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Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): I am especially pleased to follow so many considered contributions from colleagues on both sides of the House. This is an important debate. Although I am not a member of the Defence Committee, I, like other Members, want to refer to its excellent reports, which should underpin much of our debate.
I welcome the Secretary of State's intention to modernise the law on the armed forces and to bring it into line with the requirements of the Human Rights Act 1998. The Bill is built on the key principle of fairnessto be fair and to be seen to be fair. It is sensible to update our procedures. As has already been said, our armed forces do difficult tasks in increasingly difficult circumstances and I hope that the Bill will give them some reassurance as they undertake those tasks.
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We all agree that our armed forces do excellent work and are highly regarded. They need the proper investigative procedures outlined in the Bill. The role of the commanding officer is important. Under the Bill, commanding officers have a duty to ensure that matters drawn to their attention are properly investigated. We need to extend that role in other elements of the Bill.
I want to speak from the standpoint of parents whose children have died in peacetime while serving in the armed forces. When my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence sums up, will he clarify how the concerns of those parents can be addressed in the legislation?
My constituent, Lance Corporal Derek McGregor, died in July 2003 at Catterick barracks. His family are waiting for a date to be set for the coroner's inquest, so I cannot comment on the circumstances of his death. I can say only that when I met Derek's father, Joe McGregor, and the parents of children who lost their lives at Deepcut and at other barracks in England, Northern Ireland and overseas, the same phrases cropped up time and time again:
Pete Wishart: I congratulate the hon. Lady on the assiduous way in which she chairs the Deepcut and Beyond families group. I represent the Collinson family whose son was also killed at Deepcut barracks. Does she agree that it is not only families and those of us interested in the issue but the public who are concerned? The general public expect that public services such as the Army are given the closest possible scrutiny. That is why there is great public concern about things such as the events at the marine camp reported recently. The public are owed proper scrutiny of what is happening in the armed forces.
Mrs. Humble: The hon. Gentleman is right. My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) also drew attention to recent newspaper articles. When we are recruiting young people to serve in our armed forces in difficult circumstances, they and their parents need assurances about that essential duty of care. If they do not receive them, it will, without a shadow of doubt, affect recruitment and morale. We need to address that issue and the Bill is the ideal opportunity.
Modernisation of the armed forces means removing the stain of Deepcut. It was once a rural location in leafy SurreyI have been therebut is now a byword for bullying and cover-up. We must stop that. Modernisation means openness and accountability. Modernisation means that when a fatal incident occurs the bereaved family are entitled to learn the truth. They are entitled to expect justice and to believe that lessons will be learned, to avoid such deaths in the future.
I listened with interest to the remarks of the new Chairman of the Select Committee about informing families. They should be involved in inquiries, because
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all they experience is secrecy. Only limited information is given to them and they often feel that even that has to be dragged out, and the process goes on for months. When my constituent Joe McGregor and members of other families gave evidence to the previous Select Committee, they described how the visiting officer who came to tell them of the death of their child was often oblivious to their needs. The officer did not discuss with the families what had happened. They often had to ask for the return of personal possessions, which were often returned in a way that caused them even greater distress. Such issues should be addressed by the Committee.
Mr. Kevan Jones: Does my hon. Friend agree that, even when accidents occur or when individuals die tragically in accidents, the culture of secrecy that she describes leads to parents and loved ones thinking that the MOD is covering something up?
Mrs. Humble: My hon. Friend is right. That is why the Deepcut and Beyond group is still asking for a public inquiry. Having tried and triedfor many years, in some casesto get answers from the Army and the armed forces in general, the families feel that an independent inquiry is the only way to meet their calls for truth, justice and change.
There have been at least five internal military inquiries, as well as two police investigations costing at least £1 million, another police force investigating the integrity of the first, a Select Committee inquiry, a review conducted behind closed doors by Nicholas Blake QC and another inquest by the Queen's coroner. How many more investigations are we to have? To date, every inquiry has been limited by its terms of reference. None had powers sufficient to fulfil the requirements for the necessary public investigation of non-combat deaths. None had the weight and stature to make recommendations for lasting change and none had the authority to restore public confidence.
Linda Gilroy: On the subject of public confidence, does my hon. Friend agree that families want not only to see justice done, but to be sure that things are put right for the futureno doubt, other people who have lost loved ones want that as welland that only by greater openness and independence can they be sure of that?
Mrs. Humble: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. I believe that the Bill, as drafted, will miss a valuable opportunity to address the vital issue of accountability. I hope that special attention will be given to accountability in the discussions that will take place after the debate.
I will certainly listen very carefully to the Minister's response to hear whether he has reflected further on Surrey police's recommendation that the armed services should consider the value of establishing a mechanism for independent oversight, which was developed and advanced by the Defence Committee in its inquiry into the duty of care. The model advanced by the Select Committee was that of the Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Irelanda model that, thanks to the skill and leadership of the ombudsman, Mrs. Nuala O'Loan, is regarded universally as a world leader in police accountability.
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The Deepcut and Beyond families group supports the proposal for an ombudsman or independent complaints commissioner. The group especially welcomes the Defence Committee's recommendation that any such ombudsman should have the power retrospectively to look at cases on which many families did not get answersthey still have not had answers. The group can also see the merit of an independent inspectorate along the lines of Her Majesty's inspectorates of police and prisons.
Another proposal, which is particularly relevant while the Army continues to recruit under-18s to military service, is to create a system of lay visitors panels, which could carry out announced or unannounced visits to barracks to interview and monitor the well-being of service personnel.
Another issue that I wish to raise is impunity for armed service personnel. We rightly deplore those dictatorial regimes in which security personnel can do no wrong, where brutality, rape and murder during an armed conflict or behind the closed doors of the military barracks goes unpunished. In such regimes, even a conviction in a civilian court may be regarded as a technical matter and temporary inconvenience. The soldier concerned may be welcomed back into the army and even promoted.
It has, as far as I am aware, always been the case for the British Armythis is set out in the Queen's regulationsthat in the event of a serious misdemeanour resulting in conviction and sentence to imprisonment by a civil court, the soldier would be automatically discharged. When discussing the Bill with some members of the Deepcut and Beyond group, they drew to my attention two cases in which the Army has sought exemption from that rule on the grounds that the conviction did not bring into doubt "the integrity" of the soldiers concerned. I am informed that one case involved the conviction of two soldiers for murder. Another case involved the conviction of a soldier for manslaughter by gross negligence. If soldiers can be routinely dismissed for the possession of class B drugs, I can find no rationale to allow those who are found responsible for the death of civilians or their fellow soldiers to remain.
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