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Service Personnel (Inquests)

Volume 487: debated on Monday 2 February 2009

My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces and I wish to make the following statement to the House about the inquests of service personnel who have died overseas. We recognise that every inquest represents the death of someone fighting for this country, and a story of great pain for a bereaved family. We cannot praise enough the job that our personnel do nor pay high enough tribute to the sacrifice which some of them have made.

Today, we are announcing the progress that has been made since the written ministerial statement on 30 October 2008, Official Report, columns 36-38WS, with information about the conduct of inquests by the Wiltshire and Swindon and other coroners. This statement gives the position at 27 January, but does not reflect the 17 January death on operations in Afghanistan of acting Corporal Robinson as the inquest has not yet been opened.

The tables which accompany this statement again include information about those cases which involve a board of inquiry or a service inquiry (boards of inquiry were replaced on 1 October 2008 by a new system of service inquiries).

Progress with inquests

At the time of the last statement, our Departments reported that 209 inquests had been held since June 2006: 195 into the overseas deaths of service personnel and 14 into the deaths of civilians in Iraq whose bodies were repatriated via RAF Brize Norton or RAF Lyneham.

Since October, a further 11 inquests have been held into the deaths of service personnel who died in operations in Iraq or Afghanistan. This makes a total of 220 inquests held since June 2006.

Since operations commenced in 2001 there have been a total of 244 inquests into the deaths of service personnel who lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan, including four service men who died in the UK of their injuries. 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.

We remain very grateful for the efforts of all the coroners involved in conducting these inquests and unswerving in our support of the independent coronial system.

The Coroners and Justice Bill will make additional provisions for the transfer of cases from one coroner to another in England and Wales—with the chief coroner having a power to transfer cases without the agreement of the coroners concerned—although the approach will remain that only single deaths are subject to transfer.

The improvements to the coroner system contained in the Bill will lead to a better service for all bereaved families, including service families. Improvements include the charter for bereaved families, which sets out the services they should receive from coroners; and a new appeal system to which families will have access.

Open inquests

i. Pre-31 March 2007 Fatalities

The statement in October reported that there were three inquests to be held into the deaths of service personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan whose bodies were repatriated via RAF Brize Norton prior to 31 March 2007. As at 27 January there is one such inquest remaining, that into the death of Marine Wigley, which will be held in May 2009.

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 (since 1 April 2007 fatalities are repatriated via RAF Lyneham). The coroner, Mr. Masters, transfers inquests for service personnel to a coroner closer to the bereaved family, where possible.

There are 71 inquests to be concluded into the deaths of service personnel who died in Iraq and Afghanistan whose bodies were repatriated after 1 April 2007 (46 involving deaths in the last six months). Of these, Mr. Masters has retained 37 inquests, whilst 30 inquests are being conducted by coroners closer to the next of kin. Four inquests are awaiting transfer to coroners closer to the next of kin. Inquest hearing dates have been set in two of these cases.

iii. Inquests into the deaths of service personnel who returned home injured

There remain two inquests to be held of service personnel who returned home injured and subsequently died of their injuries.

We shall continue to keep the House informed about progress with 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 of the inquest into the death of their loved one.

We remain committed to providing the best possible support to bereaved service families. The written ministerial statement issued on 7 June 2007, Official Report, column 26WS by my right hon. Friend, the then Minister of State for the Armed Forces, the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr.Ingram) gave details of the support which was then being provided. Since then, we have increased the number of family members who can travel and stay overnight if necessary, at public expense, to attend the repatriation ceremony; and three family members may attend any pre-inquest hearings, as well as the inquest itself, again at public expense.

Visiting Officers—who are appointed to provide liaison between families and the services—fulfil a crucial role, and we continue to give close attention to their selection, training and support.

The Defence Inquests Unit, which was established by the Ministry of Defence on 1 May 2008, now acts as the focal point for all coroners’ inquests into the deaths of service personnel and Ministry of Defence civilian personnel who die on, or as a result of injuries sustained during operations; and those who die as a result of training activity. The unit’s principal role is to assist coroners so that they can complete inquests satisfactorily and as quickly as possible. The establishment of this dedicated unit reflects our firm commitment to providing full support of coroners and bereaved families and to learning and implementing all appropriate lessons which emerge from inquests.