A series of reviews which failed to deliver any improvements to a Yorkshire coroners’ service over several years has been listed as one of the reasons for falling staff morale and a sharp rise in sickness rates.
Work is currently going on to improve the effectiveness of Bradford and Wakefield Coroners’ Offices, with extra staff being recruited, after a police review identified a host of problems at the service which investigates deaths in West Yorkshire.
The review, written in December obtained by The Yorkshire Post using the Freedom of Information Act, reveals an alarming spike in sickness rates at the service’s Eastern office in Wakefield, as well as a general lack of training and outdated working practices.
One passage in the West Yorkshire Police review says: “A number of reviews of the Coroners’ Office have taken place over the last several years, with no real evidence of any significant improvements actually being delivered.
“This has been reported as a contributory factor to a reduction in staff morale and current levels of sickness, particularly in respect of the Eastern Office.”
In February, The Yorkshire Post revealed that Wakefield Coroner’s Court had been forced to draft in extra workers from other parts of the region after staff shortages left a backlog of more than 100 cases waiting to be looked into.
The police review said: “Staff have raised concerns that they do not feel their current staffing levels are sufficient to meet the demands placed upon them, nor is there any provision to backfill for abstractions.”
According to David Hinchliff, the senior coroner based in Wakefield, extra resources put in by police this year have since resulted in a significant improvement.
The 57-page report says the Western coroner’s office, based in Bradford, dealt with 3,114 deaths in 2015 and the Eastern Area 3,813, among the 500,000 deaths registered in England and Wales every year.
It said sickness levels rose sharply last year, with more than 370 working days lost in the Wakefield office up to September, compared with just 20 in the Bradford office.
Between 2012 and 2016, the Eastern office lost 904 days to sickness, 11 per cent of the total, while the Western office lost 273, a rate of 3.3 per cent. The national average is 3.21 per cent.
During the review, which relates to the services provided by police to the coroner’s office, and not administrative functions carried out by council staff, employees were interviewed and data about the coroner’s service analysed.
Among the issues that emerged was that the Lotus Notes database used to record staff actions “is outdated, unreliable and provides no management information”.
The report said: “Working practices are outdated, predominantly paper based, with photocopying and faxing being common systems to transfer information. Statements are taken in long hand, before being typed. Little use is currently made of existing technology.”
It added: “Training is sparse, the majority of which is undertaken ‘on the job’. No reference manuals or visual aids appear to exist.”
The report said the Coroner’s service had been subject to a number of reviews, with training, IT, workload and the way administration was carried about the issues identified.
It said: “However, many of these improvements have not been implemented and a significant amount of the original issues identified still remain.
“In addition, there has been little in the way of the development and introduction of improved technology (including Mobile data and software applications) to enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of working practices.”
The West Yorkshire Police review was completed last December. After The Yorkshire Post requested a copy of the document under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act in March, it was disclosed four-and-a-half months later in late July. Public authorities have been told they must respond to FOI requests within 20 working days.
A spokeswoman for West Yorkshire Police said several recommendations were put forward after the review, including the recruitment of extra staff.
As a result, a recruitment process is in place and work is going on to find a new system to replace the current outdated model. There will also be more training on legal issues and the use of the new IT system
A spokeswoman said: “To implement the recommendations outlined in the review a Police Inspector is assisting Senior Coroner’s Officers at both of the Bradford and Wakefield Coroners’ offices.
“Two officers have also been dedicated to ensure the recommendations are implemented as quickly as possible.”
David Hinchliff, Senior Coroner for the Eastern area which covers Leeds, Wakefield and Pontefract, said he had not seen the report but was aware of some of the recommendations.
He said: “The police support service to the Coroner’s office has experienced a number of issues but additional resources have now been allocated by West Yorkshire Police which has resulted in a significant improvement.
“Despite these police support challenges I am confident that the West Yorkshire Eastern Coroner’s office continues to maintain a good standard of service.”