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20 Mar 2001 : Column 56WH

Trooper Christopher Young

1.30 pm

Mr. Denis Murphy (Wansbeck): I thank the House for allowing me this debate on the issues raised by the inquiry into the death of Trooper Christopher Young.

On 24 February 1999, on behalf of Christopher's parents, his mother, Heather, and stepfather, Terry, I asked several questions in an Adjournment debate in the House. As background, I shall give a brief outline of the facts that led up to Christopher's tragic death.

From joining the Army, Christopher was recognised as a first-class solider, and he was well thought of by both his superiors and his peers. He matured into a confident and decent young man of whom his parents were justifiably proud.

Christopher changed dramatically after his return from a tour of duty in Bosnia in 1993. On his way home for leave at Christmas, at the end of what was for him a terrible tour of duty, his wallet containing his identification was stolen, and he was involved in a fight with another soldier. He was arrested and received 28 days' detention and loss of leave and pay as punishment.

During his detention, at Hohne, in Germany, Christopher asked to see a Women's Royal Voluntary Service volunteer attached to the Light Dragoons. I am informed that she subsequently told Christopher's parents that it was obvious that Christopher had a recognisable fear of returning to Bosnia. She was so worried about Christopher's psychological condition that she made strenuous representations to his commanding officer, asking that Christopher be granted a period of unscheduled leave as a respite. She felt that he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Christopher was granted home leave at the conclusion of his punishment. On seeing him, his parents were shocked at the change in him. He wanted to leave the Army, and he told his parents that if he were successful in requesting a discharge, it would be complete by August 1994.

Christopher returned home to his parents in July 1994. Nothing then or in the following months suggested to his parents that there was anything irregular about the way in which he had left the Army. He was in fact absent without leave. Having left his regiment without authority, he failed to report to Bovington camp for final clearance and documentation.

Christopher made no attempt to hide the fact that he was living in the family home. He registered with the Department of Social Security and the Inland Revenue, giving his parents' address as his own. His driving licence, car registration and medical records were registered to that address. It came as a complete surprise to Christopher's stepfather, who was then and still is a serving police officer with the Northumbria force, to discover that Ashington police had received a fax from the Royal Military Police in Chichester on Monday 19 June 1995. The fax listed Christopher as absent without leave from the Army since 2 August 1994--nearly 11 months.

Christopher was made aware of the police inquiry and the warrant for his arrest on the evening of 19 June. He confessed to his mother that he was absent without leave and owed money. He gave no other details, but was

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worried that he would, in his words, do "serious Army time". He was adamant that he would not return to his unit in Germany, as he feared that he would be sent back to Bosnia. He told his mother that he would rather be dead than return to the Army.

Christopher left the house saying that he wanted time to himself to think things through. That was, sadly, the last time that anyone saw him alive. His body was found on the east coast main line near the village of Acklington. He had committed suicide. He was 23 years of age.

In replying to the many questions that I asked in the Adjournment debate, the then Minister for the Armed Forces, my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson), gave an undertaking to hold an inquiry into the events surrounding Christopher's death. His response concluded:

Several issues are still outstanding from the inquiry's conclusions, of which we have only a summary dated 16 December 1999. On page 1 of the letter, the then Minister for the Armed Forces concedes that the first entry made by the central criminal records and information office of the Royal Military Police was on 26 January 1995, six months after Christopher was officially listed as absent without leave. He states that CCRIO archives have been searched and that there is no trace of any signals having been received that would normally be issued in connection with an Army absentee. That is the first admission that, despite all the assurances in previous letters that such action would have been taken, it was not taken. Normal procedures were not carried out.

On page 2 of the letter, the responsibility is passed to the garrison administration staff, who, we are assured, made inquiries into Christopher's whereabouts after he failed to report there for discharge on 1 August 1994. I presume that their first inquiry would have been to his unit in Germany, which would have informed them that he left there on 11 July 1994, two weeks before his orders allowed him to do so. At that moment, there should have been confirmation of an army absentee and a missing person. Astonishingly, however, that

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information does not appear to have been serious enough to instigate normal army operating procedures, as, on its admission, no signal was sent to CCRIO.

The last recorded address on Christopher's unit personal address record, dated 22 June 1994, which is shown under the heading of family details and next of kin, is:

The Minister's letter refers to the issuing of a locate and trace order by CCRIO as a result of information received from the DSS on 19 June 1995 giving a new contact address. It is important that the Army explain why it took so long to access the DSS information. As I have already stated, Christopher registered at his parents' address in September 1994, so the information would have been available to CCRIO from that date.

The inference of the letter dated 16 December 1998 contradicts the letter dated 10 March 1998. The latter stated

That raises the following question. If, by its own admission, the Army's review of Christopher's case was held on 30 January 1995, why did it take another five months before a positive attempt was made to locate him? The Minister's letter focuses on the records on Christopher on the police national computer. There are no records remaining on the police national computer because any file relating to a deceased person is automatically erased 12 months after death.

However, in this instance, historic intelligence on Christopher exists on Northumbria police's criminal intelligence system. It includes details of stop checks made by traffic officers on two separate occasions, which resulted in the production of driving documents at police stations and the placing of those details--including a full postal address--on the CIS. It shows no record of any locate trace marker for Christopher having been created before 19 June 1995. The responsibility for that omission rests solely with CCRIO.

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The role that the WRVS volunteer played in the affair is important. If she had not called Christopher's parents, they would not have embarked on their quest for the truth. His parents told me that she was the catalyst that provoked their questions and fuelled doubts about whether Christopher had received the care to which he was entitled from the Army. Although the family were clearly distressed and upset at Christopher's death, they did not look to apportion blame or responsibility to any individual or organisation, but the conversation that the volunteer initiated with them set alarm bells ringing.

Terry Haley, Christopher's stepfather, is a police officer with more than 20 years' experience. He is trained to collect, evaluate, record and disseminate information. He has a distinguished and commended career and is a holder of the Queen's medal for long and exemplary police service--it is unlikely that he would misinterpret his conversation with the WRVS volunteer. We were therefore astonished to read that the volunteer had informed the Royal Military Police investigator and made a statement retracting everything that she told Mr. Haley during their telephone conversations. I have been informed that at no time during those conversations did she mention domestic problems between Christopher and his girlfriend, even though Christopher's problems must have been grave to warrant such leave being granted. I have also been told that that information and the reasons for granting leave would, no doubt, be recorded on file.

Mr. Haley is sceptical about that explanation. First, the WRVS volunteer was a complete stranger to him and until he spoke to her over the telephone, he did not know that she existed. He is clear about the detail of their conversation, and says that it was she who mentioned post-traumatic stress disorder. It was she who first raised concerns about Christopher's psychological state, resulting from his tour of duty in Bosnia, and she who was so concerned about him that she persuaded the commanding officer to allow him compassionate leave.

Christopher's parents are rightly concerned that the first mention of alleged domestic problems was made almost six years after his death. At the time, Christopher was engaged to be married. Letters that were written by Christopher at that time are in his parents' possession. They contain no hints of domestic grief. Indeed, the opposite is the case; he writes fondly and enthusiastically of his and his fiancee's plans for their future. Their relationship began to deteriorate after he returned from Germany, and the engagement was broken off six months later.

It is significant that, only weeks after Christopher's death, Mr. Haley wrote a letter to Christopher's commanding officer in which he recounted details of his conversation with the WRVS volunteer. The commanding officer could have spoken to her, as she was still attached to the regiment in Germany at that time and had refuted the allegations.

The commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Webb-Bowen, made no mention of domestic problems, nor did he attempt to refute Mr. Haley's accusation that Christopher was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. He merely rubbished the WRVS volunteer as

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unqualified. That has been a consistent theme in response to subsequent letters on the matter written by Christopher's parents and me. Mr. Haley was so concerned about the commanding officer's reply that he attempted to telephone the lady in Germany. He was told that she was unavailable. Unsatisfied with that response, he contacted the WRVS headquarters in London and spoke with a retired Army officer who said that he knew the lady concerned, and promised to contact her on his behalf. The retired Army officer rang back and said that she could not speak to Mr. Haley because she was the subject of some form of judicial army inquiry or review. That was confirmed to Mr. Haley when he contacted a member of RMP at Catterick who was involved in the initial investigation into Christopher's death and implied that an inquiry was on-going.

A letter dated 16 December states that a senior member of the Army medical directorate had examined Christopher's medical records and had found no evidence of psychiatric or psychological problems. All the entries related to minor physical problems associated with the rigours of soldiering and, regrettably, a "fit for detention" certificate was not found. The lack of a certificate suggests that Christopher was not examined at that crucial time and that it is improper of the Army to suggest that all was well when it cannot confirm that he was fit to be detained.

The lack of supporting documentation from the Army--an organisation that prides itself on and is famed throughout the world for its efficiency--is a prominent feature of the Ministry of Defence's case. Most of the evidence is circumstantial, based on procedures that were presumed to have been carried out, and does not bear close scrutiny. The Army admits that it failed in its duty of care to Christopher by not locating him immediately after he went absent without leave. There is no evidence that the Army followed its procedures, although there is considerable evidence that it did not.

In the years since Christopher's death, his parents have searched for the simple truth. They feel that the Army betrayed them by failing in its duty of care to Christopher. There are too many contradictions and unacceptable omissions in the inquiry document. Nobody admits to making mistakes, although it is clear that many were made. How can Christopher's parents have confidence in a system that has let them down so badly?

I met Christopher's parents on Saturday. They are still seeking the truth. They have not received any assurances that the systems have been improved or that new safeguards have been introduced to prevent another tragedy. Therefore, I ask that my hon. Friend the Minister hand the inquiry over to an independent body. A third party should examine the evidence, interview witnesses and, crucially, make recommendations, if necessary, to improve the system.

I represent an area that supplies more young men and women to the armed forces than any other. We have a duty to those young people to ensure that systems are in place to protect them. The inquiry has not satisfied me that protective systems are in place, and I urge my hon. Friend to carry out a speedy, independent inquiry.

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1.49 pm

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. John Spellar) : I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Murphy) for the opportunity to discuss further the circumstances surrounding the tragic death of Trooper Christopher Young, following the response given in the House by my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson), on 24 February 1999.

First, and most importantly, I wish to take this opportunity to offer my sincere condolences to Christopher's family for their very sad loss. Mr. and Mrs. Haley are clearly concerned about the circumstances surrounding his death, and their desire to obtain a detailed explanation is both natural and understandable. I have carefully noted the points made in my hon. Friend's speech. I am worried about the details of the case and the questions that it raises about some of the general procedures. Accordingly, I am arranging a meeting between my hon. Friend and the Army authorities to consider both aspects and to prepare a report for Ministers.

Mr. Murphy : Would it be possible for the Minister to invite either one or both of Christopher's parents to that meeting?

Mr. Spellar : I undertake to give serious consideration to that request and to write to my hon. Friend about it.

I wish to place on record the information that we have on the case, and I shall begin by giving an insight into the young man's career in the Army. Christopher Young joined the Army on 11 January 1991. He served with his regiment, the Light Dragoons, in the United Kingdom, Germany, Cyprus and Bosnia. Throughout that time, as my hon. Friend said, he was highly regarded by his superiors and well liked by his peers. He was a hard-working, efficient and capable young man who had been singled out for possible promotion to junior non-commissioned officer. Christopher was a fit and active member of the troop, who boxed for the squadron. A promising career seemed to lie ahead for him.

However, after three years of service he decided to leave the Army, and applied to be discharged. That was to become effective on 2 August 1994. Later in 1993, Christopher's unit began a tour of duty in Bosnia. In December 1993, during a period of rest and recuperation and, while in transit to his home, Christopher was involved in an incident with another soldier. As a result, he was awarded a period of 28 days' detention, which he served in the Hohne guardroom. While in detention, he asked to speak to the Women's Royal Voluntary Service representative who regularly visited the guardroom to talk to all detainees. It was during their confidential discussion that Christopher said that he did not want to return to Bosnia after his release. It was, and continues to be, usual practice for soldiers given periods of detention to return to their parent unit on completion of their sentence. Were it otherwise, it would be possible for some to use it as an excuse to avoid operational service. There is nothing to suggest that Christopher saw his incarceration as a method of avoiding service in Bosnia.

It was also usual practice, in accordance with the Imprisonment and Detention (Army) Rules 1979, for all soldiers undergoing detention to be medically

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examined. During their examination, soldiers have every opportunity to express any worries that they may have. As may be expected, the WRVS representative expressed her views about Christopher to the commanding officer--as she did about all the other soldiers who were held in detention. Not being medically qualified, she did not offer any comment or opinion on Christopher's psychological well-being. However, she remembered that he was upset at having to spend the festive season in the guardroom and was worried that that would prevent him from returning home to discuss relationship problems with his girlfriend.

Christopher was also given a further opportunity to make known any personal worries that he may have had. His commanding officer, through the WRVS representative, advised all the soldiers held in the guardroom at Hohne at that time that if they were upset or believed that they were suffering from stress, they should make their concerns known by reporting sick and discussing their situation with a medical officer. Christopher did not report sick, and chose not to say anything about how he was feeling.

When speaking further to the commanding officer about the detainees, the WRVS representative mentioned specifically that Christopher had some worries about his leave. I understand that he was worried that, because he was detained for an offence committed while on leave, he would lose what leave entitlement he had left. As a result of that conversation, the regiment decided that it was appropriate to grant Christopher an additional period of unscheduled leave at the end of his detention before his return to Bosnia.

I should emphasise that at no time did Trooper Young give his chain of command any cause to be concerned about his behaviour. In fact, he conducted himself well and displayed no signs of severe stress, or, as my hon. Friend suggested, post-traumatic stress disorder. If Christopher was psychologically disturbed, it was not apparent to the regiment or the Army medical authorities.

Christopher spoke to the WRVS representative on a number of occasions, and he could have asked to see the medical officer or the community psychiatric nurse, but seems to have chosen not to do so. Either could have arranged for him to be properly assessed and treated if necessary. I assure my hon. Friend that if there had been any doubt about his mental state, he would have been referred immediately to the medical officer. As Christopher did not choose to ask for medical advice, and showed no signs of stress or obvious psychological problems, he returned to Bosnia, after a short period of leave, to complete his tour with his unit. That was completed without further incident. He was, of course, offered counselling before, and on his return from, his tour, as are all service personnel.

On 24 June 1994, Christopher underwent a full pre-release medical, in which he was assessed to be fully fit. He was due to attend a final, more informal release medical on the last day of his service, and that was scheduled for 1 August 1994. On 11 July 1994, having completed the documentation required at that time, Christopher returned to his parents' home and told them that he had been discharged from the Army. It

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seems that he did not explain that he had to report to Bovington camp on 1 August 1994 to complete the release process and undertake his final release medical.

I am advised that when Christopher failed to return to Bovington on 1 August 1994, the garrison administration office tried to contact him at his home address, which was listed on his documentation and shown on his discharge instruction. Unfortunately, when it telephoned to speak to Christopher it was told, for some unaccountable reason, that Christopher had not been heard of at that address, so he was posted absent without leave. I am advised that the civilian police were informed. After failing to reach Christopher at the address shown on his records, the garrison administrative office at Bovington camp contacted the manning and records office for help. It provided a further address from his vetting forms--that of his natural father--but Christopher had not been heard of at that address for the previous two years.

On 15 December 1994, the manning and records office contacted his regiment, the Light Dragoons, asking for further assistance. Although not normal practice, on 7 January 1995 the regiment contacted a close friend of Christopher who had been discharged the previous year, asking him to pass on a message to report to Bovington camp, with an assurance that he would not be in any trouble on his return. His friend confirmed to the regiment that he had seen Christopher, who had acknowledged the request. Unfortunately, he did not report to Bovington.

The House may know that when a solider has been unlawfully absent, a board of inquiry is normally convened to investigate the matter. A board of inquiry into Christopher's absence was convened in Hohne on 30 January 1995. It concluded that Christopher may not

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have known that he had been required to report to Bovington camp for final discharge procedures, or that he had simply forgotten during the three weeks that had elapsed between his return home and the reporting date.

Mr. Murphy : Does my hon. Friend not consider it unusual that, if the board of inquiry concluded in January that Christopher was absent without leave, it took a further five months to contact him?

Mr. Spellar : I understand that that may have been due to a move within the police system, which was transferring from one location to another, so communication between the two authorities was difficult. However, that is one of the matters that I hope will be discussed at the meeting between my hon. Friend and the Army authorities.

The board of inquiry recommended that in the circumstances, Christopher should not have any disciplinary action taken against him for his failure to report, and that all possible efforts should be made to allow him to report to collect his last salary payment.

It is not current practice, after the initial contact to the individual's last known address, for the civilian or military police to be proactive in locating absentees unless they are in receipt of new information about their possible whereabouts. Attempts were made by personnel in the manning and records office to locate Christopher during his period of absence, but to no avail.

When a soldier has been absent for six months, the case is automatically reviewed by the central criminal records and information office of the Royal Military Police. It was through that action that the Army became aware that Christopher was living with his mother--

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