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Column 641Wiltshire. I shall refer later to that because it was a source of dissatisfaction in this case. The Army sent the information to the coroner in 1985, six months after the accident and the post-mortem and three months after the conclusion of the Army's inquiry. After much prodding by Mr. and Mrs. Sancto and their solicitor, the coroner finally wrote to Mr. Sancto on 3 January 1986, almost a year after the accident, to say that he was convening the inquest for 16 July. The court duly sat on that date at 10 am. Evidence was taken from many of the relevant witnesses, but Fusilier Catherall failed to turn up until 2 pm, by which time the inquest had had to be adjourned sine die and the witnesses who had given evidence were discharged. After the adjournment, Mr. Sancto requested from the Ministry of Defence the full report of the inquiry. On 4 August 1986, he received a letter from a section of the MOD telling him that
"during the inquest all the Army information concerned with the tragic death of your son will be available to you but, if you feel you still wish to know more about the circumstances involved I can, exceptionally, send you a full account based upon the Army Authorities' reports as soon as the inquest has been completed." The inquest was reconvened on 10 September and Catherall was brought under escort and duly examined, although, of course, in isolation from the other witnesses. Because of the delayed inquest, Mr. and Mrs. Sancto were put through needless strain and a good deal of extra inconvenience and additional costs were incurred. The Sanctos had determined with their solicitor that, because the Army had been so unforthcoming with information, they needed the services of counsel, who had to be retained for the resumed hearing at additional expense. The outcome of the inquest was a verdict of accidental death.
After further prompting by the Sanctos, it was suggested in a letter from section AG Sec 2 that a mutually satisfactory offer to reimburse the Sanctos' costs involved in the inquest would be made and they were invited to send
"full details of your costs preferably covering both visits to Oxford"
so that suitable arrangements could be made to resolve the situation to the mutual satisfaction of the Sanctos and the Department. Mr. Sancto submitted a claim for almost £700, including the cost of counsel. The MOD offered £53.80 saying that the Sanctos' costs for the first day of the inquest and the cost of counsel were their affair and that only the costs incurred directly as a result of Catherall's non-appearance could be set against MOD.
Further prompting of the MOD by the Sanctos finally elicited on 31 December 1986 a three-page narrative summary of the Army's inquiry. It included a highly controversial piece of hearsay, which suggested that
"Kirk consumed a number of cans of beer and a couple of glasses of strong punch and became very merry and boisterous and was obviously enjoying himself dancing with the girls."
Fusilier Catherall also admitted drinking four cans of lager. The paragraph finished :
"throughout the evening, Kirk and Fusilier Catherall were ferrying the Dory".
Lieutenant Colonel Menzies's post-mortem report is quite spoecific that there was no trace of alcohol in specimens of Kirk's blood and urine. He later confirmed that the specimens had been properly taken and maintained to ensure that no changes took place before the
Column 642samples were examined. That clear conflict between the narrative account and the distinguished pathologist's report has never been satisfactorily explained, despite repeated attempts by Mr. Sancto and latterly by me. There are other inconsistencies between the narrative report and the evidence at the inquest. Those unsatisfactory discrepancies have convinced Mr. and Mrs. Sancto that for its own reasons the Army, supported by the MOD, has been less than frank and has sought to cover up either negligence or misdemeanour by personnel acting in its name, and that that negligence or misdemeanour caused or contributed to the death of their son.
The MOD has consistently and directly refused to allow Mr. and Mrs. Sancto to see the full transcript and evidence of the Army board of inquiry and they have not allowed them to see it through Ministers or me, and that has maintained the Sanctos in their scepticism. The narrative account has in effect been amended by subsequent corespondence, and that only increases the Sanctos's suspicions. The Under-Secretry of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman), examined these matters minutely when he was an Under-Secretary at the Ministry of Defence. He eventually offered reimbursement of counsel's fees for the second day of the inquest, although the Sanctos still think that their modest claim of £700 should be met in full by the Ministry of Defence. The fact that section 10 of the Crown Proceedings Act 1947 has been repealed in the intervening period but not retrospectively heightens the Sanctos's sense of injustice.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering also sought to defuse the issue of whether Kirk had been drinking and concluded that alcohol had not been a contributing factor to the accident. My hon. Friend, who behaved throughout with his customary courtesy and sympathy, did not feel able to let the Sanctos see the full Army report. His successors have maintained that stance to this day. I hope that when he responds to the debate my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to grant the two aspirations which may relieve my constituents of some of the agony of their loss.
Kirk Sancto died in a boating accident and there can be nothing classified about that because his duties that evening were voluntary and in no sense operational. His parents have seen photographs of his body, so that the Army is not protecting them from the realities of his severe head injuries. The pathologist makes it clear that Kirk Sancto was not the worse for drink. Who or what is the Army protecting by its refusal to release the full report?
The conduct of the inquiry and the passing of information to the coroner, the inordinate delay in convening the inquest and its adjournment because of Catherall's non-appearance, the manifest inconsistencies between the narrative report and the evidence at the inquest, the apparent agreement to pay the inquest costs of my constituents and then the decision not to and, perhaps most of all, the refusal to share the full facts of the inquiry are all unsatisfactory facets of the case. That makes me wonder whether those charged with resolving the facts of the tragic death of this young man while he was serving his country have been as diligent or as thoughtful as they might have been.
The loss of a son in such circumstances must necessarily be a terrible experience. It behoves those of us who may have a part to play in trying to heal the wounds to do
Column 643everything in our power to give the bereaved family every support. That has not happened in this case, and I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to try to remedy that.
The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Alan Clark) : My hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Mr. Couchman) has raised a matter of great concern to a family in his constituency whose son, Sapper Kirk Sancto, was killed when serving in the Royal Engineers four and a half years ago in a tragic accident in Port Stanley harbour. I add my sympathy to those of all hon. Members for the family that suffered such a grievous loss.
As is normal in such cases, the Army authorities convened a board of inquiry into the circumstances of the accident. The board took evidence from witnesses and others involved. Sapper Sancto's body was returned to the United Kingdom and it was also obligatory for an inquest to be held in this country. That was held in two stages in July and September 1986 and recorded a finding of accidental death. Mr. Sancto confirmed in November 1986, after the inquest was completed, that he would like a summary of its proceedings. That was sent to him at the end of the following month.
I must emphasise that my Department has at no stage wished to withhold any of the facts, or the nature of the board of inquiry's findings. I certainly have every sympathy for the frustration felt by Mr. Sancto that more than a year elapsed before he could receive the full account from the Ministry of Defence of its own inquiries into the accident. As the House will appreciate, the timing of inquests is a matter, not for my Department, but for independent judicial officers. Mr. Sancto did, however, have the opportunity, which he took, of hearing what witnesses and others involved said at the inquest. Indeed, as he is perfectly entitled to do, he employed legal representation so as to have the opportunity to put the questions that particularly concerned him directly to those witnesses. It may help if I say a few words about the status and purpose of boards of inquiry reports. The Army derives its authority for holding boards of inquiry from the Army Act 1955, statutory rules made thereunder and Queen's regulations for the Army. Boards of inquiry may inquire into all manner of things. Generally, their primary purposes are to investigate and report on the facts about the matter referred to them by the convening authority, and to make recommendations aimed at preventing a recurrence of an accident. It is of the greatest importance, particularly in cases of injury or death, to establish as quickly as possible the true facts. Lives may depend on that. It is essential, therefore, that witnesses appearing before a board of inquiry should give evidence in a full and frank manner. One must remember that some of the witnesses will be young or of very junior rank. They may be required to give their evidence in difficult circumstances. They may have to criticise the actions of fellow service men, their close comrades even, or of their senior officers. They may themselves have made mistakes which contributed to an incident, about which, for the good of the services, we would want them to be candid.
Board of inquiry procedures have, therefore, been designed to do everything possible to encourage witnesses to come forward and to be absolutely candid when giving
Column 644their evidence. To this end, boards of inquiry are conducted as internal investigations. They are not disciplinary courts. Unlike courts-martial, they are not held in public. The rules under which boards are conducted provide that evidence given by a witness may not be used against him in any subsequent disciplinary proceedings. The report of the board of inquiry is regarded as confidential to the service and the Department. Only those within the service and the Department with a strict need-to-know requirement will see it. If the records of board of inquiry proceedings and evidence were to be made public, witnesses before future boards could not be sure that the confidence in which they were asked to give their evidence would be respected. Concern that their statements to the board might become general knowledge both within and outwith the service might make them more cautious and prevent the full facts from coming to light. Board of inquiry reports may also contain classified material, evidence of a highly specialist, technical nature or material of a medical nature which next-of-kin might find distressing. For all those reasons, it is not our practice to allow access to service boards of inquiry reports.
Equally, I must emphasise that it is not the wish of the services to deny those with a genuine and valid interest their right to know what happened in a particular incident. My hon. Friend's constituent clearly has such a right in this case. It is, therefore, my Department's practice to make available on request a narrative summary of the Department's investigations, which contains all the material facts. As I have explained, this procedure was followed in Mr. Sancto's case following the completion of the coroner's inquest.
I appreciate that someone who has suffered a loss such as Mr. Sancto's will find it difficult to feel satisfied until he has seen all that has been written and said about the tragedy. I fully understand, too, why it is that they may feel that something is being kept from them. In this case, I must repeat the assurances given by the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces in his letters of 28 January and 19 July 1988 to my hon. Friend--that the facts relating to his son's death have not been concealed from Mr. Sancto. I hope that my hon. Friend will accept that assurance. I am afraid that I am unable to accede to Mr. Sancto's request that he should be allowed to see the full report of the Army's board of inquiry. As my hon. Friend will know, we have acknowledged that the summary of the report that was sent to his constituent was not as clear or as precise as it should have been, particularly as regards the exact course of events in the succession of boat trips that preceded the final, fatal journey in the early hours of 9 June 1985. We have acknowledged, too, that the references made in the summary to the part that alcohol was thought, by some witnesses, to have played in the circumstances of the accident, did not take sufficient account of specialist medical evidence. This evidence, made available to the inquiry and to the inquest, showed that Mr. Sancto's son did not have alcohol in his body at the time of death.
The record has been set straight on these, and on other issues raised by Mr. Sancto, in correspondence with my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman). I should like to take this opportunity to state quite clearly that, from my examination of the papers in preparing for
Column 645this debate, I have seen no evidence to suggest that the accident sprang from lack or care, or the consumption of alcohol, by Sapper Kirk Sancto.
It is not the practice of my Department to meet either personal expenses, or legal costs arising from attendance at inquest hearings. A decision to attend an inquest is a private decision on the part of the individual concerned. It is not the practice for the next of kin to be reimbursed for such costs. We would not expect to pay such costs except where these had been incurred either on the Department's behalf or as a result of negligence. The same considerations apply to the cost of legal representation. It is not unusual for a family to decide to be legally represented at an inquest ; but the consequence of such a decision is that the family should bear the cost involved. In this case, however, while the general timing of the inquest was a matter beyond our control, most regrettably the hearing had to be further adjourned because a key service witness failed to appear on 16 July 1986. I, and my colleagues with whom my hon. Friend has corresponded,
Column 646accept that the Ministry of Defence has some responsibility for this. I take this opportunity to apologise personally. Mr. Sancto has been offered, on an ex-gratia basis, reimbursement for all the costs that he incurred as a result of the holding of the second part of the hearing on 9 September 1986. This offer was extended both to his personal travel and incidental costs, and to the extra cost of employing legal representation for the additional period. This subject is properly the concern of my noble Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces. I am replying on this occasion because my hon. Friend has raised the matter in this House, but I have examined the papers personally, with the greatest of care, and I have listened to the points made by my hon. Friend. I shall report back to my noble Friend and ask him to reconsider the case in the light of what has been said this afternoon. I feel sure that he will be writing further to my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham shortly.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Two o'clock.
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