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Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. The Blake review is a substantial document and will require detailed study, but we must not lose sight of the fact that it was necessary because of the deaths of four young recruits. These deaths were personal tragedies, and the hearts of all noble Lords will go out to their parents and families.

Like previous reports, the Blake review will have wider implications for our Armed Forces, the way they train their recruits and the MoD's duty of care. These issues are complex because they require a difficult balance. On the one hand, the Army needs individuals who will put themselves in the line of fire to protect all of us, and that inevitably requires a robust and tough training environment and a culture quite unlike that of civilian life. On the other hand, the Army has a duty of care to each individual under its command.

Mr Blake makes a number of important points. He finds that the Army did not cause the deaths of the three recruits whose cases he studied, although he identifies a number of "institutional failures" in the Army. Despite calls for a public inquiry, he believes that no useful purpose will be served by holding one. He concludes that no new reliable evidence as to how the four trainees met their deaths is likely to be available. We recognise that that will come as a disappointment to the families, but Mr Blake's decision confirms the view that we have taken all along.

The review demonstrates that mistakes were made in the MoD's duty of care for the young recruits in its charge and opportunities missed in dealing with the problems at the base. Between 1988 and 2002, seven inquiries into MoD training identified a number of the problem areas and shortfalls in provision. However, the MoD failed to act on these. The defence budget was grossly overstretched, and too often training seemed like an easy source of savings and a low priority for funding and improvements.

The review is particularly critical of the levels of supervision at Deepcut, which in some cases were as bad as 1:60. In a Westminster Hall debate on 27 April 2004, the Secretary of State announced a further 179 instructors and a supervisory ratio target of 1:38 in all phase 1 and phase 2 training establishments. Can the Minister confirm that this target of 1:38 has been met?
 
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The review is very critical of the poor accommodation and the sanitary and washing facilities available. What improvements has the MoD made in this very important area?

We are aware that two of these recruits had medical records of self-harm prior to recruitment, unknown to the MoD. What is the MoD doing to identify vulnerable recruits on entry into the service? Is there sufficient psychological profiling of potential recruits, and will the Minister's department consider automatic availability of NHS medical records prior to a recruitment decision? What improvements have been made to the vetting procedure of instructors following the conviction of Leslie Skinner in December 2004 for indecent assault on four young recruits? Problems have been identified arising from the break between phase 1 and phase 2 training. What plans do the Government have to restructure the training programme to reduce the problems experienced by soldiers awaiting trade training?

We welcome the recognition in the Statement of the need to spread and sustain best practice in relation to young soldiers beyond Deepcut—Bassingbourn and the Army Foundation College at Harrogate were both mentioned. We welcome the recognition that it would be appropriate to amend the Armed Forces Bill to meet some of the points identified by Mr Blake, and the Government can look to the Opposition to give a fair wind to such amendments.

The Ministry of Defence and the Army are clearly embarked on a number of sensible measures to help prevent a recurrence of such failings. I hope that the Minster will continue to report regularly to this House that the better practices are in full operation, and that they have not been allowed to slide back as the memories of what did and did not happen at Deepcut slide back into the past.

4.10 pm

Lord Garden: My Lords, I thank the Minister both for early sight of the Statement and the opportunity to have access to the report at the Ministry of Defence early this morning. Our sympathy is also with the families of these young soldiers, who died so early in their lives.

Time will not allow us to deal with each of the 34 important recommendations in the Blake review, just as the Statement talks only broadly about them. When are we going to get this full report back? We cannot wait years to hear the Ministry of Defence's response. I trust that it will be within, for example, three months.

As we have heard, the review does not recommend a further public inquiry, given that it does not believe that more evidence will emerge at this stage. It does, however, recommend disclosure of information to the families, among other measures. It is too early to know how the families, who have suffered so much, will react. However, if the recommendations of the report in this section are fully implemented, closure may be achieved. We will have to wait to see how the police and the Government react to the recommendations.
 
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A number of important recommendations could be implemented by Ministry of Defence Ministers now. Do they intend to immediately implement them in full? The measures range widely, from the living conditions, supervisory arrangements, instructor vetting and training and investigation arrangements, through to complaints procedures. We have raised many of these issues on many occasions. It is always a question of priority for resources.

Will the Minister assure us that under-18 year-olds in training are not to be put at risk through losing out in the resource priorities battle within the defence programme? Will he immediately implement the recommendation for separate training facilities for those aged 16? Will the poor accommodation, identified as a factor, be upgraded now and not left to rot like so much of the rest of the defence estate? Will the measures to vet and train instructors be implemented now, for the protection of young people? Will the recommendations regarding the Military Police be implemented? Here, again, we have concerns about resources, just as we recently had over the police in Iraq. In particular, will the Minister undertake to implement recommendation 24—that the Royal Military Police be brought formally under Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary?

In this brief opportunity to focus on the issues raised by Deepcut, I wish to finish with two major areas. First, in recommendation 3, Blake examines whether it is right that the UK is one of the few countries which recruits child soldiers—that is, those under 18. We have had international criticism for this 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. As long as the education benefits outweigh the downside of having child soldiers, the report requires a number of special safeguards: the separation of 16 year-olds; a right to resign if still under training, even if past your 18th birthday by the time you get there; and, most importantly—I ask for the Minister's comments and assurance on this—that no posting to the field army will occur before the age of 18. Do the Government intend to implement these immediately?

Finally, recommendation 26 calls for the establishment of a commissioner of military complaints—an Armed Forces ombudsman for all the Armed Forces, not just 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 could address the 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. Do the Government intend to take up that proposal in the Armed Forces Bill?

If any good is to come from these terrible, tragic events at Deepcut, the Ministry of Defence needs to respond and transfer all the necessary resources to
 
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make its under-18 training regime safe, otherwise it needs to consider whether it can continue to recruit such young people into the army.

4.15 pm

Lord Drayson: My Lords, I am grateful for the tone taken by the noble Lords opposite in commenting on the Blake review. I stress that there is a complete commitment from the top of the Ministry of Defence and throughout the organisation to learn the lessons from the Blake review. It is right that we take the time to reflect fully on the recommendations of this detailed and comprehensive review to ensure that the implementation is done properly. Therefore, it is not appropriate for me to give commitments in this House today to implement the recommendations, but I give a commitment that I and my ministerial team will look at and review the Blake recommendations with speed. I shall answer directly noble Lords' questions on the timescale for reporting back. Consistent with making sure that when we report back we are able to do so in a way that focuses on implementation, we will report back quickly—within months.

With regard to the context in which the Blake review has taken place, it is important for us to note that a considerable amount has already been done by the Ministry of Defence and, particularly, by the British Army throughout the past seven years. Indeed, things were already being done prior to 1995. None the less, Blake shows that despite the significant improvements that have been made, which the report recognised, they have not gone far enough. More needs to be done. To give a specific example of what has been done already, I can say that considerable investment has gone into living accommodation. If people were to visit Deepcut today they would find, compared with five years ago, a significant improvement in the facilities. However, going forward from here, it is right to focus on the pace at which implementation takes place. I make a commitment to the House to report back to it regularly on the pace of that implementation. It is vital for us to show that we are properly putting people before equipment, that we have the right balance within our defence budget and that, consistent with the tempo and challenge of operations that we undertake within the defence budget, we put people first. There are clearly no better examples of people who should be put first than the youngest members of the Armed Forces, the trainees coming into them.

It is important for me to give that context to our response. We are working on the specifics of matters such as medical record disclosure—which was one of Blake's recommendations—and improvements in vetting procedures. We need to look in detail at how we can implement them properly. I know that in relation to vetting procedures we would like to go further with Criminal Records Bureau checks, but are unable to do so under the current legislation in respect of people already in full-time employment, rather than those applying for employment. We are having discussions with the Home Office about what can be done to develop legislation to enable us to go further.
 
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We are restructuring our training programme, which the noble Lord asked for. We must recognise the challenge that the Army faces in phase 2 training. Deepcut is a phase 2 training establishment where soldiers, having been through their basic training, go through their trade training, which can take several years to complete. It is a challenge for us to ensure that during that process their motivation is maintained for a considerable period. One of our innovations is to take people from the training establishment and have them spend short periods with the field army to maintain their motivation and recycle that trade training.

Levels of appropriate supervision depend on the activities undertaken and the particular factors at each training establishment. Training establishments carry out different functions. Noble Lords have mentioned that Blake describes the excellent facilities provided at Bassingbourn and Harrogate. These clearly are good models which we know are working, so we have achieved improvements but have further to go.

We accept that levels of supervision have been unacceptable in the past, and are making the improvements that need to be implemented now. We use the commanding officers' risk assessment guidelines to determine the appropriate levels, as well as to ensure that the focus on the training of instructors is improved. I would be happy to provide further reports to the House as we make progress. We expect to be able to report on all the recommendations made by Blake to the House in months, but it is important, as noble Lords have requested, that that is maintained subsequently with regular updates.

4.21 pm


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