HL Deb 15 September 2004 vol 664 cc1175-6

3.8 p.m.

Lord Thomas of Gresford asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they plan to implement the recommendations of the report by the Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws on sudden infant death syndrome.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Warner)

My Lords, sudden infant death is a tragic and distressing event, requiring a sensitive response. We welcome this report, which will inform government policy and the way in which these tragic events are managed and accounted for. We are grateful to my noble friend Lady Kennedy and her committee for their contribution to preventing potential miscarriages of justice while protecting the interests and safety of children. We shall be considering the recommendations carefully, alongside the review on medical expert witnesses being conducted by the Chief Medical Officer, which was announced in June.

Lord Thomas of Gresford

My Lords, I welcome the warm words used by the Minister about the report. He will know that it calls for local agreements between the coroner, the police and NHS trusts on how unexpected deaths in infancy are to be investigated, in accordance with the national multi-agency protocol. How are the Government to ensure that these local agreements are constructed throughout the country, and in particular that investigations are not police-led but medically led by child pathologists trained in forensic pathology? Does the Minister agree with the president of the Royal College of Pathologists, reported a week ago, that a quarter of the posts in Britain's health authorities are unfilled, with no applicants coming forward, because the speciality has been demonised in the press and the media?

Lord Warner

My Lords, I have a good deal of sympathy with the noble Lord's remarks. In response to his first point, my right honourable friend the Minister for Children is working on the role of local screening teams to consider all unexpected deaths in childhood and how they might respond to both unexpected infant deaths and all child deaths. A draft protocol is being developed on a multi-agency basis.

We agree with the noble Lord and recognise the need for more paediatric pathologists. We are putting money into trying to train those, but there is no quick fix. We have to put the money into training and we have to train new doctors in this area to gain the relevant experience.

Lord Lamont of Lerwick

My Lords, can the Minister say what system of compensation will be used to compensate those who suffered appalling miscarriages of justice and whose lives were ruined? Will the Government ensure that the compensation, unlike in certain other cases of miscarriage of justice, is paid promptly and not grudgingly?

Lord Warner

My Lords, I shall take custody of that supplementary—if I may use that expression—look into it, and write to the noble Lord.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, the Minister said that the noble Baroness's report and the CMO's investigations, when reported, will inform government policy. Will he tell us what government policy is in this area at the moment?

Lord Warner

My Lords, I think that government policy in this area is well established. We have been committed to protecting children as effectively as we can on a multi-agency basis. We have been pursuing the same sort of policies as previous governments in terms of where investigation of a criminal offence is required. Because of the particular sensitivities in this area, and as a result of my noble friend's very helpful report, we have discovered that we need to improve certain aspects of the system, and that is what we shall do.

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff

My Lords, given that sudden infant deaths come within the jurisdiction and investigation of the coroner, and that a review of the coroners' service is currently taking place, can the Minister update us on the progress of that review, particularly in the light of the recent report?

Lord Warner

My Lords, as the noble Baroness will know, a number of aspects of the report relate to the Human Tissue Bill, which is progressing through Parliament and which also involves issues for coroners. The Government have also undertaken to revise the coroners rules, and I understand that a draft is expected to be available by the end of this month.

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