Deepcut Review

– in the House of Lords at 3:50 pm on 29th March 2006.

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Photo of Lord Drayson Lord Drayson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Defence Procurement), Ministry of Defence, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Procurement) 3:50 pm, 29th March 2006

My Lords, with permission, I shall repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces earlier today in another place. The Statement is as follows:

"On 15 December 2004, I informed the House that I had commissioned a review into the circumstances surrounding the deaths of four young soldiers at Princess Royal Barracks, Deepcut, during the period 1995 to 2002. As I told the House then, I was aware that its scope and nature may not satisfy all those—Members of this House included—who have been calling for a formal public inquiry into combat deaths in the Armed Forces, and in particular the four deaths at Deepcut. I said that by concentrating on the circumstances of the four deaths, the review would focus on the issue at the heart of current public concern.

"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 soldiers were encouraged to help the review in any way they could. I am satisfied that this report, running 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 around which much comment had been made about 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, Mr Blake 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 does comment that the opportunity for self-infliction was afforded by the policy of frequently assigning trainees to guard duty at Deepcut, unsupervised by experienced soldiers. The review found a number of factors that may have contributed to their 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 to subsequently 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—and, at that, 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 HCDC report on this, I did not consider that a formal public inquiry was required. The HCDC was of a similar view. Mr Blake, in a carefully reasoned examination of the arguments for such an approach, 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 Mr Blake's 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 to 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 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. This is an issue that we are alive to, and we are improving the standard of care and support afforded to young recruits. For example, trainees' surveys and focus groups have been established, and a note of guidance for all commanding officers covering all aspects relating to working with under-18s has been produced. Furthermore, Mr Blake commends in particular the specialist training regimes for 16 year-olds established at the Army Training Regiment, Bassingbourn, and the Army Foundation College, Harrogate. But there is clearly still more to do, especially in extending best practices such as 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 this without hesitation. The report describes the British Army as a unique and extraordinary institution which, for the past decade or more, has been sent on a wide variety of operational deployments in many parts of the world, to 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 are from single-parent homes; some had left school with no qualifications; 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, whom 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 this, and in the light of the recommendations made in recent reports by the House of Commons Defence Committee and the Adult Learning Inspectorate, work has already been, 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. But 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. But 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 these 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 these 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 honourable and right honourable 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 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, resources and facilities 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 add my condolences".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Photo of Lord Astor of Hever Lord Astor of Hever Deputy Chief Whip, Whips, Shadow Minister, Defence, Shadow Minister, Foreign Affairs, Shadow Minister, International Development 4:04 pm, 29th March 2006

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

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

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

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

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

The review is very critical of the poor accommodation and the sanitary and washing facilities available. What improvements has the MoD made in this very important area?

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

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

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

Photo of Lord Garden Lord Garden Spokesperson in the Lords, Defence 4:10 pm, 29th March 2006

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

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

As we have heard, the review does not recommend a further public inquiry, given that it does not believe that more evidence will emerge at this stage. It does, however, recommend disclosure of information to the families, among other measures. It is too early to know how the families, who have suffered so much, will react. However, if the recommendations of the report in this section are fully implemented, closure may be achieved. We will have to wait to see how the police and the Government react to the recommendations.

A number of important recommendations could be implemented by Ministry of Defence Ministers now. Do they intend to immediately implement them in full? The measures range widely, from the living conditions, supervisory arrangements, instructor vetting and training and investigation arrangements, through to complaints procedures. We have raised many of these issues on many occasions. It is always a question of priority for resources.

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

In this brief opportunity to focus on the issues raised by Deepcut, I wish to finish with two major areas. First, in recommendation 3, Blake examines whether it is right that the UK is one of the few countries which recruits child soldiers—that is, those under 18. We have had international criticism for this policy. The review says that recruiting needs are not a satisfactory justification, but goes on to say that the policy is justified given the inadequacies of education and training in the UK's civilian system. As long as the education benefits outweigh the downside of having child soldiers, the report requires a number of special safeguards: the separation of 16 year-olds; a right to resign if still under training, even if past your 18th birthday by the time you get there; and, most importantly—I ask for the Minister's comments and assurance on this—that no posting to the field army will occur before the age of 18. Do the Government intend to implement these immediately?

Finally, recommendation 26 calls for the establishment of a commissioner of military complaints—an Armed Forces ombudsman for all the Armed Forces, not just trainees. The Armed Forces Bill has a watered-down proposal for an independent element in redress procedures. The Blake review has a much more useful recommendation, which could address the growing concern among the Armed Forces that their views on their conditions are just ignored. I suggest to the Minister that this is the opportunity to take an imaginative approach. Do the Government intend to take up that proposal in the Armed Forces Bill?

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

Photo of Lord Drayson Lord Drayson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Defence Procurement), Ministry of Defence, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Procurement) 4:15 pm, 29th March 2006

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

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

It is important for me to give that context to our response. We are working on the specifics of matters such as medical record disclosure—which was one of Blake's recommendations—and improvements in vetting procedures. We need to look in detail at how we can implement them properly. I know that in relation to vetting procedures we would like to go further with Criminal Records Bureau checks, but are unable to do so under the current legislation in respect of people already in full-time employment, rather than those applying for employment. We are having discussions with the Home Office about what can be done to develop legislation to enable us to go further.

We are restructuring our training programme, which the noble Lord asked for. We must recognise the challenge that the Army faces in phase 2 training. Deepcut is a phase 2 training establishment where soldiers, having been through their basic training, go through their trade training, which can take several years to complete. It is a challenge for us to ensure that during that process their motivation is maintained for a considerable period. One of our innovations is to take people from the training establishment and have them spend short periods with the field army to maintain their motivation and recycle that trade training.

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

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

Photo of Lord Bramall Lord Bramall Crossbench 4:21 pm, 29th March 2006

My Lords, I too thank the Minister for repeating the Statement given in another place. Just as importantly, I most sincerely add my condolences to the families of those young soldiers who lost their lives in such tragic circumstances. I speak with some personal experience in these matters in that I commanded a training company of just such young recruits 50 years ago—in those what I suppose might be described as rather less enlightened days as far as managing young soldiers is concerned. But even then, had I had one such loss of life among my recruits, let alone four in seven years, I would have been horrified and felt that it was in some way a direct reflection on me and on my officers' supervision and awareness of what was going on.

However, this most thorough, detailed and even copious report, on which I congratulate Mr Nicholas Blake and which was dealt with only in outline in the Statement, largely allays our worst fears that these young people lost their lives by means other than their own hand, or that any bullying, abuse and harassment had directly contributed to their state of mind. I believe that all noble Lords will feel that that is a matter of great relief in a society in which oppressive leadership—not abuse, but oppressive leadership—by NCOs over trainees is sometimes considered to be, and may indeed have to be, part and parcel of "making men"—I use that in its wider sense—out of young recruits from uncertain and often unhelpful backgrounds.

As the Minister said, however, there are things that could be, need to be, and one hopes now are being done better. I refer to standards of accommodation, what the Army is pleased to call "the ablutions"; welfare for the recruit; more intelligent, sympathetic and better supervision of young recruits away from home for the first time; better qualified and trained instructors; and better redress of grievances—which I suggest should be made direct to the commanding officer. When I was the commanding officer of a battalion I always insisted—and it took a bit of doing because some of the sergeant-majors did not always like it—that grievances came direct to the commanding officer. I think that that is very important. And, as the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, said, we need establishments—which of course is a budgetary matter—that are large enough to allow more supervision particularly by officers. That might have made all the difference.

All of those matters are part and parcel of good leadership and man-management and necessary for the infusion of a high morale in which discipline is as much caught by example as imposed from outside. I am sure that those tragic happenings at Deepcut will have been a salutary reminder that if you want high morale and a sense of well-being, as opposed to the opposite, in those below you, there can be no complacency about the standards of leadership and the encouragement and example that they bring.

Photo of Lord Drayson Lord Drayson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Defence Procurement), Ministry of Defence, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Procurement)

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, for the points that he has made. With his deep experience, he knows exactly the challenges that we face. He has pointed out most clearly that behaviour involving bullying or harassment is completely unacceptable. It has been unacceptable within the British Army; it will continue to be unacceptable in the British Army. He was extremely clear and helpful.

Photo of Lord Ashley of Stoke Lord Ashley of Stoke Labour

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that although the report contains constructive suggestions which I hope will be pursued vigorously by the Government, I believe that it made a serious error of judgment—so does everyone else to whom I have spoken—in failing to support a public inquiry? In my view, a judicial public inquiry is crucial: first, because it is the only real way to find out what actually happened; and, secondly, because I believe that the families are entitled to it after suffering so much. My noble friend has said: "Let us move on". I can assure him as secretary of the All-Party Group on Army Deaths and as someone in close touch with the families that there is no chance of moving on while there is no judicial public inquiry. The families are, understandably, so upset, so determined, so anxious, so dedicated and so frustrated that this will never go away until we get a judicial public inquiry.

Photo of Lord Drayson Lord Drayson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Defence Procurement), Ministry of Defence, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Procurement)

My Lords, I completely understand the points that my noble friend has so clearly expressed and recognise the real concern that exists, not least among the families concerned but more generally about this matter. However, as the report concluded, on the basis of the current evidence, a public inquiry is not necessary. We share that view and, given the extensive investigations that have already taken place, see no public or service interest in pursuing a public inquiry. We believe that the important thing now is to move on in the sense of making sure that we properly implement the learning that comes out of the review as fully as possible to provide the best welfare that we can for our young trainees as quickly as possible.

Photo of The Bishop of Worcester The Bishop of Worcester Bishop

My Lords, I add my condolences to those that have already been expressed. To hear the Statement and the debate cannot make any of us feel very good. I pick up the issue to which the Minister has just referred: a public inquiry. I entirely understand that Mr Blake has concluded that that would not be helpful in this particular set of tragic incidents. However, I think that there is a need for some public reflection on the recruitment of under-18s into the armed services and some public reflection on the fact that we are likely to recruit a disproportionate number of young people with very few life choices open to them. That in itself is a kind of coercion. I am not suggesting it is real coercion, but it is a kind of coercion to hold out to people the possibility of entering a career that is fundamentally an adult choice when they do not have many life choices open to them due to the factors highlighted in Mr Blake's report and in the Statement.

I suggest to the Minister that there is an urgent need to reflect publicly and openly on whether we as a society feel comfortable with the recruitment of under-18s into the armed services. If we do feel comfortable about it, we need to consider with passion as well as prudence how we protect particularly those who may have had very few life choices and who have therefore found themselves in a situation the demands of which they may not have fully understood.

Photo of Lord Drayson Lord Drayson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Defence Procurement), Ministry of Defence, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Procurement)

My Lords, I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate for making those points. I am particularly grateful for his point about the need for reflection. We absolutely agree, which is why we believe in taking the time to reflect fully on the recommendations made by Blake, properly thinking through the conclusions following that reflection, which will be in the form of a public discussion, and ensuring that implementation following that reflection is full and thorough.

I should also stress that in considering, as we should, the concerns that have been expressed about the welfare of young people and the points made about life choices, we should not forget the tremendous job done by the services, and by the British Army in particular, in the 12 weeks from joining the Army to the completion of phase 1 basic training, and the transformation in these young people. Anyone who has experienced a passing-out parade will see the miracle that can happen. Thousands of young people who pass safely through the hands of the Army go on to make a tremendous contribution to us—their country. It can make a positive change to their lives—a real change for the better. We should not lose sight of that in our proper concern for the lessons that need to be learnt when things go wrong, as they clearly have in these cases.

Photo of Lord Biffen Lord Biffen Conservative

My Lords, I accept at once the Minister's advice that we should have a measured debate about the Blake review, but may I echo deferentially the points that were made so powerfully by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall? Whatever institutional changes will be proposed and whatever institutional arrangements, which have been very unsatisfactory in the past, are made, if, as the Minister said, there was a culture of bullying and harassment—a disturbing catalogue—that must have been known to the officer class, which has the responsibility. Unless and until that can be remedied, so much else is bound to be subject to some anxiety, because that is the heart of the great difficulty. There now needs to be a very serious reconsideration of the relationship between officers and their men.

Photo of Lord Drayson Lord Drayson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Defence Procurement), Ministry of Defence, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Procurement)

My Lords, it is important to stress that what we have seen of the conclusions of the Blake review does not indicate that harassment and bullying have been widespread in the way the noble Lord describes, but there have been cases of harassment and bullying, which have been described. We need to reinforce the efforts that we have been making and will continue to make to root this out of the British Armed Forces. As the noble and gallant Lord has said, this has never been acceptable in the British Armed Forces. It is not acceptable today. Clearly we have to work much harder to ensure that it is rooted out.

Photo of Lord Ramsbotham Lord Ramsbotham Crossbench

My Lords, I would like very much to associate myself with all the remarks made by my noble and gallant friend Lord Bramall. He had the experience of commanding soldiers at a training depot. At the same depot, I had the experience of commanding child soldiers, including, at that time, some 15 year-olds. I remember the experience well. It was rather like commanding a ticking time-bomb in many ways, but you had to adopt different techniques to motivate them and to ensure that they were properly supervised.

That is not the purpose of what I wanted to say. I have found that there are certain parallels in the report and the inquiry with suicides in prison. We have devoted a great deal of attention to these in your Lordships' House. I am very pleased to see in the report the clear recommendation that the impetus to make certain that conditions and treatment are right should come from the very top. That must start with Ministers and go all the way down. I was delighted to see that.

The press and many of the public have regarded the fact that these four deaths took place at Deepcut as an indication of a "conspiracy" at Deepcut. I remember exactly the same suspicion about HMP Brixton following the suicides of five Irish prisoners. Immediately there was suspicion that something was going on against Irish people as opposed to the fact that these were sad and random affairs. Each suicide needed investigation because each had separate circumstances. There is a great danger of trying to make a generalisation when that may not apply.

The most important point, which I do not yet see recognised in the report, is the question of time. A week ago I saw the parents of a young man who had committed suicide in a prison four and a half years ago. The inquest has only just taken place. Imagine what the family have been through in that time. One of the problems of this inquiry is again that the families have been waiting an enormously long time to hear the outcome. I therefore ask the Minister whether he will, when he goes through the recommendations, consider the word "time", see what can be done to speed up the inquiry process and make certain that the families particularly affected are given the facts as soon as possible to help them come to terms with their tragic bereavement.

Photo of Lord Drayson Lord Drayson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Defence Procurement), Ministry of Defence, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Procurement)

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for the points that he has made with his wide experience of these matters. It is important for us to make the read-across to the experience in the prison community as we review the recommendations coming out of the Blake report. We must ensure that any remedies which have worked well in the experience of the Home Office are applied within the Ministry of Defence.

I agree with the noble Lord that when there is a statistically random cluster—which I have experienced in my work in the medical field—it is psychologically attractive to draw conclusions. But it is clear from the review that that was not the case here. None the less, one death is one too many. We are not complacent about learning the lessons from this review, ensuring that these people have not died in vain, and robustly implementing the changes while taking into account, as the noble Lord says, the importance of time. It is important for us to look at these recommendations and to come back to the House in a few months with our responses. We should also ensure that we as Ministers make the right decisions on prioritisation of investment which will allow the changes to be implemented properly, to make a real difference in the timescale that is clearly needed.

Photo of Lord Moonie Lord Moonie Labour

My Lords, the incidence of suicide among under-25s serving in the Army is worryingly higher than it is in the general population; it is the only part of the Armed Forces where that is the case. Will my noble friend consider two points? First, it is due partly to the ease of access to live ammunition and an easy means of disposing with oneself. Secondly, what happened to the confidential independent hotline that the Armed Forces used to operate through the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association? I understand that that was superseded by a hotline run by the chain of command, which, frankly, I do not think is acceptable. Lastly, what happened to the inquiry that I instituted into suicide four years ago?

Photo of Lord Drayson Lord Drayson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Defence Procurement), Ministry of Defence, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Procurement)

My Lords, my noble friend is correct to point out that the rate of suicide among under-20s is higher in certain subsets of the community and the general population, particularly within the British Army when compared with the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. Encouragingly, there has in past years been a clear downward trend in the rate and significant improvement. There is now no statistical difference in the suicide rate among under-20s in the general population and that among those in the Armed Forces.

I do not know the position regarding the SSAFA charitable helpline which my noble friend mentions. I shall look into it and write to him. But I can confirm that the Ministry of Defence operates an increasing number of innovative approaches to ensure that people have access to mechanisms enabling them to report abuse, the most recent one being a confidential texting service. We are making available considerable additional resources to provide people with modern and easy ways to report abuse. I also stress that we regard it as an essential part of leadership that anyone who sees abuse taking place should regard it as incumbent on themselves to report it and make sure that something is done about it.

Photo of Baroness Crawley Baroness Crawley Government Whip, Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, I am afraid that we are now in the 21st minute and our time is up.

I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure. The time at which the Sitting will be resumed will be displayed on the Annunciators. It will not be before 5 pm.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 4.42 to 5 pm.]