Deepcut Barracks

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:46 pm on 19th April 2006.

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Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Conservative 7:46 pm, 19th April 2006

My Lords, I remind the House of my peripheral interest. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, for giving us such an early opportunity to debate this report. The House will be grateful to Mr Blake for his excellent report. It answers many of my questions but it also alerts me to some very serious problems. Most importantly, it allays my worst fears because we were all worried that something simply ghastly was going on in respect of the deaths. I simply did not know the answer. I can say that I know numerous RLC officers and junior soldiers. I have served with them as a junior soldier, so I know them very well. If there was something really awful to report, I am sure they would have told me; and they never did. I never heard anything close to the lurid accusations that we have read about in the media, and I listened very intently.

However, the report is very detailed. I think that perhaps it could have been written a bit more succinctly so that more would read the whole report. Of course, listening to the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, it is quite clear that he has read the report from cover to cover. I read it over the Recess. Given that the usual channels agreed to such an early UQ, has the Minister read the report?

All noble Lords should be grateful for Mr Blake's analysis of all the available evidence. He really seems to understand the military realities of operating such a large base. I have a little concern about the report's excessive reliance on standing orders from high-level headquarters. He frequently refers to Land standing orders. I confess I have never read all the Land standing orders. When I was in command I never even read the district standing orders. No one does. The noble Viscount is smiling at me because he knows that I am right. The reality is that no one reads all the reports or all the orders. If you want them all read and complied with, or at least for people to try to comply with them all, you would need to employ a captain at every single unit to be a compliance officer.

In 1998, as an officer commanding a TA company, one document I studied very carefully, because if the worst happened I would not have the opportunity to study it in time, was the casualty procedure—a point referred to by the noble Viscount. But I am not completely confident about Fiona Murphy's analysis of that procedure in Annex C. I am not fully convinced that she researched her conclusions. For instance, she queries why the casualty procedure is a classified document marked "Restricted". If she had asked any officer, he would have explained that "Restricted" is the lowest security classification possible. The workshop manual for a Land Rover is graded "Restricted". "Restricted" really means "don't give the whole document to the media". It seems to me that she did not arrange for a sanity check by an experienced retired officer, but I also think that she does not understand the challenges of casualty notification. Any casualty notification system needs to be able to deal with at least 1,000 casualties in one day, but, at the same time, the next of kin needs to be notified within about two hours of the casualty occurring. In addition, the notifying officers need to be course-trained. You cannot use any officer; they must know what they are doing because it is such a sensitive task.

Bad news travels very fast today, but I was surprised when, a few months ago, it appeared that a next of kin was notified of a casualty at 3 am. That was completely contrary to the casualty report system that I read in 1998, but the procedure has been updated. This had been made necessary by modern communications equipment, particularly the mobile phone and the internet. I know some casualty notification officers very well indeed. My information is that the casualty procedure system is fit for purpose, and that the Minister has no problems there.

However, Fiona Murphy's work uncovers an inexplicable and glaring failure. That is the apparent total lack of interest on the part of the commanding officers and other officers at Deepcut in the feelings of the families. It is no surprise that they began to suspect that something sinister may have happened. I certainly do not understand why each family was not invited to Deepcut at an early opportunity. I am sure that if the families had seen and sensed how upset the whole garrison would have been after each event, they might not so easily have become convinced that something had gone very wrong. I wish that Mr Blake had perhaps used his skill and looked a bit closer at why those visits did not occur. Perhaps somebody made a decision that the families were not to be invited to the garrison; perhaps orders were given that that could not happen.

Clearly, as we have all read in the report, something has gone very wrong. The report referred to sub-standard warrant officers who had been reduced to the rank. It stated that the Deepcut training regiment was, and perhaps still is, under-resourced in accommodation and manpower. We read about the lack of secure accommodation for female soldiers. Worst of all, we read about some—though they were only a minority—exceptionally poor-quality junior officers. I have never heard of an officer receiving a confidential report that was so damning. I think that the brigadier wrote, "I have absolutely no confidence in this officer at all". If I received a confidential report like that, I would say, "Well, boss, when do you want me to go?"

The other serious problem that was identified in the report was the very poor police investigation—the noble Viscount talked about that. In the early cases, the Surrey police and the Royal Military Police did not know who had primacy in the investigation. The noble Lord called for a public inquiry, but there is no further evidence to be gained because all the documents have been destroyed under routine processes. I am shocked by how little ballistic work was done on the early casualties.

The good news, if there is any, is that the report states quite clearly that all the deaths were self-inflicted and that bullying or anything worse was not a factor. However, there should not be a public inquiry for the reasons that Mr Blake so cogently laid out. Mr Blake made numerous recommendations, but I have not been able to give them direct attention because it is too early. However, your Lordships will shortly be working on the Armed Forces Bill. The Bill is highly desirable—we have been asking for it for many years. While it will certainly pass well before the State Opening, I know that many noble Lords will take a keen interest in it and that numerous amendments will certainly be derived from this report.

Those young soldiers will not have died in vain. We will not sweep under the carpet the problems identified in the report and I am sure that all involved, whether in this House or in the Armed Forces, will do everything they can to eliminate or at least reduce this dreadful problem.