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23 Mar 2009 : Column 127

On that basis, Conservative Members support what the Minister is doing, because it makes a great deal of sense, the Ministry of Defence has been pushing for it for some time and it fits in with what we discussed in Committee. We decided in Committee that it was far better that inquests of servicemen and women who have served this country with such courage and loyalty should take place, where possible, in the home towns or cities of the bereaved families. It is only right that those inquests should take place nearest to where the families live, and that includes servicemen and women from Scotland.

Mr. Frank Doran (Aberdeen, North) (Lab): I welcome these important new clauses, and I congratulate the Minister on achieving agreement with the Scottish Executive—I know that that was not particularly easy. My interest stems from the experience of a family in my constituency who lost their son, Lance Corporal Allan Douglas of The Highlanders, in Iraq. Following his death, the family received excellent support from the Ministry of Defence and Army personnel to help them through their difficult time. They were told that there would have to be a coroner’s inquiry, that it had to be held in Oxford—almost 450 miles from Aberdeen—and that it might not happen for another two years. The stress that that put on the family was considerable—I saw it at first hand. We managed to get the inquiry accelerated, but it still caused immense stress.

I wish to ask the Minister a couple of questions. In that particular case, the family took the view that they did not want an inquest, because they already knew everything that there was to know about their son’s death, and it was being dealt with as a single inquest. In Scotland, it is part of the process that the procurator fiscal take into account the views of the family when consideration is given to a fatal accident inquiry—that is a matter of process, rather than being statutory, but I know from my own experience as a practising solicitor how valuable that is. It does not mean that the family has a right of veto, but their views are taken into account, and that is extremely important, psychologically, in the difficult circumstances. I know that the arrangement is not written into this Bill either, but it would be helpful if the Minister could give some consideration to that.

The proposed new section 1A(7) set out in new clause 35 makes it clear that there can be circumstances when deaths will not be referred to Scotland, and it would be helpful if the Minister would outline what they might be. I am interested in new clause 33, which sets out the circumstances whereby the Lord Advocate may be notified, either by the chief coroner or the Secretary of State, that an inquiry should be held in Scotland. What happens if it is the other way round? Is there a process whereby the Lord Advocate notifies the chief coroner or whoever?

Jenny Willott (Cardiff, Central) (LD): I should like to put on record the fact that the Liberal Democrats welcome these changes, given that they will clearly make life much easier for the families involved. As has been mentioned by the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham), we discussed this at length, on occasion, in Committee. Will the Minister confirm that the provisions in the new clauses will be taken
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alongside those elsewhere in the Bill that allow cases to be transferred from coroner’s area to coroner’s area depending on which is the most convenient for the family involved?

Given that the rest of the Bill applies to England and Wales specifically, and this provision now includes Scotland, will the Minister confirm that cases would be able to be transferred between Scotland, England and Wales, depending on the preference of the family involved? Given the difficulties experienced by families, I am glad to see that the new provisions have now been agreed.

9.45 pm

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): I rise to support Government new clauses 33, 34 and 35. Today is a good day for service families.

I will never forget 12 September 2006, the day on which a C17 Globemaster landed at RAF Kinloss in my constituency. It was repatriating 14 servicemen who had died aboard Nimrod XV230 some 10 days earlier in Afghanistan. It was a very moving ceremony for the families, all those who attended and everybody who worked at or had a connection with the station. Ten of the 14 personnel lived in Scotland, and most of them lived in Moray. However, not long after their return to RAF Kinloss, the bodies were flown back to RAF Brize Norton for the subsequent coroner’s inquest in Oxford.

The new clauses will rectify shortcomings that were vividly displayed by the experiences of families who lost loved ones aboard Nimrod XV230. Since 1968, the MOD has repatriated service personnel who died abroad, but in those 41 years no one has sought to rectify, or has succeeded in rectifying, the anomaly that sees the legal system of England and Wales play its part in explaining overseas military death while the Scots legal system does not. The consequence is that families already traumatised by the loss of a loved one have to travel hundreds of miles to attend coroner’s inquest proceedings in Oxfordshire, Wiltshire or elsewhere, and suffer substantial delays caused by the backlog of cases.

Pete Wishart: My hon. Friend will know that I am the constituency MP for Jim and Yvonne Collinson, the parents of James Collinson, who died seven years ago to the day at Deepcut barracks. He will know of the distress and chaos of families making trips to England to take part in public inquests. Does he agree that inquests and fatal accident inquiries must be held as locally as possible for families when they consider issues of such massive importance?

Angus Robertson: My hon. Friend has been a doughty campaigner in support of the Collinson family. The Bill not only addresses the issue of fatal accident inquiries in Scotland, but recognises the wish in England to see proceedings take place as close as possible to people’s homes. I hope that the Minister is alive to the possibility of that happening after fatal accident inquiries are up and running in the case of military deaths outside Scotland.

Since 2007, there has been a Scottish Government committed to changing the situation, and UK Ministers have realised that the situation as it stands is not acceptable. There has been very welcome co-operation between the Governments here and in Edinburgh and I pay tribute to all involved—

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Mr. Ingram: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Angus Robertson: The right hon. Gentleman had the chance to make a speech, but he decided not to do so.

In Scotland in particular, I pay tribute to Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill and Lord Advocate Elish Angiolini, who have worked hard to make this day possible, at the same time as undertaking a wholesale review of the fatal inquiry system. At Westminster, I had much contact with the previous Defence Secretary, the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne), and more recently with the Minister for the Armed Forces and the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), as part of formal and informal efforts to secure a change to current practice. All who have been involved in getting to this stage tonight have made a huge step forward in righting a wrong. Service families will finally be put first. These improvements to the inquest and inquiry systems are clearly too late for the families of Nimrod XV230, but their support and perseverance in the campaign to make these common-sense changes happen is a tribute to them, and it will be a stark improvement in the experience of the inquest system for families in the future.

Shona Beattie, whose husband Flight Sergeant Stephen Beattie died aboard Nimrod XV230, said in advance of today’s proceedings:

She also said:

and that

For that reason alone, it would be fitting for the amendments to be agreed without Division tonight.

The amendments are the only part of the Bill to have effect in Scotland. All the other provisions relate to England and Wales, and in part to Northern Ireland, and to the legal systems there. It is no surprise that I did not take part in the Public Bill Committee, which debated only those provisions of the Bill that affect England, Wales and Northern Ireland— [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Angus Robertson: It is very unfortunate that on a day of good news, Labour Members from Scotland heckle on such an important subject but did not seek to speak this evening as we debate the changes.

Although the Scottish National party appreciates that there are issues of concern in the wider Bill for some English, Welsh and Northern Irish colleagues, we will support the amendments that relate to Scotland and the Bill. There is much to learn about the operation of its provisions and we will be watching closely in the years ahead. We hope, of course, that they will not be needed and that no service family will need to sit through a fatal accident inquiry, but as our armed forces are on high-tempo operations, such an occurrence, unfortunately, is likely.

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It is always possible to revisit the mechanics of how the Bill will operate, but the principle is that this decision has been made tonight after 41 years of lack of delivery, within a few short years of an SNP Government in Scotland, by some Ministers who realised that the time had come to change the situation. That change is happening tonight and I welcome it wholeheartedly.

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): May I say how warmly I welcome the arrangement that has been made by the Government and their accommodation with the Administration in Edinburgh? My recollection of history is not entirely in line with what the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) has just said. I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr. Ingram). When he was Minister, he and I had correspondence over many years about the matter. We both knew that the system had to change.

Her Majesty’s coroner for Wiltshire is based in Salisbury, in my constituency, and I pay tribute to him. David Masters has had a remarkable career looking after military inquests in Wiltshire and he retires at the end of this month. A lot of the spade work has been done by him. I also pay tribute to the coroner’s officers who have looked carefully after the families of the deceased servicemen who have been flown back to Wiltshire and to Oxfordshire. They have been at the front line, coping with the needs of families from all over the UK. It has been very difficult for them, of course, to make a civilised contribution to the needs of families from as far away as Scotland. I warmly welcome the provision. I hope that it is something that we can all agree on, in spite of our historical differences over who did what. What matters is that it is a matter of common courtesy and common decency that Scottish families should have such an arrangement. I fully respect the fact that Scottish law has been different from English law, but on this occasion at least we should all come together to say that this has been a job well done.

Bridget Prentice: I shall take the views of the hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) to heart, and shall not make any party political points about members of the SNP who did not turn up to Committee where they could have raised this issue.

The hon. Member for Salisbury is quite right that this point is something that everyone, on both sides of the House, agrees on. Colleagues in government in the Scotland Office and the Ministry of Defence have been working very hard on it, including both present colleagues and those who were previously in some of those posts. I welcome the fact that the Lord Advocate and the Justice Minister in Scotland have worked with us to achieve a process of decency, as the hon. Gentleman said, for the families of British armed forces personnel who happen to live in Scotland, to enable them to deal with the death of their loved ones closer to home than is currently the case.

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Will the Minister clarify what will happen in cases in which a single incident gives rise to the death of several servicemen, some from Scotland and some from England?

Bridget Prentice: I was going to come to that in my response to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Doran). In the case of a single incident in which there are multiple deaths, the repatriation would
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be to England. However, if the majority of the deaths happened to be of Scottish personnel, the chief coroner would have a discussion with the Lord Advocate on whether it would be more appropriate to transfer all the bodies to Scotland, my point being that the deaths would be considered in a single inquest. However, the wishes of the family would also be taken into account, as the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central (Jenny Willott) and my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North requested. A discussion would take place at the time.

The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) asked whether the provisions would operate in reverse, if a body were repatriated to Scotland. The answer is yes, they would. Of course, the whole point of the amendments is to benefit service families who happen to be based in Scotland. If the body were still outside the United Kingdom, the Secretary of State for Defence would seek the agreement of the Lord Advocate to hold a fatal accident inquiry into the death, following consultation with the next of kin—something for which my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North, asked. If the Lord Advocate agreed to that, the body would be repatriated directly to Scotland. If the body were repatriated to England or Wales, the chief coroner would take on that role and would hold those discussions with the Lord Advocate.

I hope that that answers the detailed points that right hon. and hon. Members have raised. I am pleased that there is consensus across the House that we should give bereaved families, wherever they are in the United Kingdom, the comfort of knowing that their loved ones will be repatriated as close to home as possible. They can then hear of the exact circumstances surrounding the death, and can grieve properly.

Question put and agreed to.

New clause 33 accordingly read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

New Clause 34

Death of service personnel abroad: investigation in England and Wales despite body being brought to Scotland

‘(1) The Chief Coroner may direct a senior coroner to conduct an investigation into a person’s death if—

(a) the deceased is a person within subsection (2) or (3) of section [Death of service personnel abroad: investigation in Scotland],

(b) the Lord Advocate has been notified under subsection (4) or (5) of that section in relation to the death,

(c) the body of the deceased has been brought to Scotland,

(d) no inquiry into the circumstances of the death under the Fatal Accidents and Sudden Deaths Inquiry (Scotland) Act 1976 (c. 14) has been held (or any such inquiry that has been started has not been concluded),

(e) the Lord Advocate notifies the Chief Coroner that, in the Lord Advocate’s view, it may be appropriate for an investigation under this Part into the death to be conducted, and

(f) the Chief Coroner has reason to suspect that—

(i) the deceased died a violent or unnatural death,

(ii) the cause of death is unknown, or

(iii) the deceased died while in custody or otherwise in state detention.

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(2) The coroner to whom a direction is given under subsection (1) must conduct an investigation into the death as soon as practicable.

This is subject to section 3.’.— (Bridget Prentice.)

Brought up, read the First and Second time, and added to the Bill.

New Clause 35

Amendments to the Fatal Accidents and Sudden Deaths Inquiry (Scotland) Act 1976

‘(1) The Fatal Accidents and Sudden Deaths Inquiry (Scotland) Act 1976 (c. 14) is amended as follows.

(2) After section 1 insert—

“1A Death of service personnel abroad

(1) Subsection (4) applies where—

(a) the Lord Advocate is notified under section [Death of service personnel abroad: investigation in Scotland] (4) or (5) of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 in relation to a death,

(b) the death is within subsection (2) or (3), and

(c) the Lord Advocate—

(i) decides that it would be appropriate in the public interest for an inquiry under this Act to be held into the circumstances of the death, and

(ii) does not reverse that decision.

(2) A death is within this subsection if the person who has died was, at the time of the death, in legal custody (as construed by reference to section 1(4)).

(3) A death is within this subsection if it appears to the Lord Advocate that the death—

(a) was sudden, suspicious or unexplained, or

(b) occurred in circumstances such as to give rise to serious public concern.

(4) The procurator fiscal for the appropriate district must—

(a) investigate the circumstances of the death, and

(b) apply to the sheriff for the holding of an inquiry under this Act into those circumstances.

(5) But subsection (4) does not extend to a death within subsection (2) if the Lord Advocate is satisfied that the circumstances of the death have been sufficiently established in the course of any criminal proceedings against any person in respect of the death.

(6) An application under subsection (4)(b)—

(a) is to be made to the sheriff of the appropriate sheriffdom,

(b) must narrate briefly the circumstances of the death so far as known to the procurator fiscal,

(c) may relate to more than one death if the deaths occurred in the same or similar circumstances.

(7) It is for the Lord Advocate to determine the appropriate district and appropriate sheriffdom for the purposes of subsections (4) and (6)(a).”

(3) In section 2 (citation of witnesses for precognition), in subsection (1), after “section 1(1)” insert “or 1A(4)”.

(4) In section 3 (holding of public inquiry), in subsections (1) and (3), after “section 1” insert “or 1A”.

(5) In section 6 (sheriff’s determination etc), in subsection (4)(a)(i), after “section 1” insert “or 1A”.’.— (Bridget Prentice.)

Brought up, read the First and Second time, and added to the Bill.

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New Clause 36

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