My hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces and I wish to make our quarterly statement to the House with details of the inquests of service personnel who have died overseas. We maintain the highest possible regard for all of our service personnel who are or have been involved in the military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our deepest sympathies, of course, lie with the families of those personnel who have made the ultimate sacrifice. We record with great sadness that since our last statement, on 22 July, a further 19 servicemen and women have lost their lives.
Today we are announcing the current status of inquests conducted by the Wiltshire and Swindon and other coroners. This statement gives the position at 21 October.
I have placed tables in the Libraries of both Houses which outline the status of all cases and the date of death in each case. Copies are also available in the Vote Office and the Printed Paper Office. These tables include information about cases where a board of inquiry or a service inquiry has been held. We are encouraged to see that the average period of time from the date of death to the inquest continues to reduce, which is of considerable benefit primarily to the bereaved families, but also to other parties to the inquests. The average age of inquests into operational deaths which are yet unlisted is eight months.
Current status of inquests
Since the last statement 36 inquests have been held into the deaths of service personnel on operations in Iraq or Afghanistan. This makes a total of 361 inquests held into deaths of service personnel on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan since June 2006, when additional resources were first provided to the Oxfordshire coroner.
Since operations commenced in 2001 there have been a total of 415 inquests into the deaths of service personnel who have lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan, including 11 service personnel 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 deeply grateful for the efforts of all of the coroners who are involved in conducting these inquests. We also wish to reiterate that our Departments are committed to working together, and to continuing the Government’s support for these coroners.
Fatalities in Iraq and Afghanistan
There are no outstanding inquests into deaths prior to 1 April 2007, since when fatalities have been repatriated via RAF Lyneham in Wiltshire. Since October 2007 additional resources have been provided to ensure that a backlog of inquests does not build up in the Wiltshire and Swindon coroner’s district. The coroner, David Ridley, transfers inquests for service personnel to a coroner closer to the bereaved family, wherever possible.
At present there are 102 open inquests to be concluded into the deaths of service personnel who died in Iraq and Afghanistan (59 involving deaths in the last six months). Of these, Mr Ridley has retained 33 inquests, while 58 inquests are being conducted by coroners closer to the next of kin. At 21 October, one recent fatality awaited repatriation and inquest opening. Hearing dates have been set in 10 cases.
Inquests into the deaths of service personnel who returned home injured
There remain 11 inquests to be held of service personnel who returned home injured and subsequently died of their injuries. These will be listed for hearing when the continuing investigations are completed.
We shall continue to keep the House informed about progress with the remaining inquests.