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May 07. Parliament: Whitsun Recess. Parliament is to rise on Thu 24 May and return on Mon 4 Jun 07. (Source: DNA DEFENCE NEWS ANALYSIS, Issue 0719, 14 May 07)

House of Commons

Monday 14 May 2007

The House met at half-past Two o’clock

Oral Answers to Questions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Military Inquests

Danny Alexander (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD): What discussions he has had with colleagues in the Ministry of Justice on measures to reduce the backlog of military inquests for the fatalities of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan; and if he will make a statement.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): The Ministry of
Defence has regular discussions with the Ministry of Justice about the management of, and support to, inquests relating to deaths on operations. Since last summer, additional assistant coroners have been available to relieve pressure on the Oxfordshire coroner. The use of home coroners for single fatalities has been introduced and, in addition to the existing arrangements for all three services, a dedicated team has been established to support coroners
preparing for inquests. As of today, there are five outstanding inquests in respect of operations prior to 1 January 2006, three of which should be heard by the end of July.

Danny Alexander: I am grateful to the Minister for that reply, because the point has been made that waiting three or even five years for an inquest is unacceptable to the families concerned. That is sometimes compounded by their having then to travel a long way, perhaps to Wiltshire, for the inquest. Is the
Minister considering coroners’ requests for further resources to speed up the process in the light of the additional deaths that have occurred? What progress has been made in considering the proposal put forward by the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) to allow inquests to take place nearer to the homes of the families of the deceased where that would make matters easier for them?

Mr. Ingram: This is a very important issue. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the time taken has been inordinately long, and that has not been helpful. Sometimes there are good reasons for that, because of the very nature of the boards of inquiry by means of which the Ministry of Defence establishes the technical facts, which then help the coroner to come to a conclusion. Sometimes those can take a considerable time to assemble the best information. The reasons behind the amount of time taken by the coroner rest elsewhere, but that is why the Ministry of Justice and ourselves have put more assistant coroners in place. We shall continue to monitor that, and should there be greater demand and need, we would work with our sister Department to find the best solution. On getting inquests carried out nearer to home within England—I make the point that this cannot apply to Scotland because of the nature of the fatal accident inquiry system that applies there—we will always seek to get them carried out close to home. That is how both Departments are seeking to find a solution.

Ms Diana R. Johnson (Kingston upon Hull, North) (Lab): It is good to know that considerable progress has been made, but will my right hon. Friend reassure me by confirming that the Department fully understands the need to give support and advice to families at such a difficult time?

Mr. Ingram: That, too, is an interesting and important question, and we have already established a dedicated team. One of the issues that I am examining is how to ensure that, in terms of our duty of care for our families, all that we do is the best it can be. I am also trying to encourage a more family-friendly approach within the inquest system, and all that work is under way. We have learned valuable lessons, and we shall continue to throw our best resources at this to ensure that the

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