My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence and I wish to make the following statement to the House about the inquests of service-men and women who have died overseas. The Government are very proud of our service men and women who have served in operations overseas. We owe them a great debt of gratitude for the job they have done, and are continuing to do. They risk their lives to protect the interests of the United Kingdom. With admirable courage and skill they help to build strong, stable and democratic nations. We honour those who have given their lives in this work, and we remain strongly committed to providing our best possible support to their families.
We made statements to the House on 5 June 2006 (Official Report, column 4WS), 12 October 2006 (Official Report, column 26WS), 18 December 2006 (Official Report, column 112WS), 29 March 2007 (Official Report, column 121WS) 20 June 2007 (Official Report, column 97WS) and 30 October 2007 (Official Report, column 36WS) with information about the conduct of inquests by the Oxfordshire and Wiltshire and Swindon coroners. Today we are announcing progress which has been made since the written ministerial statement in October. This statement shows the position at 21 January, since when unfortunately there has been one further fatality in Afghanistan.
Coroners are independent judicial officers appointed and paid for by the relevant local authority. Their officers and staff are employed by the local authority and/or the police.
Each death of a service-man or woman killed in an operation overseas whose body is repatriated to England and Wales is subject to an inquest. The inquest—both the investigation into the death and the holding of the public hearing into the death—is conducted by the coroner with jurisdiction which derives from where the body lies.
In the case of deaths of service-men and women whose bodies were flown into RAF Brize Norton until it ceased being used for repatriations on 31 March 2007, the Oxfordshire coroner, Nicholas Gardiner, has had initial jurisdiction. In the case of deaths of service-men and women whose bodies have been flown into RAF Lyneham since 1 April 2007, the Wiltshire and Swindon coroner, David Masters has initial jurisdiction.
In terms of the Coroners Act 1988, a coroner may transfer jurisdiction to another coroner. This may be done as long as the body lies within the district of the coroner transferring jurisdiction and provided the coroner to whom jurisdiction is transferred consents. Since late December 2006 the Oxfordshire coroner’s practice was to transfer jurisdiction to coroners closer to the next of kin wherever possible; this practice has been continued by the Wiltshire and Swindon coroner since 1 April 2007. Some inquests of deaths of service personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan before December 2006 have also been transferred to other coroners.
Progress with inquests
At the time of the October 2007 written ministerial statement, we reported that since additional funding had been provided by the Government to assist the Oxfordshire coroner, 104 inquests had been held, 90 into the overseas deaths of service personnel and 14 into the deaths of civilians in Iraq whose bodies were repatriated via RAF Brize Norton.
Since October, a further 19 inquests have been held into the deaths of service personnel who died in operations overseas whose bodies were repatriated via RAF Brize Norton or RAF Lyneham. This makes a total of 123 overseas military inquests held since June 2006.
Since hostilities opened there have been a total of 144 inquests into the deaths of service personnel who lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan including one serviceman who died of his injuries in the UK. In two further cases, no formal inquest was held, but the deaths were taken into consideration during inquest proceedings for those who died in the same incident.
(i) Pre-31 March 2007 Fatalities
There remain 41 inquests to be concluded into the deaths of service personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan whose bodies were repatriated via RAF Brize Norton prior to 31 March 2007. The Oxfordshire coroner has retained jurisdiction in 32 of these cases; 9 of these inquests have been transferred to coroners closer to the next of kin.
Hearing dates have been set in 22 cases. This includes the inquests into the deaths of 14 crew members who died together in the Nimrod crash on 2 September 2006 which will be heard together. In the remaining 19 inquests investigations are ongoing but it has not yet been possible for an inquest date to be set. The oldest individual military inquest for which no date has been set is that into the death of Lieutenant Palmer who died on 15 April 2006. The Board of Inquiry into Lieutenant Palmer’s death is yet to report.
In addition there are 10 inquests into fatalities which were repatriated via RAF Lyneham prior to 1 April 2007. These relate to the deaths of 10 crew members who died together in the crash of Hercules XV179 on 30 January 2005. The Wiltshire and Swindon coroner, David Masters, held pre inquest hearings in February and November 2007 and the inquests will be heard together starting on 31 March.
(ii) Post-1 April 2007 Fatalities
Since October 2007, additional resources have been provided by the Government to ensure that a backlog of inquests will not build up in the Wiltshire and Swindon jurisdiction now that fatalities are being repatriated via RAF Lyneham. These have enabled the coroner, Mr Masters, to engage an additional assistant deputy coroner together with an additional coroner’s officer and administrative support and to provide appropriate accommodation to hold military inquests. These extra resources are helping to ensure that bereaved families are responded to sensitively and speedily following conclusions of the investigations. Mr Masters is continuing the practice of transferring military inquests to a coroner closer to the bereaved family, where possible.
There remain 58 inquests to be concluded into the deaths of service personnel who died in Iraq and Afghanistan whose bodies were repatriated after 1 April 2007. Of these, Mr Masters has retained 32 inquests whilst 26 inquests are being conducted by coroners closer to the next of kin. Inquest hearing dates have been set in 10 of these cases. In the remaining 48 investigations are ongoing but it has not yet been possible to set an inquest date.
(iii) Inquests into the deaths of service personnel who returned home injured
There remain 5 inquests to be held of service personnel who returned home injured and subsequently died of their injuries.
We are very grateful for the efforts of all the coroners involved in conducting these inquests.
We shall continue to keep the House informed on a quarterly basis about progress through the remaining inquests. I have placed tables in the Libraries of both Houses which outline the status of all cases and date of death of each case. Copies are also available in the Vote Office and the Printed Paper Office.
Liaison with the next of kin
It is of the greatest importance that the next of kin have full information about the progress on the inquest of their deceased next of kin.
We have been working on better supporting bereaved military families. The written ministerial statement issued on 7 June 2007 by the then Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr. Ingram), gives details of the support which is now being provided and we continue to look for opportunities to improve our procedures. A new booklet has just been produced, to help explain inquest and board of inquiry procedures to bereaved families.