Select Committee on Defence Third Report


428. The Surrey Police final report recommended that:

    …a broader enquiry is necessary to provide assurance that the current momentum in the development and implementation of regime improvements is sustained. Such an enquiry should consider the need for independent oversight of Army recruit training to support the Army in striking the right balance between tough training and the control of avoidable risk. Such oversight would also provide a safeguard for young soldiers in training who are isolated from their families and do not enjoy the protection afforded by the transparencies of civil occupations.[638]

429. Since the publication of the report, MoD has faced increasing demands for further investigations into aspects of its training systems. Surrey Police's "broader enquiry" seems to have been interpreted by different people to mean rather different things, ranging from a full judicial public inquiry into individual deaths, to the kind of validation exercise of the Armed Forces training regime now being carried out by the Adult Learning Inspectorate. None of the reviews which have so far taken place has satisfied those who have called for a public inquiry.

What is a Public Inquiry?

430. There are different forms a public inquiry might take. The House of Commons Library standard note on public inquiries states:

431. The relevant Minister usually establishes the inquiry format, who heads it, its membership, its terms of reference and the form in which the report is made. An inquiry headed by a judge or senior lawyer is often called a 'judicial inquiry' although this is simply a descriptive term.

432. Currently the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921 allows a public inquiry to be established with all the powers of the High Court as regards the examination of witnesses, production of documents and summoning of witnesses. Such an inquiry may only be established following a resolution of both Parliament. In the more than eighty years since it came into force there have been just 25 inquiries set up under the 1921 Act, the two most recent being the Harold Shipman Tribunal of Inquiry set up in 2001 and the Bloody Sunday Tribunal of Inquiry set up in 1998.

433. An often-used alternative to formal public inquiries under the 1921 Act has been departmental inquiries set up by ministers. Such inquiries are usually advisory in nature and their exact remit is set out in terms of reference by the relevant minister. Recent examples include 'Lessons learnt from the Foot and Mouth Disease Outbreak Inquiry' (9 August 2001) and the Inquiry into the Soham Murders (June 2004). The Review by Nicholas Blake QC, which we consider later in this report, also fits the definition of a departmental inquiry.

434. Many departmental inquiries are classed as judicial inquiries because they are conducted by a judge. Although their procedures vary from case to case, in general they are investigative in character. They have no power to compel witnesses to attend but the lack of statutory power does not seem to be a major hindrance to their work. As Sir Michael Bichard, Chairman of the inquiry into the Soham murders said:

    The Inquiry does not have statutory powers, but if I find that that hinders me in any way in my investigation or if I believe that an individual or organisation is not cooperating fully, then I will return to the Home Secretary and ask for such statutory powers, and he has made it clear to me that they will be made available.[640]

435. Examples of such judicial inquiries are the Scott Inquiry into Matrix Churchill (1992) and the Hutton Inquiry into the death of Dr David Kelly.

436. The current framework for inquiries will be revised by the Inquiries Bill, currently before Parliament. The Government's stated aim for the Bill is to provide a framework under which future inquiries can operate effectively and produce practicable recommendations in reasonable time and at a reasonable cost. The Bill repeals the 1921 Act and the statutory basis for inquiries and makes provision for Ministers to set the terms of reference of an inquiry and appoint the chairman and other members. It also gives the Minister power to enable the inquiry to summon witnesses, and to decide whether evidence is heard in public. The Minister may also decide the extent to which the report itself is made public.[641]

Families' demands

437. At our evidence sessions on 1 December, the families of trainees who died at ITC Catterick welcomed the recent announcement of the Blake review but called for a broader inquiry which would look into suspicious deaths at all training establishments. Mr James, said that there should be a series of public inquiries if necessary, including a full judicial inquiry specifically into the four deaths at Deepcut.[642] Following our evidence sessions we asked the witnesses for clarification about what they wanted a public inquiry to cover.

438. We subsequently received a memorandum from representatives of "Deepcut and Beyond"—the campaigning group representing the families of trainees who died at Deepcut and ITC Catterick—which included their suggested terms of reference.[643] These call for an inquiry into the deaths and ill treatment of Service personnel in non-combat situations with specific attention on deaths occurring at Deepcut and ITC Catterick Army barracks, Northern Ireland and overseas. They also referred to the need for an inquiry into 'the action and performance of all public and private bodies, authorities and personnel involved'.[644]

MoD Response

439. MoD has long resisted calls for a public inquiry into the deaths of Deepcut. The reasons given have included concerns about the practicality of receiving evidence from the thousands of recruits who have passed through the training system since the mid-1990s, the inevitable loss of physical and forensic evidence over this time (and the reliability of recruits' recall of events), and the potential cost of such an inquiry in light of suggestions that the Bloody Sunday Inquiry may cost, according to press estimates, in excess of £150m.[645]

440. The Secretary of State opposed a public inquiry into the four deaths at Deepcut in a debate in the House of Commons on 27 April 2004, arguing that the five reports by the Surrey Police had provided "very thorough and detailed" scrutiny. The Minister for the Armed Forces told us that he did not support a public inquiry into deaths at Deepcut and other establishments on the grounds that:

    …when you look at a public inquiry, whether it is into those events of 1995-2002, given the fact that 12,000 troops went through that establishment at Deepcut in that period, if all of them were to be interviewed the inquiry would never finish. You can then slice it down however you want but if a substantial number came forward then how long would that inquiry take? Others are out there saying that it should be into all non-combatant deaths across all of the training establishments, and this includes even road traffic accidents.[646] When all of that is added up, and these are places where there are adult workers, not just trainees, the figure out there is 1,700, and that is the figure which is out there as part of a campaign strategy. If there was a public inquiry into that, 1,700 cases, and if each was, let us say, interviewed for one day, you can then see how long that inquiry would take.[647]

The Blake Review

441. The announcement on 30 November 2004 of a further review of the four deaths at Deepcut followed renewed media comment about the Final Surrey Police report on Deepcut and in particular the wider allegations of abuse at Army training establishments which Surrey Police had gathered as part of their inquiries.

442. Somewhat to our surprise, given his previous comments on the subject, the Minister, announced to the House that "...while I am satisfied that all that can be done is being done, there is a need for that to be seen to be done. I therefore accept the case for a further review by a fully independent figure".[648]

443. On 15 December the Minister announced that Mr Nicholas Blake QC would lead the review. The terms of reference for the Blake review were to:

    Urgently to review the circumstances surrounding the deaths of four soldiers at Princess Royal Barracks, Deepcut between 1995 and 2002 in light of available material and any representations that might be made in this regard, and to produce a report.[649]

The Minister told us on 15 December 2004 that he had announced this review because:

    I do recognise the need for public reassurance and that is why I announced today the independent review by Nicholas Blake QC into the circumstances surrounding the four deaths at Deepcut between 1995 and 2002. At present I am not persuaded of the case for a public inquiry, either into events at Deepcut or, as some are urging, into all non-combatant deaths. I expect Mr Blake to provide an intensive, wholly independent and authoritative analysis of all relevant matters relating to the four tragic deaths at Deepcut.[650]

The Minister went on to tell us that Mr Blake would not be restricted by the terms of reference from recommending a public inquiry should he be minded:

    He will make a report and his recommendations are a matter for him. I have said that we will then publicly respond to that. I do not know what his conclusions to this will be. Clearly, they can go from no further action required to what many are campaigning for in that specifically he is looking into Deepcut, because other lines of inquiry may lead him elsewhere. As I said in my opening statement, I am not yet over-convinced of the merits of this but that is not me closing my mind down.[651]

444. It remains to be seen whether Mr Blake's review will be able to satisfy those who have campaigned for a public inquiry into the events surrounding the deaths at Deepcut barracks. Mr Blake, described by MoD as a 'distinguished human rights lawyer' said in a press statement:

    I have been asked to urgently review the information currently available relating to the deaths of four young soldiers in 1995 and 2001 and to report. I have been offered and expect to receive the full cooperation of the Ministry of Defence, the Army and the Surrey police.

    This review is not a public inquiry. It does not set out to be a fresh investigation into the facts. Rather it is primarily an independent evaluation of the existing material. However it may be that fresh lines of inquiry will emerge from an analysis of the material.[652]

We do not know what the Minister expects this review to achieve since it will be evaluating only previously considered documents. The Minister's statement that "…while I am satisfied that all that can be done is being done, there is a need for that to be seen to be done" seems to imply that he does not expect the Review to unearth any new facts. In light of the investigations carried out by Surrey Police into the four deaths and the subsequent review of Surrey Police's methodology by Devon and Cornwall Police, we are uncertain what value the Blake review of 'existing evidence' will bring.

445. As we understand it the demands for a public inquiry cover four overlapping areas: the four deaths at Deepcut barracks between 1995 and 2002; all deaths at training establishments; all non-combat deaths in the UK and abroad; and the culture of the training system.

446. Three of the four deaths at Deepcut barracks between 1995 and 2002 have been the subject of Coroner's inquests (the inquest of Pte James Collinson is due to convene in 2005). All have been investigated investigations by Surrey Police, internal Army Boards of Inquiry and are now subject to the Blake Review. We are not persuaded at this time of the case for a public inquiry into the non-combat deaths of trainees at Deepcut barracks or other training establishments. Unless the Blake review unearths significant new evidence, there are no grounds to believe that a public inquiry could add substantially to the investigations that have already taken place. We also note that some of the physical and forensic evidence that would be fundamental to any new investigation has been lost. We also accept the Minister's argument that such an inquiry, if conducted thoroughly, could be extremely time consuming and prohibitively expensive. In addition, we consider that the logistical difficulties in tracing the thousands of staff and trainees who have passed through training establishments during the period under consideration would be extremely difficult to overcome. However, no final decision should be reached before Mr Blake has reported. We await Mr Blake's findings with interest.

447. We are not persuaded that a public inquiry is the best means of investigating the culture of training at Army training establishments. We believe that the internal audit of initial training by DOC, augmented by the external assurance provided by ALI, will be more effective in addressing cultural issues in initial training. We recommend that the effectiveness of DOC's internal audit and ALI's external assurance are reviewed.

448. We recognise that there have been non-combat deaths in the Armed Forces that merit further investigation. We are not convinced, given the statutory framework under which it would have to be established, that a public inquiry would be the most effective way of investigating those deaths or importantly bringing closure for the families. However, the independent military complaints commission that we have recommended would have the retrospective power to investigate any individual case referred to it. The final decision whether or not to investigate would rest with the independent commission.

638   Surrey Police Final Report, para 4.17. Back

639   Investigatory inquiries, Standard Note: SN/PC/2599, House of Commons Library, 30 November 2004. Back

640   Ibid Back

641   First Report from the Public Administration Select Committee, Session 2004-05, Government by Inquiry, HC 51. Back

642   Q 1248 Back

643   Ev 500-502 Back

644   Ibid Back

645   "Bill to limit inquiry costs", The Guardian, 27 November 2004. Back

646   Between 1995-2002, there were 403 deaths of Service personnel as a result of road traffic accidents. See HC Deb, 8 December 2003, col 216WA Back

647   Q 1280 Back

648   HC Deb, 30 November 2004, col 500. Back

649 Back

650   Q 1272 Back

651   Q 1280 Back

652 Back

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