Hoon called to explain MoD delays at soldier's inquest

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Indy Politics

The former defence secretary Geoff Hoon has been called to give evidence at the inquest of a British tank commander, which has turned into an examination of the standard of protection afforded to troops in Iraq.

Mr Hoon, who is now Minister of State for Europe, was responsible for an eight-week delay in authorising extra body armour for soldiers to be sent to Iraq, the inquest into the death of Sergeant Steven Roberts has heard.

Oxfordshire Assistant Deputy Coroner Andrew Walker unexpectedly halted the inquest yesterday and asked that Mr Hoon be called, after hearing that the officials investigating the delay had received no explanation from the Ministry of Defence ahead of the Army Board of Inquiry into Sgt Roberts' death.

The coroner was told by the lawyer representing the Ministry of Defence that the delay was "irrelevant" to his investigation and fell outside the scope of his inquiry.

But the coroner replied: "I do not know if it is or is not relevant until I explore the reasons for that delay. My difficulty is that it is a gap in a sequence of events that led perhaps to a delay in processing an order of goods that had relevance in this case." Mr Walker said he proposed to "invite" Mr Hoon to attend. The minister's evidence may or may not be relevant to the inquest, but no one would know until it had been heard, he said.

If Mr Hoon does attend ­ the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was issuing no comment on the matter last night ­ it will bring him into contact with Mrs Roberts, of Shipley, west Yorkshire, for a second time. After audio diaries recorded by Sgt Roberts before his death had described the lack of equipment for troops as "a joke". Mrs Roberts demanded that Mr Hoon resign. He spent an hour in discussions with her, after which she reiterated her demand and accused him of failing to accept responsibility.

The inquest heard that Mr Hoon was asked by logistics staff to authorise the ordering of more body armour in September 2002 but authorisation to consult with industry manufacturers was not received until November 13, putting the whole process back by eight weeks. Mr Rowley told the coroner: "One would hope as former Secretary of State and knowing he was coming to see us, Mr Hoon would be able to find out the relevant details."

Sgt Roberts, of the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment, was shot twice in the chest in a blunder by his own side during a dawn patrol with three Challenger tanks near the southern Iraqi city of Az Zubayr on March 23/24 2003. The inquest has heard that the body armour would have saved his life.

Brigadier David Martin, director of the Logistics Operations Centre, added that more soldiers would have been without body armour because it was " mislaid" in theatre or sent to units' bases after they had left for the Middle East.

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