Deepcut Barracks

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:04 pm on 19th April 2006.

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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 8:04 pm, 19th April 2006

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, for giving the House the opportunity to debate the Blake report again. As we consider its conclusions, our thoughts and sympathy go out to the families of those young recruits who died at the Deepcut Barracks. As the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, and my noble friend Lord Attlee said, I would like to compliment Mr Nicholas Blake and the review team for the scope and detail of the report.

As I said in my response to the Statement last month, we on these Benches agree with the review's conclusion that there is no value in holding a public inquiry, provided, as the noble Lord, Lord Garden, said, the recommendations are carried out fully and quickly. The review indicates that,

"no new reliable evidence as to how the four trainees met their deaths is likely to be available".

We hope that the Army, and Ministers, are now concentrating on learning lessons from those tragic circumstances and are putting into practice the constructive suggestions that the review has made to ensure that events like these will never take place again. It is not for us to dictate to the Army what to do, but it is for them to tell us, through Ministers, what they are doing. That must include sufficient detail to show that they are progressing with improvements and not letting them slide as new priorities emerge. I would particularly highlight the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Garden, about the accommodation standards being a disgrace. I welcome the Minister's commitment to report back to the House with periodic updates on the progress that is being made.

A fine balance is required in military training. We ask our soldiers to put themselves into hostile and very dangerous situations. Their training must therefore be robust and rigorous. But the Army, rightly, has a duty of care for each individual under its command. If that duty of care is to be successful, there must be sufficient numbers of qualified supervisory personnel. The noble Viscount, Lord Slim, mentioned the complete lack of junior officers and NCOs. The Blake review is particularly critical of the levels of supervision at Deepcut, which in some cases were as low 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. Will the Minister confirm that this target of 1:38 has been met? As the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, said in response to the Statement, this training is best achieved through effective leadership and good man management. Whatever institutional changes are made, significant improvements will result from employing high standards of leadership, based on integrity, pride and espirit de corps.

To encourage future recruits, they and their families need to be confident that the British Army can deliver a culture of nurture and training which is free from bullying and harassment. For that, proper supervision is crucial. As the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, said, bullying is a serious offence. I compliment the noble Lord on his excellent and vigorous campaign to stamp out bullying in the Army.

The review makes a number of recommendations relating to recruitment. What practical steps are being considered to increase involvement of parents in the recruitment process? What practical considerations are the Government giving to the recommendation regarding medical records being made readily available prior to a recruitment decision?

A significant number of recruits are vulnerable individuals who come to the Army from difficult and unstable backgrounds. Faced with the rigours of military training, they require a robust support mechanism from the chain of command. Any apparent evidence of self-harm or abuse must be quickly recognised by officers and dealt with. The review also rightly recommends ending the practice of armed guard duty being used as a punishment for recruits who have not completed training with firearms. This point was well made by the noble Viscount, Lord Slim.

What improvements are being made to the ongoing of training for instructors to better equip them to recognise and address issues that arise among trainees from difficult backgrounds? Following the conviction of Leslie Skinner, what improvements have been made to the vetting procedure for instructors? What implications will the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill have on the vetting of instructors? There are clear shortcomings in the training structure, as illustrated by the report of the House of Commons Defence Committee on duty of care published last year. Recruits are passing out of phase 1 training without the necessary preparation to attempt phase 2. These soldiers then await trade training in limbo. Can the Minister tell the House how much he believes that an indeterminate length of phase 2 training contributes to recruit dissatisfaction?

The noble Viscount, Lord Slim, and my noble friend Lord Attlee both mentioned the Royal Military Police. The review raises some important questions regarding the tasking, training, equipping and reporting methods of the Royal Military Police, and clearly there is scope to improve the quality and breadth of RMP investigations, particularly those involving abuse, self-harm and sexual offences. What consideration are the Government giving to the improvement of investigative best practice and ensuring that the RMP are sufficiently resourced to carry out complex investigations?

This has been a very useful debate, and as my noble friend Lord Attlee said, I very much hope that these soldiers will not have died in vain.