Coroners bill: Debate highlights

By staff

The Commons debates the coroners and justice bill, focusing on day one on proposals to establish secret inquests.

17:56 – It took until this time for debate to finally get underway. MPs were meant to begin scrutinising the legislation at 15:30 GMT, but two statements – one from the prime minister and one from Jack Straw – pushed it back.

A 45-minute programme motion, in which the Commons debated how much time should be allowed and what should be discussed, made matters worse. But it gave some opposition backbenchers the opportunity to lambast the government. Douglas Hogg was scathing, saying the process “stinks”. Richard Shepherd said the bill should have been spread across several pieces of legislation and said the government was consistently “denigrating” the Commons. Philip Davies went further, describing Mr Straw’s statement as a “filibuster” designed to limit time for debate. “The standard of the House of Commons is falling as every day goes by,” he lamented.

Justice minister Bridget Prentice wasn’t having any of it, saying she had “heard a lot of nonsense” and pointing out the bill had spent 43 hours and 32 minutes in committee. She said a bit of “self-discipline” from those opposite would result in all the clauses being reached.

19:22 – The three frontbenchers have completed their to-ing and fro-ing over the secret inquests provisions of the bill. Concessions last week giving the final say over whether an inquest should be held without a jury led to a spat over whether or not judges would act independently of the government.

Jack Straw was worried that they would not go far enough, saying that history had shown that “they do not want to make these decisions”. But the bill’s opponents, including Labour backbencher John McDonnell, said he was concerned the high court would always give in to the government.

Meanwhile Dominic Grieve expressed his concerns that the bill’s chief “mischief” was it would undermine confidence in the coroners justice system. He said in highly emotive cases “the moderating influence of the jury” had proved highly effective in providing reassurance. And he attacked the process by which “excited” civil servants expand bills’ proposals, leaving them to be ‘reined back in’ by parliament.

20:30 – The legislation’s power over Northern Ireland is of concern to Andrew Mackinlay, whose amendment seeking to exclude its remit from the province gets the support of SDLP leader Mark Duggan. He argues that the devolved justice minister in Stormont would find him or herself bypassed by the secretary of state if a certificate is issued. This would “test the credibility of devolution in a very sensitive way”, he warns.

Meanwhile ‘usual suspect’ John McDonnell has outlined his own interpretation of the legislative process – a parliamentary procedural term known as ‘Strawism’. “One produces a bill that throws in the entire kitchen sink and is so outrageous that the house recoils from it, and one then introduces a series of amendments and members skip through the Lobby happily, thinking that they have obtained major victories and amendments,” he said, adding this bill “is close to it”. He said it did not go far enough and warned public confidence was at stake.

21:15 – After Jack Straw wraps up, plaintively explaining that “the process we are putting in place is correct”, Lib Dem David Howarth calls for the entire secret inquests clause to be put to a vote. Straw wins by a majority of 34 – “embarrassing for the government”, one Tory backbencher claims.

22:00 – By now it’s painfully obvious that most of the issues up for debate today won’t be reached. The final 45 minutes are devoted to an uncontroversial measure giving families of killed Scottish service personnel the right to have an inquest take place in Scotland.

On wrapping up, several points of order are made indicating dissent. “Tonight we have conducted inadequate scrutiny of the bill,” Evan Harris laments. He tabled a whole series of amendments on murder which were not reached.