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Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): May I begin by saying how pleased I am to be called to speak on this important Bill for the men and women of our armed forces?

As has been said, the current military justice system, although effective, dates back to the 1950s. This is a good opportunity not only to modernise the law relating to it but to combine the three services' disciplinary legislation into one. I want to concentrate on just two    aspects of this very lengthy Bill: the proposed
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introduction of a complaints panel, and clause 371—it has already been referred to—which deals with renewal of service disciplinary legislation.

During the last Parliament, I was honoured to be a member of the Defence Select Committee, and I am honoured to be a member of it in this one. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) has already pointed out that, during the previous Parliament, our Committee undertook a lengthy inquiry into the duty of care of trainees in all three of our services. The inquiry was prompted by serious concerns about the deaths of recruits and trainees in initial training establishments, especially those of four young soldiers at the Princess Royal barracks at Deepcut, Surrey, between 1995 and 2002.

Following the publication of Surrey police's final report, our Select Committee thought it right not only to undertake an inquiry that could make a significant contribution to the debate on how to improve Ministry of Defence policy on the duty of care of trainees, but to see what we could do to restore public confidence in military training, especially that given by the Army. We took evidence from Deepcut families and from the families of individuals who had died at the Catterick garrison's infantry training centre.

Mrs. Humble : The Defence Select Committee did indeed produce an excellent report and call for evidence from families beyond Deepcut. Evidence was also taken from the families of those other than trainees, and, given that it was not just trainees who died, does my hon. Friend agree that the duty of care extends beyond the initial training period and throughout the entire time that an individual spends in the armed forces?

Mr. Jones: I agree totally with my hon. Friend, and we did indeed take evidence from those who were no longer trainees, and from the relatives of those who had died and had got past initial training. Although the scope of our inquiry related to the duty of care of trainees, it was evident from the way in which it developed that we also had to examine other areas, and doing so proved invaluable to the final report.

We also took evidence from the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr. Ingram); from Colonel David Eccles, chief of staff; and from Martin Fuller, director of service personnel policy, service conditions at the Ministry of Defence. It was a long inquiry—it took more than a year—and we visited some 15 different training establishments and took evidence from a variety of individuals in all three services.

The inquiry's recommendations were clear, one of which—the establishment of an independent military complaints commission—is very important and central to this debate. It was worked on in some detail by my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Mr. Roy). He was a member of the Defence Committee at the time but is now in the purdah of the Whips Office, so he cannot take part in this debate. He was keen on this recommendation because a number of his constituents had died while serving in the armed forces, and their families, along with others, led a campaign to highlight the problem of bullying and harassment in the armed forces.
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We envisage a commission that would have the authority not only to investigate complaints but to make recommendations that would be binding on the armed forces. It would be for the commission to decide whether to undertake an investigation, but it would take into account only serious allegations. Importantly, its findings and structure would be independent of the MOD and the chain of command. However, we are not suggesting that it should in any way be a substitute for the chain of command. I should stress, as other Members have stressed, that it should be seen as an independent body that people can approach to ensure that serious grievances are dealt with. I came to the view that establishing an independent commission is important because our armed forces, particularly the Army, have suffered terribly in the past few years as a result not just of the Deepcut allegations, but of other deaths in military service. A truly independent scrutinising mechanism would certainly bolster the public's confidence in the armed forces.

Not everyone who came before our Select Committee was in favour of such a commission. General Palmer said:

I agree, but the Defence Committee's proposal would in no way cut across the chain of command. The MOD and the military are by their nature very conservative with a small "c"—in some cases, with a big one—but having such an independent commission could do no harm. Without one, there will be serious question marks over isolated but horrific cases such as those that have led to bullying and, sadly, to young recruits taking their own lives. We have heard about many such cases in the media in the past few years. As my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) pointed out in an intervention, some people have got through initial training, only to take their own lives because of the way in which they were treated in the armed forces.

I accept that people are criticising me and others for introducing this proposal, but I should point to the example of the UK police force, which, until 2002, was criticised for investigating itself. Since then, the Independent Police Complaints Commission has been created. Importantly, it reports to Parliament, so it is publicly accountable. It is not linked to any Government Department, so its decisions cannot be overruled by politicians; they can be overruled only by a court of law.

Initial reactions to the IPCC's creation were that it would impact on operational effectiveness and impose an additional bureaucratic burden, and that busy-bodies who knew nothing about day-to-day policing would be telling chief constables what to do. Throughout our inquiry, similar arguments were advanced against having an independent commission in the armed forces. By way of contrast, the senior police officers to whom we spoke during our inquiry expressed the view that the IPCC has benefited the police's working practices and led to greater transparency. The most important thing that the IPCC has done is to bolster the public's confidence that the police are
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not a law unto themselves, and that if complaints are made by individual members of the public, they will be investigated thoroughly and—crucially—independently.

The Government's response to our report—my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton mentioned it earlier—said the following about the creation of an independent commission:

I was a little disappointed to discover what the Bill says about the establishment of a service complaints panel. The panel would consider a service complaint—although, as has already been said, nobody knows what the definition of a service complaint would be.

I am also disappointed that the independence of the body is still a little sketchy. As I understand it, the panel would be set up by the Defence Council, which would appoint the panel members, but in exceptional circumstances the Secretary of State could appoint an independent panel member.

Linda Gilroy: My hon. Friend has said how important it is that the public should see the system as independent. Does he agree that we too, when we refer our constituents to such a process, want to be confident that it has an appropriate degree of independence, so that we can assure them that they can have faith in it?

Mr. Jones: I totally agree. The Ministry of Defence and the military have to realise that society has moved on. The idea that, in this day and age, people can investigate themselves and still have credibility, not only with parliamentarians but with the general public, is not acceptable. Unless the system is seen as independent, it will not help to put some of the accusations aside. Some wild accusations have been made against the armed forces, but some of the accusations are right, and some very serious accusations of assault and bullying have not been properly investigated.

As I read the Bill, the main duties of the panel would be to investigate service complaints, but we have not yet seen the definition of a service complaint, what time limits would apply to such a complaint, or the circumstances in which an independent panel member would be appointed. However, it is clear that the Government have rejected the Defence Committee's recommendation of independence. That saddens me. The Bill does not provide a mechanism or a method for dealing with complaints in what I—and, I think, most people—would call truly independent from the chain of command.

Before the Bill goes any further, it is important that the definitions and other details should be published. That would be useful for the scrutiny that will take place over the coming months. That is important, because it would be helpful to try to put the issues related to Deepcut to bed. We called for retrospection in our report, because that is necessary to ensure that those issues are taken care of.

More cases involving accusations about bullying leading to suicide are emerging. My hon. Friends may have seen this week's Sunday Mirror, in which, under the
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headline "Deepcut II", there is an article that gives a real sense of questions to be asked about the case of two young recruits, Krystle Cookson and Michael Williams, both of whom committed suicide at the Royal School of Signals base in Blandford. Using the emotive term "Deepcut II" helps to make it clear that if we are to get satisfactory answers to some of the questions, the idea of the military investigating itself will not be acceptable to those young people's parents, or to the many others who have already been mentioned.

I hope that the Government will listen to the criticism, because I approach the idea of independence from the point of view that it would improve the Bill. It is also important to secure the public confidence that the system needs. If we go ahead as is now outlined in the Bill, an opportunity will have been missed, and there will not be the added confidence that the public need.

Clause 371, which relates to the duration and renewal of service discipline legislation, has been mentioned by several Members. It restates the requirement for a five-yearly renewal of the Acts by primary legislation, but does not continue the current practice—already mentioned by the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore), who speaks on behalf of the Liberal Democrats—of annual renewal by an Order in Council approved by Parliament.

It is important that we be given an explanation of why the Government want to move to a five-yearly review. As my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton said, I cannot for the life of me think why that would be advantageous to the Government, or why Parliament should give up a historic right that has its roots way back in the 17th century.

For the sake of public confidence in the scrutiny of disciplinary issues relating to our armed forces, this Parliament must have a say, and an opportunity at least once a year to examine the regulations and raise any concerns that it may have. I do not accept that the business managers are so cramped that that has to be dropped off the agenda through lack of parliamentary time. It is so important that parliamentary time should be made for it.

I welcome the Bill, but I hope that the Government do not miss the great opportunity that they now have to put back the confidence and pride in our armed forces that we should all have. I hope that we can ensure that if cases similar to Deepcut and others arise in future, the independent process that would investigate them would not leave us in the terrible situation that we are in now, with slurs being made against our armed forces, parents and loved ones feeling that they do not have answers to their questions and the general idea that there is something to hide. If we had a proper independent process, a lot of those issues could have been raised within it, rather than having a dripping tap of allegations being made—weekly, it seems—about other horrendous cases affecting our armed forces.

7.6 pm

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