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Chief Coroner

Volume 535: debated on Monday 14 November 2011

1. What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on the creation of a post of chief coroner to oversee the inquest system in relation to deaths of armed forces personnel. (80068)

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to pay tribute to the late Private Matthew Thornton, who was killed in Afghanistan last Wednesday, from 4th Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment. He was a brave young man, serving his country, and I am sure that the whole House will wish to send its condolences and sympathy to his family.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has had no recent discussions with ministerial colleagues on the creation of a chief coroner’s post. The post is entirely a matter for the Ministry of Justice, although we have of course provided it with every assistance regarding the impact of the issue on military bereaved families, and we have engaged with the Ministry of Justice and with the Cabinet Office on the matter.

I should like to associate myself with the Minister’s opening remarks and with yours, Mr Speaker.

The Royal British Legion thanked hon. Members from all parties for their cross-party support when the post of chief coroner was agreed just two years ago. Does the Minister agree that the issue should unite, not divide, this House, and that appointing a chief coroner in line with the revised proposals from the Royal British Legion and Inquest would send a wonderful message to service families at this particularly special time?

I am afraid that I do not entirely agree. The important thing is the results that bereaved families receive at inquests, with which there have been problems in the past, and that is why the Ministry of Defence is, for instance, laying on specific events and continuing familiarisation with military inquests for coroners. We are also ensuring that they are properly trained with regard to bereaved families. People seem to have become hung up on the office of a chief coroner, but it is a Ministry of Justice matter, as I have said. What is important is that bereaved families receive an excellent service from coroners, and we are working very hard to ensure that that happens.

To what extent does my right hon. Friend believe that the undoubted success in years gone by of the Wiltshire coroner, David Masters, and the Oxfordshire coroner, Andrew Walker, in improving the welfare and safety of troops has been down to their independence and to the fact that they have not had a potentially bureaucratic official standing over them?

My hon. and gallant Friend makes a very interesting point, and again the issue is that we do not have a bureaucratic official standing over coroners. Inquests in the past, as the Opposition know, were not always as sympathetic towards military families as they might have been, and indeed they were not particularly good with the bereaved, so we are allowing the Lord Chief Justice to set mandatory training requirements for coroners and their officers, including training in respect of military inquests, and we think that that is the right way forward.

Last month I asked the former Secretary of State whether he had reviewed the Royal British Legion’s proposals to deliver a reformed coronial system at significantly lower cost than the Government estimate. He did not answer the question. May I once again give the Minister, under the direction of a new Secretary of State, the opportunity to put on the record his views about scrapping the office of chief coroner? Will the Minister support the Royal British Legion’s campaign?

I think that I am still a member of the Royal British Legion; I certainly have been, and I think that I paid my subscription this year.

I am a great supporter of the Legion. It is a fantastic organisation with fantastic people, but that does not mean that it is right about everything, and on this campaign it has rather overstated its case. It said in its briefing, which I have with me, that when asked in the street two thirds of people thought that a chief coroner was essential, but I ask all Members, “How many of their constituents do they think have heard of the chief coroner?” The answer is not two thirds of the population, I can promise you that much.