The review has been undertaken by the distinguished human rights lawyer, Mr. Nicholas Blake, QC, and is now complete. Copies will be placed in the Libraries of both Houses. This morning, the families had the benefit of a briefing by Mr. Blake on his conclusions. I know that this will be another difficult day for them; the passage of time, in such sad circumstances, does little to lessen the pain. I hope that they will find at least that Mr. Blake has addressed carefully and sensitively the questions that have troubled them. I acknowledge the dignity with which they have conducted themselves over this long period.
I am grateful to Mr. Blake for the thorough and professional way in which he has approached his task. In conducting his review, he has had the full co-operation of the Ministry of Defence. He has had full and unrestricted access to our records, and all serving and retired soldiers were encouraged to help the review in any way they could. I am satisfied that the report, which runs to 416 pages, plus annexes, represents an independent, objective and comprehensive analysis of all matters that have a bearing on the four deaths, and that Mr Blake has not been constrained by his terms of reference. Importantly, he has been able to tackle the wider issues.
There were three issues about which much comment had been made on events at Deepcut: the alleged suspicious circumstances of the deaths, a claimed culture of bullying and the need for a formal public inquiry. I am pleased to note that Mr. Blake makes substantial findings on all three points. First, he has concluded that, on the balance of probabilities, the deaths of Sean Benton, Cheryl James and Geoff Gray at Deepcut were self-inflicted. Given the recent coroner's inquest into the death of James Collinson, he understandably refrains from reaching any conclusion on that particular death. However, he comments that the opportunity for self-infliction was afforded by the policy of frequently assigning trainees at Deepcut to guard duty, unsupervised by experienced soldiers.
The review found a number of factors that may have contributed to the trainees' unhappiness and may have made them more susceptible to self-harm. The review considers that,
"although the Army did not cause any of the deaths", there were institutional failures to identify potential sources of risk and subsequently to address them. On the question of bullying, Mr. Blake states that there is no evidence that any of the trainees were bullied to death. However, he accepts that some trainees at Deepcut—probably only a small minority—experienced harassment, discrimination and oppressive behaviour. Those who did not complain appear to have had little confidence that the system could or would address their grievances. These are important criticisms, which will be addressed.
Finally, on the question of a public inquiry, as I indicated in my response to the earlier House of Commons Defence Committee on this matter, I did not consider that a formal public inquiry was required. The Defence Committee was of a similar view. In a carefully reasoned examination of the arguments for such an approach, Mr. Blake has concluded that a public inquiry into the immediate or broader circumstances surrounding these deaths is not necessary. I reaffirm my earlier position and concur with his conclusion.
This review, taken alongside the other inquiries and inquests into the deaths at Deepcut, has set out with great clarity the circumstances of the four deaths and the context in which they occurred. We now need to move on and take forward the changes that are required. We accept Mr. Blake's conclusions and welcome the opportunity to address his recommendations. We accept that there have been shortcomings, and we will do all that we can to address them.
Although the purpose of the review was not to attribute blame, Mr. Blake has described a disturbing catalogue of allegations of misconduct at the relevant times. The Army authorities will carefully examine the report to see whether there is any indication of professional misconduct or negligence that might make administrative action appropriate. In addition, any matters that suggest that a disciplinary offence may have been committed will be referred to the Royal Military Police for further investigation. We will also have to take into account the overall training environment in which our personnel were working and the constraints faced by those in the command chain.
Mr. Blake understands the importance, particularly for the Army, of recruiting under-18s, but he has highlighted weaknesses with regard to their appropriate care. We are alive to that issue and we are improving the standard of care and support afforded to young recruits. For example, trainees' surveys have been established and a note of guidance for all commanding officers covering all aspects of working with under-18s has been produced. Furthermore, Mr. Blake particularly commends the specialist training regimes for 16-year-olds established at the Army Training Regiment, Bassingbourn, and the Army foundation college, Harrogate. However, there is clearly still more to do, especially in extending best practices such as those at these establishments, and we are committed to implementing such changes as far and as quickly as we can.
The quality of our armed forces and the professional way in which they were, and are, meeting their operational commitments is evidence of the quality of military training, and I pay tribute to that without hesitation. The report describes the British Army as a unique and extraordinary institution. For the past decade or more, it has been sent on a wide variety of operational deployments in many parts of the world, involving great personal danger and regular personal sacrifice.
The report notes that many of the young people who are, or were, accepted as recruits into the Army have had very challenging lives as children. A high proportion were from single-parent homes, some had left school with no qualifications, and many had deficits in basic skills. The report comments that it is a remarkable challenge to turn these young people into effective soldiers forming part of a disciplined and interdependent team. It is worth noting that Deepcut alone sent approximately 10,000 trainees into the field Army during the period covered by the review.
However, the number of young people, particularly those under 18, that the services employ places particular responsibilities on us to recognise their potential vulnerability. We are committed to improving the way in which all our recruits are trained, developed and looked after. In view of that, and in light of the recommendations made in previous recent reports by the Defence Committee and the adult learning inspectorate, work has already been done, and continues to be done, to make changes for the better.
As in society as a whole, bullying, harassment and other inappropriate behaviour can never be totally eliminated in the armed forces. However, it is essential that we establish an environment in which bullying is wholly unacceptable. At every stage of their training and careers, it is made very clear to personnel that bullying and harassment, in any form, is not tolerated, and that it is part of their duty, and a function of leadership, to eliminate it.
It is a sad and unfortunate fact—again, just as in wider society—that the armed forces will never be able to eradicate the tragic incidence of suicide or self-harm. However, the risks can be reduced to a minimum by careful management, pragmatic policies and better understanding, knowledge and education. As the Blake review makes clear:
"Every Officer, NCO, civilian instructor and trainee should be alert to any sign of abuse and be required to report it through the chain of Command, so prompt and effective action can be taken".
The Armed Forces Bill, currently being scrutinised by a Select Committee of this House, contains proposals to streamline the complaints redress system, including provision for an independent element. Also, the Bill will consider aspects of the procedures applying to boards of inquiry. The review makes recommendations in those two important areas. We will give full consideration to those recommendations, and the Bill gives us the opportunity to implement any changes deemed appropriate.
The report has identified areas in the training environment, especially between 1995 and 2002, that required improvement. It cites examples of inappropriate behaviour that should not have taken place. It also identifies areas where we can, and should, improve the way in which we manage the young people for whom we are responsible, and we accept those observations. We now need to look at every one of Mr. Blake's 34 detailed recommendations to see how they should best be taken forward to address the weaknesses identified as quickly and as effectively as possible. I also urge right hon. and hon. Members to take time to analyse Mr. Blake's report in full prior to forming their own opinions.
Mr. Blake has given us a detailed and painstaking report of considerable substance. I am confident that it will provide further impetus for improvement. I can assure the House of my determination to deal with the issues that he has raised, and I undertake to provide a detailed formal written response to the House on all the recommendations. I am determined to ensure that everything possible is done to prevent similar tragedies occurring in the future.
I have enormous confidence in the dedicated men and women working as instructors in our training organisation. I want to make sure that they have the support, the resources and the facilities that they need to pursue excellence. The trained young men and women they produce lie at the very core of how we deliver on the defence interests of this country. Their efforts have to be matched by commitment from the very top of the MOD.
Mr. Blake concluded his report with his profound condolences to each of the families concerned. On behalf of the Ministry of Defence, I again add my condolences.
I am grateful to the Minister for his statement and for allowing us advance sight of it.
This is a statement that all of us in the House wish had never been made necessary by events. It deals with complex and difficult issues. Above all, it deals with the very human tragedy of the death of four young people, whose pride in their endeavours is all too obvious from their photographs in the first four pages of the report. I reiterate my sympathy and that of my colleagues for the families, whose grief and sadness few of us will be able to understand.
The issues are complex, because they require a difficult and sophisticated balance. On the one hand, the British Army needs individuals who will put themselves in the line of fire to protect us. That inevitably requires a robust and tough training programme, and a culture unlike that of civilian life. On the other hand, the Army has a duty of care to each individual under its command.
As the Minister makes clear, social trends in this country have increased the number of recruits from broken family backgrounds, with poor academic achievement and, often, deficits in basic skills. That the Army is able to turn so many of them into world-class soldiers is something of which we should all be proud. Equally, however, we should be alarmed that the suicide rate of those under 20 in the Army is well above that in the comparable civilian population, and significantly worse than in either the Air Force or the Navy. That requires further academic research, and I hope that the Minister will ensure that it is undertaken.
The key questions are whether any of the deaths could have been foreseen, whether there was any cover-up or failure of investigation, and whether anything would be usefully served by a public inquiry. Let me deal with those questions in order.
The factors that might contribute to individual deaths include the make-up and suitability of the recruits, their disciplinary and supervisory framework, and the physical environment in which their training took place. Let us remember that of the four recruits, Geoff Gray and James Collinson were under 18, Cheryl James was just 18, and Sean Benton had been described in his records as having an immature personality. Additionally, both Sean Benton and Cheryl James had medical records of self-harm prior to recruitment. My questions to the Minister are whether or not there is sufficient profiling of potential recruits, how parents can be better involved in the recruitment interviews, and whether there should be automatic availability of NHS medical records prior to a recruitment decision.
Next, there are major questions about the disciplinary and supervisory regimes affecting the four recruits. In all cases, the regime for unsupervised armed guard duty for inexperienced soldiers gave the opportunity to obtain a weapon, and to provide an isolated spot in which to use it. That breaks two rules in the duty of care to vulnerable individuals. In addition, cuts in the number of non-commissioned officers make the environment less secure and diminish the relationship with recruits. As a consequence, the trust in the chain of command to deal with grievances, including bullying and abuse, will diminish.
There is one very specific issue. Can the Minister tell us how much he believes the indeterminate length of phase 2 training contributes to recruit dissatisfaction, and what the Government intend to do about it? The fact that all those failures occurred does not just represent a clear institutional failure on the Army's part—worse, they had been highlighted for many years by individual commanding officers whose internal and external recommendations were often ignored or implemented too late. As the report produced by Colonel Haes back in 2001 states,
"the Army Training and Recruitment Agency does not have a coherent policy that can be costed and measured. The ATRA is failing in certain aspects as a result of reduction in the military workforce and increased obligations . . . the current situation is tenable only as long as there is no major incident or complaint".
The physical environment at Deepcut also attracts considerable criticism. There was poor quality accommodation, especially in the case of sanitary and washing facilities. There were poor recreational facilities, leading to a restricted personal life, and a configuration of the camp that led to more frequent guard duties. The Minister must deal with those issues as a matter of urgency.
While the report makes clear that there is no evidence of collusion or cover-up, or failure of investigation, it is essential that the Royal Military Police ensure that their investigative procedures are equal to the best practice in civilian policing. Although the report suggests that that is best done by its being brought within the regime of Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary, I think that we would be wise to consider whether a further incursion of civilian institutions into the Army would be more beneficial than an internal mechanism.
Finally, there is the issue of a potential public inquiry. The conclusion reached in the report that,
"no new reliable evidence as to how the four trainees met their deaths is likely to be available" is a powerful one. There are those who believe that a public inquiry is essential to restoring public confidence in the Army. First, I do not believe that the British public have a general lack of confidence in the British Army. Secondly, I believe that rather than dealing with any specific anxieties, such an inquiry would be likely to provide further scope for ill-informed speculation with the potential to damage both morale and recruitment. The Government must consider that extremely carefully.
So what have we learned, and what do the Government need to do? We need better recruitment selection as a matter of urgency. We need training for NCOs so that they can understand and deal with specific vulnerable individuals. We need trainees to understand what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour from their superiors, and a grievance procedure whereby they are taken seriously. We must end the practice of guard duty being used as a punishment for trainees. To encourage future recruits and, therefore, future soldiers, both recruits and their families need to be confident that the British Army can deliver a culture of nurture and training, free from bullying and harassment. For this, proper supervisory ratios are crucial.
Ultimately, the British Army must learn from the mistakes that it made in these terrible tragedies, and ensure that the self-sacrifice referred to in the military covenant is met by an equal duty of care from the institutions of the Army itself.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his opening comments, and it seems that we are more or less on the same territory regarding our analysis of what needs to be done. He will appreciate that this issue goes back to 1995, when substantial changes were made that undoubtedly impacted adversely on the training pipelines' capacity to deliver. As ever, it takes time to turn such a situation around. We have been under constant examination and there has been a constant process of renewal and investment. Each time, we must ensure that what we do has an effect. The hon. Gentleman will agree that it would be wrong to rush to a judgment or a solution; we have to make sure that our efforts deliver.
The hon. Gentleman made a number of specific points, but I take issue with his analysis of the suicide rate. I do not want to debate statistics, other than to make two points. First, one death is one death too many, but he was right to point to the increase in the number aged under 20 who committed suicide, or for whom an open verdict was recorded following an inquest. Secondly, for those aged 19 and under, the standard mortality ratio was significantly high during 1989 to 1993 and 1994 to 1998. However, for the period 1999 to 2003, the ratio, although still high, was not statistically significant. As I said, I do not want to trade statistics, and one death is one death too many, but let us not over-extend the analysis.
The hon. Gentleman made a very good point about the need for medical profiling and the involvement of parents. Mr. Blake's report is very clear on these issues and we already engage very closely with parents. Anyone who cares to visit a training establishment will see the joy on the parents' faces. As the hon. Gentleman said, even at those locations other than Deepcut that have been criticised, parents are delighted to see how the Army has turned their sons and daughters into members of society of whom they can be proud. However, more needs to be done and we need to make use of medical profiling. We need the best analysis of those who are coming into our care.
On phase 2 and soldiers awaiting training, the statistics show that improvements have been made. The number of soldiers awaiting training for more than 14 days each month has reduced by 59 per cent. across the Army, and by 45 per cent. at Deepcut. We are alert to the gap between phases 1 and 2—to what could happen in between if such soldiers are not given attention and gainful employment—and we are seeking to make improvements.
On the Haes report, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, if Colonel Haes visited the training establishments today—as the adult learning inspectorate does, both announced and unannounced—he would find an entirely different regime. It is not perfect and it does need improving, but some substantial issues have been addressed.
I take note of what the hon. Gentleman said about the Royal Military Police, and we are alive to this issue. Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary will run a slide rule over the RMP's special investigations branch, which is at the critical end of the investigative capacity, to make sure that the RMP meets the very high standards that have been set. That is not to say that it does not already do so; the RMP is already audited and examined frequently through case review. It has high standards, and it meets the high standards expected of the civilian police, but there are lessons to be learned, as ever. Even in respect of the civilian police, we must constantly examine what is being done in our name.
The hon. Gentleman referred to guard duty being used as a punishment—a critical issue with which the report deals. Mr. Blake makes a very powerful and potent point about guard duty, which is under review. Indeed, we have made considerable progress. No under-17s are involved in guard duty and we are increasingly employing civilians to carry it out. It is proving difficult to recruit people to take on this job in the areas where establishments are located, but we have invested considerable resources and we are trying to build capacity. Over time, that type of guard duty will no longer apply. Its use as a form of punishment is under review, and my guess is that it will not continue.
I thank the Minister for advance notice of his statement and for the opportunity to go into the Ministry of Defence this morning to read the report on these tragic events. I echo the condolences expressed to the families concerned.
The Minister made only an oblique reference to the review's recommendation 26, which I consider the key recommendation. It states:
"There should be established a Commissioner of Military Complaints (the Armed Forces Ombudsman) independent of the 3 services".
The Minister said that he will give further thought to that proposal, which is of course supported by the Defence Committee. Does the Ministry of Defence's own Army survey not show that a staggering 85 per cent. of soldiers say that there is bullying in the Army, and that in the past 12 months more than a quarter of soldiers had lodged complaints and were not satisfied with the way in which they were handled? The review notes that independent commissioners work well in the Australian and Canadian armed forces, and that commanding officers here said that they could see no difficulty with the idea. I therefore urge the Minister, even at this stage, to use the Armed Forces Bill to introduce that sensible recommendation.
The UK is the only European Union country to recruit 16-year-olds into its armed forces. Does the Minister agree with recommendation 12.48, which states that the expense of improving the regime for young people in the Army is the
"necessary price to pay to be permitted to recruit" them? What action will he take on the review's recommendation that young recruits should be in an environment dedicated to their needs, and that, in the case of 16-year-olds, such an environment should be exclusive to that age group? Is it not clear that, as the review and the Armed Forces Pay Review Body's report have found, accommodation and facilities for single people in the Army are profoundly unsatisfactory, and that they certainly were at Deepcut?
Will the Minister act on the review's recommendation 12, which states
"that instructors should be vetted for suitability to work with young people, in a way no less vigorous than in civilian establishments"?
Given the allegations of abuse in the report, is that not vital?
Finally, is it not vital that Surrey police implement recommendation 33, which says that they should disclose all the papers from their investigation to the families of the deceased so that they can decide whether to press for fresh inquests or, indeed, to renew their call for a public inquiry? Will Ministers implement the proposal that the Royal Military Police be brought within the regime of Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary, so that it can apply best practice and determine whether the RMP is sufficiently well resourced? That did not appear to be the case at the initial Deepcut inquiry.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for the general tenor of his remarks. He has touched on some key issues, and he should be aware that the establishment of an ombudsman is a subject for the Armed Forces Bill. In the light of the Defence Committee's comments and of our own conclusions on what is desirable, we have come up with a set of measures that we think will tackle this issue. However, Mr. Blake has examined it in detail and made a recommendation, so it is only proper that we consider it. I must point out that the Liberal Democrats have a representative on the Armed Forces Bill Committee—
Yes, two, but they did not attend when the matter was discussed this morning. However, I do not want to dwell on that.
On complaints, Mr. Blake found that the culture was that people were not prepared to make complaints, because they went nowhere. We have sought to address that problem in the Armed Forces Bill, and edicts on the problem have gone out to everyone involved. We have taken the matter on board, and I accept Mr. Blake's conclusion that everyone—from the most senior officer right through to recruits—must take responsibility. That concerns not only those who feel that they have been harassed or bullied; anyone of any rank who witnesses such incidents should report them. That is the sort of culture that we want to instil in people. It is an important matter, we are alert to it, and Mr. Blake places great emphasis on it.
The question of young recruits cannot be avoided. I do not know whether Nick Harvey agrees with the conclusions that the Government have reached on the matter, but the main Opposition party does. We consider it proper to continue to recruit people younger than 18, although there is no time today to go into all the reasons, and it is clear that we have a duty of care for those young people. Significant success has been achieved at Bassingbourn and Harrogate. We must take account of best practice, but implementation has resource implications and cannot happen overnight.
That leads to me to the question of single-living accommodation. We are aware of the need to give young recruits more freedom to lead their own lives in the training establishments. I can therefore tell the hon. Gentleman that we are re-profiling our resource allocation to try to lift the spend on single-living accommodation.
The hon. Gentleman is right about the vetting of instructors. We are constrained by the law in that regard, but with the Department for Education and Skills and the Home Office, we are looking urgently for ways to ensure better assessment of instructors. The matter has implications across the whole education sector, and beyond. We need better ways to capture information about those who may put young people, and others, at risk.
The hon. Member for North Devon asked about the recommendation relating to the Surrey police. That is a matter for that force, but I hope that the recommendation is taken on board, as I think that it will be a substantial help. The coroner's inquest into the death of James Collinson was conducted before a jury, and all the relevant issues were ventilated. That is the key and, although it was not the case with the three earlier inquests, that is not a matter for the MOD. It is for the families to decide whether to take legal action to reopen the inquests, and I agree with Mr. Blake's recommendations in that regard.
Order. The House has a great deal of business today. I appreciate that this is an extremely sensitive subject, but I still hope that questions can be brief. I can then try to call every hon. Member who is seeking to catch my eye.
My right hon. Friend the Minister will be aware that many families who lost children at Deepcut and elsewhere are very disappointed that the Government have again rejected a public inquiry. However, I chair the all-party group on non-combat deaths, and I welcome many of the proposals that have been made. Will he elaborate a little further on the proposals in Nicholas Blake's report for independent oversight of such matters? Will the ombudsman have retrospective powers, and be able to set up inquiries on his own initiative? Is there any indication of the scale of the problem beyond the Deepcut perimeter fence?
The last time I looked, more than 1,700 families were involved in the "Deepcut and Beyond" campaign, and I agree with Mr. Blake when he says in his report that no public inquiry into all the non-combat deaths could ever be concluded, because every such death would extend the process. That is why, as I have made clear many times, we do not favour a public inquiry into these matters. It is not that we have no respect or feelings for the families but, for the reasons that I have given and more, we do not believe that it would be appropriate to go down that route.
My hon. Friend Mrs. Humble should not conclude that there will be an ombudsman and then ask questions about what that person would do. We have said that we will consider Mr. Blake's recommendations, and that we are looking at how we can introduce an independent non-military presence into the complaints procedure at the higher level. That would give people a guarantee that they could seek redress from someone who was not in the chain of command. The Armed Forces Bill Committee is debating that at present, but we will balance that approach against what Mr. Blake has said. I shall also deal with the matter in my written response to the report.
We have discussed already the catalogue of misconduct in relation to Deepcut, but one member of the armed forces said:
"Sex was a passport for getting off all sorts of things, getting off duties, getting a long weekend at home."
Does the Minister accept that such quotations show how serious the situation had become? Mr. Blake's report was created only as a result of pressure from me and from other parliamentarians, and from Des and Doreen James and other parents of the deceased? Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that they are understandably suspicious when he says that there is no need to make any further investigations? Finally, does he agree that, in the interests of respect, it is right to postpone the final judgment about a full public inquiry until the parents have had the chance to review all the materials that Nicholas Blake QC says that they should have the opportunity to review? Then we can wait and see what they feel. The Minister would be giving nothing away by agreeing to wait for the parents to see that information, and to share their point of view, and he certainly would not be compromising his position by so doing.
I take that point, but one of the key issues was the demand for a public inquiry. The Defence Committee said that it would wait for the Blake review, but did not consider that a public inquiry was justified, given the known circumstances. I have given more than once the reasons why I do not support a public inquiry. Mr. Blake's review weighs all the legal considerations and all the aspects, and comes to the same conclusion.
Mr. Blake says that the Army and Ministers have to make a judgment about whether more information would lay the issue to rest. My judgment is that a public inquiry would prolong the matter, and would not lead to a different conclusion. That is Mr. Blake's conclusion, and I am more than satisfied that he has looked at all the available evidence. We cannot allow individual families to have a veto. They have been spoken to and have expressed their views, but they may never be satisfied with the decision. Their point of view will differ from the judgment that a Minister will reach.
I recognise the role that Lembit Öpik has played in this matter. Mr. Blake's report is highly critical of the media's sensational exploitation of the events. Stories have been run that have had no substance, with no subsequent apology for the fact that they were wrong. None the less, I accept Mr. Blake's recognition that the pressure that the media exerts forces further ventilation and examination.
I wanted this report to be completed earlier, and Mr. Blake lists the many external factors that made that impossible. In the intervening period of 15 months, substantial changes in the training environment have been introduced or are now planned. The training regime has not stood still, and it will change measurably for the better in the months and years ahead.
I thank my right hon. Friend for allowing me and other Members who represent the families of the young men and women who died to have sight of the report.
When I met the Grays at their home last week, they were keen for a public inquiry, but one of their main concerns was that in their desire to reopen their son's inquest they did not have full access to the facts. Will my right hon. Friend, who has personally pledged to liaise with our right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, make sure that all necessary evidence is disclosed to the family of Geoff Gray and the other candidates? Has he completely ruled out a public inquiry into the way that Deepcut was run? I support the recommendation for an ombudsman. Does the Ministry of Defence have a timetable for looking into that issue?
The key issue is the recommendation relating to the Surrey police. I cannot instruct the Surrey police to do what has been recommended but, as I have indicated, I strongly support the view taken by Mr. Blake and we shall do all we can to ensure that it is imparted both to those who make the decisions at ministerial level and, most important, to the Surrey police. Of course, where there is confidential information, as may be the view of the Surrey police because of the nature of the witness statements they have taken, some matters may have to be deleted for legal reasons. Things have to be looked at in the round, but if there were access to that information it would help families who seek a reopening of the inquest into the deaths of their sons, in two cases, and their daughter, in the case of Mr. and Mrs. James. If that attempt was successful, which is not for me to determine—there would have to be judicial review or some other mechanism—the coroner would have to comply. If the inquests were reopened, there would be an opportunity to raise all those matters, because there is no restriction on where such an inquest could go. That would deal with my hon. Friend's point about the need for a public inquiry to explore what happened at the time of death. A coroner's inquest can do just that, so we are encouraging families to take that route, and they may now have better argumentation for doing so.
I thank the Minister for an early look at the report this morning. Although I acknowledge that Nicholas Blake stops short of asking for a public inquiry, he says that the one constituency that might have an interest in a public inquiry would be the Army itself. That comes on top of the words of the coroner at the Collinson inquest, Michael Burgess, who said that
"the MOD should take whatever steps are necessary to restore public confidence in the recruitment and training of young soldiers . . . including an inquiry held in public".
If the only way to restore that confidence is to hold a public inquiry, and it is in the interests of the MOD to do so, will the Minister think again about a public inquiry?
The hon. Gentleman has had a benefit that other Members have not: he has read the report, albeit in a restricted time—but he has misunderstood what Mr. Blake said. He does not "stop short" of calling for a public inquiry; he says that it is not necessary. He goes beyond that point.
The hon. Gentleman should take time to understand the report—read it, analyse it and absorb the weight of its analysis. That is what I will do. I shall consider my response, but I have nothing to add to what I said earlier about having clarity in respect of a public inquiry. A judgment had to be made by Mr. Blake, and he has made it. A judgment had to be made by the Select Committee, which made it. A judgment had to be made by me and I made it. The Army took a similar point of view, which it expressed to me. It is not a question of a cover-up, but that there is a weight of argument in favour of not proceeding down that road. We know what went wrong and there may still be things that need to be addressed, but let us do so to ensure, I hope, that we can stop the recurrence of such tragic incidents in the future.
I thank my right hon. Friend for the opportunity to see the report this morning, as did other MPs, on behalf of Sean's parents, Mr. and Mrs. Benton. The report was comprehensive in terms of the evidence it reviewed, but it was a review and not an inquiry. May I bring to my right hon. Friend's attention paragraph 2.71? It states:
"If Human Rights law required a public inquiry then this review cannot itself satisfy that obligation given the limitations placed upon it—nor could an Army review."
Paragraph 2.73 states:
"If material comes to light to suggest collusion in a killing or a cover up"— which has been suggested—
"public confidence would demand a public inquiry."
Although Mr. Blake comes to the view that no inquiry is required, he notes that it is up to the Secretary of State to make that decision if "public confidence" demands it. I believe it does. Does my right hon. Friend agree?
Again, I thank my hon. Friend for acknowledging that he has been given access to the report, but I suggest that he consider a longer time scale rather than alighting on one part of it and deciding that it leads to a certain conclusion. There is other argumentation in the report and the conclusion is that such a course was not necessary. Mr. Blake is a considerable and eminent human rights lawyer, who has weighed up all the information—from his perspective, not that of the Army—and come to that conclusion.
My hon. Friend referred to suggestions that there was collusion or a cover-up, but there is no evidence of that. People may have such perceptions or feelings, but they have no proof. The report involved more than turning over pages of evidence. There was thorough examination of all the documentation. There were talks with witnesses who commented on the conduct of individuals and on the running of the training establishments as well as pointing out ongoing issues. Let us not diminish the review. It is a considerable report. Would more come from a public inquiry? I judge that it would not, and everyone else who has looked at the arguments in the round has come to the same conclusion.
As the constituency Member for Deepcut, I thank the Minister and Nicholas Blake. I, too, extend my sympathy to the families, who have borne their suffering with such dignity. Does the Minister agree that since the period covered by the report, the Army in general and the leadership at Deepcut in particular have taken significant steps to improve training? Will he tell us the steps being taken to ensure that we train and retain experienced NCOs who can both prepare our young men and women for the rigours of the battlefield and extend to them a proper duty of care?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for those comments. Our plans to lift quality are well under way—it is a question of getting the infrastructure in place. We plan to establish a leadership course, designed specifically to ensure that those entering the instruction regime and environment realise that it is an important part of their career development, which has not been the case hitherto. We are setting up another scheme for the Army, "Train the trainers", which will roll out for the Air Force and the Royal Navy. Without question, we are homing in on that important ingredient. Those who carry out instruction duties are key to everything we do in delivering people capability and capacity for our armed forces. During the period of the review—from 1985 to the present day—just under 100,000 trainees have gone through that training environment at Deepcut alone. That is a mark of success, not failure, but there were weaknesses in the system and we are addressing them.
The hon. Gentleman asked how we can ensure that there is continuous improvement at Deepcut and elsewhere. The adult learning inspectorate is a fully independent organisation, which can make both unannounced and announced visits to the establishment, and it says that Deepcut has been transformed for the better. Mr. Blake's report includes a good quotation from a young trainee, who says that now people are mollycoddled, and cannot move without someone talking to them to try to find out what is in their mind and what they are up to. A balance needs to be struck, however, because we are trying to create independent people whom we ask to take on a unique task on behalf of our country. It is difficult for our military people to strike that balance, but they have achieved great success in the past and continue to be successful, as the hon. Gentleman is aware from his knowledge of Deepcut.
At the consideration of the Armed Forces Bill this morning, I introduced new clause 24, which would have established an independent complaints commissioner for the armed forces—I was not, I hasten to add, supported by the Liberal Democrat members of the Committee, who were absent. After considering an interesting debate, and, obviously, waiting for Nicholas Blake's report at lunchtime, I agreed to withdraw the motion on the new clause. Can the Minister assure me that the independent oversight of complaints in the armed forces will be seriously considered as part of the Armed Forces Bill? Can he give us a timetable for such consideration, although I realise that doing so is difficult?
Again, my hon. Friend is close to that issue and has been raising it as a member of the Defence Committee. I am grateful to him for initiating that debate this morning. The issue must be ventilated and examined. I cannot dictate the pace of what happens with the Bill, but I guess that it must be addressed on Report, and if not, by the other place. We could then consider it back here again if necessary. It is for both Houses to decide what should be included in the Bill. We will give a very clear indication of what we believe to be right. Without question, what we propose goes a considerable way to address the issue; we have not fully debated it, obviously, but there is an independent presence within it. I will also make a written response on the basis of Mr. Blake's view, but that will be consistent with our view of the way in which the Bill should develop. Making that point is a substantial part of what we are doing at present. Let that debate now ensue.
Although I believe that the Minister's judgment is right in continuing to resist calls for a public inquiry, however painful and difficult that may be for the relatives of the men concerned, may I tell the Secretary of State for Defence that I cannot help but feel that there is still a gap in the procedures of the Ministry of Defence for dealing with very difficult and large questions of this nature, as I pointed out in a letter that I sent to the then Secretary of State some four years ago. Will the Minister consider establishing a more permanent procedure as a clear alternative to public inquiry—perhaps, as I suggested then, a tribunal, chaired by a senior military officer from a different service, with a retired judge and a senior retired police officer, to conduct investigations and inquiries of this nature?
That is but one idea, and I know that the hon. Gentleman has argued for it in the past. I can consider anything in my response, and I will deal with the specifics of what Mr. Blake has said. I do not want to look at a range of other aspects, unless that is consistent with what we seek to do in the Armed Forces Bill. The hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity when that Bill returns on Report to table such amendments as he feels necessary, but I ask him to listen to the arguments that take place in the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill and consider them in a balanced and non-partisan way to try to find the best answers. There are very good arguments about why those in the chain of command should be respected in all this. They have the ultimate responsibility for the duty of care for those men and women—young and less young—in their care, because they are the ones who have to take them into those dangerous environments into which we send them. So let us not diminish what they do and their responsibility for the people whom they have under their care.
I will not take too much of the House's precious time today to dwell on disagreement about a public inquiry. However, the Minister has enjoined Members to take time to analyse the report in full before forming our own opinions. Will he assure us that if we do so, and if we approach him on a cross-party basis—he is aware of the nature of the cross-party campaign to date—he will be receptive to those reflections, particularly where they are informed by the views of the families?
My hon. Friend knows me from my time in Northern Ireland, and we are always prepared to look at cross-party and individual party submissions to find the best solution. So the answer is yes, but I simply cannot undo the past; I can only try to make the present and the future better. I have compassion and deep feeling for those families, and I regret that aspects of what we were doing—Mr. Blake makes this clear—may have created a climate that resulted in those four tragic deaths. I have also said that, as has come out in the report, if individuals were in the wrong, we must examine that as well. There is no question in my mind about the depth and breadth of the report, and I only hope that those who campaign do so objectively and on the basis of what is deliverable and achievable, rather than trying to paint us into the position of creating the perfect world. I do not have it within my gift to create perfection.
Given the worryingly high number of deaths in non-combatant activities in the past 25 years, does the Minister feel confident enough to tell the House today that in future, there should be no significant difference between the frequency of non-combatant deaths in the armed services and accidental deaths in the community at large? If he could give us that assurance about non-combatant deaths, or at least set out the measures that the armed services are taking to move in that direction, it would be a great reassurance.
Again, I do not think that I have that within my gift, but I ask the hon. Gentleman to examine a lot of those non-combat deaths. They can involve road traffic accidents, or people who are on duty in difficult circumstances that are not combat-related who have been killed in accidents, or because of mistakes by other people. Is the hon. Gentleman really saying that he does not accept that the armed forces are unique and work in different circumstances—and, without question, in extremely dangerous environments? He is not comparing like with like, so I do not think that I can answer that question in the way in which he asked it.
Having visited one of the training establishments, I am aware of the improvements that are being made. I welcome the Minister's commitment to consider what further action can be taken in the light of the review, but does Mr. Blake deliberate on any case other than those of the four that have been mentioned, such as that of my former constituent Alfie Manship, who died in Germany some weeks after leaving Deepcut barracks?
Yes he does, at length. I know that my hon. Friend will look at all the conclusions. Indeed, that is one of the issues that I referred to earlier in which the sensational press reporting of certain aspects was not found to be accurate. I know that my hon. Friend will closely examine the report and that the family, whom she represents, will also look at it, and it will help them and my hon. Friend to understand the totality of that circumstance.
The Defence Committee report found that the real failure was that of the Army chain of command to respond either creatively or purposefully to the various reports over the past seven years. That failure of command, which was not recognised by anyone in the Army, led to the ongoing situation. It is still amazing to me that the two commanding officers have still yet to give any public account of what they did in response to the circumstances that they found. I would be interested to know whether the Minister feels that Mr. Blake has ruled out a public inquiry—I do not think that he has—and surely the Secretary of State for Defence should have an opportunity to review his decision on a public inquiry once the parents have had the advantage of having had the report for some time, and all the information available from the Surrey police.
I repeat—I do not know how many times I have done so—that Mr. Blake has ruled out the need for a public inquiry. He says that it is not necessary. I do not think it appropriate for the hon. Gentleman to try to particularise his comments against two commanding officers. It is almost as if he is saying that they are guilty before any other examination. I understand that both of them met the families involved at the time. There has been a very close public examination by the people who were critical; in itself that may not be sufficient, but Mr. Blake and others have done everything that they can. I have met the families in different circumstances, either individually or collectively, to try to talk through some of the issues, and I will continue to do so. Everyone should know that there is a need for clarity. Fudge and uncertainty are not the way to deal with this matter. I make this plea to the hon. Gentleman: he should use his own faculties to consider how best we should address the present and the future. We are trying to address the past, but we must also address the present and the future, because of the tens of thousands of young men and women who are still going through those establishments.
I join other Members in thanking the Minister for his statement. As he will be aware, 19 non-combatant deaths took place at Catterick garrison between 1995 and 2001 in the infantry training section alone. Many parents, including my constituent, Lynne Farr, whose 18-year-old son Daniel died at Catterick in 1997, feel that those deaths cry out for some form of inquiry, but the Minister has been quite clear about that today and we all welcome the depth of thought that he has obviously given to the issue. Will he take a personal interest in ensuring that grieving parents whose children have died are kept informed of the steps that will follow the Blake report as issues develop?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for those comments. We recognise that there are non-combat deaths in other areas. I gave the figure of the more than 1,700 families that would come into the ambit of this particular campaign. Lynne Farr is a formidable woman and she argued her case very well. We are considering ways in which she can use her experience as a mother who has had to deal with such tragic circumstances to assist us, and how best to deal with other parents who find themselves in those circumstances. That will be difficult for her, but she is capable and willing to help.
The other element is to make sure that our relationship with parents who have young people at those training establishments is such that they are fully aware of everything that is happening through that process. There should not be any barriers to their understanding. We recognise that having parents on side is critical. Much of our welfare support—and the way in which we are seeking to address things—envelops the parents if they want to be engaged in the process. We must remember, of course, that once the young person is over 18, they are an adult and so there is a balance concerning who has ownership of that person's future. These are very difficult issues, not just in military training establishments, but in life generally, as well. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments.