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14 May 2007 : Column 381

House of Commons

Monday 14 May 2007

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Military Inquests

1. 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. [136569]

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
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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 families receive the best advice and support during a difficult time.

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): I note what the Minister says about resources being thrown at this, but the fact remains that this question has been coming up for at least three years and, as he says, cases are still outstanding from 2005. Will he guarantee that proper dedicated resources will be provided, or would he consider establishing military coroners, who could add to the speed of the process and reduce the grief for the relatives?

Mr. Ingram: Let me give the hon. Gentleman a word of advice. If the MOD were seen to be more closely engaged in what can be seen as highly contentious issues, it would look as if we were somehow interfering with the normal process of the consideration of these matters. Although we should rule nothing out, we would have to take that into account to ensure that there was a proper balance and that the families were certain that justice was being carried out in the inquest. On the allocation of resources, what I have said is that recently we have moved considerably in a short period of time. Some cases are long outstanding, and there are good reasons in respect of all of those. Where we can expedite them we shall, but that rests with the coroner, and not necessarily with the MOD.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): Will the Ministry of Defence work with the incoming Scottish Executive to ensure that inquiries can take place under Scots law? After all, that would help to reduce the backlog and to ease the inconvenience to the families.

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Mr. Ingram: The answer to that is yes; we will always work with any Administration in any part of the United Kingdom—and long may Scotland remain part of the United Kingdom. My understanding is that there would need to be a change to primary legislation. We need to look into that, but if there is a will to change in Scotland, let us hear the propositions.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): Before I ask the Minister my question, may I point out that my hon. Friend the shadow Defence Secretary visited RAF Lyneham last Friday, and that he would like to place on record how impressed he was with the sensitivity and professionalism of all those who deal with the repatriation of our fallen service personnel?

The latest information in the ministerial statement made at the end of March by the Minister’s colleague the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), was that there were still 91 military inquests outstanding, 25 of which dated from before May 2006. It sounds as if there has been a little progress since then, but progress in dealing with the backlog has been painfully slow. Given that Ministers expect the Wiltshire and Swindon coroner to transfer jurisdiction to the next of kin’s local coroner wherever possible, how confident is the Minister that all coroners will have the expertise to deal adequately with military inquests—and if that is the right solution, why on earth was it not put in place four years ago, so that we could avoid the delays and anguish suffered by bereaved families?

Mr. Ingram: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments about those who will carry out a daunting task at Lyneham with the same high level of professionalism as is found at Brize Norton. Considerable progress has been made; there is no question about that—and as I said in an earlier answer, lessons have been learned. At the end of the day, this is not just a Ministry of Defence issue. I again make the point that some of the delays were occasioned by the requirement for boards of inquiry to be thorough and exhaustive, so that we can best learn lessons. In the main, coroners await the outcome of the BOI. They do not need to, but I think that they benefit from it. On the point about assistance for the coroners system, we now have a dedicated team, and we will give the best technical and support assistance to coroners if they require it. Experience tells us that they would welcome all that, because a difficult and complex set of circumstances, which coroners may be encountering for the very first time, is involved. Progress has been made, and we can only seek to improve on that, but we have to take into account all the mitigating circumstances, some of which are outwith the control of the agencies and organisations involved.

Service Personnel (Health Care)

2. Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): What assessment he has made of the adequacy of medical support for service personnel on their return to the United Kingdom from operational theatres; and if he will make a statement. [136570]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Derek Twigg): We regularly assess the medical support for service personnel to ensure that it is among the best
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in the world. That support can range from life-saving surgery in the UK’s NHS hospitals and the excellent facilities at the Defence medical rehabilitation centre, to the treatment of routine ailments on a daily basis.

Mr. Evennett: General Dannatt has made it clear that he wants a dedicated military ward for our service personnel, but the Prime Minister will only support a military-managed ward, which is not good enough as a long-term solution to the problems. Will the Under-Secretary look again at the issue, because a number of our service personnel feel that they are being let down?

Derek Twigg: May I quote what General Sir Richard Dannatt actually said about Selly Oak?

We are moving to a fully military-managed ward during the summer. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that work commenced on the partition in the ward today. We are increasing the number of military nurses there, and there is also welfare support and psychiatric support. As part of the examination of the new hospital building, a military ward is being considered under the new private finance initiative scheme at Birmingham. Obviously, we will take that into consideration in the next few months.

Peter Viggers (Gosport) (Con): Although military personnel who are critically ill or injured must of course have the best treatment available anywhere, wherever that may be, does the Under-Secretary accept that there are overwhelming reasons why, for psychological and morale reasons, military personnel should be treated in a military environment? Other nations, and military personnel themselves, are incredulous that the Royal hospital Haslar, which is just such a military environment, should be closed.

Derek Twigg: I listen very carefully not just to the experts in the Ministry of Defence but to the clinicians and nurses who carry out their duties in places such as Selly Oak and in our field hospitals in the operational theatre, and no one whom I have come across so far believes that we can go back to military hospitals. There are not enough patients to ensure the training and care experience that our clinicians and nurses need if they are to provide the world-class care and treatment that they currently do.

However, as I said in response to the previous question, we recognise that the military environment is important, which is why we are moving to a military-managed ward at Selly Oak. That includes at least 26 military nurses—the number will be increased to 39 in the summer—military medical consultants, clinicians, welfare support and psychiatric support. There are also liaison officers in the ward, who liaise with the units of the injured service personnel. We recognise the importance of the military ethos, but it is important to ensure, too, that we use the best NHS skills and support within the NHS to ensure that our injured service people receive the best possible treatment and care.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): The Minister’s remarks are welcome, as resources have at
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last been made available to our recovering servicemen. However, does he not understand the distinction between a military-managed ward and all that that means, which he described, and a ward on which only military people are treated, so that service personnel can recover surrounded by their comrades, and not find themselves, as in one recently reported case, waking up with elderly ladies on either side, one of whom said, “What happened to you, lad?” People recover faster when they recover among their own kind.

Derek Twigg: It is clear that a military-managed ward is the stage to which we are moving. With partitions, it will allow a much better military environment, with the involvement of many more military and medical personnel, plus welfare support, as I have already said. The new hospital being built at Birmingham offers us an opportunity to improve on that by providing a better military environment, and we will consider whether we can provide a full military ward. That is something that we are examining, and the decision will be made in the coming months.

Iran (Seizure of British Equipment)

3. Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): What progress he has made in recovering boats and equipment seized by Iran from United Kingdom armed forces in (a) June 2004 and (b) March 2007. [136571]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): We continue to press by all diplomatic means the Government of Iran to return the boats and equipment seized illegally in both 2004 and 2007.

Mr. Swayne: Can the Secretary of State tell us—apart from the iPod—what radio and cipher cards were seized, the standing operational procedures for which are destruction prior to capture?

Des Browne: I am not in a position to give the House that sort of detail in relation to operations, for good operational reasons. I can reassure the hon. Gentleman, however, that all issues relating to operations, particularly the operations in March 2007 when boats and equipment were seized, will be looked into by the inquiry ordered by the Chief of the Defence Staff, which will be led by Lieutenant-General Sir Rob Fulton, and will report to the Select Committee on Defence.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): Will my right hon. Friend explain why the Iranians need to keep that equipment? It was taken in international waters. Is there a motive that we do not know about, and what discussions are under way to get it back?

Des Browne: I can see no reason why the Iranians would want to hold on to that equipment, as they took it illegally and in law should return it. The embassy in Tehran, as one would expect, takes the lead in these matters, and continues to press at every opportunity for the return of the boats and equipment.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): I welcome the Secretary of State’s decision to allow the Select Committee on Defence, of which I am a member, to look at the results of the Fulton inquiry, and to reach a
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conclusion. In the meantime, may I invite him to consider how we are going to move from the present situation to a dialogue with those in Iran who would have a dialogue with the rest of the world? I appreciate that there is every opportunity to take offence at things that the Iranian Government are doing, not least to our own forces, but how are we to resolve the question of Iran unless we are in dialogue with those who would be in dialogue with us?

Mr. Speaker: Order. The question is a bit more specific, as it is about the recovery of the materials.

Des Browne: In relation to the materials, may I tell the hon. Gentleman that dialogue is indeed taking place between Ministers and officials, particularly officials in London who represent Iran? He will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary took advantage of the recent meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh to speak to her Iranian counterpart.

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): May I ask the Secretary of State why there are different rules of engagement for British and for American service personnel working in the Shatt al-Arab waterway?

Des Browne: Rules of engagement are entirely a matter for the assessment made by the command in relation to the tasks that those in their care face. To the extent that they are different, that is because we hold on to the relevant distinction that we should be able to make rules of engagement for the protection and care of our own troops.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Returning to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), may I say that it would be extremely strange if highly sensitive cipher cards were indeed in the possession of a boarding party, given the duties that it has to perform? May I also ask the Minister why a ministerial written answer on 24 April said that we had not at any stage sought the support of the United Nations in recovering the boats, even though both in 2004 and in 2007 the boats were captured while carrying out a mandated mission supported by the United Nations? Why are we making only bilateral approaches, when the right hon. Gentleman said in his answer that all diplomatic approaches were being made?

Des Browne: The judgment as to the most effective way of approaching the Iranians in relation to the matter entails a complicated assessment of what will be to best advantage in the wider circumstances of our relations with Iran and our other interests in that part of the region.


4. Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): How many Iraqi troops have been trained. [136572]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): Good progress continues to be made in developing the capability of the Iraqi security forces. To date, more than 143,000 Iraqi armed forces have been trained and equipped by the multinational forces.

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