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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 4 February 2003

[Mr. Edward O'Hara in the Chair]

Army Barracks (Deaths)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Woolas.]

9.30 am

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North): I am grateful to be called to address an issue that is of such widespread public concern. In the previous Session, 128 hon. Members of all parties joined me in signing an early-day motion calling for a public inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the deaths of four young soldiers at Deepcut barracks in Surrey. My hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Mr. Foster), one of whose constituents died, regrets that he cannot be present today and sends his apologies. The Minister knows of his interest in the case, but my hon. Friend is where I should be—at an important meeting of the Standards and Privileges Committee.

Since last October, the families of Sean Benton, James Collinson, Geoff Gray and Cheryl James have been joined in their quest for a full investigation of Army deaths by the families and friends of Paul Cochrane, Ross Collins, Richard Donkin, Tony Green, Dale Little, Aled Martin Jones, Alfie Manship, Gary Riches, Richard Robertson, Alan Sharples, David Shipley and Christopher Young. The issue goes far beyond Deepcut barracks. Young soldiers are dying needlessly in barracks in Great Britain and Northern Ireland, in Germany and Bosnia. Whatever the circumstances of their deaths, those young people joined the Army full of hope and expectations of a great career. Their families grieve for the waste of young lives. It is a matter of worry for every Army family and every hon. Member.

I wish to pay tribute to the courage of the mothers and fathers who have placed the intimate circumstances of the deaths of their sons and daughters in the public domain. I have been overwhelmed by the love that has given those families strength. The force of their determination has broken through a wall of silence. Despite their loss and profound grief, the families have told their story and acted with great dignity. They are bound by a common search for truth, but also by the conviction that it is worth persevering if other families may be spared the loss and heartache that they have suffered.

Whatever the cause of death, families in such a situation experience hardships over and above their immediate loss. In many cases, they were far away from where the death occurred and were usually excluded from the scene of the death. They have experienced great difficulties in discovering how their children died, and they felt that the Army establishment closed ranks against them. Hon. Members will be well aware that it was the pressure of the families that was instrumental in persuading Surrey police service to extend or re-open investigations into the four deaths at Deepcut barracks. I am not seeking to pre-empt the findings of that inquiry in any way.

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I am pleased that the Surrey chief constable and his team have drawn from the Macpherson report and made considerable efforts to involve the relatives and their legal representatives in the investigation. Uniquely, that courtesy has also been extended to hon. Members who have expressed an interest in the outcome. It is not for the police to reach conclusions. In due course, the results of their investigation in each case will be passed, in the first instance to the Director of Public Prosecutions, if appropriate, and the coroner.

In those cases where an inquest has already been completed, it will be for the coroner to decide whether to re-open the case on the basis of fresh evidence. The chief constable is acutely aware of the public interest in the investigation and has been at pains to demonstrate the service's resolve to identify systems issues in the course of the inquiry. In the jargon of modern policing, his officers have established a "learning account" on which our colleagues on the Defence Committee, which is looking into such matters, could draw, as could a wider public inquiry.

I pay tribute to the journalists in press and broadcasting media who have encouraged the families to tell their stories and to bring the matters to the attention of the general public. I have been taken, too, by the spontaneous generosity of the experts who have given their services freely to assist the families in their search for truth. The insight of forensic specialists, legal advisers, public relations professionals and academics, as well as that of agencies such as the Commission for Racial Equality and the Equal Opportunities Commission, has been enormously important. I have benefited from the input of hon. Members from parties across the political spectrum, as well as from my own. This is not a party political matter, but a matter of national importance and interest.

I want to develop further the case for a tribunal of inquiry to be established under the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921. I believe that there is an overwhelming public interest in establishing a judicial inquiry with the powers necessary to appoint investigators, hear evidence and determine the truth. There is a feeling throughout the country, whether or not it is justified, that complacency and cover-ups are rife in the deaths and other issues. I believe that public confidence can be restored only by an inquiry whose independence is beyond doubt.

I am aware that the Ministry of Defence is not generally well disposed towards public inquiries. However, no one is looking at an inquiry on the scale of the Saville tribunal—a very necessary one in my view. A modest inquiry can satisfy the required terms of reference. I am not looking to undermine the Army or to challenge military discipline. On the contrary, an Army looking to the future has everything to gain by co-operating fully and learning from such a tribunal. I want a positive and open-minded response from the Minister. I hope that he can find words to express his support for the families of victims and understand some of the frustration that they have experienced. I trust that he can honestly acknowledge the scale of the problem and, with his ministerial colleagues, undertake to engage in a dialogue that can assist in the search for truth.

An inquiry into Army deaths must listen to all those families who have so far expressed doubt and suspicion about the death of their loved ones, and it must be

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prepared to hear new cases. When a fresh investigation is required, it should be conducted wholly independently of the Army and the original investigating force. The inquiry should be UK-wide and cover all sections and all ranks of Her Majesty's armed services. It should invite the views of victims and the opinions of experts. It should meet in public and publish its findings.

The inquiry needs to address two issues. First, it must examine and make recommendations concerning the environment in which the deaths are occurring, so that deaths may be prevented in future. Secondly, it must study and make recommendations that will provide a prompt and effective remedy.

On the environment in which the deaths occur, I make a number of observations. Each year, there are around 9,000 new recruits to the armed services. Up to a third of the total are child soldiers. The policy of recruiting under-18s must be re-examined. The Ministry of Defence has a general duty of care towards employees, especially when potential misuse of lethal weapons by under-18s is involved. Too many young recruits at barracks such as Catterick are dying through a lack of adequate supervision and proper pastoral care.

In October last year, the Minister responded to public pressure by asking external consultants to conduct a tri-service review of internal practices involved in initial training of non-officer recruits. However, some of the incidents went beyond the period of initial training. While we welcome the publication of new research, the transparency of the process leaves something to be desired. The families of the victims have yet to be approached for their views. According to Ministry figures, between 1984 and 2001 there were 445 recorded suicides in the armed services, which is too many, and the figure is disproportionately high for a disciplined and secure service environment.

There must be better safeguards against suicide and self-harm which provide in-house assistance independent of the chain of command. Too often, the problem has been that a person has to complain about his bullying to the person who is the bully. Military discipline and punishment must not override the protection of soldiers at risk. Doctors and welfare professionals must be given appropriate standing. They must be independent of the chain of command.

After the locum at Deepcut was asked to leave last November, I was surprised to discover that the barracks have used no fewer than 32 civilian medical practitioners in the past three years. In many regiments, there is evidence of a culture of extreme bullying, routine violence and sexual harassment that constitutes torture and inhuman and degrading treatment. Preaching zero tolerance from the sidelines is no longer enough; the perpetrators must be hunted out and prosecuted relentlessly, and such practices eliminated.

In too many cases in which criminal offences have been committed, the Army is perceived to clam up, close ranks and protect its own. It must demonstrate through exemplary action that there can be no impunity for perpetrators. Whistleblowers should be encouraged, and potential witnesses guaranteed protection. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye pointed

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out, the Army has taken a cavalier attitude towards coroners' inquests. Although it recorded the decisions made, it did not take notes of what took place—or at least did not keep them.

On the means by which to provide an effective remedy, at the most simple level we need effective monitoring and the provision of statistics concerning deaths, injuries and internal discipline. The pervasive culture of secrecy within the military is entirely inappropriate for modern management, and it fosters abuse. According to the Minister's headline figure, 1,748 members of service personnel have died from non-natural causes in or around barracks since 1990. It is evident that a large number of those are victims of road death, as traffic accidents have been included in the total. However, it is clear that at least 100 of those deaths were firearms-related, non-combat fatalities, but I have found it well nigh impossible to get a clear picture of how, why and in what circumstances they took place, and what disciplinary action, if any, was taken.

Bereaved families and the local media have named 23 victims at Catterick barracks, but the Ministry of Defence has been consistently unwilling to provide information that would enable the public to identify clusters of suspicious deaths. The information is not held centrally or in the form requested and, it is said, could be provided only at a disproportionate cost. I hope that public concern will cause the Minister and the Department to change their attitudes, and that the Minister can give an undertaking that he will provide such information.

If deaths are to be prevented, we should establish a complaints procedure that is independent of the chain of command. It is worth considering the case for a new body that would provide oversight. Perhaps there could be an inspectorate of the armed services. The European Court of Human Rights now insists that, in cases of death involving members of the security forces, the independence of the investigation must be structurally guaranteed. The Deepcut investigation has led to some adjustments to the standard operating procedures allowing for police primacy over investigations of suspicious deaths, but I do not believe that they go far enough. If bullying and other malpractice is to be eliminated, there is a strong argument for putting serious assaults, rape and sexual harassment of males and females under the same scrutiny, outside of the police force.

When criminal charges can be brought, there must be provision for greater public scrutiny of decisions made by the prosecuting authorities. The key to justice being seen to be done at all levels is the involvement of the families of victims at a very early date. Uniquely among the cases that I have identified, the family of Tony Green at last saw his killer prosecuted by the courts, but they had no input into the decision to charge the perpetrator with manslaughter through gross negligence. They had no involvement in the prosecutorial service and no access to information. Particularly at a time when the Government are encouraging public debate—

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that he must be sensitive to matters sub judice.

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Mr. McNamara : With the greatest respect, I am not questioning or challenging any verdict; I am talking about the family.

At a time when the Government encourage public debate on the introduction of a five-year mandatory sentence for the mere possession of a handgun, is the Minister surprised that the family consider that a two-year sentence adds insult to injury?

There is already a public debate about the procedures and verdicts that are available to a coroner's court, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye has referred to those in correspondence with the Department. However, that debate also concerns Northern Ireland. The relatives of victims of army deaths have been ill served by an inquest system that is at least 50 years behind the times. There is an issue about a coroner's powers to demand documents and to compel witnesses. There is an issue about the disclosure of witness statements prior to an inquest hearing.

There are issues about the provision of legal representation for bereaved families at public expense, the training and regulation of coroners, the role of coroner's assistants and the financial resources available to coroners. The latter is especially pressing in Northern Ireland. The shortcomings of the Deepcut inquiry have thrown up several issues relating to the practice of forensic experts. It is remarkable that there is no adequate system for the training or regulation of forensic pathologists or ballistic experts.

I have tried to give a flavour of the issues that must be addressed. I have tried to reflect suggestions and proposals put forward by the families of those most concerned. On our behalf, and looking to the future, the Army asks a great deal of its young recruits, and we have a responsibility to ensure their protection. The number of Army deaths speaks for itself. There are clear public interest reasons for establishing a tribunal of inquiry, and, to restore public confidence, that must be conducted independently under the direction of a senior judicial figure.

If the Minister is not prepared to concede my case—and those made by hon. Members of all parties—for a full inquiry, I hope that he will give an undertaking to investigate cases brought before him, to remove barriers to the free flow of information and to set out a programme of transparent measures that will address issues that are identified.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. Five hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye and there are three Front-Bench spokespersons. Their wind-ups should start at 10.30 am, so hon. Members who contribute to the debate may wish to tailor their remarks accordingly.

9.47 am

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): Thank you for calling me in this debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have a clear reason for being here, and that is to highlight the case of my constituent Des James whose daughter, Cheryl Marie James, died on 27 November 1995 at the age of 18. The hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) clearly highlighted the general strategic points that relate to that case and covered the issue in

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general. I shall support his points and his request for action by highlighting that individual case. I do not intend to take long but by your leave, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall be specific about what happened to Cheryl James.

Cheryl James's parents are not confident about the open verdict on her death that was given at the inquest, and that is the heart of my concern. It is important to underline that the parents do not necessarily say that the open verdict was an unreasonable conclusion, but they cannot be confident that a different conclusion would not have been reached if there had been a more detailed inquiry. Des James has highlighted specific concerns that I wish to put on the record. I hope that the Minister will assure me that he takes seriously the request of the hon. Member for Hull, North and myself for an independent and extensive inquiry into Cheryl James's death and into the deaths of others.

The heart of Des James's concern is that his daughter should not have been armed and alone at the gate when she died. The Army confirmed that in a letter to him and described the procedures at the time as having been "misunderstood". In addition, it took the Army eight hours to inform Des James of his daughter's death, which is a very long time. The family did not even know the name of the camp commander in 1995, because he did not contact them. They have only recently found out that it is Nigel Barry Josling.

Mr. James is concerned about how the family were treated with regard to that crucial information. Some family members learned that Cheryl James had died by listening to the news, which shows laxity about how individuals were contacted. It is not right that people find out from the news that they have lost a close family member. Des James was not even given the opportunity to identify Cheryl. A local undertaker returned her body to the village on Friday 1 December, so for the four days following her death the family hung on to the hope that there had been a misidentification.

Nobody from Surrey police contacted the James's family or visited them at any time following Cheryl's death. The first time that the family spoke to the police was in June 2002—some seven years after the death. It is peculiar that the parents were not involved earlier. The greatest single concern, however, is that the only people to have claimed throughout that the death was a suicide were Army representatives. The board of inquiry concluded that Cheryl James committed suicide, but others are more sceptical. The James family are not saying that it was not suicide, but they feel that the evidence was not convincing. The inquest recorded an open verdict, which suggests a degree of support for that view. The James family have evidence that the Army documented the death as suicide one week before the coroner's court was convened. The family worry that there was a desire to come to that conclusion more quickly than the details of the case implied.

The procedural chaos at the time of the death is another worry. Immediately after the death, there was discussion about whether the Surrey police should be involved in the inquiry. However, the relationship between the Army and the police should be clarified. The case for an independent inquiry in all such cases is watertight. At the very least, the James family do not

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feel that justice was done in the public eye. There should have been a clear differentiation in the inquiry between the Army and those who decided the verdict.

The family do not understand why an apparently thorough initial investigation was completed in only two weeks, but we have already had six months of a new inquiry and it is still not complete. If I had been Cheryl James's parent, I would probably have drawn the same conclusion as Des James and asked the Army the same questions. How can the Army give me a watertight assurance that what it claims took place actually did? How can the Army assure me that there was no bullying and that there were no extraneous circumstances leading to Cheryl James's death?

I hope that I would take Des James's circumspect and measured approach in not pointing the finger of blame explicitly at the Army and by not claiming a different cause of death. His comments have been logical, objective and measured. However, I share the concern that he harbours. If he were able to speak in this debate, he would probably say, "Convince me that I have nothing to worry about and that the tragic death of my daughter was indeed a suicide. Convince me that there is not an endemic problem in the way in which our young people are treated in the Army that caused Cheryl to take her own life. Perhaps most importantly, convince me that there was not a more sinister cause of death."

Des James does not hate the Army or think that it is a corrupt or rotten institution. The Army does a difficult job and, especially in these troubled times, most people are happy to pay their taxes for the services that it provides. However, even the Army should accept that uncertainties such as the ones that we have discussed work against it in terms of recruitment and also against the interests of natural justice. The parents in these cases have a right to expect more considered and cast-iron conclusions on the deaths of their sons and daughters.

The Minister should listen seriously to the examples of Cheryl James and others, and move in the direction suggested by the hon. Member for Hull, North. An independent inquiry into the deaths would aim to provide certainty for the parents about what actually happened. The inquiry would be effective only if the Army is duty bound to provide information in an upfront, clear and non-evasive way, which it would probably be prepared to do were the mechanisms of an inquiry in place.

What is the Minister's perspective on the request for systemic change to ensure that we do not need debates such as this one to get to the truth? Is it possible to set up an arbiter or other independent inspectorate of the armed forces? In the old phrase, if people have done nothing wrong, there is nothing to fear. An inspectorate would reassure young people who are thinking of joining the Army and their parents, and the public at large, that joining the Army does not expose an individual to particular dangers and stress which could be avoided by openness.

I am pleased that the hon. Member for Hull, North secured the debate and that the Minister is willing to reply to it. Above all else, for the sake of parents and our young people joining the Army, I hope that we can make significant progress by regarding this debate as a

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watershed. We seek nothing more dangerous than the truth. If we find that truth, we can clear up question marks left by the past and ensure that such questions do not arise in future.

9.57 am

Sandra Osborne (Ayr): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) on securing this debate and on his wider campaigning efforts with the families who have lost loved ones at such a young age. My primary aim is to raise the case of a constituent whose death occurred 11 years ago. In so doing, I am aware of the difficulties of investigating events after such a long time. However, there are striking similarities between my constituent's death and those that we have discussed, and they merit further examination.

I am adding my voice to the plea for an inquiry so that questions can be asked and, I hope, answered. As things stand, we do not know what happened in many of the cases, and that is the most frustrating aspect for the families concerned. There is a perception that there is no robust and effective mechanism in place in the Army to ensure proper scrutiny of unexpected deaths.

The Ministry of Defence and Ministers say that there has been no cover up of any sort, but that has not convinced aggrieved families, the members of which have become increasingly angry about what they regard as a failure to account for their loss. They feel let down by a general lack of concern and what they feel to be a haste to suggest suicide as an explanation and quickly draw a line under the deaths. As a consequence, many people believe that the service that these young people gave to their country has counted for very little.

Alfie Manship was a 20-year-old young man from Ayr, who died on 6 April 1992. I pay a special tribute to Alfie's mother, Jan Manship Milligan, who now lives in the USA, but who has never stopped campaigning with instinct and determination to get at the truth of her son's death. Alfie's case was raised soon after his death by Phil Gallie, my predecessor in Ayr; he was not satisfied by the answer he received and he too believes that the case should be looked at again. For a long time, Alfie's mother thought—like a number of other families—that she was fighting an individual battle. She has, however, communicated with the other families and joined their campaign. She was stunned to hear about the more recent deaths. In her own words:

Alfie died in Osnabruck barracks, Germany, but just before that he had left what is now known as Deepcut barracks, where he was bullied to the extent that he needed treatment at Aldershot hospital. By the time that Alfie reached Germany he was in a far more relaxed state of mind. According to his mother, he was coping well and had put the bullying behind him.

Mrs. Manship Milligan was informed of her son's death by a police officer and an officer from the Territorial Army in Ayr, but they could not tell her about the cause of death. She spoke, therefore, on the

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telephone to an officer at Osnabruck, who told her, "One bullet, one body, end of story." It had already been decided that Alfie's death was suicide and a post-mortem was carried out before his mother was informed about his death. The Minister stated, in an answer to a parliamentary question, that an internal investigation into Alfie's death had taken two weeks. In Mrs. Manship Milligan's view, however, it was clear from the officer's words that the result was a foregone conclusion. That was not just a despicable way to speak to someone who had just suffered bereavement, it was patently not the end of the story.

There are various contradictions and inconsistencies in what has been said about Alfie's death, which I believe merit investigation. It was three years before the family saw a copy of the post-mortem report. Mrs. Manship Milligan obtained a copy of that report from someone who was unhappy with the finding of suicide. At the time of Alfie's death, the Army claimed that he had been depressed and drinking heavily. It is an alarming thought that, although the Army indicated that he was drunk, he had nevertheless been handed an SA80 and sent about his duties. The fact is that the subject's body contained no alcohol or other substances, according to toxicology tests performed during the post-mortem. His hands were also free and clean, indicating that there was no gunpowder residue.

In answer to another parliamentary question, the Minister stated that Sapper Manship died from a single gunshot wound to the head while on guard duty at Woolwich barracks, Osnabruck. However, the funeral director informed Alfie's mother that there appeared to be two bullet wounds: there was a hole in his cheek and under his tongue and there was an exit wound at the top of his head, which had also been mentioned by the doctor who declared that Alfie was dead. The pathologist had advised that there was also one at the base of his skull. It appears that Alfie's weapon was not checked to ascertain whether it had been fired.

I am dwelling to some extent on the details of this case, but I could say more if time allowed. The more recent cases are under police investigation and therefore it is not appropriate to comment on the details, or to try to pre-empt an outcome.

Alfie's mother was denied an inquest in 1992 because it was deemed not to be in the public interest. The procurator fiscal in Scotland will not hold a fatal accident inquiry if a death has not occurred in Scotland. Alfie's family did not get the opportunity for these contradictions to be raised in public. There was no police investigation. I have spoken at length to Alfie's mother: she knows that re-opening his case and examining it in the context of similar deaths will not bring Alfie back, but doing so may enable her to put her son to rest at last.

If there was a sinister cause behind any of these deaths, a thorough and independent inquiry may prevent the loss of other young lives, which is extremely important. At the very least, it might restore parents' confidence that they can send their children to the Army in the knowledge that they will be safe. My hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North referred in detail to the Army's duty of care. I was pleased to hear that the Defence Committee will carry out an investigation, and I look forward to welcoming its report at the

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appropriate time. However, there is a case for a public inquiry that would enable an in-depth and broad report to be produced, as outlined in my hon. Friend's remit.

I have 16 years' experience of supporting the victims of bullying and harassment. I know how the abuse of power operates. I know the isolating and secretive mechanisms that are used to make it impossible—especially for what are, essentially, captive victims—to protest. The victims are left with nowhere to go if they have no confidence that action will be taken against the perpetrator, and especially if they are not believed. The families of the victims feel that they have not been believed and that they have nowhere to go. This matter is important, and it must be addressed as there is widespread concern about it.

If any parent in this Room were to have any doubts about the circumstances of their child's death, they would leave no stone unturned until they received satisfactory answers. I look forward with optimism to the Minister's response.

10.6 am

Annabelle Ewing (Perth): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) on securing this important debate. I had unsuccessfully sought a debate along similar lines, and I am therefore pleased that we are able finally to discuss this distressing and disturbing issue.

There is widespread concern at Westminster and among the general public about the worryingly high number of non-combat deaths at Army barracks over recent years. We have heard in detail about the matter from the hon. Gentleman. That concern is reflected in the fact that hon. Members of all parties wish to speak in this debate and have signed the hon. Gentleman's early-day motion 63. It calls for a full and independent public inquiry into the Army deaths at Deepcut barracks and elsewhere, and it has attracted 122 signatures.

I fear that public confidence in the Army and the Ministry of Defence has been badly affected by the concerns that have come to light about the deaths at Deepcut Army barracks of four young soldiers over the past seven years, and by how the Ministry of Defence has dealt with the issue. The alarming statistics with regard to the number of non-combat deaths of soldiers at UK Army barracks has added to this increasing public concern.

The concern is increasing in my constituency. I have a constituency interest in this debate because the family of a young soldier who was found dead at Deepcut in March 2002 reside in my constituency. Their son, James Collinson, was aged only 17 when he was found dead last year. I know that his family are listening closely to the debate because they, too, seek answers to what happened to their son and to all the other soldiers.

Hon. Members will be aware that there is a continuing investigation into the four deaths at Deepcut. I do not, of course, want to say anything that could impinge on the outcome of that investigation, but the significant concerns about how the Army and the Ministry of Defence have dealt with the deaths at Deepcut and elsewhere must be aired today.

I suggest that the Army's handling of these non-combat deaths has been entirely inadequate, and that the Ministry of Defence procedures for dealing with

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such deaths in Army barracks raise significant concerns that can be properly addressed only by a full and independent public inquiry. The James Collinson case is one example. The Army was quick to reach the conclusion that his death was a suicide. When his father had to contact Deepcut to ascertain the status of the investigation shortly after his son was buried, an official there told him, "What investigation? One bullet, one body—draw your own conclusion." That eerily echoes the information that was given to the family of Alfie Manship. It is a disgraceful way to treat bereaved families of Army soldiers.

The Army rushed to such a conclusion even though no proper investigation or forensic post-mortem had been conducted. There had been no securing of the crime scene, as evidenced by the fact that about eight to nine months later, James Collinson's cap badge was found in the Deepcut perimeter. It had somehow become separated from his cap, which was on his head at the time of his death. Something is surely wrong with a system that allows such conclusions to be reached without any proper investigation. There would be no proper continuing police investigation if it had not been for the efforts of the Collinson family and all the other families involved. That, too, is nothing short of a disgrace.

The fact that the Collinson family had to exhume their son's body in December last year to try to secure a proper post-mortem starkly illustrates the total inadequacy of the initial approach at Deepcut. That was shortly before what would have been James Collinson's 18th birthday. It is unacceptable that the Collinson family had to go through such an ordeal. I would be interested to hear the Minister explain to us all why that had to happen. Why was there no proper post-mortem in the first place? The Collinson family and others have had to fight tooth and nail to have the deaths of their sons and daughters properly investigated. Will the Minister explain why that was so?

The Collinson family and other families involved in this sorry saga had to deal with what they regard as the MOD's excessive secrecy. There have been disturbing developments over the course of their campaign to secure justice. The Minister will know that the Surrey police recently instructed Tayside police to visit the Collinson family home to sweep for electronic bugs. That arose from concerns expressed by the Collinson family and other families. The fact that the Surrey police acted on those concerns shows how seriously the Surrey and Tayside police forces took them. The results of the sweep appear to be inconclusive. The MOD's response, which appeared in a local newspaper, The Courier and Advertiser on 27 January 2003, is somewhat curious. Its report states:

I find the MOD's response, as reported in The Courier and Advertiser, somewhat ambiguous, if not curious. Will the Minister reassure the Collinson family and

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other families that no UK Department or agency under the responsibility of a UK Department has been involved in any bugging of phones?

The hon. Member for Hull, North rightly said that the MOD has a duty of care, particularly to young soldiers in its charge. Serious questions have been raised as to whether that duty has been properly exercised. The extensive concerns now raised can be properly dealt with only by a full and independent public inquiry. I, too, welcome the Defence Committee inquiry, but it is no substitute for such a public inquiry, which is the least that the Collinson family and other families—not to mention the public at large—deserve. Basic notions of justice dictate the necessary approach.

These young soldiers joined the Army to serve their country, and the military establishment has treated their families shabbily, which is a disgrace. The circumstances surrounding the deaths of these soldiers must now be properly investigated.

10.16 am

Mrs. Patsy Calton (Cheadle): I, too, shall highlight a particular case, which was brought to my attention only yesterday as a result of the publicity surrounding Deepcut. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) on securing this important debate. I had not realised until yesterday, as I said, that a family in my constituency was affected by a much earlier case.

Paul Stanley Lowith was training in the military police in Chichester in 1978. Aged 17, he was the youngest of five orphans. His sister, who was just 20 and had recently become a mother, was aware that he was unhappy, and she suspected that he was being bullied. She thought that his mood was strange because he was used to being away from home; like the rest of the family, he had been to boarding school.

All his sister knows is that one night, her 17-year-old brother allegedly took some live ammunition shells, went to the Army firing range and shot himself. The family was told that he committed suicide. His funeral was given full military honours and his military records were sealed for 30 years. The family requested a copy of the death certificate and the coroner's report, neither of which was made available to them.

I have already said enough for everyone to realise that several questions need to be answered. This was a young man without a mother and father, whose guardian believed that the Army would make him a man. Bullying may well have taken place, or perhaps the official version of his death is correct. The truth is that the family do not know, but no evidence was presented to support the official view.

I spoke to the young man's niece on the phone this morning. She is now in her 20s and spoke about the culture of secrecy. The Army, as an institution, must open up and fully answer the families' questions. The world has changed in the past 25 years. This family must know what happened to their brother and they need to have confidence in the information that they were given. For their own peace of mind, they need closure on the issue. Young men and women joining the Army need to know that it can deal with these cases openly, in a way that is subject to public inspection. They and their parents should have confidence that they will be afforded the care that we have heard about in the debate.

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10.19 am

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): I welcome the opportunity to follow the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mrs. Calton), who said that things have changed in the past 25 years, as all of us recognise when we look at what is happening in society. Although there may be a place for measures to train young soldiers for what they may have to face, people will not accept bullying as part of that system.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) on securing the debate. On opposite sides of the House, we often spar, but we are at one on this matter: we both want the best for our armed forces and their families.

Paul Robert Cochrane died in July 2001. I had a visit shortly afterwards from his senior officer, who assured me that there was no bullying in the forces. As I served in the Army cadets and have known a number of people in the services over the years, I took that with a pinch of salt. However, it must be put in the context of the publicity. As the hon. Member for Ayr (Sandra Osborne) said, we were told that a person was killed with one bullet, yet there was evidence that there were other bullets. That is the most remarkable form of suicide I have ever come across. These matters must be faced with much more realism than they have been.

I am the Member of Parliament for the constituency adjacent to that in which the Cochranes live. I have met them; they were in touch with me early in the proceedings. They continued the campaign with my colleague in the Northern Ireland Assembly, Sir Reg Empey, and with our defence spokesman, my hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson). We must face issues, or we will not be able to give people satisfactory answers.

I have copies of Ministry of Defence answers to colleagues which remind me of a sermon that I read in my early ministry; it was well set forth, but there was no life in it. I discussed the sermon with some senior colleagues, including the man who delivered it, who said, "Yes, you missed the thunder and the lightning—the atmosphere." Those in the Ministry of Defence who responded to the letters missed the atmosphere of Mr. Cochrane's telephone conversation with his son, who told him about being bullied, which is on tape. Then came the sound of the shot, as the young man committed suicide.

The Ministry of Defence does not say that the young man did not commit suicide, but it wants to discover what drove him to such a situation, and there are no answers that will satisfy anyone. In one answer, it states that it cannot say anything because the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Royal Ulster Constabulary were involved in the investigations. The nation of Northern Ireland has discovered latterly that there has been interference in police investigations; therefore, it is rather suspicious to say that the matter was investigated by the PSNI if no satisfactory evidence has been brought forth. Can the Minister tell us when the board of inquiry is likely to complete its investigations and say whether it has informed the Cochranes of its latest view? Unless there is a public inquiry into the pattern of the deaths, there will be no real satisfaction, and we will hinder proper recruitment for the Army.

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Mr. Deputy Speaker : We have 36 minutes left. It would be reasonable and equitable for each Front-Bench spokesperson to take no more than a third of that time.

10.25 am

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall): I shall not take long to make my remarks because it is clear that this morning there is unanimity across the parties, not only in the early-day motion, but in Members' contributions.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) on securing this important debate, and I pay tribute to the families, whose perseverance and fortitude in ensuring that the issues are on the public agenda have enabled them to be addressed in the open way that we all want. It is now for the Ministry of Defence to respond in a similar fashion, as it must want to ensure that the deaths are properly investigated and that lessons are learned for the future.

The Army's equal opportunities statement declares:

However, the Army's words do not always match up to its efforts. The MOD has a steep hill to climb when 43 per cent. of troops believe that bullying and harassment are rife and over 5 per cent. have been victims of such abuse. The focus of this debate has naturally gravitated towards the Deepcut cases. The issue is not just the questionable verdicts of suicide and the deaths of soldiers, but why questions were not automatically asked when such a high suicide rate among young soldiers at one Army base was recorded.

It is almost impossible to believe that that did not raise questions about the circumstances of the tragic deaths. Why was not better care taken of the young recruits? What resources, such as counselling and contacts with non-military welfare organisations, were available to them, if they needed them to cope with the stress of Army life? I welcome the investigation by the Surrey constabulary, but will the Minister assure us that all the evidence secured by the investigation will be available to the families and their representatives, so that they can draw their own conclusions?

The MOD reports that, over the past five years, there have been 93 deaths recorded with an open verdict or as suicide. The fact that the families of 40 of those service personnel are now threatening legal action surely reflects a huge dissatisfaction with, and distrust of, Army protocol and procedure. That must be addressed, and I am sure that the Minister will agree once again that perception matters. We need to ensure that the matters are fully investigated and the findings made public.

The position of the military police, the constabulary and the coroner must be clarified. I say that because in recent years there have been two questionable suicide verdicts in my constituency, although not, I hasten to say, at Army barracks or a military centre. However, those verdicts have raised many questions about the relative responsibilities of the police and the coroner and the way in which families are able to engage in the process with the coroner. When one adds the further significant contribution of the military police and the MOD to that already difficult situation it amplifies the

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need for clarification. I know that the Government are already examining coroners' courts. I hope that as part of that review they will take into account the issues surrounding these cases, and the way in which coroners' courts act in conjunction with the police and the military police. That is an area of civilian life that needs to be sorted out and clarified.

There should also be a review of the support services available to soldiers. Life is stressful enough, and when we recruit young soldiers, particularly those under 18, we have a particular responsibility to ensure that their welfare is looked after. Our soldiers must be in no doubt that the Army and the MOD are right behind them and will defend their interests in every circumstance. It is clear that many soldiers feel unable to discuss or even to raise issues of personal safety with anyone, and that they often suffer in silence.

I also recommend an urgent review of the way in which contact is made with families. We heard some distressing stories about the way in which families are advised of the tragic deaths of their loved ones. That seems to be done in a very cold-hearted way. Regrettably, that was also part of the clarification needed in the cases of civilian deaths that I spoke about earlier.

Families should be engaged at a very early stage. They have rights concerning attendance at post-mortems and what happens after a suspected questionable death, but many families do not realise that they have such rights. Unfortunately, many are not advised of their rights until much later, and by that time they cannot make a valid contribution or become part of the process. That situation needs to be urgently reviewed, so that when the fact of a death is relayed, families are counselled and made aware of their rights.

These are tragic cases. Many of the contributions this morning have been very disturbing. If average members of the public were here listening to the debate, they would want to raise many of the issues that the families are raising. I believe that the families and the general public want answers. Questions have been raised about what happens in our Army barracks and military centres, and the MOD should take the opportunity not only to give its answers through a public inquiry, but to ensure that real lessons are learned. It must ensure that the Army lives up to its statement, which I read at the beginning, that it has

10.33 am

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) on his persistence in the matter, and on bringing it to the attention of the House. He is nothing if not tenacious. I also congratulate those hon. Members who have spoken, some very movingly, about the particular circumstances affecting their own constituents.

No one who has any knowledge of these matters can have anything but the deepest sympathy with the families, not just those who are in the public eye at present, but others who are grieving privately and quietly. There can be no greater tragedy in life than to

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lose a child who is just embarking on what would have been their career, and we take the matter very seriously. However, in a sense the debate is somewhat premature because, as has been mentioned, the Surrey police inquiry is under way. It is difficult for any of us to comment while that is so, although it provides us with an opportunity to put on record concerns, some of which have been expressed publicly, and some of which have not.

I come to the debate double-hatted, as I am both Vice-Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence and a shadow Defence Minister. For the assistance of the House, I shall mention what the Select Committee said about the matter in a press release last summer:

That, I hope, puts the record straight on what the Committee has decided to do about the issue.

It is important that the military recognises its duty of care to those in its charge. However, we should be quite clear that we are preparing young men and women to take their place in an army trained for combat. That means that training has to be rigorous, and that is more difficult in today's society than it was 20 or 30 years ago, or even, dare I say it, when the hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Joyce) was enlisted in the Army. Fewer people live away from home today. On a recent visit to Catterick, we went to the rehabilitation centre, where those with broken bodies, leg injuries, fractures and so on were being rehabilitated, because today's young people are not the same as those who previously joined the armed forces. That is not a criticism of them; it just means that the Army has to adjust.

Lembit Öpik : I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that a culture of bullying or impropriety would be justified on the basis that we needed to train our young people.

Mr. Howarth : I do not think that anything I said could possibly be construed in that fashion, and certainly that was not my intention.

It is important to put the statistics in context. Figures from the Library show that in 1994 there were 19 suicides in the Army. That is the equivalent, at a rate per million, of 154. That compares with an overall United Kingdom average among males aged 15 to 24 of 115. In the most recent year for which figures are available, 1999, the number of suicides in the Army had fallen to five, which equates to a rate of 45.6 per million. That compares with a UK average of 106 among males aged 15 to 24. The figures show that the Army is conscious of the need to address the issue, and has done so with some success.

The hon. Member for Hull, North mentioned the learning account initiative, which I understand is under way, in tandem with the police inquiry that has been undertaken. The police are giving the Army information from their inquiry to date, and they are telling it some of the things that they think it could usefully learn from the inquiry. The Army should examine two issues. First, it

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should consider the risk of bullying because it is completely unacceptable that a young person, or anyone, should be subject to bullying.

The Army must also consider the question of unhappiness. I was encouraged when I visited Catterick and talked to the young recruits. I asked whether they would know if one of their fellow recruits was unhappy and whether they would rally round. To a man and woman—boy and girl—they responded, "Of course we would." We should not underestimate young people's capacity to be aware of difficulties faced by their peers. I spoke to the brigadier in charge of the recruit centre at Catterick who said that the Army is trying to find ways of being more proactive in recognising the signs of potential unhappiness.

As other hon. Members said, the Army must consider who has unsupervised access to weapons. That is important, and the Army need not wait for the outcome of an inquiry but could undertake such consideration immediately.

The services need a better system of family liaison. Individual cases cited by hon. Members today show that there has been inadequate liaison between the Army and families after a tragedy. The Army must get to grips with that and ensure that there is better liaison. Part of the problem is that the Army Training and Recruiting Agency covers a tremendous number of young people. The hon. Member for Hull, North said that there are 9,000 recruits a year, which is a fantastic turnover. After the recruits have finished their training, they go to a regiment, corps or unit. They are nurtured, and an esprit de corps exists, but that is not prevalent in a large training establishment such as Catterick, so more needs to be done.

Mention was also made of the need to maintain barrack-by-barrack statistics to determine whether problems are clustered—I think that that word was used earlier—and whether specific problems exist at specific barracks. The Ministry of Defence said that it would be expensive to collate that information, but I find that difficult to accept. That is one step that could be taken to help to tackle the problem that we face.

Mr. McNamara : Would the hon. Gentleman accept that what made me pursue this course of action was the fact that the Ministry of Defence kept no records of how, why, where and when these events occurred that it was prepared to give to the House or hon. Members in answer to questions?

Mr. Howarth : The Minister will undoubtedly want to address that.

The Army has taken several steps, and I have described some. I understand that there has been much greater clarification of procedures to be followed in the event of a death in barracks. The original standing order was ambiguous, and I understand that there is a new one that clearly provides primacy for the local police force, not for Army investigators. That will be welcome.

I do not believe that the Army is uncaring. On the contrary, it has a vested interest in being seen by young people and their parents as a good employer that cares for those in its charge. Given the need to recruit 9,000

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people a year, the Army must recognise that if it does not have a reputation for being a good employer and for caring about people's personal development, it will not get those recruits.

The Army has made it clear that it is recruiting people in a narrow pool. Thankfully, there is limited unemployment in this country, so it is having to compete against all types of employer for its recruits. The position could not have been put better than by my noble Friend, Brigadier Lord Vivian, when he wrote to Lord Bach in June last year:

That is why all of us have a vested interest in ensuring that the lessons are learned from the recent tragedies.

In a newspaper article in The Sunday Telegraph, an MOD official was quoted as saying,

What plans does the Minister have to ensure that those mistakes are not repeated? Are lessons other than those to which I have referred being taken on board today? It has been widely reported that the Army has responded to the deaths with an investigation into how suicides can be prevented. Can the Minister confirm that? Have any preliminary conclusions been reached? Can he confirm that, from now on, the police will investigate all similar deaths?

I have received a letter from a Lieutenant-Colonel Tinckler, a consultant surgeon in the Royal Army Medical Corps volunteers. Mention was made earlier about the number of medics at Deepcut. I accept that today's debate is about not only Deepcut but other barracks, but the lieutenant-colonel was dismissed from his post as a locum after only two days of a one-month contract, without being given a reason. Does the Minister have any information on the matter which he can share with us? Can he say something about the provision of medical care at barracks throughout the country?

10.47 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie) : I should make it clear at the outset that I have recently taken over all training, personnel and welfare functions from my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, with the exception of the Deepcut inquiry. He has been involved in that for some time, so we both felt it appropriate for him to deal with it until the end of the investigations.

I am grateful for the chance given to me by my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) to make general points and reply to the debate. As Members are well aware, the Surrey police investigations into the deaths of the four soldiers at Deepcut remain ongoing and will not conclude until early March. I cannot pre-empt the results of those investigations, nor will I comment on matters that are

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related directly to them, other than to say that it is my belief that the Army has co-operated fully with Surrey police during the inquiries and continues to do so.

In addition, Mr. Frank Swann, the independent ballistics expert employed by the soldiers' families, has been given full access to each of the sites where the incidents occurred so that he can conduct his investigation. I assure Members at the outset that all their points will receive my careful consideration and, when appropriate, a written reply. I also assure them that any warranted changes in procedure will be made. I make no mistake about that.

My ministerial colleagues, the Army chain of command and I are well aware of the interest that has been expressed by the House, the media and the general public, particularly over the past 12 months, in the number of deaths of Army personnel resulting from non-combatant injuries sustained in Army barracks and elsewhere. While that has, understandably, centred on the deaths of the four soldiers at Princess Royal barracks, Deepcut, it is acknowledged that some concerns expressed have wider implications for the Army as a whole, as is illustrated by the cases that Members have raised today.

I recognise that every death in the Army, however caused, is a personal tragedy that has a devastating impact on the partners and families of those concerned. It is a sad fact of life that non-natural deaths occur in all walks of life. Non-combatant deaths in the Army, and indeed the armed forces as a whole, are no exception. The Army's approach is to be constructive and proactive—to minimise, through training, education and welfare support, the likelihood of incidents occurring that may result in loss of life, and to ensure that, when such incidents happen, lessons are learned to minimise the possibility of them occurring in the same way in future.

While parliamentary and media attention over the past few months has primarily focused on the incidence of alleged suicide in the Army, it must be placed properly in perspective. In doing so, I believe that it is rather arbitrary to make a distinction between the deaths of Army personnel in barracks and elsewhere. Not all deaths that occur in barracks are the result of suicide, as accidents and injuries resulting from training activities also make up a proportion of the total. Similarly, not all incidences of suicide among Army personnel occur in the barrack environment.

Statistical information provides the basis for analysing the number of Army non-combatant deaths due to injury. Substantial work has been undertaken over the past few months to refine that data and bring reporting in line with the Office for National Statistics. The most recently available statistics from January 2003 show that there were 1,763 deaths of Army personnel due to non-combatant injury from 1984 to 2001. That represents the total of deaths through injury, irrespective of how they were caused, where they occurred and whether the individuals concerned were on or off duty. Of that total, 276 were awarded a coroner's verdict of suicide. A further 49 were recorded as open verdicts and 41 still await a coroner's verdict. Of those 366 deaths, 29 individuals were aged 18 or under.

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Comparison with the wider civilian population is complicated by the different age and gender mix of the armed forces. In particular, the armed forces have a lower proportion of females compared with the civilian population. That is allied to the fact that females have a lower propensity to take their own lives than males. Allowing statistically for those differences, published research shows that the suicide rate and deaths subject to open verdicts are broadly comparable between Army personnel and the population at large.

Mr. Breed : Does the Minister accept that the statistics are spread throughout the country on an averaged basis? Our concern is the number of deaths at a particular place. If they had occurred in a town or a village, it would have been recognised that something had to be done.

Dr. Moonie : Speaking as an epidemiologist, which I was in my previous incarnation, I should correct the hon. Gentleman's misconception on the distribution of conditions. It is natural for clusters to occur. If clusters did not occur, I would be suspicious about any condition. When checking information on vital statistics, it is important that we check them carefully against the experience in the rest of the population and that we use standardised methods, whenever we can. Only then can we honestly tell whether something is worthy of special note, as opposed to the attention that should be given to any case of non-natural death. With that proviso, it is important that we use the best available standard of scientific information. We have reallocated our cases according to nationally accepted guidelines.

The incidence of suicide and open verdicts in the Army is lower than in the civilian population in the 24-to-39 age group and broadly similar in the 20-to-24 age group, but higher in the 16-to-19 age group. Although the available figures permit a broad comparison with the wider civilian population at this time, the information must be treated with caution for the reasons that I have outlined. The Ministry of Defence is working with the Office for National Statistics, the General Register Office for Scotland and the General Register Office for Northern Ireland to produce a more detailed and refined comparison.

The Army Individual Training Organisation—now known as the Army Training and Recruiting Agency—has come under particular scrutiny as a result of the reporting of events at Deepcut. Fourteen soldiers undergoing initial training died within the categories of suicide and open verdict in the 21 years between 1982 and 2002. A further case—that of Private James Collinson, which has been raised—is still awaiting a coroner's inquest. The Army and the Ministry of Defence share the sense of loss that each of the families feel in such circumstances, and recognise that it is made more acute by the fact that many individuals concerned had been living away from the family home for only a short period.

It is also fully understandable that the families look to the Army to take care of their loved ones, and that they seek to understand all the circumstances surrounding such regrettable events. Nothing can take away the pain, grief and sense of loss that they experience when such things happen. However, the number of deaths must be

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put in context. During the period in which those 15 deaths occurred, 250,000 soldiers passed through basic training.

Broader concerns have been raised about initial training in the armed forces. On 17 October 2002, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State announced to the House that he had commissioned a special review of the initial training of all non-officer recruits in each of the three services. That work is being undertaken independently of the service and its respective commands, and my right hon. Friend will be in a position to make an announcement to the House on the findings of the review in due course.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North raised a further specific concern about the incidence of death in barracks as a result of injuries sustained from firearms. Although we are especially concerned about that—in particular, with regard to young soldiers on guard duty—the majority of deaths and suicides do not result from firearm-inflicted injuries.

Firearm injuries are responsible for under a third of all suicides and open verdicts, although the incidence of those in the Army is significantly higher than in the civilian population because of the ready access to weapons. The risk to the individual must always be balanced against the need for the Army to undertake operational and other security duties. We carefully examine such matters. We have been studying this one closely, and we will continue to do so to see whether other changes in procedure can be made that will lessen the chance of such deaths occurring.

Mr. McNamara : Will my hon. Friend undertake that no recruits under the age of 18 will be left alone with Army munitions or guns and so forth, and that that will not be left to the discretion of the camp commander?

Dr. Moonie : On that, I can say that I will take any action that is necessary to ensure that good practice is observed at all times, as I will with regard to bullying. We adopt an attitude of zero tolerance to bullying. A training regime may be felt to be quite harsh by people who come out of it and those who go into it from a domestic environment, but there is a difference between being harsh and rigorous in training to produce good soldiers and bullying, which is totally unacceptable to my ministerial colleagues and I, and to all the senior officers I have spoken to. Any further changes that need to be made will be made to maximise the chance of being able to report bullying and get rid of it, wherever possible.

As usual, time is catching up with me. In summary, commanders at all levels in the Army deeply regret all incidents that result in loss of life, however those might have occurred, and they take very seriously their duty of care towards those for whom they have responsibility, in respect of training and procedures. We have tried to enable soldiers to undertake activities while minimising the dangers involved.

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