The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Anna Soubry)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas) on securing this debate.
I express my sympathy and offer my condolences to the family and to everyone who knew and loved David Efemena. Those of us who are parents cannot think of anything worse than the death of a child. Burying a child is every parent’s nightmare, but one does not need to be a parent to know and understand that. Our sympathies go out to his family. In these circumstances, it is undoubtedly the case that the awful grief they must bear is made all the worse when they do not know everything that has happened. It is a terrible feature of such cases, but I fear that it is almost inevitable that, to ensure we know everything that happened and are therefore able to learn the lessons, statements need to be taken and post mortems conducted, and pathologists, doctors and other experts all need to make their inquiries. Inevitably, that takes time. It behoves those who are charged with those dreadful tasks to act as swiftly as possible. That has to be in everybody’s interests, but most importantly it is in the interests of the family who are suffering in grief.
I am placed at a severe disadvantage. I gently chide the hon. Gentleman in this respect: if I may say so, I think he has pre-empted the coroner’s inquest. This is a very serious matter. The death of a cadet is taken extremely seriously, not only by the air cadet organisation in this particular instance but by everybody and anybody associated with such a matter, as one might expect. What then happens is that there is a service inquiry, which delivers its report. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has seen the report. I certainly have not, but I make no complaint about that because the service inquiry report was only delivered to the family on Saturday, when two members of the RAF, including the family liaison officer, attended them. That must be the right way. The first people to find out what the service inquiry has looked at and found must be the family, and that is why two members of the RAF attended. The coroner has not received the report yet, so I make no complaint that I have not. It would be a grave discourtesy to the coroner were I to see it before her.
The coroner’s inquest will be rigorous, transparent and honest. I would like to draw on my own experience as a Member of Parliament. I do not know whether you were in the Chair, Mr Speaker, but not long after my election I secured a debate about a constituent killed by his grandson. It was a terrible case—I will not trouble anybody with the details because we are talking about David Efemena’s death—and in due course there was a coroner’s inquest, some of which I attended, which lasted longer than the two days currently set aside for the inquest into David’s death.
It is not just the Nottinghamshire coroner; all coroners conduct extremely good investigations into all matters leading up to a death, as well as the cause of death, and they do so with rigour, honesty and transparency. In what I realise are dreadful circumstances, I know that the hon. Gentleman will take that assurance to the family, whom I know are legally represented, which is important. To be blunt, I hope they have had the benefit of legal aid. If not, I will do everything to ensure that they do. Furthermore, they should know that the coroner will bend over backwards to get all the answers. The family will be at the heart of the investigation.
The hon. Gentleman quite properly asked a series of questions on behalf of the family, not only about the events leading up to David’s death but about the events after he died. Normally, a coroner cannot look into the latter, but regardless of whether the hon. Gentleman brings this back to the Chamber, I give a solemn promise that I shall ensure as far as possible that all these incredibly important questions are answered. Even if nothing and no one could have saved David, because of some inherent heart problem or condition or whatever it may be, I am told that the service inquiry has nevertheless made more than 20 recommendations arising from the hon. Gentleman’s important questions about supervision.
It is the nature of these exercises—be it the Duke of Edinburgh Awards or the cadets—that they contain an element of excitement and risk. Nevertheless, everything must be done to ensure that children are as safe as possible, and important questions have been raised about the distance between where the youngsters were camping and the adult volunteers. I do not know the recommendations of the service inquiry—possibly some of that has already been addressed—but certainly the coroner will look into it. On the way the family were informed, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, I do not know if there is ever a good way to deliver such dreadful news, but he asks an important question that needs to be answered.
I do not think there is anything else to add until the coroner has conducted her inquiry and we know her findings, at which point I will be more than happy to answer all these questions as fully as possible.
In this particular case, David’s family will, of course, always grieve for the loss they suffered because they no longer have their beloved son, but we must remember that other youngsters were involved—not just the youngster in the tent, but another young man who came to assist—and, indeed, the adult volunteers who came when they were told what had happened. The other young cadets must have suffered a terrible experience to know that somebody in their tent, one of their number, had become so terribly ill and died. Their welfare is also in my mind.
I am more than happy to take any interventions from the hon. Gentleman if he wishes me to assist him further. Mr Speaker, I think that everybody here would join him in expressing our condolences and sympathy to the Efemena family. We hope that all their questions can be answered and that, in time, perhaps some peace could settle upon them.