Armed Forces - Coroners Inquests

Lords Hansard: 30 April 08, Cols.WS5-7.

[align=center]Written Statements

Wednesday 30 April 2008

Armed Forces: Coroners' Inquests[/align]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): 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 casualties suffered by our Armed Forces are, of course, a source of profound regret. Our service personnel put their lives on the line to help build strong, stable and democratic nations, and to protect the interests of the United Kingdom. We cannot pay high enough tribute to them for the job that they are doing, or to the ultimate sacrifice which some of them have made. We remain strongly committed to minimising the effect on the bereaved families.

We made Statements to the House on 5 June 2006 (Official Report, Commons, col. 4WS), 12 October 2006 (Official Report, Commons, col. 26WS), 18 December 2006 (Official Report, Commons, col. 112WS), 29 March 2007 (Official Report, Commons, col. 121WS) 20 June 2007 (Official Report, Commons, col. 97WS) 30 October 2007 (Official Report, Commons, col. 36WS) and 31 January 2008 (Official Report, Commons, col. 35WS), with information about the conduct of inquests by the Oxfordshire, Wiltshire and Swindon and other coroners. Today, we are announcing the progress which has been made since the Written Ministerial Statement on 31 January. This Statement shows the position at 22 April, but does not reflect the tragic loss of Trooper Pearson in Afghanistan on 21 April, as the inquest has not yet been opened.

Progress with inquests

At the time of the last Written Ministerial Statement, we reported that since additional funding had been provided by the Government to assist the Oxfordshire coroner, 123 inquests had been held: 109 into the overseas deaths of service personnel and 14 into the deaths of civilians in Iraq whose bodies were repatriated via RAF Brize Norton (although the January Statement incorrectly implied that all the deaths were military).

Since January, a further 32 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 155 inquests held since June 2006.

Since hostilities opened there have been a total of 176 inquests into the deaths of service personnel who lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan, including one serviceman who died in the UK of his 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.

Open inquests

Pre 31 March 2007 Fatalities

There remain 27 inquests to be concluded into the deaths of service personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan whose bodies were repatriated via RAF Brize Norton prior to 31 March 2007. The Oxfordshire coroner has retained jurisdiction in 23 of these cases; four of these inquests have been transferred to coroners closer to the deceased’s next of kin.

Hearing dates have been set in 18 cases. These include the inquests into the deaths of 14 crew members who died in the Nimrod crash on 2 September 2006 which will be heard together, commencing on 6 May 2008. In the remaining nine inquests, investigations are ongoing but it has not yet been possible for an inquest date to be set. The oldest individual inquest for which no date had been set at the time of the last Written Ministerial Statement was that into the death of Lieutenant Palmer, who died on 15 April 2006. The hearing date has now been set for 6 May 2008.

In addition there are 10 inquests into fatalities which were repatriated via RAF Lyneham prior to 1 April 2007. These relate to the deaths of 10 crew members who died together in the crash of Hercules XV179 on 30 January 2005. These inquests resumed on 31 March 2008, but have since been adjourned until September.

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 being repatriated via RAF Lyneham. These have enabled the coroner, Mr Masters, to engage an additional assistant deputy coroner, together with an additional coroner’s officer and administrative support, and to provide appropriate accommodation to hold military inquests. These extra resources are helping to ensure that bereaved families are responded to sensitively and speedily following conclusions of the investigations. Mr Masters is continuing the practice of transferring military inquests to a coroner closer to the bereaved family, where possible.

There remain 49 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 25 inquests, whilst 24 inquests are being conducted by coroners closer to the next of kin. Inquest hearing dates have been set in four of these cases. In the remaining 45 cases it has not yet been possible to set an inquest date.

Inquests into the deaths of service personnel who returned home injured

There remain five inquests to be held of service personnel who returned home injured and subsequently died of their injuries.

We are very grateful for the efforts of all the coroners involved in conducting these inquests.

We shall continue to keep the House informed on a quarterly basis about progress with the remaining inquests. I have placed tables in the Libraries of both Houses 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 on the inquest of their deceased.

We remain committed to better supporting bereaved military families. The Written Ministerial Statement issued on 7 June 2007 by my right honourable friend the then Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Adam Ingram) gave details of the support which was then being provided, and we continue to look for opportunities to improve our procedures. We have increased the number of family members who can travel and stay overnight if necessary, at public expense, to attend the repatriation ceremony. This has been extended to allow two family members to attend any pre-inquest hearings, as well as the inquest itself.

Visiting officers are crucial in providing the liaison between families and the services, and we continue to give close attention to the selection of and training for visiting officers.

We are also reviewing board of inquiry procedures to see what improvements can be made, with the aim of ensuring that coroners receive reports more expeditiously.