Currently South Staffordshire is a separate coroners’ jurisdiction from the north of the county and Stoke-on-Trent.
But following the retirement of former South Staffordshire Senior Coroner Andrew Haigh, a business case has being drawn up as part of proposals for a single Staffordshire service.
A Staffordshire County Council report said: “Since 2014 the Chief Coroner and the Ministry of Justice have had a long-term plan to reduce the number of coroner areas in England and Wales. As a result, area mergers are always considered whenever the opportunity arises, invariably when a senior coroner retires.
“Staffordshire County Council and Stoke-on-Trent City Council are now being requested to consider this as Andrew Haigh retired on 31 October 2021. The Chief Coroner encourages local authorities to consider a merger as it his belief that merging two or more areas leads to a more consistent service for bereaved families, and results in more coroner’s areas being of a similar size and population.
“The process and timescale to create a joint service is lengthy and interim arrangements have been put in place to ensure that Staffordshire County Council maintains a coroner in post. Andrew Barkley, North Staffs Coroner, has agreed to provide the interim coronial cover for the Staffordshire South jurisdiction whilst a business case is progressed and pending a decision regarding the joint service.
“The proposed merger will provide an opportunity to focus upon improving services to bereaved families, whilst retaining high quality and consistent services for local people across both jurisdictions. It will also ensure that the service is sustainable and fit for the future.
“Whilst it is proposed to have a single back-office coroners’ support team, the current arrangements for the location of inquests will continue. This means that a coronial presence will be maintained in both Stafford and Stoke-on-Trent.
“There will be an opportunity to enhance the local service with the use of additional sites to provide access to the service within increased locations across the new coronial jurisdiction.”
The business case is due to be discussed by Staffordshire County Council’s cabinet on February 16. Stoke-on-Trent City Council will also consider the proposal.
Members of the county council’s Corporate Overview and Scrutiny Committee were told last Thursday that Stoke-on-Trent City Council would oversee the back office arrangements, but existing administrative staff would remain in their current locations with their current employer if they did not wish to move to a central location at this point.
Funding for the service would not exceed the current financial commitments of the two councils, the committee heard. This means the budget would be up to £1.4m for the county council and £768,350 for the city authority.
But committee member Councillor Jeremy Pert said the business case lacked ambition.
“I’m not against this in principle – I think it is a very good idea to have coterminous geographical boundaries across the public sector. I think that makes inordinate sense and I accept it takes time for those things to happen”, he added.
“I think we should be taking the opportunity not just to look at the boundaries, we should take the opportunity to say what is smarter working going to give us? What I don’t understand is why aren’t we looking at a more agile way of working?
“Surely one of the things we all learned from the pandemic was we don’t need to be tied to an office base.”
Committee member Councillor Bernard Peters said: “The most important people in this process are the loved ones and relatives. They want to feel comfortable that we know what we’re doing.
“I’d like to get assurance that aspiration needs to be clearly at the front of this because you are going to have to convince a lot of people that it is the right way ahead.”
Councillor Victoria Wilson, cabinet member for communities and culture, said: “The last thing that we want is any disruption in the process.
“We want it to be completely seamless, because at the end of the day we are dealing with people’s loved ones and relatives. The focus here is to make sure everything transitions with as little fuss as possible.
“This isn’t really a subject where you consider innovation particularly. This is unfortunately one of the things that happens in people’s lives and I think the most important part of this is to make sure everything happens very smoothly.”