A chance to do the right thing

by Tessa Jowell, Sadiq Khan and Jim Murphy

When the government does the right thing it is important that we support it, basing our judgement at all times on actions and not words. We are dismayed at the government’s decision, announced yesterday, to abolish the chief coroner’s office (CCO), a decision with damaging consequences for ordinary people up and down the country. We hope the government’s new-found capacity to listen will soon again be on show.

Legislation in 2009 received cross-party support in establishing a CCO, seeking to deal with some of the difficult issues that arise from complex fatalities through a system based on independent expertise. Tragically, it’s often military inquests which require such a service and this is therefore an issue close to the heart of many bereaved military families. But it’s not just families of military personnel who suddenly suffer tragedy that brings them into contact with the coronial system. Abolition of the CCO is opposed by various charities and organisations including CRY (cardiac risk in the young), which supports bereaved families who have lost loved ones suddenly through undetected cardiac problems. Sue Ainsworth, whose son Jonathan tragically died suddenly at the age of 21 last year, has joined CRY in calling for the creation of the CCO, following failings in the inquest held into Jonathan’s death. Sue said:

“Currently, the coroner is not answerable to anybody so if there’s any delays, and any inequalities in the system, you have not got any comeback at all”.

The job of a chief coroner is to ensure that families and friends of all victims are sufficiently involved in the coroner’s investigation; improve training; add quality controls and independent safeguards on inquests; and add consistency of oversight, leadership, independence and expertise to the coroners who are dealing with military inquests.

Establishing such a system is a central obligation under the military covenant, the bond between the nation, the state and the services which says that no member of the service community, including dependents, should suffer disadvantage arising from service and that special provision should at times be made to reflect their sacrifices. That is why, in government, we legislated for a coroner’s office. Scrapping it undermines the covenant which the government claim to want to uphold. Indeed, the Royal British Legion has called this act “a betrayal of bereaved armed forces families and threatens the military covenant.”

The government is transferring the functions of the coroner’s office to the lord chancellor or lord chief justice, but without any additional resource. A statement yesterday said “the functions to be transferred are limited, and the office of chief coroner not filled, neither the judge nor any other individual will be responsible for the leadership, culture or behaviour of coroners”.

The important powers we had legislated for which are not being transferred include a new and direct appeals process overseen by the chief coroner that would have enabled bereaved families to appeal against a coroner’s decision, register a complaint about a coroner or request that an investigation be launched by the CCO. Instead, bereaved families wishing to appeal will continue to have to undertake costly and lengthy judicial reviews. Yesterday’s proposals propose powers to launch “investigations into service deaths” will not be transferred. There will be no apparent improvement for service families.

The reason given by ministers is “deficit reduction”. But the costs of the office are minimal and both the Royal British Legion and inquest – a charity that provides advice and support to bereaved people on contentious deaths – are prepared to identify ways to bring the costs down. The government, however, is not listening.

We believe the chief coroner could be established at a substantially lower cost than current estimates and ministers should work with those organisations that are calling for the creation of the chief coroner to explore more cost effective alternatives for what would be an important improvement to the current inquest system.

Drives for populism can be incompatible with good governance. The government’s “cull of quangos” got some good headlines, but was all-encompassing and, wrongly, included the CCO.

A poll last October shows that 90% believe it’s important there should be a chief coroner for bereaved armed forces’ families to appeal to if they disagree with a coroner’s decision in the case of the death of their loved one. And 92% agree that bereaved armed forces families who cannot afford their own lawyer at a military inquest should be given independent and cost-free assistance. We hope the government begins to listen.

We believe the prime minister’s intentions are honourable, but these are only meaningful if backed up by real action. We need to see a culture shift within a government which has cut our armed forces’ allowances, pensions and manpower, is refusing to compensate British victims of overseas terrorist attacks and is now refusing to provide bereaved families and the families of our fallen heroes with a coronial system fit for the twenty first century.

Ministers must put themselves on the side of the armed forces community and all bereaved families and do the right thing.

Rt. Hon Tessa Jowell MP shadow minister for the cabinet office

Rt. Hon Sadiq Khan MP shadow secretary of state for justice

Rt. Hon Jim Murphy MP shadow secretary of state for defence

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One Response to “A chance to do the right thing”

  1. AmberStar says:

    If army families really value this service, one of the tabloids will pick up this story & the public will force another u-turn out of Cameron. Well done to Labour for not letting this slip through without comment.

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