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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Don Touhig): The Ministry of Defence co-operates fully with Her Majesty's coroners at all inquests into the deaths of UK armed forces personnel. That co-operation applies both to the provision of information and of witnesses.
On one further point, there have been a number of press reports concerning allegations of delays in holding inquests into the deaths of service personnel. I want to assure the House that the Government are committed to providing the extra funds requested to deal with the increase in service-related inquests, and that commitment was made prior to those press reports.
Mr. Todd: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. The family of Russell Aston, my constituent who was killed in Al Majar Al Kabir in Iraq nearly two years ago, are anxiously awaiting the inquest and particularly keen to ensure that witnesses from the armed forces who played a role in the incident are able to be called as witnesses by the coroner to discuss the circumstances that led to his death. Equally, they wish to see pressure maintained on the Iraqi authorities to ensure that Iraqi witnesses can attend, too. Can he assure me that both of those steps will be taken as far as they are within his powers?
Mr. Touhig: I recognise the role that my hon. Friend has played in supporting Corporal Aston's family at a difficult time. The only thing that can be worse than losing a loved one is not to know the circumstances in which that person died. The Oxfordshire coroner, Mr. Gardiner, will hold the inquest into the deaths of the six members of the Royal Military Police who died in Iraq in June 2003. This Department has co-operated fully with the coroner and will continue to do so. We have provided Mr. Gardiner with the board of inquiry report and the service police report into the incident. There will be a lot more contact between the Ministry of Defence and the coroner during the inquest. He will inform us of the information that he requires and of those to whom he would like to talk. If we can proactively provide him with information that we think might be useful, we will do so. The special investigations branch of the Royal Military Police will also provide existing statements from Iraqi witnesses if required to do so.
Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): The Minister will be aware that more than half our dead heroes have yet to have inquests mounted into their deaths. From his earlier answers, I am sure that he will be aware of the effect on the grieving families. Will he tell the House how that has been allowed to happen and assure the House that those circumstances will be brought to an end?
Mr. Touhig: The whole House shares the hon. Gentleman's concerns, but the timing and findings of inquests are, rightly, a matter for coroners themselves, and I recognise that the policy of bringing home all British casualties through RAF Brize Norton has resulted in a very heavy work load for Mr. Gardiner, the Oxfordshire coroner.
In the case to which my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) referred, I understand that the coroner was able to release the bodies to the families as quickly as possible.
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My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has been concerned about press reports that there have been delays in holding inquests, and he has therefore written to the families to reassure them. The Government have made it clear that we will provide the extra funds needed so that those inquests can be carried out as quickly as possible. The Ministry of Defence is providing every help and assistance to the coroner and will continue to do so, so that the families can get to know the evidence and circumstances in which those lads died.
Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State knows, because I have written to him, that the previous Secretary of State saw Beverley Clarke, the mother of young David Clarke, who was killed in his tank in Iraq in March 2003, about the delay in a specialist investigation into the circumstances of his death. May I urge the Minister to ensure that those investigations are completed as soon as possible so that we can start to release information to the relatives?
Mr. Touhig: I am aware of my hon. Friend's point, and I will certainly look into that matter further and ensure that everything is being done to speed up the process of gathering the information. If it will help him, I will meet him or communicate with him to update him on what progress has been made.
Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con): May I start by paying tribute to the armed forces personnel who have so courageously given their lives in the cause of rebuilding a democratic Iraq? I realise that the Minister is not the Secretary of State and may not therefore be able to answer the question that I will ask, in which case I will accept a letter. I hope that the Government, in giving the information that has been asked for, will explain what the task being required of personnel in Iraq is. The Government have referred previously to staying there until "our job is done"those were the words of the previous Secretary of State. Does that refer to the job of training and handing over to Iraqi internal security forces in the whole of Iraq, or just in the British-controlled area? If the latter, does that mean that, once the job is done in multinational division south-east, and whatever is happening in the rest of Iraq, our troops will come home?
The Secretary of State for Defence (John Reid):
The United Kingdom strongly supports the expansion of the African Union mission in Darfur. NATO is working closely with the African Union and with the United Nations and the EU to clarify key logistical needs in
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Darfur in order to put together coherent proposals for practical assistance. I shall discuss the issue with other NATO Ministers at our meeting later this week.
Hugh Bayley: I welcome the support that the UK Government and NATO are giving to the African Union mission. When I was in Darfur earlier this year as a member of the Select Committee on International Development, I saw, at one end of each of the runways in Darfur where we landed, camouflage-painted Government of Sudan attack helicopters, MiG fighters and other military planes, and, at the other end of each runway, white-painted UN and Africa Union humanitarian planes. I welcome NATO's provision of additional air power to the African Union, but surely that must be accompanied by international efforts to have Sudanese planes grounded, because there cannot be peace in Darfur as long as Government of Sudan planes are bombing Sudanese people in Sudanese villages in Darfur.
John Reid: There is no doubt that my hon. Friend's concern is shared not only throughout the UK but throughout the world. That is why we have tried to provide vehicles and equipment, as well as the humanitarian aid of which my hon. Friend will be aware as a member of the International Development Committee. We do not believe that enough has been done, and as recently as a week ago I discussed what more aid we can provide through the EU to the African Union in its mission. At the end of the week, I will do exactly the same with ministerial colleagues at NATO. My hon. Friend can be assured that we take this matter very seriously and want to provide whatever resources we can under the leadership of the African Union.
Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): Egypt is generally seen as the major military power in the area. Does the Secretary of State have plans to meet his Egyptian counterpart to try to put more pressure on Egypt to take a leading role in trying to secure peace in Darfur?
John Reid: I have no plans at present to visit Egypt. However, I will bring the hon. Gentleman's suggestion to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. Speaking from memory, I would say that the troops under the leadership of the African Union do not include Egyptian troops at this stage. We are trying to make sure that we can put in strategic heavy lift vehicles, resources and equipment to make sure that the four nations, who are bent on increasing the numbers of peacekeepers in the African Union-led force from around 3,000 to 6,000, will be capable of doing the job that they have been asked to do.
Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South)
(Lab): I have been listening carefully to my right hon. Friend's response and am pleased with much of it, but are we going to wait for more than 10 years, as we did in the Balkans, for a peacekeeping force to prove its capability? In the Balkans, tens of thousands of Muslims were murdered before we deployed there after 10 years. Is not it time to consider a full deployment now in Darfur?
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John Reid: I fully understand the urgency that my hon. Friend impresses upon us, but it would be misleading to suggest that we have not done anything thus far. The UK has pledged more than £14 million through the military side and 600 vehicles, as well as about £94.5 million in humanitarian assistance. Because of the urgency of the situation, I recently discussed the provision of further support to the mission at Darfur with fellow EU Defence Ministers, as well as with the EU high representative and the NATO Secretary-General at the meeting in Brussels on 23 May. Later this week, I will discuss the matter with NATO Ministers to put flesh on the bones of the promises that we have made at the request of the African Union to give it the resources to deal with the matter, but I stress that the process should be led by the African Union itself.
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