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Written Statements

Volume 704: debated on Thursday 30 October 2008

Written Statements

Thursday 30 October 2008

Armed Forces: Coroners' Inquests

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.

Open inquests

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.

EU: Justice and Home Affairs Council

The Justice and Home Affairs Council was held on 24 October 2008 in Luxembourg. My right honourable friend the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Jack Straw), my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Meg Hillier), the Scottish Minister for Community Safety (Fergus Ewing) and I attended on behalf of the United Kingdom. The following items were discussed.

The morning of the council focused on interior items and commenced with the Mixed Committee, which included Norway, Iceland and Switzerland. The legal migration texts on the second-generation Schengen information system (SIS II) were adopted. The Commission noted that testing on the central system had been suspended due to technical difficulties, but that tests should recommence on 5 November. The Commission stated that the stability of the central system and minimising the impact on timetabling were a priority. On the Schengen information system network (SISNET), the council secretariat reported that migration had progressed well and was scheduled to finish on 25 October.

Cybercrime was the first item discussed on the main agenda. The council conclusions were agreed and the presidency stated that the new EU platform hosted by Europol would enable the EU to combat cybercrime. The incoming Czech presidency announced that it would be holding a ministerial conference entitled “Safer Internet for Children” on 28 April 2009 in Prague.

Next the council conclusions on the principle of convergence were agreed. The presidency explained how convergence consisted of the need to be pragmatic and concrete, and to find specific areas where the EU could work more closely together in an atmosphere of trust. Hungary made a short presentation on the work of the Salzburg forum, an example of regional co-operation.

In the discussion on west African drug trafficking, the presidency stressed the strategic importance of tackling the emerging issue of trafficking at an early stage. The UK welcomed the presidency's initiative, emphasising the dramatic trends which had been seen in drug trafficking from west Africa. The experience of the maritime analysis operations centre (MAOC) demonstrated what could be achieved with concerted EU action. The UK welcomed the Czech and Swedish presidencies' priority on this issue, and supported the French presidency's proposal that west Africa should be a priority region in the next EU drugs strategy.

During a discussion on passenger name records (PNR), the UK welcomed progress made during the French presidency, highlighting the beneficial experience that the UK had with using passenger name records to date. The UK thought there should be progress by the time of the European elections next June, and that the final instrument should allow member states to focus on those flights which were thought to present the greatest risk, rather than obliging them to collect data on all flights. The Czech presidency invited the UK to help organise a road show on the benefits of a PNR system. The current presidency concluded that they would provide a report to the JHA Council in November.

Over lunch, the presidency pushed the case for a guaranteed minimum availability of civil protection resources at EU level—a system of European mutual assistance. The UK, together with other member states, shared strong concerns about the proposed standby rota system. The presidency stressed that this did not mean assets would be left idle, and emphasised that member states would have the right to reserve assets in the case of a national emergency.  The key element of the proposed system was the ability to know what assets were available and to be able to plan on that basis.  The Commission supported the presidency's analysis and welcomed the proposed system of European mutual assistance.

Also over lunch, the Commission called for Ministers to consider the potential role of security technology in the post-Hague programme, to see what potential there was for new technologies to contribute to policy priorities, and to support the private sector in developing such technology.  The Czech Republic noted that this issue would be among its presidency priorities.

In the afternoon the council reached political agreement on the council decision on the European criminal records information system (ECRIS). The UK welcomed agreement of an important measure to protect the public, and hoped that it would be possible to build on this in the future to cover monitoring of offenders, especially sex offenders. The Commission welcomed the rapid agreement and looked forward to implementation. It outlined the technical and financial assistance that was available to member states. The presidency thanked all member states for their co-operation and welcomed the political agreement reached.

The council reached political agreement on the text of the proposal for a council regulation on jurisdiction, applicable law, recognition and enforcement of decisions and co-operation in matters relating to maintenance obligations. The UK has not opted into this proposal. The UK thanked the presidency, Commission and other member states for their positive work to find a solution to the UK’s concerns about the use of rules of applicable law in family cases. We explained that the matter remained subject to parliamentary scrutiny in the UK, but hoped to be in a position to indicate the UK’s wish to accept the measure after it had been adopted, under the terms of our protocol.

The council approved the conclusions on the situation of vulnerable adults and their cross-border legal protection. The guidelines encourage member states that have not yet acceded to the Hague convention of 13 January 2000 on the international protection of vulnerable adults to sign and/or ratify it as soon as possible. The UK has already ratified this convention in respect of Scotland, and work is in hand to extend such ratification to the rest of the UK. 

The council agreed a resolution of the council and representatives of the Governments of member states for a set of non-binding guidelines on judicial training, designed to encourage the bodies responsible for training of judges and prosecutors to improve training in European law, and promote understanding of other member states’ legal systems.

The next Justice and Home Affairs Council will take place on 27 and 28 November.

House of Lords: Appointments Commission

The Prime Minister has today placed the House of Lords Appointments Commission annual report 2007-08 in the Libraries of the House.

In addition, the Prime Minister has today announced the appointments of three new independent members of the House of Lords Appointments Commission. They are: Baroness Jane Campbell DBE; Professor Dame Joan Higgins; and Dr John Low CBE. They have been appointed following an open competition run in accordance with the Commissioner for Public Appointments's code of practice, each for a single non-renewable term of five years.