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Janet Anderson (in the Chair): In the event of a Division in the main Chamber we will adjourn for 15 minutes, and for 12 minutes in the event of subsequent Divisions. I advise hon. Members that the case of Derek McGregor at Catterick barracks is sub judice, so I advise them not to refer to that case.
Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs. Anderson, on this important occasion. This is a serious debate on a serious issue, and I confirm to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence that I am a great admirer of our armed services and the men and women who choose to serve for our defence. I want our Army to be the best in the world and to reflect the democratic values that we cherish.
Yet members of the armed forces who protect our rights are entitled to have their rights protected by us. The Army should be a model of best practice and set a benchmark from which others can learn. That is the context for the debate and we need a dialogue on it.
We last had an opportunity in Westminster Hall to debate the subject of deaths in Her Majesty's armed forces on 4 February 2003, when the then Member for Kingston upon Hull, North, Kevin McNamara, highlighted the courage and bravery of a number of families campaigning for a public inquiry into deaths in Army barracks. Three years later, those families are still looking for answers and, as the Deepcut and Beyond families group, they have grown in number and strength. Those families were brought together by the tragic loss of children who died when serving the Crown, most of whom had brothers or sisters and some of whom had children of their own. Those soldiers joined the Army full of optimism, believing in the future, and learned to have pride in their regiments. They knew that they might have to fight for their country but they believed in the future. Somehow, something went terribly wrong.
Every family has a different story to tell. Whatever the circumstances of an individual death, each family had cause to doubt the explanation given. It did not make sense. Bereaved families did not feel that they had been told the truth, and they did not believe that those responsible for their children's deaths, whether by action or neglect, had been brought to justice or held to account. While the Army establishment closed ranks and denied there was a problem, the press drew the seemingly obvious conclusion that there was a conspiracy to cover up the truth and to allow perpetrators to go unpunished.
The Deepcut and Beyond group has provided support and assistance to Army families who have experienced the traumatic and otherwise lonely upheaval of the sudden death of a child. Setting out the public case for a full inquiry, the group has developed a comprehensive agenda for change. The group is calling for civilian oversight to ensure effective investigation of complaints and deaths. It argues for structural involvement of families to ensure that lessons are learned and measures put in place to prevent future deaths. Through Daniel's
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Trust, bereaved families have been able to work with the independent forces helpline to give confidential advice to young soldiers suffering bullying, and have engaged directly with the officers responsible for fulfilling the duty of care.
Inspired by such positive thinking, I am pleased to report the formation of the all-party group established on 1 February 2006 with the aim of providing a parliamentary focus on non-combat deaths in the armed forces, and to support the Deepcut and Beyond families group in seeking truth, justice and change. Membership of the group reflects genuine all-party backing for the families and extends throughout the United Kingdom. I was proud to be elected chair of the group, with the support of Lord Ashley as secretary and a fine panel of officers, some of whom are in the Chamber today. I am optimistic that we can assist the Government and the Ministry of Defence in rising to the challenge of Deepcut and beyond.
I shall pose a number of questions and seek the support of the Minister for a number of propositions. Do we still need a public inquiry? The Minister has previously addressed that issue and is considering his response to the Surrey coroner and the recommendations of the Deepcut review conducted by Nicholas Blake, QC. The Deepcut families, who have lived with the investigation since their children's deaths, are looking in detail at the report and its findings, but the demand for a public inquiry is not going away.
At the conclusion of a three-week inquest into the death of James Collinson, the jury returned an open verdict. Exercising his duty to report on matters where action should be taken to prevent the recurrence of fatalities, Her Majesty's coroner wrote to the Secretary of State, stating that
His personal view was that the MOD should take whatever steps necessary to restore public confidence in the recruitment and training of soldiers at Deepcut and elsewhere. He said:
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Although Nicholas Blake does not back the families' call for a public inquiry, he argues for Deepcut families to be given complete disclosure of statements collected by Surrey police, as well as the opportunity to put new evidence before a judicial authority that can order fresh inquests. I welcome that proposal, but it does not address the Surrey coroner's view that an inquest will not satisfy the families or meet the public interest requirement for an effective investigation of these or other deaths. As the coroner has told the Secretary of State, his office does not have the expertise, resources or statutory powers needed to conduct such an investigation, so that alone is not the answer.
The Minister knows that the problems that give rise to public concern and drive those pressing for an inquiry do not stop at the perimeter fence of Deepcut barracks. Truth, justice and change go together. Each theme constitutes an aspect of the public interest in holding an inquiry. In order to restore public confidence and rebuild the relationship of trust between the Army and public, the Secretary of State should consider the value of an inquiry that fully involves the families of the victims, and that is independent in character, judicial in authority and open to the public. An inquiry should be able to examine and make recommendations concerning all the agencies that need to be involved for the effective investigation of sudden deaths and all bodies that could help prevent them. It is bold; it is joined-up; it is a profoundly democratic solution.
I want to clear up a couple of misconceptions. First, it is claimed that the Deepcut and Beyond families want 1,748 deaths to be investigated. As far back as the Adjournment debate in February 2003, Kevin McNamara pleaded with the Minister to provide statistics that would enable the headline figure of 1,748 deaths from non-natural causes between 1990 and 2003 to be broken down so that the scale of the problem could be accurately assessed. Deepcut and Beyond families repeated the point in evidence to the Select Committee on Defence, pointing out that an inquiry would be remiss if it failed to demand full disclosure of such information prior to conducting its own scoping exercise. I hope that the Minister will consider the statistical information available and see whether a breakdown can be given of the presumed causes of death and their locations.
Secondly, I want to address the claim that an inquiry into Army deaths would be a disproportionate drain on the public purse. The Victoria Climbié inquiry, headed by Lord Laming, revolutionised our thinking about child protection. It cost £3.8 million. The Macpherson inquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence became the authority on institutional racism and changed the face of modern policing. It cost £4.2 million. By comparison, the Army has responded to criticism of its regime for young recruits by investing an additional £43 million in training. Last year alone, it spent £33 million on recruitment advertising. What price can be put on restoring the confidence of mums and dads? What price can be put on justice?
The Deepcut and Beyond families group believes that a public inquiry into Army deaths, headed by a senior judge, would provide the best vehicle for achieving truth, justice and lasting change. They believe that such
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an inquiry would provide the best vehicle for the Government and the Army to work in partnership with families and learn from their experiences. They believe that such an inquiry, sitting in public, would provide the best opportunity to restore confidence in the Army and they urge the Government not to close their mind completely, but to keep the subject under review.
The second question that I wish to address is what kind of independent oversight we need. I am delighted that Nicholas Blake QC placed his proposals for independent oversight at the centre of his recommendations. The review proposes introducing a legal requirement that all sudden deaths of Army personnel be referred to a coroner. It also proposes that the Ministry of Defence make funds available so that bereaved families can be advised and legally represented at inquests. Nicholas Blake has stated that failure to implement his proposals in full would shift the public interest towards a judicial inquiry, and the Minister will no doubt pay due regard to that.
The Defence Committee has established the case for independent oversight of the armed services, and the Deepcut and Beyond families cogently put their detailed considerations to the Committee that considered the Armed Forces Bill. Let me, however, give the Minister some reassurances: the armed services have nothing to fear and everything to gain from establishing a robust mechanism for independent oversight. The Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland is recognised as a world leader in terms police accountability, and the chain of command of the Police Service of Northern Ireland has been not damaged by the ombudsman's effectiveness but immeasurably strengthened. The armed forces should set their standards of accountability at the level of a world leader.
The effective operation of the armed forces does not require oversight with an independent elementit requires independent oversight full stop. The ombudsman or commissioner must be credible and able to operate without jurisdictional obstacles. His or her powers must be based on statutory authority. The commissioner should be a civilian, selected under an independent appointments procedure, who has independent tenure and their own premises outside the military estate. Legislation should guarantee sufficient funding.
The oversight commissioner should be able to investigate any complaint referred to them and to initiate their own investigations, retrospectively if necessary, if they have reason to believe that it would be in the public interest to do so. The experience of oversight bodies in other countries suggests that problems with frivolous or vexatious complaints can be quite easily addressed through rules of procedure. The commissioner would not be in competition or conflict with the regular complaints mechanisms established through the chain of command or with other procedures that have been put in place.
The oversight commissioner will require sufficient powers so that their staff can operate effectively, including powers to enter barracks, seize documents and tap phones. Obstructing an investigation should be made a criminal offence. The commissioner should make an annual report to the Secretary of State, which should be laid before Parliament. In addition, they should publish research.
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The commissioner should be able to establish advisory bodies that involve people with particular expertise and skills. The experience of the Deepcut and Beyond families illustrates the value of involving families of service personnel to supplement the sources of information available to the commissioner. An independent families group could, for example, assist in establishing a lay visitor's panel to undertake inspections of barracks and military facilities. I hope that the Minister will take those comments into account when he examines proposals for the introduction of such a commissioner or ombudsman.
How should we deal with deaths overseas? The Deepcut and Beyond families group has highlighted the absence of effective investigation when non-combat deaths occur overseas. The Royal Military Police are not seen as independent and lack the skills to conduct an investigation that would satisfy the requirements of the Human Rights Act 1998. There is rarely local civilian police involvement and there is no independent pathologist, no forensic expert and no opportunity for family involvement.
Although we would expect an oversight commissioner to investigate deaths overseas when called on to do so, Nicholas Blake also looks, correctly, at strengthening existing mechanisms. Compulsory inquests or fatal accident inquiries would assist families in Scotland and Northern Ireland when the discretion of the procurator fiscal or coroner does not seem to have been exercised in the interests of further investigation. Nicholas Blake's proposal to bring the Royal Military Police under the scrutiny of Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary would lead naturally to consideration of further issues, such as the provision of adequate resources and the benefits of a human rights training programme in terms of the effective conduct of investigations into sudden and suspicious deaths.
Will my hon. Friend therefore look into the manner in which non-combat deaths overseas are investigated? Will he consider meeting representatives of bereaved families to discuss their concerns and potential solutions? Many feel that the initial investigations, which sometimes took place some years ago, were totally inadequate.
How far can we go in improving the exercise of the duty of care? Nicholas Blake misses the opportunity to draw a line under the recruitment of under-18s, but he makes several useful recommendations to assist the Army in exercising its duty of care, and I hope that they will be accepted as soon as possible. The Army should promote understanding and respect for human rights at all ranks, and the fundamental principle of human rights should be part of basic training.
Let me mention some suggestions made by the families so that the Minister can consider them and reply in due course. First, there should be a mechanism to ensure parents' ongoing involvement in their children's welfare. Secondly, the Army should consider the means by which the Health and Safety Executive's jurisdiction can be extended to cover overseas bases and help protect against accidents. Thirdly, sustained action is needed to address the culture of alcohol abuse in the armed forces. Fourthly, attention needs to be given to shortcomings in the medical care regime and to its relationship with the
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chain of command, particularly where confidentiality issues arise. Fifthly, the Army should commission an independent study to monitor the experiences of soldiers who go absent without leave or who seek early discharge, with a view to publishing its findings and recommendations.
Can we safeguard children and young soldiers at risk? The closed nature of the military establishment, the strict disciplinary regime and the absence of parental oversight make young soldiers particularly vulnerable to the attention of sexual predators. Deepcut and Beyond families point to the conviction in August 2003 of a former lance corporal and serial abuser, Leslie Skinner, who was initially charged with male rape and later convicted of multiple charges of indecent assault. Those offences were committed while he was employed as a non-commissioned officer trainer at Deepcut barracks in 1996 and 1997.
Leslie Skinner's history is well known, and several hon. Members want to participate in the debate, so I shall not go into detail. I note, however, that the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill, currently under consideration in the House of Lords, provides for an effective checking and vetting regime that could result in practical mechanisms for barring individuals from contact with children. It gives substance to the Government's commitment to ensuring that children stay safe, which is one of the five thematic outcomes of "Every Child Matters". Although some recruits might fall outside the target group of children and young people aged between nought and 19, it is already recognised that the age range of the at-risk group might extend to 25 years where there are special or additional needs. Will the Minister take the opportunity presented by the Bill to ensure that young recruits are afforded further protection?
In a debate in the other place on 19 April, Lord Ashley of Stoke recalled that almost 20 years before, when the Army's reputation was threatened by brutality, bullying and vicious initiation rites, he had proposed that there should be an independent ombudsman. He recalled how he had argued on 2 November 1987 that that would be
Lord Ashley explained that the then Minister had responded to such calls with the by now familiar message that bullying is a serious offence, that it forms no part of proper service life and that the Government are clear that it cannot be tolerated.
Surrey police, the Surrey coroner, Nicholas Blake and all who have had cause to look into the regime of "horrendous bullying", "foul abuse" and "sexual harassment" at Deepcut barracks have expressed shock that the situation was allowed to persist for so long. The warning bells have been sounded. Proposals have been made. Now is the time for action. The Armed Forces Bill provides a timely legislative opening to introduce a series of reforms demonstrating a commitment to change that will support the armed forces.
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In spite of all the concerns that I have raised and those that I have read about, our armed forces do us proud. They go abroad in our defence and look after our interests. Now is the time for us to look after their interests as well.
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) on securing this debate. I also pay tribute to the parents of the four young recruits who died at Deepcut barracks. My comments will be expressly on the issues involving Deepcut, for those are the ones that I know best.
The Deepcut parents have been forced to fight a passionate and painful campaign to get answers to questions to which they have a fundamental right to have answersnamely, how and why their children died. From the start, the Deepcut parents have conducted themselves with enormous dignity and astonishing courage. I am sure that all hon. Members recognise that and pay their respects to them.
The publication of the Blake inquiry has been a long-awaited step in the long and slow march towards truth and disclosure. I have a strong view about where we are and what needs to happen next. The families need to be given due time to absorb the Blake report fully, and I am concerned that the Government have not yet done that. The parents remain grateful to Mr. Blake for his work in compiling his review, although they have reservations about some of his recommendations.
The families are disappointed at the Government's apparent insistence that the case is somehow now closed. They have been in that position before, having been told that everything had been done that could be done and that to keep on campaigning would be futile. However, the families have kept on, and have edged ever closer to what seems to be truth. In retrospect, it seems plausible to imagine that the Government decided beforehand that the Blake review would be their last action in relation to Deepcut.
My first question is therefore whether it is the Government's intention to regard the Blake inquiry as "case closed". If so, it would be a bad mistake both in the public interest, for many of the reasons that the hon. Lady highlighted, and out of respect for the wishes of the parents, who after all deserve breathing space as they seek to absorb such a massive report. Des James, my constituent and the father of Cheryl James, who died at Deepcut barracks, has wondered whether he made a mistake by acting in good faith and going along with the Blake inquiry. He feels that the Government are trying to foist closure on him and the other Deepcut parents before they have even had time to absorb the report fully and publish their own conclusions.
Meg Hillier (Hackney, South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, had the care, communication and co-operation between different services that Mr. Blake outlines in his report
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been fully in place at the time when our constituents' children died at Deepcut, we would be in a better position now? Does he acknowledge that there has been any progress in the Army, particularly on the care and communication front?
Lembit Öpik : There has been progress, but that does not take away from the need to get an answer on what happened in the past. Every time I and other hon. Members who have been involved in the campaign have pushed the Government, more information has come out. That is one reason why I am concerned that we should not pretend that Mr. Blake's inquiry is an end to the matter.
On the same point, Mr. Blake extracted yet more detail about the deaths and the culture at Deepcut than the parents or Surrey police were aware of. He found "foul abuse of trainees", and evidence that sex had been used "as a passport". Bearing in mind the limited nature of Mr. Blake's investigation, it is possibleindeed, probablethat we still do not know the whole story.
Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): As someone who has read the entire report, does the hon. Gentleman agree that it would be difficult now to find some of the evidence that might be needed, either because it has been destroyed or because some procedures in place at the time were, to say the least, lackadaisical? Trying to get to the truth of some of those deaths will be very difficult.
Lembit Öpik : I agree, but that is exactly why we need a full and independent public inquiry with the power legally to require witnesses to turn up. We are certainly not going to get the answers to which the hon. Gentleman refers if we adopt a voluntary, come-forward-if-you-dare process, which was more or less the constraint forced upon Mr. Blake.
The crucial point is that Mr. Blake did not have the power to compel witnesses to stand. With the Blake review, the families have had to accept that everyone who knew details or factors relating to the deaths stepped forward voluntarily. I do not believe that that was the case, however, and it is hardly surprising that the families remain cautious about the conclusions.
Before the Blake review, the families believed that a properly conducted public inquiry, with the power to compel witnesses to appear, was the only way of truly getting to the bottom of the Deepcut deaths. They continue to feel that way, so my second question is whether the Government are at least willing to hear representations from the parents about their views on the case for a public inquiry. It would be a cold-hearted Government indeed who were not willing to enter that dialogue.
The Ministry of Defence is adamant that the problems that affected Deepcut so severely are things of the pastthat relates to what the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) said. However, according to the latest Army continuous attitude surveythe Army's own survey8 per cent. of soldiers say that they have been bullied in the past 12 months; that is more than 7,000 personnel. Of those soldiers who complained about unfair treatment,
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discrimination, harassment or bullying, 77 per cent. were not satisfied with the way the complaint was handled.
In his summation, Mr. Blake expressed the hope that the lessons of Deepcut could be learned. In light of that, I am joining the calls made by other hon. Members for the Government to move immediately to establish an armed forces ombudsman, as the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood suggested. My third question is, therefore, what the Minister's view is on that recommendation.
I stress that the families need time to absorb fully the contents of Mr. Blake's report. They should be given the space to take in the conclusions and recommendations. Then they will have the space and the time to make a formal response to the report. It is vital that the families receive as much information as possible about the deaths of their children. It is a scandal that the evidence given to the Devon and Cornwall constabulary in its review of Surrey police's activities has not been made available to the parents.
We should remember that the Devon and Cornwall investigation took two years. Surrey police had plenty of time to devise a satisfactory means of disclosure but failed to do so. As a result, the Deepcut parents have still not had access to the 150-page report, a full seven months after Devon and Cornwall constabulary published a three-page executive summary.
In my view there has been a deliberate culture of secrecy, with the parents being prevented from seeing that full report and the ludicrous referral of a member of the Surrey police authority, Mr. Terry Dicks, to the standards boards of England for daring to request a copy of the report. I note that the chair and the vice-chair of the authority, who have no more legal status than the authority, were given copies; that indicates that something has gone wrong with the process. My fourth question is whether the Minister will investigate the circumstances surrounding the withholding of that report and other supportive information. It was used by Mr. Blake, and it was used by Surrey police to produce a short summary, but it has not been shown to others, including the parents.
"agreement should be reached as to any further disclosure needed to enable the families of Sean Benton, Cheryl James and Geoff Gray to consider whether a fresh inquest into their respective child's death is in the interests of justice."
The Deepcut affair has exposed the secretive and opaque nature of police and military culture. The parents have had to fight every step of the way to get closer to the truth of what happened to their children. To regain the trust of the Deepcut families, and, significantly, of the public, the police need to operate in a more open and transparent manner. They should share, not block, access to information contained in the Devon and Cornwall police report.
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I call on the Minister to work with his colleagues in the Home Office to ensure that the Devon and Cornwall police report is disclosed in full to the parents of those who died at Deepcut. Only when the parents have seen all the evidence can they decide how best to continue their campaign. As the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood pointed out, the coroner said that matters needed to be investigated thoroughly and independently and that the authorities should have nothing to fear from a full inquiry. The Minister should explain why the Government and the police are not taking that recommendation seriously.
I have not enjoyed pushing endlessly for the Government to take a more open and transparent approach towards the four tragic deaths at the Deepcut Army barracks. However, given the litany of failings exposed at each turn, I am more convinced than ever that it was right to do so. I do not enjoy the prospect of applying ever more pressure on the Government to get to the bottom of the unanswered questions and to get Ministers to share reports that have been kept secret until now, allegedly to protect individual identities, despite the fact that disclosure could easily have been arranged in a way that protected those identities.
In the interests of scotching further rumours that the official story has been covered up, and to ensure that everyone can have full faith in the investigations of Surrey police and others, I ask the Minister to assure the House that he will consider full disclosure of the reports. Either way, the Government can be assured that the issue will not go away until those questions are answered.
Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) for securing this debate, and for her tenacious campaigning on behalf of Deepcut and Beyond. I also pay tribute to Deepcut and Beyond; I have had the privilege of meeting the group on a number of occasions in my role as a member of the Select Committee on Defence and, more recently, as a member of the Committee considering the Armed Forces Bill. That determined group of individuals has done a great public service by exposing some of the most horrendous cases of bullying and by asking questions on matters that have been covered up by the military for far too long.
I support the armed forces not least because many young recruits come from my constituency and the north-eastand they are proud to serve in the armed forces. However, I am not proud of the way in which some people have been treated in the armed forces. The Deepcut and Beyond group of families has exposed some problems, and not only at Deepcut; as my hon. Friend said, Mrs. Farr and others are continuing their work by helping new recruits at Catterick.
In the last Parliament, I had the privilege of being a member of the Defence Committee when it considered the duty of care that the three armed forces have for youngsters in their charge. The inquiry lasted a year and took evidence not only from families but from the three armed forces. The Committee's report is a definitive work on the way in which such youngsters are looked after. As an historic reference, some past practices were
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appalling. The Committee heard not only how the Deepcut families were treated but shocking evidence of how others had been treated and how they were dealt with afterwards. There has been an improvement in the way in which the armed forces handle thingsfor instance, in what they should do if people die while in the forces.
Recently, I moved new clause 24 to the Armed Forces Bill, in which I called for an independent commissioner to oversee complaints against the armed forces. Without such a commissioner, the reputation of the armed forces, which has been damaged, will continue to fall. The Bill gives us the opportunity to put matters right. I withdrew the new clause because the Blake report was due to be published the following afternoon, and I did not want to pre-empt it. I was assured by the Minister that the Government would consider those issues as the Bill went through Parliament and in their response to the Blake report.
Meg Hillier : I agree that appointing an armed forces ombudsman would be a good move. Does my hon. Friend not also agree that such a person's remit should require local police forces to provide for disclosure? Today, I received a letter from the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety saying that it was entirely a matter for Surrey police whether to disclose all the evidence to Mr. and Mrs. Gray in my constituency and to the other families of those who have died.
I welcome the fact that a new protocol allows the police to have primacy in investigating such deaths. That is an important move. Part of the problem with Deepcut was the initial investigation into the four deaths. When the families subsequently asked quite reasonable questions, they were blocked. That led to an air of suspicion. If I was in their position, I would have come to the same conclusion that they did.
I have read the Blake report, and it is a good piece of work. My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood knows that I do not support another inquiry into the Deepcut deaths. The Blake report exposed the details of four very different cases. We should grasp its recommendations, especially that on independent oversight. Putting in place an independent commissioner or ombudsman would be a monument to the campaigning work of Deepcut and Beyond, and a fitting tribute to the four who died.
One issue that has not received much attention is the role of the media. Blake is critical of how the media reported the deaths, especially in the early stages. It is sad that certain newspapers have not held up their hands and come clean, admitting that they made mistakes. Those mistakes not only led to confusion but hurt the families of those who died. To be fair, Blake pulls no punches in his criticism of one national newspaper.
The British armed forces have the opportunity to regain their reputation. People should not be afraid. Other armed forces around the world, forces with which our armed forces regularly train and go to war, have independent oversight. Such oversight would ensure confidence among the young men and women who join
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the armed forces, and their families, that problems and complaints will be independently investigated. That will improve the situation.
The same arguments were put forward several years ago before we had the independent police complaints commission. Speak now to any chief constable, and they will say that it has improved the way they operate; it has not been a hindrance but has improved how they investigate and treat their recruits, and how they interact with the public.
Finally, I turn to the evidence given to the Armed Forces Bill Committee by the Deepcut and Beyond families. It headed its evidence "openness and transparency". That is what is needed in the British armed forces today. If during the passage of the Armed Forces Bill an ombudsman or commissioner is put in place, along with openness and transparency in respect of all information, that will go a long way towards satisfying some of the calls that there have rightly been, and it will be a fitting tribute to the sterling campaigning work of the Deepcut and Beyond families.
Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs. Anderson. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) for securing the debate and for diligently looking after her fellow members of the all-party group on army deaths. Kevin McNamara is a hard act to follow, but she has done it admirably and I hope the group will go from strength to strength.
Because of my constituency interests, I will confine my remarks to events at Deepcut barracks. I have been the constituency MP for Jim and Yvonne Collinson for the past year and have solidly backed them, and all the other families involved, in their campaign to secure a full judicial public inquiry into why their son, James, died.
Like all the families involved in the Deepcut campaign, Jim and Yvonne Collinson want only one thing: to find out how and why their son died. Like all the families involved in the campaign, they want, as far as is humanly possible after the tragic loss of a teenage son, to move on so that they can get their lives back together; they want some sort of closure so that they can start to live the rest of their lives. Jim and Yvonne have endured much over the past few years, and in recent months their lives have been a rollercoaster; first, there was the public inquest into the death of their son James at a Surrey court, and then a few weeks ago the Blake report was published.
I attended some of the inquiry hearings, and I found them fascinating. I know that "fascinating" is not a word that Jim and Yvonne would use to describe how they felt; they had to endure details about the conditions and situations that led to their son's tragic death. However, it was a fascinating inquiry; it was a very robust and thorough examination of the circumstances surrounding James Collinson's death.
The families are the biggest stakeholders in this process, and I have spoken to Jim and Yvonne about that. It is for them that we take this issue forward, and in order to help them secure justice, we continue to call for a public inquiry, which would eventually get to the heart of the matter of how their children so tragically died.
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However, we seem to be further than ever from securing a judicial public inquiry. Following the Blake report, the Government appear to have started to dig their heels in. Ministers have suggested that it is now time to move on, and that we should leave the sorry chapter of what happened at the Deepcut barracks behind us. That is a hopeless and pious wish. How can we possibly move on when there is still a huge question mark hanging over the deaths of four young people? This issue will not go away until we finally find out what happened at Deepcut barracks that led to three young men and one young woman taking their lives. These tragic events are too serious to move on from. The campaign for a full judicial public inquiry will continue.
The public inquest into James Collinson's death was significant. It was the first of four inquests held in public in front of a coroner. A jury was given the opportunity to give a verdict, and there was opportunity for counsel to cross-examine. It was a robust and thorough hearing, and we learned more and more about what happened at Deepcut barracks. However, like everything else in the history of Deepcutlike all the other 17 or so reports, investigations and inquiries looking into Deepcutit was essentially flawed and ultimately unsatisfactory. Like all the previous inquiries, it could go so far but it could not tell us everything. The public inquest into the death of James Collinson was hampered by the fact that it had solely and exclusively to focus on the death of James Collinson. Therefore, we lost the interconnectedness with all the other deaths at Deepcut. It was as if we were examining James Collinson's death without a context. In that way, it was totally unsatisfactory in trying to find out conclusively what happened at Deepcut.
There was a lot of new evidence about what happened. We learned more about the culture of the place; we heard allegations of bullying, and of the almost incompetent negligence that led to four teenagers handling lethal weapons, which, it was suggested, ultimately took their lives. We heard more about difficulties in the police investigations, such as the unsatisfactory manner of Surrey police's initial investigations, and the almost negligent way that some of the autopsies were carried out. However, because of the limitations of its terms of reference, the inquiry was just another milestone in respect of Deepcut. It was no more than that; it could not tell us everything.
In common with the inquests into the other deaths, an open verdict was recorded. The jury returned that verdict. Suicide was once again ruled out, and the open verdict suggested that there is still a lot more to learn about the death of James Collinson. Hope was given to all of us who have been campaigning for a full judicial and public inquiry when the coroner, Michael Burgess, suggested that we should have such an inquiry. He gave the strongest possible suggestion that a public inquiry would be not only in the families' interests but in the interests of the Ministry of Defence and the public. It is worth reminding ourselves of what he said:
"the MoD should take whatever steps are necessary to restore public confidence in the recruitment and training of young soldiers whether at Deepcut or elsewhere. I personally believe that they should have nothing to fear from an inquiry held in public . . . where the various issues outside the direct causation of the deaths of James and others can be explored in greater depth. I personally
I had a little exchange with the Secretary of State about what the coroner meant by those remarks. It is clear to me that he is saying that it would be in the MOD's interests to have a full public inquiry. I know, because it was said to Yvonne Collinson, that that is the coroner's view. It could be supported by Surrey police if officers were asked about a conversation they had at the time of that inquest.
No sooner had the public inquest concluded than we had the Nicholas Blake report. Like everybody else, I believe that Nicholas Blake went about his business assiduously; the report is a diligent, professional piece of work that was robust and extensive. I see the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) has a copy of itall 400 pages of it. Nicholas Blake did his work well. He painted in a few pictures about what happened at Deepcut barracks; the report detailed some of the bullying that took place, and there were serious new allegations about sexual harassment. It told us a lot, but it could not tell us everything. It was like the 17 or so earlier reports in that it went so far into telling us what happened at Deepcut but could not tell us everything.
The Blake report was hampered by the fact that it was entirely voluntary. He could not subpoena anyone to give evidence. There was no opportunity for anybody to cross-examine anything said. There was no jury; there was just Nicholas Blake and whoever he was taking evidence from. In that respect, it was ultimately flawed in its terms of reference and what it could do.
The headline of the Blake report was his conclusion that no public inquiry was required, and his assertion that those young people were bullied to death. However, although he was good at detailing how these young people came to their deaths, he could not satisfactorily explain why they took their lives, and, looking at the evidence, it is hard to decide that.
Meg Hillier : With respect to the hon. Gentleman, from conversations I have had with families, it is clear that sometimes we will never know what happened to their children. That is a hard fact that we may have to face. Does the hon. Gentleman think a public inquiry at this distance in time could achieve all that he is claiming it could achieve?
Pete Wishart : Of course the hon. Lady is right. The Blake report goes so far in revealing what happened, but it could not do everything. However, a public inquiry could. I believe a public inquiry is the best, most effective tool to determine and understand what happened at Deepcut barracks. I hope that the campaign for one continues.
What was most intriguing about the Blake report was the Government's response. As I have said, they have suggested that we move on. I think it was the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, who, surprisingly, is not present today, who said that the families should have no veto on this issue. I think the families are the most important stakeholders, and their views should be paramount in respect of how we take the issue forward. I hope that the Under-Secretary who is present does not share his colleague's view; I would like to hear his view on that.
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There were good recommendations in the Blake report, and I heard Blake say in the media that if all his recommendations were not implemented in full, he would back the call for a public inquiry. That is a challenge to Government to make sure that all the important recommendations, including the key one about an ombudsman, are implemented in full.
We would all agreeincluding the families, the Ministry of Defence and those with an interest in military issuesthat we want an end to this affair. I am relatively new to the subjectI took over as Yvonne and Jim Collinson's MP at the last general election, so I have been dealing with the subject for a yearbut there will be a stage when we start to put the matter behind us. In response to the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), the best way to get a conclusion on the subject would be to have that full, public inquiry. The shadow cast by Deepcut will remain until the matter of the deaths is finally dealt with. The campaign for a full public inquiry is as strong as ever, and the furore surrounding Deepcut will not end until that public inquiry is granted.
Jim Dobbin (Heywood and Middleton) (Lab/Co-op): Thank you for allowing me to take part in this debate, Mrs. Anderson. I would like to make representations on behalf of Norma Langford, whose son Corporal Ian Holt died in Belize on non-combat duty. She gave evidence on duty of care to the Select Committee on Defence, and I am told by people who were there that she was extremely good and very eloquent. She is a doughty campaigner, and she comes to my surgeries frequently to keep me up to date on what has happened and where the campaign is at. She wrote to me recently to say:
"Many overseas deaths have not been investigated properly; QC Blake's Deepcut Review supports this in paragraph 12.30 where he points out 'Where the Royal Military Police . . . has primacy for an investigation, the quality of the investigation may vary according to resources, training and the context of the investigation.'
"These soldiers served their country at home and abroad, my son served nine years with the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. Surely it is time for the Ministry of Defence to grace their deaths with a full and thorough investigation."
Mr. Kevan Jones : Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the issues raised by Mrs. Langford and others is the fact that families are not allowed to attend Army inquests? That leads to the idea that there is something to cover up. My hon. Friend may like to know that the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill
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recommends that the family be allowed to attend as a matter of course. Does he think that that would help, at least in allowing people to get the facts at an early stage?
Jim Dobbin : Yes, I entirely agree, because many people concerned feel that things have been covered up. More openness and transparency in the system would go a long way towards convincing them that everybody was doing their bit.
My question on behalf of Norma is as follows: the Minister has stated that there will not be a public inquiry into non-combat deaths, so will the Ministry of Defence afford new investigations to families that have not had an adequate investigation, or perhaps an independent review into the deaths of their loved ones? The Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, of which my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) is a member, suggested an independent commissioner, and that is probably the way ahead.
Willie Rennie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD): Thank you for allowing me to contribute to this debate, Mrs. Anderson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) on securing it, and on the way in which she presented her case. It has been a thoughtful and interesting debate.
Families put their trust in the Army to care for their children, and, as we know, in many cases soldiers are children. Many are plucked straight from school, from which they could return to the comfort of their homes every night. The change is a shock in itself. The new regime can be trying to even the most hardened. We all appreciate that serving in our armed forces is no picnic. Preparing for the brutalities of war requires endeavour, grit and talent. Young men and women return from the Army, having left only a few months earlier as boys and girls.
According to Amnesty International, between 1990 and 2003 some 1,748 members of the UK armed forces lost their lives through non-natural causes in or around barracks. Of those, 200 deaths were self-inflicted. Between 1984 and 2005, some 638 suicides occurred amongst members of the UK regular armed forces. Overall, the male suicide rates in the UK armed forces were statistically lower than in the general UK population. The exception was among Army males aged under 20, who had an increased risk of about 50 per cent.
Often, we can only speculate on the reasons for each of those deaths, but perhaps there are a few indicators. Last year's Army continuous attitude survey found that two out of three soldiers do not feel valued by the Army, and one in four say that their morale is low or very low. Over half of all soldiers are not satisfied with their accommodation, and 44 per cent. say that Army life is worse or much worse than they expected. A staggering 8 per cent. of soldiers say that they have been bullied in the past 12 months. That equates to more than 7,000 personnel. Crucially, of those soldiers who complained about unfair treatment, discrimination, harassment or bullying in the past 12 months, 77 per cent. were not satisfied with how the complaint was handled.
The deaths at Deepcut have sent shockwaves throughout the armed forces, the Ministry of Defence, the Government and indeed this House. As we know,
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the Blake report made 34 important recommendations and suggested that there were systemic failings. I will list five of those failings: there was poor appreciation of the needs of recruits under the age of 18; there were poor supervision levels, often as low as 1:60; there was bullying; there were high levels of dissatisfaction and extremely low morale; and, finally, there were poor grievance procedures.
So what should our response be? The Liberal Democrats have welcomed the Blake report and call for full and rapid implementation of its recommendations. There are 34 serious recommendations that require a serious and prompt response. When will we hear a full report in response? I was pleased to read that Lord Drayson has given a commitment to reporting back quickly. He said that would happen "within months". Well, one of those months has already passed. I would welcome an indication of how that consideration is progressing, and roughly when we can expect a full response.
The Liberal Democrats agree that a public inquiry is not necessary provided that the families have access to all the reports and evidence. In recommendation 3, Blake examines whether it is right for the UK to be one of the few countries that recruits child soldiersthat is, those under 18. We have had international criticism for that policy. The review says that recruiting needs are not a satisfactory justification, but goes on to say that the policy is justified given the inadequacies of education and training in the UK's civilian system. The report says that although the education benefits outweigh the downside of having child soldiers, a number of special safeguards are required. The first is the separation of 16 year-olds; the second is a right to resign for those still in training, even those who have passed their 18th birthday; the third and most important is that no posting to the field Army should occur before the age of 18. Do the Government intend to implement those immediately?
Mr. Kevan Jones : I have listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman saying what the Liberal Democrats want to put forward, but there were two occasions on which they could have influenced the matter. First, when the Select Committee put together its report, the Liberal Democrat Member very rarely attended. The second and most recent occasion was when we considered the Armed Forces Bill. The Liberal Democrat Front Bencher rarely attended that, too, and did not put forward any recommendations, but the hon. Gentleman is now saying what the Government should do. Will he tell me why they missed those opportunities?
Willie Rennie : I appreciate that we have made errors in this regard, but we are confident that they will not happen again. I cannot explain what happened on those occasions, but we understand that we have made errors. However, we must not get away from the point.
Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that when we quote statistics we have
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to be careful to reflect the trend? The trend of Army soldier satisfaction with accommodation is most definitely one of improvement; there is much higher satisfaction now than there was in 1997, when this Government took over.
Willie Rennie : I am sure that the trend is going in the right direction, but we cannot get away from the fact that just last year, the survey found that soldiers were dissatisfied with their accommodation. Any improvement from a low threshold does not change the fact that one started with a low threshold, and we are required to take action.
Mrs. Humble : Before the hon. Gentleman moves on from accommodation, was he as shocked as I was to read what was said in the Blake report about the way in which the male and female accommodation was not segregated, which led to some more-than-unfortunate incidents? Does he agree that when considering accommodation, we have to consider the safety and security of new female recruits to the Army?
Liberal Democrats also want to improve supervision levels so that vulnerable young people can be monitored and supported effectively. We support the setting up of an independent complaints commission for the armed forces. Recommendation 26 calls for the establishment of a commissioner of military complaintsan armed forces ombudsman for all the armed forces, not just for trainees.
The Armed Forces Bill has a watered-down proposal for an independent element in redress procedures. The Blake review has a much more useful recommendation, which would address growing concern among the armed forces that their views on their conditions are just ignored. I suggest to the Minister that this is the opportunity to take an imaginative approach. Will he undertake to implement recommendation 24, which states that the Royal Military Police should be brought formally under Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary?
Will measures to vet and train instructors be implemented, for the protection of young people? A number of important recommendations could be implemented by the Ministry of Defence now, and we are pressing for early implementation. If the recommendations of the report are fully implemented, closure may be achieved. If any good is to come from the terrible, tragic events at Deepcut, the MOD needs either to respond and transfer all resources necessary to make its under-18 training regime safe, or to consider whether it can continue to recruit such young people into the Army.
Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): This is the first time I have had the pleasure of serving under your chairmanship, Mrs. Anderson. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) on securing the debate and on the work she does as chairman of the all-party group, the work of which I know hon. Members support.
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The hon. Lady and others have understandably focused on the investigation stage of the process and what has happened since the deaths, but I shall focus on some issues raised in the Blake review, which others have mentioned, concerning events leading up to the deaths. In other words, what could the Ministry of Defence do better to avoid deaths in the first place, thus avoiding going through the investigation process?
As many hon. Members have done, I pay tribute on behalf of the Opposition to all members of our armed forces who serve their country with distinction, and to their families, who provide a great deal of support for that service. In return, we owe them a thorough debate and a thorough consideration of the Blake recommendations to ensure that they have the very best possible conditions of service.
It is worth saying that the Ministry of Defence and the armed forces face a considerable challenge. As has been said, the armed forces recruit people who are sometimes from very challenging backgrounds, many of whom are under 18, and the forces have to turn them into professional soldiers. That requires a robust training regime. A regime that was not robust would not do proper service to those young people because it would subject them to difficult and challenging conditions without the proper training and without equipping them to deal with what are often life-threatening situations. A difficult balance must be undertaken. There must be a tough and robust training regime to ensure that those young people are ready for combat, but we must also ensure that the duty of care is properly fulfilled. The hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) drew attention to the thorough report that the Select Committee on Defence produced on the duty of care, which thoroughly considered these issues.
The Opposition support the continuation of recruitment of those who are under 18: they make a tremendous contribution to the armed forces. The Blake report said that a number of things could be done prior to recruitment as part of the recruitment process, and I should be interested to hear the Minister's comments. In at least two of the Deepcut cases, there was a knownthough not known to the Armyhistory of self-harm. Will the Minister comment on what progress has been made on improving the knowledge that the Army has of the medical histories of recruits? To what extent can that knowledge be better taken into account when people are recruited, either to make appropriate decisions about recruitment, or, just as importantly, if recruits are at risk and are still thought right for the armed forces, to ensure that they are given appropriate care during their training and service?
Lembit Öpik : I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, but does he accept that self-harm is quite prevalent among young people in this country? The issue for those of us who have campaigned about the Deepcut Army barracks does not relate to the individual problems of a particular recruit, but to the fact that there still seems to be secrecy surrounding the facts relating to the four deaths that took place there. In our judgment at least, a degree of cover-up of the facts is still involved.
The other element of the training and supervisory regime to which attention has been drawn was the proper ratio between trainees and those in charge of their supervision. Blake notes that that ratio was at times only 1:60. In 2004, the then Secretary of State for Defence said that a target of 1:38 was being achieved. It would be helpful if the Minister told us whether that ratio is being achieved. Is it being achieved at all locations, through the day and night? If we have not yet achieved it, what progress is being made towards attaining it?
Regarding the investigations, however well we improve and implement recruitment and training, and whatever the level of supervision, it is inevitable that there will be deaths in Army barracks in future. Some will be accidental and some will not. When they occur, we need to ensure that the right processes are in place, so that families feel that their concerns are being addressed and the investigatory process is as open as possible.
Comments have been made about who has primacy in an investigation. Blake drew attention to that, and a protocol was signed on 7 November that made the position clear. However, given that there were already protocols in place that did not seem to be well understood by at least some police forces, it would be helpful to know what follow-up work is taking place to ensure that the protocol of 7 November is well understood in the armed forces and constabularies throughout the country. We must ensure that such information is properly communicated and well understood. If any such tragedies occur in future, that protocol should be in place right from the beginning.
During any future investigation, the most important thing will be that families are kept fully informed and there must be transparency and openness. If that does not take place from the beginning and is neglected, as it was at Deepcut, families will suspect that there is something they are not being told and that there is a cover-up. I suspect that once they have that impression, nothing that can be done in the case of their loved ones can ever completely remove that sense of suspicion. I suspect that that is the situation now. I am not sure that anything can be done to satisfy completely the families of the four soldiers who lost their lives at Deepcuta point to which one or two Members have alluded.
In the other place on 19 April, Lord Drayson made a specific commitment. He said that the Government expected to be able to respond to all the recommendations from the Blake report within two months. As the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) said, we are halfway through that process. It would be helpful if the Minister did not go through each recommendation in detail but gave us some idea about the progress that the Ministry of
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Defence has made and about whether we are on track to hear its full response to those 34 recommendations, as Lord Drayson said, by the end of May.
The Armed Forces Bill is a vehicle to implement some of those changes. I understand that it will be back before the House in the week commencing 22 May, which is only a couple of weeks away. That does not give the Ministry of Defence very long to publish any amendments to the legislation, so that Members may have a proper opportunity to study them. I should be grateful if the Minister outlined the Ministry of Defence's thinking about whether it will hit that timetable, and when in good time it intends to publish any amendments, so that the debate can take place.
One thing that came out of studying the documents was that there has been a significant number of reports and investigations. A number of Members have today repeated the call for a public inquiry, and it is worth restating the Opposition's position, which my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) laid out in response to the statement from the Minister of State.
There are those who believe that a public inquiry is essential for restoring public confidence in the Army. I do not think that there is a general lack of confidence in the British Army. There may be specific anxieties, but I do not believe that a public inquiry would deal with them, nor, in particular, with some of the media reporting that would inevitably attend it. An inquiry would be a vehicle for ill-informed speculation that could make the situation worse. Given that some of the investigations were poorly handled in the first place, and given the suspicion at the beginning of the process, from the families' point of view, they may always quite understandably have a nagging suspicion that there is something that they have not been told. I am not convinced that a public inquiry would address that issue.
The Blake report into Deepcut should not be the end of the process. The end should be the Government's thorough implementation of the appropriate recommendations. A constant theme throughout the process has been the significant number of reports, and the Surrey police report stated that
The finest tribute we can pay to those who have died is to ensure that the correct measures are put in place and action taken. We need to put in place systems that will address those problems, so that we never again have to debate the deaths of some very fine young people within our Army training establishments.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Don Touhig) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) on securing this timely
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debate. She has been hard-working and assiduous in these matters for several years. I can testify that she has been hard-working and diligent from the number of questions that she has put to me. The whole House owes her a debt for the work that she has done. I acknowledge the many contributions that have been made during this important and wide-ranging debate and shall do my best to respond to as many as I can.
I extend my sincere condolences to the families who have mourned that untimely loss of loved ones. I am sure that the expressions made by colleagues this afternoon underpin that. As I have emphasised to the House on many occasions, we take seriously our responsibility to ensure the well-being and safety of all our personnel. Each and every death is a tragedy in its own right. We must ensure that we learn the lessons from those tragic cases and do everything we can to ensure that such incidents do not happen again.
There are approximately 190,000 people in our armed forces. Almost 102,000 are regular and full-time reserve members of the Army. Last year, almost 8,000 recruits passed through training to join the field Army. The vast majority will go on to enjoy rewarding and challenging careers in our services. They will eventually leave the Army equipped with a range of skills and experiences often far beyond their expectations when they signed up.
The Army is extraordinarily successful at taking young people from all walks of life and backgrounds and quickly turning them into soldiers, positive role models and good citizens. The high-quality training that those young men and women receive delivers outstanding results, from war fighting, through peace-support and counter-terrorist operations, to a range of roles supporting the UK civilian community.
That training bears fruit time and again in theatres of operation throughout a turbulent world: Iraq, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone and the Balkans are all recent examples. But we must not and cannot be complacent. Many comments in today's discussion have focused on the review conducted by Nicholas Blake QC, which considered the circumstances surrounding the deaths of four young soldiers at Deepcut. The report concluded that although the Army did not cause any of the deaths, there were worrying failures to identify and address sources of risk. Importantly, Mr. Blake concluded that there was no evidence to suggest that bullying caused the deaths of those reviewed. However, he raised some important questions about the nature of the training environment at that time.
We take those findings seriously. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State for the armed forces, who is, incidentally, in the Falkland Islands, made clear our response in his statement to the House on 29 March. We are committed to a process of continuous improvement. The Deepcut review will add momentum to our programme of change. We fully acknowledge the weaknesses that the report identified, and appreciate the urgency required in putting them right.
Several hon. Members have raised the need for a public inquiry into the deaths at Deepcut. The Deepcut review concluded that on the basis of current evidence, a public inquiry is not necessary. We share that view and, given the extensive investigations that have taken place, agree with the conclusion that nothing would be gained from a public inquiry. Considering the Deepcut review
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as a whole, the important thing is to learn the lessons, to continue to move forward and to provide the best possible welfare support for our young trainees.
Nicholas Blake's report raised the issue of a military complaints commissioner, and it has been referred to today. We have been considering for some time how we can best ensure that our personnel have the confidence to raise a grievance and the assurance that their grievance will be dealt with quickly, effectively and fairly. Our underlying aim is for a complaints system that is right for the way in which our armed forces operate. The system must be fair, transparent, effective and prompt. It must more than anything be a system in which all service personnel have complete confidence. I am sure that everyone present shares that view.
To that end, in the Committee on the Armed Forces Bill we proposed improvements to our complaints system. I have no doubt that we will return to them on Report and Third Reading later this month. We are considering in detail Mr. Blake's recommendations about the complaints process. His proposal to establish a commissioner of military complaints will be rightly and properly considered under the auspices of the Bill. If colleagues will forgive me, I do not want to go any further down that track, because we will come to it on Report and Third Reading.
I turn to the matter of family attendance at boards of inquiry, which currently are not open to members of the public or press, or to family members unless they are called as witnesses. As I said in Committee, there are two main reasons why families are not usually allowed to attend service inquiries. The first is that we think that having members of the public and family members at inquiries could inhibit witnesses from giving full and frank evidence. The second is that boards of inquiry could convene and adjourn several times over a number of months, possibly in different parts of the world. Ultimately, our concern is that the attendance of families at inquiries might prevent boards of inquiry from achieving their primary aims, which are to learn lessons and prevent similar incidents.
I reiterate a point that I made in Committee: a board of inquiry is not an inquest and cannot serve the same purpose as an inquest. Mr. Blake made specific recommendations concerning boards of inquiry, which we will examine carefully. I assure the House that we are considering in detail all the recommendations in the review, some of which are challenging and require significant consideration. As that work is ongoing, colleagues will understand that there is a limit to what I can say until we have carefully considered the review in its entirety. However, I am determined to see how Mr. Blake's recommendations can best be implemented without reducing the effectiveness of our necessarily robust and challenging military training environment. As soon as we are in a position to do so, we will publish in full our formal response to the Deepcut review.
Mr. Touhig : That is certainly our ambition. The Armed Forces Bill is returning to the House and if there
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are to be any amendments, we need to deal with them as soon as possible. That is what we are currently working to.
Recently, a number of hon. Members have raised concerns about bullying and harassment in the Army, particularly regarding the troubling perception that there is a possible link between bullying and the number of non-combat deaths in the armed forces. Incidents of bullying, harassment and other inappropriate behaviour exist in society as a whole and can never be completely eliminated, but it is essential that we should do all we can to establish an environment in which they are deemed absolutely unacceptable.
Bullying is insidious, corrosive and totally against the principle of self-discipline and the concept of teamwork at the core of our armed forces. Soldiers are often asked to operate in a harsh environment, and training has to prepare them for that, but there is a distinct, although sometimes fine, line between a robust approach to training and to discipline and bullying. No one should be in any doubt which side of the line we expect our soldiers to tread. At every stage of their training and careers it is made clear to them all that bullying and harassment, in any form, are not tolerated. All recruits and trainees are offered clear guidance on the relevant processes so that any allegations of such unacceptable conduct can be investigated thoroughly and dealt with appropriately.
It is a sad and unfortunate fact in our armed forces, and in our wider society, that they will never be able to eradicate the tragic incidence of suicide. We can, however, by careful management, pragmatic policies, better understanding, and improved knowledge and education reduce the risks. The Army has updated its guidance and procedures on the prevention and management of suicide and self-harm. An Army suicide vulnerability risk management policy has also recently been introduced. It provides detailed and mandatory guidance to those in the chain of command about how to identify those at risk and how to manage and care for them proactively.
Work on suicide risk management is continuing on a tri-service basis in relation to prevention, screening, reporting, data collection, training and education. In the past 18 months, multi-disciplinary service and civilian groups have been set up to promote good practice and mental well-being across the armed forces. We are continually working to improve the support available to individuals, especially through accessible, professional welfare services operating to common defence standards.
More generally, we are committed to the well-being and safety of all our personnel. That is a fundamental responsibility for individuals throughout the chain of command from the moment they join the armed forces. In the early days of an individual's career, we recognise the vital role of our instructors at service training establishments. We already have work in hand to improve the training provided to them through the development of the "train the trainer" programme.
Support to personnel is provided in the first instance by the military staff of the recruits' training teams. In addition, every unit has a comprehensive welfare system which is widely publicised. There is a network of agencies including chaplains, WRVS volunteers, and
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unit welfare officers. Personnel also have access to single service confidential helplines and the Samaritans helpline, so a range of measures are in place.
I shall address some of the points raised by my colleagues. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood, who initiated the debate, and tell her that we continue to improve our complaints procedure, which we will make more robust. She was, perhaps, a little unfair to the Royal Military Police, who execute their duties professionally. No system is perfect, and there are glitches and difficulties from time to time, but on the whole they do a good job.
I will study points one to five that my hon. Friend made and, if it helps, will willingly invite her to meet me and discuss them in detail. Perhaps we can work together to take forward her hopes and aspirations in relation to this matter.
My hon. Friend also asked about the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill. I have written to my hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills indicating that we completely support the Bill. When it is enacted, it will help us with our military training.
The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) spoke passionately about the families whom he has been supporting. I do not think that we have ever said that there is closure on this matter. We will respond to Blake, and judgments will have to be made on whether anything further can or should be done.
I pay tribute to the important comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones). He also made some excellent comments in our debates on the Armed Forces Bill, and we have benefited from his help and advice.
The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) raised some issues. I certainly understand the Collinson family's desire for closure. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) said, even a public inquiry might not tell people exactly how their children died. If it were in my power to do that, I would, but I am not certain that it is achievable.
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The hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) raised a number of points on behalf of the Opposition, to which I shall respond in writing if he will permit me, as I need to study some of them further. I certainly hope that we can complete our deliberations as far as Blake is concerned. If we do not manage to table amendments before the Bill is reported on 22 May, we will do so in the other place and bring the Bill back in the normal way.
We at the Ministry of Defence are not simply Ministers, officials, and members of the armed forces. We are also fathers, mothers, and people with families. We intuitively understand how important it is that young people are looked after and valued, and we feel passionately about the care that we provide to them. We are acutely aware of the sensitivity of the issues raised today and of the need for us urgently to address areas of weakness.
We deeply regret the death of anyone in our charge. Each family has suffered a great loss and understandably still carries a burden. No matter what is said today by me or anyone else in this House, those families will continue to have that pain and suffering for the rest of their lives. I fear that there is nothing we can do to mitigate that. I certainly share with them in that respect. I know that there is nothing that we can do to restore their loved ones to them, but we can continue to improve how we care for those who are in our charge.
I have on my desk a mission statement, which simply says: "We value our servicemen and women and their families and will do everything in our power to demonstrate that." It is the first thing that I see every morning when I walk into my office. That is why I am a Minister, and why I want to do something about the issues raised here today. Working in partnership, my colleagues and I can do something to try to ensure that the tragedies that we have talked about todaywhatever their causesmay not be repeated.
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