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Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): I thank the Minister for providing me with advance sight of his statement. At the outset, I repeat what I said in May this year: our hearts go out to the parents and families of those four young recruits who died while training to serve their country.
The issues raised in the Evening Standard, as advance publicity for the Channel 4 documentary to be screened later this week, are extremely serious. As the Minister pointed out, it is important to note the caveat issued by Surrey police that few of the allegations had been formally investigated or tested in court and they should be treated with "necessary and appropriate caution".
Nevertheless, continuing reports of abuse of recruits at Deepcut can serve only to undermine public confidence in the ability of the Army in particular, and the armed forces generally, to discharge the duty of care that they owe to the young recruits entrusted to them. The conviction last month of Private Leslie Skinner is evidence of a substantial and inexcusable failure of the system. The official Opposition have so far refrained
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from joining the calls for a public inquiry, but unless the Ministry of Defence can convince the British people that the training regime has recaptured trust in its ability to exercise a proper duty of care, it is clear that only a public inquiry will suffice.
The Minister's problem is that all opinion polls show that there is now a universal mistrust of the Prime Minister and the Government generally. Most regrettably, past evidence does not provide grounds for optimism about the Ministry of Defence's ability to reassure the public. There have been no fewer than six internal Army inquiries between 1988 and 2003, each of which has produced recommendations that have been either ignored or rejected as too expensive to implement. In his 2001 report, Lieutenant-Colonel Haes observed:
While we note the Minister's intention to appoint another independent inspector, in his statement of 24 May this year he told the House that he had appointed the adult learning inspectorate to conduct independent inspection of the armed forces training establishments. What will the new inspector do that the current inspectorate is not already doing? Is the inspectorate on track to report by next Easter, as promised, and in the six months for which it has already been operating, has it identified any significant lessons?
What was the result of the audit carried out this summer by the director of operational capability, commissioned by the Minister? What has been the trend in suicides at Army training establishments since the Government introduced new measures earlier this year? How many allegations of rape, bullying and other abuse have been made this year at Deepcut and Catterick? Are the numbers higher or lower than the trend of recent years? How do the numbers of alleged abuses at Army training establishments compare with those relating to the Royal Navy, Royal Marines and Royal Air Force? Is the Minister satisfied that there is an effective system in place to enable recruits experiencing abuse to report it without fear of retribution? Can he confirm that instructors are now themselves fully trained to identify possible abuse by other recruits?
Finallyhere I do agree with the Ministermany tributes have been paid over recent months to the extraordinary professionalism and courage of Her Majesty's armed forces. It is important to recognise that those very qualities derive in large measure from a training system that has to be robust.
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Mr. Ingram: I echo the sentiments expressed by the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) about the families. I have met all the families. I met Mr. James, father of Cheryl James, on the eighth anniversary of his daughter's death last year. I was due to meet him again today, but the meeting was cancelled at Mr. James's request. I have met all the other families.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the case of Skinner. We have accepted that a bad decision was made at one pointto send him back to Deepcutbut I do not think that that represents a total failure of the system. He was brought to accountbrought to justice. All his wrongdoings surfaced and he has now been convicted. There is a tendency to conflate the Skinner case with 1995 and 200102. I should make it clear that Skinner was not there during those periods. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is prepared to accept that.
The hon. Gentleman did his case a disservice by trying to bring political point scoring into this. Let me repeat that the earlier incidents were in 1995, long before my time in Government and before the present Administration began. When the incidents in 200102 occurred, I immediately asked for a full examination of everything that was being done in all other training establishments, not just in the Army but in the Navy and Air Force. I asked for that to be done independently, through the DOC inquiry. That body has reported three times and all its findings have been made public. I have published every document relating to these matters. They were not published before but they have been published on my watch, so that I can ensure that people have full understanding and awareness of all the issues.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the decision to appoint the adult learning inspectorate, which was based on a sound and strong recommendation. It will not be examining the past; rather, this is about giving confidence for the future, and it is on course to report to me in the spring of next year. The chairman of that body has open access to me, and I have made it clear to himhe has stated this publiclythat if he finds any resistance anywhere within the system, he should immediately contact me or the Under-Secretary of State, who also has responsibility in this area. The chairman has made no such reports to date, and in fact, he is making good progress in getting full co-operation within the system. The Army, Navy and Air Force take great pride in what they do at all levels of training, and they want to ensure the public's confidence.
The hon. Gentleman asked a number of questions about the trend in suicides. It is too soon to tell and we cannot establish a trend for the period in question. However, it is worth bearing it in mind that the suicide level for the armed forces as a whole is lower than the national average, although within a particular cohort it is significantly higher. That said, the cohort in question is small, so it is very hard to reach a firm conclusion. None the less, one suicide is one too many, and we must seek to address that issue.
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Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford) (LD): I thank the Minister for making his statement to the House today, and I associate myself and my right hon. and hon. Friends with the condolences offered to the families concerned.
Yesterday's allegations concerning Deepcut are truly horrifying. If only a handful of them are true, we should all be ashamed. If they were made about a British Army camp holding Iraqi prisoners of war, there would be worldwide condemnation, but this is a British Army training camp consisting of British Army trainees. It is the same training camp in which four young soldiers apparently committed suicide. Why does the Minister believe that these were individual, isolated incidents? Does he accept that those four deaths could have been linked and might they not be related to the abuse that yesterday's allegations appear to reveal? Will his review therefore cover the deaths, as well as yesterday's allegations? Will it be held in public, when will he announce it and who will appoint the person who will run it? That person needs to be independent, as well as experienced.
I do not believe that bullying is rampant within the British Army, and nor do I doubt that a tough training regime is required, but at Deepcut those lines may have been crossed. For the sake of the families who seek answers, for the sake of the good reputation of the British Army and for the sake of those young men and women who deserve our protection as they train to defend us, we believe that there should be a full and independent public inquiry. We suspect that, one day, there will be.
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