HL Deb 11 January 2005 vol 668 cc127-9
Lord Ashley of Stoke

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the new investigation into Deepcut Barracks will be held in public.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Bach)

My Lords, the terms of reference of the review conducted by Nicholas Blake QC are: Urgently to review the circumstances surrounding the deaths of four soldiers at Princess Royal Barracks, Deepcut, between 1995 and 2002, in light of available material and any representations that might be made in this regard, and to produce a report". The review is not a public inquiry, but Mr Blake's report, along with the Ministry of Defence's response to it, will be published in full

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply, but would he kindly tell me if I have got it right? Four dead solders at Deepcut barracks, hundreds of complaints about bullying and brutality, allegations which mention rape and torture, many distressed families, a new Freedom of Information Act, yet this inquiry is to be held in secret. Is that right?

Lord Bach

No, my Lords, it is not right. Of course there were the four deaths and some serious allegations have been made to the Surrey police. The Army received in June the schedule in which the allegations were contained, which does not include any names, just the broad details of allegations. It is understood that the vast majority of the allegations are uncorroborated and that the Surrey police will not be making any investigations themselves, other than in one case to which my noble friend referred.

The Army has asked Surrey police for both the names and the consent of those individuals who made those allegations to enable the Royal Military Police investigations to commence and consent has been granted in two cases. These have now been passed to the RMP to investigate.

The review itself will be conducted by one of the most distinguished civil rights and human rights Queen's Counsel that there is, who will undoubtedly produce a piece of work that will be both independent and of great value to the future of these proceedings.

Lord Redesdale

My Lords, does the Minister agree that as many of the complaints to the police were uncorroborated, there is a feeling among the Army that nothing will be done about the complaints of bullying? Surely if the service personnel feel that they cannot go to their superiors and make the allegations, they will lack faith in the system. If that is the case, should not this inquiry look at the culture of bullying which seems to have existed at Deepcut and would not a public inquiry, where testimonies would be taken under oath, be far more efficient at achieving the truth?

Lord Bach

No, my Lords. For once, the noble Lord is exactly wrong. Those coming forward who would like to say what they wish to in a confidential spirit are much more able to do that under a review of the type that we have announced than would be the case in a full-blown public inquiry, in public and in which evidence is heard. They are much more likely to come forward to put their case to a sympathetic, independent reviewer.

If there is any doubt that the terms of the review are too prescribed, I refer the noble Lord to a statement made by Nicholas Blake QC, which made the matter clear in the following terms: it may be that fresh lines of inquiry will emerge from an analysis of the material". He further said, I will be particularly concerned to obtain an understanding of the wider circumstances of these deaths and what may have lead to them, and to make any relevant recommendations". I encourage the House to support the review on the basis that it may well take us a good deal further forward.

Lord Renton

My Lords, although the review is confidential and is not a public inquiry, is the noble Lord aware that this case has caused great public anxiety and, therefore, that the conclusions of the review should be made public?

Lord Bach

My Lords, indeed, I am. We absolutely accept that there is great public concern about these issues, but it does not always follow that the best way to deal with that public concern is through a public inquiry, which we all know from bitter experience can sometimes take an enormous amount of time and can cut across police investigations and perhaps, in this case, one of the coroners' inquests. The noble Lord will be pleased to hear me repeat that the findings of Nicholas Blake QC and the MoD's response will be made public.

Lord Laming

My Lords, in the light of the deep concern felt and the earlier reviews, would the noble Lord consider that it might be in the interests not only of families but also of the Army and its well earned good reputation, for there to be a public inquiry with precise and clearly defined terms of reference?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I know both the noble Lord's interest in these matters from the last time they were raised in this House and, of course, his great experience. No, on balance we do not feel that that would be the right course in this case. It would be difficult to lay down the precise considerations that a public inquiry would be asked to look at. The great danger with a public inquiry—and we have not rejected the idea of a public inquiry altogether—about which we worry, and the House should worry, is the length of time that it would take before it reached its conclusions.

Lord Peston

My Lords, I fully understand, and am largely persuaded by, what my noble friend said. He said that the report will be published, but will it include all the evidence or shall we be asked to accept the report without seeing the evidence?

Lord Bach

My Lords, it will be largely a matter for Nicholas Blake QC, who is conducting the review, to decide whether he takes evidence in the form of a public inquiry, which is different. He will want as much information—some of it confidential and some not— to be given to him by those who have a real interest in this issue. I am afraid that I cannot answer my noble friend's question about whether everything that is said to Nicholas Blake QC will be published.

Viscount Slim

My Lords, while I take the noble Lord's point about the sense of holding the inquiry in confidence, there has been much talk in the press and the media about the non-commissioned officers in this case, but where are the officers? From the commanding officer downwards, an officer is responsible. There has been no mention anywhere of officers. Surely a young officer with a platoon with four dead men has a lot to answer for. We were always taught to know our platoon and our men better than their mothers. What is happening?

Lord Bach

My Lords, as always, the noble Viscount asks a pertinent question. Perhaps I may remind him that these four absolutely tragic deaths occurred over a period of seven years—probably not under one officer or even two. But in the review that he is to undertake and report on within six months, I am certain that Mr Blake will have very much in mind the noble Viscount's question.

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