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Public Bodies Bill: Chief Coroner


25th October 2011

Jonathan Djanogly responds on behalf of the Government to a debate on the Government's proposals to reform the coroner system and the decision not to create a position of Chief Coroner.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) for initiating this important debate and I thank the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Michael Dugher) for his contribution. I thank also stakeholders, particularly the noble Baroness Finlay, the Royal British Legion, INQUEST and Cardiac Risk in the Young for their passion and commitment to reform. I have met them all on numerous occasions and our discussions have helped to shape the Government’s thinking on our proposals for reform of the coroner system. I have to say that our discussions have not been just of the yes/no variety described by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr Kevan Jones: Does the Minister agree with the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt), who has just said that what the Royal British Legion said was a disgrace?

Mr Djanogly: We are all aware of the importance of the issue and the outcome of this debate has the potential to affect thousands of people who come into contact with the coroner system, often in exceptionally difficult circumstances. Honouring the memory of those who give their lives for their country is very close to the heart of this Government, as it is to all hon. Members I am sure, but I point out to my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole that our reforms go further, as they concern all coroners, not just military inquests.

Hon. Members will be well aware of the Government’s position on this. Urgent reform is needed to drive up standards across the piece and to learn lessons from the inquest process. This must be achieved through consistent training for coroners, by tackling the cause of delays in the inquest process, by setting a framework of standards that the bereaved have the right to expect from the coroner system and by removing barriers to hearing inquests at the most convenient location for bereaved families.

Robert Flello: After the disgraceful comments of the Minister’s colleague, who said, “These people are a disgrace,” this Minister said that he had had many discussions with the Royal British Legion, INQUEST and the like. Will he comment on the observations of those organisations that following those meetings they discovered that what had been said to one group about one organisation differed from what that organisation had actually said? There has much sleight of hand.

Mr Djanogly: I would disagree with that. I had meetings with them together as well as separately. It is true that they opposed our proposals on one hand, but they were also in discussions with us in order to make our proposals work better. I was very grateful for their input and I can tell hon. Members that what has come about has been based partly on the changes they suggested.

The Coroners and Justice Act 2009 enables us to do all the things I have outlined. I accept that the Act, as originally drafted, envisaged that some functions would be carried out by a chief coroner, but that is not the only way of implementing the reforms. Indeed, the transfer of functions to the Lord Chief Justice and the Lord Chancellor will ensure that they are taken forward quickly, effectively and without the cost associated with establishing the office of chief coroner. I assure hon. Members that the independence of the judiciary is every bit as secure in the hands of the Lord Chief Justice as it would have been in the hands of the chief coroner. Debates in this House and the other place, as well as my own stakeholder engagement, have clearly shown that there are widely held misconceptions about the extent of the chief coroner’s powers. In practice, the chief coroner’s powers to direct coroners would have been limited and any leadership would have been provided entirely through influence and persuasion.

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): Is the Minister not aware from his meetings with the various groups that have been mentioned that the current Government’s engagement with them on the issue has given them absolutely no confidence in the idea that some of these responsibilities would rest with the Lord Chancellor and some of his Ministers in future?

Mr Djanogly: I have not come away with that impression when I have met those organisations.

Let me set out plainly that the chief coroner would not have had any enforcement powers to ensure authorities comply with actions to prevent future deaths that coroners may have reported to them. The chief coroner would not have had the power to investigate complaints about the conduct of coroners or, indeed, to direct a coroner on how to conduct an investigation. Complaints, quite rightly, will continue to lie with the Office for Judicial Complaints. The chief coroner would not, as some have suggested, have been responsible for managing or appraising individual coroners. On administrative issues, the chief coroner would not have been answerable to Parliament, as the Minister will be under our proposed ministerial board.

The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) said that, without a chief coroner, inconsistencies in the reporting of suicide verdicts and the increasing use of narrative verdicts would continue. The chief coroner would have had no remit to direct coroners in how they use narrative verdicts. Coroners are independent judicial office holders. Only coroners can decide on the appropriate form of verdict.

Mrs Moon: I served on the Committee that considered the Coroners and Justice Bill, and one of the things that I discussed throughout was the role of the chief coroner. One of my concerns was the totally fragmented nature of the system. I was given an absolute assurance in Committee that the chief coroner would have the capacity to oversee and call in verdicts and to ensure not only consistency but investigation, where there were suicide clusters in particular.

Mr Djanogly: The hon. Lady is very involved with coroners. We have had several meetings on coroners. She is dedicated to coronial reform—I respect her for that—but I am afraid that what she thought was the position arising from the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 is not right. Such inconsistencies and misconceptions are rife, which is why I feel that it is so important to address them now.

Mr Ainsworth rose—

Mark Durkan rose—

Mr Djanogly: Let me move on, otherwise I shall not get through.

Under the proposals announced to Parliament on 14 June, we can deliver a significant package of reform to the coroner system. Transferring the majority of the chief coroner’s functions to either the Lord Chief Justice or Lord Chancellor will allow us to implement the vast majority of the reforms envisaged under part 1 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009. Those powers include allowing the Lord Chancellor to make regulations about the way in which the coroner system is expected to operate in relation to bereaved relatives; allowing the Lord Chancellor to make regulations about the practice and procedure in coroner investigations, such as the disclosure of information to bereaved relatives and minimum standards for post mortem examinations; allowing the Lord Chief Justice to make rules to regulate practice and procedure at inquests; allowing the Lord Chief Justice to make rules in relation to the training of coroners, including specialist training, for instance, relating to military inquests; allowing the Lord Chancellor to amend coroner areas; and allowing the transfer of military cases to and from Scotland.

I found it somewhat sad to hear some hon. Members suggest that we are letting down service families. If we were leaving the office in the 2009 Act alone and not implementing the changes, I would agree with them. However, we are providing real and significant changes to the system that will directly improve the experience and treatment of service personnel families who come into contact with the coroner system.

Paul Goggins: The Government are making a huge mistake. The sooner the Minister realises that the better. He has been very evasive about the costings and has refused absolutely to interrogate the figures that he seems to have been given by his officials. Will he now explain what estimate he has made of the additional costs that will be incurred by transferring statutory functions from the chief coroner to the Lord Chief Justice?

Mr Djanogly: I will come on to the costings and explain why the costings provided by the last Government were correct—we checked them—but let me finish what I was saying.

The powers will allow the Department of Health to proceed with its proposals to introduce a new system for examining the causes of death, thereby fulfilling one of the key recommendations of Dame Janet Smith’s report on the Shipman inquiry.

Concerns were expressed in Committee that I might not give this work the priority that it deserves. That could not be further from the truth. In particular, we have plans to establish a new ministerial board to drive these reforms, to provide oversight of the non-judicial aspects of the coroner system, and to provide a direct line of accountability on these matters to Parliament. We will also establish a bereaved organisations committee that will support the board and provide those who represent bereaved families with a direct line to Ministers.

Sir Alan Beith: One of the concerns of the Justice Committee has been about the uncertain and widely differing arrangements for providing financial support for coroners and the widely differing arrangements for providing coroners officers, who are sometimes provided by the police and sometimes by the local authority, with no uniform standard of training. Will the system that the Minister is describing deal with this problem?

Mr Djanogly: Yes, the board will be there to address policy issues such as those that my right hon. Friend mentioned. It is important to keep in mind that the position of chief coroner would have had power over none of those.

The ministerial board will meet quarterly, with the dates fixed and publicised well in advance so that meetings cannot be cancelled without good reason. The board will also have a strong independent feel to it, with coroners and other members sitting on it, together with representatives from the bereaved organisations committee.

The new committee will be independently chaired and I have given commitments that the chair cannot be appointed or removed without the approval of committee members. I would expect the chair to become a powerful advocate for the bereaved and be a champion of coroner reform. If the Government are not delivering on this package of reforms, I would expect the chair to hold us to account.

The bereaved organisations committee will have a particular remit to monitor the new charter for coroner services. The charter, which we intend to publish in early 2012 following the recent consultation exercise, will set out for the first time the standards of service that those coming into contact with the system can and should expect. This will play a vital role in driving up standards of service and helping people to understand their rights and responsibilities in relation to the coroner system.

Simon Hughes: I am listening carefully because I, like others, need some persuasion. Why would it not be possible, compatible with all the other arrangements that the Minister is setting out, for one coroner to be designated as the chief coroner, to have the same sort of responsibility for the coronial service as a presiding judge has in a circuit or over one of the divisions of the High Court, and to be the route of communication up and down at no or no significant additional cost?

Mr Djanogly: We would expect that to be the situation because we would expect the Lord Chief Justice, who would be responsible for the judicial aspects, to appoint someone, but that would be within current costings. I should also say, because this was raised by the hon. Gentleman’s right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) in an earlier remark, that that cannot, under existing legislation, be an existing coroner. It can be only a High Court judge or a circuit judge. That would be at a cost of some £400,000 a year.

Simon Hughes rose—

Mr Djanogly: If the right hon. Gentleman does not mind, I do not have much time and I must proceed.

I want to reassure hon. Members that the Government have listened to concerns expressed here and in the other place and by a large number of organisations. We have responded to these concerns and we have compromised, so we no longer intend to abolish the office of the chief coroner. Moving the office from schedule 1 to schedule 5 means that we will retain the chief coroner in statute. We have listened to the views of stakeholders on the constitution and remit of the new ministerial board and bereaved organisations committee and we have amended our proposals accordingly. We are considering a requirement for the new board to produce an annual report to Parliament, as my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) wished, strengthening further the accountability for and transparency of our reform proposals.

The Government’s decision not to proceed with full implementation was not taken lightly. My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole, I thought, made somewhat light of the costs of the chief coroner. The simple fact is that we cannot afford the establishment costs of £10.9 million and running costs of £6.6 million per year, especially when functions can be carried out from within existing resources.

Andrew Percy: Can the Minister tell me how much his Department spent on consultants in the past year?

Mr Djanogly: I can get back to my hon. Friend on that. I will write to him. I do not have the figures to hand.

I note the concerns that hon. Members have raised about the establishment and running costs, which are of course drawn from the original impact assessment prepared by the previous Administration which accompanied the Coroners and Justice Act. However, even if Opposition Members now dispute their own figures, we cannot escape the fact that new funding is required at a time when the Ministry of Justice is facing budget cuts of some 23%. As the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) knows very well, we placed a breakdown of our figures in the House of Commons Library months ago. The alternative package of reforms can, I firmly believe, deliver the policy intentions of part 1 of the 2009 Act, but without the expense of establishing and maintaining the office of the chief coroner.

I can confirm to my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole that I have considered the new Royal British Legion and INQUEST proposals for an elongated implementation timetable in order to spread the cost of the office of chief coroner, but their proposals would mean a delay to the urgently needed reforms of several years, and there is no guarantee that even then funding will be available to establish the office. At best there would be a delay to reform, and at worst there would be no reform at all.

I began by speaking of the urgent need for reform, and I would urge my hon. Friend to consider the ramifications of his amendment. If the office of chief coroner were to be removed from schedule 5, the office would be left in statute, but with no prospect of its powers being implemented. In turn, without the ability to transfer chief coroner functions elsewhere, we would be prevented from implementing all but a small handful of provisions in part 1 of the 2009 Act. That would leave us with the worst possible outcome: little or no meaningful reform. That would be unacceptable; not least to the families of the bereaved who deserve and expect urgent reform of the system.

I therefore urge my hon. Friend to withdraw his amendment so that we can proceed with the urgent and much needed reform of the coroner system.

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