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Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): At the consideration of the Armed Forces Bill this morning, I introduced new clause 24, which would have established an independent complaints commissioner for the armed forcesI was not, I hasten to add, supported by the Liberal Democrat members of the Committee, who were absent. After considering an interesting debate, and, obviously, waiting for Nicholas Blake's report at lunchtime, I agreed to withdraw the motion on the new clause. Can the Minister assure me that the independent oversight of complaints in the armed forces will be seriously considered as part of the Armed Forces Bill? Can he give us a timetable for such consideration, although I realise that doing so is difficult?
Mr. Ingram: Again, my hon. Friend is close to that issue and has been raising it as a member of the Defence Committee. I am grateful to him for initiating that debate this morning. The issue must be ventilated and examined. I cannot dictate the pace of what happens with the Bill, but I guess that it must be addressed on Report, and if not, by the other place. We could then consider it back here again if necessary. It is for both Houses to decide what should be included in the Bill. We will give a very clear indication of what we believe to be right. Without question, what we propose goes a considerable way to address the issue; we have not fully debated it, obviously, but there is an independent presence within it. I will also make a written response on the basis of Mr. Blake's view, but that will be consistent with our view of the way in which the Bill should develop. Making that point is a substantial part of what we are doing at present. Let that debate now ensue.
Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): Although I believe that the Minister's judgment is right in continuing to resist calls for a public inquiry, however painful and difficult that may be for the relatives of the men concerned, may I tell the Secretary of State for Defence that I cannot help but feel that there is still a gap in the procedures of the Ministry of Defence for dealing with very difficult and large questions of this nature, as I pointed out in a letter that I sent to the then Secretary of State some four years ago. Will the Minister consider establishing a more permanent procedure as a clear alternative to public inquiryperhaps, as I suggested then, a tribunal, chaired by a senior military officer from a different service, with a retired judge and a senior retired police officer, to conduct investigations and inquiries of this nature?
That is but one idea, and I know that the hon. Gentleman has argued for it in the past. I can consider anything in my response, and I will deal with the specifics of what Mr. Blake has said. I do not want to look at a range of other aspects, unless that is consistent with what we seek to do in the Armed Forces Bill. The hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity when that Bill returns on Report to table such amendments as he feels necessary, but I ask him to listen to the arguments that take place in the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill and consider them in a balanced
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and non-partisan way to try to find the best answers. There are very good arguments about why those in the chain of command should be respected in all this. They have the ultimate responsibility for the duty of care for those men and womenyoung and less youngin their care, because they are the ones who have to take them into those dangerous environments into which we send them. So let us not diminish what they do and their responsibility for the people whom they have under their care.
Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): I will not take too much of the House's precious time today to dwell on disagreement about a public inquiry. However, the Minister has enjoined Members to take time to analyse the report in full before forming our own opinions. Will he assure us that if we do so, and if we approach him on a cross-party basishe is aware of the nature of the cross-party campaign to datehe will be receptive to those reflections, particularly where they are informed by the views of the families?
Mr. Ingram: My hon. Friend knows me from my time in Northern Ireland, and we are always prepared to look at cross-party and individual party submissions to find the best solution. So the answer is yes, but I simply cannot undo the past; I can only try to make the present and the future better. I have compassion and deep feeling for those families, and I regret that aspects of what we were doingMr. Blake makes this clearmay have created a climate that resulted in those four tragic deaths. I have also said that, as has come out in the report, if individuals were in the wrong, we must examine that as well. There is no question in my mind about the depth and breadth of the report, and I only hope that those who campaign do so objectively and on the basis of what is deliverable and achievable, rather than trying to paint us into the position of creating the perfect world. I do not have it within my gift to create perfection.
Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): Given the worryingly high number of deaths in non-combatant activities in the past 25 years, does the Minister feel confident enough to tell the House today that in future, there should be no significant difference between the frequency of non-combatant deaths in the armed services and accidental deaths in the community at large? If he could give us that assurance about non-combatant deaths, or at least set out the measures that the armed services are taking to move in that direction, it would be a great reassurance.
Again, I do not think that I have that within my gift, but I ask the hon. Gentleman to examine a lot of those non-combat deaths. They can involve road traffic accidents, or people who are on duty in difficult circumstances that are not combat-related who have been killed in accidents, or because of mistakes by other people. Is the hon. Gentleman really saying that he does not accept that the armed forces are unique and work in different circumstancesand, without question, in extremely dangerous environments? He is not comparing like with like, so I do not think that I can answer that question in the way in which he asked it.
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Sandra Osborne (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab): Having visited one of the training establishments, I am aware of the improvements that are being made. I welcome the Minister's commitment to consider what further action can be taken in the light of the review, but does Mr. Blake deliberate on any case other than those of the four that have been mentioned, such as that of my former constituent Alfie Manship, who died in Germany some weeks after leaving Deepcut barracks?
Mr. Ingram: Yes he does, at length. I know that my hon. Friend will look at all the conclusions. Indeed, that is one of the issues that I referred to earlier in which the sensational press reporting of certain aspects was not found to be accurate. I know that my hon. Friend will closely examine the report and that the family, whom she represents, will also look at it, and it will help them and my hon. Friend to understand the totality of that circumstance.
Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South) (LD): The Defence Committee report found that the real failure was that of the Army chain of command to respond either creatively or purposefully to the various reports over the past seven years. That failure of command, which was not recognised by anyone in the Army, led to the ongoing situation. It is still amazing to me that the two commanding officers have still yet to give any public account of what they did in response to the circumstances that they found. I would be interested to know whether the Minister feels that Mr. Blake has ruled out a public inquiryI do not think that he hasand surely the Secretary of State for Defence should have an opportunity to review his decision on a public inquiry once the parents have had the advantage of having had the report for some time, and all the information available from the Surrey police.
Mr. Ingram: I repeatI do not know how many times I have done sothat Mr. Blake has ruled out the need for a public inquiry. He says that it is not necessary. I do not think it appropriate for the hon. Gentleman to try to particularise his comments against two commanding officers. It is almost as if he is saying that they are guilty before any other examination. I understand that both of them met the families involved at the time. There has been a very close public examination by the people who were critical; in itself that may not be sufficient, but Mr. Blake and others have done everything that they can. I have met the families in different circumstances, either individually or collectively, to try to talk through some of the issues, and I will continue to do so. Everyone should know that there is a need for clarity. Fudge and uncertainty are not the way to deal with this matter. I make this plea to the hon. Gentleman: he should use his own faculties to consider how best we should address the present and the future. We are trying to address the past, but we must also address the present and the future, because of the tens of thousands of young men and women who are still going through those establishments.
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