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Coroners’ Inquests

Volume 729: debated on Tuesday 12 July 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how, under the arrangements which they have announced in lieu of a chief coroner post, they will ensure that inquests are not subject to unreasonable delays.

My Lords, the new arrangements announced on 14 June will allow the Government to take forward most of the provisions in Part 1 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, including those intended to reduce delays in the inquest process.

I thank my noble friend for her Answer. Does she agree that one of the worst things for bereaved, grieving families is to have to wait one, two or even three years for the inquest, and that that has an added cost to the NHS in all the stress and grief that those families naturally experience? Could my noble friend tell me why the Written Statement of 14 June to which she referred was silent on who would pick up the responsibility for overseeing what delays happen and why, and on what the criteria are for assessing what is an unreasonable delay?

The noble Baroness is absolutely right that this is a very difficult process for any family to go through, and anything that we can do to expedite inquests while holding them thoroughly is of key importance and should help the families. Section 16 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, which was introduced in response to the noble Baroness’s amendments, did place a duty on a senior coroner, when an investigation has not been completed within a year, to pass that information through and for there to be a register of that. As she knows, the plan is that the functions under that office will be transferred to the Lord Chancellor. This area will indeed be addressed. With the spotlight on military inquests and with the delays that used to occur, it is notable that things have improved enormously, so there is a lot to be said for getting things out into the open.

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Bach and I have been campaigning together on this issue, and I won the toss to explain how disturbed we are on these Benches. The Royal British Legion, which has campaigned tirelessly about the inadequacies of the coroners’ service, has been in touch with me about this matter. It is bitterly disappointed with the proposals outlined by the Secretary of State on 14 June, where he says that he intends to persist with the abolition of the office of chief coroner. Given the overwhelming support for the chief coroner across this House, led by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, during the passage of the Public Bodies Bill, and indeed the overwhelming support from all parties for the reforms to the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, why are the Government persistently denying bereaved Armed Forces families a reformed, effective and well led coronial system that would provide them with the respect and support they need when they are at their most vulnerable and are grieving?

As I have just mentioned, military inquests have improved over the past couple of years or so, and that is very welcome. The noble Baroness refers to the position of chief coroner and to the actions of the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, in defending it. It was clear that there was great concern about this in your Lordships’ House. Many of the provisions in the Statement of 14 June were negotiated with concerned parties, including the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay. They move most of the functions to the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice but the position of coroner has not been abolished. It will be reintroduced in the Public Bodies Bill in the Commons so that it is there as a backstop. If the transfer of responsibilities to the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice does not work, the provision can be reverted to. However, I make the point that in our current economic situation it was not possible—

If you look around Europe at the moment you can understand why it is important that the Government take our economic situation seriously. We have transferred all the key responsibilities here to the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice. I am sure that noble Lords will all hold us to account if that does not work.

Could the Government explain why the Statement, which I did not see before it went out and I did not know the contents of, did not contain a transparent costing to justify the abolition of the chief coroner? Why does the Statement contain the line,

“neither the judge nor any other individual will be responsible for the leadership, culture or behaviour of coroners”,—[Official Report, 14/6/11; col. WS 62.]

which makes it clear that the key recommendations of reviews by Dame Janet Smith, Luce and others that highlighted the reforms essential to the coroners system have effectively been abandoned?

I dispute what the noble Baroness says. The costings were done in 2009 and they stand. The problem about the proposals that came forward afterwards was that they talked about deferred costs, and we could not go down that route. I remind the noble Baroness, who would know this only too well, that the chief coroner was not going to be a panacea. The chief coroner could do what he or she could to persuade; they did not have statutory rights to interfere with coroners, who are independent judicial officers. They did not have that right any more than is currently the case. We all wish to improve the coroners’ system. There is a lot to be said for turning the spotlight on practices in different areas, as has happened with military inquests, and seeking to drive up standards that way.

My Lords, will the Minister explain why Governments get themselves into such a pickle? The idea that the amount spent on this is likely to disturb the economy of the country is ludicrous. The public can see that we spend millions on pointless referenda yet, on an issue that affects the whole country and for which there is widespread support right across the party front, the Government dig in unnecessarily. Can the Minister not take this back to her civil servants, make them see some sense and get what the public want in this area?

As my noble friend who is absent today often says, “To govern is to choose”. We all know the dire situation that the country is in but no one is suggesting that they short sell in Britain, unlike in Italy and Greece. That is worth bearing in mind when looking at this question. The Ministry of Justice, like all other areas in Whitehall, had to take its share of the cuts. It has had to make a 25 per cent cut in its budget. It was decided that, since most of these tasks could be transferred over and that was cost-neutral, that was what should be done. I point out again that, this having been addressed for military inquests, there have been the kind of improvements that noble Lords wish to see.