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Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye) (Lab): My constituents, Mr. and Mrs. Benton, the parents of Sean, will welcome the Minister's openness in seeking a further review, but that very much depends on what that review will be, how wide it will be and how it will be conducted. My right hon. Friend has suggested in the past that the inquest process is a means of further review. May I put it to him that, for the reasons he gave today, much of the evidence could not be put before a court of law? That is why a wider review, with a much wider remit, is necessary to carry out an inquiry, rather than using an adversarial system, to find the truth of what really happened at Deepcut.
I am not an expert on this, so I hesitate to be too definitive. However, it seems to me that if any or all of the people who made the allegations wish to make themselves available to the coronerthe one case still to be considered is a matter for the coroner there is nothing to preclude their coming forward. As I understand the way in which a coroner's powers are defined, there is no constraint on what he can consider. That is one form of open examination, and it is important. The HCDC is also carrying out an investigation, and I do not know who it has seen. Families will give evidence to the Committee this week, and I do not know what they will say. We will follow the matter very closely and examine in great detail every allegation that is made.
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I appreciate the welcome that my hon. Friend has given to the openness of our approach. We will continue to be as open and as transparent as we can, bearing it in mind that individuals are involved. Perhaps the police did not give us the names, because the individuals did not want their names to be given in a way that would have allowed a more progressive investigation to take place. We must break down that reticence on their part.
Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South) (UUP): I welcome the Minister's statement, but he will be aware that people outside Deepcut and Catterick have also been involved. For example, one tragedy involved someone in the Royal Irish Regiment. I welcome the fact that the Minister has said that there has been an improvement in the investigation and linkage between the police and the Army, because, in one case, we found that things went missing. That did not give the families any confidence. Has the Ministry of Defence improved its responses? In another incident, it took a long time to get even the recognition that a simple apology would have sorted things out at the very beginning. Instead, there was a continual exchange of letters when a mother was under pressure because of the misdeeds committed by another soldier.
Mr. Ingram: I do not want to go into individual cases for obvious reasons, but I recognise that there have been examples in the past of insensitivity and the bad handling of casessome of it quite dramatic, some of it less so, but none of it acceptable. I hope that all the lessons have been learned. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that an apology is important, but the matter should not rest there. If something wrong has been done, we have to try to discover the background. That is what Surrey police sought to do in relation to the four deaths at Deepcut.
I have every confidence in the way that Surrey police carried out their investigations and the integrity with which they approached the issue. I just hope that people have confidence in the system. We are now trying to move it forward and dealing with the more unsubstantiated information that we have. We must try to get to the bottom of that, and that point applies generally across the board.
Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab):
I am grateful that the Minister made it clear that the document was not leaked, particularly in view of the allegation made by "Newsnight" last night that the Select Committee on Defence had leaked it. Can he also confirm that when the Committee announced in March that we would set up an investigation into the duty of care regime, we made it very clear that our work would involve a comprehensive study of the services' training regimeinitial and other trainingand that we were not a substitute for an independent investigation into the allegations at Deepcut or other incidents? Although we as a Select Committee are taking evidence and meeting the families, it is important that the public do not gain the impression that our Select Committee is the body that can do that job. In those circumstances, my right hon. Friend said that he is looking forward to examining closely the Select Committee's recommendations. Therefore, when our report is published next year, will he assure the House that the Ministry of Defence
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will take seriously all the recommendations that we make and bring forward any necessary changes to the duty of care regime that may be required?
Mr. Ingram: That is another helpful contribution. I recognise the way in which my hon. Friend defined the HCDC inquiry and, when I referred to it earlier, I was not suggesting that it was a substitute for the other process. My experience of Select Committees is that, as they set out on a course, they sometimes pick up a lot of tangential issues that they rightly consider if they feel them important. I do not know what the conclusions of the HCDC's examination will be, so it would be wrong for me to say that will we implement whatever it recommends. We never operate that way with Select Committee reports, because we have to examine the quality of the conclusions. My hon. Friend will be aware that there is a recent report in which we take a diametrically opposed view to that of the Select Committee. I wait for the conclusions of the Select Committee's inquiry with keen interest. It will give great substance to a breadth of issues both about the past and the present, and it might point us forward in ways that can help the training environment.
Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central) (Lab): How are the Government going to inspire confidence among the families of new recruits when those families can see the distress of the families of the recruits who died in unexplained circumstances? The reputation of the armed forces and the Ministry of Defence is being seriously undermined by these continuing allegations and by the deaths at Deepcut and Catterick. Will my right hon. Friend reconsider a call for a public inquiry?
Mr. Ingram: My hon. Friend has used the phrase "a public inquiry", but into what? How long will it last? How many stones will be turned over because of allegations that may be levelled? None the less, every day that an allegation is made, and especially if it is lurid, the media are likely to have headlines blazing all over the place. We have to consider all that.
We are seeking to ensure that the quality of the training environment that we have in place is robust, sound, professional and delivers what we seek. I think that it does that and has been made substantially better
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because of the investigations that I asked to be carried out into all the training environments. For example, staffing ratiosthe number of instructors to recruitshave been increased significantly because they were identified as a key shortfall.
If my hon. Friend has not had the chance to visit a passing-out parade at any of our military establishments, he should try to attend one. He will find very many contented parents who have seen the way the way in which we have trained their young sons and daughters and they way in which they take pride in what they are now being asked to do for this country.
There is still a tremendous amount of confidence in the system, but we must clearly deal with the current concerns. That is what I am trying to do. If any concerns have been raised by any of my hon. Friend's constituents, he should tell them that there are extensive and thorough welfare procedures in place for anyone who feels that they have been exposed to any form of harassment or bullying. The armed forces have zero tolerance towards that. We want it to surface, so that we can deal with it and eliminate it. We therefore need co-operation. If it is out there, let us know and we will deal with it.
Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): Demands are made all the time for inquiries into almost everything, and it is right sometimes to resist those demands even though it can be difficult for Ministers to do so. However, in the new Inquiries Bill, the Government say that one of the purposes of having an inquiry is to offer public reassurance on an issue when that is required. Is my right hon. Friend absolutely certain that that is not a consideration that should apply in this case?
Our announcement is a recognition that that is the case. I appreciate my hon. Friend's comments about government by public inquiry. If anything happens now, someone pops up and says. "Let's have a public inquiry." We cannot administer the country on that basis, because decisions have to be taken in advance of any inquiry. If something needs to be corrected, it should be identified by the relevant Department and relevant Ministers and corrective action taken. That is what I have done as far as I am able to do on the basis of the information that I have. We do not yet have the new procedure in the Inquiries Bill in law but if it had been available, I might have been able to use it.
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