HC Deb 24 February 1999 vol 326 cc347-54 12.30 pm
Mr. Denis Murphy (Wansbeck)

I thank the House for allowing me this debate, for which I asked following correspondence with Christopher Young's regiment and with the Ministry of Defence. I have not received satisfactory replies to my questions, or to those of Christopher's parents. I speak today with the full knowledge and agreement of Christopher's parents—his mother, Heather, and his stepfather, Terry.

On 20 June 1995, Christopher Michael Young left his parents' home in the town of Ashington in the county of Northumberland. He travelled a few miles north to the village of Acklington, where he lay on the railway track of the east coast main line. He committed suicide. He was 23.

What could have triggered such a tragic and horrific end to a fine, healthy young life? I shall try to piece together the events that led to Christopher's death. He was an active young man who enjoyed life. He decided to join the Army with the full support of his family. He joined the 15th/19th King's Royal Hussars and threw himself wholeheartedly into basic training at Catterick camp. Out of the new intake, it was he who received the award as top driver—quite an achievement.

Christopher was posted to Germany, was trained on exercises in Canada, and served for six months in Cyprus. He was enthusiastic, and he hoped to progress through promotion. He matured into a confident and decent young man of whom his parents were justifiably proud.

Christopher was initially disappointed when, as a result of defence cuts, the 15th/19th King's Royal Hussars was disbanded, but he transferred to the 13th/18th Light Dragoons and he quickly overcame his concerns. He made new friends, and he distinguished himself when chosen to represent his new regiment in a boxing tournament. It would appear that Christopher had chosen an interesting and rewarding career that was proving beneficial both to him and to his regiment.

Things changed dramatically in the latter stages of 1993 when Christopher was posted to Bosnia. He was on attachment to the Coldstream Guards as part of the United Nations peacekeeping forces in the former Yugoslavia. Bosnia was his first encounter with the horrors of conflict and with the realities of death. The conflict in Bosnia inflicted much carnage on innocent men, women and children.

I cannot speak with any personal experience of war, but I went to Bosnia in summer 1997 as part of an international monitoring team to oversee the first municipal elections. I was in the town of Banja Luka, where Christopher was posted, and where he first came face to face with the horrors of so-called ethnic cleansing. I stood at the site of the most notorious atrocity, and it had a profound and harrowing effect on me, even though there were no bodies and only the charred remains of burnt-out buildings. I cannot begin to imagine the effect that a six-month tour of duty must have had on the young men who undertook it.

Christopher had particular problems in coming to terms with the deaths of young children. What a relief it was, therefore, to have home leave for Christmas at the end of such a terrible tour of duty. However, while he was waiting for his flight home, his wallet, containing his identification, was stolen, and he was later involved in a fight with another soldier. He was subsequently arrested, and he received 28 days detention and loss of leave and pay as a punishment.

During his detention at Hohne, in Germany, Christopher asked to see Maggie Gibbons, a Women's Royal Voluntary Service volunteer attached to the Light Dragoons. From what she subsequently told Christopher's parents, it was obvious that he had a recognisable fear of returning to Bosnia. Maggie Gibbons's concern that Christopher was psychologically unfit to return to Bosnia was so great that she made strenuous representations to his commanding officer, asking that Christopher be granted a period of unscheduled leave as a respite. She felt that he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Christopher was granted home leave at the conclusion of his punishment. On seeing him, his parents were shocked at the change in Christopher. He hated the Army, and he was considering applying for a discharge. They were worried by the dramatic change, in only a few months, from his being a bright, enthusiastic young man who wanted a career and promotion to being a depressed shadow of his former self who wanted only to get out of the Army. Christopher was given an order granting an appointment with his commanding officer, and he informed his parents that if he was successful in seeking a discharge, it would be complete by August 1994.

It is important to note that part of Christopher's punishment was the loss of 28 days' pay. However, he received no pay for four months, forcing him to borrow heavily from the Navy, Army and Air Force Institute and a German bank. That was three months of extra punishment. The Army conceded that a mistake had been made, and Christopher was eventually paid for the three months. However, more pressure had been applied to someone no longer capable of handling it.

Christopher returned home to his parents in July 1994. Nothing then or in the following months suggested to his parents that there was anything irregular in the way he had left the Army. In fact, he was absent without leave, having left his regiment without authority and having failed to report to Bovington camp for final clearance and documentation.

As far as his parents were concerned, Christopher had left the Army without a problem. He made no attempt to hide the fact that he was living in the family home. He registered with the Department of Social Security and the Inland Revenue, giving his parents' address as his own. His driving licence, car registration and medical records were registered to that address.

It came as a complete surprise to Christopher's stepfather—then, and now, a police officer in Northumbria—to discover that Ashington police had received a fax from the Royal Military Police, Chichester, on Monday 19 June 1995. The fax listed Christopher as absent without leave from the Army since 2 August 1994—a period of nearly 11 months.

That evening, once Christopher had become aware of the police inquiry and a warrant for his arrest, he confessed to his mother that he was absent from the Army without leave, and that he owed money. He gave no other details, but told his mother that he feared that he would do serious Army time—at least a day for a day, and perhaps more. He was adamant that he would not return to his unit in Germany, as he believed that he would be sent back to Bosnia. He told his mother that he would rather be dead than go back to the Army.

Christopher was calm when he left, explaining that he wanted time to himself to think things through. That was that last time anyone saw him alive.

I have presented what I hope are the undisputed facts of the case. I want to show now how the Army, in its responses to the tragedy, failed in its duty of care to Christopher Young. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces will outline the Army's case more eloquently than I can, but I shall try to paraphrase it.

Christopher was sentenced to 28 days' detention and loss of pay and leave. At no time did he complain of post-traumatic stress disorder. Nor did he ask to see a medical officer or a psychiatrist. The Army concedes that Maggie Gibbons spoke on behalf of a number of soldiers, of whom Christopher was one. However, the Army claims that Maggie was not qualified to spot post-traumatic disorder, and that leave was granted out of kindness, not concern for Christopher's health.

Christopher lost a further three months wages. The Army admits that, but claims that it had no effect on Christopher as the money was later paid to him in full. The Army states that he left Hohne on 11 July 1994, prior to intended discharge procedures. He was ordered to report to Bovington on 1 August 1994 so that he could complete his documentation before being discharged. He failed to do so.

Between 2 August and 15 December 1994, Bovington made frequent attempts to contact Christopher, but to no avail. On 15 December, Bovington asked his regiment for help. On 7 January 1995, the regiment asked a friend of Christopher's, who had been discharged in summer 1994, to tell Christopher to report to Bovington. The message apparently reached Christopher, but he failed to report.

The Army claims that no action would have been taken against Christopher when he reported. Indeed, he would have been asked only to hand in his identification card and to collect his credit for pay.

A board was convened on 30 January 1995 to record the events, and responsibility for locating Christopher passed back to Bovington and, ultimately, to the records office. I have taken those facts from a letter sent to Mr. Haley from Lieutenant-Colonel Webb-Bowen, commanding officer of the Light Dragoons. The officer also sent his sincere condolences.

On the face of it, the Army's reply might seem reasonable. However, let us examine the case more closely. I submit that Christopher began to show signs of psychological problems when he asked specifically to see Maggie Gibbons while in detention. She spoke to Christopher's parents after his death and explained that he had had serious problems coping with his experiences in Bosnia. She also spoke to his commanding officer and argued successfully for a period of unscheduled leave because of Christopher's state of mind. That was Christopher's first cry for help.

It beggars belief that the Army could bestow an act of kindness on such an undeserving individual who was serving 28 days for a serious breach of discipline. In my view—which is supported by the WRVS volunteer—that leave was granted because of Christopher's mental state, and for no other reason. How could the Army maintain discipline if it were the norm to allocate unscheduled leave as an act of kindness after a period of detention?

The important role that Maggie Gibbons played in this tragic case cannot be overstated. That was not the first time that she had met Christopher—indeed, she knew him quite well. She sent photographs of him taken before he went to Bosnia and stated that he was one of her "best boys". It therefore seems logical that Christopher would contact her as someone whom he could both confide in and trust to explain his fears and concerns. If leave was granted because of Christopher's mental state, his regiment failed to follow up the problem. How many other soldiers from Christopher's regiment were shown similar acts of kindness, in the form of unscheduled leave, after serving sentences for a serious breach of regulations?

The question of Christopher's pay is another important issue. The family have never disputed that it was eventually paid in full. The point is that Christopher borrowed heavily during that period, creating additional pressures at a time when he basically wanted to be away from it all. It could explain why Christopher felt that he could not complete his clearances and left a full two weeks before he was granted permission to do so.

Christopher left Hohne on 11 July and his papers gave him permission to leave on 25 July. How could he be deemed to be in "good order", as his commanding officer stated, when he left two weeks before the date shown on his discharge papers? It states quite clearly in his orders that failure to comply would result in disciplinary action. By leaving Hohne without permission, Christopher was surely absent without leave from 11 July. I submit that leaving in that way was Christopher's second cry for help.

That brings me to a significant area of contention with the official version of events. We know that Christopher was officially reported absent without leave with effect from 2 August 1994 even though he was absent from 11 July. It is stated that the usual procedures would have been put into operation—namely, that a signal would have been sent to central criminal records and information. The Chichester Royal Military Police would then have contacted the civil police authorities, who would have visited the address given and, if unsuccessful, would have maintained the details on file.

It is stated that visits were made to addresses in the Ashington area. Why were there no visits to Christopher's parents' home address? The address is on file twice under the headings "Family details" and "Next of kin". The same address was shown on Christopher's discharge papers that ordered him there before going to Bovington. What addresses were visited, when and by whom? If contact had been made with the local civil police, a locate trace or wanted marker would have been placed on the police computer. I remind the House at this important juncture that Christopher's stepfather is a serving officer in the Northumbria police force and was stationed at that time in Ashington. Why did it take 11 months to find Christopher?

Frequent inquiries were allegedly made to two addresses in Ashington, the last of which was on 15 December 1994. The Army then claims that it used standard procedures—namely, it contacted the Department of Social Security for the current addresses of any absentees. Christopher registered with the DSS immediately upon returning home 11 months earlier. While in his car, he was stopped twice by the police during that period and asked to produce his documents at the police station. There was no "wanted" or "locate and trace" marker against his name. It took 11 months to find someone who was not hiding. Even though Christopher's parents moved into Ashington during that time, their change of address would have been easy to trace.

That brings me to the final point: Christopher would not have been punished for being absent without leave, and the Army wanted him only to hand back his identification and collect his pay. I have mentioned this point to several ex-service men of various ranks, all of whom said that 11 months absence without leave for whatever reason would have incurred severe penalties. Perhaps the regiment could provide details of the number of those who fall into the category of committing no offence for being absent without leave. The Army claims that there was to be no punishment for Christopher, who simply had to hand back his ID and collect his pay.

Christopher's ID was stolen, along with his wallet, on return from Bosnia and he was subsequently issued with a temporary ID, which expired on 16 July 1994. He had no ID, and the Army should have known that. As to his pay, a sum was deducted from his estate apparently for overpayment of wages in Germany. There was no pay to collect and he had no ID. Why did the Army send a "locate and detain" order to the local police—that is, an order to arrest him—if Christopher was not to be punished? Christopher obviously did not believe that he would not be punished, for there was no third cry for help. He believed that he would not receive any help and took his own life rather than face returning to the Army.

I believe that the Army has shown either incompetence or negligence in this case. As a result, a young man took his own life rather than return to the Army. How different might things have been if Christopher had been located within weeks rather than 11 months? I do not expect my hon. Friend the Minister to be able to answer all the points that I have raised in the short time that he has to respond to the debate. However, I formally request that he meet Christopher's parents with a view to conducting an open, Government-led inquiry into the events surrounding Christopher's death. The family have only ever sought answers to their questions. Nothing will bring Christopher back, and they must live with that for the rest of their lives. An inquiry may prevent a similar incident in the future.

We train and equip the finest service men and women in the world and we expect them to police the world's trouble spots in the name of this nation. Thousands of service personnel are awaiting instructions to move into Kosovo and, of those thousands, a number will undoubtedly end up suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. We have a duty to ensure that systems are in place to recognise that disorder and to deal with it professionally and sympathetically.

The Army has been described as a family—sadly, for some who join, it is their only family. Central to that family principle is surely a duty of care. I believe that the Army failed in that duty of care in Christopher's case. I ask the Minister to meet Christopher's parents and to hold an inquiry so that everyone connected with the case may find peace and we may ensure that such an incident as this never occurs again.

12.48 pm
Dr. David Clark (South Shields)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Murphy) on his eloquent, and sometimes moving, contribution. He clearly made a strong case regarding the tragic circumstances that affected his constituent. As I listened to my hon. Friend, I recalled that I might have met Christopher—I do not know whether I did. I spent some time with the Coldstream Guards and a detachment from the Light Dragoons in Bosnia during the period under discussion and I remember joking with the service men—who were full of life—about whether they supported Sunderland or Newcastle. Most of them were Newcastle supporters.

I am reminded of the rather delicate position in which the Army often finds itself. As my hon. Friend said, our armed forces comprise some of the finest young men and women in the world, who demonstrate their proficiency when we increasingly ask them to serve in places such as the Balkans. That puts great pressure on young people. At one level, they are very macho; at another, when they see the horrors of ethnic cleansing, it much affects them. That means that the Army must change and ensure that it has procedures to recognise cries for help of the sort that my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck showed that Christopher Young often made.

We must ensure that such events do not happen again. I am conscious of this because I have a similar case involving a young man from my constituency, Trooper Alex Jobling. He was from the same regiment, the Light Dragoons, and was at the same base, Hohne in Germany. Tragically, he committed suicide on 21 January 1997. I took the matter up with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and had a long and sympathetic reply. However, I am not completely satisfied with it. I return to the approach made to me by my constituents Mr. and Mrs. Jobling, who complained that they have been exasperated by trying to get to the truth surrounding the circumstances of our son's death. This House and the Army must ensure that every effort is made to satisfy parents and relatives of people who die that at least they know all the circumstances. In this case, I do not think that all the circumstances are known. I have taken up the case because no action was taken even though a suicide note was found and reported to the corporal a few days before Trooper Jobling committed suicide. I do not blame the corporal; my point is that there must be clear instructions to the Army to ensure that the aide-memoire that has now been produced is adhered to and, crucially, gets through to non-commissioned officers. Our NCOs are the best in the world and the backbone of the British Army. They are the link between troopers and people who might be able to help them.

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will agree to help my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck with the circumstances of the death of Christopher Young. I hope that he is also prepared to discuss with me the events involving Trooper Jobling because they are tragic and reflect a common point. I would be grateful if he agreed to my request.

12.53 pm
The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Doug Henderson)

First, I tell my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) that I will ask the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar) to re-examine the circumstances surrounding the case that he raised, to examine the correspondence and to tell my right hon. Friend whether a meeting might help clarify the situation.

In the short time available, however, I want to address the main question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Murphy). I am grateful to him for raising the circumstances surrounding the tragic death of Trooper Christopher Young, which he did clearly and with great sympathy. I also take this opportunity to express my sincere condolences to his family on their sad loss. Mr. and Mrs. Haley have understandably thought much about the circumstances surrounding his death. It is right that they should receive detailed explanation of all the events relating to the situation. I will ensure that that happens in the most appropriate way.

Christopher Young was highly regarded by his superiors and well liked by his peers. He was a hard-working, efficient and capable young person who had been recommended for possible promotion to become a junior non-commissioned officer. He was a fit and active member of the troop and boxed for the squadron. I am advised that it was the view of the Army that he had a promising career ahead of him. Sadly, after three years of service, he decided to leave the Army and applied to be discharged. The discharge was to become effective on 2 August 1994. My hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck told us of the sad events that took place between then and a year later.

The Army takes very seriously its responsibilities for duty of care. In the six months that I have been in this post, I have visited many regiments. On each occasion, I have been impressed by the seriousness with which the Army accepts that responsibility. That is recognised by all in the Army—by those who lead and by those who serve. Apart from anything else raised by my hon. Friend, that would be an important reason why I would feel that we have a full obligation to investigate the tragic circumstances surrounding the death of Christopher Young.

I do not accept that there has been a failure in this case on the part of the Army. I know that there would have been no intentional failure, but several specific points have been raised and it is right that I further examine the circumstances. My hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck said that when Christopher Young was in detention, he approached Maggie Gibbons of the Women's Royal Voluntary Service and explained to her how he felt about his circumstances. She in turn had a discussion with Christopher's parents in which she expressed how she interpreted what he had told her. I undertake to revisit the issue and check with the commanding officer what advice, if any, was given him by Maggie Gibbons in respect of her assessment of Christopher's physical and mental state of health.

The Army's responsibilities in such cases were raised. The Army has a clear responsibility to retrieve documents, to settle possible outstanding wages and to ensure that proper procedures have been followed in any discharge. In emphasising that responsibility, I again undertake to examine some questions linked to it. I will check which address the military police initially contacted to try to locate Christopher Young in trying to meet the Army's responsibilities. I will check whether any other addresses were approached by the military police and, if so, what response was received. I will also check whether, after the initial attempt to locate Christopher Young, a "locate and trace" order was made by the military police; and if so, when it was issued and why the military police felt it was necessary. Finally, I will check what action the civil police took in the case and when they took it.

We have a duty to explain all the circumstances to the family of Christopher Young. I recognise that it is important in that explanation to make the most direct contact possible, and I undertake to do that.