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Cohabiting Couples

25. Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): What plans the Government have to reform the law relating to the rights of cohabiting couples. [76565]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Vera Baird): The current state of play is that the Law Commission published a consultation paper about cohabitation on 31 May. That consultation paper poses questions on how the law in this area might be reformed, and we look forward to the outcome of the consultation and will consider any recommendations made. We expect the final report in summer 2007.

Mary Creagh: I thank my hon. and learned Friend for her reply and congratulate her on her new position. Does she agree that the principle of equal rights for cohabiting couples is based on the principle of fairness? I have received an anonymous letter from a woman who has lived with a man for 17 years and has borne five of his children, but who now finds herself
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unable to leave him as he refuses to give her a share in the family home, which is in his name. She describes her position as that of a concubine. What steps is the Department taking to make people aware that there is no such thing as a common-law marriage, and that they need to protect their rights if they are embarking on cohabitation?

Vera Baird: The Law Commission produced its paper at the request of the Lord Chancellor because of concern about the fact that there are now 2 million cohabiting couples in England and Wales and about 1.25 million children dependent on them. We must think about reducing the potential financial hardship suffered by cohabitants when there is a break-up.

Apparently, 56 per cent. of people who responded to a survey thought that there was such a thing as common-law marriage, and that cohabitants’ rights to property and finance were very similar to those of married people. That is not correct. We have engaged two charitable not-for-profit groups to try to make people aware of the limitations on the legal status of people who cohabit, but the important point is that the Law Commission, at our request, is considering responsibly—as is essential when so many individuals,
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including children, are involved—whether there should be some sort of safety net in the event of a break-up.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): I welcome the Law Commission’s consultation paper. As a co-sponsor of the early-day motion on this subject tabled by the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh), may I implore the hon. and learned Lady—whom I welcome to her responsibilities—to recognise the powerful case for a change in the law? Overwhelmingly, this is not about the distribution of largesse or about providing a rival to marriage, but about fairness, and, in many cases, about rescuing people from the destitution to which they would otherwise be consigned.

Vera Baird: I entirely recognise that. Let me make what may be a partisan point, and say that it is women, usually, who are left high and dry after cohabitation, perhaps having dreamt that they did have some property rights, and they may indeed be thrown into destitution. It is important for us to examine the whole subject with a great deal of care. It involves sensitivities on numerous fronts, which is why it was appropriate for us to ask the Law Commission to consider it. We look forward to the results of the commission’s consultation, which will doubtless be followed by plenty of debate.

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Deepcut Review

3.32 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): On 29 March I announced to the House the publication of the Government-commissioned Deepcut review, undertaken independently by Nicholas Blake QC. It looked into the circumstances surrounding the deaths of four young soldiers who were training at Princess Royal barracks, Deepcut, between 1995 and 2002. I gave the House an assurance that I was determined to deal with the issues raised by Mr. Blake, and undertook to ensure that everything possible would be done to prevent similar tragedies occurring in the future. I said that we would look at every one of Mr. Blake’s 34 recommendations to see how they should best be implemented to address the weaknesses that had been identified as quickly and effectively as possible.

Today I am publishing the Government’s response to the Deepcut review. Copies will be placed in the Libraries of both Houses. I understand that the publication of our response will inevitably evoke sad memories for the families of the soldiers who died at Deepcut. I hope that they will find some comfort in our response to Mr. Blake’s recommendations.

Having completed the detailed analysis of the report, I reiterate that it is an exhaustive, illuminating and thorough review, and I repeat my tribute and gratitude to Mr. Blake for such a comprehensive piece of work. I am confident that its enduring legacy will be a better and more caring framework for young trainees and service personnel more generally. The Government have acknowledged that mistakes were made in the past, and that there were failures in the way in which young and sometimes vulnerable recruits were cared for. I believe that the report will constitute a watershed in the treatment of our servicemen and women.

The services had, of course, already made significant changes and improvements before the Deepcut review, as Mr. Blake readily acknowledges in his report. For example, much greater attention is being paid to risk of self-harm and preventive measures; there are stricter controls over access to firearms; supervision of recruits and trainees has improved; appreciable new investment in facilities and accommodation has occurred and is ongoing; and a new harassment complaints procedure has been implemented.

However, the Deepcut review has highlighted that there is more that we can do, particularly in some key areas. I can confirm to the House that we accept the great majority of the review’s recommendations, although in some cases with necessary and justifiable modification or qualification, as explained in our response. However, in those cases we are still confident that we can give meaning to the intent behind the recommendation. There are very few recommendations that we cannot meet either wholly or in substantial part, and I now turn to these.

Recommendation 30 concerns the availability of an inquest wherever the death occurs, in this country or overseas. We are very much in sympathy with this thinking, but of course, it bears upon the draft Coroners Bill that has been published for consultation. Consequently, we are in discussion with the
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Department for Constitutional Affairs as to how that recommendation might be given effect.

Recommendation 31 also concerns inquests, in this case ensuring that the family of a deceased soldier has access to legal advice and representation. It is our intention to support families as much as we can throughout what are sad and distressing events, but there is a general presumption that interested persons at an inquest do not normally need to be legally represented. However, there is provision, in exceptional cases, for application for funding to be made to the Legal Services Commission. I believe that to be the appropriate mechanism and process to satisfy the recommendation.

Finally, recommendation 33 recommends to the Surrey police that the families of Sean Benton, Cheryl James and Geoff Gray be provided with copies of the respective Surrey police reports, solely for the purpose of considering whether an application should be made to the High Court to set aside the previous inquest into their child’s death. That is of course entirely a matter for the Surrey police, but I have written to the chief constable stating that, in the Ministry of Defence’s view, that is a helpful suggestion from Mr. Blake, and that, for our part, we would be happy to co-operate fully in such a process.

As I said earlier, we have accepted the great majority of the Deepcut review’s recommendations, and, as the response that I have published today shows, some are already in the process of being implemented. Work has already begun to address the rest. However, I know that a number of the issues raised in the review are of particular interest to Members, and it is to those that I now turn.

First, let me emphasise that we fully accept and agree with the review’s concern that the needs of service personnel under the age of 18—and their vulnerabilities—should be recognised. That is now reflected in new guidance to commanding officers. A “care of trainees” module was introduced to the training programme for instructors and other supervisory staff in 2004. That has now been incorporated in the “train the trainer” course for instructors, which has been introduced across the armed forces.

A new supervisory care policy in phase 1 and 2 training establishments was introduced in March this year, and each unit is required to compile an assessment of the risk to trainees that takes account of the particular circumstances of that establishment and its population. There are specific policies aimed at the well-being of under-18s in terms of how they are accommodated, their recreational and social facilities, and their duties, including access to firearms.

One of the most significant areas of the review is the provision of independent assurance of our processes, and in particular the military justice system and the military complaints systems. We intend to introduce or enhance independent oversight of both those areas. The Police and Justice Bill will provide for the creation of a new combined inspectorate for the criminal justice system. Following discussion with the Attorney-General, the Lord Chancellor and Home Secretary, we intend to use that opportunity to extend and deepen inspection arrangements across the military justice system. Those working within that system strive to
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perform with professionalism and to standards comparable to those in the civilian criminal justice system. External assurance will serve further to demonstrate that.

Turning to the military redress of complaints system, as the House is aware, we have already made proposals under the Armed Forces Bill to improve that process and to introduce an independent element to it. We intend that the service complaint panels dealing with complaints such as those relating to harassment and bullying will include an independent member, and that the complaints process will be reviewed annually and publicly by an independent external reviewer. But in the light of the recommendations of the Deepcut review, and of representations made by Members during the consideration of the Bill by the Armed Forces Bill Select Committee, we propose to go further. We propose that the role of the external reviewer should be extended, providing him or her with the ability to accept complaints directly from a serviceperson or a family member, or another third party on their behalf; to have the power to refer such complaints to the chain of command for appropriate action; and to be informed of the outcome of that complaint.

That wider role would justify the title of service complaints commissioner. Critically, the commissioner would have direct access to Ministers. Furthermore, to ensure effective oversight the commissioner would report annually to Parliament. The House will note that in some practical respects this model for a commissioner is different from that proposed in the Deepcut review. Let me stress that there is, however, no difference between the Government and Mr. Blake over the fundamental intent, which is to promote the effective operation of existing military proceedings and provide independent assurance that the procedures are working effectively, with systemic issues appropriately addressed.

I now turn to the proposal that a commissioner might have the right to be consulted in disciplinary matters, or have the ability to intervene to institute legal proceedings against prosecution decisions. We believe that that would potentially undermine the role and independence of the prosecuting authorities. I know of no precedent for such a role in the civilian criminal justice system.

We have listened carefully to evidence given to various Select Committees and by Members of both Houses. We maintain—and I hope that right hon. and hon. Members would share this view—that the chain of command’s primary responsibility for welfare should not be undermined. However, in providing for a service complaints commissioner, we accept the need for external, independent assurance, especially for a vulnerable young trainee—or his family or friends—who may feel uncomfortable about approaching a commanding officer directly. Subject to views expressed in this House and in the other place, the Government would propose to bring forward amendments to the Armed Forces Bill to provide for a service complaints commissioner.

Our armed forces are deeply valued by the Government and by the whole House. Their well-being is very much at the heart of this response to the Deepcut review. We are committed to improving the
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way in which all our recruits are trained, developed and looked after. We are resolute in our aim to deliver real, measurable and tangible improvements to the benefit of all our personnel who serve our country so well. As I stated earlier, this will be a watershed in how our servicemen and women are treated. I am determined to deliver on the commitments, and the external scrutiny that will be put in place will hold us to account now and in the future.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): I am sure that I speak for both sides of the House when I say that we wish profoundly that the tragic deaths of four young people had not made this report necessary, but I am grateful to the Minister for his response and his courtesy in making the statement available to us in advance.

As I said the last time that we discussed this subject, the social trends in our country today mean that an increasing number of recruits come from broken family backgrounds, have poor academic achievements and are often deficient in basic skills. The fact that the Army can transform them into world class soldiers is something of which we should all be justly proud. We also need to remember that the cases that we are discussing today are very much the exceptions, and I am sure that the Minister would want to underline that.

Let us remind ourselves of some of the basic facts of this tragedy. Of the four young victims, two had previous clearly recorded episodes of self-harm in their medical notes prior to recruitment. One of the others had clearly documented episodes of self-harm while in the Army. Another was about to be forced to leave the Army against his will. These vulnerable individuals were not only given loaded guns, but put on solitary guard duty in remote locations. They were given both means and opportunity and, as the Minister said, the Government accept that that represented a failure in duty of care.

The Blake report found that there was bullying, but that it was by no means endemic nor clearly linked to any of the four deaths. However, it also said that there were too few non-commissioned officers to supervise training properly—a fact that the Army had pointed out already. What can we learn from the Government’s response to the report, and how can we ensure that the tragedies cannot be repeated?

To begin with, we must make sure that there is a comprehensive system for assessing a recruit’s medical history. That means more than merely having sight of medical notes: there must be a proper investigation into the medical history of all recruits. Will the Minister confirm that that has been happening in all cases since 2004?

What about the ratio of NCOs to recruits? The 2002 report by the Deputy Adjutant-General found that the level of supervision

What has been done to improve that ratio?

The Minister spoke about phase 2 training, but the problem went beyond supervision. The indeterminate length of that training was a factor that exacerbated the unhappiness of many recruits, so what has been done to ameliorate that?

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The Minister was right to talk about the inquests system, but merely amending the forthcoming Bill is not good enough. At present, 59 inquests into the deaths of servicemen killed in Iraq remain outstanding. There needs to be a change in how the system is operated or funded. I know that the Secretary of State is looking at that, and I hope that the Minister will say where the Government have got to in respect of dealing with the backlog and with the current failures in the inquests system.

I am pleased that the Government have not caved in to the arguments for introducing a full-blown ombudsman, and that the Minister said that the chain of command’s primary responsibility for welfare should not be undermined. The Opposition completely agree, but how will the relationship between commissioner and commander work in practice? What will the interface be? Who will select the commissioner, and according to what criteria? What sort of background will the commissioner have? We would much prefer it if he had a military background, and therefore an understanding of the pressures in the chain of command.

I am grateful to the Government for their response. We shall look constructively and in detail at what they propose. We need a training system that is nurturing and without harassment or bullying, yet robust enough to prepare youngsters for the sort of tasks that they face in the brutal realities of Iraq or Afghanistan.

We want the Government to ensure that there is a duty of care, but all hon. Members are fully aware that, in the end, we are training soldiers.

Mr. Ingram: I do not intend to comment about the four individual deaths to which the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) referred. Enough grief has washed over the families involved already, and this has been another bad and difficult day for them. The report looks at those deaths, but goes much wider. I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s assessment of the achievements of our training environment, and I shall not elaborate on what has been said time and again about the quality produced at Deepcut and elsewhere.

The hon. Member for Woodspring asked a range of questions, some of which have been answered on previous occasions. Additional resources for instructors have been made available, and we are constantly looking at the balance in this matter. I do not want to go into the history too much, but part of the problem in the past was that the training environment was stripped out to meet front-line demand. The Government inherited that problem and have been trying to address it, but strengthening the training environment means that senior and capable personnel are taken away from the front line at an exceptionally busy time. The Government must strike the right balance, and we are making significant progress.

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