My Lords, we welcome that Ofsted rated the Army Foundation College in Harrogate as outstanding in all areas and for overall effectiveness, reflecting the excellent standard of the provision of duty of care and welfare. Ofsted praised the strong ethos of emotional and psychological safety, inclusion and teamwork that it identified as firmly embedded. The college continues proactively to engage with Ofsted’s recommendations to ensure that all recruits are prepared for and supported throughout their training.
I thank the Minister for that Answer. In 2013, 2018 and 2021 Ofsted graded welfare and safeguarding at AFC Harrogate as outstanding. Answers to Parliamentary Questions and the MoD’s own records reveal, among other examples, that between 2014 and 2023 the college itself recorded 72 complaints of violence by staff, at least 13 of those cases being proven; that in 2018 a prosecution of 16 accused members of staff collapsed for procedural reasons due to the flawed handling of the case by the RMP; and that in February this year Simon Bartram, an AFC instructor, was found guilty of disgraceful conduct and sexual assault over a nine-month period between 2020 and 2021. Ofsted, despite being invited so to do, says it cannot engage with the information relating to any of these events. How can the Ministry of Defence be comfortable with this? What steps, if any, is it taking to improve the inspection of welfare and safeguarding at the AFC?
The noble Lord refers to profoundly regrettable and utterly unacceptable incidents, but it is important to put the period of nine years to which he refers into a more specific context. First, the college, having learned from those earlier appalling incidents, has introduced important changes, reflected in the much-improved environment on which Ofsted commented so positively in its 2021 report. Secondly, the MoD has introduced new policies and changes to deal with sexual offences and unacceptable sexual behaviour below the criminal threshold. It has taken steps to improve the complaints system, has created the Defence Serious Crime Unit and has a zero-tolerance policy for sexual offences and sexual relationships between instructors and trainees. All of that now reflects a much-improved climate at the college.
I can confirm that the specific case to which the noble Lord referred was dealt with through the service justice system. The individual was found guilty of nine charges. He was sentenced to detention, reduced in rank and discharged from the Army. Sadly, we cannot ever eliminate the prospect of something unacceptable happening, but significant steps have been taken to try to reduce that possibility.
My Lords, I must admit that we in Harrogate are very proud of the work of this foundation college in training thousands of young men and women to serve their country in the military and, in the process, educating them both in general terms and in specific skills. Does my noble friend therefore agree that we should pay tribute to the hard work of the trainers, instructors and those who run the college, as well as to the young people who come out ready to serve this country?
I thank my noble friend for that clearly very knowledgeable assessment of what happens at the foundation college. I will simply repeat an excerpt from the Ofsted report:
“Recruits are emphatic about the high standards of care and welfare at AFC. They report that there is no bullying at the college and that they are confident that permanent staff would deal firmly and promptly with any incidents that may arise”.
My noble friend is right that the college enables people coming from a diverse variety of backgrounds, many of them disadvantaged, to learn skills and be provided with training and opportunities that will greatly assist them, not just in relation to a career in the Army but later on in life, because the Army is an engine for social mobility moulding young people like that to be the very best they can be.
My Lords, I declare an interest as the Minister for the Armed Forces who oversaw the introduction of the foundation college, so some people may think I am biased, but I agree entirely with the noble Lord who has just spoken. Does the Minister agree that Ofsted is not generally renowned for overgenerosity—particularly in the light of recent events, it is the opposite that it is accused of—so when one of the institutions in our Armed Forces is regarded by it as outstanding, we should take a degree of pride in that? Will the Minister take some comfort from the fact that, whatever the past travails, there has been a marked change, and pass our congratulations on to the staff, the students and the young soldiers who will form the backbone of the future British Army?
I congratulate the noble Lord on his vision in creating the foundation college, which has been an extremely important development for the Army. What happens in this Chamber resonates well beyond it, and I know that the noble Lord’s very welcome and apposite words in relation to the college, its governance, its staff and the young people themselves will be very positively received.
My Lords, I accept that some things happened at the college that were unacceptable and I am grateful that the Minister acknowledged that, but I also want to put on record that the college is doing enormously valuable work and deserves our support. Can she assure us that all the safeguards that she has announced have been put in place to prevent a repetition of those events are not just an immediate knee-jerk reaction but are sustainable and will ensure that the college can continue to do the valuable work it does without incurring undue publicity?
Yes, I can provide that reassurance to the noble Baroness. That is a very pertinent question. A junior soldier can now report crime via a multitude of platforms. It need not be within the chain of command; it can be via the Service Police Crime Bureau, via a confidential crime line, directly to the service police or the Defence Serious Crime Unit, or indeed directly to the civilian police.
In relation to behaviours that may not constitute criminal activity but cause concern and give rise to a complaint, I can reassure the noble Baroness that junior soldiers are encouraged early and frequently to report any concerns that they have. The commanding officer speaks to them about zero tolerance on their first day of training, so that is done immediately. The commanding officer also holds a confidence-in-reporting discussion with all female junior soldiers in week one, committing to take all allegations seriously and encouraging them to speak up should they need to do so, and there are mechanisms for the junior soldiers to deploy to do that. That perhaps underpins the finding by Ofsted that I quoted earlier.
My Lords, I seem to recall that at some point in Grand Committee, probably in the midst of Covid, the Minister undertook to arrange a visit for the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, and me to visit the college. I was wondering whether that could be instituted, and perhaps we could take the noble Lord, Lord Browne, with us. My question is: does the Minister believe that she could say to parents of 15 and 16 year-olds, hand on heart, “Yes, your children can safely apply; they will be in good hands if they go to Harrogate now”, after the changes that have been made?
Yes, I can comfortably give the noble Baroness that assurance. I have seen at first hand the variety of mechanisms now available to the young soldiers in order to voice any concerns. It has been recognised not just by Ofsted but by the independent advisory panel that there is a very open and transparent atmosphere, which is reflected in the comments from the young soldiers themselves.
I remember the undertaking that I gave and I am delighted to repeat it. In fact, I mentioned it just this morning to the commanding officer at Harrogate, and I can tell the noble Baroness that she, the noble Lords, Lord Coaker and Lord Browne, and any other noble Lords who care to tag along would be very welcome to visit Harrogate. I think they would all find it a stimulating and extremely positive experience.
My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to tag along, particularly as I had forgotten about that. The serious point that I want to make, following the contributions by all noble Lords and sparked by my noble friend Lord Browne’s Question, is about the controversy that sometimes surrounds 16 and 17 year-olds being able to join the Armed Forces. I am a strong supporter of that, for the reasons that many people have outlined here. That is why, in supporting the principle of 16 and 17 year-olds being able to join our Armed Forces, the reassurances that the Minister has given us about what happens in Harrogate and elsewhere are so important.
I thank the noble Lord for his positive observation. I reiterate to the Chamber by way of reassurance that the recruitment of under-18s into the Armed Forces meets all legal policy requirements, both national and international. The Army also meets in full its obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the optional protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict. I agree with the noble Lord: this offers an opportunity to many young people—who, frankly, would be denied that opportunity anywhere else—to have a chance to make something of their lives and acquire skills that will endure for all their lives.