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Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): I am grateful to the Minister for his statement and for allowing us advance sight of it.

This is a statement that all of us in the House wish had never been made necessary by events. It deals with complex and difficult issues. Above all, it deals with the very human tragedy of the death of four young people, whose pride in their endeavours is all too obvious from their photographs in the first four pages of the report. I reiterate my sympathy and that of my colleagues for the families, whose grief and sadness few of us will be able to understand.

The issues are complex, because they require a difficult and sophisticated balance. On the one hand, the British Army needs individuals who will put themselves in the line of fire to protect us. That inevitably requires a robust and tough training programme, and a culture unlike that of civilian life. On the other hand, the Army has a duty of care to each individual under its command.

As the Minister makes clear, social trends in this country have increased the number of recruits from broken family backgrounds, with poor academic achievement and, often, deficits in basic skills. That the Army is able to turn so many of them into world-class soldiers is something of which we should all be proud. Equally, however, we should be alarmed that the suicide rate of those under 20 in the Army is well above that in the comparable civilian population, and significantly worse than in either the Air Force or the Navy. That requires further academic research, and I hope that the Minister will ensure that it is undertaken.

The key questions are whether any of the deaths could have been foreseen, whether there was any cover-up or failure of investigation, and whether anything would be usefully served by a public inquiry. Let me deal with those questions in order.

The factors that might contribute to individual deaths include the make-up and suitability of the recruits, their disciplinary and supervisory framework, and the physical environment in which their training took place. Let us remember that of the four recruits, Geoff Gray and James Collinson were under 18, Cheryl James was just 18, and Sean Benton had been described in
 
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his    records as having an immature personality. Additionally, both Sean Benton and Cheryl James had medical records of self-harm prior to recruitment. My questions to the Minister are whether or not there is sufficient profiling of potential recruits, how parents can be better involved in the recruitment interviews, and whether there should be automatic availability of NHS medical records prior to a recruitment decision.

Next, there are major questions about the disciplinary and supervisory regimes affecting the four recruits. In all cases, the regime for unsupervised armed guard duty for inexperienced soldiers gave the opportunity to obtain a weapon, and to provide an isolated spot in which to use it. That breaks two rules in the duty of care to vulnerable individuals. In addition, cuts in the number of non-commissioned officers make the environment less secure and diminish the relationship with recruits. As a consequence, the trust in the chain of command to deal with grievances, including bullying and abuse, will diminish.

There is one very specific issue. Can the Minister tell us how much he believes the indeterminate length of phase 2 training contributes to recruit dissatisfaction, and what the Government intend to do about it? The fact that all those failures occurred does not just represent a clear institutional failure on the Army's part—worse, they had been highlighted for many years by individual commanding officers whose internal and external recommendations were often ignored or implemented too late. As the report produced by Colonel Haes back in 2001 states,

The physical environment at Deepcut also attracts considerable criticism. There was poor quality accommodation, especially in the case of sanitary and washing facilities. There were poor recreational facilities, leading to a restricted personal life, and a configuration of the camp that led to more frequent guard duties. The Minister must deal with those issues as a matter of urgency.

While the report makes clear that there is no evidence of collusion or cover-up, or failure of investigation, it is essential that the Royal Military Police ensure that their investigative procedures are equal to the best practice in civilian policing. Although the report suggests that that is best done by its being brought within the regime of Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary, I think that we would be wise to consider whether a further incursion of civilian institutions into the Army would be more beneficial than an internal mechanism.

Finally, there is the issue of a potential public inquiry. The conclusion reached in the report that,

is a powerful one. There are those who believe that a public inquiry is essential to restoring public confidence in the Army. First, I do not believe that the British public have a general lack of confidence in the British Army. Secondly, I believe that rather than dealing with any specific anxieties, such an inquiry would be likely to provide further scope for ill-informed speculation with
 
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the potential to damage both morale and recruitment. The Government must consider that extremely carefully.

So what have we learned, and what do the Government need to do? We need better recruitment selection as a matter of urgency. We need training for NCOs so that they can understand and deal with specific vulnerable individuals. We need trainees to understand what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour from their superiors, and a grievance procedure whereby they are taken seriously. We must end the practice of guard duty being used as a punishment for trainees. To encourage future recruits and, therefore, future soldiers, both recruits and their families need to be confident that the British Army can deliver a culture of nurture and training, free from bullying and harassment. For this, proper supervisory ratios are crucial.

Ultimately, the British Army must learn from the mistakes that it made in these terrible tragedies, and ensure that the self-sacrifice referred to in the military covenant is met by an equal duty of care from the institutions of the Army itself.

Mr. Ingram: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his opening comments, and it seems that we are more or less on the same territory regarding our analysis of what needs to be done. He will appreciate that this issue goes back to 1995, when substantial changes were made that undoubtedly impacted adversely on the training pipelines' capacity to deliver. As ever, it takes time to turn such a situation around. We have been under constant examination and there has been a constant process of renewal and investment. Each time, we must ensure that what we do has an effect. The hon. Gentleman will agree that it would be wrong to rush to a judgment or a solution; we have to make sure that our efforts deliver.

The hon. Gentleman made a number of specific points, but I take issue with his analysis of the suicide rate. I do not want to debate statistics, other than to make two points. First, one death is one death too many, but he was right to point to the increase in the number aged under 20 who committed suicide, or for whom an open verdict was recorded following an inquest. Secondly, for those aged 19 and under, the standard mortality ratio was significantly high during 1989 to 1993 and 1994 to 1998. However, for the period 1999 to 2003, the ratio, although still high, was not statistically significant. As I said, I do not want to trade statistics, and one death is one death too many, but let us not over-extend the analysis.

The hon. Gentleman made a very good point about the need for medical profiling and the involvement of parents. Mr. Blake's report is very clear on these issues and we already engage very closely with parents. Anyone who cares to visit a training establishment will see the joy on the parents' faces. As the hon. Gentleman said, even at those locations other than Deepcut that have been criticised, parents are delighted to see how the Army has turned their sons and daughters into members of society of whom they can be proud. However, more needs to be done and we need to make use of medical profiling. We need the best analysis of those who are coming into our care.

On phase 2 and soldiers awaiting training, the statistics show that improvements have been made. The number of soldiers awaiting training for more than
 
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14 days each month has reduced by 59 per cent. across the Army, and by 45 per cent. at Deepcut. We are alert to the gap between phases 1 and 2—to what could happen in between if such soldiers are not given attention and gainful employment—and we are seeking to make improvements.

On the Haes report, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, if Colonel Haes visited the training establishments today—as the adult learning inspectorate does, both announced and unannounced—he would find an entirely different regime. It is not perfect and it does need improving, but some substantial issues have been addressed.

I take note of what the hon. Gentleman said about the Royal Military Police, and we are alive to this issue. Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary will run a slide rule over the RMP's special investigations branch, which is at the critical end of the investigative capacity, to make sure that the RMP meets the very high standards that have been set. That is not to say that it does not already do so; the RMP is already audited and examined frequently through case review. It has high standards, and it meets the high standards expected of the civilian police, but there are lessons to be learned, as ever. Even in respect of the civilian police, we must constantly examine what is being done in our name.

The hon. Gentleman referred to guard duty being used as a punishment—a critical issue with which the report deals. Mr. Blake makes a very powerful and potent point about guard duty, which is under review. Indeed, we have made considerable progress. No under-17s are involved in guard duty and we are increasingly employing civilians to carry it out. It is proving difficult to recruit people to take on this job in the areas where establishments are located, but we have invested considerable resources and we are trying to build capacity. Over time, that type of guard duty will no longer apply. Its use as a form of punishment is under review, and my guess is that it will not continue.


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