HC Deb 27 April 2004 vol 420 cc183-206WH

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.[Margaret Moran.]

9.30 am
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD)

I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to discuss this issue in a Adjournment debate, and I thank the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, for his constructive approach in the run-up to the debate. I know that the timing of today's debate was exceedingly difficult for him, because of other unmoveable commitments—in Afghanistan, I think—so I am extremely grateful to the Secretary of State for Defence for agreeing to respond today. That is generally appreciated. In that spirit I assure him that my aim is not to find villains in the Department, but to find answers. I am increasingly optimistic that answers can be found in partnership with the Ministry of Defence.

I am asking for an independent public inquiry into the four unexplained deaths at the Princess Royal barracks at Deepcut in Surrey. Between 1995 and 2002, four soldiers died at Deepcut: Private Sean Benton died on 9 June 1995, Private Cheryl James died on 27 November 1995, Private Geoff Gray died on 21 September 2001 and Private James Collinson died on 23 March 2002. All were members of the Royal Logistic Corps and were in phase 2 training. All died from gunshot wounds.

The first three deaths were investigated by Surrey Police and inquests were held. Open verdicts were given in the cases of Privates James and Gray. The Surrey coroner's opinion was that Private Benton took his own life. Private Benton was shot five times, Private Gray was shot twice and Privates James and Collinson were found with one gunshot wound each. During their investigations into Private Collinson's death, Surrey police decided to reopen the three previous cases. The report on the deaths went to the Surrey coroner on 19 September 2003 and a further report was published on March 4 2004 outlining the police's concerns about the apparent lack of safeguards built into the Army's care regime and about wider cultural and organisational issues in the Army. The police called for a broader enquiry.

I shall illustrate the case for that inquiry through the example of the late Cheryl James. Cheryl was the daughter of my constituents Des and Doreen James. She died, as I said, on 27 November 1995. In our view, to this day her death remains unexplained. Cheryl died armed and alone, guarding an internal gate. She should never have been armed and alone. Army regulations state: Servicewomen may be armed and employed on the same basis as adult male soldiers. The only proviso is that, where possible, armed Servicewomen should be accompanied by male personnel. If this is not possible, Servicewomen are to he employed in 'pairs'. To the board of inquiry, the Army admitted that the unit was mistaken in believing it could employ Servicewomen, armed and alone, on guard duties". It also acknowledged that recruits are not made aware of those regulations during phase 1 or phase 2 training, so the onus is very much on the Army to ensure that the regulations are observed. Despite the clear-cut guidance and the evident breach, the Army found that it was not culpable. The matter could not be clearer: Cheryl was armed and alone when she died, which was clearly contrary to regulations.

On further inspection, we find that, prior to Cheryl's death and afterwards, Army procedure and regulations were flouted again and again. The Army did not insist that Surrey police adopt primacy for the investigation into the death. The special investigation branch did not mark off the scene to prevent evidence being destroyed or lost; the barracks was not stood down and closed to those arriving or leaving, contrary to stated Army procedure following a death. No ballistic evidence was taken, so one cannot be sure that the bullet found in Cheryl came from her SA80 rifle: there is no evidence to ensure conclusively the connection between the weapon and the death. Amazingly, it seems that the bullet was recovered and then lost. A witness who attended the post mortem alleged that the bullet was put into a specimen jar and then discarded. The list goes on, and none of those actions have been accounted for. Was it incompetence, negligence or cover-up? Furthermore, one cannot know whether the Ministry of Defence officers who investigated Cheryl's death are still operating in the same manner today.

The details regarding Cheryl's death only emerged from the Surrey police re-investigation completed in September 2003. That alone would warrant an independent inquiry into her death, but it is just the start. The day Cheryl died an Army officer from a local barracks in Wrexham informed Mr. and Mrs. James of their daughter's death. He told them that Cheryl had "taken her own life" but could not answer any further questions. The Jameses were not contacted by any Army or Ministry of Defence official between her death on 27 November and her funeral on 4 December. After that, the Jameses had no Army or MOD contact—official or otherwise—for seven years, and then did so only as a result of the Surrey police investigation.

Back in 1995, Mr. and Mrs. James did not feel like questioning the facts. They felt isolated and distressed about the way in which the Army handled their daughter's death. Understandably, the lack of compassion was underlined when some of her property was returned by courier and the driver—not knowing any better—merely got the Jameses to sign for what felt like their daughter's life, as one would sign for office supplies. Some items, such as her mobile phone, were missing—her belongings had evidently become separated. Things were randomly posted back to Mr. and Mrs. James, pretty much out of the blue with no explanation, marked simply "the late Cheryl James", and the Jameses still do not know if everything was returned. Such insensitivity in the approach of the Ministry of Defence and the Army to bereaved families sadly continues. Reg Keys, whose son Lance-Corporal Thomas Keys died in Iraq on 24 June 2003, reported experiencing the same attitude of indifference and lack of transparency just one month ago. Time and time again, grieving families are left to wait and wonder.

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

The hon. Gentleman is dealing with a very difficult issue. Does he recognise that there are many families whose children died in peacetime in UK barracks other than Deepcut? They, too, want an inquiry into their children's deaths. I am sure that he is aware of the Deepcut And Beyond campaign. Will he widen his call to include other families, so that they can have the answers that the Deepcut families want?

Lembit Öpik

Although I await the Secretary of State's response with interest, it would go beyond my remit to call for an inquiry into all the deaths. However, I agree absolutely with the hon. Lady. Many families throughout the UK are listening with great interest to what the Secretary of State has to say about Deepcut. I understand the Deepcut cases most clearly, and there are four specific cases—the four deaths—to which I can refer. 1 hope that the Secretary of State will make a start by saying that he will allow a full public inquiry in that clear, specified and objectively argued case, but I stand foursquare with the hon. Lady in supporting the Deepcut And Beyond campaign.

To return to the duty of care in Deepcut, Surrey police acknowledged the shortcomings of the original investigations into the four deaths. They apologised to families for not taking the lead in ensuring a thorough inquest at the outset. The Army wrote to Mr. and Mrs. James to say that it had misunderstood the regulations in place at the time". In Des and Doreen's own words, they paid a big price for the Army misunderstanding its own regulations. Despite the apparent admission of negligence by the Army, no apology has ever been made and no one ever held accountable for the death of Cheryl James. Above all, and leaving aside their feelings of bereavement, the Jameses still do not know for sure what happened to their daughter.

Four further points underscore and bolster their doubts. First, an independent ballistics expert hired by the families has said that it is "highly unlikely" that three of the four deaths at Deepcut were self-inflicted. In layman's terms, there may have been third-party involvement. Let us not play around with words: that could mean manslaughter or murder. Regarding Cheryl's death, the expert said that if someone used the SA80 rifle to take their own life, it would be highly unlikely that the bullet was retrieved, as the gun is so powerful. Apparently, however the bullet was retrieved—and disposed of. None of that has been explained. He also said that the pattern of gunshot residue on her hand indicated that she was pushing the gun away from her face.

Secondly, the Army referred to Cheryl's death as suicide both prior to and after the coroner's inquest, despite guidelines saying that: it is not for the Army to reach any official conclusion as to the death of any Serviceman or woman; cause of death in such circumstances can only be established by Her Majesty's Coroner following the civilian police investigation and report. Thirdly, one week before the coroner's inquest, the Army issued a document referring to Cheryl's death as "a tragic suicide". She is even included in the suicide statistics. However, the coroner returned an open verdict. Three weeks after the coroner's inquest, the Army conducted its own so-called board of inquiry, which concluded that: notwithstanding the Coroner's verdict, it is the opinion of the board that Private James shot herself and that the possibility of her action being accidental is negligible. Where is the evidence? The parents have a right to know how and what the Army knows that draws it to that conclusion. Why has the Army never shared the evidence used to back up those claims? Let us note that a member of the board of inquiry registered a statement of discontent with the board's verdict. That should ring a loud alarm bell.

Fourthly, the hoard claimed that Private James apparently took 6 distinct and positive actions in relation to her weapon and ammunition which were clearly beyond her duty at the time, the omission of any one of which would have meant she may not have been killed. Here are the six "distinct and positive actions". First, she removed a charged magazine of 10 rounds from her pocket. How do they know that? Secondly, she placed a charged magazine on her weapon. How do they know that? Thirdly, she cocked the weapon. How do they know that? Fourthly, she released the safety catch. How do they know that? Fifthly, she reversed the weapon so that it was aimed at herself. How do they know that? Sixthly, she pulled the trigger. How do they know that? No witnesses are cited. Where does the information come from? Such contradictions, assumptions and apparently unsupported claims add to the case for an independent public inquiry to resolve the unanswered questions.

Deepcut should want one too. After all, in just 19 weeks, two deaths and 10 cases of self-harm were recorded. No questions were asked, but the camp commander was moved just three days after the second death. The commanding officer never phoned or wrote to Mr. and Mrs. James. Interestingly, last year he was awarded an OBE. He has never been questioned publicly about what happened at the camp. Someone with such a noble record will, I am sure, want to help to clear up the matter, not least because he was responsible for the camp at the time when much of it occurred. Let us note also that the Army's Adjutant-General, Lieutenant General Sir Alistair Irwin, admits, the Army had "clearly failed" all four Deepcut soldiers, adding, they're not now alive and they should be alive. However, by saying that Private Benton's death had been the first at Deepcut for 40 years, he defended the Army against police claims that the Army did nothing. After such a long record of calm, should not two deaths in 19 weeks have rung loud alarm bells?

I turn to the Surrey police report and subsequent comments. While not pushing for a criminal prosecution, they were so concerned about events uncovered in their investigations that they produced a report calling for a broader inquiry. They said that the families have, quite rightly, refused to accept the deaths of their children without question. The police apologised to the four families for not properly challenging early assumptions that these young soldiers took their own lives and for their failure to overturn the then practice of allowing the investigation to be delegated to the Army. The police now recognise that they should have maintained primacy over the Army in the investigation. The civil police now conduct an independent investigation immediately when untimely non-combatant military deaths occur. However, the police say that there remains much more to be done to "address areas of risk".

Furthermore, parents' rights are still not sufficiently respected. For example, board of inquiry reports are meant to be passed to the next of kin, but rarely are.

Perhaps that is why the Defence Committee took on board in its duty of care inquiry some issues raised by Surrey police. That is good, but I cannot emphasise enough the admission by the Committee that it simply cannot answer the core questions about the deaths at Deepcut. Incidentally, so that people are not confused, let me make it clear that, although the Committee announced its inquiry on the same day as the final report of Surrey police was published, the two are not linked. The Committee is looking broadly into all three forces. It is not investigating bullying, harassment, the management of Deepcut when the recruits died or mistakes made during the investigations at Deepcut. The Committee says that it cannot do justice to those matters, and 1 agree. Only a public inquiry would have the time and resources to generate as definitive an account as is now possible, after the intervening time.

What outcomes would we want from a public inquiry? Surrey police were concerned about incidents of bullying. That has been a concern of MPs and peers since 1989 and possibly earlier, with numerous parliamentary questions and debates. An inquiry should investigate that issue in relation to Deepcut. An inquiry should also study the high incidence of military suicide. The Defence Analytical Services Agency report of July 2003, entitled "Suicide and Open Verdict Deaths among males in the UK Regular Armed Forces", found that between 1984 and 2002 there were 446 coroner-informed suicides in the armed forces. That is one suicide every fortnight, most—62 per cent.—occurring in the Army. That figure excludes open verdicts and other non-combatant deaths. The important point is that Army males under 20 years old are 50 per cent. more likely to be registered as having committed suicide than males under 20 in the UK civilian population. Incidentally, suicide rates among the under-25s are higher in the Army than in the Navy or the Royal Air Force.

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

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman did not intend to give only part of the picture, but he has left out females, and given that he is calling for a public inquiry into the death of a female, could he give us the overall figure for the rate of death of under-21s in civilian life?

Lembit Öpik

That is a fair question, which I would like to answer, but I was unable to obtain the figures. Perhaps I was looking in the wrong place or asking the wrong questions. I doubt whether the Secretary of State can furnish us with that information, but part of my ongoing research, with my limited resources, involves trying to obtain that breakdown. I am sure that it exists and I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for being unable to answer the question now.

The DASA report says that the higher suicide rates among young Army males compared with the equivalent UK civilian population merit further investigation. A public inquiry should consider that in the context of Deepcut. I remind right hon. and hon. Members that three of the four deaths at Deepcut were of young males. Above all, a public inquiry should aim to determine what happened at Deepcut. The final report of Surrey police reinforces the case for thorough, independent scrutiny to establish the circumstances at the time of the Deepcut deaths, plus corrective actions to prevent reoccurrence.

Will there be improvements without an inquiry? Perhaps, but the military have been promising reform and improvement for years. Indeed, Surrey police have documented no fewer than seven reviews, reports and studies. Each identified similar issues relating to the vulnerability of young people at Deepcut—indeed, I understand that Brigadier Evans conducted his inquiry specifically because of the number of incidents at Deepcut. What came of that? There seems to have been relatively little follow-up.

Media pressure is mounting. On 25 April, The Observer ran a front page article entitled, "Military chiefs ignored warnings over Deepcut." It said that the Army Training and Recruiting Agency reported a failing in certain aspects as a result of reduction in the military workforce and increased obligations, and added that another report, underlining an absence of coherent and credible training activities", should be taken seriously.

The Sunday Express also covered the story on the same day.

Some 140 Members of Parliament have signed an early-day motion supporting a full, independent inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the four deaths at Deepcut. Amnesty International backs that request. By contrast, in all the cases investigated by Surrey police, crucial forensic and ballistics evidence was destroyed because of the Army's assumption of suicide, yet the Army continues to maintain that the investigation into Cheryl James's death was thorough.

Eight years on, Cheryl James's family still do not know how or why she died. The responsibility for that must remain with the Ministry of Defence. No matter how many reports or statistics it issues, no spin can change the fact that it failed to investigate the death of Cheryl James thoroughly, and failed in its duty of care. I give the Ministry of Defence credit for recognising that the families need to achieve closure, but to stop such cases from happening again the Army needs that closure too. If the MOD has nothing to hide, it is in its interest to hold an independent inquiry. It is also in the interest of every youngster who is contemplating a military career.

Statistics and internal reviews have not proved to be an acceptable alternative. For the welfare of young men and women who choose military service and for the sake of the families of the Deepcut four and those participating in the Deepcut And Beyond campaign, I respectfully ask the Secretary of State to commission an independent public inquiry into the deaths. It would be a credit to his Department if he were to do so, and nothing less can provide the answers that the families deserve and the Army needs.

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

I congratulate the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Opik) on securing the debate on a moving issue of great public interest. I also give credit to the Government for the fact that the Secretary of State himself has come to the Chamber to respond to this important debate.

Mr. and Mrs. Harry Benton, the parents of Private Sean Benton, live in my constituency, and I am proud to represent them. Private Benton died at the age of 20 at Deepcut barracks on 9 June 1995. I believe that he deserved better. He was found dead with five gunshot wounds in the chest. The coroner agreed with the Army and pronounced a verdict of suicide. Later forensic reports have suggested that he was shot four times from a distance and once from close range—a remarkable feat if it is true that it was self-harm. Despite the evidence of Sean Benton's friend, Private Trevor Hunter, broadcast by BBC's "Panorama" on 1 December 2002, in which he said that Sean had been singled out for "special treatment" and subjected to serious bullying and physical assaults, Mr. and Mrs. Benton have yet to receive a satisfactory explanation of his death. Even if the suicide verdict were justified, the question why remains unanswered.

Before I continue, I wish to pass on the apologies of my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara), who must be absent this morning in order to present a report to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. My hon. Friend has worked tirelessly with the families to bring these matters to public attention, and we are grateful to him.

I also pay tribute to all the bereaved families who have come together in the Deepcut And Beyond campaign to press their case for a public inquiry. The group includes mothers and fathers of young soldiers who have lost their lives in tragic, but non-conflict circumstances. Everyone knows that when their youngsters join the armed forces, there is a risk, but they do not anticipate that risk arising back at barracks. The campaign also includes brothers and sisters—young people whose childhood will be forever tainted by the memory of how they first heard and were scarred by the loss of someone whom they loved and admired. The families have presented their case with great dignity, clarity and purpose, and have acted throughout with the utmost good faith. They are entitled to the truth about how their loved ones died. They are entitled to justice. All the way up the chain of command, those responsible should be held fully to account. Whether the issue is one of criminal activity or of mere negligence, the truth must be known.

Like the families, I believe that change must come in consequence. All those who have a part to play in preventing future deaths must work together. The families have taught us a great deal. It is they, not the Army or the Government, who have brought to light the shortcomings of the policy of zero tolerance on bullying and demonstrated how deaths of soldiers associated with Catterick barracks in Yorkshire are double the number set out in official estimates. It is the families, not the Government, who have revealed the problems of investigating deaths of soldiers overseas, where there is no possibility of civilian police involvement and the Army investigates itself. It is the families, not the Government, who have shown how the absence of effective investigation may lead to those responsible for suspicious deaths evading justice because accidental death or natural causes can seem a simpler, more convenient, or kinder explanation.

The Government have accepted responsibility for maintaining the effectiveness and efficiency of the armed forces. The exercise of the duty of care is a vital part of discharging that obligation. Service families are in the front line of that battle and should be treated as allies. We have a number of problems in the armed forces and I believe the Deepcut And Beyond families should be regarded as partners in helping to resolve them. I pay tribute to the approach of the Surrey police force and its chief constable, who worked with diligence to involve the families in the investigation. I am grateful to the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, for agreeing to place in the Library a number of the documents connected with the Army's investigation of the matters. However, I understand that many more documents are still to come; I hope that they, too, will be available.

In examining the systemic issues arising from its 15-month investigation, the Surrey police drew precisely the same conclusion. Once the problem is acknowledged, the appropriate remedies must be identified. Those measures must be put into effect and maintained; they must be monitored and subject to further assessment. I join in congratulating the Surrey police on a well crafted and finely tuned report. The three central recommendations are well considered and will represent an enormous step forward if acted on promptly.

The broader inquiry that Surrey police propose must consider whether the risks identified at Deepcut are replicated elsewhere and how they may relate to the incidents of self-harm, suicide and undetermined deaths. It must also consider how the Army's care regime can be further improved and how independent oversight might help the Army to define and maintain appropriate standards of care for young soldiers. We are grateful that colleagues on the Defence Committee have decided to undertake their own inquiry into the exercise of the duty of care. However, as its Chairman has stated, that is not and cannot be a substitute for the broader inquiry recommended by Surrey police.

In launching the final report, Surrey's deputy chief constable, Robert Quick, left no room for doubt: to satisfy the Surrey recommendation, a broader inquiry must be independent, it must function transparently, it must have equivalent judicial powers in relation to documents and witnesses, and it must involve the families of victims. The Human Rights Act 1998 requires that all deaths involving state parties be independently investigated, promptly and effectively. New obligations arise from the judgment in Amin v. Secretary of State for the Home Department, given in the House of Lords, on 16 October 2003, in which it was found that the obligation to hold an effective and thorough investigation may in certain circumstances be met only by holding a public and independent investigation with the family legally represented, provided with relevant material and able to cross-examine principal witnesses.

Next week it will be two months since the final report of Surrey police was published. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State was made aware of its conclusions at least two months before that. I urge the Secretary of State to set aside any reservations that he may have and recognise the overwhelming case for a full public inquiry or, at the very least, a comprehensive inquiry in public at which the families may be properly represented.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Before I call the next speaker, I should inform the Chamber that it is my intention to start the winding-up speeches at half-past 10, because I am sure that hon. Members will want the Secretary of State, whom we are delighted to see here, to have sufficient time to wind up this important debate. I shall be grateful if hon. Members bear that in mind.

10 am

Annabelle Ewing (Perth) (SNP)

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) on securing this important and timely debate, and I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State has come along to respond to it. I am sure that the families involved will appreciate that.

James Collinson from Perth, aged 17, had been in the Army for six months when he was found dead with a gunshot wound to the head at Deepcut barracks on the evening of 23 March 2002. He had been dropped off at Deepcut some five hours earlier by his mother, Yvonne Collinson. He had been in good cheer and was excited about having recently passed his driving test and the fact that he was soon to sit his HGV licence test.

Three days after James's death, when his father Jim Collinson phoned Deepcut to inquire about how the investigation into his son's death was proceeding, he was told, "One body, one bullet. Draw your own conclusion." Three weeks after that, Mrs. Collinson contacted Surrey police, having heard nothing from either the civilian or military police about the taking of her statement and given the fact that she had seen her son so close to the time of his death. It was only as a result of her persistence that a statement was eventually taken from her. Indeed, it was only as a result of the persistence of Mr. and Mrs. Collinson that a proper police inquiry was finally embarked on some four weeks after James's death.

As we have heard this morning, Surrey police's fifth report includes an express recognition that the deaths of James Collinson, Sean Benton, Cheryl James and Geoff Gray were not originally properly investigated. I would contend that such failure and omission on the part of both the military and Surrey police serve to undermine fundamentally the conclusions that were reached by Surrey police in September 2003.

Hon. Members may recall that Surrey police sent reports of the reopened investigations into the four deaths at Deepcut to the coroner. In it, they stated that no evidence has come to light so far to indicate any prospect of a prosecution", and that It is not the role of Surrey Police to come to a verdict on these deaths, and we have not done so. As the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire mentioned, with respect to evidence gathering in the crucial period following James's death, Surrey police apologised for our failure to overturn the custom and practice of the day, which allowed for the investigation to be delegated to the Army. We have recognised that we should have maintained primacy for these investigations over the Army. It is clear that in the initial days following the deaths, the Army assumed control of the investigation. However, the key problem was that there was no investigation; instead there was simply an assumption—suicide. There was no proper forensic post-mortem, no photographs were taken and fingerprints were not lifted from the gun. The scene was not secured, and witness statements conflicted with the two photographs that were taken of James's body on the night of his death. Some 160 wedding guests who were at Deepcut base that night for a function were not automatically interviewed. James's cap badge was found some nine months later within the Deepcut perimeter. It had somehow become separated from his cap, which was on his head at the time of his death. I could go on, but I am conscious of the time constraints this morning. The experiences of the other three families are depressingly similar, and we have heard specific information this morning about the way in which Cheryl James's death also was not investigated.

Not only was the subsequent Surrey police investigation hampered by the initial failures of the military police, but the Collinsons and the other families have so far been denied full access to the reports that Surrey police sent to the coroner last September. Some seven months after their investigation was concluded, the families remain completely in the dark as to the evidence gathered, the questions asked, the contents of statements and whether there was full co-operation from the Army and the Ministry of Defence. The refusal to allow proper access to the information has continued, notwithstanding repeated requests from the families' legal teams. Hence, any suggestion that the police investigation is complete and that the conclusions are sound is somewhat premature.

Moreover, hon. Members may be interested to note that Devon and Cornwall police are conducting an investigation into the way in which Surrey police handled the subsequent investigation. As has been said, Surrey police had a wider remit for their fifth report, which was published in March 2004. They were to consider how the Army in general had discharged its duty of care, particularly to young soldiers. The report served as a damning critique of the way in which the duty of care had been discharged over the years. It indicated that there had been repeated failures to learn any lessons over some 15 years and recommended a broader inquiry to examine the sufficiency of the care regime for young soldiers in training at Deepcut and beyond. In a briefing that we received from the deputy chief constable of Surrey police on the eve of publication of the fifth report, there was recognition that an independent inquiry would certainly fit the bill for the broader inquiry that Surrey police were recommending. However, to be fair to the deputy chief constable, he made it clear that that was a political decision for Ministers and not a matter for his force.

The Collinson family and the other families deserve to know how and why their children died. Unfortunately, they are no nearer finding that out. The Defence Committee inquiry that we have heard about this morning, while very welcome indeed, will not consider the individual circumstances of the four deaths. Again, it will have a wider remit to review the care regime across the armed forces as a whole. A previous Defence Committee report published, I believe, in 1994 did not lead to any significant changes, yet, after four deaths between 1995 and 2002 at the same barracks, we are told by certain spokesmen for the MOD that a Select Committee inquiry should suffice. I say to the Secretary of State that it will not suffice.

Lembit Öpik

Does the hon. Lady agree with my interpretation of what the Defence Committee has said—that it excluded itself from the prospect of being able to answer the specific questions of the parents and the Army? It said that that would go way beyond any remit that it could possibly handle.

Annabelle Ewing

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. When the Defence Committee inquiry was announced a few weeks ago, it was made clear that its remit would not include reviewing the circumstances surrounding the four deaths. Indeed, the Collinson family have been told that it will not even consider information that is already in the public domain. Clearly, the Defence Committee inquiry will not get to the bottom of what happened at Deepcut barracks.

As hon. Members have said, an inquiry is needed that will be sufficiently empowered to compel witnesses to appear and documents to be produced. It must he public, open to scrutiny and directly involve the families. Only a public inquiry will fit that bill. We, the public, must be confident that this time lessons will be learned. Public confidence must be restored.

I say to the Secretary of State that the Ministry of Defence should reflect carefully on the issue, because it will not go away. If the reasonable requests for a public inquiry in these particular circumstances are not adhered to, the question that must be asked is, what is the MOD afraid of?

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

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to take part in this debate, which is very important, not only for the Deepcut families, but for other families, too.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) on securing the debate; he and other hon. Members have worked together to raise awareness about what happened at Deepcut. The matter has brought together other families who are carefully watching this debate, so that lessons can be learned across the board. I am especially pleased that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence is here, because by his presence he acknowledges how important the debate is. His answers to the Deepcut issue are key, and they will be key to any future investigation into the armed services' wider duty of care to their personnel.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Mr. Foster), I start by congratulating the families themselves. In Blackpool last weekend, there was a meeting involving many parents who have tragically lost children in peacetime to deaths in barracks, mainly at Catterick. They share the concerns of the Deepcut families, and they, too, want answers. I congratulate hon. Members who have given detailed accounts of the deaths of the young people at Deepcut in desperately tragic circumstances. When I meet the families I am genuinely humbled by their dignity and their determination. They want answers: they want to know why they lost their children, who had gone to serve their country. There is no excuse; there must be answers.

I shall consider some common threads in the contributions to the debate and in the investigations thus far, because the lessons to be learned from Deepcut come not simply from looking at the individual cases but from pulling together common threads, the main one being the issue of bullying, which is the principal concern of my constituents and the other families. They want to know how vulnerable 16, 17 or 18-year-olds, who are perhaps not as prepared as their predecessors for a life in the Army and its training centres, cope with being away from their families. They recognise that they have to learn military discipline as well as skills, but they are perhaps not used to the environment in which they find themselves. The Army and the other armed services have a duty of care, which they must acknowledge and to which they must respond properly.

Military suicides are a serious issue. Why do so many young people kill themselves? My constituent, Derek MacGregor, killed himself at Catterick. Why? His family believe that bullying was involved, and that needs to be investigated.

Mr. Joyce

I hear what my hon. Friend says about the human dimension to the tragedies. However, on the one hand she appears to recognise the inherent risk that military organisations take when they train people who are not always from a traditional military background, but on the other she appears to make the assumption that something like bullying must be at the heart of the matter, calls for a public inquiry, and appears to have a preconceived idea of what that inquiry should find. Is that not somewhat inconsistent?

Mrs. Humble

I understand my hon. Friend's expertise in the matter. However, I am not drawing conclusions but pulling together the common threads that have emerged from all the debates that have taken place on the matter. I shall make some points later that I hope will reassure him that I recognise that the Army is addressing some of the issues. However, before I make those points, I want to mention some of the common threads that have emerged from the discussions about Deepcut, which can be used to address the issues raised by other families beyond Deepcut.

One of those common threads concerns independent police investigations. The hon. Member for Perth (Annabelle Ewing) spoke in some detail about the inadequacy of the forensic investigations into the death of her constituent. That seems to be symptomatic of all the investigations of the deaths that have occurred at Deepcut. Parents are concerned that there should be early intervention by the civilian police in such incidents to secure the scene, and that a proper investigation should be carried out into all the circumstances surrounding such peacetime deaths in barracks.

I have been asked by my constituent to raise the issue of health and safety in general, and the role of the Health and Safety Executive. Who goes into barracks to examine safety and carry out risk assessment? I acknowledge, especially with regard to the earlier intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Joyce), that that issue is not easy to address. We should not underestimate the fact that when young people go into the armed forces, they are, by definition, going into a dangerous job.

There is also a serious concern about the need for an independent helpline. To whom do young people go when they want help? I know that there are telephone numbers that they can call and organisations that can offer help—the Army chaplaincy service, for example—but do young people use those helplines, and how independent is the help that is available? Is that independent help still available when those young people leave the training centres and go out to their regiments? The Army has an ongoing duty of care to all its staff.

I welcomed the opportunity given to me by the Ministry of Defence to visit two training establishments, and I compliment my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and his colleagues on arranging that visit for me and four or five others. It was clear from talking to Army and Air Force training staff at the two establishments that things are moving on. It is recognised that the armed forces take in young people who are not the same sort of intake as 10 or 20 years ago. It is also recognised that a duty of care is owed to those individuals, and that their concerns must be listened to.

I took time out during those visits to talk to some of the trainees. They acknowledged that most of the training staff who dealt with them listened to them. The staff may have barked out orders on occasion, but the trainees to whom I spoke accepted that. There should be a balance between what must be a rigorous Army training regime for young people who will go into the most difficult situations and risk their lives, and an acknowledgment that it must not be accompanied by unnecessary aggression by the training staff or bullying among the trainees. We must achieve that balance between having trained armed forces and caring for young people.

I shall finish by quoting from correspondence that I received from my constituent, Joe MacGregor, who says: I am not a politician. I am a Father who wants nay demands to know what happened to my son a lad who loved the army, who had so much going for him should in the space of a month see his world collapse and be driven to a point where life is not worth living. Where when he asks for help he is refused. I WANT ANSWERS. We all want answers.

10.20 am
Mr. Brian Sedgemore (Hackney, South and Shoreditch) (Lab)

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) on obtaining this important debate, and on the succinct and eloquent way in which he put the case on behalf of the four families whose children died at Deepcut. We are right to praise our soldiers for their heroism in war, but equally right to condemn their betrayal in peacetime by those who are charged with their welfare. All we seek is the truth. Sadly, both as a lawyer and a Member of Parliament, I feel that the whole truth may be beyond us now. A lot of time has passed since the four deaths, and a lot of evidence was disregarded, not found, or subsequently destroyed. I agree that the conduct of the Army and the military police was, at best, complacent, and at worst, disgraceful. Having said that, I praise Ministers' efforts. I was pleased to be able to take Mr. and Mrs. Gray to see a Defence Minister—although it was not the Minister of State—and the Secretary of State is to be commended for coming here today to face certain criticism.

Mr. and Mrs. Gray have been deeply concerned because they do not accept that their son's death was simple suicide. Clearly, it was not. They do not accept that it was suicide through negligence, and they are concerned that Private Gray may have been unlawfully killed, which the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire, somewhat brutally, described as manslaughter or murder. I cannot answer or deal with that question, and I do not suppose that anyone else in this Chamber can: as I have said, the sad fact is that it may be impossible ever to come to the correct conclusion. However, that is not a reason not to hold an inquiry, given the wide ramifications, not only for Deepcut but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) said, for the community more generally.

We need an inquiry to consider the causes of similar repeated and suspicious deaths at Deepcut, and to call the officer commanding Deepcut, or in this case, officers commanding to account their actions. We certainly need an inquiry to consider the conduct of the military police at Deepcut, who seem to have said, "It was suicide," then looked for the evidence to fit that verdict, and an inquiry must consider the relationship between the military and civilian police forces. In this case, it was Surrey police, whose initial attitude in the case of Private Gray was somewhat peremptory, but who have been praised for their subsequent efforts. I have spoken to them in order to get to the bottom of what actually happened, and to point to some directions in which any inquiry might go.

I should like in particular to praise Mr. Gray, who has performed heroically. It was he who pointed out to me—I subsequently, quickly pointed it out to Surrey police and to Ministers—that all kinds of very odd things were going on at the time of Private Gray's death. An intruder was rampaging in the grounds and escaped; a drunken visitor to the officers' mess was behaving appallingly; and during the search there were discrepancies about the position of the body. In addition, there is the evidence of the ballistics expert who believes that Private Gray could not have killed himself, and the fact that Private Gray appears to have killed himself and then to have fired the gun again—a very strange happening, although the guns in question not only fire single shots but can be pressed on to automatic fire.

Mr. Gray has not had satisfactory answers, nor have we as Parliament; nor do I believe that I have done so, in my capacity as a lawyer who has regularly appeared in the criminal courts. Indeed, I consider the standard of conduct of the inquiry to have been dreadful. If that is how the military police operate in conjunction with the civilian police, a good shake-up is needed.

Was Private Gray's death a simple suicide? That seems almost impossible not only in the case of Private Gray but in the others. Was it suicide caused by the Army's negligence? Quite probably. Were third parties involved? That is the deepest question, and we need an answer to it. I hope that the Secretary of State will allow us to have a public inquiry, so that we can get some of the answers.

10.26 am
Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford) (LD)

On behalf of the Liberal Democrats I welcome this debate and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) on securing it. Like him and other hon. Members, I welcome the Secretary of State for Defence to the Chamber this morning. We are very pleased to see him.

All those who have spoken this morning, particularly the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Mr. Foster), have rightly spoken about the families' dignity. The hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) was right to use the word "humbled". I and other hon. Members whose constituents have been killed, either on active service or in peacetime, are truly humbled by the way in which the families react. The hon. Member for Hastings and Rye was right to mention the hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara), who has campaigned vigorously on this issue. The hon. Members for Perth (Annabelle Ewing) and for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore) have spoken eloquently about their constituents' tragic cases.

None of them, and certainly not I, doubt the armed forces' great traditions and history. We accept that their continuing excellence and the skills that they demonstrate are largely the result of the great training that their personnel receive. The training regime for the armed forces is undeniably, and rightly, tough, but I reject the idea that it should place on young recruits pressures beyond those that they can face. There is no contradiction between a tough training regime and one that respects the rights of individuals. Bullying and harassment are unacceptable in the modern Army. Behind the cases at Deepcut, and those at Catterick and elsewhere that have been mentioned, lies the issue of bullying in the armed forces, which must be addressed.

I shall not speak for too long, because I want the Secretary of State to have plenty of time for his concluding remarks. I do not want to give the impression that bullying and harassment are widespread in the armed forces, because they are not, but it is deeply irresponsible to bury our heads in the sand and say that there is no issue to address. The Ministry of Defence's own survey shows that there is a problem that needs to be looked into. A parliamentary answer to me in December last year showed that half the Army personnel who responded to a continual attitude survey felt that harassment, discrimination and bullying were problems in the British Army. When members of the armed forces themselves provide such figures, the matter must be taken seriously. The tragedies that we have discussed today lend weight to that argument. When we have debated the issue in the past, Ministers have pointed out that the problem is often one of perception among young soldiers. I hope that this morning's debate has shown that that perception is important, not only to the soldiers, but to their families.

I accept that changes are happening and that the Government have reacted to some of our concerns. The Ministry of Defence has implemented programmes to reduce levels of bullying, but they have not gone far enough, and in the case of Deepcut there is a significant problem that must be addressed. The facts are simple: between 1995 and 2002, four young soldiers died at one training establishment in Surrey. They were all members of the same unit—the Royal Logistic Corps—all were in phase 2 training, and all were shot, some of them several times.

The Government have rightly held public inquiries in the past when they have felt the need to do so. My hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire and other hon. Members have given compelling reasons why there is a need for a public inquiry in the Deepcut cases. I will leave as much time as possible for the Secretary of State to explain why he will, I hope, accede to that need.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The House is grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his succinctness and brevity.

10.31 am
Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con)

I too congratulate the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) on securing the debate and I congratulate all hon. Members who have taken part. Today's debate echoes a debate a year ago, in which hon. Members put forward the concerns of their constituents as well as the wider concerns of a nation that is proud of its armed forces and is anxious to ensure that they can continue to serve with the distinction seen in recent campaigns. I also welcome the Secretary of State and, like the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch), I will endeavour to keep my remarks brief to allow the right hon. Gentleman plenty of time in which to respond. I have a special interest in that my constituency, Aldershot—the home of the British Army—is next door to Deepcut. There is a feeling that what happens there permeates through to Aldershot, as it does to the rest of the country.

In last year's debate, I said that it would be wrong to pre-empt Surrey police's report, which was in the process of compilation. Let me place on record, I hope on behalf of everyone present today, our congratulations to the Surrey police on producing a comprehensive, professional and thorough report. It has shown not only that there was a succession of failures, to which I shall refer later, but that lessons have been learned and implemented—the story is not completely negative. Notwithstanding their desire to speak up vigorously on behalf of constituents who want answers, hon. Members have been careful to be balanced. The report is helpful in that respect: for example paragraph 1.22 states: 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. Several hon. Members have referred to the need to strike a balance. It is clear that Surrey police recognise that need. Their statement encapsulates the position that I hope we wish to maintain.

The report traces back the chronology over the 13 years from 1998 to 2001, and goes on to cover the period to 2003. It spans a 15-year period in which there was a succession of inquiries into the Army's training regime, with concerns raised every time. Recommendations were made following each inquiry or internal review, but it is apparent that those recommendations were either ignored or not implemented to the necessary extent. Several themes recur throughout the report. One common theme is the training given to supervisors and the ratio of supervisors to trainees. Clearly, there has been pressure on our armed forces to do more with less, but the instructor to pupil ratio has been questioned throughout, for example, in 1995 when Brigadier Evans undertook his review, and more recently in 2002 when the deputy adjutant general produced his report. The DAG calculated that the supervisory ratios at Deepcut were 1:60, compared it with Catterick and Larkhill, where the ratios were 1:12 and 1:40 respectively, and observed that the latter levels would be appropriate at Deepcut. His assessment was that the level of supervision was wholly inadequate and greatly magnified the risk. He attributed the Deepcut ratio to reductions driven by the serious undermanning and cost savings in the Army since the early 1990s. The pressure on the Army to do more with less recurs throughout the period under discussion. The impact of that in Deepcut meant that the instructor to trainee ratio was "wholly inadequate". The Army, the Government and the Ministry of Defence must shoulder some blame for that unsatisfactory situation. Lieutenant-Colonel Haes's 2001 report said that ATRA—the Army Training and Recruiting Agency— does not have a coherent duty of care and supervision policy that can be costed/measured. ATRA is failing in certain aspects as a result of reduction in the military workforce and increased obligations. There is an unrealistic and therefore false expectation of the staff, but without a clear definition, to what degree remains subjective. The current situation is tenable only as long as there is no major incident or complaint. So, throughout the period under discussion, assessments have been made that something must be done, but action has not been taken.

Another important issue is that the Army is recruiting in an increasingly competitive marketplace. Hon. Members have already said that the parents of the young people whom the armed forces wish to recruit in order to sustain the operations that we are undertaking must he convinced that they are not sending their children to an organisation that does not have a proper sense of its duty of care. Such concerns will result in the armed forces being unable to recruit. If the Army does not enjoy public confidence, recruitment will be affected.

None the less, I am not convinced that a public inquiry is the right answer. The hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore) was right to say that a lot of time has passed. He is a lawyer, as is the Secretary of State, and they understand the rules of evidence. I am not convinced that an inquiry would yield any more information than has already been secured. However, the Defence Committee is right to undertake its inquiry. I was a member of that Committee when such an inquiry was foreseen. The hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Syd Rapson) was also a member of the Committee, and we both concluded that that was the right thing to do after the Surrey police had reported. The Defence Committee will do precisely what the Surrey police wanted.

I hope that the Secretary of State will be able to answer some questions about the recommendations of the Surrey police—for example, whether there should be any independent oversight of Army recruitment and training. It would be helpful if he also made an announcement today about staffing ratios.

Annabelle Ewing

The hon. Gentleman said that a public inquiry would not unveil more than we already know, but we do not know what Surrey police concluded in their report to the coroner last September. No one knows that because no one has been allowed to see the report. Surely the families are entitled to the best shot that they can get to discover what happened to their children, and a public inquiry is the only route that could secure that.

Mr. Howarth

It is for the coroner to respond to the Surrey police report. The easiest thing for me to say would be, "Yes, let's have a public inquiry," but I am not sure that it would achieve what the hon. Lady and others want it to.

I shall conclude in order to leave the Secretary of State enough time. It is important to get the balance right and see the situation in perspective. In the past seven years, 12,000 recruits have successfully passed through Deepcut and contributed to the outstanding professional combat operations that we have recently seen in Iraq. It is important not to lose sight of that, but it is also important, not just for the families to whom tribute has rightly been paid today, but for the entire nation that we can have confidence in the duty of care given by our armed forces to those in their charge.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The House welcomes the Secretary of State to respond to this debate.

10.41 am
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon)

I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) on securing this debate. He has raised an important subject that has attracted considerable attention both inside and outside the House. I am also grateful for each of the contributions that have been made and the general and specific points raised by hon. Members. I take this opportunity to apologise on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Minister of State that he is unable to be here today due to a prior commitment to visit our forces in Afghanistan.

The events that we are discussing have one common, central truth. Four young soldiers died tragically and before their time between 1995 and 2002. The deaths of Sean Benton, Cheryl James, Geoff Gray and James Collinson represent personal tragedies for them and each of their families. They are also a source of great sadness both in the Army and throughout the services. I extend my sincere condolences to each of the families. I respect the sorrow and difficulty that they have borne over the years, I understand their desire for answers, and I accept that in some respects they have not been looked after to the highest standards that we now expect. For that, I apologise unreservedly. I share their desire to ensure that others do not suffer as they have suffered. The personal and tragic events at the heart of this debate should remain in our minds throughout.

We have heard several concerns expressed this morning, and a number of accusations have been made. However, there are two principal questions at the heart of this debate. First, do the deaths, together with deaths at other locations, somehow suggest that the Army is failing generally in its responsibilities to its young people? Secondly, do we know all that we can reasonably expect to learn about the circumstances in which the young people lost their lives?

The first question is exercising members of the Select Committee on Defence, which recently announced its inquiry into how the armed forces discharge their responsibilities to recruits in training. I must be careful not to pre-empt its judgments, but I hope that it will help the House if I set out the broader context of today's debate. Our armed forces are approximately 190,000 strong, and the Army consists of some 103,900 regular and full-time reserve personnel. Last year, 9,794 recruits passed through the Army initial training organisation and joined the field Army. Most will go on to have challenging, enjoyable and rewarding careers and will eventually leave the Army equipped with a range of skills and experiences that in many cases were beyond their hopes or expectations before they signed up.

The Army is extremely successful at training its people. It takes young people and turns them into the likes of Trooper Chris Finney, whose quick thinking and exceptional bravery last year saved the lives of his crew mates in Iraq. The ultimate and enduring proof of that is the Army's effectiveness on operations. They range from war fighting through peace support operations and counter-terrorist operations to supporting the United Kingdom civilian community in a variety of different roles. Operations take place in such diverse theatres as Iraq, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone and the Balkans. It is not an organisation unable to look after its own, reeling under the burden of systemic weaknesses in its training and support structures or incapable of self-criticism and improvement. It is a healthy institution of world renown, of which we should all be proud. The health of the armed forces rests on the quality of the men and women who join voluntarily. They draw their recruits from the society around them.

In training, we seek to provide not only the skills and expertise to do what is required on the battlefield but, just as important, the character to apply those skills. The armed forces exist to defend the nation's interests and, where necessary, to apply lethal force in that national interest. At the heart of that requirement is a need to do so in a disciplined manner.

Force is not the only means by which our armed forces achieve their aims. Much is spoken of the ability of our armed forces to win hearts and minds. That relies in no small measure on the judgment, discipline and self-confidence of the young men and women on the ground. To achieve that, their training is demanding and, necessarily, progressive. Integral to the training is the requirement to develop the ability of recruits to accept responsibility for their actions. We value our people highly and pride ourselves on the exacting standards that we maintain, both in the training that we provide and in the care that we offer.

I accept that there is risk, but the purpose of the armed forces is to operate and succeed in an uncertain and dangerous environment. A training regime that failed to develop individual responsibility and foster a willingness to take measured risk and address danger would fail the country. That is a point well made and recognised by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble). I am grateful to her for taking the time and trouble to visit various military training establishments.

I will now deal with some of the more specific points raised by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire. Statistical analysis has shown that, in overall terms, the number of coroner-confirmed suicides and undetermined deaths in the armed forces is significantly below the norm for Britain as a whole. In fact, the rate is less than half that which could be expected across the civilian population.

However, more detailed analysis has shown that more young men in the under-20 age group die in such circumstances in the Army than would be expected compared to the UK civilian population, although the small numbers involved mean that a small change can lead to a significant variation. There have been 27 such deaths over a 10-year period, against a civilian cohort of 18. That statistic is, of course, concerning and we are therefore insisting on further investigation of the subject. Ministers will continue to require that a proper explanation is given of those statistics or they must be persuaded that action has been taken to deal with whatever problem the statistics display.

Every death is deeply regrettable, and when it occurs we strive to learn lessons to ensure that, in so far as we can, processes and procedures are modified to avoid a similar incident occurring in future. The figures do not show that suicide and undetermined death are endemic in our Army. The Princess Royal barracks at Deepcut has come under particular scrutiny. There have been four tragic deaths there in the past nine years. That is, certainly, four too many. The death of Private Sean Benton in 1995 was the first at that establishment since 1965.

There is no doubt that bullying is insidious and corrosive and is the very antithesis of the principle of self-discipline and the concept of teamwork on which so much of the success of the armed forces is founded. I accept that there is a fine line between unnecessarily overbearing behaviour and the robust approach to training and discipline that the armed forces have to take to prepare their people for the harsh environment in which they may be asked to operate. That is a line that the armed forces are well practised at treading. No one should be in any doubt that bullying has no place in the Army or the armed forces. It is rooted out whenever and wherever it is discovered.

There have been many assertions in the media and elsewhere of systemic bullying in the Army. Our policy of zero tolerance to bullying is simply that. It does not mean that bullying does not occur. We can, and do, make our policy clear, but even with the best regime in the world, bullying may occur. Where we are aware of it, we will deal with it robustly. What we cannot do is investigate rumour and hearsay. Without the co-operation of those affected, we cannot succeed. Those who allege bullying must come forward. I assure hon. Members that allegations properly made will be thoroughly investigated.

Of course it is right to probe, to verify and to seek improvements. That is what this debate is about. During the course of their investigations, Surrey police provided some helpful suggestions about how to discharge the Army's care responsibilities. Their work in the supporting investigation by the deputy adjutant general has produced real changes in the way we work.

I want to pick out a few of the measures that have already been taken. We have accepted that the ratio of recruits to instructors rose far too high in the mid-1990s, particularly in phase 2 establishments. Ratios in excess of 50:1 were not untypical then, but that has now been directly addressed with the provision of an additional 179 instructors in the training organisation. The target ratio of 38:1 is being achieved or exceeded in all phase 1 and phase 2 training establishments. That change is already having a real effect.

The situation of soldiers awaiting trade training—SATT—in which recruits are required to wait between completing one trade course and starting the next, has been cited as one of the potential causes of frustration, anxiety and lack of focus among young recruits. I can report some significant improvements on that. SATT figures are now at an all-time low right across the Army's training organisation.

Guarding routines were identified by the deputy adjutant general as a substantial contributory factor in the level of opportunity risk to young recruits, specifically at Deepcut. Day-to-day responsibility for managing the guarding function at the Deepcut site now falls to the Military Provost Guard Service, which is also taking on an increasing proportion of guarding duties. That has significantly reduced the burden on trainees and the opportunity risk identified in the DAG's report.

In addition, the MOD director of operational capability has examined the initial training of non-officer recruits across all three services. That work has produced 58 different recommendations, the majority of which have been implemented. Others still require funding, but we are addressing that and making progress. The director's report has established a co-ordinated system for the identification and application of best practice in initial training across all three services.

I hope that hon. Members will accept that that amounts to a persuasive case that the MOD is not failing, that its leaders are not complacent but are taking their responsibilities seriously and that we remain sensitive to the needs of our people. I am happy for that to be tested by others and therefore welcome the Defence Committee's interest in the same way that I welcomed the analysis in the fifth report of the chief constable of the Surrey police, which was published last month. He acknowledged our efforts to secure improvements, but he was far from uncritical. He believed that we could have been quicker at learning lessons from the two earlier deaths. He went further by saying that, although it is clear that a change process has been initiated, in his view a broader enquiry is necessary to provide assurance that the current momentum in the development and implementation of regime improvements is sustained". He went on to suggest, among other things, that the inquiry should consider how independent oversight might help the Army define and maintain appropriate standards of care for young soldiers.

The issues raised are complex and have significant implications. We are not yet in a position to announce what action we intend to take in response. I am sorry if that proves frustrating for the families and for hon. Members, but this is not a case of prevarication. Several factors must be considered and we are determined to get this right. For example, the possibility of engaging with an external organisation to provide some independent oversight of our training arrangements and the discharge of our care responsibilities has certain attractions, but we must think carefully about which organisation would be best qualified to carry out such a role and what should be the limits of its responsibilities. It will be a challenging task, which will require experience of care issues, ideally in relation to young adults, and armed forces training, as well as a demonstrable independence from the MOD.

In addition, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State is anxious to meet all four families before final decisions are made. He has already met two of the families and is in contact with a third family about a meeting in the near future. I hope that we will be in position to make an announcement to the House next month on the way ahead.

Each of the four families has suffered a grievous loss that will affect them for the rest of their lives.

Lembit Öpik

Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Hoon

If I may make a little more progress, I shall give way in due course.

It is clear that in certain respects the support that we provided to grieving relatives fell short of the standards that we demand of ourselves. I extend my sincerest apologies to the families for the additional pain that that caused. It is clear that each family feels poorly served not only by the institution whose responsibility it was to protect their loved ones but by those who were responsible for finding out what happened. That said, the deaths and the actions taken in response to them have been subject to thorough and detailed examination. Surrey police spent 15 months and have been assiduous in their scrutiny of each case. They declared that they had no intention of pursuing any criminal charges in respect of the deaths. Their press release of 19 September 2003 stated: Despite the scale of the investigation, no evidence has come to light so far to indicate any prospect of a prosecution directly related to these deaths. Their conclusion on causation was clear.

A coroner's inquest provides the established route by which the legal right to a public investigation following a death is satisfied. Inquests into three of the deaths have already been held, and the coroner has confirmed that the Surrey police investigation brought to light no new evidence that would warrant him seeking to open new inquests in these cases. He will in due course examine the circumstances of the fourth death—that of James Collinson. Internally the Army has commissioned two boards of inquiry and made the findings known to the families. It will convene a third and fourth when the coroner has completed his work.

I therefore see several difficulties associated with the kind of inquiry proposed in the debate, and I return to the second of my initial questions. What could a narrowly focused inquiry reveal about the circumstances of individual deaths that successive internal and external inquiries have not? What evidence is a further inquiry likely to uncover that has not already come to light, particularly with the passage of time since the first two incidents? What reasonable grounds are there for suspecting that the truth, in so far as it is knowable, has not already been established?

I wonder, too, whether there is a uniformity of view among those calling for a public inquiry about what such an inquiry would cover. If an inquiry were to focus on the individual circumstances surrounding specific incidents, should it relate to the four deaths in question, or, as has been suggested, have a wider remit to investigate other deaths in other locations? If the latter, which and why, and where should a line be drawn?

The intended purpose of such an inquiry is to get closer to the truth about what happened; I ask how realistic that is. If the purpose is to reveal weaknesses in procedure and inadequacies in the Army's handling of the families, which appear to be the basis of the case presented by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire, it is arguable that its work has already been done and its conclusions already accepted. Errors were made, which I hope will never be repeated. I accept that we are still not yet as good as we should be as far as this matter is concerned, but we have worked hard to put things right and we continue to work hard to implement the wider lessons.

Lembit Öpik

Given the lack of time, I will not rehearse the arguments made by hon. Members. However, I am concerned about having an inquiry into the four deaths at this stage, so there should be no confusion in that respect. Is the Secretary of State saying that he does not have any concerns about the contradictions, the lack of compassion, the fears about bullying and the apparent lack of evidence that have been highlighted? How does the right hon. Gentleman respond to the belief of Surrey police that a more specific inquiry with regard to Deepcut is necessary and appropriate?

Mr. Hoon

I think that I have addressed those issues. The matters and inconsistencies were thoroughly considered by Surrey police in the course of their 15-month inquiry, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore) pointed out. It is difficult to see how a further investigation, which could only rely on the same investigatory techniques deployed so effectively by Surrey police could produce any further facts that would allow us to reach a conclusion.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Hoon

I can give way, but I will not be able to deal with the points made in the debate if I do so.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. May I suggest that the Secretary of State be allowed to complete his speech? This is a sensitive and important debate.

Mr. Hoon

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In conclusion, I assure the House once again that my ministerial colleagues, the Army chain of command and I are acutely aware of the sensitivity of these issues and the continued public and parliamentary interest in them. We deeply regret the death of anyone in our charge; we recognise that we have a duty to the families of those who have died and we apologise unreservedly where that duty has not been fully discharged. We know that there is nothing that we can do to restore loved ones to their families; what we can do is continue to ensure not only that our house is in order, but that it is demonstrably so.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Hoon

No, I will not. This is a theme that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State with responsibility for the armed forces will take up in more detail when he makes an announcement to the House in the coming weeks. In the mean time, we continue to demonstrate that we have nothing to hide. We co-operated fully with the Surrey police and gave them full access to our archives; the joint Army-police learning account, which is a mechanism for recording lessons learned and tracking progress made in implementing them, is testament to that co-operation.

Now that the police investigation is concluded, we intend to give similar access to the wider public. Many of the documents on which the chief constable drew in his fifth report are now in the public domain. We published those documents; they were not dragged out of us.

We have for some months been encouraging hon. Members to visit training establishments, and seven have so far been visited, but the take-up for the programme has been low. We continue to stress the importance of hon. Members seeing for themselves what life is like for recruits in training, and how we approach the training task.

One further visit is currently planned, which will take place on 16 June and will include Princess Royal barracks, Deepcut and the Army training regiment at Winchester. Other visits will be arranged subject to take-up so that as many as possible can take advantage of these opportunities and see for themselves what an outstanding job the Army does in training its people.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I congratulate hon. Members who have contributed to the debate on their balance and the responsibility that they have shown. The House is grateful.

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