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Deepcut Review

12.31 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): On 15 December 2004, I informed the House that I had commissioned a review into the circumstances surrounding the deaths of four young soldiers at Princess Royal barracks, Deepcut, during the period 1995 to 2002. As I told the House then, I was aware that its scope and nature may not satisfy all those, including hon. Members, who have been calling for a formal public inquiry into combat deaths in the armed forces, especially the four deaths at Deepcut. I said that by concentrating on the circumstances of the four deaths, the review would focus on the issue at the heart of current public concern.

The review has been undertaken by the distinguished human rights lawyer, Mr. Nicholas Blake, QC, and is now complete. Copies will be placed in the Libraries of both Houses. This morning, the families had the benefit of a briefing by Mr. Blake on his conclusions. I know that this will be another difficult day for them; the passage of time, in such sad circumstances, does little to lessen the pain. I hope that they will find at least that Mr. Blake has addressed carefully and sensitively the questions that have troubled them. I acknowledge the dignity with which they have conducted themselves over this long period.

I am grateful to Mr. Blake for the thorough and professional way in which he has approached his task. In conducting his review, he has had the full co-operation of the Ministry of Defence. He has had full and unrestricted access to our records, and all serving and retired soldiers were encouraged to help the review in any way they could. I am satisfied that the report, which runs to 416 pages, plus annexes, represents an independent, objective and comprehensive analysis of all matters that have a bearing on the four deaths, and that Mr Blake has not been constrained by his terms of reference. Importantly, he has been able to tackle the wider issues.

There were three issues about which much comment had been made on events at Deepcut: the alleged suspicious circumstances of the deaths, a claimed culture of bullying and the need for a formal public inquiry. I am pleased to note that Mr. Blake makes substantial findings on all three points. First, he has concluded that, on the balance of probabilities, the deaths of Sean Benton, Cheryl James and Geoff Gray at Deepcut were self-inflicted. Given the recent coroner's inquest into the death of James Collinson, he understandably refrains from reaching any conclusion on that particular death. However, he comments that the opportunity for self-infliction was afforded by the policy of frequently assigning trainees at Deepcut to guard duty, unsupervised by experienced soldiers.

The review found a number of factors that may have contributed to the trainees' unhappiness and may have made them more susceptible to self-harm. The review considers that,

there were institutional failures to identify potential sources of risk and subsequently to address them. On the question of bullying, Mr. Blake states that there is no evidence that any of the trainees were bullied to death.
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However, he accepts that some trainees at Deepcut—probably only a small minority—experienced harassment, discrimination and oppressive behaviour. Those who did not complain appear to have had little confidence that the system could or would address their grievances. These are important criticisms, which will be addressed.

Finally, on the question of a public inquiry, as I indicated in my response to the earlier House of Commons Defence Committee on this matter, I did not consider that a formal public inquiry was required. The Defence Committee was of a similar view. In a carefully reasoned examination of the arguments for such an approach, Mr. Blake has concluded that a public inquiry into the immediate or broader circumstances surrounding these deaths is not necessary. I reaffirm my earlier position and concur with his conclusion.

This review, taken alongside the other inquiries and inquests into the deaths at Deepcut, has set out with great clarity the circumstances of the four deaths and the context in which they occurred. We now need to move on and take forward the changes that are required. We accept Mr. Blake's conclusions and welcome the opportunity to address his recommendations. We accept that there have been shortcomings, and we will do all that we can to address them.

Although the purpose of the review was not to attribute blame, Mr. Blake has described a disturbing catalogue of allegations of misconduct at the relevant times. The Army authorities will carefully examine the report to see whether there is any indication of professional misconduct or negligence that might make administrative action appropriate. In addition, any matters that suggest that a disciplinary offence may have been committed will be referred to the Royal Military Police for further investigation. We will also have to take into account the overall training environment in which our personnel were working and the constraints faced by those in the command chain.

Mr. Blake understands the importance, particularly for the Army, of recruiting under-18s, but he has highlighted weaknesses with regard to their appropriate care. We are alive to that issue and we are improving the standard of care and support afforded to young recruits. For example, trainees' surveys have been established and a note of guidance for all commanding officers covering all aspects of working with under-18s has been produced. Furthermore, Mr. Blake particularly commends the specialist training regimes for 16-year-olds established at the Army Training Regiment, Bassingbourn, and the Army foundation college, Harrogate. However, there is clearly still more to do, especially in extending best practices such as those at these establishments, and we are committed to implementing such changes as far and as quickly as we can.

The quality of our armed forces and the professional way in which they were, and are, meeting their operational commitments is evidence of the quality of military training, and I pay tribute to that without hesitation. The report describes the British Army as a unique and extraordinary institution. For the past decade or more, it has been sent on a wide variety of operational deployments in many parts of the world, involving great personal danger and regular personal sacrifice.
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The report notes that many of the young people who are, or were, accepted as recruits into the Army have had very challenging lives as children. A high proportion were from single-parent homes, some had left school with no qualifications, and many had deficits in basic skills. The report comments that it is a remarkable challenge to turn these young people into effective soldiers forming part of a disciplined and interdependent team. It is worth noting that Deepcut alone sent approximately 10,000 trainees into the field Army during the period covered by the review.

However, the number of young people, particularly those under 18, that the services employ places particular responsibilities on us to recognise their potential vulnerability. We are committed to improving the way in which all our recruits are trained, developed and looked after. In view of that, and in light of the recommendations made in previous recent reports by the Defence Committee and the adult learning inspectorate, work has already been done, and continues to be done, to make changes for the better.

As in society as a whole, bullying, harassment and other inappropriate behaviour can never be totally eliminated in the armed forces. However, it is essential that we establish an environment in which bullying is wholly unacceptable. At every stage of their training and careers, it is made very clear to personnel that bullying and harassment, in any form, is not tolerated, and that it is part of their duty, and a function of leadership, to eliminate it.

It is a sad and unfortunate fact—again, just as in wider society—that the armed forces will never be able to eradicate the tragic incidence of suicide or self-harm. However, the risks can be reduced to a minimum by careful management, pragmatic policies and better understanding, knowledge and education. As the Blake review makes clear:

The Armed Forces Bill, currently being scrutinised by a Select Committee of this House, contains proposals to streamline the complaints redress system, including provision for an independent element. Also, the Bill will consider aspects of the procedures applying to boards of inquiry. The review makes recommendations in those two important areas. We will give full consideration to those recommendations, and the Bill gives us the opportunity to implement any changes deemed appropriate.

The report has identified areas in the training environment, especially between 1995 and 2002, that required improvement. It cites examples of inappropriate behaviour that should not have taken place. It also identifies areas where we can, and should, improve the way in which we manage the young people for whom we are responsible, and we accept those observations. We now need to look at every one of Mr. Blake's 34 detailed recommendations to see how they should best be taken forward to address the weaknesses identified as quickly and as effectively as possible. I also urge right hon. and hon. Members to take time to analyse Mr. Blake's report in full prior to forming their own opinions.
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Mr. Blake has given us a detailed and painstaking report of considerable substance. I am confident that it will provide further impetus for improvement. I can assure the House of my determination to deal with the issues that he has raised, and I undertake to provide a detailed formal written response to the House on all the recommendations. I am determined to ensure that everything possible is done to prevent similar tragedies occurring in the future.

I have enormous confidence in the dedicated men and women working as instructors in our training organisation. I want to make sure that they have the support, the resources and the facilities that they need to pursue excellence. The trained young men and women they produce lie at the very core of how we deliver on the defence interests of this country. Their efforts have to be matched by commitment from the very top of the MOD.

Mr. Blake concluded his report with his profound condolences to each of the families concerned. On behalf of the Ministry of Defence, I again add my condolences.

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