Soldiers in combat in Iraq
The press last week reported the death of the 100th British soldier in combat in Iraq. This was the figure used, also, in parliament. Since that time more servicemen have lost their lives and the actual total of servicemen and women that hat have been killed on active service in Iraq is heading towards 140. Each one of them leaves bereaved family and friends, each one of them will be repatriated to the United Kingdom, will be landed at Brize Norton and will, eventually, be the subject of an inquest.
As we know now, those inquests will take several years to be opened. And as we also know strenuous efforts are made, on occasions, to deny even these most diligent of coroner’s access to the truth. The case of Corporal of Horse Matty Hull is exceptional but not unique. The families of the six British naval aviators who lost their lives when two helicopters collided in the dark at the start of the war - one of those young officers hailed from my constituency - waited three and a half years for a hearing and a verdict of accidental death. They have no quarrel with the coroner or with his findings but there are still question marks surrounding the contents of the report of the military investigation into that dreadful incident and while those questions remain it is not possible to bring closure to the case.
With tragic regularity the Prime Minister now commences his weekly parliamentary question time by naming the latest killed in Iraq and Afghanistan and by expressing his condolences to the families of the dead. I have to question the sincerity of those expressions of remorse.
Shortly before Christmas and knowing that the inquest into the death of my young constituent was due to be held immediately in the New Year I asked the Prime Minister if assistance in the form of legal representation would be offered to the bereaved families, My reason for this request was simple: the State is permitted, at taxpayers` expense, to hire a battery of expensive solicitors and QCs, to commission reports and to call upon the services of expert witnesses to protect the government's position. Those bereaved present have no such representatives unless they hire them at their own expense. They may, through the coroner, ask questions but without the necessary knowledge, the training and the access to professional expertise the dice are loaded heavily against them.
In response to my question the Prime Minister said, in terms, that he would "make sure that those families are given every facility." Armed with this answer I wrote to the Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, and called upon him to back the Prime Minister's promise with hard cash. I received a response on his behalf from a junior minister discussing the possibilities of means-tested legal aid! As this was within neither the spirit or the letter of the Prime Minister's undertaking I wrote again to the Lord Chancellor and copied that letter to Mr. Blair to remind him of his promise.
That letter has yet to receive a reply and so, at business questions a week ago I raised the matter with the Leader of the House, Jack Straw. He has undertaken, on the record, to look into the issue personally and to write to me.
But in the meantime a spokesman for the Department of Constitutional Affairs is quoted as saying that "legal aid funding is not normally available because the informality of these proceedings means that legal representation is not normally necessary".
If that is so then why does the Government find it necessary to spend a small taxpayer's fortune representing itself at these "informal" hearings? Is the truth too much for this government and the burden of guilt that the Prime Minister bears too great to allow it to go undefended in the Coroner's Court? And are those mere crocodile tears at each question time?
Blair has given an undertaking that was not conditional upon legal aid. He and his Ministers should honour that undertaking to the families of our dead or, in disgrace, they should go.