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Deaths of Service Personnel (Inquests)

Volume 574: debated on Thursday 30 January 2014

I join the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, with responsibility for defence personnel, welfare and veterans, my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), in making the latest of our two Departments’ joint statements to the House, reporting progress with inquests into the deaths of service personnel on active service overseas. First, we record our deepest gratitude to our service personnel in all their skill, professionalism and courage on behalf of us all. We remember those who have given their lives, and we think of their families and their loved ones.

In this statement we provide information on coroner investigations and inquests which are being conducted by the senior coroners for Oxfordshire, for Wiltshire and Swindon and for other coroner areas in England and Wales. The statement gives the position at 23 January 2014.

We have placed tables in the Libraries of both Houses to supplement this statement. The tables contain information about the status of all current cases, including whether a board of inquiry or a service inquiry has been or is to be held.

As reported in the last statement, Judge Peter Thornton QC, the Chief Coroner for England and Wales, has created a group of 11 coroners all of whom have received specialist training to conduct coroner investigations and inquests into some service personnel deaths relating to active service, including preparation and training for active service. The Ministry of Defence’s defence inquests unit (DIU) assists coroners to complete service personnel inquests as thoroughly and as quickly as possible, and will continue working with the Chief Coroner and the specialist coroners.

As previously reported, the Chief Coroner and the Lord Advocate now have in place an agreed protocol to enable deaths of service personnel killed abroad on active duty to be investigated in Scotland where this is appropriate. This will facilitate the provisions in section 12 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009.

Once more we express our warm gratitude to all those who help bereaved families through the inquest process. We thank the Chief Coroner, coroners and their staff who are carrying this work forward.

Most repatriations of service personnel who have died overseas have been to RAF Lyneham in Wiltshire and, currently, RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire. Since October 2007, the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Justice have made extra funding available to the coroners in Wiltshire and Swindon and in Oxfordshire. The central funding enables those coroners to take the service personnel inquests forward in balance with the local caseload of the coroner area.

Current status of inquests

A further five inquests into the deaths of service personnel on operations in Afghanistan have been concluded since our last statement. In total there have been 598 inquests into the deaths of service personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan or who have returned to the UK with injuries sustained on active service and have sadly died here. In three cases no formal inquest has taken place. Two of these deaths were taken into consideration at inquests into other deaths in the same incidents. In the third case, a serviceman died from his injuries in Scotland and it was decided not to hold a fatal accident inquiry.

Open inquests

As of 23 January there are 26 outstanding open coroner investigations. Of these:

Three are under six months old;

Six are under nine months old;

Seven are under 12 months old;

12 are under 18 months old;

and 14 are over 18 months old.

The Ministry of Defence’s DIU target for completing inquests is 12 months from the date of death to inquest where no separate service inquiry (SI) is held, and 18 months where an SI is held. By way of comparison, the average time taken to complete all inquests in England and Wales in 2012 was 26 weeks.

Deaths in Afghanistan

As at 23 January 2014, 23 coroner investigations are open into the deaths of service personnel in Afghanistan.

The senior coroner for Wiltshire and Swindon has retained nine of these, and the senior coroner for Oxfordshire has retained four. Jurisdiction in the remaining 10 coroner investigations has been transferred to senior coroners for areas closer to the next of kin. Three hearing dates have been listed.

Deaths of service personnel who returned home injured

Three coroner investigations are open concerning the deaths of service personnel who returned home injured and have sadly died from their injuries. Three hearing dates have been set.

We will continue to inform the House of progress.