Report of the Cabinet Member for Communities and Culture
The Committee considered the report of the Cabinet Member for Communities and Culture which proposed a Joint Coroners service for Staffordshire, joining the South Staffordshire jurisdiction with that of Stoke on Trent and North Staffordshire to create a new service.
The proposed new joint service would follow national policy of merging smaller coronial areas and therefore reducing the overall number of Coronial jurisdictions in England and Wales. The retirement of the South Staffordshire Coroner had provided the opportunity to consider consolidating the coroners service into a single new service, which it was suggested, would enable a more consistent, resilient service for Staffordshire residents and, over time, deliver efficiencies through economies of scale.
It was explained that this was a decision for both the County Council and Stoke on Tent City Council. The County Councils Cabinet would consider the proposal on 16 February 2022. Following agreement from both Local Authorities, the business case would then be submitted to the Ministry of Justice for approval. This would lead to the preparation for the required laying of the statutory instrument for the legal process to commence. A period of at least 4 months was required to provide sufficient time for this to take place. The Ministry of Justice would also complete the required 4 week targeted consultation.
The Strategic decision making would take place through a Joint Executive Committee comprising of Cabinet Members from both authorities, together with appropriate Lead Officers and with support from Legal and Finance teams. The North Staffordshire and Stoke on Trent Coroner had been party to the development of the arrangements and current staff had been consulted.
During the debate on the report the following information was shared with Members:
1) The current staff would remain on their current contracts and remain based at their current office locations unless they wanted to move to a centralised site. Any new appointments would be placed upon a new contract with the host authority and based at the back office location. Current/ existing staff would be given the opportunity to move to the new contract but this would not be mandatory.
2) The proposal would not exceed the current financial commitment so would have no financial impact. The current proportion of total funding costs would remain.
3) A local coronial presence would remain and it was planned that the new structure would open up opportunities for more local access such as in Library’s, although the locations had not been finalised yet.
4) Nationally agreed performance indicators regarding the statutory process are in place and these would continue in the new joint service.
5) Opportunities for efficiencies would be considered, for example the consolidation of contracts with hospital trusts or funeral directors and more digital technology would be used as digital autopsy is rolled out. ‘Teams’ was now being used for inquests where possible for the bereaved relatives although the Coroner is required to have a physical office presence.
6) In the aspirational structure, there were 2 new Court Support Officers and a PA post proposed. These posts should reduce the administrative role of Coroners Officers.
7) There should be no impact on the public or inquests processes.
8) It was envisaged that there would be no increase in waiting times or delays because of the changes.
9) During the initial consultation, there had been verbal responses from partners however not as many written responses as hoped for. The Ministry of Justice would also be carrying out a full consultation on the proposals as part of their processes.
The Committee made the following comments on the proposed merger:
a) The principle of the merger was accepted but it was felt that the proposals still needed development and this should be reflected in the business case.
b) It was important that there was no disruption to the process or negative effect on the public. Focus needed to be on transition with minimum disruption.
c) There were many references to ‘efficiencies in the future’. It was felt that examples of these needed to be detailed in the business case.
d) There was concern over the limited response from partners during the consultation. This was also concern as the NHS was restructuring (Integrated Care Systems) and alignment needed to be made to ensure a smooth transfer. It was felt that further consultation would be beneficial.
e) The business case seemed to lack ambition and that more should be done to look at different ways of working such as more agile, flexible working, better use of technology etc.
f) Concern was expressed that there would be no scrutiny of the service, with only the Cabinet members having information on the performance of the service. It was felt that it would be hard to hold the service to account or look at efficiency if it’s not reporting anywhere. It was acknowledged that scrutiny of performance and/ or any significant development within the new joint service would still take place within both Local Authorities and the report would be amended to reflect this.
g) The proposed increase in back office staff of 3 fte was noted but there was no information on what they would do or what changes would need to take place to accommodate the loss of the South Staffordshire Coroner.
h) The Committee was concerned that risks had been listed in the report but the proposed mitigation was missing. Although officers confirmed that these were in place, members felt that these should be more visible and it was confirmed that the full risk register would be included within the Cabinet report.
The Cabinet Member took the opportunity to thank officers for their hard work during the process.
RESOLVED: That the report be noted and the Committees comments as listed above in the minutes be noted prior to the submission to the Chief Coroner and Ministry of Justice.