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Inquests (Operations and Exercises Overseas)

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Bridget Prentice): 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 service-men and women who have died overseas. The Government are very proud of our service men and women who have served in operations overseas. We owe them a great debt of gratitude for the job they have done, and are continuing to do. They risk their lives to protect the interests of the United Kingdom. With admirable courage and skill they help to build strong, stable and democratic nations. We honour those who have given their lives in this work, and we remain strongly committed to providing our best possible support to their families.

We made statements to the House on 5 June 2006 (Official Report, column 4WS), 12 October 2006 (Official Report, column 26WS), 18 December 2006 (Official Report, column 112WS), 29 March 2007 (Official Report, column 121WS) 20 June 2007 (Official Report, column 97WS) and 30 October 2007 (Official Report, column 36WS) with information about the conduct of inquests by the Oxfordshire and Wiltshire and Swindon coroners. Today we are announcing progress which has been made since the written ministerial statement in October. This statement shows the position at 21 January, since when unfortunately there has been one further fatality in Afghanistan.


Coroners are independent judicial officers appointed and paid for by the relevant local authority. Their officers and staff are employed by the local authority and/or the police.

Each death of a service-man or woman killed in an operation overseas whose body is repatriated to England and Wales is subject to an inquest. The inquest—both the investigation into the death and the holding of the public hearing into the death—is conducted by the coroner with jurisdiction which derives from where the body lies.

In the case of deaths of service-men and women whose bodies were flown into RAF Brize Norton until it ceased being used for repatriations on 31 March 2007, the Oxfordshire coroner, Nicholas Gardiner, has had initial jurisdiction. In the case of deaths of service-men and women whose bodies have been flown into RAF Lyneham since 1 April 2007, the Wiltshire and Swindon coroner, David Masters has initial jurisdiction.

In terms of the Coroners Act 1988, a coroner may transfer jurisdiction to another coroner. This may be done as long as the body lies within the district of the coroner transferring jurisdiction and provided the coroner to whom jurisdiction is transferred consents. Since late December 2006 the Oxfordshire coroner’s practice was to transfer jurisdiction to coroners closer to the next of kin wherever possible; this practice has been continued by the Wiltshire and Swindon coroner since 1 April 2007. Some inquests of deaths of service personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan before December 2006 have also been transferred to other coroners.

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Progress with inquests

At the time of the October 2007 written ministerial statement, we reported that since additional funding had been provided by the Government to assist the Oxfordshire coroner, 104 inquests had been held, 90 into the overseas deaths of service personnel and 14 into the deaths of civilians in Iraq whose bodies were repatriated via RAF Brize Norton.

Since October, a further 19 inquests have been held into the deaths of service personnel who died in operations overseas whose bodies were repatriated via RAF Brize Norton or RAF Lyneham. This makes a total of 123 overseas military inquests held since June 2006.

Since hostilities opened there have been a total of 144 inquests into the deaths of service personnel who lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan including one serviceman who died of his injuries in the UK. In two further cases, no formal inquest was held, but the deaths were taken into consideration during inquest proceedings for those who died in the same incident.

Open inquests

(i) Pre-31 March 2007 Fatalities

There remain 41 inquests to be concluded into the deaths of service personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan whose bodies were repatriated via RAF Brize Norton prior to 31 March 2007. The Oxfordshire coroner has retained jurisdiction in 32 of these cases; 9 of these inquests have been transferred to coroners closer to the next of kin.

Hearing dates have been set in 22 cases. This includes the inquests into the deaths of 14 crew members who died together in the Nimrod crash on 2 September 2006 which will be heard together. In the remaining 19 inquests investigations are ongoing but it has not yet been possible for an inquest date to be set. The oldest individual military inquest for which no date has been set is that into the death of Lieutenant Palmer who died on 15 April 2006. The Board of Inquiry into Lieutenant Palmer’s death is yet to report.

In addition there are 10 inquests into fatalities which were repatriated via RAF Lyneham prior to 1 April 2007. These relate to the deaths of 10 crew members who died together in the crash of Hercules XV179 on 30 January 2005. The Wiltshire and Swindon coroner, David Masters, held pre inquest hearings in February and November 2007 and the inquests will be heard together starting on 31 March.

(ii) Post-1 April 2007 Fatalities

Since October 2007, additional resources have been provided by the Government to ensure that a backlog of inquests will not build up in the Wiltshire and Swindon jurisdiction now that fatalities are being repatriated via RAF Lyneham. These have enabled the coroner, Mr Masters, to engage an additional assistant deputy coroner together with an additional coroner’s officer and administrative support and to provide appropriate accommodation to hold military inquests. These extra resources are helping to ensure that bereaved families are responded to sensitively and speedily following conclusions of the investigations. Mr Masters is continuing the practice of transferring military inquests to a coroner closer to the bereaved family, where possible.

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There remain 58 inquests to be concluded into the deaths of service personnel who died in Iraq and Afghanistan whose bodies were repatriated after 1 April 2007. Of these, Mr Masters has retained 32 inquests whilst 26 inquests are being conducted by coroners closer to the next of kin. Inquest hearing dates have been set in 10 of these cases. In the remaining 48 investigations are ongoing but it has not yet been possible to set an inquest date.

(iii) Inquests into the deaths of service personnel who returned home injured

There remain 5 inquests to be held of service personnel who returned home injured and subsequently died of their injuries.

We are very grateful for the efforts of all the coroners involved in conducting these inquests.

We shall continue to keep the House informed on a quarterly basis about progress through the remaining inquests. I have placed tables in the Libraries of both Houses which outline the status of all cases and date of death of each case. Copies are also available in the Vote Office and the Printed Paper Office.

Liaison with the next of kin

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.

We have been working on better supporting bereaved military families. The written ministerial statement issued on 7 June 2007 by the then Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr. Ingram), gives details of the support which is now being provided and we continue to look for opportunities to improve our procedures. A new booklet has just been produced, to help explain inquest and board of inquiry procedures to bereaved families.

Prison Policy

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): Following the Government’s response to the report by Lord Carter of Coles into the long-term supply and demand of prison places in 5 December 2007, Official Report, column 827, I would like to provide the House with an update on progress to date. Prison Policy Update—Briefing Paper, outlining further detail on today’s announcements and an update on the supply measures which we are putting in place following Lord Carter of Coles’ report is published on the Ministry of Justice website at: Copies have also been placed in the Libraries of both Houses, the Vote Office and the Printed Paper Office.

The Briefing Paper sets out progress so far on the prison building programme announced in December. We announced then that we would provide a further 10,500 prison places on top of the 9,500 place programme previously announced. This will lead to a net increase in prison places of 15,000 by 2014. This year alone 2,500 new prison places will be delivered, of which more than 1,000 will be operational before the end of April. A further 1,600 is planned for 2009.

The paper also sets out details on how “Titan” prisons will work. We plan to build up to three Titan
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prisons by 2014 and a consultation on the design of such complexes will begin in April. This will build on the success of clustering small prisons together, for example at the Isle of Sheppey. We are starting to identify suitable sites for Titans, housing 2,500 prisoners each, in the south-east, west midlands and the north-west. We are also launching a competition for a new prison ship and have begun a consultation for a new prison at the former RAF Coltishall airfield.

The announcements I am making today signal a major drive to overcome some of the barriers to the rehabilitation of offenders. Our primary aim in doing so is further to aid the work we are already doing on cutting reoffending. These measures are focused on tackling drug use among offenders and providing opportunities for offenders to learn the new skills which might help them to a life away from crime outside prison.

These announcements are framed by a sense of what the community can expect from those who break the law. We will provide opportunities for offenders to learn the skills which will present the hope of a new life upon release, but in return we will set out what the community expects from those offenders who take up these opportunities. I have asked my right hon. Friend, the Minister of State for Prisons (David Hanson) to bring forward proposals for a clearer “contract” between offenders and the community.

In the meantime, I am announcing today a range of new measures on prison work and industries, on tackling drugs and on community justice. These build on the announcements we made in response to Lord Carter of Coles’ review of prisons, including Lord Bradley’s review of mental health issues.

First, we will increase the range of constructive work available to offenders inside prison, and in turn their job opportunities on the outside. We have an existing corporate alliance with more than 70 employers, in addition to those working in individual prisons and probation areas, but the Government are now committed to expanding this programme significantly. With ministerial colleagues from the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Prisons will shortly host a forum with leading figures from the private and third sectors to bring in more partners to provide prison training workshops.

Today we are also announcing the launch of a major new scheme at HMP Wandsworth, (with Cisco, Bovis Lend Lease and Panduit) to train prisoners in installing voice and data cabling. Providing enhanced vocational training to prisoners is instrumental in helping offenders turn away from crime, and giving them back a sense of stability, discipline and responsibility.

Secondly, we are taking further steps to tackle drug use in prison and in the community against a background over the last few years of a 10-fold increase in investment in drugs work in prisons and a two-thirds fall in the number of prisoners testing positive for drugs in prison (from 24 per cent. in 1996-97 to 8.8 per cent. in 2006-07). But we are clear that we have to go further. This drive against drugs will cover both drug treatment programmes in prisons and the control of drugs in prisons, and will be jointly headed by two senior figures with relevant experience in each area, who will be announced shortly.

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Ministers are urgently considering what further measures we need to take over controlling the supply of drugs into prisons, such as reviewing the criteria for open/closed visits across the prison estate, with a particular focus on local prisons. This will also look at introducing more rigorous searches, including the provision of more sniffer/search dogs.

As well as stamping out the supply of drugs, we are helping offenders kick the habit in prison. By April, 29 prisons will have introduced the Integrated Drug Treatment System (IDTS), and I am pleased to announce that with the Department of Health we will be extending this scheme to a further 20 prisons over the next 12 months. IDTS provides better clinical services (funded by the Department of Health), such as improved detoxification programmes and greater continuity of care between the community and prisons, between prisons, and on release into the community, as well as helping offenders to address some of the deeper roots of their drug abuse. Alongside this, we will also consider extending the number of drug-free wings where prisoners can access increased rehabilitation and support separate from known drug users.

In the community, we are increasing the provision of current community sentences that specifically target and intensively supervise offenders with a drug misuse problem by 1,000 next year. These are known as Drug Rehabilitation Requirements (DRR). The aim of the DRR, which involves treatment, regular testing and court reviews of progress and rigorous enforcement, is to get offenders to stop offending, with the longer term aim of getting them off drugs for good.

Thirdly, many offenders come from chaotic backgrounds, their lives ruined by the pernicious cycle of crime and drug abuse. Subject to the current evaluation of the Leeds and west London pilots, we will extend our successful dedicated drug courts to four further areas, in which courts look to address the causes of offending along with the offence.

We will also bring forward pilots of models for court diversion and reviewable community orders for those
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with mental health issues. These will be based on models in the American and Australian jurisdictions. Problem solving approaches applied to mental health builds upon experience developed within HMCS relating to community justice, domestic violence courts and drugs court pilots, all aimed at ensuring that the courts respond effectively to problems in the criminal justice system.

For many offenders on sentences of less than 12 months, community-based punishments are proven to be more effective at reducing reoffending than short prison terms. Therefore, we will fund at least six intensive alternatives to custody projects with new investment of £13.9 million over the next three years. The first such project will begin in Derbyshire in March, and will include a combination of unpaid work, electronic monitoring, behaviour programmes, mentoring, and help with resettlement, all under intensive supervision. More than 6 million hours of unpaid work are already carried out in the community each year. With the Department for Communities and Local Government we will further build on community payback, such as through options like citizen’s panels to decide on which projects offenders should undertake in their local area.

Today’s announcements should be set in the context of an impressive criminal justice record. This is the first post-war administration to preside over a sustained and substantial reduction in crime. The latest British Crime Survey/Recorded Crime Statistics demonstrated that overall crime has fallen a third since 1997, while the chances of being a victim of crime are the lowest since accurate recording began 27 years ago.

During the past decade more than 20,000 prison places have been provided due to more offenders being brought to justice, including 60 per cent. more violent and dangerous offenders, and being sentenced for longer. We are fully committed to providing a net further 15,000 places by 2014. Meanwhile, prisons and the prison regime are almost unrecognisable from the institutions of 10 to 15 years ago. In spite of the pressures the prisons are under, they continue to be much more decent, humane and constructive places.

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