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The hon. Gentleman asked about the way in which we assess the background of recruits. New procedures have been put in place to do that, so that we have the best assessment of the nature and characteristics of the young people in question. Not all of them come from
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vulnerable backgrounds or are damaged individuals, and I would not like it to be thought that that is the quality of the young recruits to Her Majesty’s armed forces. It is not. There are some with those characteristics, but many come from stable family homes and military families. None the less, we have to understand the breadth of the range of individuals with whom we are dealing.

The hon. Gentleman raised the unquestionably important matter of phase 1 and phase 2 training. Our aim is to make sure that we do not have recruits, in effect, sitting around doing nothing while they wait for their next posting, and that has been tackled substantially. The average number of soldiers awaiting trade training for more than 14 days has decreased from more than 1,100 in 2003-04 to 456 in 2005-06, and we shall work to improve that. For Deepcut alone, the comparable figures are a decrease from 136 to 75. Sometimes it happens for a good reason, but we recognise that it is an issue none the less.

The hon. Gentleman asked about coroner’s inquests and the backlog in what is done for those whose bodies are repatriated from Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. We have announced new measures, in consultation with the Department for Constitutional Affairs. Three additional assistant deputy coroners, one of whom is a retired High Court judge, will be appointed to assist the Oxfordshire coroner in dealing with the backlog of Iraq-related inquests. As of last week, 59 inquests were outstanding on service personnel whose bodies were repatriated to RAF Brize Norton. We have at all times recognised that that is a problem, and we are now beginning to tackle it. Throughout, the interests of the grieving families must remain paramount.

The hon. Gentleman asked specific questions about the role of the commissioner and he expressed a strong—indeed, prescriptive—view. I would say, let us examine the merits of the role of the commissioner. In the Armed Forces Bill, we will define in broad terms what the commissioner will do—we will have to table amendments, which will be subject to debate in the other place, where the Bill now is, and perhaps in this place when the Bill returns to the Commons. It is worth having the arguments; I simply ask the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues to have an open mind and not to be too prescriptive. Let us see what the best method and the most acceptable solution are. I believe that the framework that we have set out has great merit. An important aspect of that is that it does not undermine the chain of command, which is paramount in all that we seek to do.

Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): I thank the Minister for the statement and for advance notice of it. I welcome the Government’s positive response to some of the Blake recommendations.

On the matter of Surrey police sharing with the families evidence to which they have been struggling to gain access for more than three years, I applaud the fact that the right hon. Gentleman has entered into correspondence with the chief constable. If the problem is that the police believe that people gave evidence on an anonymous basis, will he explore with the chief constable the possibility of disclosing the evidence at least initially on an anonymous basis, with names obscured?

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Turning to the crux of the matter, the Minister has just responded to the shadow Secretary of State on the proposed service complaints commissioner. I welcome the Government talking about the importance of independence and bringing independent assurance to the process, but I am sorry that the Minister turned down the opportunity to tell us more about the remit of the commissioner. Who will appoint the commissioner? What will his powers be and what resources will he have? To what extent will the commissioner have the power to instruct a remedy, or will he simply have an advisory role that goes back up the line of command? Will there be independent people on all service complaints panels? What ability will the commissioner have either to intervene in complaints or to initiate inquiries on the basis of evidence that he sees, or of a pattern or picture that he sees emerging? We need to hear a lot more about this matter before we can judge whether, as the Minister says, the title of service complaints commissioner is justified.

On accommodation for young recruits and recommendations 2 and 8, will the Minister explain why the recommendation to train under-17s in establishments exclusive to that age group has been rejected? Will he reflect on the findings of the Armed Forces Pay Review Body and the comments of the previous Secretary of State that accommodation is in a “worse position” than anything else. What does he intend to do about the accommodation issue?

Mr. Ingram: I thank the hon. Gentleman for some of his comments, but perhaps not all of them. On the question of Surrey police, we are talking about something that is a matter for the police. The fact that I have written to the chief constable to indicate what I think would be of benefit reflects a view that I have taken from the early stages—as my knowledge grew—that the reopening of the inquests would be desirable. It is not in my power to so direct. The Surrey police information may provide sufficient grounds to allow that to happen, but I do not know, because I have not seen it in detail. I cannot intrude in that matter other than to indicate my strong preference as to what should happen. I cannot direct on that matter.

On the commissioner’s role, the hon. Gentleman had an early view of my statement and I have set out what the remit of the commissioner would be. I have been careful in the response—I do not want to say that this tops and bottoms it or ends it. We are fortunate that we have the Armed Forces Bill where this matter will be ventilated and can be discussed and examined. I would not want to close down on any reasonable suggestion. However, I do not want to put in place or encourage anything that seeks to undermine the important role of the chain of command. That is why we have said that the independent commissioner would have the right of reporting to the commanding officer, the right of follow-up in terms of finding out what happened as a result of all that, and, importantly, the right of access to Ministers and to report annually to Parliament. If there was a pattern developing, or even a significant case, it would be down to that individual to draw the Minister’s attention to it if he felt that there was reluctance, unwillingness or blocking on the part of the commanding officer or the system itself. So, we have an insight into what is going on. That has not been there
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before. However, I will resist any attempt to undermine the independence of the commanding officer or their right to ensure that proper discipline is maintained in their unit. We have made a substantial move and, hopefully, it is to be welcomed and subject to further examination.

Accommodation is a big issue; there is no question about that. That is why we have re-profiled a lot of our spending approaches to try to make sure that we can lift the quality of accommodation. We have a massive backlog to attend to. The moneys would not simply be available to anyone. We are not talking about a wish list, but about practicalities, given the hundreds of millions—if not billions—of pounds that would be required to improve that accommodation. We have a progressive programme to deal with all that. Although we can see the objectives of the recommendations, the delivery will take some time to achieve. That is what we have now set out to seek to achieve.

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman take the time to read our response to the recommendations—I accept that he has not had that opportunity. We set out the rationale. It is fairly long and I do not want to read it out in detail, other than to say this: we recognise that there is an issue and we are seeking to address it. We have best practice and very good training environments at Harrogate and Bassingbourn. We can see the quality that comes out of that type of training establishment, where there is a separation of the single young people, and the type of training that we can give them. Whether that can be matched across the whole of the training environment has to be judged in terms of what we are trying to train. We are talking about a soldier going into the front line. We have got to judge the quality and robustness of that training.

I make a final point to the hon. Gentleman. Mr. Blake’s report referred to the unsolicited comment of a young trainee in which he said that he felt that he was being mollycoddled. Soldiers react to being mollycoddled because they might be in the front line tomorrow, so that is why a balance has to be struck.

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): I welcome the considered and detailed response that the Minister has given to Nicholas Blake’s review. May I question him further on the independent commissioner—the service complaints commissioner? As he is aware, I would have preferred a commissioner with the powers that Nicholas Blake outlined; nevertheless, I welcome the establishment of a service complaints commissioner. As we will be having further discussions on the matter, will the Minister consider the independence and powers of the commissioner, because families will be asking questions about that? For example, he outlined that one of the commissioner’s powers will be to refer complaints to the chain of command for appropriate action, but what will happen if the chain of command has already considered those complaints? In such circumstances, the individual concerned and his or her family will want reassurances about the powers of the commissioner and the way in which the commissioner can investigate. Will the Minister consider those powers and give assurances about independence so that the families, in turn, can be reassured?

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Mr. Ingram: I fully respect and understand the position that my hon. Friend takes, but I ask her to take account of all the other things that we have done. The adult learning inspectorate can carry out notified and unnotified visits to training establishments. It can then examine all the things that we have put in place regarding duty of care to determine whether that is being effectively delivered. The overall delivery is thus subject to independent scrutiny.

The commissioner will bring to the process a recognition of the fact that many young people feel that they do not have confidence in the system. The same may be the case for their parents, although the young people might not be fortunate enough to have parents who care for them directly. Indeed, a friend of the young person or someone serving alongside them could trigger the process. The people or their families could tell the commissioner that something that had happened had been brushed over. A one-off incident would be bad enough, but if an incident indicated that there was a pattern of events, the commissioner would be on to that very quickly. If there was any indication that the system—be that an individual commanding officer, or a more institutional process—was blocking what the commissioner was trying to do, the commissioner would have access to the Minister and could report accordingly.

There is now enough raised awareness in the Ministry of Defence for us to realise that we cannot allow the problems of the past to recur. However, we can never guarantee that sad incidents will not happen. We cannot be perfect, and we will never be able—in any part of civil or military life, or any aspect of society—to avoid self-harm or difficult circumstances arising owing to bullying and harassment. However, we are trying to put in place an environment that will ensure that those who have direct responsibility through the zero-tolerance approach will fully understand what they have to do. If they are not delivering, the commissioner will be able to take the matter up with the commanding officer and report to the Minister. There is also the independent overview from the adult learning inspectorate. I do not think that there is any other aspect of what the public service delivers that has such public scrutiny. We have not yet reached a conclusion on the final role of the commissioner, because that will be determined as part of the proceedings on the Armed Forces Bill.

Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): I thank the Minister for his thoughtful and considered statement. As the constituency Member for Deepcut, I would like to ask about the Government’s response to recommendation 8, which was about the future of the training estate. I wrote to the then Secretary of State for Defence two months ago to explain to him that Defence Estates had slated the entire Deepcut barracks for sell-off and future development. Understandably, there is concern in my constituency that the Ministry of Defence wants to wash its hands of Deepcut. Can the Minister assure me that he has total confidence in the current leadership at Deepcut? Will he assure the leadership and the broader community that an excellent job is now being done? Will he give us a clear indication of what the future of the barracks will be and tell us what Defence Estates is up to?

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Mr. Ingram: I pay tribute to the current leadership and those who carry out the role of instructor. The quality of the young corporals and sergeants, who throw their hearts into trying to create the high-quality trainees and front-line soldiers that we so need, never ceases to amaze me, as I saw on my last visit. There is no question about that. The last inspection by the adult learning inspectorate said that Deepcut had become an exemplar. Perhaps that is a feature of the focus that has been on it, but I think that it would have happened anyway because of the intense effort that has gone in to lift the quality of what we do in the training environment. The “train the trainers” process will train instructors. We are opening a school at Pirbright in 2007 to do just that, and it will be designed to give quality training to those who become trainers. That has not been done before and was a deficiency. I pay tribute to those who deliver training at Deepcut.

I have not seen the hon. Gentleman’s letter. I do not know what has happened to it. It was not addressed to me and I suppose that it is somewhere within the big sausage machine. No doubt he will get an answer in due course. The defence training review means that I cannot tell him the future of Deepcut, any more than I can tell him the future of any part of the training environment. It is a comprehensive undertaking and a major examination of how best we can deliver training outputs. There will be change. I cannot say how it will affect Deepcut. I do not think that people want to wash their hands of it, which is why I pay tribute to those who deliver the service there. Let us remember that 1,700 recruits go through that establishment each year, as I am sure he is only too well aware. All of them are of a very high quality.

Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye) (Lab): I thank my right hon. Friend for the comprehensive and thoughtful response to the Blake inquiry. Of course, families will not be wholly satisfied short of a public inquiry, but that was not recommended and I suspect that he will not suggest it today.

Recommendation 31 deals with legal representation before and during an inquest, and with legal advice that is given earlier. My right hon. Friend said that exceptional funding is available for inquests, but given what else he said, such tragedies will be more exceptional. Is it possible for him to say that legal representation will be available in every case to assist families immediately and in the inquests that may follow?

Mr. Ingram: My hon. Friend is right about the public inquiry. He is only too well aware that Mr. Blake did not, after all his examination, consider it necessary, assuming that a lot of other things take place. We are delivering on those.

I gave a lot of thought to all the recommendations, but to recommendation 31 in particular because of the position that families find themselves in at coroners’ inquests. However, inquests are not adversarial, as my hon. Friend will know. If we inject a legal process into the arrangements, we could change their very nature. There are other ways in which individuals and families can seek legal remedy, given the circumstances.

The process is about establishing the facts and getting as much background as possible on what
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happened. It is then left to others to judge whether a wrongdoing or whatever had taken place. The approach that we—society as a whole—take to supporting families at coroners’ inquests or fatal accident inquiries in Scotland is to give legal support only in exceptional circumstances. It is a matter for the Department with responsibility to consider whether it needs to change the scope and framework of inquests. A Coroners Bill is out for consultation. My hon. Friend may want to make representations accordingly.

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): May I, too, congratulate the Government on their positive response to some of the recommendations? Does the Minister accept, however, that my constituents, Jim and Yvonne Collinson, and the other Deepcut families are no closer to finding out how and why their children died? The Blake report was good in places, but it only told us so much about what happened at Deepcut. Does he accept that, given the Government’s positive response to the report, we must find out how and why those young people died? The only way to do so is to compel witnesses to come forward and cross-examine them in a public inquiry.

Mr. Ingram: No, I do not, because that would not achieve the end result sought by the hon. Gentleman. The Blake review was exhaustive, and it examined all of that territory. I do not think that anything was held back or that Mr. Blake was hoodwinked—I am not saying that the hon. Gentleman made such a suggestion. Mr. Blake put a great deal of effort into the review and, while he was critical of some aspects of what was going on, he revealed information of which we were not previously aware, allowing us to take action accordingly.

The presumption behind the hon. Gentleman’s question is that the process of a public inquiry would lead to the “how” and “why”, but we cannot be certain that it would do so. There have been five police reports, and we have conducted our own internal investigations. He said that Blake’s was a good report in part, but I think that it is a good report in total. If Mr. Blake had concluded that a public inquiry was necessary, I would have been in a dilemma, given my view that that was not the case. I would have had to weigh his opinion against my own. It is with a sense of relief that I find that I do not have to do so, as he advances an extremely solid argument to support the conclusion that a public inquiry is not necessary. I hope that we all use our best judgment to find on the same basis. It is easy to continue running a campaign, but for what purpose, if it does not produce the result that is sought?

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I often think that dealing with the Ministry of Defence is like pushing water uphill. We are slowly getting there, given the announcement of a commissioner, who will provide the independent oversight that is needed. Like the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) and my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble), I am concerned that we have not been provided with details of the commissioner’s role and remit. My right hon. Friend the Minister said that we needed more discussion, but following a report by the Select Committee on Defence
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and discussion of the Armed Forces Bill, is it not time to determine the detail of the commissioner’s role? Unless we do so, we will be reluctant to support the proposal when we debate the Armed Forces Bill in the House. Unlike the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), I believe that it is vital that the commissioner should be independent. The expectation that he should be associated with the armed forces is quite wrong, so I urge the Minister not to appoint anyone who is connected in any way with the military chain of command.

Mr. Ingram: I am sorry that my hon. Friend thinks that he is pushing water uphill. I do not know whether he is Jack and I am Jill, or whether it is the other way round, but this is a very good complex issue. Having served on a Select Committee, I know that it is easy for Select Committees to offer headline solutions.

Mr. Kevan Jones: Rubbish!

Mr. Ingram: The hon. Gentleman is critical, but I should be grateful if he allowed me to express my view. It is easy to provide headlines and expect someone else to deliver, which is exactly what the Select Committee recommended. It was a helpful recommendation, and I do not wish to diminish it. The first piece of legislation that I steered through the House as a Northern Ireland Minister dealt with the reform of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and one of the main issues that it addressed was the need to put in place an ombudsman to deal with police complaints. It took us a long time to achieve agreement, as my hon. Friend will accept, but it was not a case of pushing water uphill. It was a case of getting the best definition because it had to stand the test of time.

We are fortunate that we have the Armed Forces Bill, which allows proper scrutiny through the parliamentary process, rather than a prescriptive definition, top and bottom, by a Minister, albeit a Minister such as I, who has a great deal of detailed knowledge of the subject. I am prepared to set out the very broad but very specific parameters of what we are seeking to do with the new position, and I want to hear what is said and whether we have gone far enough once we define it in the Bill.

I can think of no better way of arriving at the best conclusion than having that whole debate in the open, rather than by ministerial edict. As for being prescriptive, my hon. Friend said what should not happen. I am not responding to that, because I want to hear the arguments for and against. We have time to do it. We can do it through a form of legislation. We have the vehicle for that, fortuitously. I know that my hon. Friend will continue to participate in that debate.

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