UK Politics

Families of British soldiers killed in Iraq 'let down'

The government "let down" the families of British troops killed in Iraq over the support given to them, ex-Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth has said.

Mr Ainsworth told the Iraq inquiry that the Ministry of Defence "simply did not get it right" in terms of the overall "welfare package" given to families.

Communication with families was inconsistent and inquests into deaths in service took too long, he said.

Mr Ainsworth is one of a host of ex-Labour ministers to give evidence.

His predecessors as defence secretary - Geoff Hoon, John Reid, Des Browne and John Hutton - have all already appeared before the inquiry.

The inquiry is looking into the UK's involvement in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the build-up to the war and its aftermath, with it due to report around the end of the year.

When he became minister for the armed forces in 2007, Mr Ainsworth said he quickly realised that the way the Ministry of Defence was dealing with bereaved families was not adequate.

"We were simply not getting it right, to tell the truth," he said. "Again and again we were letting people down."

Concerns included the length of time it took to inform next-of-kin about the loss of loved ones and the fact that liaison officers dealing with families were often called up at short notice and replaced by someone else, causing significant further distress.

"There were some horror stories about how people were dealt with at an individual level," he said.

Ministers decided to ask the British Legion and the War Widows Association to set up an independent source of support and legal advice to families, acknowledging that some bereaved families "saw us as the enemy" and this was the best way to earn their trust.

The length of time taken to conduct coroners' inquests into the deaths of service personnel was a "real problem", he told the inquiry.

"It was preventing people from dealing with bereavement and elongating their loss unnecessarily," he said.

He praised the work of coroners who conducted high-profile inquests, such as that into the 2005 shooting down of a Hercules aircraft in which 10 servicemen died.

These inquiries helped change "the culture of the MoD" in terms of how it identified and handled risks.

Medical treatment

Mr Ainsworth said he had continually tried to improve the welfare of troops and their families, helping to double the level of compensation for wounded personnel despite opposition from certain quarters within the MoD.

But he acknowledged shortcomings in several areas, including the ability of troops on the front line to communicate with their families and lengths of tour of duty.

He said criticism of the specialist medical treatment given to the injured back in the UK had been "unjustified" and he strongly believed it was better to treat personnel in NHS facilities rather than dedicated military hospitals.

While he had never had any complaints from troops about the care they received, he acknowledged they were concerned whether the state "will stop caring for them" in the future and said this must never happen.

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