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Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, for giving the House the opportunity to debate the Blake report again. As we consider its conclusions, our thoughts and sympathy go out to the families of those young recruits who died at the Deepcut Barracks. As the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, and my noble friend Lord Attlee said, I would like to compliment Mr Nicholas Blake and the review team for the scope and detail of the report.

As I said in my response to the Statement last month, we on these Benches agree with the review's conclusion that there is no value in holding a public
 
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inquiry, provided, as the noble Lord, Lord Garden, said, the recommendations are carried out fully and quickly. The review indicates that,

We hope that the Army, and Ministers, are now concentrating on learning lessons from those tragic circumstances and are putting into practice the constructive suggestions that the review has made to ensure that events like these will never take place again. It is not for us to dictate to the Army what to do, but it is for them to tell us, through Ministers, what they are doing. That must include sufficient detail to show that they are progressing with improvements and not letting them slide as new priorities emerge. I would particularly highlight the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Garden, about the accommodation standards being a disgrace. I welcome the Minister's commitment to report back to the House with periodic updates on the progress that is being made.

A fine balance is required in military training. We ask our soldiers to put themselves into hostile and very dangerous situations. Their training must therefore be robust and rigorous. But the Army, rightly, has a duty of care for each individual under its command. If that duty of care is to be successful, there must be sufficient numbers of qualified supervisory personnel. The noble Viscount, Lord Slim, mentioned the complete lack of junior officers and NCOs. The Blake review is particularly critical of the levels of supervision at Deepcut, which in some cases were as low 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. Will the Minister confirm that this target of 1:38 has been met? As the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, said in response to the Statement, this training is best achieved through effective leadership and good man management. Whatever institutional changes are made, significant improvements will result from employing high standards of leadership, based on integrity, pride and espirit de corps.

To encourage future recruits, they and their families need to be confident that the British Army can deliver a culture of nurture and training which is free from bullying and harassment. For that, proper supervision is crucial. As the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, said, bullying is a serious offence. I compliment the noble Lord on his excellent and vigorous campaign to stamp out bullying in the Army.

The review makes a number of recommendations relating to recruitment. What practical steps are being considered to increase involvement of parents in the recruitment process? What practical considerations are the Government giving to the recommendation regarding medical records being made readily available prior to a recruitment decision?

A significant number of recruits are vulnerable individuals who come to the Army from difficult and unstable backgrounds. Faced with the rigours of
 
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military training, they require a robust support mechanism from the chain of command. Any apparent evidence of self-harm or abuse must be quickly recognised by officers and dealt with. The review also rightly recommends ending the practice of armed guard duty being used as a punishment for recruits who have not completed training with firearms. This point was well made by the noble Viscount, Lord Slim.

What improvements are being made to the ongoing of training for instructors to better equip them to recognise and address issues that arise among trainees from difficult backgrounds? Following the conviction of Leslie Skinner, what improvements have been made to the vetting procedure for instructors? What implications will the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill have on the vetting of instructors? There are clear shortcomings in the training structure, as illustrated by the report of the House of Commons Defence Committee on duty of care published last year. Recruits are passing out of phase 1 training without the necessary preparation to attempt phase 2. These soldiers then await trade training in limbo. Can the Minister tell the House how much he believes that an indeterminate length of phase 2 training contributes to recruit dissatisfaction?

The noble Viscount, Lord Slim, and my noble friend Lord Attlee both mentioned the Royal Military Police. The review raises some important questions regarding the tasking, training, equipping and reporting methods of the Royal Military Police, and clearly there is scope to improve the quality and breadth of RMP investigations, particularly those involving abuse, self-harm and sexual offences. What consideration are the Government giving to the improvement of investigative best practice and ensuring that the RMP are sufficiently resourced to carry out complex investigations?

This has been a very useful debate, and as my noble friend Lord Attlee said, I very much hope that these soldiers will not have died in vain.

8.12 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Drayson): My Lords, I am deeply grateful for all the contributions made this evening, and I thank in particular my noble friend Lord Ashley of Stoke for securing the debate. I recognise his deep interest and concern, as well as his long-standing commitment to many of these matters, not least bullying in the Army. I should like to state that the concerns that have been raised in the debate, which were brought into sharp focus as a result of the Blake review, have led to an equal focus in the Ministry of Defence—at ministerial level and, as the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, said, from the top to the bottom—to make absolutely sure that all the matters that have come to light as a result of Deepcut are addressed.

As I said in my Statement on 29 March this year repeating the announcement made in another place on the publication of the Deepcut review, we are grateful to Nicholas Blake QC for conducting such a thorough
 
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review into the circumstances surrounding the deaths of the four young soldiers at Deepcut, and I join noble Lords in expressing our deep condolences to the families of the soldiers. We are satisfied that the report represents an independent, objective and comprehensive analysis of all the matters relevant to the four deaths, including the wider issues that have been highlighted as a result. The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, asked whether I had read the report: I read it from cover to cover before coming to the House to make the Statement. I have to say to the noble Earl that I was shocked by it.

The noble Viscount, Lord Slim, raised particular concerns that emerge from the report, in particular about some of the details relating to the evidence that was provided to Blake. In part, the detailed work undertaken by Blake has led to a real commitment in the Ministry of Defence to addressing the issues. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Garden, and all noble Lords that the issues will not be kicked into the long grass. In response to the noble Lord, Lord Astor, I can say that I have already made a commitment to come back to the House to make regular reports. We will do that on a regular basis, and we are committed to ensuring that lessons are learnt and that these people have not died in vain. We as Ministers will make sure that that happens.

I am sure that noble Lords will understand that there is a limit to what I can say tonight, given the relatively short time since the Blake report was published. What I can say is that we are looking closely and with real urgency at all the recommendations and considering how they can best be implemented and how to do so without reducing the effectiveness of our necessarily robust and challenging military training environment.

The noble Lord, Lord Garden, and other noble Lords raised the issue of resourcing, focusing particularly on accommodation. We have been doing a significant amount of work on that in the Ministry of Defence, and we continue to do so. But the noble Lord is right to focus on this fundamental resource matter. It is about making sure that we strike the right balance when putting resources in place to support our people in the Ministry of Defence. The Blake review clearly raises issues that focus on whether or not that is being done. When we are in a position to do so, we will of course publish our response to the Deepcut review in full.

Noble Lords will be aware that the Armed Forces Bill will shortly come before the House, and some of the issues raised by Mr Blake touch on the provisions of that legislation. We shall ensure that the Government's response is available to the House to assist it in its consideration of the Bill. I said in answer to questions raised following the Statement of 29 March that we would come back to the House with our responses to the recommendations shortly, in a few months. That we intend to do.

My noble friend Lord Ashley of Stoke has repeated the view that he expressed on 29 March that a public inquiry is the only real way to find out exactly what
 
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happened. He went on to say that he believed that, after suffering so much, the families were entitled to such an inquiry. However, noble Lords will be aware that the review concluded that a public inquiry was not necessary. It saw no reason to believe that avenues of investigation were outstanding or that new, relevant information relating to the deaths could now come to light. The Defence Committee of the other place came to a similar conclusion. We share those views and, given the extensive investigations that have taken place, see no public or service interest in pursuing that approach. However, I have noted the strong views expressed by my noble friend, and I will ensure that they are brought to the attention of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State.

Mr Blake recognised that one important reason underlining the calls by the families for a public inquiry was that, in the cases of Sean Benton, Geoff Gray and Cheryl James, they had not seen the material relating to their child's death that had come to light since the original inquests. Mr Blake therefore recommended that Surrey Police should provide them with copies of their reports and witness statements solely for the purpose of considering whether an application should be made to the High Court to set aside the previous inquest. I understand that Mr Blake has written to Surrey Police on the matter and provided a copy of his report. The Ministry of Defence would of course co-operate fully in any such process.

I turn now to some of Mr Blake's recommendations. We welcome his conclusion that young people with suitable qualities for a military career should continue to be able to enlist at 16. Half of those who enter initial Army training are under 18. They are vital to the Army, but it is also important to acknowledge what the Army offers them. Mr Blake states that for many young people, including those who otherwise may not have an opportunity to lead structured and fulfilling lives, the Armed Forces offer broad opportunities for the acquisition of new skills and career development that schools and colleges may not. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Garden, and others have said, we recognise the special obligations that that places on us with regard to those young people, and commanding officers are well aware of the specific welfare needs of recruits and trainees under the age of 18.

We recognise the vital role that parents play in support of their children, both before and after they have joined the Armed Forces. Our recruiting officers make every effort to establish and sustain links with the parents or guardians of those who have applied to join the Armed Forces, and commanding officers are required to write to parents or guardians on the arrival of recruits under 18, explaining how they can contact the unit if they have any concerns that they wish to raise and providing information on the training that their son or daughter will undertake. Parents' days are held during courses, and parents are encouraged to attend the final passing-out ceremony.

We recognise the importance of instructors at service training establishments and already have work in hand to develop a "train the trainer" package, which includes modules on the care and welfare of trainees.
 
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The first courses began last November. A new staff leadership school is due to be opened at Pirbright in 2007, where all Army instructors will be trained. The noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, has asked specifically about the progress that we are making in putting in place actions in response to the recommendations. This gives some examples of actions that we have been taking, but we recognise that there are areas where it is urgent for us to respond to the 34 recommendations set out in the Blake review.

Mr Blake concludes that there is no evidence that the four young soldiers were bullied to death at Deepcut but finds that some personnel there—perhaps only a small minority—experienced some form of harassment, discrimination or oppressive behaviour. That is unacceptable. We must address it as a matter of urgency. My noble friend has rightly stated that he has brought up the issue many times with the Ministry of Defence. It is incumbent on us as Ministers to do everything that we can to root out harassment and bullying in our Armed Forces. It is not a problem unique to the Armed Forces in this country; none the less we must do everything in our power to eliminate it.

At every stage of the training it is made clear to trainees that the Armed Forces do not tolerate any form of bullying and harassment. All service personnel are informed of the means by which they can bring any allegations of such conduct to the attention of the appropriate authority to be properly investigated. Recruits are issued with a training covenant card, encouraging them to report bullying and harassment and clearly setting out how a recruit should behave and how they can expect to be treated. We are looking at how we can best ensure that our personnel have the confidence to raise a grievance and the confidence that it will be dealt with quickly, effectively and fairly.

We have proposed improvements to our complaints system under the Armed Forces Bill. The proposal to establish a commissioner of military complaints will rightly and properly be debated at that time. I will write to fully inform the noble Lord, Lord Garden, on the latest position on the internal surveys that we have carried out.


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