Armed Forces: Bereavement Support - Ministerial Statement

This Written Statement by the Minister of State at the MOD (Lord Drayson) might be of interest to RR'ers.

Armed Forces: Bereavement Support

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Drayson): My right honourable friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Adam Ingram) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

We are committed to supporting the families of UK service personnel who have died in service, including on operations overseas. A number of initiatives are being taken to improve the help we offer them.

When a service person dies, the service appoints a visiting officer to help the family cope with bereavement. The role of visiting officers is crucial in providing the liaison between families and the services; they are there for the family for as long as the family wishes. Each family has different needs, and we strive to ensure that each receives a personal service to meet their needs as far as possible. We continue to make improvements to the way that we select and train our visiting officers, and to the guidance we give to help them in this demanding role, which is regularly updated. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) casualty and compassionate policy and procedures are kept under continual review to ensure that current policy meets the expectations of bereaved families and guidance for visiting officers is regularly updated.

We have increased, from five to seven, the number of family members eligible to receive travel, accommodation and subsistence, at public expense, to attend the repatriation ceremony. We provide travel, accommodation and subsistence payments for two members of the family to attend the inquest at public expense, and we have extended that entitlement to enable two family members to attend any pre-inquest hearings.

In addition to existing arrangements for all three services through the joint casualty compassionate cell, a dedicated team has been established within the MoD to improve our liaison with local coroners dealing with inquests into Army casualties, and to ensure that there are no unnecessary delays in responding to the coroner's requests that would delay the start of the inquest. The team oversees arrangements for the preparation of information for inquests and ensures that appropriate MoD officials are made available to brief coroners on technical or specific military matters. We have produced detailed guidance for the services on the disclosure of board of inquiry (BOI) reports. This includes instructions on how information from third parties should be presented to enable the family to more easily follow the narrative. That will in turn help families to identify any additional witnesses whom they would like the coroner to invite to attend the inquest. Our guidance also makes it clear that the coroner is normally to be provided with a copy of the full BOI report for his own use.

Over the next few months we will make further improvements. We will provide better information for families on BOIs. Where a BOI is held, families will be briefed at the outset of the inquiry to ensure they understand the board's purpose; they will be offered an early meeting to discuss specific issues or any questions they may have. Families will be kept informed of the board's progress, in person where possible or by letter every four weeks or so, until a copy of the report is made available to the family, at which point they will be invited to receive another briefing if they wish.

We will publish a leaflet to help service families understand the nature and purpose of BOIs and coroners’ inquests and their role in the inquest as interested persons; for example, the right to ask questions. This will build on information already made available by the Ministry of Justice on coroners’ work generally.

We will provide additional guidance to presidents of BOIs, which will complement current single service guidance and provide advice to board presidents on matters that affect the families. This will include understanding the wider uses to which BOI findings will be put, particularly in supporting the inquest process.

The majority of BOIs are conducted by the Army, so we are planning the appointment of permanent presidents for Army BOIs to deliver a more consistent approach to the conduct of their inquiries and to prevent unnecessary delay.

In the longer term, the Armed Forces Act 2006 will introduce a harmonised service inquiry system which will provide a single form of statutory inquiry to replace BOIs and some of the lower level inquiries. As now, the new provisions will give the services the power to investigate any matter internally to find out what happened and to reduce the risk of it happening again. Training will be given and detailed guidance will accompany the introduction of the new service inquiries by 2009. This will bring a more coherent approach to how circumstances surrounding serious incidents are examined.

It is MoD policy to arrange a funeral at public expense or to provide funding towards the cost of a private funeral, dependent upon the family's wish. We are committed to helping families defray the costs of the funeral and are increasing by £1,000 the grant for private funerals. The new rates range from £2,190 to £2,760. For those who choose a service funeral, we are expanding the items covered to include expenses associated with such things as books of condolence, transport and notices in the press. In addition, for service funerals, we plan to give the next-of-kin of deceased service personnel a grant of £500 to contribute towards any personal costs they might incur as a result of their bereavement.

Under current legislation, an inquest may be transferred from one coroner to another within England and Wales with the agreement of the other coroner. The law requires that the body should still be lying in the first coroner's district when the request is made. Since late December 2006, the practice of the Oxfordshire coroner was to transfer single death
inquests where possible to the coroner with jurisdiction closer to the next-of-kin. Local inquests should be more convenient for families and will enable them to have the support of family and friends who may wish to attend the inquest. With effect from 1 April 2007, the facilities at RAF Brize Norton in the Oxfordshire coroner's jurisdiction have not been available for repatriation ceremonies, and bodies of service personnel are currently being repatriated via RAF Lyneham in the Wiltshire and Swindon coroner’s jurisdiction. The Wiltshire and Swindon coroner is continuing the practice of transferring single deaths to other coroners’ jurisdictions.

There is no provision for inquests in Scotland. A fatal accident inquiry will be heard in certain circumstances, but as the law currently stands there is no provision for a fatal accident inquiry to be held on any death occurring outside Scotland. A coroner may transfer an inquest only to another coroner within England and Wales, so there is no provision for the inquest to be transferred to Scotland. The coroner may, however, transfer jurisdiction to a coroner in the north of England if this suited the family. We have written to the Scottish Executive to explore whether inquiries into the deaths of service personnel can take place in Scotland.

We continue to work closely with the Ministry of Justice to improve our support to coroners, which in turn will help families during the inquest process. We have agreed arrangements to support the Oxfordshire coroner to deal with the backlog of inquests of service men and women who have died overseas which fall within his jurisdiction, and ministerial Statements have been made to the House on 5 June, 12 June and 18 December 2006 and on 29 March 2007 with information about the progress of these inquests.

We owe a huge debt of gratitude to all our service personnel who have died on operations and we will continue to provide our best possible support to their families through very difficult times.

source: HL Hansard: 7 June 2007, Cols.WS89-91