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Coroners System (Reform)


6th February 2006

In the context of Harold Shipman, the Hatfield rail crash and the more recent example, which she mentioned, of the July bombings, effective coroners' courts and the investigation of death are highly sensitive issues.

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): Coroners' courts are, as the Minister said, undoubtedly a very important issue. In the context of Harold Shipman, the Hatfield rail crash and the more recent example, which she mentioned, of the July bombings, effective coroners' courts and the investigation of death are highly sensitive issues. Alongside the registration of deaths, coroners' courts should provide a reliable system for collecting data on deaths and monitoring trends in deaths. They should provide appropriate investigation into suspicious deaths in order to uncover wrongdoing and offer a thorough and sensitive service for relatives of those who die suddenly and unexpectedly.

However, they also need to provide for large cases, in relation to which capacity has been an issue. Will the Minister explain how the proposed system would have helped the investigation of the deaths of Harold Shipman's patients and those who suffered in Hatfield, the types of inquest where picking up patterns of behaviour is needed and capacity has been a problem?

Reform of the coroner and death certification service has been under consideration for some time and it is about time that an effective system was put in place by the Government. The Luce report concluded that the system was not fit for purpose in modern society. The Government's position paper, published in March 2004 following the review by Tom Luce and the Shipman inquiry in the summer of 2003, has left us waiting for some form of Government action for nearly two years. The Government have acknowledged the need to avoid long delays to inquests into deaths in custody and the need for reform in general. Although today's statement is welcome, what, may I ask, has been happening all this time when the Government have been saying for years that legislation is on its way, if not imminent?

I make no judgment, as the Minister did not, on the 120 or so coroners, their support staff and investigators. I would point out, however, that the statutory powers and procedures under which they work were established in a different era. The Shipman inquiry described a situation in which coroners work from home, where there is virtually no training, and any training that is available is not compulsory.

The Government's position paper published in March last year made some good recommendations, which were reflected in the Minister's statement; a system based on full-time coroners with legal qualifications, closely supported by appropriate medical expertise, together with tighter rules for death certification, notification of all deaths to coroners and stronger support for scrutinising cases and investigation where necessary. However, will the proposed new system allow for judges to sit as coroners when required, as recommended by the Hatfield inquest?

Dealing with death will always be, and should always be, a sensitive issue that requires and deserves efficiency, speed of process and accuracy. The reform of the coroner's court system to deliver those objectives is long outstanding. To that extent, the Government's proposals are generally welcome, although there is a clear need for careful review of the proposals, which are light on detail so far. We welcome the Government's offer and suggestion of pre-legislative scrutiny. Will that take place in the spring? I think that is what the Minister implied.

Finally, I note that parallel scrutiny is proposed by families who are experienced in the process. That is welcome, but will it take place before parliamentary scrutiny so that the House can have the benefit of its findings?



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