Andrew Percy: Coroners system failing to serve families of the fallen

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WE can never fully repay the debt we owe to those who give their lives in the service of our country. Nor can we end the sorrow their families feel at their loss.

By supporting the Royal British Legion’s campaign for the creation of the post of Chief Coroner, I, as an MP, am doing one small but significant thing for our bereaved Armed Forces families.

The Government needs to do all it can to support this group who should never suffer any experience that compounds their grief. As we enter the period when our nation remembers our fallen servicemen and women, we must also remember the families they leave behind.

Almost 600 brave members of our Armed Forces have lost their lives in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan in the past 10 years.

Each individual leaves behind a family: parents, siblings, children. While we cannot take away their pain, we must do all we can to support them. As a nation, we owe a huge debt to these families.

Unfortunately, the current system of coroners, who investigate sudden or violent deaths, too often compounds a family’s grief. Some coroners fail to show bereaved Armed Forces families the sensitivity and respect they desperately need when they are at their most vulnerable. Coroners are often not properly trained to deal with the unique nature of military deaths. There is no one person who gives independent leadership to spearhead reform and provide oversight for the coroners system. There is also no easy way for bereaved families to challenge a coroner’s decision.

At this poignant time, MPs have a wonderful opportunity; that rare occasion when we can do something that will make a real difference to bereaved families.

Parliament, the public and bereaved Armed Forces families have all made clear that the appointment of a Chief Coroner would change all this. Such an individual would bring overall leadership to the whole coroners system, giving it the shake-up it so badly needs.

Sadly, Justice Secretary Ken Clarke wants to include the Chief Coroner in the Public Bodies Bill, a law currently passing through Parliament.

The law is often referred to as the “bonfire of the quangos”. It seeks to cut costs by scrapping or dismantling a series of non-elected bodies funded by the taxpayer.

The post of Chief Coroner, which Parliament decided should be created in 2009, must not be included in that Bill.

Unless it is removed from the Bill, the Chief Coroner will not be appointed. I believe this would deprive bereaved families of the independent leadership essential to reform of the coroners system.

I have suggested a change to the Public Bodies Bill, one that would remove the Chief Coroner completely from the Bill.

Backed by the Royal British Legion and a range of bereavement charities, this amendment would ensure a Chief Coroner is appointed as soon as possible.

Only by appointing a fully independent Chief Coroner, responsible for spearheading reform, would the coroners system, whose origins date back to the 19th century, be properly reformed.

The Justice Secretary has suggested the creation of a Ministerial Board and Bereaved Organisations Committee. These proposals do not go far enough in offering independent and determined leadership committed to reform. A Minister who is part of the Government will not be independent.

This issue is not about cost. It cannot be about cost. While some might point to the Ministry of Justice’s inflated estimate of cost, I do not feel the need even to touch upon the price of supporting our bereaved Armed Forces families

It is not worthy of comparison with the price they have paid. This is about priorities. I am backing the Legion’s campaign because supporting the families of the fallen must be a priority for this Government. This year’s Poppy Appeal will once again show the commitment of the nation to our Armed Forces. Our leaders must match this by appointing a fully independent Chief Coroner as soon as possible.

We can never fully repay what we owe to the families of loved ones lost in conflicts. I believe it is scarcely possible for us to do enough to help them in any way we can. As Edmund Burke, a Member of Parliament in the 1700s, once said: “The true way to mourn the dead is to take care of the living who belong to them.”

The only way to achieve this is through the appointment of a fully functioning independent Chief Coroner. And that is why I am supporting the Royal British Legion’s campaign to leave the Chief Coroner out of the Public Bodies Bill.

• Andrew Percy is the Conservative MP for Brigg and Goole