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The Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Ms Harriet Harman): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence and I wish to make the following statement to the House about the inquests of servicemen and women who have died overseas which fall within the jurisdiction of the Oxfordshire coroner, Nicholas Gardiner.
All casualties suffered by the UK armed forces are a source of profound regret. UK service personnel have put their lives on the line to help build strong, stable and democratic nations and protect the interests of the United Kingdom and we cannot pay high enough tribute to the job that they are doing, or to the sacrifice
that some of them have made. We are committed to assisting the families of UK Service personnel who have died on operations overseas when their loved ones are returned to the UK.
We made statements to the House on 5 June and 12 October with information about the conduct of inquests by the Oxfordshire coroner and today we are announcing progress which has been made since the written ministerial statement in October.
Each death of a serviceman or woman killed in an operation overseas whose body is repatriated to England and Wales is subject to an inquest. The inquestboth the investigation into the death and the holding of the public hearing into the deathis conducted by the coroner with jurisdiction which derives from where the body lies. In the case of deaths of servicemen and women whose bodies are flown into Brize Norton military airbase, the Oxfordshire coroner has jurisdiction.
In the 12 months preceding the June written ministerial statement, in addition to the non-armed forces inquests which the coroner has in his jurisdiction, Mr. Gardiner and his deputy coroners had conducted 31 inquests into the deaths of servicemen who died in Iraq. One inquest was dealt with by the Powys coroner and one by the Swindon and Wiltshire coroner.
At the time of the June ministerial statement, there remained 59 inquests to be concluded into the deaths of service personnel killed in Iraq and 11 inquests of civilians whose bodies were flown into Brize Norton. At the time of the October written ministerial statement, a further nine inquests had been held into the deaths of servicemen who have died in Iraq.
When I made the statement in June, we had only asked the coroner to provide details of inquests into those deaths in his jurisdiction relating to Iraq. By the time of the October statement the coroner had provided us with details of outstanding inquests into six deaths from previous conflicts or other military exercises abroad and three further civilian casualties, the earliest of which occurred in 1998. The position in relation to the inquests in these additional deaths was reported to the House in the October statement. Including these deaths, there remained 59 inquests to be concluded into the deaths of service personnel and 11 inquests into the deaths of civilians at the time of the October statement.
Since the October statement, the coroner has provided us with details of outstanding inquests into six deaths from a military exercise in the Czech Republic in 2004. Including these deaths, there now remain 48 inquests to be concluded into the deaths of service personnel and nine inquests into the deaths of civilians who lost their lives in Iraq and whose bodies were repatriated to RAF Brize Norton.
We have not included in this statement inquests into a further 11 deaths in Iraq and 33 deaths in Afghanistan which occurred after 15 May 2006 and which were repatriated into Brize Norton, as the additional support for the coroner outlined as follows is only intended to clear the backlog of cases he had in
June. DCA and MOD officials continue to liaise with each other, the Oxfordshire coroner and his assistant deputies on the progress of all of these cases and on how to handle these recent deaths.
As we reported to the House in the earlier statements, the Oxfordshire coroner has appointed the following as additional assistant deputy coroners to assist with conducting the inquests detailed above:
Three additional coroners officers, Mr. Geoff Webb, Mr. George Gatt and Mr. Derrick Bines have been appointed by Thames Valley Police to support the existing complement of five officers and one officers team leader in the Oxfordshire coroners office. They are supporting the coroners in various ways, including by contacting witnesses, listing inquests and providing support at inquests.
An additional administrative assistant, Ms Stella Hartley-Morris has been appointed to the existing administrative assistant in the Oxfordshire coroners office who provide administrative support for the investigations and inquests.
Since the October ministerial statement all inquests of deaths have been allocated to the assistant deputy coroners. Eighteen inquests have been held, the inquest into the death of Sergeant Roberts is currently being held and a further 51 have been listed for hearing.
In the October ministerial statement we said that the coroner intended that all outstanding inquests would either have been held or have a date fixed for the inquest hearing by the end of the year and dates for the remaining six inquests will have been fixed by the end of the year. We are grateful for the efforts of all those involved.
We shall continue to keep the House informed on a quarterly basis about progress through the remaining inquests. The following table is a table, which outlines the status of all cases and the date of death of each case.
It is of the greatest importance that the next of kin have full information about the progress on the inquest of their deceased next of kin. The extra resources will improve the service provided to families by the
Oxfordshire coroner, in addition to the normal liaison between the Ministry of Defence and the families concerned.
In order to further improve the service to families I invited to meet me the families of service personnel who died in Iraq whose inquests had been held. We are grateful to the 17 relatives of the 12 deceased servicemen and women who gave us the benefit of their
views and experiences so as to improve the inquest system for the benefit of future families of members of the armed services who die abroad.
Following that meeting we are working on providing families with better information about the inquest system, how we can help families to have access to all material relevant to the inquest; and holding inquests closer to where the relatives live.
|Oxfordshire Coroner: Inquests of Servicemen and Related Civilian Deaths 1998 to May 2006|
|Date of Death||Name of the Deceased||Allocated to||In Process of Being Listed for Hearing||Date Listed||Date Inquest Heard|
|(1 )Denotes non-Iraq related military death.|
(2 )Denotes civilian Iraq related death.
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