and(b) shown in the local non-domestic rating list maintained for the billing authority.(7) “Prescribed” means prescribed by regulations; but the regulations may prescribe only freehold, leasehold or commonhold interests.
BRS-BID levy3 (1) BRS-BID levy may be imposed only for periods falling within—
(a) the chargeable period of the BRS, and(b) the period in which the BID arrangements are in force.(2) The length of a period for which BRS-BID levy is imposed, and the day on which it begins, are to be such as may be specified in the BRS-BID arrangements.
(3) The amount of BRS-BID levy for such period—
(a) is to be calculated in such manner as may be provided in the BRS-BID arrangements, and(b) may be different for different cases.(4) Regulations may make provision as to the manner in which the amount of BRS-BID levy is to be calculated; and sub-paragraph (3)(a) accordingly has effect subject to such provision.
Liability for BRS-BID levy4 (1) BRS-BID arrangements must specify the description of persons who are to be liable for BRS-BID levy for the period for which the levy is imposed.
(2) A person is to be liable for BRS-BID levy for that period if the person comes within that description at any time within that period.
(3) Amounts paid to the authority by way of BRS-BID levy must be credited to the revenue account kept by the authority under section 47(1) of the 2003 Act for the purposes of the BID arrangements.
(4) Regulations may provide that a person who would, but for this sub-paragraph, be liable to pay each of the BRS, BID levy and BRS-BID levy in respect of the same hereditament is instead to be liable to pay only—
(a) the BRS, and(b) either BID levy or BRS-BID levy.(5) Regulations may make provision for securing that a tenant of a hereditament is not required by reference to the tenancy to make payments the effect of which would be to reimburse the landlord to any extent for amounts payable by the landlord by way of BRS-BID levy.
Approval in ballot5 (1) BRS-BID arrangements are not to come into force unless proposals for the arrangements (“BRS-BID proposals”) are approved by a ballot of those who are to be liable for the proposed BRS-BID levy.
(2) BRS-BID proposals are not to be regarded as approved by a ballot held for the purposes of sub-paragraph (1) unless the following two conditions are satisfied.
(3) The first condition is that a majority of persons voting in the ballot have voted in favour of the proposals.
(4) The second condition is that A exceeds B.
(5) “A” is such amount as is calculated by reference to rateable value in the manner prescribed in regulations and is attributable to persons who voted in favour of the proposals.
(6) “B” is such amount as is calculated by reference to rateable value in the manner prescribed in regulations and is attributable to persons who voted against the proposals.
(7) Regulations making provision for the purposes of sub-paragraphs (5) and (6) may, in particular, provide for the amounts in question to be calculated by aggregating the rateable values of each hereditament in respect of which a person voted in the ballot.
(8) Sub-paragraphs (1) and (2) are subject to provision made in regulations under paragraph 10(1)(g).
Combination with ballot on BID proposals, etc.6 (1) Regulations under paragraph 10(1)(g) may, in particular, provide for a ballot on BRS-BID proposals—
(a) to be combined with a BID ballot;(b) to be held at the same time as (but not to be combined with) a BID ballot;(c) to be held within such period from the date of a BID ballot as the regulations may prescribe.(2) Regulations making provision for a case within sub-paragraph (1)(a) may provide for one or other of the following—
(a) for the BRS-BID proposals to be regarded as approved if conditions prescribed by the regulations are satisfied in relation to them;(b) for the proposals to be regarded as approved only if conditions so prescribed are satisfied in relation to them and conditions so prescribed are satisfied in relation to the matter on which the BID ballot is held.(3) Provision by virtue of sub-paragraph (2) may authorise the person entitled to draw up the BRS-BID proposals to decide which of paragraphs (a) and (b) of that sub-paragraph is to provide the basis for the assessment of whether the proposals may be regarded as approved.
(4) A condition prescribed for the purposes of sub-paragraph (2) may, in particular, involve weighting a person’s vote by reference to the extent of the person’s liability to BID levy or BRS-BID levy.
(5) A “BID ballot” is a ballot held for the purposes of section 49 or 54 of the 2003 Act in relation to the BID.
(6) Nothing in this paragraph is to be taken as limiting the power conferred by paragraph 10(1)(g).
Veto7 (1) This paragraph applies where BRS-BID proposals are approved by a ballot held for the purposes of paragraph (5)(1).
(2) The billing authority may, in such circumstances as regulations may prescribe, veto the proposals within such period from the date of the ballot as the regulations prescribe.
(3) In deciding whether to exercise the veto, the billing authority must have regard to such matters as the regulations prescribe.
Information8 (1) Regulations may authorise the disclosure of information to a billing authority so as to enable it to identify persons who, as regards a hereditament of the description given in paragraph 2(6), have an interest of a description prescribed for the purposes of that paragraph.
(2) Regulations may for the purposes of this Schedule confer on a billing authority such power as an acquiring authority has under section 5A of the Acquisition of Land Act 1981 (c. 67) (power to require information); and for that purpose the regulations may apply (with or without modification)—
(a) that section;(b) section 5B of that Act (offence);(c) paragraphs 5A to 5E of Schedule 9 to the 1988 Act (civil penalty); (d) provision made by virtue of paragraph 5F of that Schedule.(3) Provision by virtue of sub-paragraph (2) may not modify a provision so as to impose a penalty greater than that imposed by the provision being modified.
(4) A billing authority—
(a) may not use information provided to it by virtue of this paragraph except in so far as is necessary for the purposes of this Schedule, and(b) may not disclose the information (except in accordance with an enactment, in pursuance of an order of a court or with the consent of any person to whom the information relates).Application of Part 4 of the Local Government Act 20039 (1) The following provisions of the 2003 Act apply to BRS-BID arrangements, BRS-BID levy and BRS-BID proposals as they apply to BID arrangements, BID levy and BID proposals—
(a) section 43 (additional contributions and action);(b) section 44 (duty to comply with arrangements);(c) section 46(3) and (4) (liability);(d) section 51(4) to (6) (veto);(e) section 52(1) (appeal against veto);(f) section 53 (commencement);(g) section 54(1) to (3) (duration).(2) For the purposes of sub-paragraph (1)—
(a) a reference to a chargeable period in relation to BID levy is to be read as a reference to a period for which BRS-BID levy is to be imposed;(b) a reference to a ballot for the purposes of section 49 of the 2003 Act is to be read as a reference to a ballot for the purposes of paragraph 5;(c) a reference to the two conditions in section 50 of the 2003 Act is to be read as a reference to the two conditions in paragraph 5; (d) a reference to a veto under section 51 of the 2003 Act is to be read as a reference to a veto under paragraph 7;(e) a reference to an appeal under section 52 of the 2003 Act is to be read as a reference to an appeal by virtue of sub-paragraph (1)(e);(f) a reference to non-domestic ratepayers liable to a proposed BID levy is to be read as a reference to persons liable to a proposed BRS-BID levy.(3) Section 47(3) of the 2003 Act (revenue account) applies as if after “BID arrangements” there were inserted “or BRS-BID arrangements”.
Regulations10 (1) Regulations may make such provision for the purposes of this Schedule as may be made in regulations under any of the following provisions of the 2003 Act—
(a) section 42 (joint arrangements);(b) section 47 (revenue account)(c) section 48 (administration);(d) section 49 (proposals);(e) section 52 (appeal against veto);(f) section 54 (duration);(g) section 55 (ballots).(2) Regulations under this paragraph may amend, or apply (with or without modification), a provision of regulations made under—
(a) the relevant provision of the 2003 Act referred to in sub-paragraph (1);(b) section 56 of that Act (further provision).Interpretation11 In this Schedule—
“the 2003 Act” means the Local Government Act 2003 (c. 26);
“business improvement district”, “BID arrangements” and “BID proposals” each have the meaning given in Part 4 of the 2003 Act.”
Amendment 37 agreed.
Schedule 2 : Accounting
Amendment 38 not moved.
Clause 27 : Special introductory provision
39: Clause 27, page 17, line 5, leave out subsections (2) and (3)
My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendments 40 and 41 which are grouped with Amendment 39. In Committee, the noble Baroness, Lady Valentine, brought forward an amendment to exempt the Crossrail project from the requirement for a ballot. That amendment clearly had the support of the Committee and, in response, my noble friend Lady Andrews said, on behalf of the Government:
“I have listened to the repeated calls in your Lordships’ House and during the passage of the Bill in another place for an exemption for Crossrail. I certainly agree with the argument that it brings major benefits across the capital, commands wide support, and is already underpinned by an Act of Parliament. Therefore, with the agreement of the Committee, I would like to accept the noble Baroness’s Amendment 62”.—[Official Report, 18/5/09; col. GC 532.]
This group of amendments makes only minor adjustments to the amendment proposed in Committee. My officials have worked with parliamentary counsel and I am advised that, to be absolutely confident that the amendment achieves the aim that the Committee clearly supported—that is, to give the Crossrail project even greater certainty against challenge or arguments for a ballot, which would in turn import possible delay and risk to the project—these adjustments are, indeed, necessary. With regard to the ballots, there has been no change between the outcome that the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Valentine, would have achieved and the new subsection that the Government have tabled.
Finally, we have taken the opportunity of extending the exemption from the ballot requirement for Crossrail to cover the additionality requirement in Clause 3 of the Bill rather than leaving it to regulations. To ensure consistency with the position for ballots, we are making it clear in the Bill that the additionality requirement will not apply to Crossrail. That is to give certainty to the Crossrail BRS, a project which, I know, enjoys the support of the whole House.
My Lords, as the Minister said, this relates to a debate that took place in Committee on an amendment proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Valentine, which I supported as a co-signatory. We were grateful for the concession given, which recognises the importance that we all attach to the Crossrail project. Indeed, our argument throughout the Bill, as a point of principle, is that the Bill should have been attached to the Crossrail Bill as it relates particularly to that project, which we support. The amendment will ensure that that important infrastructure project can go ahead safely.
In contrast to our previous debate on the government amendments, it is noticeable that whereas this amendment embraces a simple concept that results in a series of amendments running for six lines, a previous one embraced a simple concept and turned it into a schedule of six pages. That is a big difference. We do not want to sound ungrateful but that is a bit like somebody giving you £20 and you feeling quite happy about getting a £20 note when the other person is actually giving you £20 in penny coins. You would just want to take the time to count that on the way out.
With no distrust intended on the Government, in these chastened times we want to make sure that we have everything that we wanted in the previous amendment. However, the Minister did not grant that concession and we are therefore forced to take it on trust and count it before Third Reading. We certainly welcome these amendments and are grateful for the spirit in which they were offered. They are certainly the right thing to do and we are happy to be behind them.
My Lords, perhaps I may place on the record that we, too, welcome these amendments, although we made it clear at previous stages that we do not share the Conservative view that the Bill should be restricted only to Crossrail. Nevertheless, we welcome the amendments.
Amendment 39 agreed.
Amendments 40 and 41
40: Clause 27, page 17, line 27, at end insert—
“( ) Sections 3(1)(b), 7(1) and 10(7) do not apply to a BRS that the Greater London Authority proposes to impose, or imposes, in reliance on subsection (4) if the chargeable period of the BRS begins on or before 1 April 2011.”
41: Clause 27, page 17, line 28, after “make” insert “other”
Amendments 40 and 41 agreed.
Clause 29 : Regulations etc.
42: Clause 29, page 19, line 3, at end insert—
“( ) regulations under paragraph 4(5), 5, 6 or 8 of Schedule (BRS-BID arrangements) (BRS-BID arrangements: liability, ballots, disclosure of information);( ) regulations under paragraph 10 of that Schedule which include provision within sub-paragraph (1)(f) or (g) of that paragraph (BRS-BID arrangements: alteration etc. of arrangements, ballots).”
Amendment 42 agreed.
43: Clause 29, page 19, line 10, at end insert—
“( ) A statutory instrument containing regulations under this Act may not impose on a ratepayer retrospective liability to pay a BRS without error or default on the part of a ratepayer.”
My Lords, these two amendments, which have been tabled in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Cathcart, are designed to provide an important guarantee to avoid retrospection in business rate supplements taxation and to highlight a staggering injustice that continues to be waged against portside industries in this country by virtue of the change in valuation procedures. The effect of these two amendments is simply to restrict the liability affecting business rate supplement if an alteration has been made due to an error that was not the fault of the business rate supplement payer. If it was not the fault of the BRS payer, there should be no retrospective collection of tax or levy under this Bill.
I hope that that statement seems obvious to all sides of the House. If there is no fault, how on earth can retrospection be imposed on businesses? These amendments point out an injustice that has resulted in just such a situation. There was a change in the way in which valuations were operated following a review carried out in 2006 by government tax inspectors at the Valuation Office Agency. Each port used to pay a single levy for all the businesses operating within the port area. Following the 2006 review, the Valuation Office Agency decided that each firm in a port area was in separate occupation. Therefore, from 55 ports in England and Wales, the levy would now be made on 1,600 portside operators. Rather than giving advance warning to those businesses of the change, the Valuation Office Agency retrospectively backdated the next tax bills not to 2006 but to 2005. As a result, portside operators, which are already on the brink and in many cases clinging on for dear life as viable businesses, were landed with an additional tax of £124 million.
In introducing this retrospective tax, the Government disregarded their own rules. The rules that they contravened were that there should be an impact assessment, but none was made; that there should be a consultation exercise with those affected, but no such exercise was carried out; and that there should be an assessment of the impact on the wider economy, but no such assessment was undertaken. The policy also contravenes the Treasury’s own guidance on retrospective taxation.
The Government have admitted that this was a mistake. In fact, John Healey acknowledged that during a debate in another place, when he said that it was a regrettable mistake. As evidence of regret over the nature of the mistake, the Government introduced a small concession, whereby payment of the backdated bill could be spread over eight years. They felt that that would be sufficient to deal with the problem.
However, that is certainly not the case. Many businesses face huge increases in their bills. I wish to mention a couple of the businesses that have come to my attention and made representations to me. Andrew Dixon of Freshney Cargo in Grimsby talked about his additional rates bill taking his annual business rates bill from £48,000 to nearly £900,000, which is an additional £850,000. Even spread over eight years, that is still an additional £100,000 per year, which needs to be found at a time when all other sorts of business rates have been increased and when trade is sinking dramatically.
The impact of this has led to many people losing their jobs. Victoria Ayling has done an outstanding job in drawing attention to this injustice, highlighting a number of cases in the Grimsby area. She recalled an instance where a father had just been made redundant as a result of this tax and his son had to take a forced reduction in his number of hours. She pointed to the impact on companies such as Conoco and DFDS. It has a huge impact on the car industry. I know from my own experience of visiting the CAT depot at Teesport that it has a huge impact, as CAT occupies a large space of land for allowing landing vehicles into this country.
This was debated in this House when my noble friend Lord Attlee ably proposed a Motion on it. In that debate we heard from a number of highly experienced and knowledgeable people about the impact on businesses. I will give some of the examples that were mentioned. In the port of Hull, the effect of this backdating amounts to £25 million. In Liverpool, it amounts to £22 million. In Immingham it is £19 million; in Goole it is £6.5 million; and in Grimsby it is £4.8 million. The Minister lamented yesterday as to why his party was failing so poorly compared to the Conservative Party in Wales. Here might be one of the answers. In Cardiff, the bill for this additional tax has increased by £1.6 million.
This is a spectacular own goal when the Government are trying to introduce measures to save jobs. Here is a very simple measure. It does not cost the £50 billion to bail out the banks; it only costs £124 million to correct something that had nothing to do with the businesses themselves. It was not their fault; it was the fault of the Valuation Office Agency, which has contravened at least five of the commitments that the Government gave about retrospection. This amendment, by guaranteeing that such a series of events could not recur in the context of the Business Rate Supplements Bill, further raises the pressure on the Government to step forward and address this serious injustice. I beg to move.
My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Bates, said, this issue has been debated at least twice in this House, albeit not in relation to this Bill. He has again made the case very well and very clearly. The Government, not the businesses, are responsible for the mess. It is quite wrong that the businesses should be penalised for mistakes that the Government and their agency have made. It is especially wrong and regrettable that they should be penalised in the current financial climate.
The Government have to find a way of resolving this issue. They have so far said that they will allow back-payments to be spread over eight years but, as has been made clear, that is a very limited concession—if it is a concession at all—and has still left unresolved issues in respect of companies’ balance sheets and liabilities.
I am not sure that these amendments are the full solution to the problem—I do not think that they are intended to be—but they are part of the solution. For those reasons, we shall certainly give our support should the noble Lord wish to seek the opinion of the House on the amendment. I hope that that will add to the pressure on the Government to resolve the mess that they have got themselves into but from which the ports, a vital industry, are suffering.
My Lords, I support the amendment. It comprises a single sentence in plain English, which is quite a change from some of the discussion on the Bill. It is quite evident that it is desirable to put it into the Bill because of the history referred to by the noble Lords, Lord Bates and Lord Tope. I was present in the discussion when the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, raised this point before and I was extremely unhappy about the way in which the businesses in the ports were treated; I thought that it was quite wrong, but that our ability to correct it was also very limited. A minor correction was made by deferment of some of the charge, that is true, but, in my view, that was not good enough. The advantage of the amendment is that it makes quite explicit in the Bill that we are not going to have retrospective liability imposed on a ratepayer when there is no error or default on his part. That seems to me self-evident. You might think that it is so self-evident that it should not be put in the Bill, but I would like to see it in the Bill. I will certainly vote for the amendment if we are invited to do so.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Bates for moving his amendment. He referred to the debate that I initiated on this issue when we considered the non-domestic rating legislation. What he forgot to mention was that the House agreed with me and approved my Motion of regret. The amendment is sensible and equitable. It ensures that the costs of errors in the collection of business rates are borne by those responsible for the errors and not by the innocent parties. It promotes the efficient and timely collection of business rates, which is critical to the maintenance of public finances both now and in the future. I urge the Minister to agree to my noble friend’s amendment and, if necessary, to support it in the Division Lobby.
My Lords, I declare an interest, somewhat improbably as someone who has never worked within the City of London, as an honorary fellow of the Securities and Investment Institute. I am going to take the liberty of quoting briefly from its most recent quarterly Investment Management Review, in an article entitled “Devastation in Shipping”. It states:
“The scale of the drop is manifest in two separate statistics. The Baltic Dry Index, the index of shipping costs for dry bulk commodities (iron ore, coal, graphite and grains), fell to a 22-year low of 663 on 22 December, a 95% drop from its all-time high of 11,793 in May. The cost of chartering a Cape-size ship fell from $235,000 a day at the peak of the market to just $2,300 a day in early December … Since December, there has been a bounce, as China has re-entered the market in a limited way. By early February, the Baltic Dry Index had doubled from its December low, to 1498, and the cost of hiring a Cape-size ship had multiplied 10 times to $26,500 a day, compared with its low of $2,300. Needless to say, in spite of this impressive recovery, it only represents one-ninth of the peak reached in the early part of 2008. Notwithstanding this bounce from extreme lows, continued recovery is not expected by industry insiders”.
Those two paragraphs are an index of the scale of the problem that is facing ports at the present time.
I, too, have had representations such as my noble friend, Lord Bates, reflected in his intervention. I shall not delay your Lordships’ House with the details at such a time, after my noble friend’s eloquence, but for the businesses that have written to think that it is worth while raising these issues with me, who has no background in this matter, is an index of their seriousness. If, despite all this, the Government regard this matter as a storm in a teacup, as was implied by the Minister in Committee, we are, of course, all aware that Lord Sugar, as he not yet is, is riding to the aid of SMEs and I hope that we can be confident, on issues like this, that, if the sugar gets into the teacup, it will be—to coin the phrase—shaken and not simply stirred. I support my noble friend’s amendment.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on moving this amendment and on the arguments that he put. He mentioned that the Government think that they have solved the problem by deferring the rates and allowing them to be paid over an eight-year period. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Tope, suggested, while that might help cash flow in the short term, it does not solve the problem, which is that the total of this huge tax liability must, by law, be booked immediately in the accounts of the businesses as a deferred liability and their auditors will need to be satisfied that this deferred liability is matched by sufficient assets, otherwise they must declare the business technically insolvent. What banks in their right minds will lend money to a company that is technically insolvent? This just compounds the problems for these wretched businesses round the ports. Even the Government’s own Insolvency Service is warning Ministers that this could push many firms into insolvency.
My Lords, this is an important pair of amendments and I want in my response to distinguish between two features of the debate. I shall come on to the question of the ports in a moment, but let us consider first the issue of principle. The amendments would prevent BRS from being levied retrospectively as a result of a change in the rating list. I am all too conscious that, if there is one word that threatens to dog Ministers in this noble House, it is “retrospection”. I had the blissful experience of defending the concept during the banking legislation and the scars will stay with me for a considerable time, although the House was persuaded of the justifiable nature of retrospection in that legislation.
However, I do not have the same inhibition with this Bill—very far from it. I understand why the amendments have been prompted by the difficulties in the ports, which I shall come on to. However, BRS builds on the non-domestic rating system. In particular, liability to BRS and the level of liability in respect of any given property will be based on the rating list entry for that property. Rating lists, as the whole House will be aware, can be changed by valuation officers to ensure accuracy and, with that, the accuracy of rates liability. Sometimes this can lead to backdated increases in rates liability. That is a fact of our rating system, so I am not prepared to have the amendment moved as if the Government were, at this stage, introducing an element of retrospection that no one had been aware of. After all, it is also the case that the other aspect is true—“retrospective” might mean that there is a reduced liability for rates, and refunds would be paid out in such a case.
There is the possibility of backdated increases in rateable value causing higher BRS bills than businesses were anticipating, but we are faced with the practicalities involved in ascertaining the need for changes to a rating list and then establishing what change is required. Backdating is an essential part of the normal functioning of the system. Let us disabuse ourselves of the idea that there is anything exceptional about what the Bill proposes with regard to BRS.
In introducing his amendments, the noble Lord, Lord Bates, has given an instance. It does not clarify the issue, though; rather, it clouds it. Not that I am saying that he does not have the right to introduce the concerns of the ports, nor am I going to resile from the fact that my noble friend confessed to an element of fault that had occurred with regard to that position.
The port issue does not, however, affect the principle. It is only right that businesses will be asked to pay the BRS that is due on their property and to pay at the correct level, otherwise we are going to have businesses occupying properties of the same rateable value being liable for different bills. It would be unfair to those businesses that have been paying the correct supplement if others were paying a smaller bill due simply to an inaccuracy on the rating list and because they were not asked to pay the correct supplement. It is also worth reiterating that BRS bills, like rates bills, will go down as a result of a change to the rating list in certain circumstances. This is a normal function of the system.
With regard to the ports, the Chancellor announced in the Pre-Budget Report that the Government will legislate to give businesses more time to pay in certain circumstances because we recognise the problems that port businesses face. Legislation has been passed so that businesses facing such bills in those circumstances will not be required to pay their backdated liability within the financial year at present but will be able to do so in equal interest-free instalments over eight years.
I heard what the noble Earl, Lord Cathcart, said about the problems for businesses faced by this bill. However, if a business that had arrived at this position because of backdating had ensured, operating under legislation constructed to make this possible, that the liability should obtain over eight years, it would be a very odd judgment by a bank or by anyone else doing business with it that it was not a viable business because of this particular feature.
Although the review of ports, and the subsequent separate assessment of a number of new properties within ports, highlighted the issue of the impact of backdated liability, the legislative changes implemented will apply to all ratepayers occupying properties that meet the criteria, including those in ports that meet the criteria, to benefit from a schedule of payments for backdated liability. The legislation is working. As at 8 May this year, local authorities have reported that 185 properties within the ports review had paid £30 million of backdated liabilities in full and that a further 88 business properties within ports had been granted a schedule of payments under the legislation to which I have referred.
To conclude, the provisions in the Bill are entirely consistent with the national business rate system. They ensure that the liability to business rate supplements is fair to all. We had a particular problem with the ports, which the Government have addressed. That issue is not relevant to the principle obtaining on our business rating system in this country. This Bill is fully consistent with the ratings system that we operate. Accordingly, I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I certainly will not be withdrawing the amendment, as I want to test the opinion of the House. Before doing so, I will respond to some of the points made by the Minister.
First, the Minister says that this is entirely consistent with other business taxation. It is not. The businesses being impacted and blighted by the levying of this backdated tax were not liable. It was not the case that they had the incorrect rating or had somehow made the wrong declaration themselves. They were not liable at all for this taxation. It has been introduced this year and backdated to 2005. That is an entirely different thing. Of course there needs to be the backdating element, but it needs to be kept where the fault is with the business itself.
Consider for a moment the implication of what the Minister is saying. It removes all pressure from the Valuation Office Agency to take responsibility for its actions. It can go on in the clear knowledge that it does not have to keep an up-to-date list or advise people in a timely way. It can go on ad infinitum and backdate measures at any level that it requires.
Secondly, on the impact on real businesses and real jobs, trading conditions will come and go. They have been referred to in this debate. This is not something that is the result of trading conditions; it is the result of an acknowledged mistake, an error by the Valuation Office Agency and the Government, which is costing people in this country their jobs and causing businesses to close at a time of recession. It is a spectacular own goal on the part of the Government. One would have hoped that they would respond more favourably to it.
My Lords, of course I accept the point that the noble Lord is making. My noble friend apologised in Committee for the mistake that gave rise to this situation. The Government are making reparation. Yet we are discussing a Bill about the business rate supplement; this is an amendment to that Bill. I maintain that the Bill follows the normal pattern of business rate levies in this country and I fail to understand why one instance—a mistake that produced detrimental consequences to which the Government have responded—should jeopardise the arrangements in this Bill when the Bill follows the pattern of business rates across the country.
My Lords, I am sorry that the Minister is so agitated about people pointing out the harsh facts of what government mistakes are costing in jobs and businesses in this country. This matter was debated and referred to in this House. The result was that the Motion put forward by my noble friend Lord Attlee was supported by 77 votes to 69. Despite all the evidence, the Government continued to make no response. Despite all the apologies, to which the Minister has added liberally today, there has been no acknowledgement that there need to be reparations that say to valuation officers that they cannot backdate in this instance, that they made a mistake, that they must put it right and that they must not take it out on hard-pressed businesses and hard-working families around this country. The Minister has not convinced me at all. In fact, he has reinforced my view on this matter. I want to press the amendment and test the view of this House.
44: Clause 29, page 19, line 10, at end insert—
“( ) For the avoidance of doubt, it is hereby declared that Regulation 14(6) of the Non-Domestic Rating (Alteration of Lists and Appeals) (England) Regulations 2005 (S.I. 2005/659) (which provides that the alterations made to correct inaccuracies in local rating lists shall have effect from the day on which alteration is made) shall apply to any lists affecting the liability to pay BRS; and where such an alteration affecting liability to pay BRS is made, it shall in no case have retrospective effect without error or default on the part of a ratepayer.”
Amendment 44 agreed.
Coroners and Justice Bill
Committee (1st Day)
Clause 1 : Duty to investigate certain deaths
1: Clause 1, page 1, line 9, at end insert “notwithstanding the location where the death occurred”
As your Lordships will see, the amendment seeks clarification from the Government that the jurisdiction of the coroner is determined by the location of the body; in other words, the location of the death is irrelevant. If a body comes to rest in a particular coronial jurisdiction, no matter where the death occurs, that coroner is seized of his responsibilities. I believe I need say no more than that. I beg to move.
Amendment 2 stands in this group and is in my name and that of my noble friend Lady Finlay of Llandaff. I strongly support the point on clarification that the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, has just made. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response. Amendment 2 would add to the Bill,
“or when the coroner has reason to believe that the circumstances of the death were such that, in the public interest, the death should be investigated”.
At the beginning of 2008, following the delays in implementing many of the recommendations that arose from the murder of patients by Dr Harold Shipman and the subsequent murder in 2002 of patients at Leeds General Infirmary by the nurse Colin Norris, I tabled a series of Questions to the Government. The Shipman murders had led to an inquiry, which published six reports and 228 recommendations at a cost to the public purse of some £21 million. Weaknesses were discovered in the death certification process; the requirement for one doctor alone to certify a death and decide on referral to a coroner; and the failure to cross-reference notified deaths and look for trends and patterns. Among the 228 recommendations were many other proposals to strengthen the system of public protection.
After Shipman’s trial, the inquiry, chaired by Dame Janet Smith, decided that there was enough evidence to suggest that Shipman had probably killed around 250 people, of whom 218 could be identified. About 80 per cent of his victims were women. In the case of Nurse Colin Norris, on 8 March 2008, he was convicted of murdering four elderly patients and attempting to murder another. Mr Justice Griffith told Norris, in sentencing:
“You are, I have absolutely no doubt, a thoroughly evil and dangerous man. You are an arrogant and manipulative man with a real dislike of elderly patients. The most telling evidence was that observation of one of your female patients, Bridget Tarpey, who said, ‘He didn’t like us old women’”.
On 25 March 2008, the noble Lord, Lord Darzi, in responding to my Written Questions about these events, stated:
“I understand that the Yorkshire and Humberside Strategic Health Authority is arranging for an independent investigation of the events at Leeds General Infirmary and it would therefore be inappropriate to comment further at this stage”.—[Official Report, 25/3/08; col. WA81.]
Later, on 21 May 2008, the noble Lord replied to my Written Questions about the Shipman recommendations, stating:
“Clauses implementing these important reforms will be included in the coroners and death certification Bill announced as part of the Government’s draft legislative programmes for 2008-09”.
He also stated:
“The Government believe that these proposals represent a transparent, proportionate, consistent and affordable response to the weaknesses identified by the Shipman inquiry that will provide greater protection for the public and improve the quality and accuracy of death certification”.—[Official Report, 21/5/08; col. WA196.]
I recognise, as I told the noble Lord, Lord Bach, at Second Reading, that this Bill goes a long way in trying to prevent a repetition of these appalling crimes that took place in the north of England. However, there are still anomalies in the law that could allow cases such as those that I have described to slip through. At Second Reading, I asked the Minister how many of the 228 recommendations of the Shipman inquiry had been incorporated into this legislation, and what further measures would be needed to deal with the failings identified by the Norris inquiry. Last week I called the Minister’s office to indicate that I would pursue the question today. I hope that it will now be possible to answer that inquiry. For the sake of clarity, I inform the Committee that I met Dame Janet Smith with my noble friend Lady Finlay of Llandaff. We discussed the amendments that I have tabled to the first part of the Bill. They have been tabled in consultation with Dame Janet Smith and try to close the gap that still exists in the legislation. Out of courtesy, I copied details of the amendments in advance to the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, and the noble Lords who represent the Liberal Democrat Front Bench. I believe that the incorporation of the amendments standing in my name would improve this legislation and go a long way to answering Dame Janet’s concerns.
In particular, I take the Committee to page 54 of the Ministry of Justice document published on 21 May 2008 entitled, Statutory Duty for Doctors and Other Public Service Personnel to Report Deaths to the Coroner, (CP(R) 12/07). Paragraph 6 states:
“Coroners have a broad duty to investigate unnatural deaths, as well as all deaths which occur in custody or other state detention or during the course of police operations. There was a general consensus that the right categories of deaths were included in the consultation paper flowing from this general definition. Many helpful suggestions were put forward to help clarify the detail. Following the consultation process, we believe that the following categories of cases that should be referred to the coroner will provide the basis for further work and consultation”.
I shall give the Committee details of what appears in that list. I know that the Government have an inbred dislike of including lists in legislation so I am not inviting them to include the entire list but these were the conclusions that were registered by the Government themselves in answer to the consultation paper. My amendment seeks to take the list and in a generic way provide a trigger mechanism for investigating any deaths that might fall into these categories.
The list in the document refers to:
“death resulting from self harm and neglect (excluding deaths from alcohol or nicotine abuse where the death would not be investigated but for those reasons); death resulting from neglect or abuse where there is an established duty of care by a public authority, other organisations and individuals; death occurring during or shortly after a period of detention; death caused or contributed to by the conduct of the police or any other state authority or public organisation; death relating to past or present employment; death resulting from lack of care or appropriate treatment, defective treatment and adverse reaction to prescribed medicine; death of a child where it is unexpected; death where a violent crime is suspected; sudden and accidental death, and deaths resulting from traffic incidents; where a death has not been certified as the doctor is unable to identify with any confidence the cause of death; death where there is reason to believe it may have been caused or contributed by a disease or condition that has been specified as being reportable to the coroner because of regional social history, for example lung disease caused through working in the coal industry; and death associated with pregnancy and childbirth”.
Let us take that last category alone,
“death associated with pregnancy and childbirth”,
or deaths in hospitals through, say, the outbreak of MRSA, or a disease such as sepsis where bereaved families might well believe that a loved one has died through negligence and yet the cause of death might not appear to be unnatural. I refer the Minister to page 18 of the response to the consultation document and the specific request of Dame Janet Smith and Her Honour Mrs Justice Swift, who specifically asked that some of the categories to which I have just referred should be incorporated in the legislation as a way for people who feel that the system has not responded to their concerns to be assured that the matter will be addressed.
This amendment is designed to provide a catch-all for all those categories in the list I mentioned which are not spelt out in the Bill. It would remedy the disconnect between what the doctor has to report and what may warrant an investigation in the public interest. I have with me a copy of the final death certificate issued by Harold Shipman. It was given to me by Dame Janet and details the death of Mrs Kathleen Grundy. She died at the age of 81 on 25 June 1998. The day before her death this elderly but sprightly and healthy lady had provided hospitality for her elderly friends at a club she attended. Her death certificate simply records that “old age” was the,
“disease or condition directly leading to her death”.
We owe it to the memory of victims of Shipman such as Mrs Grundy to get this right. We also owe it to Dame Janet and her outstanding colleagues who have provided such a remarkable public service in their meticulous and comprehensive inquiry. I hope that the Minister will feel able to respond positively to the amendment that I have laid before your Lordships’ House.
I would like to speak to Amendment 3 in my name. This stems from the work of the Joint Committee on Human Rights of which I am a member. Before I get to the heart of the amendment, I congratulate the Government on requiring coroners to investigate deaths that have occurred in state detention. This is a positive human-rights move. The purpose of the amendment is to make it clear what state detention is. All we have is the phrase,
“in custody or otherwise in state detention”.
That is a good move but it would be better if we could have clarity in the Bill about what state detention means.
We have the Explanatory Notes to the Bill, which are very useful and come in a thick tome. They explain the Government’s view that the extension enhances the state’s ability to meet its obligations under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights in relation to a number of cases where the liberty of the subject may have been constrained—for example, where people have died while being detained in a variety of contexts, such as in prisons, by the police, in court cells, in young offender institutions, in secure training centres, in secure accommodation and under mental health or immigration and asylum legislation. Of course, that is welcome in general terms but I think that it would be much better if, rather than the key details being in the Explanatory Notes, they were in the Bill.
I am not saying that the amendment includes all the possible instances of where a coroner’s investigation might be necessary. Indeed, the amendment says that the list would “include” the following. Therefore, the list is not comprehensive but it would certainly add clarity to the Bill and I hope that the Government will agree that, rather than hiding this in the Explanatory Notes, it is better to have it in the Bill so that everyone knows exactly what we mean. Having said that, I repeat my welcome for the inclusion of the provision by the Government but I just think that they should go one step further in making it clearer.
I have added my name to the amendment that has already been discussed by my noble friend Lord Alton, and I should like to add a little more to the points that he made.
We have been told that the role of the medical examiners will be to feed into the governance processes and to detect failings in care and drive up standards of care within the jurisdiction of a PCT area. However, one problem is how to define a natural death and how to decide whether the death is natural but has been brought forward in time or whether it has occurred because of clinical non-responsiveness—I shall not say “negligence”, as that is too strong a word, but I am referring to whether something could have been done to avoid the death. A classic example is death in childbirth. Medical science now means that very few women, but still too many, die in childbirth in this country, but of course in many other parts of the world a catastrophically large number of women still die in that way. When these deaths are investigated, some of them are, sadly, found to be due to medical negligence. Examples are where, for whatever reason, a woman has not been oxygenated during a caesarean section under anaesthesia, where the response to something such as a catastrophic haemorrhage has been too slow or where the management of labour has led to some complication which, although rare, does occur, such as a ruptured uterus and the catastrophic events that follow that. These are so-called natural deaths but certainly they are totally unexpected and potentially avoidable. I can of course understand why you cannot define “natural” or “unnatural” clearly in the Bill; it is understood in the way that you speak about things.
The other reason for having a public interest test is that deaths which are due to, for example, infection or environmental issues gradually come to light as a clustering of deaths occurs. As these deaths unroll, the investigation focuses not so much on one individual but on a group of individuals. We have recently heard about swine flu in Mexico, where the mortality rate has been particularly high. It seems that that may be due to the high arsenic levels in the groundwater. That has meant that there is a degree of subliminal arsenic poisoning in the population which inhibits people’s immune system and makes them more vulnerable to the severe effects of swine flu. Therefore, they have died whereas others who have not been so exposed have come through the infection fine, with no adverse sequelae.
Where there is a clustering of deaths, the coroner has to be able to investigate them, not so much for the individual but because of the public interest. With time, we may well find that something such as environmental toxins causes a clustering of deaths, because we do not know what lies ahead.
I am sure the Minister will say that there is great sense in not putting lists in legislation. If you make a list, there is always the problem of what is to be left out. I would simply commend to him the concept of public interest. It would underline the governance role that has been emphasised in some of the reforms of the coronial system.
I shall speak to Amendments 2 and 3. In beginning his speech, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, referred us back to the Shipman inquiry and the dreadful events leading up to it. As I pointed out on Second Reading, the Government rightly moved very quickly to deal with some of the medical aspects, but it has taken more time to deal with the coroners aspects. It seems to me that the important point in the comments just made by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, is that sufficient attention had not been paid to the clustering of deaths. If proper attention had been paid, it would have been clear that there was an emerging problem. Indeed, as I understand it, the first observation of the problem ultimately came not from the coroners but from others. As we go through the Bill we will find a number of circumstances that bring us back to that dreadful experience, because part of the business of the Bill is to address and redress that experience. One of the ways of doing that is to give the coroners the responsibility to look a little more widely than they have traditionally done. That is very important.
As the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, said when speaking to his amendment, which we support, we all welcome the new extended duty to investigate deaths in state detention; we very much welcome the human rights-enhancing components of this measure. As he said, however, it is a little disappointing that we find this only in the Explanatory Notes. There does not seem to be any reason why it should not be spelt out and explained in the Bill. “State detention” has different meanings to different people. It is important to spell it out and to make it clear, as he has done in his amendment. If another, more precise amendment is proposed, so be it, but we think that it is important to spell it out. That is not to say that we take the view that coroners should restrict themselves to investigating whether we are all compliant with the human rights convention. We will come to that a little later.
Perhaps I may point out one specific way in which even the excellent amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, seems not to go quite far enough. He refers in paragraph (b) to those detained under mental health legislation. What we usually think about is how important it is to ensure that people are not inappropriately detained under any legislation, including mental health legislation. However, one way in which a death can not infrequently occur is not in relation to the implementation of the mental health legislation but precisely at the point where the person is no longer detained. They are detained because it is felt that they are suicidal and a danger to themselves. So they are detained in an appropriate place and given an assessment and treatment. At that point they will probably, we hope, be in somewhat less danger. They then present themselves in a reasonable fashion for a time—I have seen this happen myself. So the detention is stopped and they are no longer detained by the state. Often that is precisely the point at which they are at much greater danger of doing harm to themselves and coming into the purview of the coroner.
So even if we were to adopt the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs—as I say, we very much support adopting it—one incredibly important group of people would not be addressed, precisely because they had moved out of state detention at the very point when they came to harm. That is why not only the noble Lord’s amendment but the prior amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, are very important. I think that we will also come to other amendments that will help expand this a little further. At this point, however, we find these amendments extremely helpful. We look forward to the Minister’s comments.
I thank all noble Lords who have spoken on this group of amendments. The noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, asked for clarification on Amendment 1. We argue that Clause 1 makes it clear that the coroner’s duty to investigate a death is triggered by virtue of being made aware of the body of the deceased person being located within his or her area. Where the death actually occurred is largely irrelevant to the triggering of that duty, although if the body were moved after death from one area to another, the duty would apply only to the first coroner to whom the report was made. That also applies to deaths that occur overseas—a matter that I know is of concern to many noble Lords—but where the body is repatriated to England and Wales. In such cases, the duty to investigate the death lies with the coroner within whose jurisdiction the body is returned. I hope that in those few words I have satisfactorily clarified the Government’s position on Clause 1.
Turning to Amendment 2, I refer noble Lords to regulations under Clause 18, which will prescribe cases and circumstances in which a death should be reported to a coroner, which will provide more detail as to the types of case which will trigger a coroner's duty to investigate. We shall be consulting further on the content of those regulations as part of the secondary legislation process. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, and other noble Lords mentioned the tragic, awful case of those who were murdered by Dr Shipman. I thank the noble Lord for saying that we have gone a long way in attempting to deal with the issues that that ghastly case threw up. His point is that the deaths that occurred at the hands of Dr Shipman appeared at first glance to be wholly natural and non-suspicious but, with the benefit of hindsight, it would have been in the public interest to investigate them.
We believe that the new death certification procedures contained later in the Bill will succeed much more readily in detecting such deaths and bringing them to the attention of the coroner, so that the duty to investigate will be triggered where necessary. I stress that the coroner's duty to investigate is a continuing duty. If fresh evidence regarding a death comes to light later—evidence that quite clearly brings the death in question within the scope of Clause 1(2)—an investigation must be held even if a period of some months or even years has passed since the death in question.
The noble Lord wrote to me, and just this morning I signed off the letter back to him, which will be copied to all those who spoke on Second Reading. In advance of his receiving my letter, perhaps I may tell him what I had to say about his request for figures regarding the exact number of recommendations. On the Shipman inquiry, it states:
“The … Bill incorporates legislation responding to the Shipman Inquiry’s Third Report …. As you know, whilst accepting the findings of the inquiry, the Government has decided to adopt a different approach to reforming the coroner service than that recommended by Dame Janet Smith. For this reason, [it] is not possible to provide a figure regarding the exact number of recommendations responded to by legislation incorporated in the Bill. More generally, you will wish to be aware that the Coroners and Justice Bill is the last piece of primary legislation required to implement the Government’s wide ranging programme of action in response to the recommendations of the Shipman Inquiry”.
I also wrote to the noble Lord about the case of Colin Norris, which he referred to today.
So we are not convinced of the necessity for Amendment 2. On Amendment 3, the last in this group, we have no difficulty with my noble friend’s comments about accepting the accuracy of the list of circumstances that the amendment contains and which are to be regarded as constituting either custody or state detention for the purposes of triggering an automatic coroner’s investigation under Clause 1. They effectively replicate, as he said, the list contained in the Explanatory Notes. However, we do not think that it is necessary to include such a list in the Bill. I refer my noble friend and the Committee to Clause 39(2), which we think has an adequate definition of what constitutes state detention. It states:
“A person is in state detention if he or she is compulsorily detained by a public authority within the meaning of section 6 of the Human Rights Act 1998”.
In addition, the Explanatory Notes that will accompany this Act, if and when it becomes such, will contain a list similar to that which appears in the Explanatory Notes to the Bill. I would anticipate with some confidence that the Chief Coroner will also include a similar list in any guidance that he or she may publish. I hope that that reassures my noble friend about our intentions, and I thank him for the compliments that he paid to the Government on introducing the concept of state detention within the categories mentioned. I also hope that he agrees that it is not necessary to have such a list in primary legislation and that, in the light of my attempted explanation, noble Lords will agree not to press their amendments.
I am most grateful to the Minister for his response, both to my amendment and to the other amendments in this group. I should perhaps make it clear that the Opposition are, broadly speaking, sympathetic to both Amendments 2 and 3.
In fact, when listening to the Minister’s response to Amendment 2, I was struck by the recollection that on many occasions in legislation Secretaries of State are given specific powers, rounded off by a more general one to act in the public interest. I wondered whether one reason why the Minister was hesitant to grant this more general power to the coroner was because it might be felt that the coroner was less attuned to assessing the public interest. Was that why the Minister said what he said? On my amendment, however, I am content with the noble Lord’s clarification, which I found extremely helpful.
Before we leave this group of amendments, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, for his support in principle for the point being made in Amendment 2. I thank the Minister for his response although, like the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, I have some anxiety about merely recording these concerns in regulation. Between now and Report stage, we shall of course look carefully at the Minister’s suggestions.
I come back to the recommendations made by the Shipman inquiry itself, of which there were 228. Without asking him to go through them in detail today, or even in response to my letter, it is reasonable to inquire now which of those have not been included in the recommendations contained in the Bill. Although the Government have decided not to pursue the route recommended to them by Dame Janet Smith, it would nevertheless be helpful to the Committee to know that. As the noble Lord said, so much of this legislation is based on that experience of the Shipman inquiry and the recommendations that were made.
My noble friend Lady Finlay of Llandaff made a very good point about the issue of childbirth and when babies die in natural or unnatural circumstances, how those are recorded and whether there would be a public interest requirement in triggering an inquiry. That specific point was made by Lady Justice Smith and Mrs Justice Swift when they responded to the Government’s original consultation; that is recorded on page 18 of the consultation document. As we consider this matter further between now and Report, I hope that the Minister will accept that there may be a need to persist with the amendment. However, it would be better if we could reach consensus.
I am grateful for the support from the noble Lords, Lord Kingsland and Lord Alderdice, for Amendment 3. I take the latter’s point about people leaving mental health detention when they can be particularly vulnerable. I understand that; it was not something that the Joint Committee on Human Rights looked into, but I am sympathetic to the noble Lord’s point. My noble friend explained why the Explanatory Notes and the advice to coroners would be sufficient. I would have preferred it in the Bill, but he explained the Government’s position and I do not want to move my amendment.
I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 1 withdrawn.
Amendments 2 and 3 not moved.
Clause 1 agreed.
Clause 2 : Request for other coroner to conduct investigation
4: Clause 2, page 2, line 31, at end insert—
“( ) A senior coroner shall inform the Chief Coroner if completion of an investigation is likely to take more than 12 months from the time that the coroner was notified of the death.
( ) The Chief Coroner shall maintain a register of prolonged investigations.”
The amendments in this group concern the time limits of inquests. At the moment, an inquest can be opened but because there is no requirement to keep the family informed and no time limit is set, some families have had an inquest opened but proceedings have not occurred, sometimes for years. The problem for a bereaved family is that they often look to the inquest for closure and for some unanswered questions to be answered. Sometimes they have unrealistic expectations of what an inquest will provide for them.
At the time, however, an inquest is also traumatic for a bereaved family because it reactivates their grief. They relive the events, and with doing that they relive the emotions, raising a whole lot of “if only” questions. Sometimes those had been dormant; sometimes new questions emerge. No one, then, should underestimate the role which an inquest can have in people’s bereavement: to take them back in time and almost to relive the shock of the original event, of hearing the news and all that went with it. The problem is that it can increase distress if new light is shone on what happened or a new slant emerges from something with which they had begun to come to terms.
I have tabled Amendment 6 because if an inquest case is referred to another coroner, it is important that both the first and second coroners are subject to the same requirement. The amendment does not set targets but requires some sort of monitoring process for delays. It is particularly important not to set targets, as it may be that a slow and thoughtful inquest is exactly what is needed thoroughly to investigate a death. The problem is much greater where a coroner has a high workload and one case falls to the bottom of the pile or the back of the queue, lingering on either because it is not a major case or something else very major comes along and bounces it down that queue of cases to be heard.
My view is that the Chief Coroner needs to know if one coroner has an undue workload or is failing to keep up with the workload for whatever reason. It is human nature for people, when they are somewhat snowed under, to take some time to call for help. Monitoring delays could give a good early warning sign that problems may be emerging in one jurisdiction. It may be that a coroner is severely under-resourced, and that would emerge as well. This might be a way to audit the processes.
The other area in which timeliness becomes particularly important is where deaths occur abroad. It is difficult for coroners to get information from other countries about a death. Despite repeated inquiries, sometimes they simply receive a note saying “heart stopped” or words to that effect, which sheds no light on what happened when in this country such a death would be extensively investigated. In the case of an accident or where the remains are dispersed or difficult to find, or they are returned to this country very late, it is extremely difficult to ascertain what really happened. The inquest can be unsatisfactory because currently coroners have no power in this area, and I do not see anything in the Bill that would give them a power to request information. I want to ask the Minister whether there have been moves in the European Union to empower coroners to request information from other countries within the EU and whether there are routes for coroners to get information from countries outside the EU. After talking to coroners, it is the case that information is more readily available from countries outside the EU, so it is not that the EU standard is higher than that of the rest of the world. In fact, sometimes it is quite the reverse.
An inquest can be opened and proceedings delayed because a prosecution is pending, and if the prosecution does not then proceed, so be it. Everyone understands that, and again that is why I would not want to see a 12-month time limit to be viewed in any way as a judgment on an individual coroner.
Quite apart from the difficulties for the bereaved, there may be delays in remedial action being taken if it is evident that it is needed following a death. It may be that another death occurs during the delay, which is a tragedy if it happens because somewhere there was a degree of negligence.
I think that everyone in this House welcomes the provision for one coroner to be able to transfer their workload to another coroner for a multitude of reasons. I hope that it will be possible within that framework to ensure that as a coroner develops expertise in a certain area or in a type of death, the Chief Coroner would be able to steer that coroner towards investigating deaths in their area of expertise. As we know, there are groups of deaths. At Second Reading I talked about the deaths in Bridgend. The coroners in South Wales are aware of the problem of suicide in young people, particularly those related to use of the internet. A pool of expertise has been built up which makes those coroners appropriate to conduct inquests into such tragic deaths.
The background to the amendments is to set a standard of timeliness and I hope that the Government will see the sense in trying to do that. I beg to move.
Amendment 13 is grouped with Amendments 4 and 6. The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, made several important points about the stress put on bereaved families when they have to wait for three, four or five years for an inquest, and she rightly described how they have to relive the difficulties, memories and traumas invoked by the death. She also mentioned the issue of lessons learnt, which is extremely important in terms of remedial action. The third reason to avoid delay is that it is also difficult for witnesses at an inquest to remember accurately. Memories can fade even after a few months, while after four or five years it is hard for anyone to remember events accurately.
I have tabled an amendment that would simply insert the word “timely”. The noble Baroness is right to say that we should not try to define what “timely” is, but when delay results because authorities have not got their act together, being inefficient and not prioritising the work that needs to be done—I refer to the police, local authorities, the Crown Prosecution Service and so on—it is clear that it is not the coroner who is delaying the proceedings. However, I would accept that a lack of resources may be a problem for coroners, and I recognise that the Government are trying to solve it in this Bill by enabling certain geographical changes.
Inquests are delayed for many reasons. An organisation known as INQUEST has furnished me and, I am sure, many other noble Lords with a lot of examples of young people who have died in custody and the inquest has been delayed for four or five years. That is really unacceptable. There seems to be no good reason except that perhaps these deaths are not regarded as being worthy of being given the same priority as the Government now recognise needs to be given to deaths in the Armed Forces. We should not have a two-tier system of investigations into citizens’ deaths, whether they fought for this country or died in prison. People have families and lessons need to be learnt.
I have kept my amendment simple because it can then be taken that an inquest was not held in a timely manner and a hook is available to go to judicial review. So far as I can see, if the process is unfair on a family and an inquest is not held, there is no means of going to judicial review. Although I accept that there may be other ways of doing this—and certainly the solution proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, is elegant because at the least a record should be kept and coroners should notify each other about delays—it may be best to go back to first principles. The Bill ought to recognise that an inquest should be timely.
I support these amendments. In this part of the Bill we are concentrating on the substance of coroners’ inquiries, the skill and experience of coroners, and so on. However, it is right that we should be attentive to the timeliness of inquests. If we are going to have a Chief Coroner, it seems appropriate that he should have the role of monitoring cases that go on for a considerable amount of time. I regularly read the local press and I always look at the regional news. It is quite remarkable how often families are concerned about the time taken for an inquest to be held. In London we may not feel it so much, but when delays arise you realise how badly this affects families because they cannot see any closure. It is quite traumatic for them. A system of monitoring is right. I will not ask exactly how it is to be handled in relation to the text, but I hope that the Minister will satisfy himself that the question of reasonable speed and timeliness of action is given attention during our consideration of the Bill because it has more importance for many citizens than perhaps we realise here in London.
I support these amendments. There is nothing unusual in monitoring the progress of cases. The Heads of Division in the High Court each have a responsibility to see that cases are dealt with in a timely fashion. For instance, certainly when I left, civil cases were supposed to be complete within three months. Family cases should be dealt with within one month; that is, judgments had to come out in that length of time. I can remember spending a considerable amount of time with Ministers discussing the delays in the family courts, particularly delays concerning children, which were monitored very carefully. There is nothing unusual in monitoring. But now that we are to have a new and better system of dealing with coroners, and a Chief Coroner, it would be very important that the Chief Coroner knows, from the moment that the inquest is in its incipient state, when monitoring is likely to be done.
There are all sorts of reasons why cases take a long time. When I sat briefly as an assistant deputy coroner, I was engaged in probably one of the longest of all cases, even before I left it, and other cases have to take a considerable time. It is extremely important that there should be both the requirement of the Chief Coroner to keep an eye on the progress of cases, that individual senior coroners should keep an eye on the cases within their areas, and that the Chief Coroner should know of their progress. Having “timely” in the legislation would be a useful provision for the Chief Coroner, rather than having a judicial review. The effect of judicial review is to slow down a case, rather than to increase its speed. “Timely” would be a useful provision for both the Chief Coroner and for the senior coroner of the area when saying to an assistant coroner, “Perhaps you can let me know how you are getting on, because that is what the legislation requires”.
I support these amendments. In another context, Gladstone famously said that justice delayed is justice denied. Any of us who have had any kind of encounter with people who have been waiting for the outcome of coroners’ inquiries know that that is very much a feeling that is in their own hearts and minds when they have been bereaved, especially when the circumstances have been tragic. During my time in another place, I was heavily involved with victims of the Hillsborough disaster, and with families whose children’s body parts had been used at the Alder Hey children’s hospital. Noble Lords will recall the trauma that both of those events caused to many of the families involved, and those traumas continue to this day. Delays in dealing with these kinds of tragedies are simply unacceptable, so it seems completely reasonable of my noble friend Lady Finlay to suggest that we should put into the system some requirement to keep a check on where we are in the process.
The noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, also made a very good point about the effects of the passage of time. The memories of witnesses and people involved in these events sometimes become clouded, and their evidence is sometimes not so reliable, simply of because of the period that has elapsed since they occurred. So we are putting in place reasonable checks and balances, first, as regards the passage of time and, secondly, to provide for closure. Perhaps, given the suggestion in the second subsection of Amendment 4, that:
“The Chief Coroner should maintain a register of prolonged investigations”,
it would be helpful to the Committee if the Minister, when he replies to this brief debate, could tell us how long it usually takes. What is the average length of such an inquiry? That would give us some indication of whether there are long delays, and could he tell us not just the average but what are the longest outstanding inquiries currently before coroners?
I support these amendments. The Minister wrote to me stating that the overriding aim of the reforms of Part 1 of the Bill is to improve the service that bereaved people, whether service families or otherwise, receive from the coroner system. I am sure that that is the right aim, but at the moment the Bill is missing this important point of timeliness, or some way of ensuring that the bereaved have an awareness of when the coroner inquest will be heard. At the moment, they are left very often with no firm indication of when the inquest will be heard. This is not satisfactory from their point of view.
I thank noble Lords for this interesting debate on the timely hearings of inquests. I start by stating the obvious. No one would disagree with the principle that inquests should be held as soon as possible, as soon as all the relevant information is to hand, and when all related investigations or proceedings have been completed. The average time to complete an inquest is 26 weeks, and the vast majority, 90 per cent, are completed within 12 months of the death. That is an acceptable timescale for the completion of an inquest. It ensures that the families have the opportunity to go through the main challenges of the grieving process and to consider what questions they would like an inquest to answer, before necessarily being confronted by the public nature of those proceedings. We want to ensure that the remaining 10 per cent of inquests are held within a similar timescale wherever possible, provided that the coroner has the appropriate information before him or her.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, said, there are delays for a variety of reasons, very few of which are the responsibility of the coroner. For example, in many cases the coroner may be waiting to hear reports from authorities with a statutory or other duty to investigate the particular death. This might be the Health and Safety Executive, the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, the Independent Police Complaints Commission, the transport accident investigation branch, to name a few. Alternatively, the coroner may be awaiting the outcome of criminal proceedings, which generally take precedence.
We have already taken some steps to reduce delays, particularly with regard to inquests into the deaths of military personnel, which we will discuss later. This Bill will bring forward further ways of dealing with backlogs of work and reducing delays. For example, the flexible new appointments process will mean that a local authority can recruit and deploy a pool of assistant coroners to expedite caseloads or to tackle particular peaks of work. This is in addition to the Chief Coroner’s power to transfer cases, which noble Lords have already praised, and the power for coroners to transfer cases between themselves by agreement as a way of tackling backlogs. Coroners will also no longer be restricted to holding inquests within their own areas, if they and their local authority are unable to locate suitable accommodation for the needs of a particular inquest. Clause 24 of the Bill places a statutory duty on local authorities to provide sufficient officers, staff, accommodation and facilities to enable coroners to carry out their functions.
I emphasise that the Bill will not require coroners to do more work per se with the same or fewer resources. The reverse is the case. The introduction of medical examiners will remove a considerable volume of work from coroners, enabling them to focus their resources on the cases for which they have jurisdiction. We estimate that once the role of medical examiner beds down, some 130,000 to 150,000 deaths per year will be referred to coroners, rather than the approximately 235,000 cases per year which are reported to them under the present arrangements. The reduction in that caseload will, we think, lead to significant savings which can be redirected to improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the service. So we are confident that the overall effect of this package of measures will ensure that inquests are carried out in both a timely and thorough manner, with quality and the appropriate speed.
On Amendments 4 and 6, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, I can assure her that it is the intention that the Chief Coroner will carry out the functions that she talked about so persuasively. Clause 35(3)(e) sets out that regulations may make provisions giving the Lord Chancellor and the Chief Coroner powers to require information to be provided to them by senior coroners. This will include an annual statistical return, which coroners are required to provide to the Lord Chancellor currently. Within this statistical information is a requirement to report on coroners’ oldest cases. We can be confident that the Chief Coroner is likely to want to make inquiries as to the reasons why cases have been apparently delayed, although, as I have pointed out, the responsibility may well be beyond the control of the coroner. I hope that that assists noble Lords in at least appreciating that we see this as a real issue that needs to be sorted out, which we believe that the Bill, as drafted, will do.
I was asked for figures by the noble Lord, Lord Alton. I can give him the average figure—the one figure that he asked me not to give—on inquest timelines in 2008. It will probably be helpful if I do so in percentage terms. Completed within one month, 9 per cent; completed within one to three months, 20 per cent; completed within three to six months, 35 per cent; completed within six to 12 months, 27 per cent; and completed over 12 months, 9 per cent. So, as I say, it is a 90-plus per cent figure within a 12-month period.
I was asked about outstanding cases, some of which go back a long way. That must be because they are exceptional cases. The oldest that I can find relates to Wolverhampton, from June 1998. There are also, from October 1998, North Yorkshire eastern district; Avon, the former county of, December of that year; West Yorkshire western district, May 1999; Surrey, March 2000; Manchester City, July 2000; north-west Wales, January 2001; west London, February 2001; and south London, March 2001. It is possible that some districts, such as north and west Cumbria, have inquests older than March 2001, but only the oldest case is shown in the figures that I have given. I hope that they are helpful to the Committee. We believe that the Bill deals with this problem.
The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, referred to delays with regard to deaths abroad. It is an important function of the Chief Coroner to co-ordinate requests for information from overseas authorities; it is one of his or her functions. He or she will establish positive relationships, we trust, with overseas authorities—some of which have no knowledge of the roles of coroners—to ensure that there is more likelihood of co-operation. Part of the duty of the Chief Coroner will be to ensure that the service is run effectively and in a timely fashion and that there are no outstanding inquests for which there is no excuse.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Miller and Lady Finlay, have made good points but we do not think that the Bill needs to be amended.
I did not hear the Minister give a reason why we could not include the amendments in the Bill. Although I appreciate that some of the examples that he has quoted, and that I could quote, where there have been delays of five, six, seven, eight or nine years, fall into that 9 per cent, which is a small percentage—I accept what the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss said, that perhaps judicial review is not a good move because it produces delay—surely there is a case for setting an aspiration in the Bill to deal with these cases. It may be only 10 per cent, but it is a very traumatic 10 per cent.
I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in support of the amendments. In particular, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, for the points that she made in relation to my amendments and others. I also thank the Minister for his comprehensive and reassuring response. I was particularly taken by his stress on the effectiveness of the coroners service, when it comes into being, and how that will incorporate concepts of timeliness.
I was trying to do the sums quickly as he read the figures out and it seems to me that we have nine, possibly 10, inquests that have been opened and outstanding for eight years or more. That is an incredibly long time for a bereaved family. I have a concern that, if only the oldest cases are collected when we collect statistics from coroners, one will miss the shape of the curve and the average may not represent the whole spread. Comparisons need to be drawn between different coroners.
I should like to record my gratitude to Mary Hassell, who is the coroner in Cardiff. She has set herself a general target of clearing inquests within six months, when possible. She has inspired confidence in the medical profession in Cardiff in a way that her predecessors were unable to do. She has engaged in open dialogue and is seen to be very effective. It is interesting that the average for other people is six months; she has set that as her upper limit. It can be done, even in a resource-tight environment.
When listening to the Minister, I wondered whether something along the lines of “including information on the effectiveness of the service” could be added to Clause 35(3)(e). Perhaps we should think about coming back to that. In the mean time, I am most grateful for the Minister’s full and comprehensive reply and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 4 withdrawn.
Clause 2 agreed.
Clause 3 : Direction for other coroner to conduct investigation
5: Clause 3, page 2, line 39, at end insert—
“( ) Before giving a direction under this section, the Chief Coroner must take into consideration the resources available to coroner A.”
The amendment would insert a sixth subsection in Clause 3 between subsections (1) and (2). As your Lordships can see from the text of the Bill, Clause 3(1) reads as follows:
“The Chief Coroner may direct a senior coroner (coroner A) to conduct an investigation under this Part into a person’s death even though, apart from the direction, a different senior coroner (coroner B) would be under a duty to conduct it”.
Our amendment would place, in a separate subsection under that, the words,
“the Chief Coroner must take into consideration the resources available to coroner A”.
There are circumstances—your Lordships, I am sure, have come across them more than once—when, for various reasons, there is intense pressure on one coronial area. There might, for example, have been a disaster, such as the one that occurred on the London Underground, in which a large number of people have been killed instantaneously and the task of dealing with the inquests proves intensely onerous. There might, for no apparent reason, be a large number of deaths in a particular area. Alternatively, a separate situation might arise whereby the witnesses in a particular inquest, or, indeed, the family, live a long way away from a particular coronial area and it is appropriate to see whether a better way forward would be to give the responsibilities to another coroner.
Of course, we have absolutely no quarrel with this, subject to one caveat, and that is that we believe it is critical for the Chief Coroner, before he makes his direction to coroner A, to ensure that the resources at coroner A’s disposal are sufficient for the task that he is about to be given. We see nothing about that in the Bill. That is the background to our amendment, which I beg to move.
I support the amendment. I am somewhat concerned, reading the Bill, that the responsibility for coroners of the individual area remains with the local authority and there is not a national coroner set-up, as I know was suggested by Mr Luce and, I think, by Dame Janet Smith. The result is that each individual coroner will be paid for by the area in which he or she will be carrying out his or her duties. Some areas are richer than others. If an area is in financial difficulties or has particular burdens on it—particularly some of the London areas with huge immigration problems—but faces the request that its coroner try a particular case, for some reason, and that case is likely to be long, arduous and expensive, it might well be extremely difficult for that area to deal with the case with the finances available to it. I think that the amendment is extremely sensible in that the practical movement of cases from one area to another should be determined with an eye to whether the area designated as the area in which the coroner tries a case will have the financial resources to do it.
I have two amendments in this group, which concern the resources available to coroners. First, I should like to address the resource of the premises available for a coroner to hold an inquest. The coroner is dependent on the local authority for allocating premises that can be used but, sadly, some of the premises are really not fit for purpose. Coroners have to have premises, ideally, where privacy can be observed and where the bereaved are not sitting in a room facing the person whom they believe to be the perpetrator of the death. Coroners need to have facilities where people in wheelchairs can be accommodated and can be heard if they are giving evidence. At the moment, some of the premises are such that somebody is shouting from a wheelchair in the middle of the floor. There are some premises where, by the time you have the interested parties and the press in, one wonders whether it is unsafe. Indeed, sometimes complaints have been made when the coroner, in the name of safety and fire regulations, has called a halt to the number of people who could even come into the room.
If there is a jury present, the premises should allow privacy—not only a room to withdraw in, but privacy to go to the toilet. Some premises have only one male and one female toilet and it is inappropriate for a juror potentially to encounter somebody else when they have to go. During the course of a day, jurors are just like anybody else and they will need to go. Some premises do not have appropriate disabled toilets. Another problem can arise when the premises are adjacent to somewhere where there is a noisy activity going on—a dancing class, or whatever. It can be particularly difficult for someone who is deaf to hear proceedings adequately and such noise disturbs the thought processes. These are such serious matters that one feels that they should be heard with a degree of solemnity appropriate to the occasion in an appropriate environment.
The other problem is that the relatives may be elderly, they may be distressed or they may have children in school. If a child knows that the inquest is happening that day into the death of their mum or dad, they deserve to be able to be collected from school, if at all possible, by the parent who is still alive, not farmed out to neighbours, other parents from school, or whatever. For that child, just knowing what is going on that day brings back all their grief. The difficulty is that some premises are difficult to get to by public transport and families without a car can face long travelling times with very sparse bus services if they are travelling from one area to another. We know that, for most of Britain, you can get in and out of London pretty quickly, but getting across country can be more difficult. It can be a similar situation within a coronial jurisdiction. My interest is the south Wales valleys—you can get up and down them very fast, but you certainly cannot get across them with any great ease. I am glad to see the Minister nodding in agreement from his own experience.
The other difficulty, to which the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss alluded, is that the allocation of resources is dependent on the local authority and on the number of deaths. I understand that, if more than 3,000 deaths are referred to a coroner, you get more resources—higher levels of pay—and, below that number, there is a sliding scale. The difficulty is, of course, that in some areas you may get a lot of deaths reported. In one area, a lot of elderly people may die within 24 hours of being admitted to hospital, but those deaths do not require investigation, whereas in another area, where there is a younger population, you may get horrendous crimes, deaths through stabbings, accidents and so on that require investigation, so that the numbers reported to the coroner may be lower but the resources required by those coroners is much higher than in an area with an elderly population.
I should like the coroner to be empowered in the event of there not being appropriate premises. It would be useful if the senior coroner was able to make representation to the relevant authority. My amendment at Clause 24(4) is, indeed, to strengthen those resources. As for benchmarking, which is a word in the amendments, there is a concern that you would benchmark against too low a standard, rather than benchmark against the highest standard, but the idea behind these amendments—I fully accept that the wording of them is not right—is to establish some kind of standard around the resources of all sorts that are available to a coroner so that they can conduct their inquiries appropriately and so that the needs of the bereaved can be genuinely catered for, as was the express intention of the Government when this Bill was introduced.
I shall speak to Amendment 79, which is in this group and stands in my name. The noble Baroness has vividly and rather horrifyingly described some of the inadequacies of the accommodation for inquests. I share her grave concern.
My amendment relates to Clause 24, on the provision of staff and accommodation. The clause says:
“The relevant authority for a coroner area … must secure”,
the provision of staff and so forth as well as the provision of,
“accommodation that is appropriate to the needs of those coroners in carrying out their functions”.
I hope, therefore, that in future we shall not have inadequate accommodation. I notice, though, that the clause refers only to the needs of the coroners in carrying out their functions. My amendment would add,
“and of the families attending the inquest”.
We have already heard about the understandable traumas suffered by families attending an inquest. The last thing that one wants is to see that trauma exaggerated and exacerbated by inadequate accommodation. It is important that there should be recognition in the Bill that families, or members of the public with a special interest in this, should be catered for as well. That is not there at the moment; the Bill relates only to the coroner’s requirements. One hopes that the coroner might take the view that family accommodation is part of his duties, but it is not clear that that is the case. Will the Minister state categorically that families will be catered for in the accommodation?
I support the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes. My name is on this amendment. What has been said makes it clear that the interests of the bereaved’s next of kin who wish to attend an inquest must be catered for. If we are out to improve the coronial arrangements, which the Bill is directed at achieving, this is one area where that can be done, perhaps by regulations setting some sort of minimum standards for any coroner’s inquest accommodation arrangements.
I support the amendments. Schedule 2 sets out the Government’s policy that the coroner areas should be,
“the area of a local authority or the combined areas of two or more local authorities”,
while the responsibilities of providing staff, accommodation and courts are set out in Clause 24, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, has just spoken. Have the Government carried out any survey of the accommodation that is currently provided? I have experience of an old coroner’s court, local authority accommodation, magistrates’ courts and Crown Courts, but I am sure that inquests are held in places that are much less suitable than court buildings. The Government have deliberately, and as a matter of policy, decided not to include coroners within the Courts Service. If there is a survey, can we have some idea what its findings were regarding the provision of accommodation and the necessary adjuncts to it? If that information is not already available, no doubt the Minister can provide it to us by Report.
I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken to this group of amendments, which relate to the question of resources for this important service. I shall seek to establish how we intend to make obligations to get resources up to standard and the responsibility that the Chief Coroner will carry with regard to this matter, although the responsibility for actual provision rests locally.
I do not have a national survey to hand, the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, may note; I am not sure that there is one, but if there is I will make sure that it is available for later stages of the Bill. It is clear, though, that resources vary between different localities. The burden of the remarks made by all noble Lords who have contributed to the debate is that resources should be available to make the service as effective as possible. I emphasise the point with which I am utterly in agreement: we need to place the interests of the bereaved at the centre of these concerns.
Amendment 5, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, seeks to place an obligation on the Chief Coroner to consider the resources available to the coroner who will receive a transferred case before deciding whether to give a direction requesting that coroner to conduct an investigation into a person’s death. I must emphasise the obvious fact that the issue of funding inquests that have been transferred in the manner mentioned in the amendment will be covered in underpinning regulations. I do not have those regulations to hand at present, but the general principle within them will be that with regard to deaths that occur in England and Wales, the relevant authority for the area in which the coroner would be under a duty to conduct the investigation will continue to be responsible for meeting the costs associated with the case, even if it has to be transferred to a coroner in another area to investigate. For deaths that occur overseas, the local authority for the coroner who is directed by the Chief Coroner to conduct the investigation will be responsible for the costs.
These are general principles only and do not meet the points of detail that have been identified in the amendment. I will go on to those in due course. There may indeed be scenarios where a case is transferred within England and Wales and it is appropriate for the authority of the receiving coroner to meet the costs or for the costs to be shared between the two authorities. These are matters that we will need to work through, given the issues that noble Lords have identified in this debate about the necessity of ensuring that facilities are adequate for the inquest to be held properly.
These principles provide a fair and appropriate way to fund such investigations. With regard to the obvious aspect of inquests into Armed Forces personnel who die on active service overseas, not only will the procedure that we envisage enable cases to be transferred to jurisdictions nearer the home of the bereaved family, thereby meeting the principal point that was adumbrated by several noble Lords in this short debate, but it will relieve some of the funding pressures that jurisdictions such as Oxfordshire or Wiltshire and Swindon have faced in the past while carrying out in such an admirable way—we all applaud and recognise the service that has been provided—the vast majority of inquests that have arisen from the death of service personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have fallen under their jurisdiction. We are looking to share this burden on the basis that the inquests will be conducted nearer to the homes of those who are bereaved, which bears somewhat on the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, about the problems of travel for the bereaved. I shall come on to that in more detail in a moment.
Amendment 23 and Amendment 79 seek to place an obligation on coroners and the local authorities that fund them to consider the needs of the bereaved when deciding on the location of an inquest. I hope it will be appreciated that this is an important part of how the Bill sets out to provide for the needs of the bereaved. Clause 24 already places a legal obligation on local authorities to provide sufficient coroners’ officers and other staff, along with suitable accommodation and facilities to enable the local coroner to carry out all of his or her functions.
The accommodation will need to be adequate for coroners to fulfil their additional obligations under the charter for the bereaved—an important part of the Bill which will be issued under Clause 34. The charter is designed to put bereaved people at the heart of coroners’ investigations. It will obligate the coroner to take into account a bereaved family’s views about the timing of an inquest—an important point we have already debated considerably today—as well as providing information to the bereaved about the location of and facilities available at the inquest’s venue. The charter also states that, wherever possible, there should be an appropriate private room for the use of bereaved relatives and that reasonable adjustment will be made—to take the point of the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay—to meet the needs of those with disabilities. I am grateful to the noble Baroness for emphasising that point.
We recognise that we have a great deal of work to do before these charter provisions can be fully met. Officials have already set in train some preparatory work with local authorities to ensure that they are aware of their future responsibilities under the Bill and that they can take steps now to ensure that families are better served than perhaps they have been in the past, as identified by several of the contributions we have heard in the debate.
The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, emphasised difficulties with rural communities. I am not sure that my valley was ever green enough to be called a rural community—I hasten to add it is a good deal greener these days with the disappearance of the coal industry. The noble Baroness is right. The difficulties rural communities face in travel can also be reflected in the geographical features of the Welsh valleys and many other places.
There has been a widespread welcome for our plans to move towards a largely full-time coroner service. This will mean an end to some of the existing, smaller jurisdictions. In planning new areas—which will be done in full consultation with the local authorities concerned—the geography of a particular region will need to be taken into account. In the larger geographical regions, the presumption will be that the coroner travels to an inquest, rather than that the bereaved family travels to an inquest centre. That is an important principle. To achieve this, it may be that we will retain a small number of part-time coroners, perhaps in support of a full-time senior coroner for an area, so the workload can be appropriately shared and a disproportionate amount of time is not spent travelling.
Amendment 78 seeks to place a requirement on all local authorities to benchmark their provision of staff and accommodation against other coroner areas. In the reformed system to be created by the Bill, it is likely that the Chief Coroner will indeed gather evidence to establish some key national benchmarks on quality, on service levels and on resources. As I mentioned earlier, some of this work can be completed during the implementation period for these reforms.
The Chief Coroner will also have an ongoing monitoring role. In this, he will be assisted by the new independent inspection regime we are proposing under Clause 31. Under this clause Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Court Administration will inspect all coroner areas in England and Wales and will report to the Lord Chancellor and to the Chief Coroner on the administration of the system in different coroner areas. If it appears that there is a problem in any particular area with resources, including accommodation, the Chief Coroner in his or her role as national leader of the coroner system will be able to liaise between coroners and the local authorities that fund them to ensure that, as far as possible, improved resources are made available and that these are used in the most effective way.
Although I cannot give to the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, his survey at this stage, the Bill envisages that there is a full appreciation of national resources, that there are benchmarks and that deficiencies can be identified with a view to remedy. Should there be—
It is not quite clear how this funding is going to be achieved. Local authorities will be responsible for what is going to be an upgraded accommodation system. That is quite right; the accommodation needs to be upgraded for all the reasons given by noble Lords. Do the Government expect local authorities to fund this out of existing budgets, so it will be competing with their capital programmes for other equally pressing things, or do the Government envisage that they will provide resources for it as a result of the Bill?
Local authorities are going to be responsible for meeting their obligations under the Bill. It may even be that the Chief Coroner will exercise the option of naming and shaming poorly resourcing authorities if there is no indication of improvement. We hope to bring much greater pressure than has been the case in the past with the individual coroner in a locality wrestling with the issue. We hope to bring a degree of national or at least regional comparison with, in the most extreme cases, the Chief Coroner indicating that standards are not high enough in a locality.
I accept, as the noble Baroness says, that local authorities are not going to be able to throw a switch and solve these problems overnight. No issues with regard to resource allocations are solved in that way. The Bill is meant as a powerful instrument for the improvement of resources. It is not going to be achieved overnight—certainly not in the circumstances where we recognise that local authorities struggle to meet their commitments and have many challenges. The objective of the Bill is to create a framework in which improvement can be effected. I hope noble Lords will recognise that the Bill faces up to the question of a necessary structure to improve resources. What I hope I have identified as probing amendments can be safely withdrawn on the basis that the Bill significantly addresses these issues.
I thank the Minister for that comprehensive reply in outlining the standards. It struck me that an adequately resourced national coroners service might have been an alternative to carrying on with the finances coming from the local authority. I realise we are not amending the Bill to do that—to move the money out of the local authority and into a national service—but a national service could then have a framework with standards against it. That might make it easier to achieve equity and fairness of provision than by trying to name and shame local authorities which I fear might plead poverty and hold coroners inquests up against things such as educational provision, cleaning streets, et cetera. It might still be quite difficult to improve the service in those areas where it needs to be improved most.
That is a little unfair; I have not talked about any of the ingredients, and I am certainly not going to talk about straw. I was indicating that the objective of the Bill is not to calculate resources but to set up a framework by which we can improve the service, identify standards and identify deficiencies against criteria which shift the emphasis more towards the interest and the requirements of the family of the bereaved. Within that framework, we have a structure which can effect significant improvements. We have a little way to go before the Bill becomes an Act, and there are many issues with regard to resources. Let us concentrate, however, as the Bill is meant to do, on the framework which makes proper decision-taking possible and effective. Issues of resources can then follow.
That framework is all very well, and I approve of the Chief Coroner and the inspector to whom the noble Lord has referred. But inquests do not take place in thin air; there has to be somewhere where they occur. As I understand it, the Minister is saying that the Chief Coroner can name and shame local authorities but if they have more urgent calls upon their budget, that is too bad. That leads to what in other contexts we call a postcode lottery. In one area there is an adequate service and adequate provision for a proper hearing, while in another there is not. A local authority can say that it has more pressing needs.
The Government have decided that the coroners service should not operate within the Courts Service, where courts would be available. It is necessary for us to pursue this point now and at later stages of the Bill.
I am most grateful to all those who have spoken in this debate and to the Minister for what he has said so far.
I should like to understand, as precisely as I can, the Government’s position on this matter. It is quite clear from Clause 3 that they are convinced that it will be necessary, from time to time, to give directions to coroner B for a case to be transferred to coroner A for all the reasons that have been deployed in this debate. It is also quite clear, not only from what has been said but also as a matter of common sense, that there is absolutely no point in making such a direction to coroner B unless the Chief Coroner is convinced that coroner A has the resources to carry out the transferred task. It must follow, must it not, that, before issuing a direction, the Chief Coroner must make a financial assessment about the capacity of coroner A to carry out that task? If that is so, what possible objection can the Government have to our amendment, which says precisely that?
Let us be clear what the debate is all about. I have listened to a construct of a different basis on which the coroners service could be delivered in terms of a national position. We do not believe that; local authorities have expressed to us their clear interest in the coroners service. Therefore, we are obligated within those terms to seek to improve the structure which governs the service and strengthens the position of the Chief Coroner to bring pressure to bear. Within that framework, I do not deny that the issue of resources will become of some import.
The noble Lord asks whether it would be possible to transfer a case to a coroner who manifestly does not have the resources to meet that request. In those circumstances, the transfer could not take place. People will act sensibly within these terms, but the concept behind the transfer is to seek ways in which we can make the service more sensitive to the needs of those whom we are seeking to serve. The noble Lord is right that this must be taken into account, but that is different from putting resources in the Bill at this point. This amendment has attracted a number of others concerning resources. I do not cavil at that, because I recognise the importance of the issue, but the noble Lord will appreciate just what it would mean if we had to underpin almost every initiative in the Bill with a clear allocation of where the resource base was. That is not the nature of the way in which we construct legislation.
I am prepared to accept the noble Lord’s point in general terms, but he will recognise why the Government are not prepared to accept the amendment as it stands. Once we started on the allocation of resources, I had no doubt that the noble Lord, who is pretty fertile in these matters, could produce a plethora of resource issues that relate to almost everything in the Bill. He will appreciate why I am resistant to that process.
The whole point of Committee stage is to raise issues which give the Government a chance to pause for thought. The transfer from one coroners’ court to another might raise quite significant resource issues, but that is rather different from accepting an amendment which starts us down the route of attaching a price tag to almost every clause. That is not the way in which we will make progress in improving the coroners service.
I wonder whether I am the only Member of the Committee who has become increasingly baffled during the past quarter of an hour. My understanding is that in Parliament, as in most other bodies, it is the responsibility of those who bring proposals forward to be able to present some sense of their cost. Without that, it is hardly responsible to make such proposals.
Secondly, has the Minister ever had, as I have, a considerable volume of correspondence on a particular issue describing him, as I have been described, as a “toothless tiger” because I was widely thought to have powers which I did not have? That is the position that the Chief Coroner will find himself in with regard to these issues. Will the Minister find applications from men and women prepared to apply for the post of Chief Coroner in those circumstances?
There are individuals in our national life who carry out roles in which they make recommendations on standards and seek to influence those who have resources without necessarily commanding the resources themselves. A great deal of our inspectorate system works on such a principle. The Chief Coroner is not an inspector; he has a critical role. Nor is he a distributor of all the largesse available for the coroners service; quite the opposite, local authorities are the holders of the funds in those terms. They want to play their part in this. We are concerned that they are able to play their part and to meet standards of service which we want to focus a great deal more on the needs of the bereaved. That is the basis of the Bill.
I say with great respect to the Minister that he appears to be putting up more and more smoke in response to the questions that have been posed by various of your Lordships. This has got nothing whatever to do with increasing resources, either centrally or locally. It has simply got to do with the functioning of Clause 3.
Clause 3 can only function—the directions can only sensibly be made—if they are made to people who are in a position to carry them out. The responsibility for making that assessment is the responsibility of the Chief Coroner. Inevitably, that assessment will have to include the terms of my amendment. I do not want to be driven into a corner on this matter now, unless I really have to be. The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, has made the very good suggestion that one alternative to putting this matter in the Bill might be to include it in regulations.
I want to be clear about what the Minister’s response to this is. I hope that what he is going to stand up and say is that he accepts in principle that this is a matter that ought to be addressed and he would like to give consideration to whether or not it should be addressed either in the Bill or in subsidiary measures, whether they be formal delegated legislation or authoritative guidance.
I am very happy to respond to the noble Lord. In fact, I did in my opening remarks indicate that we have considerable work to do on the issue of regulations. We have clear principles, and the general principle will be that if the death occurred in England and Wales, the local authority for the area where the death occurred will be responsible for meeting the costs. That is where the burden will lie, as a principle.
As I said in my opening remarks when referring to the amendment, we will be concerned with regulations to address these issues. I am simply resisting putting this on the face of the Bill. The noble Lord has raised the issue and the Government need to address it—we do not have the slightest doubt about that—but we shall do so in regulations, not on the face of the Bill.
I am most grateful to the Minister for replying in the way that he has. I shall re-table this amendment on Report, in the expectation that something quite concrete will be coming forward from the Government then. Meanwhile, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 5 withdrawn.
5A: Clause 3, page 3, line 6, at end insert—
“(4A) When giving notice in writing to coroner B of a direction under subsection (4), the Chief Coroner shall give his reasons in writing—
(a) to coroners A and B, and(b) to an interested person,for the direction to conduct an investigation under subsection (1).
(4B) For the purposes of subsection (4A) “interested person” shall have the same meaning as section 38(2)(a) or (b) as appropriate.”
I feel I should apologise for having such a series of amendments, but I remind the Committee that I have waited some years, as have others, for the coroners legislation to be introduced. When it finally did arrive I simply extracted the long list from my filing cabinet of issues, and premises was one issue among many others. I will be brief. I am grateful to the British Legion for reminding me of the importance of keeping people informed. Amendment 5A provides that when the Chief Coroner gives direction to another coroner to conduct an investigation, the reason is given to the next of kin. It is simply to keep them informed. That would avoid delays in the event that others seek to obtain such information by way of an appeal, freedom of information request or judicial review.
Amendment 45A requires notification to be given if the body is moved. For the vast majority of bereaved people—I will not say everyone, because there are always exceptions to a 100 per cent rule—the body plays a very important part in their accepting and grieving the death. They want to know where the body is, where the final remains rest. It seems compassionate to let them know if the body has been moved as well.
Provisions under Clause 4 require the senior coroner to give a written explanation to interested parties if an investigation is discontinued, where the cause of death is revealed by post mortem. A requirement also to notify the family if the inquiry is transferred to another coroner, or if the body is moved, would therefore seem only to build on the system already in place. I therefore hope that it would not be onerous. It may be important in heading off any complaints, appeals or, worst of all, requests for judicial review of the Chief Coroner’s decision. I beg to move.
I should like to ask the Minister a question arising from my noble friend Lady Finlay’s amendment. It also has a bearing on the debate that we have just had, initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland. It is really about the movement of cases from one area to another. This idea of notification which is contained here and was implicit in our earlier debates is a good one. My question is about what slack the Minister has identified within the system to make this more than purely an intellectual exercise. Do we know that within the system there are coroners who have the capacity to deal with some of the cases referred to in the last group of amendments and in this one? Therefore, how often is this likely to become a regular exercise or one that might be frequently used?
I rise to speak to my own Amendment 90A, which is in this grouping although it goes to Schedule 4, where the coroner may wish to have a body exhumed. I do not want to go into the circumstances of that because that is not the purpose of my amendment. The amendment would simply add that where such an undertaking occurs, interested persons should be informed. The interested persons I am particularly concerned about are, of course, the next of kin and close family friends. If a body is to be exhumed, that is not something that any member of a family would consider lightly; it must be a terrifying thought in some circumstances, even if one is anxious to get to the truth. It must be a traumatic experience. It is therefore vital that information of such a sort should be made available immediately to close family and friends. I have used the term “interested person” because there is an interpretation of it in Clause 38 and it seemed useful to use that explanation.
I am grateful for the succinct but accurate comments made in support of these amendments. I hope I will not be as prolix as I was on the preceding amendment, because I agree with all the sentiments that have been expressed and that lie behind the amendments. The noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, is right that “interested person” is the accurate definition, and the amendments seek to place on the Chief Coroner and the coroner investigating a death a duty to keep certain interested persons informed of developments in the investigation. The first amendment—the one in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay—extends as a courtesy to interested persons in cases where a case is transferred to another coroner’s area. The amendment would require the Chief Coroner to inform in writing both the coroners.
I do not agree that the amendment is necessary. The Chief Coroner will make the decision and the interested persons will be kept informed of it. They will need to know where the investigation is being held. We have always said that the views of the bereaved family will be an important factor in the decision. They will be consulted before the Chief Coroner’s decision is taken and informed of it afterwards.
The noble Baroness’s Amendment 45A requires the coroner to inform interested persons of the location of the body of the deceased if it is transferred. Once again, I do not think it is necessary to put it in the Bill. The charter for the bereaved sets out that the coroner will keep the bereaved family informed of developments in the case, particularly relating to post-mortem examinations. This will include both the location of the examination and an explanation of the type of examination that will be carried out.
The amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, would require a report to be made to interested parties. It has always been the intention that interested persons receive both a copy of the report and the response to it, as is the case under the current rule as we amended it in July 2008. That commitment will be carried forward to the rules to be made under Clause 36. I hope that I can reassure her on that front.
On the definition of “interested persons”, I do not think that the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, need have any anxiety. It is not needed in the Bill, because coroners are given a discretionary power to designate a person as interested if they have “sufficient interest” under Clause 38(2)(n). Next of kin who are not specified in Clause 38(2)(a)—that list is extensive—could fall under subsection (2)(n) if the coroner felt that they had the required level of interest in the investigation. All categories of people who would have sufficient interest in the matter are covered.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, asked me what slack is in the current system to transfer cases. This is largely irrelevant in the present system, which is predominantly part time. The reformed system will have predominantly full-time coroners. The issue is quite clear in those terms.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Davies. Before he concludes, will he indicate what capacity he thinks there will be in the reformed system, as he just described it, to deal with the current level of inquiries and whether there will be slack within it for the transfer of cases? From what I have seen in areas of the north-west of England with which he will be familiar, there are very few places where there are not sufficient cases to keep a full-time coroner busy.
That is an important point, but the noble Lord, Lord Alton, will recognise that transfer of cases is sometimes sought because of overload, derivative of a particular catastrophe or, as I discussed earlier, when overseas personnel have been killed or have died. Particular localities carry the brunt of those cases and families are expected to travel to those areas in southern and south-west England where bodies are brought back by air. We want to share that around more equitably, and I think that the noble Lord will see the way in which we can seek effectively to do that.
I return to slack in the system. If we prioritise the interests of the bereaved, the transfers will reflect that, and the system will be evened out by the very nature of the randomness of where the bereaved live. If the noble Lord is suggesting that the system will have pinch-points in it, I say that the present system has those, too. We are creating within the framework of the Bill an opportunity to identify problems more effectively and effect a proper response to them.
Amendment 5A withdrawn.
Amendment 6 not moved.
Clause 3 agreed.
6A: After Clause 3, insert the following new Clause—
“Investigations into deaths of service personnel
(1) Coroners conducting investigations into the deaths of members of Her Majesty’s Forces shall have the appropriate training for carrying out such investigations.
(a) an investigation is transferred under section 2(1) or 3(1), and(b) the deceased is a member of Her Majesty’s Forces,the coroner to whom the case is transferred shall only conduct the investigation if he has the appropriate training for conducting investigations into deceased members of Her Majesty’s Forces.”
The proposed new clause stands in my name and that of the noble Baroness, Lady Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde, who cannot be with us today but who is fully behind the sentiments expressed in this clause and the other amendments grouped with it. Perhaps I may sketch in the background to the proposal and, in doing so, declare an interest as president of the War Widows Association of Great Britain and of the Sussex branch of SSAFA Forces Help. Your Lordships will understand, therefore, that I have an interest in military inquests and their impact on the family and close friends of the service man or woman who has died.
In the early days, there was great concern not only because of delays resulting from the impact on coroners in particular areas of the country where bodies were repatriated—that was bad enough, but I shall not dwell on it now—but also because the coroners did not then have the expertise which several have now acquired. A military ethos informs the way in which people who died in conflict are dealt with, making it quite different from the normal duties that are required of a coroner in civil society. It was easy for the families in those early days to feel that the coroner concerned did not have a sufficient grip on what it was all about. Above all, where embarrassment to the Government was caused by the death of servicemen, it was felt that it would be relatively easy for officials to—how shall I put it tactfully?—pull the wool over the eyes of an inexperienced coroner.
Several coroners now are extremely competent and very well versed in the needs of a military inquest. They certainly have not been afraid on occasions to point the finger of blame at, let us say, inadequate protection for a servicemen through no body armour being available, or perhaps inadequate vehicles which have then been the subject of enemy fire. A very tricky coroner’s inquest can take place.
The thrust of the new clause and the amendments grouped with it is the absolute necessity for that expertise not to be lost, which means proper training for any coroners who undertake military inquests. Several bites at the same cherry have been presented and I hope that the Minister might be persuaded to take up at least one of them. He has a choice of which ones he might like, including the amendment in this group in the name of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, who will, I am sure, speak in due course.
My favoured one is Amendment 114, which asks for one deputy chief coroner to be appointed with specific responsibility for overseeing military inquests and the training of all coroners undertaking military inquests. I put it like that because it is very important that somebody near the top of the system has a specific role and duty and can then undertake the training of other coroners. The key point is for there to be somebody near the top of the pile with that duty imposed on him. That is why I have suggested one deputy chief coroner with that particular duty.
I hope I can persuade the Minister that this is important. I gathered at Second Reading that he takes the view that there is a general duty of training in the Bill and that it is sufficient for the purpose. My view—very firmly held—is that it is not sufficient. It needs to be written into the Bill because time passes, people forget and expertise is lost, so we need something to pin it all in place. For that reason, I feel strongly that there should be something in the Bill that can be there for a considerable time. I assume that we are unlikely to see another coroners Bill in my lifetime, and certainly not in the near future. This is our sole opportunity to make sure that it is right. Therefore, I warmly recommend at least one of these amendments to the Minister. I beg to move.
I rise to speak to Amendment 37 and the other amendments grouped with it. They all have a similar thrust. My choice of location in the Bill was driven by the fact that line 22 of page 8 has the phrase:
“Death of service personnel abroad”.
I do not necessarily hold to that as the right place to put it, but it is very important that there is something in the Bill. The Committee is well aware of the problems that have arisen in dealing with inquests of service personnel tragically killed overseas. As I mentioned at Second Reading, it has taken some years to get satisfactory arrangements made. Only after a considerable time did coroners, particularly in Wiltshire and Oxfordshire, build up considerable experience in dealing with military deaths. This experience is now widely recognised and valued.
There are no indications that the active use of forces overseas will be dramatically cut in the near future. In the past month alone, 12 more operational deaths have occurred in Afghanistan. We must brace ourselves for the possibility of significant further deaths in the coming months and years. In Command Paper 7424, entitled The Nation’s Commitment: Cross-Government Support to our Armed Forces, their Families and Veterans, the Government undertook to provide fair treatment for our Armed Forces because of the unique nature of their service to the nation. Surely it follows that the maintenance of expertise to hold inquests on service personnel in the coronial service is not only essential but should rightly be in the Bill.
The noble Lord, Lord Bach, wrote to me on 22 May, following Second Reading, and his letter is in the Library. He sought to reassure me that measures in the Bill will,
“strengthen investigations into military deaths”.
I read the Bill closely and did not feel great confidence that military deaths would be better investigated, based on what was in the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Bach, also said:
“As indicated in paragraph 56 of our draft charter for the bereaved, we expect the Chief Coroner to issue guidance to coroners about investigations into deaths of service personnel on active service”.
This, he said, combined with the training of coroners and their officers, for which the Chief Coroner will be responsible, will ensure that,
“all coroners are able to conduct effective investigations into deaths of service personnel”.
In his next sentence the Minister says that an extremely complex investigation could be transferred by the Chief Coroner to a coroner with the necessary skills and experience. Surely this last sentence acknowledges that there is a need for the necessary skills and experience. Indeed, it effectively contradicts his previous assertion that the Chief Coroner will ensure that all coroners are able to conduct effective investigations.
I looked at the latest version of the draft charter for the bereaved. Incidentally, the introduction to the charter states that the new Chief Coroner will probably want to consult again before the reforms are implemented in full in two or three years’ time. This is hardly a definition for firm action on the day that the Bill becomes law, which is, I believe, what is required. Paragraph 56, to which the Minister refers, says that the Chief Coroner will be responsible for setting national minimum standards across a range of coroners’ functions. In terms of services to bereaved families, this could include standards in relation to particular types of death or suspected death, such as deaths on active military service. This is but one example. The draft goes on to specify a variety of other causes of death, such as death as a result of atrocities or other disasters; death from particular illnesses such as epilepsy and sudden adult death syndrome; and death apparently resulting from suicide. These, the draft charter says, are matters for the Chief Coroner to determine when he or she is appointed.
Paragraph 57 of the same draft charter says that this is only a draft and is intended as a guide for those with an interest in the kind of service that it is envisaged will be provided by the reformed service. Surely this is just not good enough. We must seek an amendment to the Bill that gives clear instruction to the Chief Coroner to provide for and maintain the necessary expertise in service inquests, which experience over the past few years has shown to be essential and of particular importance to the next of kin of those who have so tragically lost their lives at a young age. Command Paper 7424 was introduced and debated with much fanfare in this House. The noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Bolton, said that the Government were unashamedly setting out to provide special consideration for the Armed Forces and their families. The draft charter for the bereaved, on which the Minister wishes to rely, is far too generalised. It lumps military inquests together with a whole variety of others and is not just geared to the particular and present-day needs of military inquests. I urge the Minister and the Government to reconsider this issue.
We have a great deal of sympathy with the amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley. In other parts of the Bill we will look at the expertise, experience and training of medical examiners. I know that people in judicial positions are always a little more reserved about training or particular qualifications. It seems to us that much has changed in this area. The noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, mentioned the fact that we do not come to legislation on coroners terribly frequently. A great deal has happened since any previous look at the service. A great deal has also happened in terms of the military and war.
First, 30 years ago there would have been many more people who had experience of service. As time goes on, the number of people serving in the military goes down and the direct experience and understanding of what being in a war is about gradually becomes more specialised. Secondly, war itself is becoming a very different and highly technical business. Issues of injury, death and the experience of protection have changed dramatically. Often, those who are far from theatre but see it on a television screen may feel that it is more like a video game than what it is really like in situ.
Military law and international law relating to conflict have changed dramatically over the past 10 years or so. This whole area has changed dramatically in many other ways, but I will not tire the Committee by relating them. It is extremely difficult to see how coroners in general could hope to understand all these areas in sufficient detail and depth to be able to deal satisfactorily with them when these matters arise. In so many aspects of professional life we are very much aware that there has to be a degree of specialisation and expertise. Although we have not tabled amendments on this issue, we saw that this opportunity would arise for the Minister to respond to these thoughtful propositions—this menu of opportunities—and we look forward to hearing what he has to say. We want to identify ourselves with the concern that expertise and specialisation are necessary.
The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, has just reminded us that the day-to-day knowledge of war on the part of a large number of people in this country is perhaps less acute now than it was for previous generations. However, we are at war in Afghanistan and in Iraq and our soldiers have lost their lives there. As the noble Lord said, it is important that we should not forget the reasons why they laid down their lives. Society at large should constantly be made aware of the sacrifice and the nature of those deaths.
Listening to my noble and gallant friend Lord Craig of Radley, who himself gave such outstanding service in the Royal Air Force, I reflected that an uncle of mine had died serving in the Royal Air Force in the Second World War and how important it was for my generation to know the circumstances in which that death occurred. Indeed, my 12 year-old son returned yesterday from a school trip to the Somme where the pupils looked at the circumstances that led to so many deaths during the battles that occurred there in 1916. Each of those children consulted records to look at the lives and deaths of the soldiers who had attended their school before travelling to the Somme. No one is more aware than the noble Lord, Lord Bach, of the importance of recollection, given his experience of dealing frequently with many of these instances at the Dispatch Box. It is significant that he has been joined by his noble friend Lady Taylor, who holds this responsibility today and so frequently has to remind the House of the price that has been paid by our servicemen.
Therefore, it is important that we should know why people have died and how they have died, and that that knowledge should not be lost. How it is recorded is therefore extraordinarily important. As is so often the case, the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, has done the Committee a great service by bringing forward this amendment to ensure that we adequately debate this matter. I very much liked what she had to say and the spirit in which she said it, asking the Minister not necessarily to agree with the wording of the amendment but to look for words that will achieve her objectives, one of which is training and the assurance that expertise will not be lost as the number of people who are able competently to deal with such very specialist inquiries may have to be narrowed down.
In the earlier debate, the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, referred to local authorities, some of which were mentioned by my noble and gallant friend, such as Wiltshire where bodies have been flown back. It was suggested that in the future there will be a sharing around of some of the duties of carrying out such coroners’ inquiries. Is there not an inherent contradiction in this argument? If that is to be the case, the very expertise that my noble and gallant friend has identified will clearly not be available in other parts of the country if such inquiries are sent there in the future. Will the Minister dwell for a moment on what will happen if coroners sitting in the future have not had the training or developed the expertise identified by the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, in moving these amendments?
I wish to say a word in support of the amendment tabled by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley. It so happens that this Bill comes before us when we are engaged in fighting a formidable foe who appears to be well armed and getting increasing supplies from some sources. We read, sadly, of the deaths of our troops, particularly due to roadside bombs and suicide attacks. It is a formidable campaign in which to be involved. It is wholly appropriate that the Bill should reflect the times in which we live and show sensitivity to the issue of having coroners in charge of the inquests who are fully up to speed with the type of case with which they will have to deal. I suggest that we owe it to our troops and their families—those already afflicted with grief and those who may suffer in the future—to have a Bill that shows that we are aware of the risks being run.
I support the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes. I speak from the families’ point of view. I declare an interest as a trustee of the Defence Medical Welfare Service, which provides welfare officers to help the families of troops who are sent back to hospitals in this country and Germany. The families are very sensitive and concerned to have the details. It would be very appropriate to incorporate this amendment in the Bill to ensure that the expertise is available, as the families need to know exactly what has caused the deaths of their loved ones.
This House is always at its best when discussing our Armed Forces. As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, kindly said, I have experience of replying to debates on that subject in the House. Tonight is no exception. I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, and to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig. SSAFA, with which the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, is so closely involved, is a marvellous organisation that I am lucky enough to have dealt with over the years.
The amendments address the expertise of coroners in investigating deaths of all British service personnel. I understand the wish of the noble Baroness and of the noble and gallant Lord to ensure that in a reformed coroners system we do not lose that expertise that has been built up by, for example, the coroners for the counties of Wiltshire and Oxfordshire. Amendment 6A aims to ensure that, where an investigation is transferred from one coroner to a coroner in a different area for whatever reason, the coroner to whom the case is transferred has had appropriate training on investigations into service personnel deaths.
Amendment 37 aims to ensure that a cohort of coroners has the necessary skills to carry out investigations into service personnel deaths. Similarly, Amendment 119 would require regulations on training for coroners who carry out service personnel inquests. Amendment 114 would make a deputy chief coroner responsible for overseeing military inquests and training coroners who undertake them.
There was a backlog. That was caused to some extent because the decision to repatriate all service fatalities initially via RAF Brize Norton in the Oxfordshire coroner’s jurisdiction created a singular and exceptional burden there. We would expect a coroner to be able to complete a routine inquest within six months of its opening. As the Committee well knows, inquests of service personnel can be more complex with a timeframe of around nine to 12 months from the date of death to the hearing of the inquest. Delays are often due to necessary Ministry of Defence investigations, especially service inquiries, and sometimes at the request of the family.
As we know, coroners are funded by local authorities, but extra resources from government have been provided to Oxfordshire, Wiltshire and Swindon coroners for inquests for service personnel killed on operations overseas. Both my department and the Ministry of Defence have looked at what else can be done to speed up the processes—for example, reviewing service inquiry procedures. The MoD established a Defence Inquests Unit in June last year, whose key role is to assist coroners and to progress internal investigation reports to prevent avoidable delays to inquests. The Ministry of Defence has also provided additional logistical support for bereaved families, which I shall not go into now.
I reassure the Committee that, even without these amendments, measures in the Bill will mean that all coroners will be not only able, as my letter to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, said, but also equipped to deal with service personnel inquests. I want to offer what reassurance I can that the broad policy under a reformed coroner system will be that coroners in Wiltshire and Oxfordshire will continue to be responsible for leading investigations in the tragic event of incidents overseas involving service personnel that lead to two or more fatalities.
I say in passing that the coroner for Wiltshire, Mr David Masters, who has conducted many of the most recent inquests and who has been praised by local Members of Parliament during Commons stages of the Bill, retired on 1 April. However, we understand that the new coroner for that county has appointed him as an assistant deputy for the specific purpose of continuing to preside over these cases.
I said that incidents involving overseas personnel that lead to two or more fatalities will be looked at by coroners in Wiltshire and Oxfordshire. However, there may be exceptions to this. For example, if the families of the two or more fatalities are from Scotland or Northern Ireland, it may be more convenient for a fatal accident inquiry or inquest to take place there. We shall need to have much more detailed discussions about these matters to establish suitable protocols before the Bill is implemented.
There are measures in the Bill to ensure that any coroner is equipped to deal with an investigation into the death of a single soldier in the event that responsibility for the investigation of a particular death is transferred to another coroner nearer to where the deceased’s family lives. Perhaps I may give some examples. First, one of the key roles of the Chief Coroner will be to issue guidance to coroners and their staff about investigations into certain types of death. This will include the deaths of those on active service. Paragraph 56 of our draft charter for the bereaved has already been mentioned by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig. Secondly, the Chief Coroner will make regulations concerning the training required by all coroners and their officers and other staff. I can confirm to the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, that this will almost certainly include training for those with responsibility for investigations into military deaths. These measures will ensure that all coroners are able to conduct effective investigations into the deaths of service personnel.
However, if there were an extremely complex investigation, under Clause 3 of the Bill the Chief Coroner would be able to transfer the investigation to a coroner with the necessary experience or, under Schedule 8, to a particularly experienced judge, former judge or former coroner. I am afraid that I cannot accept that there is a contradiction between our assertion that all coroners will have the skills and experience necessary to conduct investigations into the deaths of service personnel and, on the other hand, our recognition that there will be exceptional, complex cases that will need to be handled in a different way. Those exceptional cases might involve, for example, multiple fatalities, which would sensibly be handled by a coroner who has conducted such investigations in the past. Those cases will be quite different from routine cases—if any such case can be described as routine—which any coroner should, with training, be able to handle.
The noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, suggested that one deputy chief coroner should have oversight of military inquests. On balance, we do not believe that that is necessary because the Chief Coroner, as part of his or her leadership role for the service, would almost certainly want to be satisfied personally that all investigations and training were being carried out to the highest possible standard in line with the relevant rules, regulations and guidance.
The overriding aim of the reforms in Part 1 of the Bill is to improve the service that bereaved people, whether service families or otherwise, receive from the coroner system. We are confident that, taken together, the measures in the Bill will strengthen investigations into military deaths. When I had the privilege of serving at the Ministry of Defence, I saw at first hand fatalities being brought back to Brize Norton as a consequence of the Iraq war. That is something that will stick in my memory, as it will with anyone who was at Brize Norton on one of those occasions. Therefore, I do not need to be persuaded about how serious a matter this is and how fundamental it is to the way in which we approach things. However, we do not consider that the amendments are necessary. We believe that the Bill already covers the very special interests relating to military personnel who die in service and their families who are left behind. They are indeed very special and different.
I am deeply grateful for the powerful support that I have had from many noble Lords tonight. I know that the Minister feels strongly, and I am grateful for his sympathy and understanding of the situation relating to military inquests. None the less, I shall want to study very carefully what he has said because I remain unconvinced that it is unnecessary to put anything on the face of the Bill. I shall happily take away the thought that the Chief Coroner should have a duty in this regard and I shall be back. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 6A withdrawn.
Clause 4 agreed.
House resumed. Committee to begin again not before 8.38 pm.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, before we move to the next item of business, I should report to the House that the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, is unable to speak, and therefore the time allotted for speeches in the debate of the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, will be 10 minutes for each noble Lord and 12 minutes for the Minister.
Armed Forces: Severely Wounded Personnel
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the future of our severely wounded servicemen. It is a sad coincidence that this debate is taking place during the Committee stage of the Coroners and Justice Bill when inquests for service personnel are the subject under consideration.
The whole House is united in its praise for our Armed Forces, especially the teeth arms, the fighting troops who over the past 10 years and more have been deployed continuously on operations of a particularly ferocious nature. Our fighting troops have exceeded all our expectations and they are an example to the entire country of unselfishness, modesty and courage in an age when these qualities are extremely hard to find.
Morale is high in the fighting forces. I hope that they all realise that they are held in the highest affection and respect by the public of this country. Such relentless war fighting brings a terrible toll, not only in deaths, but also severe injuries. Due to the miracles of modern medicine many men are alive today who, even 10 or 20 years ago, would have died from their wounds. Some of these wounds are very severe indeed. There are many men in fighting formations, returning from operations having lost two or three limbs and taken other horrendous injuries.
As I have said, morale and esprit de corps is high. It is high because there is essentially immense loyalty and comradeship within the fighting regiments or corps of our Armed Forces. In the majority of