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Volume 486: debated on Monday 12 January 2009

3. What progress is being made in reducing the time taken to complete inquests on members of the armed forces killed on operations? (246442)

We have managed largely to eliminate the backlog of inquests. We have established the Defence Inquests Unit to lead our drive to improve co-ordination and support for families, coroners and others. However, some inquests, due to their complexity, will always take time, and it is only right that they are allowed to do so when necessary.

I thank the Minister for that response, but perhaps he could tell us what lessons have been learned that will enable to us to continue to improve the service we give to the families of service personnel?

I have said to the House on previous occasions that one of my priorities in this job was to eliminate unnecessary delay, because it just adds to the pain and suffering of people who have lost their loved ones when we delay our inquiries, and often therefore the coroner’s inquiries. We had to get on top of that, and we had to ensure that we eliminated such delay. We have done that over a period of time, and I am enormously pleased by that. We also need to look, as we are doing, at the level of service that we give to families when they have suffered a bereavement, to try to ensure that we give them the most professional support without breaking the vital link between the families and the individual regiments and units to which their loved ones belonged. That is also important.

The Minister will be aware of the good progress made between the UK and Scottish Governments on ensuring that investigations can take place in Scotland into the deaths of service personnel who normally reside there, but I understand that some work remains to be done before that becomes a routine measure. What progress is being made and when is that likely to happen?

The hon. Gentleman may know that the then Secretary of State wrote to the Scottish Government in March last year on this issue. We eventually received a reply in November, and we will respond as soon as we are able to do so. I hope that that will be very shortly.

I pay particular tribute to the retiring Wiltshire coroner, David Masters, who has done a superb job in getting the backlog down and in carrying out very difficult inquests such as that into XV179, the Hercules that was downed in Iraq. In the town of Wootton Bassett in my constituency, we see the return of the bodies week by week. Surely it is time for the Government to consider something rather like the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Stewart Hosie) is suggesting with regard to Scotland. Rather than using local coroners in Oxfordshire and now in Wiltshire to carry out these difficult inquests, would it not be possible to have the inquests in the places where the servicemen are based?

First, let me join the hon. Gentleman in praising the work of the Wiltshire coroner, whose dedication and thoroughness in his work are quite tremendous and should be applauded. We attempt to have inquests undertaken in the local area wherever possible and we have made some progress in that. We do so overwhelmingly for the benefit of the families. It is not possible in Scotland, but we are looking to sort that out and hope to have the assistance of the Scottish Government in doing so. Mr. Masters has undertaken a lot of inquests, and on the odd occasion he has taken inquests back when it was felt that the expertise that he was able to apply would be more useful than a local inquest. He has been very constructive in that regard.

Fallen service personnel are repatriated through Lyneham in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray). The office and office staff, however, are in Salisbury. The retiring coroner said last week that he feared for the future of the coroner service in Wiltshire because a decision was made with no consultation to move the office and staff from Salisbury to Devizes, the excellent constituency of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), who is in his place. The coroner fears that the expertise of those staff will be entirely lost. It is a complex and difficult situation involving relations with the military. Will the Minister undertake to look very closely at the future of the coroner service in Wiltshire to ensure that a service that serves the nation is not lost but, far from that, is enhanced?

I think that I ought to concentrate on trying to do my job as Minister for the Armed Forces rather than trying to run the coroner service as well. I would be worried if we lost the expertise. I am worried that we will lose the expertise that Mr. Masters has built up over time. He is due to retire, so that is possibly inevitable, but we need to try to keep that expertise. The hon. Gentleman laughs, but there is a possibility that we will not be able to retain Mr. Masters’s services. I do not know whether that is the case, and it is not a matter for me. I would like us to do whatever we can to maintain the expertise that we have had, but it is not a matter for the MOD in the first instance.