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22 Apr 2009 : Column 90WH—continued

It seems to me that the investigation of Deepcut is not the function of the Service Complaints Commissioner as the post is constituted. However, the prevention of a future Deepcut most certainly is. I welcome the creation
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of the post, as it will give a level of transparency to our armed forces and assist in changing some unhelpful elements of the culture. Somebody mentioned beasting earlier. I have not been beasted in my service career, but I was training to be a diver in Portsmouth at the time—many here will remember it—when an Army soldier died while being beasted on the mud at Portsmouth. Around that time, we started to wonder whether some aspects of the training of young people in our armed forces were appropriate.

Since that time, I have been concerned about how professionally those people are managed. Professionalism comes in many guises. It involves the way in which we conduct ourselves on operations, of course, but it also involves things such as how people are trained and how they are looked after and stewarded during the training period. There is no question in my mind but that beasting, although it was certainly part of the service culture at the time, was not what might be called professional, if for no other reason than that it causes mortality and morbidity from time to time. That is in nobody’s interests, let alone those of the organisation concerned. Such things need to be addressed, and I believe that the Service Complaints Commissioner might be part of a preventive strategy to ensure that they are less likely to happen.

Several hon. Members referred to the Service Complaints Commissioner as independent. We must accept that hers is a sort of independence—a semi-detached oversight—as she reports to Ministers and her budget comes from the Ministry of Defence, so we need to be slightly careful about the status that we accord to that office. It is important that we have such people to examine organisations that could be called total or closed, or that have the attributes of such organisations. The armed forces certainly have those attributes, as a number of hon. Members have mentioned.

According to the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey), the Service Complaints Commissioner had some concerns about how she was initially received. I must say that it does not come across that way in her report, although I can understand why an organisation such as the armed forces might resist somebody like Dr. Atkins: an inquisitorial new appointment meant to shine light on darkness. However, the more thoughtful elements of the chain of command will probably welcome the Service Complaints Commissioner. That is certainly what I am hearing from those to whom I talk in the armed forces.

The Service Complaints Commissioner makes suggestions about how her role might be expanded, but they are pretty subtle. Although the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood eloquently described how the role might be developed over the years, that does not really come across in Dr. Atkins’s first report. We will have to see how it evolves as the years go by, but it would be premature at this stage—she has been doing the job for little more than 12 months—to suggest that it should be radically overhauled. That would be a little unfair. At this stage, the balance that has been struck is about right. I would like to see how the office copes during the next few years and its subsequent reports. We will have to keep it under review, of course—we keep everything under review in this place, do we not?—but
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it seems to be a pretty good starter for 10. I look forward to the commissioner’s contribution as the months and years roll by.

Having been ever so nice, I think that it would be wrong of me not to raise one or two slight concerns. The report talks throughout of accountability. The Service Complaints Commissioner says that she accounts publicly to Ministers and Parliament; she says it on page 82 and again on page 15, and it is a thread throughout the whole publication. We could debate how she might be held to account, but it is important that we use language judiciously. I am not aware of any meaningful accounting to Parliament. We are indebted to the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood for securing this debate; otherwise, we would not have had a formal opportunity to discuss the report at all. Some might think that I am being a bit pedantic in making the distinction, but it is important that we consider it.

The commissioner found that knowledge of her role was poor. She is being a little harsh on herself. In the evidence that she gives in the annexe, which touches on the most recent service continuous attitude survey, we find that knowledge of how to complain overall is pretty poor within the armed forces. It is not specifically about her role; it is simply that people do not know where to go. Still, a key index for the current year is that she will improve recognition of her office, and I look forward to seeing her achieve that target and reading her report on it in a year’s time.

The commissioner mentions timeliness in the investigation of complaints, which is important. On a grander scale, we can consider the delayed inquiry into Iraq as evidence why we should conduct any inquiry or investigation in a timely fashion. As the months and years go by, unfortunately, memories fade and evidence is destroyed. I endorse wholeheartedly and with great feeling her concerns about the lack of timeliness in the investigation of some complaints within the armed forces.

Dr. Atkins points out that the complaints should be sorted out at as low a level as possible. It is a pity that she has had to say that, as it is just good management practice to ensure that complaints, concerns and worries are sorted out quickly and at as low a level as possible. I would have thought that that was axiomatic. I hope that the armed forces will consider how current procedures lead to the escalation and formalisation of complaints, which is off-putting to many people, particularly those of relatively junior ranks.

To be rather prosaic in the context of many of the remarks made today, the financial position is given briefly in annexe 4. It appears to be fairly summary. It would be nice, for future years, to have an account of superannuation, for example, in the breakdown of costs. We must be accountable for all money these days—at least, the Minister must—and it seems odd that things such as salaries should be cited but superannuation should not. Maybe we need to give that a bit of thought.

In conclusion, I think that the commissioner will be of particular use to families. I know from my experience that they often find it extremely difficult to approach the chain of command and the usual channels. They feel that such an approach might have an adverse impact on their careers, and there are significant grounds for supposing so. I hope that Dr. Atkins will be able to provide an alternative conduit for many of those concerns
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and that, as a result, the satisfaction of service families—on whom we rely as well as servicemen themselves—will be enhanced and improved. Service families constitute one area where this particular officer will have a particular part to play.

10.50 am

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) on securing this debate. I am grateful for her long-standing interest and engagement in this issue. She has put a lot of effort into these matters over a long period. I am grateful for the many contributions that have been made to this interesting debate. I will respond to as many of the points as I can in the time that I have.

The operational effectiveness of the armed forces depends on mutual trust and respect. It is crucial that our people have confidence in the system that investigates their complaints. That must be prompt and fair, while complementing the command structure that is fundamental to carrying out successful military operations. The Service Complaints Commissioner, Dr. Susan Atkins, provides valuable independent oversight of our system. She is a key component of that system.

The Ministry of Defence and the services are wholly committed to the welfare of our people. We welcome the commissioner’s first annual report on the fairness, effectiveness and efficiency of the complaints system. It commends the three services on their commitment to tackling all forms of unacceptable behaviour and on ensuring that servicemen and women are treated well. Dr. Atkins has reported that the complaints system is well designed and is working, but there is scope for improvement. I acknowledge and accept that. It is her job to help us to improve the system, but not her job alone. It must be taken seriously by all three services and by the MOD, which is considering the commissioner’s report in detail. We expect to provide a formal response in the summer.

We are building a good working relationship with the commissioner. The MOD and the services are committed to raising awareness of Dr. Atkins’ role among all servicemen and women. The commissioner will issue 40,000 leaflets to armed forces personnel all over the world with the full support of the chain of command. Furthermore, the commissioner continues to visit our people regularly and has the opportunity freely to talk to all ranks.

Widening the commissioner’s power has been advocated today. The Government committed themselves to the establishment of a Service Complaints Commissioner in their response to the Deepcut review published in June 2006. Provisions had already been proposed in the Armed Forces Bill for an independent external reviewer who would examine the fairness, effectiveness and efficiency of the service complaints system and report to Ministers annually.

A big difference between those who advocate an ombudsman and those of us who support the current role is that we do not want the chain of command to be circumvented. We are committed to the chain of command doing the job that we require it to do. Rather than circumvent that, which a different system of complaints such as an ombudsman might do, we want the Service
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Complaints Commissioner to work with the chain of command and to help it to improve the system and to change the culture that has existed in the armed forces.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood asked about the culture, but acknowledged that she was complaining about the culture that existed in Deepcut 10 years ago. It has been acknowledged that that culture was unacceptable and a lot has been done to try to change it over the years. We have set up the complaints commissioner and taken attitude surveys which show that people are still reluctant to complain to try to change the culture and force those issues out so that we can amend a system that has been unsatisfactory in the past.

Mrs. Humble: I acknowledge that a lot has changed since the Deepcut inquiry. However, the Service Complaints Commissioner’s report highlights huge differences between different commanding officers and senior officers. She points to poor and good examples. Surely when the armed services look at the report they should ensure that all commanding officers behave according to the good practice that she has highlighted and that poor practice is done away with.

Mr. Ainsworth: Precisely. That is why the commissioner said what she said in her first report. We will respond to that and hon. Members will see how that goes. That is the point that the commissioner was making. My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), who is no longer in the Chamber, said that the commissioner should be given the opportunity to raise wider issues, not just individual cases. She has done so: some wider issues are contained in her first report. As she gets more experience of the system and receives more feedback on it, more detailed issues will come out in subsequent reports, which we will have to respond to. I do not disagree with my hon. Friend at all.

The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) complained that he could not get a copy of the report. I do not know why. There was a written ministerial statement on 4 March and copies were made available in the Vote Office in the normal way. We also made it available on the internet, which is how he obtained it. I do not recognise the problem that he raises.

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) has made very serious allegations without providing a shred of evidence to support them. He is basically saying that two police forces and the MOD all conspired to cover up these murders and that Sir Nicholas Blake conducted a sham inquiry. The only thing, it seems, that gets to the bottom of these issues is a play. Perhaps the next time we have an inquiry into very serious matters such as the deaths of young Army trainees, we ought to invite a playwright to conduct it. That seems to be the thrust of what the hon. Gentleman proposes. He has made allegations about things that I am supposed to have said. I will check up on that. If I am wrong I will apologise to him, but if he is wrong he will apologise to me.

Lembit Öpik rose—

Mr. Ainsworth: I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman. If he is wrong, he will apologise to me—let me make that point to him.

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Lembit Öpik rose—

Mr. Ainsworth: No, I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman. He made an allegation. I will check the record and come back to him. If he is wrong, he will withdraw the allegation.

Lembit Öpik: On a point of order, Mr. Pope. I am not blaming the current Minister. I want to make it absolutely clear—I was referring to one of his predecessors. I will speak to the Minister after the debate to clarify exactly who I meant.

Mr. Greg Pope (in the Chair): That is not a matter for their Chair, but it is on the record.

Mr. Ainsworth: I am not sure that that is what the record will show when we go into it.

The hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) suggested that the Service Complaints Commissioner should be able to provide a conduit for complaints from families. She can do that, and has already done so. It is an important part of her role that she provides an alternative conduit for people to raise complaints, whether they are members of the services or their families. If people do not wish to go through the chain of command, they have another way to feed their complaints in.

The hon. Gentleman said that he was not concerned about the number of complaints because in any organisation they should be dealt with quickly and promptly at a low level. I absolutely agree with him that that is the ideal. However, there is no evidence that that is being done effectively in every part of the armed forces. The Service Complaints Commissioner said that she wants that to happen systematically across the board, but that it is not yet happening. I think that she is probably right. There is a major problem with complaints not being dealt with quickly at a low level that we need to put right. In the time available to me, I have been unable to respond to many issues that have been raised. I will write to hon. Members to try to fill in the gaps on the more substantial points, which are perfectly worthy and deserve a response.

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Extended School Programme

11 am

Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab): I am very grateful for this opportunity to discuss extended schools and related issues again. In the past couple of years, the Minister has been more than generous with her time, as I have debated extended schools and have corresponded and discussed with her the delivery of that incredibly important programme. She has sometimes expressed concerns about my approach, so, for the avoidance of doubt, I want to put on record yet again that I come at the subject from the perspective of someone who believes that, along with the Sure Start and children’s centre programmes for the under-fives, the extended school approach is one of the most important things that we can do for our children. However, I remain concerned that aspects of delivery, including reliance on co-funding from sources outside her Department, upon which her programme depends, still need further work.

I am aware that extended schools and the whole early years programmes have their detractors—the usual sources, who will use any stick that they can to beat the Government, particularly on the grounds that the measures we are putting in place for children and young people are being taken primarily, sometimes even exclusively, to drive parents into the workplace. Not only do I think that there is nothing wrong with having an early years programme and an extended schools programme that allow parents who choose to work to do so, safe in the knowledge that their children will be looked after, but I have always been convinced that the Government’s approach to those agendas is founded in something bigger and even more important than that perfectly worthy objective. We have to enrich the lives of our children, particularly those whose opportunities are narrowest.

As someone who represents an inner-city constituency that includes not only some of the wealthiest parts of the country, but many areas that are amongst the poorest, I am reminded daily of the challenge that we face with our young people, who are, overwhelmingly, growing up in flats. The great majority of young people are growing up without access to their own garden space and in families who are poor, workless, or in work but in poverty—as we all know, half of all families in poverty are also in employment. Young people are growing up on the edges of central London with incredibly rich and diverse cultural opportunities nearby, but they simply never access them. Among my son’s classmates are children who have never been to the theatre, never been to the country and never had any opportunities to access what those of us with even relatively modest incomes can take for granted. Their lives are blighted as a consequence. The alienation of young people, which sometimes leaves them in the group that we call NEETs—those not in education, employment or training—or caught up in crime and antisocial behaviour, is underpinned by an inability to move in the adult world of interaction that is taken for granted by those of us who have had those opportunities, and by a lack of confidence that is brought about by that inability. They are surrounded by the riches of one of the greatest cities in the world, but they do not access those riches.

The underlying philosophy of extended schools includes not just homework clubs, catch-up clubs and extra educational opportunities, but, as the Government’s
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own document spells out, music, drama, arts, sport, trips and cultural visits. One of the most important things that we can do for our young people is extend the curriculum and bring it to life by giving the opportunities that make it concrete and broaden the educational experience by making it more practical. That will give people the confidence they need to be able to move in the sophisticated world that some of them have been denied—in many cases, because their parents are not able to do so, perhaps because they have massive barriers of their own such as being drug and alcohol users. Some have been in prison, have mental health problems or are new to this country and do not speak the language. Some, tragically, are simply indifferent and do not provide their children with those experiences even though they could. For such children, it is absolutely marvellous that we have the extended school programme.

I know that the Minister will say that the investment in extended schools is significant and increasing. I acknowledge and welcome that. I am also particularly pleased with the extended schools disadvantage subsidy, which goes some way towards meeting my concerns, because it will direct additional resources into the neighbourhoods, schools and populations that need it most. Perhaps the Minister will say more about that in her reply.

We now know the extent to which the number of schools offering the full core offer is increasing—we have the figures. The Minister is well aware of my concern that my borough, Westminster, has been trailing badly in delivering the offer. A few months ago, when I was doing some work that resulted in an excellent article in The Guardian on the subject, only half of all schools were offering the full core offer. Given how much we need, that causes me real heartache. There has been significant improvement in my borough recently as well, and I put that down to a dynamic new appointment. I put on record my admiration for Peter Turner, who has taken the programme by the scruff of the neck. Previously, we lacked that sort of senior management buy-in and the ability to deliver the programme, but there have been real improvements in delivering the service in my area.

That is the good news, and there is plenty of it, but I asked for this opportunity to discuss the programme again because I am still very anxious about a few aspects. First and foremost, although it is early days and the disadvantaged children’s subsidy is yet to kick in—it was piloted last year and there will be an extended pilot this year—the Government’s own research confirms that children from more deprived backgrounds are less likely than the average to use the activities and child care services available in the extended schools programme. It worrying that a programme that was designed explicitly to reach out to and lift children with the narrowest opportunities is not delivering as well to them as to the average. That is not, as slick headlines would have it, a damning indictment of the whole programme, but it gives us cause to ask what is not being done that needs to be done.

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