Deepcut Review

Part of the debate – 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.