HL Deb 10 October 2002 vol 639 cc405-7

3.22 p.m.

Lord Ashley of Stoke asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will take steps to ensure an independent investigation into all non-natural deaths in the Armed Forces.

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, regulations are already in place to ensure that all non-natural deaths of Armed Forces personnel in the United Kingdom are independently investigated. As with the wider civilian population, primacy for such investigations lies with the local civilian police force. Cause of death can be concluded only by Her Majesty's Coroner, or in Scotland by the Procurator Fiscal.

Where death occurs overseas, the military authorities act in accordance with local legal requirements. Should the body be repatriated to the United Kingdom, it would become subject to the jurisdiction of Her Majesty's Coroner or the Procurator Fiscal.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for her response but, notwithstanding what she said, is she aware that recent events have seriously jeopardised the reputation of the Army for scrutinising unusual and unexpected deaths? Regarding recent cases, the police have said that in no case were investigations carried out comprehensively or properly. They added that they should not have accepted what the Army told them.

Is my noble friend further aware that the bereaved families are angry and resentful at what they see as cover-ups? The best way to resolve such cases is, rather than the rigmarole that she described, to have a proper, independent inquiry. We need someone above board who cannot be challenged, who is with neither the Army nor the police and who can carry out a proper, independent investigation in all cases.

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, perhaps I may begin by expressing my sincere condolences and those of the whole House to the families of all those who have lost loved ones. It must be a difficult time for all of them. I shall be as helpful as possible to my noble friend in answering his supplementary question, but I must say at the outset that I am unable to comment on specific circumstances surrounding any of the deaths at Deepcut while the Surrey police investigations remain ongoing.

Of course, the Army continues to co-operate fully with the police in the course of their inquiries. It has for some time been laid down in Queen's Regulations that primacy in all non-natural deaths in such circumstances lies with the civilian police force. That has been and continues to be the case. The Surrey police took the decision to reopen the case of Private Gray on 30th April following an internal review of their initial investigation. The investigation into the death of Private Collinson was still on-going at that time. The Surrey police took the decision to investigate the deaths of Privates Benton and James following discussion with their families and a subsequent paper review of both cases.

I dispute my noble friend's allegation that there has been any kind of cover-up. The Army are working fully with the police in this matter and will continue to do so.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, I said that it was the families, not me, who said it was a cover-up.

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, I appreciate that the family are concerned and I understand that they have called for a public inquiry. I must tell the House that the Government do not believe that a public inquiry would be appropriate while the investigation by the local police force continues. I am sure that my noble friend knows, but the House may want to know, that the House of Commons Defence Select Committee will be holding an inquiry. In 1998, the Government introduced a system whereby boards of inquiry by the Army are held and one will be held in this case.

Lord Redesdale

My Lords, will the Ministry of Defence undertake a review of its policy on bullying, because there is a large spate of suicides? Something is going seriously wrong. If bullying is not the cause of those suicides, should not the Ministry of Defence also undertake a review of what emotional support it gives to recruits, because the culture shock of basic training is clearly a considerable cause of stress?

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, bullying and harassment of any kind will not be tolerated in the Army or any of the forces. Any such allegations are always thoroughly investigated and immediate disciplinary action taken against those involved if they are proven. On the wider issue raised by the noble Lord, new improved training initiatives have been taken since 1998. They ensure that instructors who look after young people at a vulnerable time of their lives are given improved training in how to support them, know about equal opportunities and understand the vulnerable nature of recruits.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I remind the House of my interest. Does the Minister agree that the current Surrey police inquiry is the correct approach and will reveal whether further inquiries are required?

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, I do believe that.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, is it not the case that police inquiries into such matters—I have some experience of them—begin only when the facts are reported to them by the military authorities? Is the Minister satisfied that, in the cases that have attracted public attention recently, the military authorities were sufficiently expeditious in reporting the matters to the police?

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, I have every confidence that, in those cases, the military authorities followed the procedure. I cannot go into specific circumstances because of the ongoing investigation.

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