Annabelle Ewing (Perth) (SNP): I was shocked and horrified to read the damning allegations in the Surrey police dossier, as were the Collinson family whose 17-year-old son, James, was found dead at the Deepcut Army barracks in March 2002. Indeed, last night, James Collinson's mother said:
Surely the case for an independent public inquiry into the four deaths at Deepcut is now overwhelming. The question that must now be asked is whether the Ministry of Defence is going to continue to sit on its hands.
Mr. Ingram: That is a ridiculous charge. The MOD is not sitting on its hands. I do not know how many times I must repeat all the processes that we have carried out. I regret the way in which this surfaced and the way in which it was presented, but I make the point strongly to the hon. Lady that this information has been available since October. What was she doing about it? Was she not advising her constituent about it?
Well, I have explained what we were doing about it. We were aware that it had been submitted to the HCDC. I have explained that I thought that that was an appropriate forum for a full examination into some very significant allegations. I thought that that was an appropriate way forward, but what I must now do, of course, is address the public
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concern that has been whipped up. I hope that that is not being exploited by the hon. Lady, but she should put things in proper context. I am prepared at any time to meet the families again, if they want to do so, and to talk them through all this.
I say again to the hon. Lady that she is part of a campaign to save one of the Scottish regiments, and the type of criticism that has been mountedmuch of it unwarranteddoes not help recruitment into the armed forces. We must work our way through this. That is why I set in train all the examination, and it is why I published its findings to try to regain public confidence. A bit more acceptance of that open approach would be welcome.
Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): I rise to reinforce the message about the concerns felt among families beyond Deepcut barracks. My right hon. Friend will be aware that a constituent of mine, Derek McGregor, died at Catterick, so when he looks at the terms of his review, will he receive representations from those other families because many of them, including my constituents, have been waiting a very long time for answers about the deaths of their children?
Mr. Ingram: There is a process in this country called the coroner's inquest that seeks to establish the cause of death. It is not for Ministers to determine what has happened, and it is not even for the Army. The earlier Deepcut deaths were inappropriately handled by the Army; wrong language was used and those involved should not have said what they said. Of course, we hope that they will never repeat those mistakes because that is very unsettling for the families. However, I am now faced with a demand for an open inquiry into everything that has ever happened in any barracks over any period. That is what my hon. Friend has just requested. I do not think that that is tenable, bearing in mind all the success that we achieve at Catterick, Deepcut and all the other training establishments. Hon. Members should examine the thousands of young men and women who come through those establishmentslook at the output; look at the quality. Our training establishments are not broken machines but very professional and successful in doing what they do, and tribute should be paid to them for that.
Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale) (Con):
Until a few years ago, initial training used to take place at Strensall barracks in my constituency. In more than 25 years of living close to the barracks, most of the time as Member for Ryedale, I know of no circumstance or events alleged of the kind that appeared in yesterday's newspapers and that have been referred to in the statement. I agree with the Minister that that speaks volumes for what normally happens in the Army. It is stating the obvious that none of this will help recruitment, but it would help if he would go a little further and reassure the families of those young people who are about to join our famous British Army in which we all take great pride that, if they encounter difficulty, there is a whistleblowing procedure in which they can have trust and confidence.
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Mr. Ingram: I can give an absolute assurance on that. I believe that many of those mechanisms were in place in years past. I hope that we have strengthened them, and we have given greater awareness to young recruits and family contacts about what they should do in certain circumstances. If they think that they will not get anywhere by reporting something through the command chain, there are a lot of anonymous helplines to assist them. There is also a lot of welfare support. We are dealing with young people, some of whom are very vulnerable. Some of them come from broken homesthey may be broken in their own mind anywayand we need to look at our success in turning around those young men and women and making them into valued members of our society.
The hon. Gentleman is right: we must give confidence to the families of current and future recruitsthat is what I am seeking to doand we hope that all the measures that we have put in place, alongside the examination that the adult learning inspectorate will carry out and the ongoing reporting by that body, will increase that confidence in the months and years ahead.
Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): As a member of the Defence Committee, I am very impressed by the openness with which all three services have dealt with the Committee on our numerous visits, and I thank my right hon. Friend for that. Does he agree that the allegations in the report are tragic for the individuals involved and totally unacceptable? Does he also agree that it is important to separate the Deepcut allegations, which need to be looked at in detail, from the improvements that have clearly taken place in Army, Navy and RAF training establishments in the meantime, especially given the increase in supervision, which was cut under the last Tory Government?
Mr. Ingram: My hon. Friend is right, and I am grateful to him for his comments. The Defence Committee has carried out extensive visits to a wide range of training establishments, and I understand that its members have come away very impressed; but, as I say, I await their overall assessment.
I remind the House that I wrote to about 180 MembersI cannot remember the exact figure off the top of my headand I suspect that I probably wrote to Members of the other place as well, inviting them to visit our training establishments. The uptake was very poor; only a handful of Members undertook those visits. If more Members had gone to see at first hand the quality of that training, it may have allayed all the unwarranted criticisms that have been made.
The allegations, if true, are totally unacceptable. We have to get to the bottom of them and find the truth in all this. I have set out the background to the Army's approach. The fact that Surrey police are carrying out only one other investigation should give us some indication of how they assess the situation at Deepcut. Let us just bear that in mind as well.
Does the Minister realise how prejudicial it sounds to the Government's position to hear him default to referring to the deaths of Army recruits as suicides, so giving the impression that the Government have decided the verdicts before they have seen the facts? Will he clarify whether he knew the content of the allegations before yesterday? Given that Leslie Skinner was convicted of sexual abuse at Deepcut only last month, surely we must now entertain the possibility that the death of Cheryl James, nine years ago this week, and the other three deaths at Deepcut Army barracks might be linked to a culture of systematic abuse? Does he not understand that, although a full review of all those allegations is indeed necessary, only a full, independent inquiry into the circumstances of the four deaths at Deepcut will do?
Mr. Ingram: I have good relations with the hon. Gentleman, but I ask him to recognise that, if I used the word "suicide", I corrected it. I said that, if I had used inappropriate language, I should not have done so. He did not recognise that in his question. I am usually very careful in the way that I work through these issues. I make that clear again, and I repeat the point that one death was declared a suicide by an inquest, two were given open verdicts and one is still to be determined.
The hon. Gentleman refers to the Skinner case. I have set out the background to that: Skinner was not there at the relevant times, so please stop conflating the two issues. I think that the hon. Gentleman has reached a conclusion: he is saying that there is systematic abuse. I would prefer my independent review to examine that. He perhaps has a closed mind. I ask him to open his mind, and let us examine this in a more open way.