Oral Evidence

Taken before the Justice Committee

on Tuesday 29 November 2011

Members present:

Sir Alan Beith (Chair)

Mr Robert Buckland

Jeremy Corbyn

Nick de Bois

Chris Evans

Elfyn Llwyd

Yasmin Qureshi

Elizabeth Truss

________________

Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Joe Apps, Manager, and Dr Llian Alys, UK Missing Persons Bureau, gave evidence.

Chair: Mr Apps and Dr Alys, welcome. We are very glad to have your help on this subject, which arouses a lot of concern for those families who have been involved, as you obviously know well. We are trying to see if we can help bring some order to it. I am going to ask Elfyn Llwyd to open the questioning. I should also say that if we look as though we are compressing the time today, it is because of the Chancellor’s autumn statement, which has come earlier than we originally anticipated.

Q54 Mr Llwyd: Good morning. Could you talk us through the usual process adopted when somebody goes missing? Could you give us a typical scenario of how you get involved?

Joe Apps: Of course. It will start with a report being made to a police force. If the police force wants some immediate assistance, because perhaps it is a high-risk case or there is something unusual about it, the police force can seek the assistance of the UK Missing Persons Bureau immediately. If it does not want immediate assistance, we have a code of practice that requires the force to contact us within three working days and provide us with the details of the missing person inquiry. With an inquiry to the bureau, if it is for immediate assistance, we can see the things that the bureau can add in terms of support and assistance to the police force, which might be the deployment of one of the bureau members of staff to provide assistance on the spot for the police force, or we can conduct some searching-cross-match searching particularly-on behalf of the police force. If it is a case that does not require immediate assistance, we will still run through eight or 10 actions ourselves to see what assistance we can provide to the police force. For example, we might want to challenge the risk assessment that has been provided by the police force if the case has come out as low risk and we think it ought to be a higher risk because of our knowledge of the type of things that missing people do.

Q55 Mr Llwyd: You mentioned the police in several instances. At what point typically would families be able to contact you?

Joe Apps: By and large families do not contact the bureau directly. They are able to, but we would signpost them, as the police would, to the charity Missing People for support from the charity. We are in contact with a number of families, however, some of whom have long-term missing family members and others whose missing people have returned. We keep in contact with them as well. We are also in contact with a number of people who report parental abduction.

Q56 Mr Llwyd: So the majority of your work day to day is liaison with the police.

Joe Apps: It is, yes.

Q57 Mr Llwyd: What mechanisms are currently in place to safeguard against mistaken presumption of death claims and/or fraudulent ones?

Joe Apps: Most of the time, if the police are asked about presumption of death, they would want to run what are known as "proof of life" inquiries. Rather than seeing if someone is dead, they want to make sure that someone is not alive, if that is not a contradiction. We conduct inquiries along with the police force to see if there is any trace of the person in contact with authorities-perhaps the Passport Office, the DVLA, their banks or the Department for Work and Pensions, those sorts of things-to see if there is any trace of the person still alive. They are termed "proof of life" inquiries. There are any number of those that can be done.

In terms of a safeguard against mistaken claims for presumption of death or fraudulent claims, that is one thing I would expect the police to do. It is something that I would expect the bureau to be involved in to make sure that the inquiries have been done satisfactorily.

Q58 Mr Llwyd: Finally, are the numbers of missing persons on the increase?

Joe Apps: I will let Llian answer that one.

Dr Alys: We are not currently in a position to be able to tell whether the numbers are increasing or decreasing. Prior to the introduction of the 2009 Code of Practice on Missing Persons Data, data was not routinely collected from forces, and forces were not asked how many reports of missing people they received every year.

Last year we published the Missing Persons: Data and analysis document based on the data collected under the code of practice. This estimated the number of missing person reports made to the police across the UK during the 2009-10 financial year. Unfortunately, at the time, not all police forces were able to provide us with information so we had to estimate some of the data. However, this winter we will be publishing a second bulletin on the 2010-11 data. We have managed to get data from all the Home Office geographic forces. This is a big step forward for us.

We cannot currently compare the data from last year with this year. What I will say, though, is that we are aware that a lot of police forces are doing some really good work with children missing from home and care. This has resulted in a reduction in the number of missing incidents, which would more than likely be short-term missing person cases. Children tend to return or are found quite quickly, but children and young people are responsible for a large proportion of missing incidents.

Q59 Mr Llwyd: I find it very strange that police authorities do not keep a record of missing persons, given that we know it is a fairly limited number.

Dr Alys: It is quite a large number. From our data last year we estimated there were 200,000 missing people and about 350,000 missing incidents. That suggests that some people go missing more than once. I believe most forces would have an idea of the range of missing incidents that they deal with. However, getting at that data is not always simple. Police forces vary in their reporting practices and also in the IT systems they have. Being able to provide us with the data has not been easy in the past.

Joe Apps: If you are looking at older cases-this inquiry will be concerned with some of the older cases-where police forces have changed from paper-based systems to IT systems, not all the old cases have been transferred. We are quite often contacted by police forces asking for details of cases perhaps dating back to the ’60s and ’70s. The bureau is the only repository of data concerning those cases because the police forces do not have them any more.

Dr Alys: I believe the Missing Persons Bureau, as we know it, only came into being in 2008. Before that it was based in the Metropolitan Police service. It was a very small unit and data was not routinely collected from all forces at that point.

Q60 Nick de Bois: Could I take you back a point, Mr Apps? In the written submission that we have received, you said that UK MPB is referred to as offering "consistent and comprehensive support" to the public during missing inquiries. You have just mentioned that you think that most of your work is with the police. I am slightly confused because none of the individuals submitting evidence to the inquiry, who have lost people within the last three years, ever mentioned your organisation. I am confused. On the one hand, you are saying you give consistent and comprehensive support to the public. On the other hand, it is to the police. Can you guide me?

Joe Apps: Yes. We were set up to support police forces, which is what the National Policing Improvement Agency does. In terms of public contact, the agency has little contact because it is a policing organisation. Having said that, a number of members of the public write to us about missing episodes and we are able to guide them in terms of making reports. For example, there is an e-mail this morning from a woman from South Africa trying to trace her mother. We will take that inquiry on ourselves. If the inquiry can be placed with a police force, we will push the inquiry out to a police force, but in this case it cannot be so we will take the inquiry on ourselves and make as many inquiries as possible to see if we can trace this person’s mother.

In terms of family support, whether psychotherapeutic support or publicity, that is something the charity Missing People would take on.1

Q61 Nick de Bois: Are you really set up, though, to deal with the case from South Africa, for example, that you talked about? You seem to be set up, from what you are saying to me, not so much to deal with the public as the police. Are you really set up to go and do these inquiries?

Joe Apps: We are capable of doing those sorts of inquiries, yes. Police forces are only interested in something that happens in their area. If the inquiry cannot be located somewhere, there needs to be a mechanism to pick the inquiry up to see what is possible to be done. We are able to conduct Police National Computer and Police National Database inquiries, open-source searching and searches on things like social and digital media. We can check prison indices and, increasingly through Missing People, we might be able to do some searches around NHS facilities as well.

Q62 Nick de Bois: How much of your case workload does that represent, would you say? It might be something on which you could come back to us.

Joe Apps: Yes.

Q63 Nick de Bois: I am conscious of time, so I will move on, if I may, to the next point. In October 2010, the Home Office Minister said that the Government wanted to see better collaboration between the multiple agencies involved with missing people, which makes sense. Has the bureau been working to achieve this?

Joe Apps: Yes, we have. We are part of a network of Government Departments, Government agencies, law enforcement and the third sector, both here at home within the EU and in the wider world. In terms of the subject matter today we are part of the North Sea Convention, which is a group of maritime nations around the UK exchanging information on the lost and found. We are part of the Global Missing Children’s Network-18 countries worldwide. We are one of the pilot countries for Interpol’s FASTID project, which is a reconciliation of lost and found people across the world through Interpol’s headquarters at Lyon.

Q64 Nick de Bois: It sounds very good. Are you able to point to the effectiveness of all these link-ups? Have you seen a significant improvement in outcomes?

Joe Apps: Yes, we have. Last year the bureau resolved 39 cases on its own, without the assistance of police forces2, through the work that it was conducting. In the seven months of this year we have done 34 cases, which is almost double last year.

In relation to the sorts of things we are able to do, last year a foot was found on a Humberside beach. It was contained within a trainer, which was quite unusual. We put an alert out round the North Sea Group to find the other foot. It turned up on a Netherlands beach. Both were connected to a missing person from Humberside through DNA.

Q65 Nick de Bois: Well done, but very gruesome. The ABI-the Association of British Insurers-told us that they are developing guidance for families of missing persons, which I understand will be or may have been published on your website. Can you tell us about the detail of that guidance and hopefully what impact you think it will have on some of the problems that families are experiencing?

Dr Alys: The ABI are working with the charity Missing People on that guidance.

Q66 Nick de Bois: So it is not you.

Dr Alys: No, it is not us. We are working with the Ministry of Justice on guidance on coroners’ inquiries under section 15 of the Coroners Act.

Joe Apps: Dr Alys mentioned the collaboration with the Ministry of Justice. We have also attended two of the Coroners’ Society of England and Wales conferences. We are currently negotiating with the Coroners’ Society’s secretary over the provision of training for coroners so that we can add to their training to explain what police forces and the bureau can do for them, particularly in the event of unresolved found bodies.

Q67 Elizabeth Truss: You mentioned in your answer to my colleague Nick de Bois that police forces are not necessarily passing information across borders to one another. You said that your role is partly coping with the deficiencies of that information system. My understanding is that the Police National Computer is based within the Met. Is that true and, if so, how do you operate with that?

Joe Apps: The Police National Computer is based in NPIA at Hendon. It is an NPIA service rather than a Metropolitan service. The Police National Database is also housed within NPIA. PNC contains details of people who are currently missing. Unfortunately, there is an auto-delete on some of the old data in PNC, so if the record is not refreshed within 40 days3, the record will drop off PNC. PNC will only ever provide you with a snapshot of information. It will not provide you with information about everyone who is missing, hence the need for a national database which the bureau holds, which is a database of those who are missing, those who are found and those who come to notice as well.

Q68 Elizabeth Truss: Are we dealing with non-effective IT systems? How would you recommend that the system be simplified so that it works better? Presumably, it is not just useful for tracing missing people; it could also be used for serious and organised crime and other activities that the police may want to investigate.

Joe Apps: Absolutely. The development coming along, which is being piloted in a number of forces, is the Police National Database. That is an intelligence pool that builds on what is in PNC. PNC started, as you know, as a collection of criminal records and has widened out into a selection of other information as well. In comparison, PND is an intelligence database that links up all the intelligence in police forces under five categories at the moment. There will obviously be a wider set of categories in due course, including, we hope, "missing".

Q69 Elizabeth Truss: So "missing people" is not there at the moment but will be included in due course.

Joe Apps: We hope that it will be. We are about to report back to Home Office Ministers with some suggestions about databases for "missing", whether as an extension of what we have already or whether as a development of the PND.

Q70 Elizabeth Truss: I want to ask how proposals for a National Crime Agency will fit with your work. How is it going to be integrated with the other activities that one would expect a national linking force to carry out?

Joe Apps: The Home Office has written to our Chief Executive, Nick Gargan, saying that the Missing Persons Bureau will move to the National Crime Agency. Because there is a gap between the formation of the National Crime Agency and the end of the NPIA next year, the bureau will move to SOCA by April of next year. Within SOCA, the bureau will be able to add to the intelligence that SOCA currently holds and will be able to glean information through SOCA’s intelligence as well. Moving into the National Crime Agency, the services will be integrated with other services that are destined for the National Crime Agency. There will be a single intelligence pool able to be used by the bureau and other parts of the agency.

Q71 Elizabeth Truss: What are your recommendations from the perspective of missing persons on the way that the NCA works with the 43 police forces? What is not working at the moment and how could the NCA structure deal with that?

Joe Apps: The thing for me that does not work particularly effectively at the moment in police forces is that "missing" tends to sit on the vulnerable persons’ side of the house in vulnerable persons’ teams, whereas "found bodies" tend to sit in major crime teams or with single officers. It depends on whether it is a suspicious inquiry or not. If it is a suspicious inquiry, perhaps a homicide team will be formed to look at the investigation. If it is not, it might be down to a single beat officer or a single detective to try and resolve the found thing, along with the coroner’s officer. It is the two sides of the house argument within the police force that I do not think works particularly well in some forces. Then there is the issue of police forces finding it difficult to exchange data with each other, hence the need for the National Bureau to reconcile what happens across the country in terms of finds.

The NCA will be able to add more value to that. Through the intelligence pool, it will have the significant data on the "lost and found" that the bureau has amassed over time and will continue to get. The specialist services currently within NPIA will be within the NCA in terms of the investigative advice that can be offered to police forces.

Q72 Elizabeth Truss: Do you think the way that the NCA plans are developing at the moment will give the organisation enough power to deal with things in the most efficacious way?

Joe Apps: I am not clear how the powers of the National Crime Agency are shaping at the moment. It is something that is being discussed with Keith Bristow and his team. SOCA officers have a number of powers-police powers, Customs and Excise powers and immigration powers-which are easily sufficient for the sort of things the bureau would need to do. NPIA obviously has its own powers as well to function with its current range of services. I do not think that additional powers are needed by the agency in terms of doing its job. What we do know is that the NCA is much more about developing intelligence into actionable products that can be delivered either by NCA staff or by police force staff in the forces themselves.

Q73 Chair: You have recommended that there should be a cold case review system, preferably carried out by yourselves because you have records both of missing persons and of unidentified bodies.

Joe Apps: Yes.

Q74 Chair: What would be achieved? How many more cases do you think would be solved if that kind of cold case review was regularly conducted?

Joe Apps: Our database at the moment has about 1,000 bodies, remains and things like that on it, all of which need reconciliation with missing people somewhere. I am sure that some of the bodies and things that we hold will be people missing from elsewhere in the world. Some of our missing people will have been found but not recognised elsewhere in the world. Of the 1,000, about 300 are Interpol cases where there is supposed to be a connection with the UK, and about 300 are Metropolitan cases-the force holds the largest collection of found bodies. Cold case reviews are really important. We did two for Cumbria the other day. They were two 30-year old cases, one of which was resolved in about an hour after searching our database because the body belonging to the missing person from Cumbria had been found three weeks after she went missing on a Northern Ireland beach.

Q75 Chair: Why doesn’t your existing system turn up these cases? Why is it necessary to go back to them after they have become cold cases?

Joe Apps: The bureau has 15 members of staff who are busy on the current caseload. We allocate staff to the cold case reviews as time becomes available. In terms of presumption of death, guardianship and the use of section 15 of the Coroners Act and other types of coroners’ inquiries, we would suggest that cold case reviews are essential.

Q76 Chair: Are they done in Scotland?

Joe Apps: I would need to speak to somebody in Scotland. We have a number of colleagues. Of course the coronial system in Scotland is different, with a procurator fiscal.

Q77 Chair: I was going to turn to Scotland anyway. You are a United Kingdom body, so you have experience of a completely different legislative framework introduced in Scotland, which is quite similar to that which Tim Boswell’s Private Member’s Bill sought to bring before us in the Commons some time ago. In your experience of Scotland and perhaps Northern Ireland, do you think that that basis of legislation is broadly satisfactory, or would you go about things in a different way?

Joe Apps: Can you start answering that and I will come back in a second on the legislation?

Dr Alys: As far as we are aware, there have been no issues with the Scottish or the Northern Irish legislation. We think it would be very important to have a register of presumed deaths and that any applications should be notified to ourselves. Going back to the case review, what we could do in those cases is to check our database to see whether any bodies have turned up anywhere that may be linked to that missing person.

Q78 Chair: You are going back to cold case review.

Dr Alys: Yes; that would be the main reason for them to notify us. We might be able to identify further lines of inquiry for the police that they had not considered. In an ideal world we would already be notified of all these cases, but because the code of practice and the bureau itself are still relatively young, we know that there are likely to be a number of other unidentified bodies and missing people out there that we are not aware of. This would be a safety net, so to speak.

Q79 Chair: I wanted to broaden the question to the wider issue of whether your experience, short though it is, has led you to believe that the Scottish legislative framework is working satisfactorily or presenting any particular problems that we should bear in mind if we are looking at legislation for England.

Joe Apps: Certainly, we think that both the Northern Ireland legislation and the Scottish legislation work in a satisfactory manner. We have heard no reports through Scottish colleagues about difficulties in using the system. I will not describe it as simple, but it seems a clear mechanism in terms of presumption of death. It is something we would obviously urge legislators here to consider.

Q80 Chair: We have been advised that only one missing person for whose estate an order had been made has reappeared since the Act was passed 34 years ago.

Joe Apps: Yes.

Q81 Chair: One other piece of evidence from other jurisdictions that we looked at was the working of the guardianship arrangement in Australia. Do you see that as something we ought to develop in England?

Joe Apps: Yes, it is. If guardianship could be applied for in the mid-term in regard to a missing person so that the estate of the missing person could be looked after by their family pending their reappearance or further work in terms of proof of life inquiries by police forces and other family inquiries until such time as the family are ready to consider declaring someone dead, it would be very helpful.

The other thing from Australia is that, in New South Wales, police can approach the coroner if it is thought that a person has died. The coroner will then direct the police with the necessary inquiries to be made so that the coroner can hold an inquest, in the same way as the procurator fiscal in Scotland or an examining magistrate on the continent could direct the police to do things. We think that would be a helpful addition to the examination of people who are going from mid to long-term missing where the evidence is pointing towards them being dead.

Q82 Nick de Bois: I want to clarify something that you said. Given the concerns expressed by the ABI about increased levels of fraud if a Presumption of Death Bill were to be established in England and Wales, do you consider missing persons related fraud to be a more significant problem in Scotland, despite what the Chairman said, and Northern Ireland, where they have such legislation? The ABI were basically making a subjective judgment. There was no evidence to support it. I would like your opinion on that.

Joe Apps: What I can say is that the fraud inquiries that are exposed-Canoe man, for example-are so well reported that you get the impression from the media that they are really important cases and that there are a lot of cases like that. In fact, in our experience there are very few cases in comparison with the number of people for whom it might be necessary to declare a death or to create guardianship proposals. I do not think the elements of fraud are that high. Obviously, the Scottish legislation has indemnity insurance built into it. You have to take out insurance to guard against a person’s reappearance if you are mistaken in your declaration of death.

Q83 Nick de Bois: It is reasonable to conclude-I do not want to put words into your mouth-that if we had a Presumption of Death Bill in the United Kingdom, we should not anticipate more fraud as a result.

Joe Apps: I do not think we should, no. The police could be charged, along with coroners and coroners’ officers, with making the necessary inquiries to see that the person was not in existence somewhere through the style of proof of life inquiries that are used in "no body" murders.

Q84 Chair: There is a category, is there not, which perhaps we should not call fraud, of people who go missing because they simply want to abandon their previous life, and the only way they can think of doing it is to walk away and leave no trace of where they have gone? You must presumably come across cases of that kind.

Joe Apps: We do. The case that springs to mind is a man from Blackwater who was more or less a recluse. He disappeared one day and it was assumed that he had been depressed and gone off to take his own life, when in fact he had moved down to Lymington and set up a new life, thanks very much, with a new partner. He was found after about three weeks of police inquiries. It is quite difficult to recreate yourself somewhere without coming to the notice of the authorities in some way. Provided the inquiries are diligent and expansive, then the chances are that we will come across them again. There are very few cases like John Stonehouse or Lord Lucan, for example, where people just seem to disappear and are never seen again. We are all just so well connected.

Q85 Chair: What do you advise the police to do in those cases, if someone has not left obligations behind and to some extent they have left their affairs in reasonable order? How should they deal with the family that has reported the person missing if the person who has gone missing wishes his location to remain unknown to the family?

Joe Apps: There are a number of occasions when that comes up. Obviously article 8 provides for a right to private life. The police are very conscious of adults who choose to go missing and not return. The police, if they locate somebody, will ask them if they want their details conveyed to their families. In a lot of cases people do not want that to happen and would rather remain separated from their families. It is different for children. The charity Missing People has a message home service where it can co-ordinate those sorts of inquiries as well. If the person who has gone missing did not want to speak to the police or authority, for example, they could do so through the charity instead. There are a number of ways that things can be done. But, yes, there are many cases where family members just do not wish to contact their families again.

Chair: Thank you very much indeed. We are hoping to have the Minister with us at any moment. As he does not seem to be here yet, I will briefly suspend the sitting. Thank you very much for the help you have given us today. I think you are going to let us have some statistics that you were asked about earlier. When you see the transcript, the details will be there. Thank you very much.

Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Jonathan Djanogly MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, and Keir Hopley, Deputy Director, Criminal Law and Legal Policy, Ministry of Justice, gave evidence.

Chair: Thank you, Minister, for coming a little earlier. Because of the earlier timing of the Chancellor’s autumn statement, we thought we would try to finish as close to 11.30 as we can or soon afterwards. I am going to ask Mrs Qureshi to open the questioning.

Q86 Yasmin Qureshi: Thank you, Minister, for coming. I want to explore the current system for presumption of death for missing people. We have heard in this Select Committee, both orally and in written representation, from various organisations and charities involved in this process. Everyone seems critical of the process that we currently have in our country to do with presumption of death. Some people describe it as "piecemeal and specific to particular situations". The Chair of Missing People, Martin Houghton-Brown, says that the current process is "incredible and archaic". There generally seems to be a level of unhappiness or dissatisfaction with the current system.

In your experience and knowledge, do you think the system is as difficult as everyone says it is, and, if so, is there any plan by the Ministry to deal with the matter in any way?

Mr Djanogly: Good morning, Chairman. To directly answer the question, I would agree that the system we have is convoluted and cumbersome; that is for sure. But, generally speaking, it is a system that has worked adequately. It has safeguarded the position of the missing person, which we have to bring on board as well. Ultimately, it has enabled those who are left behind to move on. I sympathise with the very emotional and practical difficulties that the families of those left behind can face at what is bound to be a very stressful time of their lives.

Q87 Yasmin Qureshi: Has any thought been given by the Ministry to deal with this situation and perhaps to make the process easier? Will there be any changes or is the view that at this time there is no need to do anything?

Mr Djanogly: There are various areas-we may go on to discuss them-where there could be better guidance. I have read the very helpful reports from your previous hearings, and I agree with much of what has been said in relation to the fact that there could be better processes with insurance companies and so forth, for instance. What also came out of the evidence, and we would agree with, is that to a great extent advisers are not aware of the processes that are available. I appreciate that these can be convoluted processes, but we think there is a lack of understanding of what is out there at the current time. Yes, we do think there is a role for guidance.

In relation to legislation, we think there could be. I have personally said clearly that we will look at this. To be frank, it has never been Government policy before. It has not been the policy of this Government either, up until now. It is not coalition policy to do this. This Committee, more than anyone else, will know what a very significant period of reform the Department has been going through and a realisation of the level of work that policy officials in the Department have been put under in recent months to deliver on the reforms. It is not as though we have not been looking at reform, but it would be true to say that it has not been a Government priority. I have said that we will look very carefully at the report that your Committee produces and will take a view based on that report and the APPG evidence as well.

Q88 Yasmin Qureshi: I do not know whether you have had a chance to read in the reports that in Scotland and Northern Ireland they have had a process for the last 34 years that everyone describes as simpler. As we understand it, only one missing person has ever resurfaced in 34 years, so it seems that the Scottish system is safeguarding the interests of the missing persons.

Mr Djanogly: That is true, but at the same time it would be fair to say that the experience of Scotland and Northern Ireland has been that presumption of death is not used very frequently. In Scotland, it averages at something like four cases a year. In Northern Ireland, in the short time they have had the process, there have been one or two cases. Again, putting it in the context of Government priorities and where we put our scarce resources, I would admit that it has not been a priority to date. I repeat that we will carefully look at the report that you produce.

Q89 Mr Llwyd: I would just add a rider. Minister, you have referred to the law being convoluted and cumbersome, and said that there are practical difficulties and that we need better processes. I would suggest one thing to you at this stage. There are several problems but there is one very real problem. When a person goes missing, for example, that person might have a large mortgage on a property. There is a need for a look at some form of limited administration so that those left behind can deal with the outgoings, deal with the property and generally make some order of a great deal of practical difficulties that exist.

I am sure it is not difficult to do that. In coming to any legislative solution, may I impress upon you the need for looking at that issue as well-in other words, a limited form of administration order?

Mr Djanogly: Yes; I take that on board. I certainly agree that this is an area where there could be a much more significant role for life insurance companies and mortgage companies to agree protocols so that people have a better idea of what to expect in that situation rather than different companies taking a different approach, which I fully realise could be cumbersome and impractical.

Q90 Mr Llwyd: And the high street banks as well, of course.

Mr Djanogly: Indeed, yes.

Q91 Chair: One of the things you are doing, I understand, is preparing guidance on section 15 inquests. What is that likely to do? What do you have in mind?

Mr Djanogly: The important point to make on section 15 inquests is that it goes slightly further than missing persons. Section 15 inquests, basically, are for the situation where there is no body. For instance, that could be after cremation. We also need to realise that it does not cater for certain circumstances that one would want to be taken on board. If a person were to go missing in an aeroplane outside the jurisdiction, for instance, section 15 would not cover it. Section 15 only covers in jurisdiction. But, yes, we do think this is an area where there needs to be better guidance and that is in process at the moment. We do not think it is going to lead to a larger number of inquests, but we do think that it will streamline the process.

Q92 Chair: Will you find a way of getting over the geographical restrictions that make it difficult to apply section 15 at the moment?

Mr Djanogly: Yes. Out of country it would not apply.

Q93 Chair: But between coroners’ jurisdictions,

Mr Djanogly: Between coroners’ jurisdictions, absolutely. The commencement of the recent Coroners Act, which is obviously now going to be through the Chief Coroner, would, either way, have enabled the decision to be taken to pass inquests between internal and national jurisdictions, which we think will give significant help. It will also, of course, enable expertise to be used. For instance, if there was a coroner who was expert at section 15 type inquests, or a series of them, and a coroner who was not so expert in that field, the case could be transferred to the expert coroner. We think there would be an advantage there.

Q94 Chair: That is the kind of reform in the coroners’ system for which this Committee has been arguing for years.

Mr Djanogly: Absolutely.

Q95 Chair: Forgive me for looking a bit sceptical when what we are told by a Government about what it wants to do on coroners gets changed at very short notice-sometimes for the better. It is difficult to engage with the Government on the subject of coroners, if I can put it that way.

Mr Djanogly: As I said, Chairman, that proposal and reform was going to happen whether or not there was a Chief Coroner. We hope that will be implemented shortly.

Q96 Chair: There are problems with the Data Protection Act as well in getting information necessary to resolve some of the issues that Mr Llwyd mentioned. Have you had any discussions with the Information Commissioner about that?

Mr Djanogly: Yes, we have. The underlying point is that the law on data protection applies to missing people as much as to anyone else. It would be wrong to say that it should not. At the same time, in practical application, we have had some evidence shown to us that it can be over-zealously applied and there is a practical halfway house that can be reached. The Information Commissioner agrees with us on that perspective. So, yes, we are now looking with him to see whether a bit more common sense can be injected into the system when necessary.

Q97 Chair: Doesn’t it need some sort of protocol around necessity?

Mr Djanogly: It may well do. We have opened discussions with the ICO on this area and we will be looking at that.

Q98 Mr Llwyd: In October last year a Home Office Minister, in responding to a Westminster Hall debate on the issue of presumption of death, said that the Government believed greater co-operation and collaboration between all the agencies involved would help in delivering improved services. What steps are the Government now taking to ensure greater co-operation and collaboration between the agencies who are typically involved in missing persons cases?

Mr Djanogly: We have mentioned two or three of them so far. Indeed, I agree with you that we need better protocols in terms of the way our banks and insurance companies behave as well. All of that is in hand. I have to say, though, that in terms of moving forward, for instance, not least as to whether we should have primary legislation in this area, we will be looking at the recommendations of your Committee. We hope to learn from them, and we hope that you give us a good pointer.

Q99 Mr Llwyd: It is refreshing to hear that, Minister, because very often Select Committees are not the necessary triggers for legislation, but if that be the case, I am delighted. How would you counter concerns that the introduction of codes of practice would not negate the civil liability of institutions for what are erroneous payouts? Would they need to be accompanied, for example, by insurance?

Mr Djanogly: I would have thought that was a question for the institutions rather than Government.

Q100 Mr Llwyd: But if you are going to be in discussion with institutions, as you said you would be, is it an issue you might care to take up with them?

Mr Djanogly: Indeed; yes, we are quite happy to do so.

Q101 Mr Buckland: Minister, we are delighted to hear that you acknowledge that there are significant issues that may well need legislative change. Looking at the time scale, you will have the report from this Committee and you will be aware of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Runaway and Missing Children and Adults and their report.

Mr Djanogly: Do you know when you are going to produce the report?

Mr Buckland: Before the end of the year.

Chair: I think early in the new year would be safer.

Q102 Mr Buckland: I am grateful, Chairman. Our report will be early in the new year. You will be aware of the report which has been done by the All-Party Parliamentary Group, of which I was a member, and I think some work was done for the last Government, but not issued, by Clifford Chance. I do not know whether you or your officials have seen that body of work.

Mr Djanogly: I saw some of that in the transcripts of your previous meetings.

Q103 Mr Buckland: Quite clearly, this is an issue that has been going on for some time. It is not specific to the current Administration. Looking at the time scale, what are your proposals for the next move for the Ministry of Justice once you consider this evidence? What is going to happen?

Mr Djanogly: I will commit to looking at your evidence and your findings, the APPG findings and working with the Home Office. I have already had a full discussion on this with James Brokenshire at the Home Office. I will reach a view on whether legislation is required by the end of this Session in April.

Q104 Mr Buckland: I will press you a little on that. Let us put aside parliamentary time for the moment. Would you agree with me that there is a case for new legislation in this area, perhaps along the lines of the Private Member’s Bill that Tim Boswell, now Lord Boswell, introduced without success back in 2009? Would you agree there is a case for that?

Mr Djanogly: A good presentation of the case has been made. I want to look at the issues in the round and put them into the context of other departmental priorities. That has to be done. I do see, from the evidence that I have been shown, that there is an issue here. I have to say that I see issues every day of the week in my job and one has to prioritise. We will need to do that, but I commit to you today to doing that by the end of the Session. It may be suitable for a Private Member’s Bill, if it were to go ahead. We had a piece of legislation brought in by way of Private Member’s Bill in this Session and I thought the process worked very well. I would not necessarily say that is not the way to go.

Q105 Mr Buckland: In other words, the Government assisting and a Private Member presenting a Bill with Government approval.

Mr Djanogly: Possibly.

Q106 Mr Buckland: I am glad to hear that you are working closely with your counterpart in the Home Office. Would you agree with me that perhaps, on reflection, the Ministry’s failure to take part in the oral evidence sessions in the APPG was a missed opportunity?

Mr Djanogly: No. It was a busy period for me personally. I said that we should provide written evidence, which we did. We have provided written evidence to this Committee. I have appeared before this Committee. I do not think we have exactly ignored it. I had a formal meeting with James Brokenshire, Department to Department, to discuss the issue as well. It is an issue that we have been following.

Q107 Mr Buckland: The view of this Committee is that this is an important priority and we are glad to hear that you and your Department are acknowledging that. Is that a fair summary?

Mr Djanogly: That was implied in the fact that you have held your inquiry and in the transcripts that I have seen. That is the first time I think you have said formally that it is an important and formal priority for your Committee. I look forward to reading your report and seeing your recommendations.

Q108 Chair: It is clear to us, Minister, that this is an issue that affects families, in particular, in very difficult and challenging ways and for long periods as they try to resolve the difficulties they face. It seems clear to us that although there are difficult technical issues to resolve and safeguards to build in, the principle of doing something about it is not a particularly controversial issue. We have the benefit of the Scottish and Northern Ireland experience. Incidentally, the Scottish legislation was passed at Westminster because it was before the days of devolution.

We, as a Committee, will look now carefully at the evidence we have received and produce a report. We very much welcome the open way you have dealt with our questions this morning and your willingness to look at various options, whether it is Government or Private Members legislation. We hope to assist you in the process of consideration.

Mr Djanogly: Thank you.

Chair: Thank you very much indeed.


[1] Note by witness: The Bureau wishes to clarify a sentence in the Memorandum previously submitted. In paragraph 6, the Bureau is to provide advice and support to police forces as part of its national coordination function, thus ensuring that the police provide a consistent and comprehensive service to the public. The sentence is not intended to suggest that the Bureau provides support directly to the public.

[2] Note by witness: The wording “without the assistance of police forces” is not meant to suggest that police forces were not involved in the resolution of the cases, rather that the case would not have been solved without the resources of the Bureau.

[3] Note by witness: “within 40 days” should read “within 90 days”. Note that since 2010, auto-delete has been changed to after three years

[3]

Prepared 16th February 2012