Analysis: Bereaved families pay the price for spending cuts

Bereaved families are the latest victims of spending cuts
Bereaved families are the latest victims of spending cuts

Life is at its cruellest when a relative dies suddenly. How sad, then, that the system which deals with what happens next is the subject of an increasingly contentious political debate.

By Alex Stevenson

These are the young people who jump into an icy pool and drown. They're the babies whose promise ends with a cot death. They're the people who run for a bus and drop dead in the street. They're the soldiers serving overseas who give up their lives for their country.

Each is a tragedy.

So if there's one group of people who deserve an effective, efficient system to be running smoothly, it's the bereaved families.

Inevitably after so many years, though, the system established in the Coroners Act 1887 is becoming painfully out of date in the eyes of many campaigners.

According to Inquest, a campaign group focusing on contentious deaths, the current system offers a postcode lottery of quality. There is no compulsory training and little accountability on offer. Some coroners offer modern, professional services; others less so.

Coroners provide a crucial administrative as well as a judicial function. Critics say the present system is creaking, after legislation in 1988 merely consolidated what was already in place. Delays of two or three years are now not uncommon. The highest-profile example is in the areas covered by RAF Lyneham and RAF Brize Norton where the bodies of fallen service personnel have been repatriated to. Recent tweaks have helped to reduce the burden, but multiple deaths and Scots fatalities must still be dealt with.

There are other pressing reasons for a centralisation. Take that case of the drowned youngster in an icy pool. Was it drowning - or was it heart failure? At present, it's a postcode lottery as to whether the inquest will find out. There is no standard as to how a coroner decides which pathologist does the post-mortem. Furthermore, in some cases, cardiac tissue will be taken for genetic testing. In other cases, this won't happen. What if the victim had brothers or sisters who could be screened, thus reducing the risk of future probable deaths? This is about those still alive, too.

There is a tension here: as part of the judicial system coroners must be independent; but administratively, campaigners say, there must be minimum standards for the modern age which people up and down England and Wales can rely on. A number of studies this century have called for change, including a £1.1 million review of the system by Tom Luce. It recommended the establishment, among other things, of a chief coroner for England and Wales. The New Labour government accepted the proposal and it became law in the Coroners and Justice Act 2009. His Honour Judge Peter Thornton was appointed to the role when the provisions came into force on February 1st 2010. After years of hard work, it seemed, the campaigning of those seeking reform had finally paid off.

Flash forward to October 14th 2010, six days before the comprehensive spending review whose sweeping cuts gave the coalition government their justification for the present controversy.

"We have decided that in the current economic climate we cannot go ahead with plans to implement national leadership from a chief coroner," justice minister Jonathan Djanogly told MPs.

"We have proposed that the abolition of the office of the chief coroner should be included in the public bodies bill, which was announced earlier today."

There's no money left, the coalition has explained, which is why the post was being cast on David Cameron's 'bonfire of the quangos'. Judge Thornton had not yet taken up his duties, and will now not do so. Not unless all those old campaigners, preparing themselves for another fight, have their way.

The first sign of a fightback came last December, when independent crossbencher Ilora Finlay's amendment on the issue inflicted the biggest defeat on the government in the Lords to date. Peers backed the rebellion by 277 votes to 165.

Events are now moving fast. Ministers are expected to put the scrapping of the post back in the bill when it returns to the Commons next month - but Baroness Finlay has pledged not to surrender.

"People were not going to abandon seven years of work suddenly," she says. "We will go to ping pong."

Baroness Finlay is leading the fight within parliament. But the government remains unwilling to budge. It believes "significant improvements" can be made without spending any cash at all. A coalition of 13 charities disagrees: the Royal British Legion, Cardiac Risk in the Young, Brake, Action Against Medical Accidents and Support After Murder and Manslaughter are among those who signed an open letter to the Times on the issue. They are challenging the coalition in government to find the money for the chief coroner post.

"If the chief coroner's office is abolished, the opportunity to create an inquest system fit for the 21st century which saves lives will be wasted," Inquest says. "This is a false economy if there ever was one."

With ministers remaining unconvinced and backroom talks breading down, a parliamentary clash now seems increasingly likely. In the meantime, those bereaved families will continue being dealt with under a system which has not been fundamentally reformed for 124 years - and counting.


Politics @ Lunch

Friday lunchtime. Your Inbox. It's a date.

Newsletter update