Deepcut Allegations

– in the House of Commons at 12:32 pm on 30th November 2004.

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Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State (Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence 12:32 pm, 30th November 2004

Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement concerning the Surrey police papers listing allegations of inappropriate behaviour during Army training.

I make it clear first that the Army and the Ministry of Defence take issues of bullying, harassment and any form of mistreatment extremely seriously. We cannot compromise on the nature of our training, which must be sufficiently robust to prepare our soldiers for the considerable hazards and rigours of operations. An Army career has never been, and never will be, a soft option, but I would like to make it clear that violence and intimidation are not the means by which the Army produces the soldiers it needs. Our policy continues to bear down hard on such behaviour and, as far as is possible, to eradicate it completely from our bases and training grounds. We are succeeding at this. Such behaviour has no place whatever in society and neither is it tolerated in the Army.

I am aware that the media coverage yesterday of the Surrey police memorandum submitted to the Defence Committee on 13 October has encouraged those who have been calling for a public inquiry on the very sad events at Deepcut barracks. I would like to address those calls by setting out clearly what this document is and what actions are being taken in response to it.

During the recent investigation of the four Deepcut deaths, Surrey police obtained numerous statements involving allegations of inappropriate behaviour at the base and elsewhere. In their fifth report, published in March 2004, Surrey police alluded to evidence uncovered during their inquiries and indicated that some of those allegations may be subject to further examination in due course.

At the Army's request, in June 2004 Surrey police provided two confidential schedules containing anonymous individual allegations. The first concerned allegations centred on 1995 and the second on the period 2001–02. A memorandum containing these same schedules was submitted to the House of Commons Defence Committee for its 13 October evidence session with Surrey police and this has been made publicly available. I want strongly to refute the allegation that this is a leaked document, and I would call into question the motives of those in the media who have depicted it as such.

There are 118 entries in the two schedules, covering 173 separate allegations. Eighty of the entries are from 1995. The level of detail is sparse, much of it is hearsay, and much of the descriptive content is vague. Names have been excluded, as the material was provided in confidence to Surrey police. The nature of the allegations is wide-ranging. Some concern pay discrepancies, but the majority allege some form of physical or sexual harassment. Some of the allegations appear to relate to the same incident or pattern of behaviour. Nine of the allegations concern rape and all but three of those have been investigated or are still under investigation. Of the three not subject to investigation so far, in the police's judgment, two are unsubstantiated hearsay accounts. Investigations to date have resulted in one known conviction. Within the total of nine rape allegations, there is one case of multiple rape, which is currently under investigation by Surrey police.

Let me make the position on the document clear. In submitting their report, the police set out their views on the material, saying:

"It is important to point out that, to a great extent, the witness recollection is uncorroborated and untested and thus any examples cited should be treated with necessary and appropriate caution. Many of the examples have not been formally investigated at this time as the details were given more as background information as opposed to specific allegations."

Surrey police have also made it clear that they will not be making any further inquiries themselves. The schedules have been examined by the Army and, as a result, Surrey police were approached in September 2004 with a view to obtaining consent for the relevant statements to be disclosed to the Royal Military Police. I am advised that Surrey police have contacted the individuals concerned and I understand that only two individuals have agreed to disclosure. The Royal Military Police will begin investigations into those two cases as soon as the relevant details have been made available by Surrey police.

I have heard others talk about how this document proves that a culture of fear and violence existed at Deepcut barracks. We must be very careful here. This document does not contain evidence. It contains some allegations that have already been investigated and other allegations that are worthy of investigation but that have not yet been tested.

Let me advise the House on how I intend to proceed. These are serious issues, and while I am satisfied that all that can be done is being done, there is a need for that to be seen to be done. I therefore accept the case for a further review by a fully independent figure and will be announcing details shortly.

I wish to make one further point, which is to pay tribute to the many instructors and staff at our military training establishments who produce high-quality, excellently trained and superbly motivated young men and women for our armed forces. We should not lose sight of that fact.

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Shadow Minister (Defence)

I thank the Minister for providing me with advance sight of his statement. At the outset, I repeat what I said in May this year: our hearts go out to the parents and families of those four young recruits who died while training to serve their country.

The issues raised in the Evening Standard, as advance publicity for the Channel 4 documentary to be screened later this week, are extremely serious. As the Minister pointed out, it is important to note the caveat issued by Surrey police that few of the allegations had been formally investigated or tested in court and they should be treated with "necessary and appropriate caution".

Nevertheless, continuing reports of abuse of recruits at Deepcut can serve only to undermine public confidence in the ability of the Army in particular, and the armed forces generally, to discharge the duty of care that they owe to the young recruits entrusted to them. The conviction last month of Private Leslie Skinner is evidence of a substantial and inexcusable failure of the system. The official Opposition have so far refrained from joining the calls for a public inquiry, but unless the Ministry of Defence can convince the British people that the training regime has recaptured trust in its ability to exercise a proper duty of care, it is clear that only a public inquiry will suffice.

The Minister's problem is that all opinion polls show that there is now a universal mistrust of the Prime Minister and the Government generally. Most regrettably, past evidence does not provide grounds for optimism about the Ministry of Defence's ability to reassure the public. There have been no fewer than six internal Army inquiries between 1988 and 2003, each of which has produced recommendations that have been either ignored or rejected as too expensive to implement. In his 2001 report, Lieutenant-Colonel Haes observed:

"The Army Training and Recruitment Agency is failing in certain aspects as a result of a reduction in the military workforce and increased obligations."

A report from today's Evening Standard, which has just been handed to me, reveals classified minutes written, apparently last month, by the Adjutant-General, Sir Alistair Irwin. He

"says he is personally 'grieved' by the 'significant underfunding' of the Army Training and Recruitment Agency . . . the organisation that runs Army training camps."

I hope that the Minister will be able to answer that point. He may not be able to do that immediately, but he must answer General Irwin's allegation that

"It will continue to be an issue to address in 2005".

It is a practical issue that is with us.

While we note the Minister's intention to appoint another independent inspector, in his statement of 24 May this year he told the House that he had appointed the adult learning inspectorate to conduct independent inspection of the armed forces training establishments. What will the new inspector do that the current inspectorate is not already doing? Is the inspectorate on track to report by next Easter, as promised, and in the six months for which it has already been operating, has it identified any significant lessons?

What was the result of the audit carried out this summer by the director of operational capability, commissioned by the Minister? What has been the trend in suicides at Army training establishments since the Government introduced new measures earlier this year? How many allegations of rape, bullying and other abuse have been made this year at Deepcut and Catterick? Are the numbers higher or lower than the trend of recent years? How do the numbers of alleged abuses at Army training establishments compare with those relating to the Royal Navy, Royal Marines and Royal Air Force? Is the Minister satisfied that there is an effective system in place to enable recruits experiencing abuse to report it without fear of retribution? Can he confirm that instructors are now themselves fully trained to identify possible abuse by other recruits?

Finally—here I do agree with the Minister—many tributes have been paid over recent months to the extraordinary professionalism and courage of Her Majesty's armed forces. It is important to recognise that those very qualities derive in large measure from a training system that has to be robust.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State (Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence

I echo the sentiments expressed by Mr. Howarth about the families. I have met all the families. I met Mr. James, father of Cheryl James, on the eighth anniversary of his daughter's death last year. I was due to meet him again today, but the meeting was cancelled at Mr. James's request. I have met all the other families.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the case of Skinner. We have accepted that a bad decision was made at one point—to send him back to Deepcut—but I do not think that that represents a total failure of the system. He was brought to account—brought to justice. All his wrongdoings surfaced and he has now been convicted. There is a tendency to conflate the Skinner case with 1995 and 2001–02. I should make it clear that Skinner was not there during those periods. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is prepared to accept that.

The hon. Gentleman is right about the need to recapture the public's trust. We are faced with considerable criticism about that, which is why I am looking for a way of achieving it.

The hon. Gentleman did his case a disservice by trying to bring political point scoring into this. Let me repeat that the earlier incidents were in 1995, long before my time in Government and before the present Administration began. When the incidents in 2001–02 occurred, I immediately asked for a full examination of everything that was being done in all other training establishments, not just in the Army but in the Navy and Air Force. I asked for that to be done independently, through the DOC inquiry. That body has reported three times and all its findings have been made public. I have published every document relating to these matters. They were not published before but they have been published on my watch, so that I can ensure that people have full understanding and awareness of all the issues.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the decision to appoint the adult learning inspectorate, which was based on a sound and strong recommendation. It will not be examining the past; rather, this is about giving confidence for the future, and it is on course to report to me in the spring of next year. The chairman of that body has open access to me, and I have made it clear to him—he has stated this publicly—that if he finds any resistance anywhere within the system, he should immediately contact me or the Under-Secretary of State, who also has responsibility in this area. The chairman has made no such reports to date, and in fact, he is making good progress in getting full co-operation within the system. The Army, Navy and Air Force take great pride in what they do at all levels of training, and they want to ensure the public's confidence.

The hon. Gentleman asked a number of questions about the trend in suicides. It is too soon to tell and we cannot establish a trend for the period in question. However, it is worth bearing it in mind that the suicide level for the armed forces as a whole is lower than the national average, although within a particular cohort it is significantly higher. That said, the cohort in question is small, so it is very hard to reach a firm conclusion. None the less, one suicide is one too many, and we must seek to address that issue.

All the information is out there and we have given full visibility. As I said, I will shortly be making arrangements for the further review that I intend to carry out.

Photo of Paul Keetch Paul Keetch Shadow Secretary of State for Defence, Defence

I thank the Minister for making his statement to the House today, and I associate myself and my right hon. and hon. Friends with the condolences offered to the families concerned.

Yesterday's allegations concerning Deepcut are truly horrifying. If only a handful of them are true, we should all be ashamed. If they were made about a British Army camp holding Iraqi prisoners of war, there would be worldwide condemnation, but this is a British Army training camp consisting of British Army trainees. It is the same training camp in which four young soldiers apparently committed suicide. Why does the Minister believe that these were individual, isolated incidents? Does he accept that those four deaths could have been linked and might they not be related to the abuse that yesterday's allegations appear to reveal? Will his review therefore cover the deaths, as well as yesterday's allegations? Will it be held in public, when will he announce it and who will appoint the person who will run it? That person needs to be independent, as well as experienced.

I do not believe that bullying is rampant within the British Army, and nor do I doubt that a tough training regime is required, but at Deepcut those lines may have been crossed. For the sake of the families who seek answers, for the sake of the good reputation of the British Army and for the sake of those young men and women who deserve our protection as they train to defend us, we believe that there should be a full and independent public inquiry. We suspect that, one day, there will be.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State (Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence

First, may I correct the hon. Gentleman, who should choose his language very carefully in dealing with this issue? He has been dealing with it for some time and he should not refer to the deaths as four suicides—

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State (Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence

If I did, I, too, should choose my words carefully. The situation is that one of the deaths was declared a suicide, two resulted in open verdicts and one has still to be determined—[Interruption.] I am glad that Opposition Members agree, because these are the facts. The coroner's inquest—a due process of law—will be an open process with no limitations, and it can call for anything that it wants. It is also important to bear it in mind that it will be conducted under the full auspices of human rights legislation. Of course, it will then have to be considered in any further review.

Any further review will also have to consider the fact that there are ongoing inquiries. We do not want to prejudice a process that may result in police inquiries or in criminal charges. We have to walk a line in order to get this absolutely right, because when people are accused, they are innocent until proven guilty. Let us not run away with ourselves. We are supposed to be a House of higher thinking, placing great weight on the balance of the argument. That is what we are seeking—certainly what I am seeking—to do in dealing with this particular issue. I think that I have addressed the main thrust of what was said by Mr. Howarth

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State (Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence

I have already said that it will be announced shortly.

Photo of Mr Brian Sedgemore Mr Brian Sedgemore Labour, Hackney South and Shoreditch

Is the Minister aware that the public are becoming increasingly bewildered by the defensive posture of Ministers towards what appears to be a pattern of bad behaviour, negligence, crime and possibly manslaughter and murder at Deepcut? It is probably too late now to find out how one my constituents, Private Gray, died, not least because the Army was itself negligent in conducting the initial inquiry. Surely it is now time not for another review, but for a public inquiry.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State (Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence

I accept that there is a level of public concern about it, but let me say that, when a death occurs on an Army barracks, it is not a matter for the Army to conduct its own inquiry, but a matter for the police. The police have primacy in all of this. [Interruption.] I am trying to answer the questions put to me and am happy to respond to further questions later. The police and the Army have recognised failings in the way that the earlier procedures were carried out. We cannot undo that. In one sense, I do not have responsibility, because I was not there at the time.

I am trying to work through the process of recognising that we have high-quality training through our Army, Air Force and Navy establishments; otherwise, we would not have the best fighting force in the world. Between 1995 and 2002, 12,000 recruits have been through Deepcut. It is not a broken machine and it is not really as some people like to describe it. There are certainly some aspects that require proper examination; much of it has already been undertaken and more needs to be done.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

As the Minister knows, Deepcut is in my constituency. Will he join me in paying tribute to the senior officers of Surrey police and to the senior officers at Deepcut in recent times who have had to deal with the poisoned chalice of this terrible and tragic history, which did not occur when they were the commanding officers? Will he acknowledge that the Army at Deepcut has the support of the local community and that the current commanding officer, Brigadier Clive Elderton, who is about to move on to other duties, has done a superb job in trying to deal with this problem?

In his initial statement, the Minister touched on the irresponsibility of certain aspects of the media coverage of the incident. Does he agree that it has been made immeasurably more difficult for the current senior military officers—and, indeed, the police—to work in an atmosphere where correspondents hang about local pubs trying to pick up any gossip about Deepcut in order to report it in the most sensational manner? That does no service to the families who suffered from this tragic loss and it certainly does not do the local community, the police and the Army any service.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State (Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence

That was a helpful contribution. I did pay tribute to the staff and I echo that sentiment again. I also paid tribute to the work of the Surrey police in compiling and analysing the issues and taking them forward. I fully recognise the strong support within the community for the Deepcut barracks and I readily understand why that is. Deepcut is a place of excellence. Having said that, there are some unsatisfactory elements in what has happened in the past. We have to bottom it out and find the reasons for it. We are now in receipt of some of that information and we are working our way progressively through the background to it. We should all bear in mind what the Surrey police said about the evidence—I know that Mr. Hawkins accepts it—and about how many of the allegations should be treated with caution.

Photo of Mr Kevin McNamara Mr Kevin McNamara Labour, Kingston upon Hull North

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the families are asking for a public judicial inquiry, and nothing short of that will satisfy them, because they believe that, in respect of the deaths and other circumstances, the Army has failed in its duty of care. They want to know what happened to their loved ones and what treatment was suffered by those who served at the barracks. They believe that that will come out only if there is a public judicial inquiry.

My right hon. Friend made an important announcement in his statement when he said that he was going to appoint an independent figure to review these matters. However, what is at least as important as the independence of the person appointed is the powers that he will have. Is he only to examine documents or will he have the power to summon witnesses and take evidence? Will the families have a right to appear before him to provide their evidence? Will the review be limited to Deepcut, given that there are continuing worries about deaths in Catterick and the treatment of soldiers there? My right hon. Friend has not covered all those points, but they are fundamental if people are to accept the good faith of the Ministry of Defence. I realise that it may be a bad thing to say from the Government side of the House, but if we are to accept the MOD's good faith in establishing this new inquiry, it must not be seen to be another cover-up and another cloud. We would be prepared to accept some delay while the criminal proceedings are finished in order to have a proper, fair, impartial, judicial public inquiry.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State (Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence

Let me make it clear to my hon. Friend that there is no intention of a cover-up and nothing I have done to date could lead anyone to that conclusion. Every document has been published and all the material advice that has come to me as a Minister about all the training establishments—not just those of the Army—has been made public. Three reports have been published as a result and I hope that he has had the chance to read them. I know that he takes a close interest in these matters. If he reads, or has read, the third report, he will note the very considerable progress made in attending to some of the key issues that were referred to in the first report. There is a trend within the inquiries carried out among the recruits at these establishments, demonstrating a significant change in attitudes towards possible bullying and harassment.

Progress has been made, but I have to say that we cannot be perfect. No institution in the world is perfect. We will have bullying, we will have harassment and we will have unsavoury incidents. We have had them in the past and no doubt will in future. What we have to do, and what we are seeking to do, is to create a zero tolerance attitude towards those problems. We have tried to secure a culture in all the training establishments that encourages such openness. If anyone has been subjected to any wrongdoing, they should refer it appropriately. I make that plea time and again.

My hon. Friend asked about the status of what I have announced today. My preferred option—let me be clear about it—was to await the House of Commons Defence Committee inquiry, because it has been an authoritative, detailed and methodical examination. We do not know what the conclusions will be, but it seemed to me that waiting for it to finish and then dealing with its conclusions would be the best option. All of what happened yesterday, especially in the way that it was presented as a leaked report, has changed that. The hon. Member for Aldershot was right to say that it was about whipping up interest in a programme due to be broadcast later in the week, which I believe is disreputable behaviour by some parts of the media. Fortunately, not all the media behave so disgracefully. I am examining the best way forward, including the powers of the review, and I shall, of course, take into account the views expressed by my hon. Friend.

Photo of Ms Annabelle Ewing Ms Annabelle Ewing Spokesperson (Social Security (SNP Shadow Scottish Minister); Education & Skills; Home Office; Law Officers; Work & Pensions)

I was shocked and horrified to read the damning allegations in the Surrey police dossier, as were the Collinson family whose 17-year-old son, James, was found dead at the Deepcut Army barracks in March 2002. Indeed, last night, James Collinson's mother said:

"It fills me with horror, guilt and regret to think I sent my son to that place".

Surely the case for an independent public inquiry into the four deaths at Deepcut is now overwhelming. The question that must now be asked is whether the Ministry of Defence is going to continue to sit on its hands.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State (Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence

That is a ridiculous charge. The MOD is not sitting on its hands. I do not know how many times I must repeat all the processes that we have carried out. I regret the way in which this surfaced and the way in which it was presented, but I make the point strongly to the hon. Lady that this information has been available since October. What was she doing about it? Was she not advising her constituent about it?

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State (Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence

Well, I have explained what we were doing about it. We were aware that it had been submitted to the HCDC. I have explained that I thought that that was an appropriate forum for a full examination into some very significant allegations. I thought that that was an appropriate way forward, but what I must now do, of course, is address the public concern that has been whipped up. I hope that that is not being exploited by the hon. Lady, but she should put things in proper context. I am prepared at any time to meet the families again, if they want to do so, and to talk them through all this.

I say again to the hon. Lady that she is part of a campaign to save one of the Scottish regiments, and the type of criticism that has been mounted—much of it unwarranted—does not help recruitment into the armed forces. We must work our way through this. That is why I set in train all the examination, and it is why I published its findings to try to regain public confidence. A bit more acceptance of that open approach would be welcome.

Photo of Joan Humble Joan Humble Labour, Blackpool North and Fleetwood

I rise to reinforce the message about the concerns felt among families beyond Deepcut barracks. My right hon. Friend will be aware that a constituent of mine, Derek McGregor, died at Catterick, so when he looks at the terms of his review, will he receive representations from those other families because many of them, including my constituents, have been waiting a very long time for answers about the deaths of their children?

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State (Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence

There is a process in this country called the coroner's inquest that seeks to establish the cause of death. It is not for Ministers to determine what has happened, and it is not even for the Army. The earlier Deepcut deaths were inappropriately handled by the Army; wrong language was used and those involved should not have said what they said. Of course, we hope that they will never repeat those mistakes because that is very unsettling for the families. However, I am now faced with a demand for an open inquiry into everything that has ever happened in any barracks over any period. That is what my hon. Friend has just requested. I do not think that that is tenable, bearing in mind all the success that we achieve at Catterick, Deepcut and all the other training establishments. Hon. Members should examine the thousands of young men and women who come through those establishments—look at the output; look at the quality. Our training establishments are not broken machines but very professional and successful in doing what they do, and tribute should be paid to them for that.

Photo of John Greenway John Greenway Conservative, Ryedale

Until a few years ago, initial training used to take place at Strensall barracks in my constituency. In more than 25 years of living close to the barracks, most of the time as Member for Ryedale, I know of no circumstance or events alleged of the kind that appeared in yesterday's newspapers and that have been referred to in the statement. I agree with the Minister that that speaks volumes for what normally happens in the Army. It is stating the obvious that none of this will help recruitment, but it would help if he would go a little further and reassure the families of those young people who are about to join our famous British Army in which we all take great pride that, if they encounter difficulty, there is a whistleblowing procedure in which they can have trust and confidence.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State (Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence

I can give an absolute assurance on that. I believe that many of those mechanisms were in place in years past. I hope that we have strengthened them, and we have given greater awareness to young recruits and family contacts about what they should do in certain circumstances. If they think that they will not get anywhere by reporting something through the command chain, there are a lot of anonymous helplines to assist them. There is also a lot of welfare support. We are dealing with young people, some of whom are very vulnerable. Some of them come from broken homes—they may be broken in their own mind anyway—and we need to look at our success in turning around those young men and women and making them into valued members of our society.

The hon. Gentleman is right: we must give confidence to the families of current and future recruits—that is what I am seeking to do—and we hope that all the measures that we have put in place, alongside the examination that the adult learning inspectorate will carry out and the ongoing reporting by that body, will increase that confidence in the months and years ahead.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

As a member of the Defence Committee, I am very impressed by the openness with which all three services have dealt with the Committee on our numerous visits, and I thank my right hon. Friend for that. Does he agree that the allegations in the report are tragic for the individuals involved and totally unacceptable? Does he also agree that it is important to separate the Deepcut allegations, which need to be looked at in detail, from the improvements that have clearly taken place in Army, Navy and RAF training establishments in the meantime, especially given the increase in supervision, which was cut under the last Tory Government?

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State (Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence

My hon. Friend is right, and I am grateful to him for his comments. The Defence Committee has carried out extensive visits to a wide range of training establishments, and I understand that its members have come away very impressed; but, as I say, I await their overall assessment.

I remind the House that I wrote to about 180 Members—I cannot remember the exact figure off the top of my head—and I suspect that I probably wrote to Members of the other place as well, inviting them to visit our training establishments. The uptake was very poor; only a handful of Members undertook those visits. If more Members had gone to see at first hand the quality of that training, it may have allayed all the unwarranted criticisms that have been made.

The allegations, if true, are totally unacceptable. We have to get to the bottom of them and find the truth in all this. I have set out the background to the Army's approach. The fact that Surrey police are carrying out only one other investigation should give us some indication of how they assess the situation at Deepcut. Let us just bear that in mind as well.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

I am grateful to the Government for responding to my request for a statement on the Deepcut allegations.

Does the Minister realise how prejudicial it sounds to the Government's position to hear him default to referring to the deaths of Army recruits as suicides, so giving the impression that the Government have decided the verdicts before they have seen the facts? Will he clarify whether he knew the content of the allegations before yesterday? Given that Leslie Skinner was convicted of sexual abuse at Deepcut only last month, surely we must now entertain the possibility that the death of Cheryl James, nine years ago this week, and the other three deaths at Deepcut Army barracks might be linked to a culture of systematic abuse? Does he not understand that, although a full review of all those allegations is indeed necessary, only a full, independent inquiry into the circumstances of the four deaths at Deepcut will do?

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State (Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence

I have good relations with the hon. Gentleman, but I ask him to recognise that, if I used the word "suicide", I corrected it. I said that, if I had used inappropriate language, I should not have done so. He did not recognise that in his question. I am usually very careful in the way that I work through these issues. I make that clear again, and I repeat the point that one death was declared a suicide by an inquest, two were given open verdicts and one is still to be determined.

The hon. Gentleman refers to the Skinner case. I have set out the background to that: Skinner was not there at the relevant times, so please stop conflating the two issues. I think that the hon. Gentleman has reached a conclusion: he is saying that there is systematic abuse. I would prefer my independent review to examine that. He perhaps has a closed mind. I ask him to open his mind, and let us examine this in a more open way.

Photo of Michael Jabez Foster Michael Jabez Foster PPS (Rt Hon Lord Goldsmith, Attorney General), Law Officers' Department, PPS (Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC, Solicitor General), Law Officers' Department

My constituents, Mr. and Mrs. Benton, the parents of Sean, will welcome the Minister's openness in seeking a further review, but that very much depends on what that review will be, how wide it will be and how it will be conducted. My right hon. Friend has suggested in the past that the inquest process is a means of further review. May I put it to him that, for the reasons he gave today, much of the evidence could not be put before a court of law? That is why a wider review, with a much wider remit, is necessary to carry out an inquiry, rather than using an adversarial system, to find the truth of what really happened at Deepcut.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State (Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence

I am not an expert on this, so I hesitate to be too definitive. However, it seems to me that if any or all of the people who made the allegations wish to make themselves available to the coroner—the one case still to be considered is a matter for the coroner— there is nothing to preclude their coming forward. As I understand the way in which a coroner's powers are defined, there is no constraint on what he can consider. That is one form of open examination, and it is important. The HCDC is also carrying out an investigation, and I do not know who it has seen. Families will give evidence to the Committee this week, and I do not know what they will say. We will follow the matter very closely and examine in great detail every allegation that is made.

I appreciate the welcome that my hon. Friend has given to the openness of our approach. We will continue to be as open and as transparent as we can, bearing it in mind that individuals are involved. Perhaps the police did not give us the names, because the individuals did not want their names to be given in a way that would have allowed a more progressive investigation to take place. We must break down that reticence on their part.

Photo of Martin Smyth Martin Smyth UUP, Belfast South

I welcome the Minister's statement, but he will be aware that people outside Deepcut and Catterick have also been involved. For example, one tragedy involved someone in the Royal Irish Regiment. I welcome the fact that the Minister has said that there has been an improvement in the investigation and linkage between the police and the Army, because, in one case, we found that things went missing. That did not give the families any confidence. Has the Ministry of Defence improved its responses? In another incident, it took a long time to get even the recognition that a simple apology would have sorted things out at the very beginning. Instead, there was a continual exchange of letters when a mother was under pressure because of the misdeeds committed by another soldier.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State (Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence

I do not want to go into individual cases for obvious reasons, but I recognise that there have been examples in the past of insensitivity and the bad handling of cases—some of it quite dramatic, some of it less so, but none of it acceptable. I hope that all the lessons have been learned. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that an apology is important, but the matter should not rest there. If something wrong has been done, we have to try to discover the background. That is what Surrey police sought to do in relation to the four deaths at Deepcut.

I have every confidence in the way that Surrey police carried out their investigations and the integrity with which they approached the issue. I just hope that people have confidence in the system. We are now trying to move it forward and dealing with the more unsubstantiated information that we have. We must try to get to the bottom of that, and that point applies generally across the board.

Photo of Mike Gapes Mike Gapes Labour/Co-operative, Ilford South

I am grateful that the Minister made it clear that the document was not leaked, particularly in view of the allegation made by "Newsnight" last night that the Select Committee on Defence had leaked it. Can he also confirm that when the Committee announced in March that we would set up an investigation into the duty of care regime, we made it very clear that our work would involve a comprehensive study of the services' training regime—initial and other training—and that we were not a substitute for an independent investigation into the allegations at Deepcut or other incidents? Although we as a Select Committee are taking evidence and meeting the families, it is important that the public do not gain the impression that our Select Committee is the body that can do that job. In those circumstances, my right hon. Friend said that he is looking forward to examining closely the Select Committee's recommendations. Therefore, when our report is published next year, will he assure the House that the Ministry of Defence will take seriously all the recommendations that we make and bring forward any necessary changes to the duty of care regime that may be required?

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State (Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence

That is another helpful contribution. I recognise the way in which my hon. Friend defined the HCDC inquiry and, when I referred to it earlier, I was not suggesting that it was a substitute for the other process. My experience of Select Committees is that, as they set out on a course, they sometimes pick up a lot of tangential issues that they rightly consider if they feel them important. I do not know what the conclusions of the HCDC's examination will be, so it would be wrong for me to say that will we implement whatever it recommends. We never operate that way with Select Committee reports, because we have to examine the quality of the conclusions. My hon. Friend will be aware that there is a recent report in which we take a diametrically opposed view to that of the Select Committee. I wait for the conclusions of the Select Committee's inquiry with keen interest. It will give great substance to a breadth of issues both about the past and the present, and it might point us forward in ways that can help the training environment.

Photo of Eric Illsley Eric Illsley Labour, Barnsley Central

How are the Government going to inspire confidence among the families of new recruits when those families can see the distress of the families of the recruits who died in unexplained circumstances? The reputation of the armed forces and the Ministry of Defence is being seriously undermined by these continuing allegations and by the deaths at Deepcut and Catterick. Will my right hon. Friend reconsider a call for a public inquiry?

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State (Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence

My hon. Friend has used the phrase "a public inquiry", but into what? How long will it last? How many stones will be turned over because of allegations that may be levelled? None the less, every day that an allegation is made, and especially if it is lurid, the media are likely to have headlines blazing all over the place. We have to consider all that.

We are seeking to ensure that the quality of the training environment that we have in place is robust, sound, professional and delivers what we seek. I think that it does that and has been made substantially better because of the investigations that I asked to be carried out into all the training environments. For example, staffing ratios—the number of instructors to recruits—have been increased significantly because they were identified as a key shortfall.

If my hon. Friend has not had the chance to visit a passing-out parade at any of our military establishments, he should try to attend one. He will find very many contented parents who have seen the way the way in which we have trained their young sons and daughters and they way in which they take pride in what they are now being asked to do for this country.

There is still a tremendous amount of confidence in the system, but we must clearly deal with the current concerns. That is what I am trying to do. If any concerns have been raised by any of my hon. Friend's constituents, he should tell them that there are extensive and thorough welfare procedures in place for anyone who feels that they have been exposed to any form of harassment or bullying. The armed forces have zero tolerance towards that. We want it to surface, so that we can deal with it and eliminate it. We therefore need co-operation. If it is out there, let us know and we will deal with it.

Photo of Tony Wright Tony Wright Labour, Cannock Chase

Demands are made all the time for inquiries into almost everything, and it is right sometimes to resist those demands even though it can be difficult for Ministers to do so. However, in the new Inquiries Bill, the Government say that one of the purposes of having an inquiry is to offer public reassurance on an issue when that is required. Is my right hon. Friend absolutely certain that that is not a consideration that should apply in this case?

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Minister of State (Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence

Our announcement is a recognition that that is the case. I appreciate my hon. Friend's comments about government by public inquiry. If anything happens now, someone pops up and says. "Let's have a public inquiry." We cannot administer the country on that basis, because decisions have to be taken in advance of any inquiry. If something needs to be corrected, it should be identified by the relevant Department and relevant Ministers and corrective action taken. That is what I have done as far as I am able to do on the basis of the information that I have. We do not yet have the new procedure in the Inquiries Bill in law but if it had been available, I might have been able to use it.