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Earl Attlee: My Lords, I remind the House of my peripheral interest. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, for giving us such an early opportunity to debate this report. The House will be grateful to Mr Blake for his excellent report. It answers many of my questions but it also alerts me to some very serious problems. Most importantly, it allays my worst fears because we were all worried that something simply ghastly was going on in respect of the deaths. I simply did not know the answer. I can say that I know numerous RLC officers and junior soldiers. I have served with them as a junior soldier, so I know them very well. If there was something really awful to report, I am sure they would have told me; and they never did. I never heard anything close to the lurid accusations that we have read about in the media, and I listened very intently.

However, the report is very detailed. I think that perhaps it could have been written a bit more succinctly so that more would read the whole report. Of course, listening to the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, it is quite clear that he has read the report from cover to cover. I read it over the Recess. Given that the usual channels agreed to such an early UQ, has the Minister read the report?

All noble Lords should be grateful for Mr Blake's analysis of all the available evidence. He really seems to understand the military realities of operating such a large base. I have a little concern about the report's excessive reliance on standing orders from high-level headquarters. He frequently refers to Land standing orders. I confess I have never read all the Land standing orders. When I was in command I never even read the district standing orders. No one does. The noble Viscount is smiling at me because he knows that I am right. The reality is that no one reads all the reports or all the orders. If you want them all read and complied with, or at least for people to try to comply with them all, you would need to employ a captain at every single unit to be a compliance officer.

In 1998, as an officer commanding a TA company, one document I studied very carefully, because if the worst happened I would not have the opportunity to study it in time, was the casualty procedure—a point referred to by the noble Viscount. But I am not completely confident about Fiona Murphy's analysis of that procedure in Annex C. I am not fully convinced that she researched her conclusions. For instance, she queries why the casualty procedure is a classified document marked "Restricted". If she had asked any officer, he would have explained that "Restricted" is the lowest security classification possible. The workshop manual for a Land Rover is graded "Restricted". "Restricted" really means "don't give the whole document to the media". It seems to me that she did not arrange for a sanity check by an
 
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experienced retired officer, but I also think that she does not understand the challenges of casualty notification. Any casualty notification system needs to be able to deal with at least 1,000 casualties in one day, but, at the same time, the next of kin needs to be notified within about two hours of the casualty occurring. In addition, the notifying officers need to be course-trained. You cannot use any officer; they must know what they are doing because it is such a sensitive task.

Bad news travels very fast today, but I was surprised when, a few months ago, it appeared that a next of kin was notified of a casualty at 3 am. That was completely contrary to the casualty report system that I read in 1998, but the procedure has been updated. This had been made necessary by modern communications equipment, particularly the mobile phone and the internet. I know some casualty notification officers very well indeed. My information is that the casualty procedure system is fit for purpose, and that the Minister has no problems there.

However, Fiona Murphy's work uncovers an inexplicable and glaring failure. That is the apparent total lack of interest on the part of the commanding officers and other officers at Deepcut in the feelings of the families. It is no surprise that they began to suspect that something sinister may have happened. I certainly do not understand why each family was not invited to Deepcut at an early opportunity. I am sure that if the families had seen and sensed how upset the whole garrison would have been after each event, they might not so easily have become convinced that something had gone very wrong. I wish that Mr Blake had perhaps used his skill and looked a bit closer at why those visits did not occur. Perhaps somebody made a decision that the families were not to be invited to the garrison; perhaps orders were given that that could not happen.

Clearly, as we have all read in the report, something has gone very wrong. The report referred to sub-standard warrant officers who had been reduced to the rank. It stated that the Deepcut training regiment was, and perhaps still is, under-resourced in accommodation and manpower. We read about the lack of secure accommodation for female soldiers. Worst of all, we read about some—though they were only a minority—exceptionally poor-quality junior officers. I have never heard of an officer receiving a confidential report that was so damning. I think that the brigadier wrote, "I have absolutely no confidence in this officer at all". If I received a confidential report like that, I would say, "Well, boss, when do you want me to go?"

The other serious problem that was identified in the report was the very poor police investigation—the noble Viscount talked about that. In the early cases, the Surrey police and the Royal Military Police did not know who had primacy in the investigation. The noble Lord called for a public inquiry, but there is no further evidence to be gained because all the documents have
 
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been destroyed under routine processes. I am shocked by how little ballistic work was done on the early casualties.

The good news, if there is any, is that the report states quite clearly that all the deaths were self-inflicted and that bullying or anything worse was not a factor. However, there should not be a public inquiry for the reasons that Mr Blake so cogently laid out. Mr Blake made numerous recommendations, but I have not been able to give them direct attention because it is too early. However, your Lordships will shortly be working on the Armed Forces Bill. The Bill is highly desirable—we have been asking for it for many years. While it will certainly pass well before the State Opening, I know that many noble Lords will take a keen interest in it and that numerous amendments will certainly be derived from this report.

Those young soldiers will not have died in vain. We will not sweep under the carpet the problems identified in the report and I am sure that all involved, whether in this House or in the Armed Forces, will do everything they can to eliminate or at least reduce this dreadful problem.

7.56 pm

Lord Garden: My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, for this debate. It gives your Lordships an early opportunity to return to the findings of the Blake review of the tragic deaths of four young soldiers at Deepcut Barracks. We heard the Statement just before the Recess. Your Lordships posed many questions to the Minister as a result of what was a first skim of the report. I do not doubt that we will return to each of the 34 recommendations time and time again as we try to ensure that the Government do not kick them into the long grass because of MoD resource or culture factors. The questions that I asked after the Statement was made remain to be answered, and I reiterate my view that we have no business training child soldiers if we compromise their safety on the altar of the defence budget. Is today's announcement by the Minister's colleague Don Touhig that agency status is to be removed from the three service training establishments a first result of the Blake review or is it entirely separate?

Noble Lords have raised the particular circumstances of the deaths at Deepcut, and it is clear that the families of those who died must be given access to all the available information, as the review recommends. I shall not add to what I said when this matter was last raised; that is, that I would support the Blake review's conclusion that a public inquiry is not needed provided that the recommendations are implemented in full, speedily and with enthusiasm by the Government.

I shall focus on the wider issue of what the report reveals about the state of our Armed Forces. It is not the only evidence that we have. The latest Armed Forces pay review body report tells a similar story of the difficulty of allocating sufficient resources to personnel issues given the problems of the defence budget.
 
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These problems are not new, nor are they confined to the period in which the current Government have been in power. Decisions made more than a decade ago are still producing problems today. So in making these observations, I am not looking to allocate blame, but to express concern about how the Armed Forces are becoming progressively more vulnerable to events such as those at Deepcut. The Blake review explains in some detail how the Army put in hand a study, by Lieutenant Colonel Haes, to examine the supervisory ratios at training establishments. The pressures of contractorisation, giving priority to the frontline and general undermanning led to the reductions in the availability of sufficient good supervisors at training establishments.

The Haes report stated:

Blake stated in his report that this was flatly rejected by the Army and he quoted its response:

Blake was referring to the Haes report—

I shall not rehearse the other reviews, internal or external, which have tried to push the MoD into spending adequate amounts of money on the personnel area. Accommodation standards are a continuing disgrace. The newly trumpeted PFI project sets a target of 2016 to complete improvements. We shall find that all those Blake recommendations, which have resource implications, will have to fight for their place in the defence programme against the demands of the equipment and operational areas.

Recommendation 26—the need for a military ombudsman—is the key recommendation of the Blake review, which the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, mentioned. In my response to the Statement, I highlighted this recommendation. My full, in-depth reading of the Blake review has confirmed my support for this important proposal. We should remember that this is not the first time that such a proposal has been made. Independent representation was proposed by Sir Michael Bett in his Independent Review of the Armed Forces' Manpower, Career and Remuneration Structures, published in 1995. That report, in much easier operational times than now, found that 66 per cent of service men and women were in favour of some form of independent representation outside the chain of command. I would be interested to know from the Minister whether there has been a subsequent internal survey in the past decade to determine whether that level of support for some form of independent ombudsman or system is still there or is greater than it was in 1995.

An independent voice in redress procedures has been raised in the context of the Armed Forces Bill. The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, has pointed out that we
 
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will want to come back to those recommendations when we deal with the Bill. I was delighted to see that the discussion that the Armed Forces Bill Select Committee had on 30 March 2006 was on an amendment that would have established an independent Armed Forces federation.

There is a growing call for the military to enjoy some of the rights that other citizens take for granted. At every stage the MoD resists allowing the Armed Forces a right to express concern outside the chain of command. This is not acceptable at this stage. The United States and Australia are among the many nations which welcome such independent arrangements. Since the advent of the new budgetary systems to the way defence works, every commanding officer is put in the position of managing a small business. While trying to manage his budget, he acts, at the same time, as the voice of concern for subordinates, which becomes ever more difficult.

The Blake review has got it right when it states in Chapter 12.98 that,

The following paragraph states:

I trust that the Minister is in a position to tell us more of what the Government intend to do in following the recommendations in the Blake review and, in particular, whether they intend to follow the example of other countries and seek to establish a military ombudsman with, at minimum, the functions described by Blake in the Armed Forces Bill. We shall certainly expect to discuss that when the Bill comes to the House and also the associated but separate question of whether wider representation is needed through some form of Armed Forces federation. It is essential that the balance of resource allocation which the Ministry of Defence makes is redressed now towards the people who serve their country in the Armed Forces.

8.04 pm


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