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Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): I thank the Minister for advance notice of his statement and for the opportunity to go into the Ministry of Defence this morning to read the report on these tragic events. I echo the condolences expressed to the families concerned.
The Minister said that he will give further thought to that proposal, which is of course supported by the Defence Committee. Does the Ministry of Defence's own Army survey not show that a staggering 85 per cent. of soldiers say that there is bullying in the Army, and that in the past 12 months more than a quarter of soldiers had lodged complaints and were not satisfied with the way in which they were handled? The review notes that independent commissioners work well in the Australian and Canadian armed forces, and that commanding officers here said that they could see no difficulty with the idea. I therefore urge the Minister, even at this stage, to use the Armed Forces Bill to introduce that sensible recommendation.
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The UK is the only European Union country to recruit 16-year-olds into its armed forces. Does the Minister agree with recommendation 12.48, which states that the expense of improving the regime for young people in the Army is the
them? What action will he take on the review's recommendation that young recruits should be in an environment dedicated to their needs, and that, in the case of 16-year-olds, such an environment should be exclusive to that age group? Is it not clear that, as the review and the Armed Forces Pay Review Body's report have found, accommodation and facilities for single people in the Army are profoundly unsatisfactory, and that they certainly were at Deepcut?
Finally, is it not vital that Surrey police implement recommendation 33, which says that they should disclose all the papers from their investigation to the families of the deceased so that they can decide whether to press for fresh inquests or, indeed, to renew their call for a public inquiry? Will Ministers implement the proposal that the Royal Military Police be brought within the regime of Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary, so that it can apply best practice and determine whether the RMP is sufficiently well resourced? That did not appear to be the case at the initial Deepcut inquiry.
Mr. Ingram: I thank the hon. Gentleman for the general tenor of his remarks. He has touched on some key issues, and he should be aware that the establishment of an ombudsman is a subject for the Armed Forces Bill. In the light of the Defence Committee's comments and of our own conclusions on what is desirable, we have come up with a set of measures that we think will tackle this issue. However, Mr. Blake has examined it in detail and made a recommendation, so it is only proper that we consider it. I must point out that the Liberal Democrats have a representative on the Armed Forces Bill Committee
On complaints, Mr. Blake found that the culture was that people were not prepared to make complaints, because they went nowhere. We have sought to address that problem in the Armed Forces Bill, and edicts on the problem have gone out to everyone involved. We have taken the matter on board, and I accept Mr. Blake's conclusion that everyonefrom the most senior officer right through to recruitsmust take responsibility. That concerns not only those who feel that they have been harassed or bullied; anyone of any rank who witnesses such incidents should report them. That is the
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sort of culture that we want to instil in people. It is an important matter, we are alert to it, and Mr. Blake places great emphasis on it.
The question of young recruits cannot be avoided. I do not know whether the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) agrees with the conclusions that the Government have reached on the matter, but the main Opposition party does. We consider it proper to continue to recruit people younger than 18, although there is no time today to go into all the reasons, and it is clear that we have a duty of care for those young people. Significant success has been achieved at Bassingbourn and Harrogate. We must take account of best practice, but implementation has resource implications and cannot happen overnight.
That leads to me to the question of single-living accommodation. We are aware of the need to give young recruits more freedom to lead their own lives in the training establishments. I can therefore tell the hon. Gentleman that we are re-profiling our resource allocation to try to lift the spend on single-living accommodation.
The hon. Gentleman is right about the vetting of instructors. We are constrained by the law in that regard, but with the Department for Education and Skills and the Home Office, we are looking urgently for ways to ensure better assessment of instructors. The matter has implications across the whole education sector, and beyond. We need better ways to capture information about those who may put young people, and others, at risk.
The hon. Member for North Devon asked about the recommendation relating to the Surrey police. That is a matter for that force, but I hope that the recommendation is taken on board, as I think that it will be a substantial help. The coroner's inquest into the death of James Collinson was conducted before a jury, and all the relevant issues were ventilated. That is the key and, although it was not the case with the three earlier inquests, that is not a matter for the MOD. It is for the families to decide whether to take legal action to reopen the inquests, and I agree with Mr. Blake's recommendations in that regard.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. The House has a great deal of business today. I appreciate that this is an extremely sensitive subject, but I still hope that questions can be brief. I can then try to call every hon. Member who is seeking to catch my eye.
Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): My right hon. Friend the Minister will be aware that many families who lost children at Deepcut and elsewhere are very disappointed that the Government have again rejected a public inquiry. However, I chair the all-party group on non-combat deaths, and I welcome many of the proposals that have been made. Will he elaborate a little further on the proposals in Nicholas Blake's report for independent oversight of such matters? Will the ombudsman have retrospective powers, and be able to set up inquiries on his own initiative? Is there any indication of the scale of the problem beyond the Deepcut perimeter fence?
The last time I looked, more than 1,700 families were involved in the "Deepcut and
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Beyond" campaign, and I agree with Mr. Blake when he says in his report that no public inquiry into all the non-combat deaths could ever be concluded, because every such death would extend the process. That is why, as I have made clear many times, we do not favour a public inquiry into these matters. It is not that we have no respect or feelings for the families but, for the reasons that I have given and more, we do not believe that it would be appropriate to go down that route.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) should not conclude that there will be an ombudsman and then ask questions about what that person would do. We have said that we will consider Mr. Blake's recommendations, and that we are looking at how we can introduce an independent non-military presence into the complaints procedure at the higher level. That would give people a guarantee that they could seek redress from someone who was not in the chain of command. The Armed Forces Bill Committee is debating that at present, but we will balance that approach against what Mr. Blake has said. I shall also deal with the matter in my written response to the report.
Does the Minister accept that such quotations show how serious the situation had become? Mr. Blake's report was created only as a result of pressure from me and from other parliamentarians, and from Des and Doreen James and other parents of the deceased? Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that they are understandably suspicious when he says that there is no need to make any further investigations? Finally, does he agree that, in the interests of respect, it is right to postpone the final judgment about a full public inquiry until the parents have had the chance to review all the materials that Nicholas Blake QC says that they should have the opportunity to review? Then we can wait and see what they feel. The Minister would be giving nothing away by agreeing to wait for the parents to see that information, and to share their point of view, and he certainly would not be compromising his position by so doing.
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