Shameful delays in registering the 7/7 deaths

In the London bombings of July 7 2005, 52 people died. But it took more than two years to register their deaths – and we would still be waiting now, if criminal charges had not been brought against three people subsequently acquitted of involvement.  
The long delay in registering the deaths of the 52 is yet another example of a serious failing in the registration of deaths in England.
Unlike Scotland, there is no requirement in England for the fact of death to be registered within so many days of death having been ascertained, if the death is subject to coroner’s inquiry. When I raised this issue with the then-permanent secretary at the Home Office in August 2010, a reply came from the Deputy Registrar General who indicated that parliamentary rather than professional action might be needed for resolution.
I therefore appealed to Cambridge MP, Dr Julian Huppert, for assistance. Dr Huppert asked a series of question in parliament which elicited the following answers. First he asked if, and when, the 52 deaths had been registered.
Damian Green answered as follows: “All deaths arising from the terrorist attacks in London on 7 July 2005 were registered between 20 August 2007 and 28 January 2008”.
A registration delay of at least 2 years! Before 20 August 2007, there was thus no official record of deaths in the UK related to al-Qaeda’s terrorism. The failure to count shames our registration system in the 21st century. 
Julian Huppert’s second question cut right to the chase, and elicited the amazing italicised second paragraph in response:
Dr Huppert: To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what steps her Department takes to ensure that deaths occurring in England are registered in a timely and exhaustive manner. [44190]
Damian Green: The Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953 provides that any death not reported to a coroner is required to be registered within five days of its occurrence, or within 14 days if written notice of the death is given to the registrar. The Act also places a duty on those qualified to do so (e.g. a relative of the deceased, or any person present at the death) to give information to the registrar to enable the registration to take place, and makes it an offence to fail to do so if required. Additionally, if a death has not been registered within the above time limits, registrars are authorised under the Act to require an informant to attend at the register office for this purpose.
A death reported to a coroner where he or she has opened an inquest may be registered only on the conclusion of the inquest, or before the conclusion of the inquest if the coroner has adjourned it on being informed that a person has been charged with an offence concerning the death.
Registration of the 7/7 terrorism deaths would not have occurred yet – as the inquests continue – but for the fact that charges were brought against the three accused who were subsequently acquitted.
This same failing in the registration of deaths in England frustrated the then-Chief Medical Officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, in 2009 when keeping count of swine-flu deaths and necessitated his making extraordinary personal efforts to ascertain fatalities. It has also bedevilled the proper epidemiological monitoring of drugs-related deaths (DRDs), most of which are subject to coroner’s inquest. The Registrar General reports DRDs by the year of registration rather than by the year of death, which is what matters for epidemic monitoring. The delay between date of DRD and its registration typically exceeds 6 months, and can be considerably longer.
Registration of the fact of death, as opposed to registering the cause of death, should not be delayed until some legal process or other has taken place – whether charges brought or inquest verdict. A modern registration system in England can, and should, account for the fact of death in a timely manner even if it has to flag up that there will be delay in registering the cause of death until some legal process has concluded.
Unless the fact of death is registered in a timely manner, one cannot even estimate, and take action on, long delays in the conduct of coroners’ inquiries – as Patrick Mercer MP and I did in respect of inquests into military fatalities in Iraq and Afghanistan. Without registration of the start-point (namely: that death has occurred), one cannot properly monitor “in what proportion of deaths has the legal process taken more than 1 year, more than 3 years, more than 5 years to come to a verdict”. More than 5 years applies for 52 deaths by terrorism on 7 July 2005 in London . . .
On March 29, the Royal Statistical Society’s Health Statistics User Group is holding a workshop on Death Certification Reforms. Let’s hope that the Registrar General is well represented and is also keen to seek whatever parliamentary changes are necessary to make England’s registration of deaths as timely as we have a right to expect.