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18 May 2009 : Column 1200

Lord Patel: My Lords, following the Act, how many prosecutions have there been in this country?

Lord Darzi of Denham: My Lords, since the Female Genital Mutilation Act was passed, there has been no prosecution to date.

The Lord Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham: My Lords, given the danger of all surgical procedures and that prevention is better than cure, will the Minister encourage co-operation between his department and other government departments in imaginatively and creatively trying to design new rites of passage into adulthood for those cultures, not just the Somalis, which persist in this destructive practice?

Lord Darzi of Denham: My Lords, the right reverend Prelate is correct that a multi-agency approach is needed. The Department of Health is jointly funding an FGM co-ordinator to co-ordinate the work across the Home Office, the Department of Health and the DCSF to ensure cohesive joined-up interventions to address female genital mutilation. Last week, the Department of Health announced a health task force to look at violence against women, which has been established to investigate the scale of the problem and identify best practice to share within the NHS. This task force will comprise senior figures from the NHS, health professionals and the voluntary sector.

Baroness Howarth of Breckland: My Lords, I hear what the Minister says about the cultural implications and the knowledge we have of using communities to deal with such issues. I declare an interest as someone who works with families in ritual abuse. What is the department doing to work with and to support voluntary organisations, as they have the people who can get into the communities?

Lord Darzi of Denham: My Lords, the department is and has been working closely with the Foundation for Women’s Health, Research and Development first to identify the prevalence of this issue, and, secondly but more importantly, to work in partnership with the voluntary sector to penetrate these communities. I have no doubt that noble Lords will agree that in order to have an impact, we need to approach this issue in a multisectorial fashion, which needs to be sustained. More importantly, it needs to be community led.

Baroness Massey of Darwen: My Lords, are there any public education programmes in this country targeted specifically at younger women—for example, in schools, youth clubs and further education?

Lord Darzi of Denham: My Lords, the Department of Health and others have been involved in a number of publications, to ensure that such information is available to those who work in the health service and in schools, ensuring that at a local level we are able to identify children at risk, and to allow professionals to raise concerns with the social services in relation to those children at risk.

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Legal Aid


3 pm

Asked By Lord Pannick

Lord Pannick: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so I declare an interest as a practising barrister, although not one practising family law.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Bach): My Lords, my department and the Legal Services Commission have consulted on new fees for family legal aid cases for 2010. These proposals are still being developed, and discussions continue with barristers and solicitors. For the first time, the fees will fairly reward both barristers and solicitors with the same fees for the same work. Family legal aid costs have risen unsustainably from £399 million per year to £582 million per year in the past six years. We need to control these costs in order to protect services for vulnerable clients.

Lord Pannick: My Lords, I thank the Minister. However, will he confirm that the ministry is proposing to introduce fixed advocacy fees for categories of family law cases, irrespective of their complexity? This will mean a reduction on average of 20 per cent to 30 per cent of the payment in public funding for substantive hearings in complex cases. Is the Minister aware of the very substantial concern among judges and practitioners about the implications for children and for parents because the hearings to resolve these complex and important cases—many involving the permanent separation of parents and their children—will now be argued, if these proposals are adopted, by reason of the funding position on one side by inexperienced advocates, resulting in a much greater risk of a miscarriage of justice?

Lord Bach: My Lords, we value very much the commitment of all lawyers who work in the interests of the most vulnerable members of society who become involved in family legal proceedings. That work, which is of course paid for from the public purse, is never likely to be as financially rewarding as that for private clients, but it provides an important public service. The Legal Services Commission has received a number of very constructive and helpful responses throughout this consultation. No decisions have been made and we will be considering those responses as we develop our final proposals. It is likely that the final scheme will have more graduation and complexity, and the Legal Services Commission is working with stakeholders to develop amendments to it.

Baroness Butler-Sloss: My Lords, I welcome the Minister’s comment about more graduation. However, is he aware that more than 60 per cent of legally aided barristers are women and/or BME, and that the effect

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of the current changes would be disproportionate on this group of people and have the real danger of leading to a reduction in diversity at the Bar?

Lord Bach: My Lords, we know that a large number of those working in this field are women, and many are BME too. We have an independent Bar, and it is clerks in independent chambers who decide who will do what work. It is not for the Government, I am afraid, to say that women should do less family work than other pieces of work, and the same goes for BME barristers. This is important work that should be done by both men and women. The figures for earnings for barristers in this field are as follows: family barristers earn on average £44,000 a year from family legal aid work, but of course are able to increase their earnings by working for privately paying clients. In fact, research by the Family Law Bar Association shows in a recent report that the average family law barrister has a gross median annual income of £93,000.

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, have not all, I repeat all, legal aid cases fallen disastrously over recent years? At present, no one but the poorest is able to go to law, to litigate. What are the Government going to do about this situation?

Lord Bach: My Lords, we spend £2 billion per year on legal aid, which is a large amount by any standards. It is arguable that, at £1.2 billion, we spend too much on criminal legal aid. It is not arguable and absolutely clear that, at £200 million a year, we do not spend enough on social welfare law. That is the kind of law that we have to develop, particularly at a time of economic difficulty.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, is the Minister aware that, in the opinion of the Family Law Bar Association, at a time of heightened concern over child protection, the current proposals for cutting family legal aid funding from 2010 will put the most vulnerable in our society at increased risk not only of not having suitable representation, but of having no representation at all? Will the Minister ensure that the Family Law Bar Association is given a fair opportunity to respond to the Ernst & Young report when it is published before final decisions are taken?

Lord Bach: My Lords, these proposals do not represent cuts to the legal aid budget, but are designed to reduce increasing case costs. The proposed fees are based on 2007-08 figures with reapportionments across all advocacy cases so that the same costs are payable regardless of who undertakes the work. The House should know that solicitors do the majority of family work, including, these days, some of the most complex and difficult cases of all.

Information Committee

Motion to Publish Evidence

3.08 pm

Moved By Lord Brabazon of Tara

Motion agreed.

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Terrorism Act 2000 (Code of Practice for Examining Officers) (Revision) Order 2009

Motion to Approve


Moved By Lord West of Spithead

Motion agreed.

Transfer of Tribunal Functions (Lands Tribunal and Miscellaneous Amendments) Order 2009

Freedom of Information(Time for Compliance with Request) Regulations 2009

Motions to Approve

3.08 pm

Moved By Lord Patel of Bradford

Motions agreed.

Housing (Replacement of Terminated Tenancies) (Successor Landlords) (England) Order 2009

Motion to Approve

3.08 pm

Moved By Baroness Andrews

Motion agreed.

Law Commission Bill [HL]

Order of Commitment Discharged

3.09 pm

Moved By Lord Lloyd of Berwick

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Lord Lloyd of Berwick: My Lords, I understand that no amendments have been set down to this Bill and that no noble Lord has indicated a wish to move a manuscript amendment or to speak in Committee. Unless, therefore, any noble Lord objects, I beg to move that the order of commitment be discharged.

Motion agreed.

Arrangement of Business


3.09 pm

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, before my noble friend Lord Bach rises to make his speech, I ought to advise the House that there are 44 Members on the speakers list for the Second Reading of the Coroners and Justice Bill today. I should advise noble Lords that if Back-Bench contributions were kept to no more than eight minutes, the House should rise not long after the target rising time of 10 pm.

Coroners and Justice Bill

Bill Main Page
Copy of the Bill
Explanatory Notes

Second Reading

3.09 pm

Moved By Lord Bach

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Bach): My Lords, I will be the first to admit that this is a wide-ranging Bill, but I make no apology for that. The Ministry of Justice and its partner agencies face many challenges. There are, quite rightly, increasing demands for more effective, transparent and responsive public services, enhanced public protection, improved access to justice and a strengthening of rights and responsibilities. The Bill will contribute to each of these outcomes.

It will help criminal justice agencies to focus on the needs of victims and witnesses, particularly the most vulnerable. It will strengthen the protection of the public through changes to the law on pornographic images of children and the sentencing of terrorist offenders. It will provide a more accessible and responsive coroner service for bereaved families. It will also help safeguard the public’s right to have their personal information protected and reinforce the responsibilities on data controllers to comply with the data protection principles.

These are all high aspirations, but there is no reason why we should not strive to fulfil them and this Bill will play a part in that endeavour.

I turn now to the detailed provisions in the Bill. Part 1 lays the foundation for a wide-ranging reform of the coroner and death certification systems. The Shipman inquiry and the fundamental review of coroners and death certification both advocated a radical overhaul of the current arrangements. Two changes are essential and are at the core of the provisions in Part 1. The first is to place the needs of bereaved families at the heart

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of the coroner service and the second is to restore public confidence in the protection afforded by the death certification process, so the Bill will introduce a number of key reforms of the coroner system.

Bereaved families will, for the first time, have a clear legal standing in the investigations process, with new rights of appeal against coroners’ decisions. The Charter for Bereaved People, a draft of which has been published alongside the Bill, will set out clear national standards of service for those who come into contact with the reformed coroner system.

While maintaining a locally delivered and funded service, the Bill introduces for the first time national leadership through a Chief Coroner. The Chief Coroner will be responsible for setting national standards, including those for training, supporting local coroners and hearing appeals against coroners’ decisions.

I want to give your Lordships notice of some government amendments that I intend to bring forward in Committee which will introduce a further element to this national structure.

Aside from their heavy responsibilities for the investigation of certain deaths, coroners retain one residual function dating back to their 12th century origins; namely, the investigation of treasure finds. Following the debates in the other place, we are persuaded of the case for establishing a national coroner for treasure so that in future local coroners can devote all their time to their core responsibilities. I hope this decision will be particularly welcomed by the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, my noble friend Lord Howarth of Newport and other noble Lords who have played an important role in this field and by their colleagues on the All-Party Group on Archaeology.

The Bill will also remove archaic restrictions on the transfer of investigations between coroners’ areas so that inquests may more readily be held closer to the family of the deceased. Our reforms of the death certification system will see the introduction of a uniform process that is applicable irrespective of whether a body is to be buried or cremated. Central to these reforms will be the introduction of medical examiners who will independently verify medical certificates of the cause of death and provide medical advice to local coroners.

Finally in this part of the Bill are the provisions relating to the certification of coroners’ investigations. We introduced these provisions to address a very real issue; namely, how to ensure that there is an Article 2 compliant investigation in those very exceptional and rare cases where there is highly sensitive material, such as intercept evidence, that cannot be made public. That problem remains. But, as my right honourable friend the Lord Chancellor announced on Friday, we have concluded that the provisions in Clauses 11 and 12 do not command sufficient support and should be withdrawn. Where it is not possible to proceed with an inquest under the current arrangements, the Government will instead consider establishing an inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2005 to ascertain the circumstances in which the deceased came by his or her death.

Part 2 makes a number of important changes to the criminal law. I know that a number of noble Lords will be disappointed that we are not proceeding with a

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wholesale reform of the law on murder. However, we judge that the reform of this particularly sensitive area of the criminal law should be taken forward in a staged approach. The most pressing areas in need of reform are the partial defences of diminished responsibility and provocation, in order to ensure more just and equitable outcomes in individual cases.

With regard to provocation, the new “loss of control” partial defence will ensure that a defendant who has killed in anger will be able to plead the partial defence only in extremely grave circumstances. It also makes clear that, in this day and age, sexual infidelity on the part of the victim can never constitute sufficient grounds for reducing murder to manslaughter. On the other hand, a person who kills in response to a fear of serious violence should be able to put forward the defence on that basis, rather than seeking to shoehorn it into a defence based on killings in anger.

The changes to the partial defence of diminished responsibility will ensure that this area of law is modernised and properly takes into account the needs and practices of medical experts. This is as it should be, given that it is the evidence of such experts which is crucial to determining whether any claim of diminished responsibility is properly made out.

The changes to the law on assisting suicide are intended to increase public understanding that the law applies to the internet as it does offline. Our aim is to simplify and update the law in this area and not to change its scope.

There will be many in this House who want to see a change in the law with a view to legalising doctor-assisted dying in certain circumstances. Equally, many of your Lordships would be emphatically opposed to such a change. This House has debated this issue on a number of occasions, including in the context of Private Members’ Bills introduced by my noble friend Lord Joffe. It is an issue that stirs passions on both sides of the argument and I can understand why a number of noble Lords would welcome the opportunity for a fresh debate. If I may give some cautious advice, though, the issue of doctor-assisted dying is too important and too profound for it to be slipped into a passing government Bill. It warrants a Bill of its own and, in the Government’s view, a Private Member’s Bill at that.

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