139. Currently the Services have a range of internal
inquiry mechanisms. The Bill will replace them with a single Service
inquiry format, which will have a firm statutory basis and greater
powers. The intention
is to make the inquiry process more efficient and effective. Commodore
Fraser explained, for example, that currently Naval inquiries
are established on a prerogative rather than statutory basis and
that the changes in the Bill will provide for witnesses being
summoned to attend, and giving evidence under oath.
We are content with the proposals in the Bill to harmonise
internal Armed Forces inquiries and to provide them with greater
140. The Defence Committee in the last Parliament
recommended that there should be a presumption that next of kin
should be able to attend Boards of Inquiry.
MoD maintains that there should be no presumption for next of
kin to attend such inquiries, although they are sometimes admitted.
MoD officials explained that a Board of Inquiry is an internal
process convened for Service reasons to determine how a serious
incident happened and why, and to make recommendations to prevent
The Board does not apportion blame. Commodore Fraser told us that:
They were always intended as very much an internal
inquiry to be set up very quickly indeed and quite deliberately
to make sure that you had got the facts [
] you want absolute
candour from your witnesses and you want to be able to move as
quickly as you possibly can because the whole idea is to learn
lessons and then put those lessons into effect straightaway before
any other processes.
141. MoD argued that the presence of next of kin
could lead to witnesses being less frank in their evidence, and
therefore hampering the Board's work.
We note that inquests and civilian courts are able to conduct
their affairs satisfactorily with next of kin present. We do not
believe that next of kin should be excluded on the basis that
their presence will inhibit witnesses from providing the fullest
142. MoD explained that there in some circumstances
it would be difficult to enable next of kin to attend because
an inquiry would need to convene very quickly, often in remote,
or dangerous, overseas locations.
That view was reinforced during our visits to Cyprus, Oman and
Iraq where Commanding Officers provided us with examples of inquiries
that had had to proceed very quickly.
143. The previous Defence Committee, SSAFA Forces
Help and Deepcut & Beyond have been critical of MoD policy
not to provide a presumption that next of kin may attend Boards
of Inquiry. Mr Blake's Deepcut Review also recommends that there
be a presumption that next of kin attend Boards of Inquiry. SSAFA
Forces Help observed in its written evidence that, subject to
a valid reason for exclusion:
attendance by next of kin should be allowed
as a matter of course.
This would not only help the families come to
terms with their loss, but also, in demonstrating compassionate
openness, restore trust and confidence in the MOD system.
In her evidence to the Committee, Mrs Farr said that
she knew of several instances in which families were allowed to
attend. She explained that:
At the last board of inquiry at Catterick the
parents were notified when the board of inquiry was taking place.
The soldier's ex-wife and his current partner were allowed to
attend and his parents who were in Germany had a video link set
up to their hotel room for them to give evidence.
Mr Gray told us that:
There is a total inconsistency with boards of
inquiry. Some families are totally excluded and do not even know
when the board of inquiry is going on. Some families have been
included by video link to allow them to watch the proceedings.
Some families are given the full board of inquiry in a decent
and respectful way. Other families have had to travel to service
stations to rendezvous with an Army officer who has then handed
the board of inquiry over. I personally think that families should
be allowed to sit in on boards of inquiry.
144. MoD witnesses explained the level of contact
with families on boards of inquiry.
Air Commodore Hughesdon said that:
We do try to help people through their obvious
desire to understand what has gone on and as part of that, in
a similar way to the Army, we have continual briefing of next
of kin through dedicated appointed officers
Brigadier Andrews told us that the Army had established
an aftercare and incident support cell, whose staff "maintain
close contact with the family that has been affected by an incident
of death or serious injury".
145. MoD expressed concern that inquiries might be
delayed if there was a statutory presumption of right for next
of kin to attend. MoD witnesses added that delays could occur
because members of the inquiry might feel obliged to alter times
and locations of hearings to accommodate next of kin.
During the Standing Committee phase, the Minister said:
Mr Blake's report made some recommendations about
next of kin and boards of inquiry. Clearly, we will have to examine
his recommendations in detail. [
] Again, I give an undertaking
that we will return to the matter as soon as we can. I recognise
that it might not be possible for us to come to some conclusions
before the Committee reports to the House, but I will expect the
subject to come up on Report, and I aim to have some responses
at that stage.
146. Given the specific and urgent nature of some
Service inquiries, it is difficult for there always to be a presumption
that next of kin will be entitled to attend. Nevertheless, for
inquiries into, for example, an unexplained death in a training
establishment, where the difficulties of location and timing do
not exist, we would wish the inquiry to look sympathetically on
the wishes of next of kin to attend.
147. We recommend that guidance for Service inquiries
advises that next of kin not be excluded as a matter of routine.
We are not persuaded by the argument that the presence of next
of kin would impede the inquiry's ability to conduct its affairs,
so long as those attending are fully aware of the purpose, limitations
and powers of the inquiry.