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Armed Forces: Inquests

Volume 694: debated on Thursday 19 July 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What is their response to the current backlog of coroners’ inquests for soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

My Lords, all casualties suffered by the UK Armed Forces are a source of profound regret. We are committed to assisting families of service personnel who have died on operations overseas when their loved ones are repatriated. Central government exceptionally provided a resource to help clear inquest backlog in the Oxfordshire coroner’s jurisdiction. I understand that the Wiltshire and Swindon coroner has only been receiving fatalities via RAF Lyneham since 1 April 2007.

My Lords, these delays are a disgrace. Last week’s announcement on the blue-on-blue incident took place four years after the event. The Government have a duty of care to the bereaved families. How long will it take to complete all outstanding inquests? Will the Government now make their support for coroners and families much more responsive and open?

My Lords, I understand the seriousness of delays which I agree have caused a great deal of distress to the families concerned. It has to be understood that the coronial service is local and independent. The Government have given exceptional resources, enabling the Oxfordshire coroner to employ three assistant deputy coroners. That is having a positive impact on the number of inquests that have been dealt with. Other inquests have been transferred to coroners who are closer to the next of kin.

It is not possible for me to forecast when an inquest process will be completed; that is in the hands of individual coroners. However, I accept that we must do everything we can to encourage coroners, who are independent, to make sure that these matters are dealt with as speedily as possible.

My Lords, the Government have promised that they will give the Armed Forces everything they need for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Does the noble Lord not accept that that covers the closure that the families of those who lose their husbands, fathers or brothers in those wars need? Should not the Government provide yet further resources for the coroners not only in Oxfordshire but in Wiltshire and other areas to which the deceased come back, to make sure that the necessary closure can be achieved?

My Lords, I certainly accept that we have a responsibility to the families concerned and I take the noble Lord’s point about closure. My honourable friends in another place have announced the support that we give families generally. The provision of resources falls to local authorities. We have given exceptional grants to Oxfordshire. The Wiltshire and Swindon coroner has written to Ministers about resources, and I understand that a meeting is to take place between them in the next week or so.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that his right honourable friend Ms Harriet Harman announced at the end of last year that families were charged hundreds of pounds to gain access to documents for the purposes of an inquest. Indeed, one father was charged £600 for access to official papers. Has this practice now stopped and do the resources to which the Minister referred include the reasonable cost of proper legal representation for families at inquests?

My Lords, on the general support given to families, my understanding is that we have increased from five to seven the number of family members eligible to receive travel, accommodation and subsistence at public expense to attend repatriation ceremonies. We are also providing travel, accommodation and subsistence payments for two members of the family to attend the inquest at public expense. We have extended this entitlement to enable two family members to attend any pre-inquest hearings.

My Lords, in answer to a question yesterday, the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, said that our forces in Basra were increasingly becoming the target for the militias. In the unfortunate event that there are even more casualties, what arrangements have the Government made to ensure that there is no extra delay?

My Lords, the matter is frequently discussed with the Ministry of Defence. The Government have acknowledged that we must do everything we can to reduce unacceptable delays. That is why we are working with the coroners. I stress that those coroners are independent, but we have encouraged them to consider the transfer of inquests where that appears to be appropriate. In Oxfordshire, where the big backlog of cases has been the major problem, we have given extra resources. That has enabled the coroner there to increase the number of deputy assistant coroners. We will continue to do everything we can to make sure that there are not unacceptable delays.

My Lords, the coronial service is a local service. The coroners are independent and make their own independent judgments. A review of the coronial service has been carried out by Mr Luce. As a result of that and of widespread discussions, the draft Queen’s Speech published a few days ago contains a coronial Bill, which noble Lords will no doubt wish to consider. It will enhance the national nature of the coronial service, including the appointment of a chief coroner. It will ensure that there are national standards and that much more attention is given to the needs of bereaved families. For the future, we can see a major reform of the coronial service, but it will still have the essential independence of a local service as well, with coroners remaining independent.

My Lords, can we have an assurance that, if additional funds are required, they will be forthcoming and timely, so that we avoid the ghastly situation which has already arisen? I declare a non-financial interest as president of the War Widows Association. I have seen what happens at very close hand.

My Lords, I of course understand the question of resources. We have dealt with the situation in Oxfordshire. A number of other inquests have been transferred to other coroners. In Wiltshire and Swindon, we have received representations from the coroner. We are following them up, and Ministers will meet the coroner very shortly.

My Lords, will the Minister kindly answer the question that I put to him? Are families still being charged for documents and are their proper legal expenses for representation at coroners’ inquests being met?

My Lords, I shall write to the noble Lord with the full details of the current position. I certainly hope that everything is being done to enable those families to attend inquests. I have given some details of the support that is already being provided, but I will certainly check that and write to him.