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Military Inquests

Volume 460: debated on Monday 14 May 2007

1. What discussions he has had with colleagues in the Ministry of Justice on measures to reduce the backlog of military inquests for the fatalities of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan; and if he will make a statement. (136569)

The Ministry of Defence has regular discussions with the Ministry of Justice about the management of, and support to, inquests relating to deaths on operations. Since last summer, additional assistant coroners have been available to relieve pressure on the Oxfordshire coroner. The use of home coroners for single fatalities has been introduced and, in addition to the existing arrangements for all three services, a dedicated team has been established to support coroners preparing for inquests. As of today, there are five outstanding inquests in respect of operations prior to 1 January 2006, three of which should be heard by the end of July.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply, because the point has been made that waiting three or even five years for an inquest is unacceptable to the families concerned. That is sometimes compounded by their having then to travel a long way, perhaps to Wiltshire, for the inquest. Is the Minister considering coroners’ requests for further resources to speed up the process in the light of the additional deaths that have occurred? What progress has been made in considering the proposal put forward by the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) to allow inquests to take place nearer to the homes of the families of the deceased where that would make matters easier for them?

This is a very important issue. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the time taken has been inordinately long, and that has not been helpful. Sometimes there are good reasons for that, because of the very nature of the boards of inquiry by means of which the Ministry of Defence establishes the technical facts, which then help the coroner to come to a conclusion. Sometimes those can take a considerable time to assemble the best information. The reasons behind the amount of time taken by the coroner rest elsewhere, but that is why the Ministry of Justice and ourselves have put more assistant coroners in place. We shall continue to monitor that, and should there be greater demand and need, we would work with our sister Department to find the best solution. On getting inquests carried out nearer to home within England—I make the point that this cannot apply to Scotland because of the nature of the fatal accident inquiry system that applies there—we will always seek to get them carried out close to home. That is how both Departments are seeking to find a solution.

It is good to know that considerable progress has been made, but will my right hon. Friend reassure me by confirming that the Department fully understands the need to give support and advice to families at such a difficult time?

That, too, is an interesting and important question, and we have already established a dedicated team. One of the issues that I am examining is how to ensure that, in terms of our duty of care for our families, all that we do is the best it can be. I am also trying to encourage a more family-friendly approach within the inquest system, and all that work is under way. We have learned valuable lessons, and we shall continue to throw our best resources at this to ensure that the families receive the best advice and support during a difficult time.

I note what the Minister says about resources being thrown at this, but the fact remains that this question has been coming up for at least three years and, as he says, cases are still outstanding from 2005. Will he guarantee that proper dedicated resources will be provided, or would he consider establishing military coroners, who could add to the speed of the process and reduce the grief for the relatives?

Let me give the hon. Gentleman a word of advice. If the MOD were seen to be more closely engaged in what can be seen as highly contentious issues, it would look as if we were somehow interfering with the normal process of the consideration of these matters. Although we should rule nothing out, we would have to take that into account to ensure that there was a proper balance and that the families were certain that justice was being carried out in the inquest. On the allocation of resources, what I have said is that recently we have moved considerably in a short period of time. Some cases are long outstanding, and there are good reasons in respect of all of those. Where we can expedite them we shall, but that rests with the coroner, and not necessarily with the MOD.

Will the Ministry of Defence work with the incoming Scottish Executive to ensure that inquiries can take place under Scots law? After all, that would help to reduce the backlog and to ease the inconvenience to the families.

The answer to that is yes; we will always work with any Administration in any part of the United Kingdom—and long may Scotland remain part of the United Kingdom. My understanding is that there would need to be a change to primary legislation. We need to look into that, but if there is a will to change in Scotland, let us hear the propositions.

Before I ask the Minister my question, may I point out that my hon. Friend the shadow Defence Secretary visited RAF Lyneham last Friday, and that he would like to place on record how impressed he was with the sensitivity and professionalism of all those who deal with the repatriation of our fallen service personnel?

The latest information in the ministerial statement made at the end of March by the Minister’s colleague the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), was that there were still 91 military inquests outstanding, 25 of which dated from before May 2006. It sounds as if there has been a little progress since then, but progress in dealing with the backlog has been painfully slow. Given that Ministers expect the Wiltshire and Swindon coroner to transfer jurisdiction to the next of kin’s local coroner wherever possible, how confident is the Minister that all coroners will have the expertise to deal adequately with military inquests—and if that is the right solution, why on earth was it not put in place four years ago, so that we could avoid the delays and anguish suffered by bereaved families?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments about those who will carry out a daunting task at Lyneham with the same high level of professionalism as is found at Brize Norton. Considerable progress has been made; there is no question about that—and as I said in an earlier answer, lessons have been learned. At the end of the day, this is not just a Ministry of Defence issue. I again make the point that some of the delays were occasioned by the requirement for boards of inquiry to be thorough and exhaustive, so that we can best learn lessons. In the main, coroners await the outcome of the BOI. They do not need to, but I think that they benefit from it. On the point about assistance for the coroners system, we now have a dedicated team, and we will give the best technical and support assistance to coroners if they require it. Experience tells us that they would welcome all that, because a difficult and complex set of circumstances, which coroners may be encountering for the very first time, is involved. Progress has been made, and we can only seek to improve on that, but we have to take into account all the mitigating circumstances, some of which are outwith the control of the agencies and organisations involved.