Skip to main content

Chief Coroner’s Office

Volume 518: debated on Monday 8 November 2010

8. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Justice on the likely effects on the conduct of military inquests of the proposed closure of the chief coroner’s office. (22169)

Ministers have consulted on this matter, and my officials have been extensively involved in discussions with the Ministry of Justice about the abolition of the chief coroner post. In the current challenging financial climate, the Government have to consider all expenditure very carefully. We judge that there will be no significant impact on the conduct of inquests into the deaths of members of the armed forces.

The British Legion’s recent poll showed that a large majority of the British public back retaining a chief coroner to ensure that bereaved families have the support and reassurance that they need at inquests. Will the Minister look again at that, in order to provide support for those bereaved families?

We are firmly committed to ensuring that families have all the support they need at inquests, but we do not believe that the creation of the post of chief coroner is an essential prerequisite to achieving that. We will continue to give every possible help we can to families involved in such inquests, and we will maintain close contact with the British Legion as we discuss those matters.

The Minister will be aware of a small but important number of British military fatalities that have been caused in joint operations with US forces. In their inquests, the US forces have completely different sets of rules, and it is sometimes very difficult to find out the truth or the details of those deaths. The coroner’s office has been extraordinarily useful and helpful in these matters. Can the Minister assure me that there will be no further delay once the post is abolished?

The various functions will continue to be exercised by the Attorney-General or by the Ministry of Justice. I will give my hon. Friend an undertaking to keep a close eye on that aspect and ensure that there are no delays as a consequence of the decision.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) raises the support that the British Legion gave to the appointment of a chief coroner. I know from my time as a Minister in the Ministry of Defence that that was supported by a range of service charities and by the families federations. If we are not to have a chief coroner, can the Minister explain how we will get consistency across the country in inquests into military deaths?

The Lord Chancellor will take a proactive approach to ensuring that coroners conduct their investigations to national standards, including a best practice approach to conducting military inquests and monitoring cases that take more than 12 months to complete. A new complaints system will be considered as part of the work that the Ministry of Justice intends to take forward on a charter for bereaved people.