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I return to slack in the system. If we prioritise the interests of the bereaved, the transfers will reflect that, and the system will be evened out by the very nature of the randomness of where the bereaved live. If the noble Lord is suggesting that the system will have pinch-points in it, I say that the present system has those, too. We are creating within the framework of the Bill an opportunity to identify problems more effectively and effect a proper response to them.

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff: I am most grateful to the Minister for his comments and assurances and I am glad that we were able to get through this group of amendments with a degree of speed. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 5A withdrawn.

Amendment 6 not moved.

Clause 3 agreed.

Amendment 6A

Moved by Baroness Fookes

6A: After Clause 3, insert the following new Clause—

“Investigations into deaths of service personnel

(1) Coroners conducting investigations into the deaths of members of Her Majesty’s Forces shall have the appropriate training for carrying out such investigations.

(2) Where—

(a) an investigation is transferred under section 2(1) or 3(1), and

(b) the deceased is a member of Her Majesty’s Forces,

the coroner to whom the case is transferred shall only conduct the investigation if he has the appropriate training for conducting investigations into deceased members of Her Majesty’s Forces.”

Baroness Fookes: The proposed new clause stands in my name and that of the noble Baroness, Lady Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde, who cannot be with us today but who is fully behind the sentiments expressed in this clause and the other amendments grouped with it. Perhaps I may sketch in the background to the proposal and, in doing so, declare an interest as president of the War Widows Association of Great Britain and of the Sussex branch of SSAFA Forces Help. Your Lordships will understand, therefore, that I have an

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interest in military inquests and their impact on the family and close friends of the service man or woman who has died.

In the early days, there was great concern not only because of delays resulting from the impact on coroners in particular areas of the country where bodies were repatriated—that was bad enough, but I shall not dwell on it now—but also because the coroners did not then have the expertise which several have now acquired. A military ethos informs the way in which people who died in conflict are dealt with, making it quite different from the normal duties that are required of a coroner in civil society. It was easy for the families in those early days to feel that the coroner concerned did not have a sufficient grip on what it was all about. Above all, where embarrassment to the Government was caused by the death of servicemen, it was felt that it would be relatively easy for officials to—how shall I put it tactfully?—pull the wool over the eyes of an inexperienced coroner.

Several coroners now are extremely competent and very well versed in the needs of a military inquest. They certainly have not been afraid on occasions to point the finger of blame at, let us say, inadequate protection for a servicemen through no body armour being available, or perhaps inadequate vehicles which have then been the subject of enemy fire. A very tricky coroner’s inquest can take place.

The thrust of the new clause and the amendments grouped with it is the absolute necessity for that expertise not to be lost, which means proper training for any coroners who undertake military inquests. Several bites at the same cherry have been presented and I hope that the Minister might be persuaded to take up at least one of them. He has a choice of which ones he might like, including the amendment in this group in the name of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, who will, I am sure, speak in due course.

My favoured one is Amendment 114, which asks for one deputy chief coroner to be appointed with specific responsibility for overseeing military inquests and the training of all coroners undertaking military inquests. I put it like that because it is very important that somebody near the top of the system has a specific role and duty and can then undertake the training of other coroners. The key point is for there to be somebody near the top of the pile with that duty imposed on him. That is why I have suggested one deputy chief coroner with that particular duty.

I hope I can persuade the Minister that this is important. I gathered at Second Reading that he takes the view that there is a general duty of training in the Bill and that it is sufficient for the purpose. My view—very firmly held—is that it is not sufficient. It needs to be written into the Bill because time passes, people forget and expertise is lost, so we need something to pin it all in place. For that reason, I feel strongly that there should be something in the Bill that can be there for a considerable time. I assume that we are unlikely to see another coroners Bill in my lifetime, and certainly not in the near future. This is our sole opportunity to make sure that it is right. Therefore, I warmly recommend at least one of these amendments to the Minister. I beg to move.

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Lord Craig of Radley: I rise to speak to Amendment 37 and the other amendments grouped with it. They all have a similar thrust. My choice of location in the Bill was driven by the fact that line 22 of page 8 has the phrase:

“Death of service personnel abroad”.

I do not necessarily hold to that as the right place to put it, but it is very important that there is something in the Bill. The Committee is well aware of the problems that have arisen in dealing with inquests of service personnel tragically killed overseas. As I mentioned at Second Reading, it has taken some years to get satisfactory arrangements made. Only after a considerable time did coroners, particularly in Wiltshire and Oxfordshire, build up considerable experience in dealing with military deaths. This experience is now widely recognised and valued.

There are no indications that the active use of forces overseas will be dramatically cut in the near future. In the past month alone, 12 more operational deaths have occurred in Afghanistan. We must brace ourselves for the possibility of significant further deaths in the coming months and years. In Command Paper 7424, entitled The Nation’s Commitment: Cross-Government Support to our Armed Forces, their Families and Veterans, the Government undertook to provide fair treatment for our Armed Forces because of the unique nature of their service to the nation. Surely it follows that the maintenance of expertise to hold inquests on service personnel in the coronial service is not only essential but should rightly be in the Bill.

The noble Lord, Lord Bach, wrote to me on 22 May, following Second Reading, and his letter is in the Library. He sought to reassure me that measures in the Bill will,

I read the Bill closely and did not feel great confidence that military deaths would be better investigated, based on what was in the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Bach, also said:

“As indicated in paragraph 56 of our draft charter for the bereaved, we expect the Chief Coroner to issue guidance to coroners about investigations into deaths of service personnel on active service”.

This, he said, combined with the training of coroners and their officers, for which the Chief Coroner will be responsible, will ensure that,

In his next sentence the Minister says that an extremely complex investigation could be transferred by the Chief Coroner to a coroner with the necessary skills and experience. Surely this last sentence acknowledges that there is a need for the necessary skills and experience. Indeed, it effectively contradicts his previous assertion that the Chief Coroner will ensure that all coroners are able to conduct effective investigations.

7.15 pm

I looked at the latest version of the draft charter for the bereaved. Incidentally, the introduction to the charter states that the new Chief Coroner will probably want to consult again before the reforms are implemented in full in two or three years’ time. This is hardly a definition for firm action on the day that the Bill becomes law, which is, I believe, what is required.

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Paragraph 56, to which the Minister refers, says that the Chief Coroner will be responsible for setting national minimum standards across a range of coroners’ functions. In terms of services to bereaved families, this could include standards in relation to particular types of death or suspected death, such as deaths on active military service. This is but one example. The draft goes on to specify a variety of other causes of death, such as death as a result of atrocities or other disasters; death from particular illnesses such as epilepsy and sudden adult death syndrome; and death apparently resulting from suicide. These, the draft charter says, are matters for the Chief Coroner to determine when he or she is appointed.

Paragraph 57 of the same draft charter says that this is only a draft and is intended as a guide for those with an interest in the kind of service that it is envisaged will be provided by the reformed service. Surely this is just not good enough. We must seek an amendment to the Bill that gives clear instruction to the Chief Coroner to provide for and maintain the necessary expertise in service inquests, which experience over the past few years has shown to be essential and of particular importance to the next of kin of those who have so tragically lost their lives at a young age. Command Paper 7424 was introduced and debated with much fanfare in this House. The noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Bolton, said that the Government were unashamedly setting out to provide special consideration for the Armed Forces and their families. The draft charter for the bereaved, on which the Minister wishes to rely, is far too generalised. It lumps military inquests together with a whole variety of others and is not just geared to the particular and present-day needs of military inquests. I urge the Minister and the Government to reconsider this issue.

Lord Alderdice: We have a great deal of sympathy with the amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley. In other parts of the Bill we will look at the expertise, experience and training of medical examiners. I know that people in judicial positions are always a little more reserved about training or particular qualifications. It seems to us that much has changed in this area. The noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, mentioned the fact that we do not come to legislation on coroners terribly frequently. A great deal has happened since any previous look at the service. A great deal has also happened in terms of the military and war.

First, 30 years ago there would have been many more people who had experience of service. As time goes on, the number of people serving in the military goes down and the direct experience and understanding of what being in a war is about gradually becomes more specialised. Secondly, war itself is becoming a very different and highly technical business. Issues of injury, death and the experience of protection have changed dramatically. Often, those who are far from theatre but see it on a television screen may feel that it is more like a video game than what it is really like in situ.

Military law and international law relating to conflict have changed dramatically over the past 10 years or so. This whole area has changed dramatically in many

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other ways, but I will not tire the Committee by relating them. It is extremely difficult to see how coroners in general could hope to understand all these areas in sufficient detail and depth to be able to deal satisfactorily with them when these matters arise. In so many aspects of professional life we are very much aware that there has to be a degree of specialisation and expertise. Although we have not tabled amendments on this issue, we saw that this opportunity would arise for the Minister to respond to these thoughtful propositions—this menu of opportunities—and we look forward to hearing what he has to say. We want to identify ourselves with the concern that expertise and specialisation are necessary.

Lord Alton of Liverpool: The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, has just reminded us that the day-to-day knowledge of war on the part of a large number of people in this country is perhaps less acute now than it was for previous generations. However, we are at war in Afghanistan and in Iraq and our soldiers have lost their lives there. As the noble Lord said, it is important that we should not forget the reasons why they laid down their lives. Society at large should constantly be made aware of the sacrifice and the nature of those deaths.

Listening to my noble and gallant friend Lord Craig of Radley, who himself gave such outstanding service in the Royal Air Force, I reflected that an uncle of mine had died serving in the Royal Air Force in the Second World War and how important it was for my generation to know the circumstances in which that death occurred. Indeed, my 12 year-old son returned yesterday from a school trip to the Somme where the pupils looked at the circumstances that led to so many deaths during the battles that occurred there in 1916. Each of those children consulted records to look at the lives and deaths of the soldiers who had attended their school before travelling to the Somme. No one is more aware than the noble Lord, Lord Bach, of the importance of recollection, given his experience of dealing frequently with many of these instances at the Dispatch Box. It is significant that he has been joined by his noble friend Lady Taylor, who holds this responsibility today and so frequently has to remind the House of the price that has been paid by our servicemen.

Therefore, it is important that we should know why people have died and how they have died, and that that knowledge should not be lost. How it is recorded is therefore extraordinarily important. As is so often the case, the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, has done the Committee a great service by bringing forward this amendment to ensure that we adequately debate this matter. I very much liked what she had to say and the spirit in which she said it, asking the Minister not necessarily to agree with the wording of the amendment but to look for words that will achieve her objectives, one of which is training and the assurance that expertise will not be lost as the number of people who are able competently to deal with such very specialist inquiries may have to be narrowed down.

In the earlier debate, the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, referred to local authorities, some of which were mentioned by my noble and gallant friend, such as Wiltshire where bodies have been flown back.

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It was suggested that in the future there will be a sharing around of some of the duties of carrying out such coroners’ inquiries. Is there not an inherent contradiction in this argument? If that is to be the case, the very expertise that my noble and gallant friend has identified will clearly not be available in other parts of the country if such inquiries are sent there in the future. Will the Minister dwell for a moment on what will happen if coroners sitting in the future have not had the training or developed the expertise identified by the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, in moving these amendments?

Lord Neill of Bladen: I wish to say a word in support of the amendment tabled by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley. It so happens that this Bill comes before us when we are engaged in fighting a formidable foe who appears to be well armed and getting increasing supplies from some sources. We read, sadly, of the deaths of our troops, particularly due to roadside bombs and suicide attacks. It is a formidable campaign in which to be involved. It is wholly appropriate that the Bill should reflect the times in which we live and show sensitivity to the issue of having coroners in charge of the inquests who are fully up to speed with the type of case with which they will have to deal. I suggest that we owe it to our troops and their families—those already afflicted with grief and those who may suffer in the future—to have a Bill that shows that we are aware of the risks being run.

Baroness Emerton: I support the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes. I speak from the families’ point of view. I declare an interest as a trustee of the Defence Medical Welfare Service, which provides welfare officers to help the families of troops who are sent back to hospitals in this country and Germany. The families are very sensitive and concerned to have the details. It would be very appropriate to incorporate this amendment in the Bill to ensure that the expertise is available, as the families need to know exactly what has caused the deaths of their loved ones.

Lord Bach: This House is always at its best when discussing our Armed Forces. As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, kindly said, I have experience of replying to debates on that subject in the House. Tonight is no exception. I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, and to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig. SSAFA, with which the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, is so closely involved, is a marvellous organisation that I am lucky enough to have dealt with over the years.

The amendments address the expertise of coroners in investigating deaths of all British service personnel. I understand the wish of the noble Baroness and of the noble and gallant Lord to ensure that in a reformed coroners system we do not lose that expertise that has been built up by, for example, the coroners for the counties of Wiltshire and Oxfordshire. Amendment 6A aims to ensure that, where an investigation is transferred from one coroner to a coroner in a different area for whatever reason, the coroner to whom the case is transferred has had appropriate training on investigations into service personnel deaths.

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Amendment 37 aims to ensure that a cohort of coroners has the necessary skills to carry out investigations into service personnel deaths. Similarly, Amendment 119 would require regulations on training for coroners who carry out service personnel inquests. Amendment 114 would make a deputy chief coroner responsible for overseeing military inquests and training coroners who undertake them.

There was a backlog. That was caused to some extent because the decision to repatriate all service fatalities initially via RAF Brize Norton in the Oxfordshire coroner’s jurisdiction created a singular and exceptional burden there. We would expect a coroner to be able to complete a routine inquest within six months of its opening. As the Committee well knows, inquests of service personnel can be more complex with a timeframe of around nine to 12 months from the date of death to the hearing of the inquest. Delays are often due to necessary Ministry of Defence investigations, especially service inquiries, and sometimes at the request of the family.

7.30 pm

As we know, coroners are funded by local authorities, but extra resources from government have been provided to Oxfordshire, Wiltshire and Swindon coroners for inquests for service personnel killed on operations overseas. Both my department and the Ministry of Defence have looked at what else can be done to speed up the processes—for example, reviewing service inquiry procedures. The MoD established a Defence Inquests Unit in June last year, whose key role is to assist coroners and to progress internal investigation reports to prevent avoidable delays to inquests. The Ministry of Defence has also provided additional logistical support for bereaved families, which I shall not go into now.

I reassure the Committee that, even without these amendments, measures in the Bill will mean that all coroners will be not only able, as my letter to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, said, but also equipped to deal with service personnel inquests. I want to offer what reassurance I can that the broad policy under a reformed coroner system will be that coroners in Wiltshire and Oxfordshire will continue to be responsible for leading investigations in the tragic event of incidents overseas involving service personnel that lead to two or more fatalities.

I say in passing that the coroner for Wiltshire, Mr David Masters, who has conducted many of the most recent inquests and who has been praised by local Members of Parliament during Commons stages of the Bill, retired on 1 April. However, we understand that the new coroner for that county has appointed him as an assistant deputy for the specific purpose of continuing to preside over these cases.

I said that incidents involving overseas personnel that lead to two or more fatalities will be looked at by coroners in Wiltshire and Oxfordshire. However, there may be exceptions to this. For example, if the families of the two or more fatalities are from Scotland or Northern Ireland, it may be more convenient for a fatal accident inquiry or inquest to take place there.

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We shall need to have much more detailed discussions about these matters to establish suitable protocols before the Bill is implemented.

There are measures in the Bill to ensure that any coroner is equipped to deal with an investigation into the death of a single soldier in the event that responsibility for the investigation of a particular death is transferred to another coroner nearer to where the deceased’s family lives. Perhaps I may give some examples. First, one of the key roles of the Chief Coroner will be to issue guidance to coroners and their staff about investigations into certain types of death. This will include the deaths of those on active service. Paragraph 56 of our draft charter for the bereaved has already been mentioned by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig. Secondly, the Chief Coroner will make regulations concerning the training required by all coroners and their officers and other staff. I can confirm to the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, that this will almost certainly include training for those with responsibility for investigations into military deaths. These measures will ensure that all coroners are able to conduct effective investigations into the deaths of service personnel.

However, if there were an extremely complex investigation, under Clause 3 of the Bill the Chief Coroner would be able to transfer the investigation to a coroner with the necessary experience or, under Schedule 8, to a particularly experienced judge, former judge or former coroner. I am afraid that I cannot accept that there is a contradiction between our assertion that all coroners will have the skills and experience necessary to conduct investigations into the deaths of service personnel and, on the other hand, our recognition that there will be exceptional, complex cases that will need to be handled in a different way. Those exceptional cases might involve, for example, multiple fatalities, which would sensibly be handled by a coroner who has conducted such investigations in the past. Those cases will be quite different from routine cases—if any such case can be described as routine—which any coroner should, with training, be able to handle.

The noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, suggested that one deputy chief coroner should have oversight of military inquests. On balance, we do not believe that that is necessary because the Chief Coroner, as part of his or her leadership role for the service, would almost certainly want to be satisfied personally that all investigations and training were being carried out to the highest possible standard in line with the relevant rules, regulations and guidance.

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