Media Media releases MPs and peers challenge government plans to abolish chief coroner 11th July 2011 Discontent is growing about government plans to dismantle the office of the Chief Coroner which will be debated by MPs tomorrow when the Public Bodies Bill has its Second Reading in the House of Commons. MPs are expected to criticise the government’s decision to try and include the judicial post in schedule 5 (Power to Modify or Transfer Functions) of the Bill. In a written ministerial statement to the House of Commons on 14 June the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke MP, also outlined details of a proposal to transfer a limited number of the Chief Coroner’s statutory powers to the Lord Chief Justice and others to himself as Lord Chancellor. Early Day Motion 2042 tabled on Thursday 7 July 2011 states that “the judicial position of the Chief Coroner would provide much needed national leadership for the coroners system, significantly improve the experience of bereaved families and operate a new appeals process; and notes the support for a Chief Coroner from charities and organisations including the Royal British Legion (RBL), INQUEST, Victim Support and CRY.” The government suffered its biggest defeat in the House of Lords when the original proposal to abolish the Chief Coroner’s Office was removed from the Public Bodies Bill by 275 votes to 165 at the end of 2010. Tomorrow the House of Lords will also put the government on the spot and ask how it intends to ensure that inquests are not subject to unreasonable delays. The Ministry of Justice’s own figures show that the average time taken to process inquests has risen from 22 weeks in 2004 to 27 weeks in 2010. Delays of two or more years are not uncommon and INQUEST is aware of cases where it has taken eight years from the death being reported until the conclusion of the inquest. Helen Shaw, Co-Director of INQUEST, said: The current system is in urgent need of reform. Each year tens of thousands of bereaved families are forced to endure lengthy delays and an archaic, unaccountable system. These failures also leave the coronial service unable to fulfil its vital function of preventing unnecessary deaths. The Coroners and Justice Act, passed with cross-party support less than two years ago, gives the government a blueprint for updating our coronial system so that it is fit for the 21st century. Rather than implement these reforms to improve and streamline inquests, the government wants to dismantle the office of the Chief Coroner and add yet another layer of bureaucracy to the already fragmented structure where lines of accountability are opaque and clear leadership is absent. The effect will be that the problems which plague the current system – such as delay – will not be tackled effectively. The government argues that it can not afford to reform the system. Yet the existing process results in substantial, hidden financial costs to the public purse and human costs to bereaved families through delayed or postponed hearings, judicial reviews of coroner’s decisions and repeated investigations and inquests into similar deaths. The inadequate costings relied on by the government do not take these fully into account and do not demonstrate that their proposal will result in significant savings or improvements. Scrapping the Chief Coroner’s office is a false economy if there ever was one. The coalition government must not continue to ignore the voices of bereaved families, those who work with them and parliamentarians. We urge the government to recognise our concerns and implement the changes in the Coroners and Justice Act in full. INQUEST, in conjunction with the Royal British Legion and other bereavement organisations, will continue to press for the Chief Coroner and associated offices to be removed from the Public Bodies Bill completely. Notes to editors: The Coroners and Justice Act received cross-party support during its passage through Parliament in 2009. Central to the new framework was the post of Chief Coroner, a judicial office-holder who would lead reform, introduce national standards and oversee a new appeals system. In October 2010, the government announced they would not implement key provisions of the Act and attempted to abolish the office of Chief Coroner through the Public Bodies Bill. Clause 1 of the Bill 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). In December 2010, the House of Lords passed an amendment, by 277 votes to 165, to remove the Chief Coroner and associated offices from the Bill. In June 2011 the government announced it would no longer abolish the post but would attempt to re-insert the office into schedule 5 of the Bill (Power to Transfer or Modify). The Secretary of State for Justice’s Written Ministerial Statement can be read in Hansard for 14 June 2011, just below column 64WS. 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. For full details see the policy pages. In advance of the debates on 12 July 2011, INQUEST’s has published: A Second Reading Briefing on the Chief Coroner for MPs debating the Public Bodies Bill which outlines the need for overhaul of the inquest system and examines the government’s arguments for abolition of the Chief Coroner’s office. The full briefing can be found on the INQUEST website here A briefing on delays in the inquest system and coronial reform for Peers contributing to the debate on “Ensuring that inquests are not subject to unreasonable delays.” The question was tabled by Liberal Democrat peer, Baroness Miller. INQUEST’s full briefing can be found here. The Ministry of Justice publishes an annual bulletin on coroners statistics which analyses deaths reported to coroners in England and Wales in the previous year. The most recent bulletin was published in May 2011 and can be found here.