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2.48 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. Michael Wills): As is customary, I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) on securing the debate. I would also like to associate myself with some of his remarks. First, I agree that this was a terrible tragedy, for Dr. Kelly, his family and many others. Secondly, I agree that this country owes a significant debt of gratitude to Dr. Kelly for his many years of distinguished public service. Thirdly, we should all recognise, as the hon. Gentleman did, that this incident was particularly painful and distressing for the family, and continues to be so, and all of us need to approach the matter with sensitivity. Indeed, I think that he has done that. Finally, he was right to highlight the fact that many people are not satisfied with what has happened, and to that extent it remains a matter of legitimate public concern. I agree with him on all those points. He has been an indefatigable campaigner on the issue.

Let me rehearse a few of the most salient facts before I deal with the substance of what the hon. Gentleman has said. As the House will know, Dr. Kelly's body was found on the morning of Friday 18 July 2003 on Harrowdown hill in Oxfordshire, near his home. He had been missing since the previous day, and his death was then reported to the Oxfordshire coroner, Nicholas Gardiner. On 21 July, Mr. Gardiner formally opened and adjourned an inquest into Dr. Kelly's death, as is customary when investigations into a death are continuing. The purpose of an inquest is to establish who the deceased was, and how, when and where he or she came by his or her death. Any external investigations into the death can be crucial evidence for the coroner, and can of course preclude the necessity for the coroner to undertake his or her own investigations.

On 18 July 2003, the then Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, appointed Lord Hutton to conduct a public inquiry into the death of Dr. Kelly. The terms of reference were

The inquest was resumed briefly by Mr. Gardiner on 14 August 2003, to enable the final report of the post-mortem examination on Dr. Kelly to be admitted as evidence. The examination had been undertaken by Dr. Nicholas Hunt, an experienced and Home Office-accredited forensic pathologist, on 18 July 2003. Dr. Hunt submitted his report to Mr. Gardiner on 25 July. Its conclusions were later made public in his evidence to Lord Hutton's inquiry.

As the hon. Gentleman said, section 17A of the Coroners Act 1988 allows for the adjournment of an
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inquest in the event of a judicial inquiry into a death which, in the Lord Chancellor's view, will investigate the death adequately. The then Lord Chancellor considered that Lord Hutton's inquiry would adequately investigate the cause of Dr. Kelly's death. Therefore, in August 2003, under the provisions of section 17A(1) of the Act, he formally notified Mr. Gardiner of Lord Hutton's inquiry. Mr. Gardiner found no exceptional reason to the contrary, and therefore adjourned the inquest, again in accordance with section 17A of the Act.

Norman Baker: Whose idea was it for the Oxfordshire coroner to issue a final certificate of death giving reasons for the death rather than an interim certificate, which would have been a possible option?

Mr. Wills: As the hon. Gentleman knows, coroners are independent. They are not, as he suggested, subject to ministerial pressure or intervention, and that was the coroner's decision at the time, as he knows. If he wishes to present evidence that, as he said, someone was leant on, I shall be happy to consider it, but these are serious allegations, and I hope he can use terms more precise than airy phrase such as "leant on". I assure him that if he writes to me, I will carry out a detailed examination and respond to him. Alternatively, the responsible Minister will respond. The hon. Gentleman knows that I am not normally the Minister who deals with this matter. If he writes to me promptly, I will ensure that he receives a prompt response, before the election is called-whenever that may be.

Lord Hutton's report was published on 28 January 2004. On the same day, the then Lord Chancellor sent the report to Mr. Gardiner in accordance with section 17A(3) of the 1988 Act. Mr. Gardiner then invited representations on whether or not he should resume the inquest into Dr. Kelly's death. At an open hearing in Oxford on 16 March 2004, Mr Gardiner decided that there was no exceptional reason to resume the inquest.

Lord Hutton conducted an extensive inquiry into Dr. Kelly's death. The hon. Gentleman has suggested that the inquiry was of a lower standard than it should have been, but I remind the House that Lord Hutton is a very distinguished member of the judiciary. The inquiry ran, in two stages, between 1 August and 13 October 2003. Evidence was taken from 74 witnesses, including Ministers, civil servants, police officers and ambulance staff. Dr. Hunt, the forensic pathologist, gave evidence, as did a toxicologist who examined items taken from Dr. Kelly's body. Transcripts of the evidence were made available on the inquiry's dedicated website, as were documents that were submitted in evidence, where appropriate. That website can still be accessed today. Everything has been done to make the process as transparent as possible.

I will ensure that the freedom of information request is chased up. I am sorry that the time limit was exceeded. It should not have been. Time limits are there for a reason. Unfortunately, there has been a considerable backlog in various areas, which is not acceptable. We are making considerable progress in clearing that backlog, but I agree with the hon. Gentleman that he should have received a reply by now and I shall ensure that that is chased up. I hope that we will get him a reply without
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further delay. As I say, we are trying to do everything we can to make this process as transparent as possible.

After considering all of the evidence, Lord Hutton concluded that Dr. Kelly took his own life, and that the principal cause of death was bleeding from wounds to his left wrist which Dr. Kelly had inflicted on himself with the knife found beside his body. Lord Hutton also found it probable that the ingestion of an excess amount of co-proxamol tablets, together with coronary artery disease, would have played a part in bringing about Dr. Kelly's death. Lord Hutton was satisfied that no other person was involved in the death and that Dr. Kelly was not suffering from any significant mental illness at the time he took his own life.

Lord Hutton's report was, of course, debated in this House on 28 January 2004, in response to the then Prime Minister's statement. I am aware that, as the hon. Gentleman has again reminded the House, some people have had a considerable degree of dissatisfaction with Lord Hutton's findings. Of course that persists to some extent today, as the hon. Gentleman has exemplified. However, the Government must consider whether there is any basis to go behind Lord Hutton's findings and to re-examine the evidence heard during the inquiry, and at this stage we do not have such a basis on which to proceed. We are always happy to consider new evidence and I again suggest to the hon. Gentleman that if he feels he has new evidence to provide that should cause us to re-examine that decision, we will of course look at it and respond to him. I hope that he will take advantage of that opportunity, if he so wishes.

There was also some critical reaction-we heard this again from the hon. Gentleman today-to Mr. Gardiner's decision not to resume the inquest into Dr. Kelly's death. As I said, coroners are independent judicial office holders, and operational decisions such as this are matters solely for them. It would not, therefore, be appropriate for me, as a Minister, to comment on Mr. Gardiner's decision, other than to say that it was taken fully in accordance with the provisions of section 17A of the Coroners Act 1988. It is important to note that Dr. Kelly's family, the people for whom Lord Hutton's inquiry carried the greatest of personal importance, accepted the findings on the mode and cause of his death, although I am aware that they had some reservations about the extent to which the inquiry considered Dr. Kelly's state of mind at the time and the duty of care owed to him by his employers, the Ministry of Defence. Similarly, it is worth pointing out that Dr. Kelly's family did not challenge Mr. Gardiner's decision not to resume the inquest.

I am also aware-again the hon. Gentleman has reminded the House of this-that calls have been made by third parties for there to be a fresh inquest into Dr. Kelly's death. I believe that the House knows, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman does, that Ministers do not have any authority to order that a fresh inquest should be held, even if it was considered that there were grounds for such a decision to be taken. The only basis on which a fresh inquest could be held is under the provisions of section 13 of the 1988 Act. Under that section, the High Court

can order a further inquest to be held. That can happen only if

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the Court considers it

I am aware that a group of doctors is considering making such an application, although I understand that it has not done so to date. This has given rise to some discussion in the media about what was mistakenly reported by the media as Lord Hutton's "decision" to bar for 70 years the release of some documents. Neither Lord Hutton nor anyone else has imposed or ordered that the information not be disclosed for 70 years. Lord Hutton made that clear in a statement on Tuesday 26 January. He said that he had "requested" that the post-mortem examination report relating to Dr. Kelly not be disclosed for 70 years in view of the "distress" that could be caused to Dr. Kelly's wife and daughters. I agree that we should reflect on the distress that will potentially be caused to Dr. Kelly's family by a very public re-visiting of the circumstances surrounding his
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death. That is not to say that some of the evidence cannot be released, and that will be considered on a case-by-case basis by The National Archives and in the Ministry of Justice.

Taking all that together along with the fact that-as far as the Government can see at this stage, based on the information available to us-there is no new evidence to suggest that such a move is necessary, the Government cannot see that there is a basis on which to re-examine the circumstances surrounding Dr. Kelly's death. Having said all that, I know that the hon. Gentleman is an indefatigable campaigner and I am happy to give an undertaking on behalf of the Government today that if he comes forward with new evidence we will engage with him in discussing it and in seeing whether there is any reason to re-examine our position. I am grateful to him for his courtesy in listening to me and I am sure that this dialogue will continue.

Question put and agreed to.

3 pm

House adjourned.

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