HC Deb 24 May 2004 vol 421 cc1305-20 3.30 pm
The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram)

Right hon. and hon. Members will be aware of the incident that took place in Iraq today. I am sure that they will understand that since the families of those involved are in the process of being informed, I cannot add any detail to the Foreign Secretary's statement in Brussels earlier today. However, I am sure that the House will join me in extending our condolences to the families of the two individuals who were killed and our best wishes for a speedy recovery to the person who was injured. British civilians are doing a valuable job in bringing stability to Iraq, and it is deeply shocking that they should be attacked in this way by the enemies of peace and democracy.

In the armed forces personnel debate on 13 May, I informed the House that I intended shortly to make a statement in response to the report of the Surrey police into the four tragic deaths at Princess Royal barracks, which was published on 5 March this year. I am grateful for this opportunity to do so.

It weighs heavily with me as to why we are here today. Between 1995 and 2002, four young people died tragically before their time. For the families of Privates Sean Benton, Cheryl James, Geoff Gray and James Collinson, these have been long and difficult years. I recognise that I cannot experience their grief, but I understand it and again pass my condolences on to them. The Army shares their sorrow. I also recognise that in some respects the families have not been as well treated as they should have been. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has apologised unreservedly for those failings, and I repeat these sentiments today.

I am grateful to the chief constable of the Surrey police for his report, which made the clear recommendation that the Ministry of Defence should consider a broader investigation into first, whether the risks identified at Deepcut are replicated across the wider Army Training and Recruiting Agency and how those may relate to the issues of self-harm, suicide and undetermined deaths; secondly, how the Army's care regime may be improved further; and thirdly, how independent oversight might help the Army to define and maintain appropriate standards of care for young soldiers.

The report also acknowledges the positive approach taken since August 2002 and states that if Army systems of accountability continue to be developed, then systemic and cultural change may be achieved and sustained. That refers to the report by the deputy Adjutant General and the creation of the Army learning account—a systematic mechanism to learn and apply lessons that was put in place in 2002 following the tragic death of Private Collinson. In addition, on 3 October 2002, I commissioned the director of operational capability to conduct an audit of initial training across the armed forces. That was a hard-hitting, cross-cutting report that generated rigorous self-examination and was followed by a reappraisal last summer.

Those reports generated a comprehensive action plan against which progress could be measured. I can report that of the 58 recommendations, 48 are implemented and progressing satisfactorily and the remaining 10 are being addressed. They include improvements in staff to trainee ratios and improved welfare facilities. As right hon. and hon. Members will be aware, both those documents have been placed in the Library, as will be the report of the further re-appraisal planned for the autumn.

That commitment to improvement continues. I can announce today that I have committed further investment of more than £23 million to the training system. That will provide further instructor training, further improvement of supervisory ratios and increased opportunities for the use of recreational facilities and other welfare projects.

I believe that the work put in train as a result of the director of operational capability's appraisals and the deputy Adjutant General's report through the Army learning account, of which 25 of 26 actions have been completed, is significant. The publication of those reports and the supporting papers to the Surrey police report reflect our commitment to openness, improvement and accountability in the delivery of initial training across the armed forces.

The calls for a broader inquiry and independent oversight are difficult issues that I have had to consider carefully. The armed forces are rightly renowned for their ability. The performance of our servicemen and women in the most demanding operational situations is ample evidence of that. Such performance rests on rigorous training, which encourages character development, the acceptance of responsibility, discipline and the determination to succeed in adversity. However, I also recognise the need for public reassurance that the training is properly conducted and that the young men and women who join our armed forces are properly supported during that formative stage in their lives.

For that reason, we have decided to appoint the adult learning inspectorate—the ALI—to conduct independent inspection and oversight of the armed forces' training establishments. As hon. Members know, the ALI has a statutory responsibility to examine and report on the quality of education and training for adults and young people. It is entirely independent of the Ministry of Defence and is a widely respected body.

A memorandum of understanding will be drawn up with the ALI for an annual rolling programme of independent inspections to include the initial training establishments. The first inspection will begin in the autumn this year. I have asked for the first inspection to focus on initial training across all three services and to look specifically at care and welfare. It will include Deepcut. There will be no no-go areas. The inspectorate will report to Ministers by Easter next year and that report will be published. That will be followed by a rolling programme of inspections, which will cover all aspects of service training, including initial training and the environment in which it is conducted. It will include delivery of the training as well as the care and welfare of trainees. For the first time, all aspects of our training will be benchmarked against national standards and good practice. This will help reduce risks faced by young trainees not only in the Army but in all three services.

We must ensure that improvements are sustained. The ALI's recommendations will be tracked centrally in the Ministry of Defence. The inspectorate will be empowered to revisit areas to check on implementation of agreed recommendations and to ensure that progress is maintained. Throughout the process, its staff will have direct access to me if they have concerns that their recommendations are not being properly considered.

I believe that the ALI's involvement will enable us to build substantially on the work that we have already done, ensure continued and sustained improvements and enhance the transparency of what we are doing. It will complement the quality training provided by the armed forces and provide wider reassurance. It represents a positive and prompt response to the Surrey police recommendations.

I am aware also of the calls by the families and others for a public inquiry into the four deaths. I understand why the families and others feel strongly about a public inquiry, but we need to be clear about what a public inquiry would seek to achieve. I recognise that the families want to know exactly what happened to their loved ones and why.

In the first three cases, there have been investigations, coroner's inquests and subsequent intensive police reinvestigations. The Surrey police found no evidence to indicate any prospect of a prosecution directly related to the deaths. Private James Collinson's case, from the start the subject of an investigation by the Surrey police, has yet to be heard by the coroner. The coroner's inquiry will be held in public and is the proper place to examine the circumstances of sudden deaths.

The courts have made it clear that the coroner can and should make sure that the jury reaches a conclusion on all the central issues of a case and that the court considers relevant wider factors. We will of course co-operate fully in the forthcoming inquest, as we have done with other inquests.

I have weighed all these factors carefully. I do not underestimate the depth of feeling and the passion of the families who lost loved ones at Deepcut, but I am not persuaded, given the intensive investigations and inquiries, and the new measures that I have put in place, of what more a public inquiry would achieve. I know that this will be disappointing to the families but I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will recognise the openness and robustness of the approach that I am reporting to the House today.

I have made no secret of the fact that improvement was needed in the initial training regime, and we have now given the initial training system across all three services a thorough audit and overhaul. The audit led to substantive, sustained measures to improve it. With the closer engagement of the adult learning inspectorate, further audits will take place. This will ensure accountability and external oversight for the future. We have the finest armed forces, and they consistently act as a force for good in the world. The bravery and achievement of our service people on operations is testament to that. That would not be the case if the system that trained them was fundamentally flawed—quite the reverse. The gallantry shown by our personnel on operations bears testament to the underlying quality of the people we recruit, of the training that they receive and of those who provide the training. Like all large systems, this one needs improvement and regular maintenance, and I am determined that it will receive both.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con)

May I thank the Minister of State for providing me with an advance copy of his statement? I should also like to associate Her Majesty's Opposition with his remarks about the bombings in Baghdad involving British causalities today, and with his tribute to the very fine work that British civilians are doing on the reconstruction of Iraq.

The deaths of the four young people while training to take their place serving in Her Majesty's armed forces is, above all, a terrible personal tragedy for each of the families concerned. The hearts of all of us in the House, not least those of us with children of our own, go out to those parents and families. It is also, as the Minister suggested, a tragedy for the Army, because it has damaged public confidence in its ability to fulfil its required duty of care towards the young men and women in its charge—a duty which I know it takes very seriously.

We note the Government's decision to introduce some independent oversight. Perhaps, for the better assistance of the House, the Minister could remind us of some of the individuals involved in the adult learning inspectorate. Who runs it, for example? Who are some of its key members? Will he also ensure that those in the agency, who will be given substantial powers of inspection, will be familiar with the way in which the armed forces operate and with the need for the robust training of which he spoke? Will he publish the memorandum of understanding that he is about to sign with the agency? How does the Minister see the role of the current Defence Select Committee inquiry into more or less the same thing as he is setting up with the adult learning inspectorate, and will he ensure that the Committee's report is made available to the inspectorate in due course?

During a debate in Westminster Hall last month, the Secretary of State cited the higher incidence of suicide among young males under the age of 20 in the Army compared with society at large, and said that he would order further studies. How are those studies progressing? The Minister of State stated that lessons had been implemented since 2002, but is it not the case that there have been no fewer than six internal inquiries into the Army training regime, some of which predated the recent deaths, and that too little was done to implement the resulting recommendations? In particular, the report by Lieutenant-Colonel Haes in 2001 criticised the shortage of supervisors. What is the ratio of supervisors to recruits at Deepcut today? Above all, has the Ministry of Defence accepted the serious charge levelled by Lieutenant-Colonel Haes that the Army Training and Recruitment Agency is failing in certain aspects as a result of reduction in the military workforce and increased obligations"? Ministers cannot go on demanding of our armed forces that, in the words of General Lord Guthrie, they do more and more with less and less". What action has been taken to ensure that young recruits do not have unsupervised access to live ammunition?

Finally, the Surrey police noted in their excellent report: It is important to recognise the significant challenges faced by the Army in reconciling the potentially conflicting demands of maintaining a necessarily robust training regime, designed to sustain it among the most professional armies in the world, while at the same time discharging its duty of care to young recruits".

Young recruits such as 18-year-old Trooper Christopher Finney of the Blues and Royals, who was awarded the George cross for his bravery in Iraq, are testament to the overall success of the Army's training mission. As a nation, we can be justly proud of the magnificent job that Britain's young men and women are doing today in Iraq.

Mr. Ingram

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for both his opening and his closing remarks. He highlighted the true excellence of our training system, which produces such high quality young men and women.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether the MOU relating to the ALI will be published, and the answer is yes. He also asked about the ALI, which is a Government body responsible for raising standards of education and training for young people and adults in England by inspecting and reporting on the quality of learning provision. It is well resourced and highly respected, and people with particular experience staff it, but it says that it must bring in people with particular expertise to assist it in its new role, which is why it must increase its staff. The process commences in the autumn, and the hon. Gentleman will understand the need for a pause after the announcement to allow the ALI to obtain the expertise it needs.

The hon. Gentleman says that the House of Commons Defence Committee inquiry is similar to the ALI inquiry, but it is not. The HCDC report can cover any matter, and I cannot direct what it examines—nor should I be able to—and I am not responsible for its course. My ministerial colleagues and I are responsible only for addressing any key issues it raises, so the HCDC's position is different from that of the ALI. The ALI reports directly to a Minister, and the MOD directly resources it. If it makes recommendations, the MOD must address them and examine how it can best implement them. The difference between the ALI and the HCDC is fundamental, although we welcome the HCDC inquiry and look forward to its conclusions.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the Haes report, but he could have referred to all the reports, which cover a considerable time. We have published the documents in order to ensure transparency. Lessons were learned, but in many cases the solutions were sadly not implemented. It is worth bearing in mind paragraph 4.20 of the Surrey police report, which states: Surrey Police has not sought in link any of these risk factors", which were mentioned in previous reports, specifically to the four individual deaths. The report goes on to make other points, too.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the ratio of supervisors to recruits at Deepcut. Ratios differ depending on the type of training establishment. The immediate improvements that have been implemented established a ratio of about 1:38, which is believed to be appropriate and is the level that should have been maintained over previous years.

The hon. Gentleman asked about training with live ammunition, by which I suppose he also means handling firearms. Those matters must be dealt with properly, but he understands that we are training soldiers, not social workers. At some stage, soldiers must be trained, because they must use firearms and live ammunition confidently. The training system is robust, and I think that the hon. Gentleman agrees with my opening comment that it is tried and tested. Failures have occurred, but we are addressing them, and we must get them right.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North) (Lab)

May I associate myself with right hon. Friend the Minister's opening remarks about the tragic deaths and woundings in Iraq?

There will be a great deal of disappointment and, indeed, anger at the decision not to hold a public inquiry. The Deepcut families, along with those from Catterick and beyond, will feel deeply disappointed, because they want to know why and how their loved ones died.

The thing that joins together all these families is a failure to provide mechanisms for effective inquiry and investigation of the deaths and often the cavalier treatment of the families seeking further information. Is my right hon. Friend aware that as a result of his statement the families will be seeking a judicial review based upon the Army precedent? Will he bear in mind that there will be grave suspicion about the point that he has raised over the independent examination of training procedures? It will not be fully independent of the MOD. It will not be established by legislation. The process will not be seen as other than an examination of training courses. It will not be seen by the families as a way of dealing with individual cases.

Finally and specifically, is my right hon. Friend aware that there will be great disappointment that in his statement he made no reference to the need to have an independent means of complaint by recruits and others that is outside the chain of command, which would enable their grievances to be properly examined?

Mr. Ingram

As my hon. Friend has said, I recognise the anger and disappointment that there will be following my statement. At a meeting that I had with my hon. Friend and the families, I tried to walk them through why I had come to this particular conclusion. We must look at the past and consider the impact of that on the present and the future. We have to separate out these particular issues.

I was able to point out to my hon. Friend that he is part of a campaign in which some are saying that there have been 1,748 unnatural deaths in the Army since 1990 and are arguing that all of those deaths should be subject to some form of inquiry. I appreciate that there might be a narrowing down to another number. Where would such a public inquiry end, how long would it take, what would it achieve and how would it impact upon the present and the future? I had to consider how to make things better. We are putting thousands of young people through the training regime year upon year and I cannot wait for a public inquiry. I want to do things now if things need to be improved upon. That is why I have decided to appoint the adult learning inspectorate. Its work will be fully independent. It is a calumny to suggest that because something is not laid down by statute there cannot be independence and that those involved cannot be robust, cannot be interrogative and cannot criticise a Government Department. I do not accept that.

The ALI will be given resources. If it is felt that that is not happening, the ALI will have immediate access to me as a Minister. If there is a blockage within the Department, I want to know what is going on. I have no doubt that the ALI will make sure that the public are aware if there are any failings on the part of the MOD. We will be held to public account.

My hon. Friend asked about an ombudsman for the armed forces. I think that that is a step too far because there is a chain of command. The armed forces are a unique set of people—there is no doubt or question about that. They are asked to do things that no one else is asked to do. That respect of the chain of command is vital. We have a zero tolerance policy towards bullying, harassment and racial discrimination. Does that mean that we are perfect? No, it does not. Does it mean that we can try to be better? Yes, it does. I think that the ALI is an important step towards achieving that. My hon. Friend said that the families may wish to seek a judicial review. That is a matter for them and the courts.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford) (LD)

I thank the Minister for an early sight of the statement. I concur with him on sending condolences from the House to those members of the armed forces and British citizens who have been killed today in Iraq.

I welcome the statement but like other hon. Members I am disappointed. We should note the great work that has been done by hon. Members on both sides of the House in pursuing these matters. The families have been so stoic and so strong in their campaign.

On behalf of the Liberal Democrats, I welcome what the Ministry of Defence has already done—the Army learning account, the audit by the director of operational capability and, today, the £23 million addition for training. Will the Minister tell us whether that is for the Army specifically or whether it will be used across all three armed services?

I also welcome the adult learning inspectorate report. Again, can the Minister for the armed forces say whether it will carry out a one-off inspection of training bases or is that inspection to be ongoing? If so, for how long? While I accept that that is all very good for the future, the central question as to what happened in the past has not been addressed. I suspect that none of us is any closer to knowing what happened at Deepcut.

I too pay tribute to our armed forces for their professionalism and gallantry, and I accept that their training has to be different from any other, but sadly, I suspect that eventually there will be some form of independent inquiry into what happened at Deepcut, although that will come after more delay, more heartache and more legal wrangling. Does the Minister not believe that it would have been better to have announced such an inquiry today—better for the families, better for the MOD in the long run and, most importantly, better for the members of our armed forces?

Mr. Ingram

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his opening comments. He asks what the £23 million is for. I indicated in the statement broadly where it would go—into the initial training environment. It will go where it is primarily needed in those areas. The balance has to be struck and like all resources, they have to be properly allocated.

The hon. Gentleman also asks about whether the ALI will make one report or whether this will be the first of a series. Again, I made that clear, I hope, in my statement, a copy of which I gave to him. There will be an initial inspection during which the ALI will visit Deepcut. It will make a report by Easter, so there will be a six-month study period after which there will be a rolling programme of inspections. Again as I said in my statement, the ALI will also be entitled to go back and look at what it has already studied, ensuring—if a recommendation has been made and we have said that something will be fixed—that it has the right to reinvestigate.

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman takes the view that he does not know what happened at Deepcut. I suggest that the Surrey police report tells us a lot. What we cannot do is say with certainty precisely what happened. He is of the view that a public inquiry will be able to achieve something that Surrey police did not—after 900 interviews and taking 1,500 witness statements—and decide that there is new evidence. Well, I have to say that the Surrey police report, after 15 months of investigation, has given us a good overhaul and examination. I recommend that he read it again; it may help him.

Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley) (Lab)

The Minister is aware that I raised a case last week regarding Catterick camp. I understand the idea of an independent review, but it would not make any difference to the recruit whose case I raised. When he went to see his commanding officer—the Tuesday after I raised it on the Monday—he was told that his career was in jeopardy. He was told by the military police, in front of his mother, that his career could be in jeopardy. I can tell the Minister now that he has left the Army. If that is the attitude at that level, how can an independent inquiry, or anything independent, get to the bottom of anything that goes on in the Army?

Mr. Ingram

I am sorry to hear about that series of events. When my hon. Friend raised them with me, we immediately launched an investigation of the circumstances. I have not had a report on that, but his words today will again be subject to examination. It is a matter of regret that the young person has decided to leave the Army.

Mr. Campbell

He was told his career was in jeopardy.

Mr. Ingram

I am not saying that my hon. Friend is not telling me accurately about the matters that have been reported to him, but I have to find out the veracity of this from the other side, as we all have to do: when we are dealing with any constituent, we should try to seek the balance to the argument. It may prove to be the case that what he says is right. If that is the case, it is unacceptable.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath) (Con)

First, may I associate myself with the Minister's words about the tragic deaths in Iraq and, of course, the four deaths at Deepcut in my constituency?

Does the Minister agree that Surrey police have done an excellent job in producing such a thorough report? Will he recognise that in my constituency there is huge support for our local regiment, the Royal Logistic Corps? The senior officers now at Princess Royal barracks, Deepcut, who have been responsible for the co-operation with the Surrey police investigation, but were not, of course, the senior officers in command at the time of any of the deaths, have had an enormously difficult job to do, both in terms of retaining local confidence in the Army and in rebutting a great deal of uninformed, prejudicial and sometimes even hysterical media reporting. Will the Minister recognise that those local people who support the Army want the Royal Logistic Corps to stay in our area, want the Princess Royal barracks, Deepcut to have a good future and are concerned about the risk that, in order to remove an embarrassing name, Deepcut might be disposed of? Is he prepared to examine that and, if necessary, meet me and leading local councillors and council officers, to discuss the long-term future of the Army in my area?

Mr. Ingram

I echo the hon. Gentleman's sentiments about the Surrey police. It was a thorough investigation. They honestly recognised the failings of the civilian police in matters of this nature in the opening section of the report. The civilian police should take immediate primacy in all such investigations and it is a matter for the civil courts to deal with through the coroner's inquest or whatever else may follow. I repeat, however, that the 15-month report, with 900 witnesses and 1,500 witness statements, was, without question, very intensive.

The hon. Gentleman is also right about the officers, non-commissioned officers and instructors of the RLC at Deepcut. I have spoken to many of them and I know how hurt they are by all this. When criticisms are made, we must examine the past and the impact on the present and the possible future. We put thousands of young people through that training system, not just at Deepcut but elsewhere, and those who are recruited into that process, and those who run it, must have certainty about its quality. As has been recognised in statements to the House, there is a high quality that is evidenced by what is produced. As to the future of the barracks, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence has responsibility for training establishments and I am sure that he will be only too happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and whoever else he may want to bring along at the appropriate time.

Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend will know that his decision to deny a public inquiry will distress people such as my constituents, Harry and Linda Benton, who still need to find an answer to what happened to their son, Sean. My right hon. Friend said in his statement that the place for that was within the inquest system. Is he really suggesting that, after eight years, the only answer is to reopen inquests so that they may get to the truth?

Mr. Ingram

Yes, I am. I have faith in the coroners' system. Now, with the European convention on human rights, the Government can take great credit for putting into place that corpus of law, which defined how such bodies should operate in the interests of victims to get at the truth and examine key areas. One of the cases, that of James Collinson, has still to be considered by the coroner and I suggest that we should wait to see what comes out of that. Clearly, if there are criticisms of the MOD or matters that we have to address, we must take them on board. To those who may think that that is already the case, I have to say that that is not a proven case and we must wait for the findings of that inquest. Legal remedies are open to others if they wish to return to the civil courts.

Annabelle Ewing (Perth) (SNP)

I associate myself with the remarks about the tragic deaths in Iraq made at the outset. Since James Collinson was found dead at Deepcut on 23 March 2002, his mother Yvonne and his father Jim are no nearer to finding out the truth as to how and why their 17-year-old son died. Surrey police have apologised to all four families for not maintaining primacy in the investigation and for delegating that to the Army. The Army concluded that it was suicide after only three days, with no proper forensic evidence gathering having been carried out. Does the Minister therefore accept that, by refusing a public inquiry today, he is prolonging the anguish of the Collinson family and the other families, who will now be forced to go to the courts to seek a ruling on the issue? Surely this is manifestly unjust and fails to restore public confidence in the Army and the MOD.

Mr. Ingram

I do not accept that there is distrust of, or lack of confidence in, the Army. Some feel that they have a particular grievance because of the sad tragedies with which they have had to deal, but that should not be extended across the whole community. To do so would constitute an unfair criticism.

The hon. Lady is right that the Collinson family are no nearer to discovering the truth. The inquest is a mechanism by which that may be achieved, but whatever course is adopted, there is no certainty that the truth will materialise. Perhaps we shall never get to the truth.

The hon. Lady mentioned the investigation into James Collinson's death, which is being conducted by the special investigations branch and the Royal Military Police. Following a meeting only an hour and a half ago I have checked again and found that the Surrey police did have primacy, as they should have had in the other three cases.

The hon. Lady said that the lack of a public inquiry was prolonging the agony. I could have decided—and have been asked—to arrange an inquiry into only one case, into all four, into 50 or into some greater number. An inquiry into that greater number would have been very long-running, while an inquiry focusing on a specific group would no doubt have led to repeated judicial requests to open the lines of inquiry elsewhere.

It is important to ensure that we employ the right processes. I would have expected the hon. Lady to acknowledge all we have done through the report—the director of operational capability, the Army learning account and the new adult learning inspectorate. She should at least give us some credit for taking on the issues and trying to make things better.

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab)

I pay credit to my right hon. Friend for introducing openness and accountability to the initial training regime, but will he acknowledge that openness and accountability, and indeed the duty of care, should extend beyond that regime and must follow young people when they go into their units and regiments so that their parents can be reassured about the responsibility of the Army? When, tragically, a young person such as my constituent Derek McGregor dies in barracks, his family too should be able to get the answers they so desperately need.

Mr. Ingram

I agree and I think that that applies to any untimely death. We have a responsibility to try to give the best possible information to the families of victims. I approve of my hon. Friend's approach, but there is unquestionably a strong duty of care and responsibility throughout the armed forces, for the simple reason that if there were not, we would have a failed, broken system. Soldiers depend on a command structure that knows what it is doing and can deal authoritatively with difficult situations. Providing proper resources will help to ensure that people work as a cohesive team as far as is possible. The chain of command has that duty of care and I think that it is discharged extremely well. We are not perfect. Mistakes will happen, and when they do we must find out the truth.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con)

Of course, our hearts go out to those killed in Iraq and especially to the families of the young people who lost their lives at Deepcut. Does the Minister agree that the Adjutant-General and his staff are delivering for this country the best military training available anywhere in the world? If, like me, the Minister has spent time with the Army training regiment in Winchester or at the Army foundation college in Harrogate, he will have been amazed at the commitment of those young people and their families, who have complete confidence in the Army. It would be a travesty if this tragedy led to a lack of confidence among the families of young people who are considering joining the military.

Mr. Ingram

I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. That is why I wrote to more than 200 Members of this House and the other place to invite them to visit training establishments. To date, only about 12—a handful of Members—have taken up that opportunity, although several proposed visits were cancelled. I wish that everyone would make such a visit. Like the hon. Gentleman and me, they would find at those establishments tremendous commitment right through the command structure—not just among instructors but, importantly, among the young people. I had the privilege of being involved in a passing out parade and talking to the parents. They spoke of how the young ones whom they gave into the care of the Army were turned around into mature, forward-looking, confident and well-trained young adults with a future ahead of them. We could all learn from making such contact.

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk, West) (Lab)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's remarks about the potential improvement in systems. Of course, it is true that all systems can be improved, but does he agree that it is vital that we do not forget that the Army Training and Recruiting Agency is an enormously successful training organisation and that its training regime is among the most systematic of any employer, not just in this country but in the world? It is precisely that on which the performance of our troops in the field is built and based.

Mr. Ingram

My hon. Friend's experience gives him intimate knowledge of this issue. He is right about ATRA, which is not only a high achiever but respected worldwide for what it achieves. That is why we are consistently asked to help other countries to develop training regimes that meet the high standards and quality that we set. There is nothing more that I can add to that eulogy. There is much in ATRA's training regime of which we can be proud.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD)

I am encouraged that all the letters, parliamentary questions, Prime Minister's questions and meetings, along with the Adjournment debate on this issue, have finally caused some movement in the Ministry of Defence. Nevertheless, does the Minister accept that resisting a public inquiry into the four deaths at Deepcut just because of the many other deaths in the Army simply is not acceptable? The Government should be willing to investigate any death in uncertain circumstances. Does he recognise that we are calling for a public inquiry into the four deaths at Deepcut specifically to answer the question of why and how these young people died? Does he accept that if one's child were shot five times in the stomach or twice in the head, one would reasonably expect the Government to leave no stone unturned in answering the question whether the death was the result of murder, manslaughter or suicide and why it happened?

Finally, Bob Quick, author of the fifth report and deputy chief constable of Surrey police, confirmed to me today that, although it may not be appropriate for him to define the type of inquiry, he believes that it must be broad and independent. Does the Minister accept that we need to investigate the past in order to understand the future? Does he further understand that if the Government refuse to provide an inquiry of their own volition, they are likely to be forced to do so by a court?

Mr. Ingram

I appreciate the intensity of interest and effort on the part of the hon. Gentleman, who has been very active on this issue; indeed, he and I have discussed it many times privately, on the Floor of the House and elsewhere. I am intrigued by what he said about the comments of Bob Quick, the senior police officer involved. Mr. Quick is not saying that what we are doing is wrong and I doubt whether the hon. Gentleman asked him that question. Mr. Quick would recognise that we have a well-structured approach to dealing with the current and future situation; indeed, that is what the Surrey police asked of us. They asked for a broad inquiry into the duty of care regime and for oversight, both of which the ALI will provide. I do not wish to get into an unnecessary conflict with those outside this House who are commenting on the matter, but I shall find out just what the view of the Surrey police is.

In trying to find out the facts of the situation and why someone died in a given set of circumstances, the police engaged two independent forensic teams of experts to look at that, so that one could check on the other. They could not come to the firm conclusions that other people may have come to. Some of those people have experience but have not published their findings. Others may just have a view on all this. Through their intensive and comprehensive approach, the police have trawled over all this, both in forensic terms and in speaking to all the people about the day of, or the day prior to, the sad event. Therefore, I recommend that those who have not read the Surrey police report read it and await the inquest into James Collinson's death.

Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab)

The reasons for the four deaths at Deepcut remain obscure, which is unsatisfactory, but may I question the Minister on two aspects of his statement? First, I welcome the role that he is giving the adult learning inspectorate. That concerns training, but what about improving counselling for members of the armed forces? Counselling should not be seen as a sign of weakness. For example, people in the upper and middle classes use it regularly. Why cannot we have improved counselling?

Secondly, the Minister acknowledges that the families were treated poorly. Why cannot we have better treatment? Will that be addressed so that families are treated better when there is a bereavement? For example, can we have bereavement counselling, a 24-hour link to a liaison officer for the unit concerned and access to all the information in relation to a death?

Mr. Ingram

My hon. Friend raises two important issues. He raises first the ALI's role and implies that it will be interested only in the training modules that young people will undertake. That is not the case. It will look at care and welfare aspects, too. It is not for me to direct the ALI on how to do that—my role is only to establish the mechanism by which it can be done—but I am sure that it will approach it on the basis that, for people to be best trained, they need to have a roundness of environment. Again, those in the armed forces are in unique circumstances. That is why they will bring in specialists to assist them in their understanding of all that.

My hon. Friend is right about the better treatment of families. We have recognised that the Deepcut families were not well treated. We cannot rewrite history but it sits heavy on us that those things happened and that certain things were said that should not have been said. What I have tried to do in terms of this is to meet with the families. We have learned in the recent past—this is the approach that we now have—that we need to have a better and quicker system of communicating with families and a more sensitive way of dealing with them and that we need to give them the best support we can. They have given their loved ones into our care and we have a duty of care to them as well.

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey) (LD)

As another supporter of the armed services, may I say that people will be grateful for the Minister's constructive suggestions, but they have not gone any way to answering the questions about the recent past? Two of the three inquests have returned an open verdict. I would be grateful if he considered looking over the history of the Stephen Lawrence case, where the Home Office resisted an inquiry, saying that there was a prosecution option and an inquest option, but eventually gave in and there was great benefit from the public inquiry. In the Marchioness case, the responsible Department resisted an inquiry, saying that there was an inquest option and a prosecution option but gave in, to the great benefit of everyone The case and demand for the inquiry will not go away until the families have their chance in public to put the questions that they want to put and those responsible have the obligation in public to answer those questions.

Mr. Ingram

I recognise that, but we should not take one given set of circumstances and say that, when something goes wrong anywhere within government, we should automatically proceed to a public inquiry. I think that we are moving inexorably towards that—people are arguing for that. It has been reported to me that, in the "Today" programme this morning, there were three items relating to the MOD and what was the request on each of those issues? It was for a public inquiry.

We cannot run the Government on the basis of public inquiries. They may be good for lawyers, but they are not for the good governance of this country.

I remind the hon. Gentleman about the Surrey police report. He will have read it and know how exhaustive it is. He will also know that the evidence gathered is not for Ministers. I have not seen the evidence; it is a matter for due process. If a coroner has decided that one case is still to be determined through an inquest, let us wait and see what comes out of it. The hon. Gentleman's suggestion that it may not go away may be right, but he may be wrong. It may, in that particular case, be resolved.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab)

The case mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell) raises an important question: how can we enable troops facing abuse from their colleagues or superiors to become whistleblowers to the adult learning inspectorate? Will the process be restricted to training? In the past, I have had to put anonymous complaints to the Minister because my constituents did not want their details revealed. I realise that, when complaints are anonymous, it makes it more difficult to do anything about them. It is easier for my right hon. Friend to deal with cases when he knows what the information is, where it applies and to whom it relates. It is important for complaints to be followed up and for troops to be assured that their complaints will be dealt with independently.

Mr. Ingram

My hon. Friend misses a fundamental point. The adult learning inspectorate is not the only organisation that will be doing this and it has a much bigger remit in the day-to-day care of individual trainees. In each and every establishment, young people will have access to welfare services—to the chaplaincy and other ports of call—and be able to report any matters that concern them.

I hope that my hon. Friend accepts that we have zero tolerance towards bullying and harassment, but I must make the point that that will not stop bullying. It will not stop it in the Army, any more than it will stop it in the BBC, the health service or other walks of life. Bullying goes on out there; what we must do is put in place mechanisms that encourage people confidently to raise their concerns and take them forward. My hon. Friend mentioned the case referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell), but I have already answered his question. We will find out exactly what happened there. If those events did occur as recounted, they are unacceptable.

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South) (LD)

Can the Minister give an assurance that the ALI will be given every support and resource to enable servicemen and women who have left the armed services because of problems that they experienced during their recruitment to provide evidence. It should be done through a confidential phone line or another process whereby they are actively encouraged to present their experience.

I echo the views of many hon. Members in expressing my disappointment about the fact that a public inquiry is not being established. It was apparent throughout the Deepcut activities that a duty of care applied to the armed forces in respect of those young people and their parents—and they failed miserably to exercise that duty. Is the Minister certain that what happened will never occur again—that a 17-year-old who might later be found to have a psychological disorder that made him unsuitable for work in the armed forces will not be given a loaded weapon with live ammunition and sent out on guard duty alone?

Mr. Ingram

The ALI will be given every support and resource. The screening of trainees is one of the issues that are being considered. However, it is not an exact science and that applies to all walks of life—even, I would suggest, in this place. It is not easy to identify people who cannot take stress and who may react in a particular way under pressure or because of other factors. We cannot screen out everyone through those processes. The hon. Gentleman is asking for the impossible.

In terms of singleton guard duty, that will not be the case for young 17-year-olds.

Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent) (Con)

I associate myself with the remarks made about Iraq and with the Minister's comments—and the dignified response of my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth)—about the tragic events at Deepcut.

How will the Minister ensure that efforts to improve the care of young men and women at a very vulnerable stage in their career do not impact on the Army's ability to deliver relevant and tough training—precisely the sort of training that attracts thousands of people to the armed forces and, critically, saves lives on operations afterwards?

Mr. Ingram

The hon. Gentleman has an intimate knowledge of these matters. He is right that a fine balance must be struck. We cannot run the armed forces in a politically correct way, to use the jargon. The situation is unique, because we put people in harm's way and expect them to kill on our behalf. We have to train them in very particular ways. I am not an expert in that, but I have every confidence in those who perform that role on our behalf. I repeat that many thousands of the young people who go through the training are of the highest quality. Some may not make it in life, but many have been given opportunities that they would never have thought of had they not joined the armed forces. I pay tribute to all that is done within the training regimes, to all the commanding officers, the instructors and everyone involved in the process.