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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My honourable friend, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (Bridget Prentice), has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.
My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence and I wish to make the following Statement to the House about the inquests of service personnel who have died overseas. All casualties suffered by our Armed Forces are, of course, a source of profound regret. Our service personnel put their lives on the line to help build strong, stable and democratic nations, and to protect the interests of the United Kingdom. We cannot pay high enough tribute to them for the job that they are doing, or to the ultimate sacrifice which some of them have made. We remain strongly committed to minimising the effect on the bereaved families.
We made Statements to the House on 5 June 2006 (Official Report, Commons, col. 4WS), 12 October 2006 (Official Report, Commons, col. 26WS), 18 December 2006 (Official Report, Commons, col. 112WS), 29 March 2007 (Official Report, Commons, col. 121WS), 20 June 2007 (Official Report, Commons, col. 97WS), 30 October 2007 (Official Report, Commons, col. 36WS) and 31 January 2008 (Official Report, Commons, col. 35WS), with information about the conduct of inquests by the Oxfordshire, Wiltshire and Swindon and other coroners. Today, we are announcing the progress which has been made since the Written Ministerial Statement on 31 January. This Statement shows the position at 22 April, but does not reflect the tragic loss of Trooper Pearson in Afghanistan on 21 April, as the inquest has not yet been opened.
At the time of the last Written Ministerial Statement, we reported that since additional funding had been provided by the Government to assist the Oxfordshire coroner, 123 inquests had been held: 109 into the overseas deaths of service personnel and 14 into the deaths of civilians in Iraq whose bodies were repatriated via RAF Brize Norton (although the January Statement incorrectly implied that all the deaths were military).
Since January, a further 32 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 155 inquests held since June 2006.
Since hostilities opened there have been a total of 176 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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There remain 27 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 23 of these cases; four of these inquests have been transferred to coroners closer to the deceaseds next of kin.
Hearing dates have been set in 18 cases. These include the inquests into the deaths of 14 crew members who died in the Nimrod crash on 2 September 2006 which will be heard together, commencing on 6 May 2008. In the remaining nine inquests, investigations are ongoing but it has not yet been possible for an inquest date to be set. The oldest individual inquest for which no date had been set at the time of the last Written Ministerial Statement was that into the death of Lieutenant Palmer, who died on 15 April 2006. The hearing date has now been set for 6 May 2008.
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. These inquests resumed on 31 March 2008, but have since been adjourned until September.
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 coroners 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.
There remain 49 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 25 inquests, whilst 24 inquests are being conducted by coroners closer to the next of kin. Inquest hearing dates have been set in four of these cases. In the remaining 45 cases it has not yet been possible to set an inquest date.
We shall continue to keep the House informed on a quarterly basis about progress with the remaining inquests. I have placed tables in the Libraries of both
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We remain committed to better supporting bereaved military families. The Written Ministerial Statement issued on 7 June 2007 by my right honourable friend the then Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Adam Ingram) gave details of the support which was then being provided, and we continue to look for opportunities to improve our procedures. We have increased the number of family members who can travel and stay overnight if necessary, at public expense, to attend the repatriation ceremony. This has been extended to allow two family members to attend any pre-inquest hearings, as well as the inquest itself.
Following representations by political parties in Northern Ireland, the Government commissioned Sir David Varney, in March 2007, to carry out a review of tax policy in Northern Ireland. The review was published in December 2007.
His report confirmed that the Northern Ireland economy was doing well under the devolution arrangements introduced a year ago. For example, Northern Ireland had the highest rate of economic growth of all UK regions outside London and the south-east between 1997 and 2006 and in 2007 it had the lowest rate of unemployment of any region. There are now more people in employment than ever before.
But Sir David Varney's review noted that the Northern Ireland economy still faced some demanding challenges. It has the lowest level of productivity and employment of any region in the UK and public spending as a percentage of GDP is around 70 per cent compared with 35 per cent in Ireland.
Building on Sir David's earlier analysis and agreement from all parties about the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland (in relation to the opportunities provided by the peace process, the need to strengthen the private sector, to create increased employment opportunities and to reform the public sector) this review will explore in more detail how to expand the private sector and to enhance Northern Ireland's competitiveness.
The Government are today publishing Sir David Varney's report. Copies of the report have been deposited in the Libraries of both Houses. I am very grateful to Sir David Varney and his team, and to all those who submitted evidence to the review, for this comprehensive report. It provides a valuable assessment of how the opportunities and challenges facing the Northern Ireland Executive in developing their economic strategy might best be approached.
The Government welcome Sir David Varney's report and I look forward to discussing with Northern Ireland Executive Ministers how we can take forward the findings in the report together, while recognising that devolved policies are a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive and their departments.
I welcome the fact that the Northern Ireland Budget focused on those Northern Ireland departments that have a central role in helping the economy. The UK Government and the Northern Ireland Executive share the view that it is flexible and open economies that ultimately succeed, and that it is important to maximise Northern Ireland's export potential.
I also welcome the support which the Irish Government continue to provide in developing the all-island economy which directly benefits Northern Ireland through infrastructure and innovation investment, the assistance provided by the EU and the interest shown by the US, as can be seen in next week's US investment conference in Belfast.
I note the recommendations which Sir David Varney has made in his report. Many of these are for the Northern Ireland Executive to consider. The UK Government will respond to those that are directed to UK Ministers in due course.
The successful return of devolution to Northern Ireland, and the second stage envisaged in the St Andrews agreement, provides an opportunity for transformational change and inward investment which, if seized, has the opportunity to benefit all the people of Northern Ireland.
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