24th October 2011

Tomorrow MPs will have the chance to vote to save the Chief Coroner from inclusion in the government’s ‘bonfire of the quangos.’ The Public Bodies Bill Report and Third Reading debate in the House of Commons takes place on Tuesday 25 October and an amendment has been tabled by Andrew Percy MP to remove all reference to the Chief Coroner from the Bill. The vote will have profound implications for the fundamental reform of the inquest system.

Following an initial failed attempt in the House of Lords to remove the post of the Chief Coroner from the statute completely via its inclusion in the list of public bodies to be abolished, the government amendment passed at Committee stage in the House of Commons last week includes the judicial post of the Chief Coroner 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, 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.  This has been presented as fundamental reform but essentially it leaves the same system in place.

INQUEST is working with a broad coalition of organisations representing bereaved families, professionals engaged with the inquest system and parliamentarians to argue that there is an alternative to government proposals. Together with the Royal British Legion we have produced an alternative timetable for full implementation of the reforms and arguing for any mention of the Chief Coroner to be removed from the Public Bodies Bill.

Last week at a parliamentary meeting bereaved families, whose relatives had died in prison, on active service in Afghanistan and following road traffic accidents, gave powerful testimony about their experiences of the current flawed system and urged parliamentarians not to waste this once in a lifetime opportunity for fundamental reform.

Speaking at the meeting Sheila Taylor, mother of Michael Taylor who died in HMP Bedford in 2007, said:

Did we feel lessons were learned from the inquest? Yes, definitely. The trouble was that by then we knew lessons had been learned before, and there was no-one in overall control to ensure changes were implemented. We were really delighted that there was going to be new legislation…”putting the bereaved at the heart of the system.” I feel devastated that this might not happen. I know all the arguments about funding, but we all know that ultimately you spend more money going over the same ground again and again, and picking up the pieces of yet more damaged lives.

Helen Shaw, Co-Director of INQUEST, said:

Parliament recognised that the inquest system is in urgent need of reform when it passed the Coroners and Justice Act just two years ago with cross-party support. The Act created the framework for updating our coronial system so that it is fit for the 21st century.

We cannot allow short term financial considerations to throw the years of thoughtful work reflected in the legislation onto the so-called `bonfire of the quangos.’ Each year tens of thousands of bereaved families are forced to endure lengthy delays and an archaic, unaccountable and inefficient system which also leaves the coronial service unable to fulfil its vital function of preventing unnecessary deaths.

 Notes to editors:

  1. In advance of the debate on 25 October 2011, INQUEST has published a Third 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.
  2. 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 coalition 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 has re-inserted the office into schedule 5 of the Bill (Power to Transfer or Modify) at Committee stage.
  3. 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 here .
  4. INQUEST 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 sat on the Ministry of Justice’s Coroner Service Stakeholder Forum.