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Inquests (Service Personnel)

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
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personnel who have died overseas. All fatalities suffered by our armed forces continue to be a source of profound regret. Our sympathies are with their families. It is particularly regrettable that this statement comes at a time when in recent weeks we have experienced an unusually high rate of fatalities in Afghanistan. Our service personnel risk their lives in helping to build strong, stable and democratic nations, and to protect the interests of the United Kingdom. We cannot pay high enough tribute to the job that they do, or to the ultimate sacrifice that some of them have made. We are, as ever, strongly committed to minimising the effect on their families and loved ones.

Today, we are announcing the progress that has been made since the written ministerial statement on 30 April 2008, Official Report, column 12WS with information about the conduct of inquests by the Oxfordshire, Wiltshire and Swindon and other coroners. This statement gives the position at 8 July.

For the first time, the tables that accompany this statement include information about those ongoing cases in which there has been a Board of Inquiry (BoI) report.

The purpose of a BoI is to examine the circumstances surrounding an incident resulting in death or serious injury, to learn lessons and to make recommendations to the chain of command for the improvement of working practices, procedures or equipment, which could help to reduce the likelihood of a similar incident happening again.

In some cases, the initial review of an incident will highlight any lessons to be learned or actions that could be taken to prevent a similar incident happening again. Dispensation from holding a BoI may be given if there are no further lessons to be learned. This is often the case for incidents occurring on operations.

Ministers and the military chain of command attach considerable importance to the timely completion of BoIs but the overriding requirement is that a thorough investigation identifies the right lessons. It should also be noted that a BoI (and the coroner’s inquest) cannot conclude until the completion of any police investigations. The coroner’s inquest may take place before completion of a BoI although this rarely happens in practice.

Progress with inquests

At the time of the last statement, we reported that since additional funding had been provided by the Government to assist the Oxfordshire coroner, 155 inquests had been held: 141 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 April, a further 25 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 180 inquests held since June 2006.

Since operations commenced there have been a total of 201 inquests into the deaths of service personnel who lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan, including one serviceman who died in the UK of his injuries. 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.

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Open inquests

(i) Pre-31 March 2007 Fatalities

The statement in April reported that there were 27 inquests to be held into the deaths of service personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan whose bodies were repatriated via RAF Brize Norton prior to 31 March 2007. As at 8 July, there are nine such inquests. The Oxfordshire coroner has retained jurisdiction in six of these cases; three have been transferred to coroners closer to the deceased’s next of kin. Hearing dates have been set in four cases.

The oldest individual inquest for which no date has yet been set is that into the death of Private Reeves who was killed on 9 August 2006.

In addition there are 10 inquests for the crew members who died together in the crash of Hercules XVI79 on 30 January 2005. These inquests resumed on 31 March 2008 and were adjourned until 30 September.

(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. The coroner, Mr. Masters, is continuing the practice of transferring military inquests to a coroner closer to the bereaved family, where possible.

There are 57 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 34 inquests, while 23 inquests are being conducted by coroners closer to the next of kin. Inquest hearing dates have been set in 12 of these cases. Inquests into the two latest fatalities are yet to be opened.

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

There remain five 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 with the remaining inquests. I have placed tables in the Library of the House 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 of the inquest of their deceased.

We remain committed to providing better support to bereaved military families. The written ministerial statement issued on 7 June 2007 by my right hon. Friend, the then Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, gave details of the support that was then being provided. Since then, we have increased the number of family members who can travel and stay overnight if necessary, at public expense, to attend the repatriation ceremony; and two family members may attend any pre-inquest hearings, as well as the inquest itself, again at public expense.

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Visiting officers are crucial in providing the liaison between families and the services, and we continue to give close attention to their selection and training.

On 1 June the Ministry of Defence established the Defence Inquests Unit. This unit acts as the focal point for all coroners’ inquests into the deaths of service and Ministry of Defence civilian personnel who die on, or as a result of injuries sustained while on operations; and those who die as a result of training activity. The unit’s key role is to assist coroners so that they can complete inquests satisfactorily and as quickly as possible.

The unit’s main function is to establish early contact with the coroner for each inquest, and to ensure that they are provided with all relevant paperwork, including reports from the Special Investigation Branch and Board of Inquiry (if convened). The unit will also help advise on subject matter experts for inquests. While the relevant service will, rightly, remain the focal point for liaising with the bereaved families, the unit will work closely with the services to ensure that there is a consistent approach, particularly in terms of providing information to families, coroners and welfare officers.

Leader of the House

MPs' Allowances

The Leader of the House of Commons (Ms Harriet Harman): As Leader of the House of Commons, it is my responsibility to consider how we put the will of the House into effect. That means both implementing the resolutions of 3 July 2008, and also considering how we can build on the clearly expressed view of the House that we need to do more to ensure that the rules are clear and properly enforced so that:

To that end, since the vote on 3 July, I have had a number of positive discussions, both with many hon. Members, but also with the Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, Sir Christopher Kelly KCB and the Comptroller and Auditor General, Tim Burr CB.

The House of Commons agreed important measures to improve the control and audit of public money spent in respect of Members carrying out their duties as Members of the House.

The House agreed:

In order to put into effect these changes and to build on the determination of the House to protect public money from abuse and to justify public confidence in expenditure on MPs’ allowances, I intend to consult on further steps to improve financial control and audit.

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The key elements will be:

It will include:

I propose that the NAO report to the Members’ Estimate Audit Committee, which will include three external independent members.

The Comptroller and Auditor General believes that, given the additional evidence to be provided in support of all claims, there is an opportunity to strengthen significantly the assurance that public money has been properly spent.

Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland Prison Service

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Paul Goggins): Copies of the Northern Ireland Prison Service’s annual report and accounts for 2007-08 are available in the Vote Office.



The Secretary of State for Transport (Ruth Kelly): Roads are vital to our way of life, connecting people with jobs, schools, shops, family and friends. We must ensure that road users have reliable journeys on safe, well-managed roads. So today I am publishing the Command Paper “Roads—Delivering Choice and Reliability”, which sets out how we aim to get the best out of the road network.

The greatest barrier to reliable journeys is congestion. It is frustrating for motorists and has serious consequences for the economy and the environment. So we are taking
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a number of important steps to tackle it, focusing our efforts over the next decade on where congestion is worst—on our urban roads and motorways.

I am today announcing that £6 billion is available to fund improvements to national strategic roads in England in the period up to 2014. These improvements could include an innovative mix of road widening, opening up the hard shoulder, and junction improvements. In the Command Paper I set out which national schemes are being considered for this funding, which is in addition to that for strategic regional roads provided through the regional funding allocation process.

While some road building is needed to provide extra capacity, we must also consider how to add capacity to existing roads. That is why I am exploring where the hard shoulder could be used to provide extra space on the motorway network. Where we add new capacity either by using the hard shoulder, or by widening roads, I am particularly interested to see what role tolled or car-share lanes could play to give motorists a more reliable journey. Further work will be done on this in the coming months.

I am also today publishing cost estimates for the Highways Agency major roads programme. Since the Nichols review last year, the Highways Agency has made some important changes to its management of the roads programme. These changes are outlined in the Command Paper. The revised cost estimates for regional schemes will help the regions plan their programmes more effectively over the coming regional funding allocation period. I am placing a copy of the estimates in the Library of the House.

The majority of congestion is in our towns and cities so we have allocated an extra £200 million per year from the transport innovation fund to help local authorities manage congestion in innovative ways. I am announcing today that further pump priming funding will go to Cambridgeshire, Reading and Leeds to help them take forward their ideas. I have also previously announced that, to help local authorities with their thinking on congestion charging, we will run a demonstrations project to trial the technology and processes that could underpin a more sophisticated future congestion charging system. My Department will today tell all those companies who formally expressed an interest in participating in the project the names of the successful bidders. The trials are due to start in the Autumn.

I am also today announcing that eight of the 10 largest urban areas in England, who all have congestion targets, will receive the first tranche of the performance-related payments from the urban congestion performance fund. The fund is worth £60 million over four years and, based on their 2006-07 target performance data, £6 million will be shared between Bristol, Greater Manchester, Leicester, London, Merseyside, South Yorkshire, Tyne and Wear and the West Midlands.

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All 10 areas will be eligible for further funding based on future years’ performance data. This funding, along with an additional £8 million I am announcing today to help local authorities manage their transport assets more effectively, on top of £15 million already announced in January, is all in addition to the amounts provided through the regional funding allocation process.

It is important that people have the reliable journeys they want. The Command Paper I am publishing today sets out a clear strategy for getting the best out of our roads in the coming years so we can make that a reality.

Security Planning at Airports

The Secretary of State for Transport (Ruth Kelly): My Department, in conjunction with the Home Office, has today begun a consultation on aspects of the Transport Security Bill designed to deliver more effective policing and security planning arrangements at airports.

The consultation sets out a new security planning process that:

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