HC Deb 22 March 1999 vol 328 cc31-2W
Dr. Gibson

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what(a) guidelines and (b) regulations his Department has regarding (i) the notification of relatives and (ii) the information, support and guidance offered to relatives after a death in (1) prison and (2) police custody. [77337]

Mr. George Howarth

The Prison Service issued revised instructions to staff last autumn under Prison Service Order 2710—'Follow Up To Deaths In Custody'. These instructions give guidance on the notification of the next of kin and how the bereaved can be helped and supported in a sensitive manner during this difficult period.

The decision on how to inform the next of kin should take into account individual circumstances. Wherever possible, notification is made by a governor grade and chaplain from the appropriate denomination. However, in some instances notification via the police is necessary. Supporting relatives and keeping them informed of developments following a death are of paramount importance. A senior member of staff is appointed as the named point of contact (a second person will be available in the first person's absence) for the family, who are invited to visit the prison.

The Prison Service has reviewed its practice in relation to disclosing information about investigations into deaths in prison custody. As a result, it proposes to investigate any death occurring on or after 1 April on the basis of disclosure before the inquest to persons whom the Coroner believes to have a proper interest in preparing for it. This disclosure must not compromise the inquest or any criminal proceedings or infringe the legal rights of witnesses. Each case will be reviewed in accordance with the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information.

The position in the police service is that all police officers early on in their service are given training on dealing with all sudden deaths, which includes notifying relatives of a sudden death. Where the death occurs in police custody, it would be for the senior officer in charge to decide on the appropriate way of informing the relatives of the death. It is normal practice for the next of kin to be informed by a police officer in person. Practice on the provision of written information varies among forces but in the Metropolitan Police Service they normally provide the family with a leaflet on the role of the coroner and a leaflet by the independent Police Complaints Authority on investigating serious incidents. They may also appoint a family liaison officer of above inspector rank at local level.

Home Office guidance is shortly to be issued to chief officers of police about the disclosure of documentary evidence to interested parties in advance of inquest hearings which concern deaths in police custody. The guidance advises that disclosure should be the normal practice in all cases of death in police custody, as well as deaths arising from fatal road accidents involving the police.