My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, for this debate. It gives your Lordships an early opportunity to return to the findings of the Blake review of the tragic deaths of four young soldiers at Deepcut Barracks. We heard the Statement just before the Recess. Your Lordships posed many questions to the Minister as a result of what was a first skim of the report. I do not doubt that we will return to each of the 34 recommendations time and time again as we try to ensure that the Government do not kick them into the long grass because of MoD resource or culture factors. The questions that I asked after the Statement was made remain to be answered, and I reiterate my view that we have no business training child soldiers if we compromise their safety on the altar of the defence budget. Is today's announcement by the Minister's colleague Don Touhig that agency status is to be removed from the three service training establishments a first result of the Blake review or is it entirely separate?
Noble Lords have raised the particular circumstances of the deaths at Deepcut, and it is clear that the families of those who died must be given access to all the available information, as the review recommends. I shall not add to what I said when this matter was last raised; that is, that I would support the Blake review's conclusion that a public inquiry is not needed provided that the recommendations are implemented in full, speedily and with enthusiasm by the Government.
I shall focus on the wider issue of what the report reveals about the state of our Armed Forces. It is not the only evidence that we have. The latest Armed Forces pay review body report tells a similar story of the difficulty of allocating sufficient resources to personnel issues given the problems of the defence budget.
These problems are not new, nor are they confined to the period in which the current Government have been in power. Decisions made more than a decade ago are still producing problems today. So in making these observations, I am not looking to allocate blame, but to express concern about how the Armed Forces are becoming progressively more vulnerable to events such as those at Deepcut. The Blake review explains in some detail how the Army put in hand a study, by Lieutenant Colonel Haes, to examine the supervisory ratios at training establishments. The pressures of contractorisation, giving priority to the frontline and general undermanning led to the reductions in the availability of sufficient good supervisors at training establishments.
The Haes report stated:
"The dilemma is that military staff are being reduced at a time when the Duty of Care and Supervision needs of trainees appear to be increasing; a credibility gap is opening up".
Blake stated in his report that this was flatly rejected by the Army and he quoted its response:
"In the current climate of undermanning and operational overstretch, it is self-evident that there is no possibility of achieving enhancements to the manning liability without compensating reductions and gapping of posts elsewhere. In short the study"—
Blake was referring to the Haes report—
"has usefully highlighted a number of areas concerned but has not provided a practical solution".
I shall not rehearse the other reviews, internal or external, which have tried to push the MoD into spending adequate amounts of money on the personnel area. Accommodation standards are a continuing disgrace. The newly trumpeted PFI project sets a target of 2016 to complete improvements. We shall find that all those Blake recommendations, which have resource implications, will have to fight for their place in the defence programme against the demands of the equipment and operational areas.
Recommendation 26—the need for a military ombudsman—is the key recommendation of the Blake review, which the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, mentioned. In my response to the Statement, I highlighted this recommendation. My full, in-depth reading of the Blake review has confirmed my support for this important proposal. We should remember that this is not the first time that such a proposal has been made. Independent representation was proposed by Sir Michael Bett in his Independent Review of the Armed Forces' Manpower, Career and Remuneration Structures, published in 1995. That report, in much easier operational times than now, found that 66 per cent of service men and women were in favour of some form of independent representation outside the chain of command. I would be interested to know from the Minister whether there has been a subsequent internal survey in the past decade to determine whether that level of support for some form of independent ombudsman or system is still there or is greater than it was in 1995.
An independent voice in redress procedures has been raised in the context of the Armed Forces Bill. The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, has pointed out that we will want to come back to those recommendations when we deal with the Bill. I was delighted to see that the discussion that the Armed Forces Bill Select Committee had on
There is a growing call for the military to enjoy some of the rights that other citizens take for granted. At every stage the MoD resists allowing the Armed Forces a right to express concern outside the chain of command. This is not acceptable at this stage. The United States and Australia are among the many nations which welcome such independent arrangements. Since the advent of the new budgetary systems to the way defence works, every commanding officer is put in the position of managing a small business. While trying to manage his budget, he acts, at the same time, as the voice of concern for subordinates, which becomes ever more difficult.
The Blake review has got it right when it states in Chapter 12.98 that,
"this Review believes that the present proposals in the Armed Forces Bill do not go far enough to ensure independent supervision and review of the discipline and complaints system. There is a danger that an historic opportunity will be lost for the Armed Forces to obtain independent assistance to achieve the goals they have set themselves to ensure the welfare of trainees and soldiers is effectively addressed".
The following paragraph states:
"It will be difficult for the Armed Forces to satisfy the public that they have nothing to hide in the running of their discipline and complaints system if there is a perception of unwillingness to accept meaningful independent oversight, which is increasingly seen as a necessary counterweight to the powers and prerogatives of military life".
I trust that the Minister is in a position to tell us more of what the Government intend to do in following the recommendations in the Blake review and, in particular, whether they intend to follow the example of other countries and seek to establish a military ombudsman with, at minimum, the functions described by Blake in the Armed Forces Bill. We shall certainly expect to discuss that when the Bill comes to the House and also the associated but separate question of whether wider representation is needed through some form of Armed Forces federation. It is essential that the balance of resource allocation which the Ministry of Defence makes is redressed now towards the people who serve their country in the Armed Forces.