9 November 2010

INQUEST, the leading independent organisation working to reform the investigation of contentious deaths, today called on the coalition government to reconsider their plans to abolish the of Chief Coroner for England and Wales. As the House of Lords considers the proposal as part of the so-called “bonfire of the quangos” in the Public Bodies Bill 2010, the organisation strongly criticised the government’s rationale for the cut.

Deborah Coles, Co-Director of INQUEST, said:

The decision to abolish the Chief Coroner’s post is being rushed through Parliament under the guise of the Public Bodies Bill. The government’s rationale for abolishing this post on grounds of accountability and cost are not justified. Each year tens of thousands of bereaved people are forced to grapple with an archaic, unaccountable system which is in urgent need of fundamental reform. The model agreed by Parliament in the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 is rendered completely hollow without the driving force and national leadership of a Chief Coroner. The coalition government is proposing to jettison these landmark reforms with no apparent consultation with stakeholders, no real opportunity for parliamentary debate and without publishing any evidenced policy or cost analysis to explain their decision. This stands in stark contrast to the extensive six year parliamentary process leading up to the establishment of the Act and the creation of the Chief Coroner’s post.

She added:

 The inquest is vital to the public interest and democratic accountability. It is usually the only public forum in which contentious deaths such as accidents, deaths at work, deaths in custody or deaths of military personnel are subjected to public scrutiny. However the coronial service is often unable to fulfil its vital preventative role in relation to public health and safety and safeguarding lives in the future. This is a false economy if there ever was one.

INQUEST has prepared a detailed briefing for the Second Reading of the Bill in the House of Lords and, if the government does not reconsider its plans, will be working cloely with Peers from all parties to remove the Chief Coroner’s post from the schedule of bodies to be abolished.

Notes to editors:

  1. INQUEST’s Briefing for the Second Reading of the Public Bodies Bill in the House of Lords examines the process to abolish the Chief Coroner’s office and scrutinises the government’s twin criteria of “costs” and “accountability” that apparently underpin their plans. 
  2. The creation of the post of Chief Coroner for England and Wales was at the heart of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009.  The role was designed to introduce national leadership of the coroner service and would be a crucial step toward tackling the unacceptable delays, inconsistent standards of service delivery and lack of accountability that plague the current system.
  3. The Coroners and Justice Act 2009 received Royal Assent in November 2009 after receiving overwhelming cross-party support in both Houses of Parliament. The Act contains measures to: introduce national leadership through the appointment of a Chief Coroner and a Medical Adviser to the Chief Coroner; deliver an improved service for bereaved people, including the introduction of a Charter for Bereaved People, and a system of appeals against coroners’ decisions; introduce national standards that coroners should meet, supported by training and guidance for all coroners, their officers and staff; and make investigations and inquests more effective.
  4. Examples of the numerous reviews, parliamentary reports and inquiries have called for an overhaul of the system include: the Independent Review of Coroner Services commissioned by the Home Office and chaired by Tom Luce Death Certification and Investigation in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, 2003; the Joint Committee on Human Rights Deaths in Custody: Third Report of Session 2004-05; the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs Reform of the coroners’ system and death certification: Eighth Report of Session 2005-06.
  5. The Public Bodies Bill was introduced in the House of Lords on 29 October 2010. Clause 1 confers a general enabling power on a Minister to, by order, abolish a body or office listed in the schedules to the Bill (which includes the Chief Coroner for England and Wales in schedule 1).  The Minister must lay the draft statutory instrument containing the order before Parliament (clause 10).  The draft of the statutory instrument containing the order must be laid before each House of Parliament and cannot be made until it has been approved through a vote in each House. If the Bill is enacted as it stands then, without additional consultation or scrutiny, the order abolishing the Chief Coroner’s post could be laid before Parliament – either as a separate order or more likely as an omnibus order intended to roll up the abolition of several public bodies. Under the affirmative resolution procedure any order would be incapable of amendment and could be voted through after a relatively short debate in each House.
  6. Statistics published by the Ministry of Justice in May 2010 record that 31,000 inquests were opened into deaths in 2009.
  7. INQUEST is the only organisation in England and Wales that provides a specialist, comprehensive advice service on contentious deaths and their investigation to bereaved people, lawyers, other advice and support agencies, the media, parliamentarians and the wider public. INQUEST is represented on the Ministerial Council on Deaths in Custody and the Ministry of Justice Coroner Service Stakeholder Forum.
  8. Bereaved families and specialist organisations such as INQUEST contributed time and effort to the lengthy consultation processes that led up to the enactment of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 including submitting written consultations, meeting with policy-makers and Ministers, organising and speaking at parliamentary meetings/committees.