My honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (Bridget Prentice) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.
My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence and I wish to make the following Statement to the House about the inquests of service personnel who have died overseas. All deaths of members of our Armed Forces continue be a source of profound regret. We sympathise deeply with their families. Our service men and women show the highest courage and professionalism as they work to protect the United Kingdom’s interests and help to build strong, stable, democratic nations. We cannot praise enough the job that they do, or pay high enough tribute to the ultimate sacrifice which some of them have made.
Today, we are announcing the progress that has been made since the Written Ministerial Statement on 16 July 2008 (Official Report, col. 28WS) with information about the conduct of inquests by the Oxfordshire, Wiltshire and Swindon and other coroners. This Statement gives the position at 23 October but does not reflect the 15 October death on operations in Afghanistan of Trooper Munday, as the inquest had not yet been opened.
The tables which accompany this Statement again include information about those ongoing cases which involve a board of inquiry.
Progress with inquests
At the time of the last Statement, our departments reported that since additional funding had been provided by the Government to assist the Oxfordshire coroner, 180 inquests had been held—166 into the overseas deaths of service personnel and 14 into the deaths of civilians in Iraq whose bodies were repatriated via RAF Brize Norton.
Since July, a further 29 inquests have been held into the deaths of service personnel who died in operations overseas whose bodies were repatriated via RAF Brize Norton or RAF Lyneham. This makes a total of 209 inquests held since June 2006.
Since operations commenced there have been a total of 231 inquests into the deaths of service personnel who lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan, including two servicemen 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 are grateful for the efforts of all the coroners involved in conducting these inquests, and our two departments remain firmly committed in their support of the independent coronial system.
Pre-31 March 2007 Fatalities
The Statement in July reported that there were nine inquests to be held into the deaths of service personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan whose bodies were repatriated via RAF Brize Norton prior to 31 March 2007. As at 20 October, there are three such inquests. The Oxfordshire coroner has retained jurisdiction in two of these cases; the third has been transferred to the North Lincolnshire coroner. Hearing dates have been set in all three cases.
The inquests for the 10 crew members who died together in the crash of Hercules XV179 on 30 January 2005 concluded on 22 October.
Post-1 April 2007 Fatalities
Since October 2007, additional resources have been provided by the Government to ensure that a backlog of inquests will not build up in the Wiltshire and Swindon jurisdiction, now that fatalities are repatriated via RAF Lyneham. The coroner, Mr Masters, is continuing the practice of transferring inquests for service personnel to a coroner closer to the bereaved family, where possible.
There are 56 inquests to be concluded into the deaths of service personnel who died in Iraq and Afghanistan whose bodies were repatriated after 1 April 2007. Of these, Mr Masters has retained 28 inquests, whilst 28 inquests are being conducted by coroners closer to the next of kin. Inquest hearing dates have been set in six of these cases. Twenty-five of these inquests relate to deaths of service personnel who have died over the past six months.
Inquests into the deaths of service personnel who returned home injured
There remain four inquests to be held of service personnel who returned home injured and subsequently died of their injuries. Inquest hearing dates have been set in two of these cases.
We shall continue to keep the House informed on a quarterly basis about progress with the remaining inquests. I have placed tables in the Library of the House which outline the status of all cases and date of death of each case. Copies are also available in the Vote Office and the Printed Paper Office.
Liaison with the Next of Kin
It is of the greatest importance that the next of kin have full information about the progress of the inquest of their loved one.
We remain committed to providing better support to bereaved service families. The Written Ministerial Statement issued on 7 June 2007 by my right honourable friend the then Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Adam Ingram) gave details of the support which was then being provided. Since then, we have increased the number of family members who can travel and stay overnight if necessary, at public expense, to attend the repatriation ceremony; and two family members may attend any pre-inquest hearings, as well as the inquest itself, again at public expense.
Visiting officers—who are appointed to provide liaison between families and the services—fulfil a crucial role, and we continue to give close attention to their selection and training.
The Defence Inquests Unit, which was established by the Ministry of Defence on 1 May, now acts as the focal point for all coroners’ inquests into the deaths of service personnel and Ministry of Defence civilian personnel who die on or as a result of injuries sustained while on operations; and those who die as a result of training activity. The unit’s key role is to assist coroners so that they can complete inquests satisfactorily and as quickly as possible. It reflects a firm commitment to the proper support of coroners and bereaved families and to learning the lessons of the process.