Coalition faces pressure over chief coroner post

By Alex Stevenson

Parliamentarians in both the Commons and the Lords will challenge the government's plans to scrap the chief coroner post later.

Campaigners say the decision to shake up the Office of the Chief Coroner (OCC) as part of legislation pushing through David Cameron's 'bonfire of the quangos' wrecks attempts to effectively reform the outdated coronial system.

A question in the Lords from Lib Dem peer Sue Miller will cast light on what ministers are doing to ensure that inquests are not subject to unreasonable delay.

The issue prompted the coalition government's biggest defeat in the upper House last December, after an amendment tabled by independent crossbencher Ilora Finlay won by 277 votes to 165.

At the same time as peers make their strength of feeling on the issue clear in the Lords, MPs will debate the second reading of the public bodies bill.

An early day motion calling for the chief coroner post to be saved has already attracted the signatures of 30 MPs, including two Conservative backbenchers. Further Lib Dem MPs are "waiting in the wings", a campaigner said.

The chief coroner post was introduced as part of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009. Senior circuit judge Peter Thornton was appointed but never took up his duties.

That has angered campaign groups who believe having a chief coroner is essential to driving through wider reforms of the coronial system.

Last month justice secretary Kenneth Clarke announced the OCC would no longer be scrapped outright. Instead it will be included in schedule five of the public bodies bill, which designates quangos to be 'transferred or modified'.

A limited number of the chief coroner's powers will be handed to the lord chief justice. Some others will be transferred to the lord chancellor – who, campaign group Inquest points out, happens to be Mr Clarke himself.

"The secretary of state has ignored the collective experience of parliamentarians, bereaved families and the voluntary sector who have consistently called for leadership and fundamental reform to make the system more effective, responsive and transparent," Inquest's co-director Helen Shaw said.

"Instead the government proposes to dismantle the office of the chief coroner and add yet another layer to the current, fragmented structure where lines of accountability are opaque and clear leadership is absent."

A coalition of 13 charities is campaigning on the issue which includes the Royal British Legion, Cardiac Risk in the Young, Brake, Action Against Medical Accidents and Support After Murder and Manslaughter. They are challenging the coalition in government to find the money for the chief coroner post.

Labour are concentrating on the military aspect of the issue, which has seen the coronial system struggle to cope with inquests relating to service personnel deaths.

"Soon after enshrining the military covenant in law, ministers are wasting no time in weakening it," shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy said.

"The country will judge ministers by their actions not their words… ministers must think again and do the right thing by Service families."