The Assistant Director Organisation and Governance and the Acting Senior Coroner were in attendance at the meeting to provide an update to the Panel on the recommendations of the Scrutiny Review.
There had been two recent reviews into the Coroners Service; the first, undertaken by the Community Safety and Leisure Scrutiny Panel, was reported to Executive on 4 December 2012. The second review was commissioned by Cleveland Police in agreement with the then Senior Coroner, Mr Sheffield, and reported confidentially in April 2013. This was referred to as the 2013 Review. The majority of recommendations from both reviews had either been fully implemented or were currently being implemented. Appendix A attached to the submitted report provided an update against each of the recommendations made by the Scrutiny Review.
The Acting Senior Coroner reported on the improvements that had been made and were continuing to be made in the Teesside Coronial Service. It was highlighted that the improvements would not have been possible without the vast amount of support and time provided by the Local Authority and Cleveland Police. The Teesside Service had been joined by the Senior Coroner from Hartlepool who was dealing with the enhanced cases including deaths in custody, prison and mental health institutions as well as some of the older cases. The Acting Senior Coroner was dealing with new cases. All cases were being dealt with quickly but not at the expense of thoroughness.
New working methods had been adopted that included guidance to the Registrars about which deaths needed to be reported to the Coroners, to ensure that natural deaths were not passed to the Service. The previous practice, unique to Teesside, of holding inquests for chronic alcohol deaths had now ceased. Removing those cases had decreased the number of inquests and allowed the service to manage more effectively. Some inquests were now dealt with straight away, being opened and closed on the same day. In accordance with current legislation, more investigation was undertaken prior to an inquest and efforts were made to only call the necessary witnesses. This would benefit families in Teesside without cutting corners. Essentially the efforts that were being made were to narrow the issues and only deal with those that had to be dealt with. However, there would always be some complex cases that required a significant amount of investigation and for which it was appropriate that they took longer to conclude in order to ensure that all relevant information was taken into consideration.
Changes had also been made in the way the Service dealt with those people involved. There was a positive and motivated team of staff including Coroners Officers and administrative staff in the service as well as the permanent presence of a Police Inspector. Monthly team meetings were held with all staff, the Acting Senior Coroner, Senior Coroner and Police. There were also monthly meetings with the Assistant Director Organisation and Governance and the Acting Senior Coroner to discuss issues including budget requirements, staffing or any problems. The Service was trying to build and maintain relationships with all stakeholders, including Trust Directors at the local hospitals. Financial control had been handed over to the Council to ensure that all financial transactions were open and transparent and dealt with in accordance with the Council's financial management processes. Regular training for all staff had also taken place and the Acting Senior Coroner and Senior Coroner were much more proactive in dealing with any issues raised by staff.
The changes made to the Coroners Service had resulted in a significant improvement in performance. In 2014 the average time taken to deal with new inquests (post 25 July 2013), was 14 weeks. This was top quartile performance although the figure excluded dealing with the backlog of cases.
When the backlog was included, the predicted performance for 2014 was 30 weeks. Coroner performance was monitored on a calendar year and statistics for the year ending 31 December 2013 showed average time to conclude an inquest at 50 weeks. The national statistics were based on inquests concluded. The Teesside Coroners Service had a significant backlog of cases. At its highest level this was 404 standard inquests (pre July 2013), 150 standard inquests (post July 2013) and 30 enhanced inquests. This backlog had been reduced to approximately 50 standard inquests (pre July 2013); 60 standard inquests (post July 2013) and 18 enhanced inquests.
Dealing with the backlog impacted negatively on the nationally reported statistics relating to the time taken to conclude inquests as all the backlog cases (most of which were over 12 months old and many were more than 2 years old) would be included in the 2014 statistics. Despite this, the average time to conclude inquests, including the backlog cases in 2014, was predicted to be 30 weeks. Based on current progress it was expected that the backlog of enhanced cases would be dealt with by September 2014 and the backlog of standard cases by December 2014.
The Coroners Service had been re-located from its previous two sites to the Town Hall. A new IT system had been implemented. IRIS software, a Case Management System, was also being introduced and would be live later in the year. The Administrative Staff had been transferred to the Council under TUPE conditions. The website had also been developed and all inquests were now listed on the website. Middlesbrough Councils Internal Audit Service had carried out a financial audit and the issues raised in the audit were being dealt with. One of the key areas for improvement was procurement and it was anticipated that new contracts would be in place from 1 November 2014.
The retirement of the previous Coroner on 30 April 2014 had provided the opportunity for consideration of a merger of the Hartlepool and Teesside Coroner areas. Formal consultation and the decision whether or not to merge these areas was the responsibility of the Lord Chancellor. Middlesbrough Council had been asked by the Lord Chancellor to prepare a Business Case that provided evidence to support a merger or evidence that demonstrated a merger should not be considered. The process, timescale and considerations regarding a merger were outlined in Appendix B to the submitted report.
The key considerations regarding whether or not a merger should be supported were ensuring compliance with the Chief Coroners Guidance on mergers and the impact on the delivery of the key business outcomes required, which were:
Improved outcomes for customers as measured by the timeliness of inquests, availability and accessibility of the service and cost effectiveness.
Responsiveness to future demand.
Streamlined processes for partners.
An initial assessment of the information available suggested that a merger of the two areas was most likely to achieve the business outcomes required. Informal feedback from stakeholders indicated support for a merger and a merger would be in line with the 2009 Act and would fully meet the Chief Coroners guidance on mergers. Savings of approximately 20% had been estimated if a merger with Hartlepool took place. It was anticipated that the Senior Coroner from Hartlepool would be slotted into Coroners post.
The Panel Members were pleased to note the changes and improvements in the Service since the last update and thanked the Acting Senior Coroner for attending the meeting.
AGREED as follows that:
1. the information provided was received and noted.
2. the Panel would continue to receive further updates in relation to the Teesside Coroners
Service, as appropriate.