Backing for coroner plans

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COUNCILLORS have unanimously backed plans which could see Hartlepool and Teesside coroner services merge.

The town’s coroner service is currently separate. But under the proposals would merge with Teesside which already covers Middlesbrough, Redcar & Cleveland and Stockton.

Town residents have been assured it won’t adversely affect them, with inquests into deaths happening in Hartlepool continuing to be heard in town.

Members of Hartlepool Borough Council’s finance and policy committee have given their backing in principle to the changes, which are now subject to a business case before a submission is made to the Ministry of Justice.

Malcolm Donnelly, Hartlepool coroner is supportive, and has previously told the Mail it is inevitable, given the number of reported deaths in town has halved since the closure of the A&E department at the University Hospital of Hartlepool in August 2011.

Now councillors have also given their backing. Chief executive Dave Stubbs believes it will lead to a better service for the area.

Mr Stubbs said: “The guarantee is that all Hartlepool inquests will remain in Hartlepool.

“There will be a bigger and better service. This is very positive and one that we should be supporting.

“This is not a take-over.”

The merger plans have come about following Teesside coroner Michael Sheffield’s retirement in April this year, after more than 40 years service.

Mr Sheffield, who was in his 80s, had come under heavy fire because of long delays in the time it was taking to complete inquests, including those families from Hartlepool who had relatives die in unusual circumstances at the University Hospital of North Tees, in Stockton.

Mr Donnelly, who is helping to clear the backlog on Teesside, said previously that a merger was “inevitable” because the number of reported deaths is not sufficient for a separate coroner service.

In 2013, the number of reported deaths in Hartlepool was around 350 – roughly half of the number prior to the A&E closure. In comparison, Teesside has around 2,900 reported deaths a year.

The full cost of the Hartlepool coroner services for 2013-14 was £182,000, while the cost of the Teesside Coroner service was £962,488.

If the merger went ahead, it would save Hartlepool council around £30,000.

Council leader Christopher Akers-Belcher added: “There is a saving there, and it is good for Hartlepool.”

A report said the responsibility for formal consultation on a potential merger of the Teesside and Hartlepool coroner areas rests solely with the Lord Chancellor.