On 29 March I announced to the House the publication of the Government-commissioned Deepcut review, undertaken independently by Nicholas Blake QC. It looked into the circumstances surrounding the deaths of four young soldiers who were training at Princess Royal barracks, Deepcut, between 1995 and 2002. I gave the House an assurance that I was determined to deal with the issues raised by Mr. Blake, and undertook to ensure that everything possible would be done to prevent similar tragedies occurring in the future. I said that we would look at every one of Mr. Blake’s 34 recommendations to see how they should best be implemented to address the weaknesses that had been identified as quickly and effectively as possible.
Today I am publishing the Government’s response to the Deepcut review. Copies will be placed in the Libraries of both Houses. I understand that the publication of our response will inevitably evoke sad memories for the families of the soldiers who died at Deepcut. I hope that they will find some comfort in our response to Mr. Blake’s recommendations.
Having completed the detailed analysis of the report, I reiterate that it is an exhaustive, illuminating and thorough review, and I repeat my tribute and gratitude to Mr. Blake for such a comprehensive piece of work. I am confident that its enduring legacy will be a better and more caring framework for young trainees and service personnel more generally. The Government have acknowledged that mistakes were made in the past, and that there were failures in the way in which young and sometimes vulnerable recruits were cared for. I believe that the report will constitute a watershed in the treatment of our servicemen and women.
The services had, of course, already made significant changes and improvements before the Deepcut review, as Mr. Blake readily acknowledges in his report. For example, much greater attention is being paid to risk of self-harm and preventive measures; there are stricter controls over access to firearms; supervision of recruits and trainees has improved; appreciable new investment in facilities and accommodation has occurred and is ongoing; and a new harassment complaints procedure has been implemented.
However, the Deepcut review has highlighted that there is more that we can do, particularly in some key areas. I can confirm to the House that we accept the great majority of the review’s recommendations, although in some cases with necessary and justifiable modification or qualification, as explained in our response. However, in those cases we are still confident that we can give meaning to the intent behind the recommendation. There are very few recommendations that we cannot meet either wholly or in substantial part, and I now turn to these.
Recommendation 30 concerns the availability of an inquest wherever the death occurs, in this country or overseas. We are very much in sympathy with this thinking, but of course, it bears upon the draft Coroners Bill that has been published for consultation. Consequently, we are in discussion with the Department for Constitutional Affairs as to how that recommendation might be given effect.
Recommendation 31 also concerns inquests, in this case ensuring that the family of a deceased soldier has access to legal advice and representation. It is our intention to support families as much as we can throughout what are sad and distressing events, but there is a general presumption that interested persons at an inquest do not normally need to be legally represented. However, there is provision, in exceptional cases, for application for funding to be made to the Legal Services Commission. I believe that to be the appropriate mechanism and process to satisfy the recommendation.
Finally, recommendation 33 recommends to the Surrey police that the families of Sean Benton, Cheryl James and Geoff Gray be provided with copies of the respective Surrey police reports, solely for the purpose of considering whether an application should be made to the High Court to set aside the previous inquest into their child’s death. That is of course entirely a matter for the Surrey police, but I have written to the chief constable stating that, in the Ministry of Defence’s view, that is a helpful suggestion from Mr. Blake, and that, for our part, we would be happy to co-operate fully in such a process.
As I said earlier, we have accepted the great majority of the Deepcut review’s recommendations, and, as the response that I have published today shows, some are already in the process of being implemented. Work has already begun to address the rest. However, I know that a number of the issues raised in the review are of particular interest to Members, and it is to those that I now turn.
First, let me emphasise that we fully accept and agree with the review’s concern that the needs of service personnel under the age of 18—and their vulnerabilities—should be recognised. That is now reflected in new guidance to commanding officers. A “care of trainees” module was introduced to the training programme for instructors and other supervisory staff in 2004. That has now been incorporated in the “train the trainer” course for instructors, which has been introduced across the armed forces.
A new supervisory care policy in phase 1 and 2 training establishments was introduced in March this year, and each unit is required to compile an assessment of the risk to trainees that takes account of the particular circumstances of that establishment and its population. There are specific policies aimed at the well-being of under-18s in terms of how they are accommodated, their recreational and social facilities, and their duties, including access to firearms.
One of the most significant areas of the review is the provision of independent assurance of our processes, and in particular the military justice system and the military complaints systems. We intend to introduce or enhance independent oversight of both those areas. The Police and Justice Bill will provide for the creation of a new combined inspectorate for the criminal justice system. Following discussion with the Attorney-General, the Lord Chancellor and Home Secretary, we intend to use that opportunity to extend and deepen inspection arrangements across the military justice system. Those working within that system strive to perform with professionalism and to standards comparable to those in the civilian criminal justice system. External assurance will serve further to demonstrate that.
Turning to the military redress of complaints system, as the House is aware, we have already made proposals under the Armed Forces Bill to improve that process and to introduce an independent element to it. We intend that the service complaint panels dealing with complaints such as those relating to harassment and bullying will include an independent member, and that the complaints process will be reviewed annually and publicly by an independent external reviewer. But in the light of the recommendations of the Deepcut review, and of representations made by Members during the consideration of the Bill by the Armed Forces Bill Select Committee, we propose to go further. We propose that the role of the external reviewer should be extended, providing him or her with the ability to accept complaints directly from a serviceperson or a family member, or another third party on their behalf; to have the power to refer such complaints to the chain of command for appropriate action; and to be informed of the outcome of that complaint.
That wider role would justify the title of service complaints commissioner. Critically, the commissioner would have direct access to Ministers. Furthermore, to ensure effective oversight the commissioner would report annually to Parliament. The House will note that in some practical respects this model for a commissioner is different from that proposed in the Deepcut review. Let me stress that there is, however, no difference between the Government and Mr. Blake over the fundamental intent, which is to promote the effective operation of existing military proceedings and provide independent assurance that the procedures are working effectively, with systemic issues appropriately addressed.
I now turn to the proposal that a commissioner might have the right to be consulted in disciplinary matters, or have the ability to intervene to institute legal proceedings against prosecution decisions. We believe that that would potentially undermine the role and independence of the prosecuting authorities. I know of no precedent for such a role in the civilian criminal justice system.
We have listened carefully to evidence given to various Select Committees and by Members of both Houses. We maintain—and I hope that right hon. and hon. Members would share this view—that the chain of command’s primary responsibility for welfare should not be undermined. However, in providing for a service complaints commissioner, we accept the need for external, independent assurance, especially for a vulnerable young trainee—or his family or friends—who may feel uncomfortable about approaching a commanding officer directly. Subject to views expressed in this House and in the other place, the Government would propose to bring forward amendments to the Armed Forces Bill to provide for a service complaints commissioner.
Our armed forces are deeply valued by the Government and by the whole House. Their well-being is very much at the heart of this response to the Deepcut review. We are committed to improving the way in which all our recruits are trained, developed and looked after. We are resolute in our aim to deliver real, measurable and tangible improvements to the benefit of all our personnel who serve our country so well. As I stated earlier, this will be a watershed in how our servicemen and women are treated. I am determined to deliver on the commitments, and the external scrutiny that will be put in place will hold us to account now and in the future.
I am sure that I speak for both sides of the House when I say that we wish profoundly that the tragic deaths of four young people had not made this report necessary, but I am grateful to the Minister for his response and his courtesy in making the statement available to us in advance.
As I said the last time that we discussed this subject, the social trends in our country today mean that an increasing number of recruits come from broken family backgrounds, have poor academic achievements and are often deficient in basic skills. The fact that the Army can transform them into world class soldiers is something of which we should all be justly proud. We also need to remember that the cases that we are discussing today are very much the exceptions, and I am sure that the Minister would want to underline that.
Let us remind ourselves of some of the basic facts of this tragedy. Of the four young victims, two had previous clearly recorded episodes of self-harm in their medical notes prior to recruitment. One of the others had clearly documented episodes of self-harm while in the Army. Another was about to be forced to leave the Army against his will. These vulnerable individuals were not only given loaded guns, but put on solitary guard duty in remote locations. They were given both means and opportunity and, as the Minister said, the Government accept that that represented a failure in duty of care.
The Blake report found that there was bullying, but that it was by no means endemic nor clearly linked to any of the four deaths. However, it also said that there were too few non-commissioned officers to supervise training properly—a fact that the Army had pointed out already. What can we learn from the Government’s response to the report, and how can we ensure that the tragedies cannot be repeated?
To begin with, we must make sure that there is a comprehensive system for assessing a recruit’s medical history. That means more than merely having sight of medical notes: there must be a proper investigation into the medical history of all recruits. Will the Minister confirm that that has been happening in all cases since 2004?
What about the ratio of NCOs to recruits? The 2002 report by the Deputy Adjutant-General found that the level of supervision
“was wholly inadequate and greatly magnified the level of risk.”
What has been done to improve that ratio?
The Minister spoke about phase 2 training, but the problem went beyond supervision. The indeterminate length of that training was a factor that exacerbated the unhappiness of many recruits, so what has been done to ameliorate that?
The Minister was right to talk about the inquests system, but merely amending the forthcoming Bill is not good enough. At present, 59 inquests into the deaths of servicemen killed in Iraq remain outstanding. There needs to be a change in how the system is operated or funded. I know that the Secretary of State is looking at that, and I hope that the Minister will say where the Government have got to in respect of dealing with the backlog and with the current failures in the inquests system.
I am pleased that the Government have not caved in to the arguments for introducing a full-blown ombudsman, and that the Minister said that the chain of command’s primary responsibility for welfare should not be undermined. The Opposition completely agree, but how will the relationship between commissioner and commander work in practice? What will the interface be? Who will select the commissioner, and according to what criteria? What sort of background will the commissioner have? We would much prefer it if he had a military background, and therefore an understanding of the pressures in the chain of command.
I am grateful to the Government for their response. We shall look constructively and in detail at what they propose. We need a training system that is nurturing and without harassment or bullying, yet robust enough to prepare youngsters for the sort of tasks that they face in the brutal realities of Iraq or Afghanistan.
We want the Government to ensure that there is a duty of care, but all hon. Members are fully aware that, in the end, we are training soldiers.
I do not intend to comment about the four individual deaths to which the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) referred. Enough grief has washed over the families involved already, and this has been another bad and difficult day for them. The report looks at those deaths, but goes much wider. I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s assessment of the achievements of our training environment, and I shall not elaborate on what has been said time and again about the quality produced at Deepcut and elsewhere.
The hon. Member for Woodspring asked a range of questions, some of which have been answered on previous occasions. Additional resources for instructors have been made available, and we are constantly looking at the balance in this matter. I do not want to go into the history too much, but part of the problem in the past was that the training environment was stripped out to meet front-line demand. The Government inherited that problem and have been trying to address it, but strengthening the training environment means that senior and capable personnel are taken away from the front line at an exceptionally busy time. The Government must strike the right balance, and we are making significant progress.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the way in which we assess the background of recruits. New procedures have been put in place to do that, so that we have the best assessment of the nature and characteristics of the young people in question. Not all of them come from vulnerable backgrounds or are damaged individuals, and I would not like it to be thought that that is the quality of the young recruits to Her Majesty’s armed forces. It is not. There are some with those characteristics, but many come from stable family homes and military families. None the less, we have to understand the breadth of the range of individuals with whom we are dealing.
The hon. Gentleman raised the unquestionably important matter of phase 1 and phase 2 training. Our aim is to make sure that we do not have recruits, in effect, sitting around doing nothing while they wait for their next posting, and that has been tackled substantially. The average number of soldiers awaiting trade training for more than 14 days has decreased from more than 1,100 in 2003-04 to 456 in 2005-06, and we shall work to improve that. For Deepcut alone, the comparable figures are a decrease from 136 to 75. Sometimes it happens for a good reason, but we recognise that it is an issue none the less.
The hon. Gentleman asked about coroner’s inquests and the backlog in what is done for those whose bodies are repatriated from Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. We have announced new measures, in consultation with the Department for Constitutional Affairs. Three additional assistant deputy coroners, one of whom is a retired High Court judge, will be appointed to assist the Oxfordshire coroner in dealing with the backlog of Iraq-related inquests. As of last week, 59 inquests were outstanding on service personnel whose bodies were repatriated to RAF Brize Norton. We have at all times recognised that that is a problem, and we are now beginning to tackle it. Throughout, the interests of the grieving families must remain paramount.
The hon. Gentleman asked specific questions about the role of the commissioner and he expressed a strong—indeed, prescriptive—view. I would say, let us examine the merits of the role of the commissioner. In the Armed Forces Bill, we will define in broad terms what the commissioner will do—we will have to table amendments, which will be subject to debate in the other place, where the Bill now is, and perhaps in this place when the Bill returns to the Commons. It is worth having the arguments; I simply ask the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues to have an open mind and not to be too prescriptive. Let us see what the best method and the most acceptable solution are. I believe that the framework that we have set out has great merit. An important aspect of that is that it does not undermine the chain of command, which is paramount in all that we seek to do.
I thank the Minister for the statement and for advance notice of it. I welcome the Government’s positive response to some of the Blake recommendations.
On the matter of Surrey police sharing with the families evidence to which they have been struggling to gain access for more than three years, I applaud the fact that the right hon. Gentleman has entered into correspondence with the chief constable. If the problem is that the police believe that people gave evidence on an anonymous basis, will he explore with the chief constable the possibility of disclosing the evidence at least initially on an anonymous basis, with names obscured?
Turning to the crux of the matter, the Minister has just responded to the shadow Secretary of State on the proposed service complaints commissioner. I welcome the Government talking about the importance of independence and bringing independent assurance to the process, but I am sorry that the Minister turned down the opportunity to tell us more about the remit of the commissioner. Who will appoint the commissioner? What will his powers be and what resources will he have? To what extent will the commissioner have the power to instruct a remedy, or will he simply have an advisory role that goes back up the line of command? Will there be independent people on all service complaints panels? What ability will the commissioner have either to intervene in complaints or to initiate inquiries on the basis of evidence that he sees, or of a pattern or picture that he sees emerging? We need to hear a lot more about this matter before we can judge whether, as the Minister says, the title of service complaints commissioner is justified.
On accommodation for young recruits and recommendations 2 and 8, will the Minister explain why the recommendation to train under-17s in establishments exclusive to that age group has been rejected? Will he reflect on the findings of the Armed Forces Pay Review Body and the comments of the previous Secretary of State that accommodation is in a “worse position” than anything else. What does he intend to do about the accommodation issue?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for some of his comments, but perhaps not all of them. On the question of Surrey police, we are talking about something that is a matter for the police. The fact that I have written to the chief constable to indicate what I think would be of benefit reflects a view that I have taken from the early stages—as my knowledge grew—that the reopening of the inquests would be desirable. It is not in my power to so direct. The Surrey police information may provide sufficient grounds to allow that to happen, but I do not know, because I have not seen it in detail. I cannot intrude in that matter other than to indicate my strong preference as to what should happen. I cannot direct on that matter.
On the commissioner’s role, the hon. Gentleman had an early view of my statement and I have set out what the remit of the commissioner would be. I have been careful in the response—I do not want to say that this tops and bottoms it or ends it. We are fortunate that we have the Armed Forces Bill where this matter will be ventilated and can be discussed and examined. I would not want to close down on any reasonable suggestion. However, I do not want to put in place or encourage anything that seeks to undermine the important role of the chain of command. That is why we have said that the independent commissioner would have the right of reporting to the commanding officer, the right of follow-up in terms of finding out what happened as a result of all that, and, importantly, the right of access to Ministers and to report annually to Parliament. If there was a pattern developing, or even a significant case, it would be down to that individual to draw the Minister’s attention to it if he felt that there was reluctance, unwillingness or blocking on the part of the commanding officer or the system itself. So, we have an insight into what is going on. That has not been there before. However, I will resist any attempt to undermine the independence of the commanding officer or their right to ensure that proper discipline is maintained in their unit. We have made a substantial move and, hopefully, it is to be welcomed and subject to further examination.
Accommodation is a big issue; there is no question about that. That is why we have re-profiled a lot of our spending approaches to try to make sure that we can lift the quality of accommodation. We have a massive backlog to attend to. The moneys would not simply be available to anyone. We are not talking about a wish list, but about practicalities, given the hundreds of millions—if not billions—of pounds that would be required to improve that accommodation. We have a progressive programme to deal with all that. Although we can see the objectives of the recommendations, the delivery will take some time to achieve. That is what we have now set out to seek to achieve.
I suggest that the hon. Gentleman take the time to read our response to the recommendations—I accept that he has not had that opportunity. We set out the rationale. It is fairly long and I do not want to read it out in detail, other than to say this: we recognise that there is an issue and we are seeking to address it. We have best practice and very good training environments at Harrogate and Bassingbourn. We can see the quality that comes out of that type of training establishment, where there is a separation of the single young people, and the type of training that we can give them. Whether that can be matched across the whole of the training environment has to be judged in terms of what we are trying to train. We are talking about a soldier going into the front line. We have got to judge the quality and robustness of that training.
I make a final point to the hon. Gentleman. Mr. Blake’s report referred to the unsolicited comment of a young trainee in which he said that he felt that he was being mollycoddled. Soldiers react to being mollycoddled because they might be in the front line tomorrow, so that is why a balance has to be struck.
I welcome the considered and detailed response that the Minister has given to Nicholas Blake’s review. May I question him further on the independent commissioner—the service complaints commissioner? As he is aware, I would have preferred a commissioner with the powers that Nicholas Blake outlined; nevertheless, I welcome the establishment of a service complaints commissioner. As we will be having further discussions on the matter, will the Minister consider the independence and powers of the commissioner, because families will be asking questions about that? For example, he outlined that one of the commissioner’s powers will be to refer complaints to the chain of command for appropriate action, but what will happen if the chain of command has already considered those complaints? In such circumstances, the individual concerned and his or her family will want reassurances about the powers of the commissioner and the way in which the commissioner can investigate. Will the Minister consider those powers and give assurances about independence so that the families, in turn, can be reassured?
I fully respect and understand the position that my hon. Friend takes, but I ask her to take account of all the other things that we have done. The adult learning inspectorate can carry out notified and unnotified visits to training establishments. It can then examine all the things that we have put in place regarding duty of care to determine whether that is being effectively delivered. The overall delivery is thus subject to independent scrutiny.
The commissioner will bring to the process a recognition of the fact that many young people feel that they do not have confidence in the system. The same may be the case for their parents, although the young people might not be fortunate enough to have parents who care for them directly. Indeed, a friend of the young person or someone serving alongside them could trigger the process. The people or their families could tell the commissioner that something that had happened had been brushed over. A one-off incident would be bad enough, but if an incident indicated that there was a pattern of events, the commissioner would be on to that very quickly. If there was any indication that the system—be that an individual commanding officer, or a more institutional process—was blocking what the commissioner was trying to do, the commissioner would have access to the Minister and could report accordingly.
There is now enough raised awareness in the Ministry of Defence for us to realise that we cannot allow the problems of the past to recur. However, we can never guarantee that sad incidents will not happen. We cannot be perfect, and we will never be able—in any part of civil or military life, or any aspect of society—to avoid self-harm or difficult circumstances arising owing to bullying and harassment. However, we are trying to put in place an environment that will ensure that those who have direct responsibility through the zero-tolerance approach will fully understand what they have to do. If they are not delivering, the commissioner will be able to take the matter up with the commanding officer and report to the Minister. There is also the independent overview from the adult learning inspectorate. I do not think that there is any other aspect of what the public service delivers that has such public scrutiny. We have not yet reached a conclusion on the final role of the commissioner, because that will be determined as part of the proceedings on the Armed Forces Bill.
I thank the Minister for his thoughtful and considered statement. As the constituency Member for Deepcut, I would like to ask about the Government’s response to recommendation 8, which was about the future of the training estate. I wrote to the then Secretary of State for Defence two months ago to explain to him that Defence Estates had slated the entire Deepcut barracks for sell-off and future development. Understandably, there is concern in my constituency that the Ministry of Defence wants to wash its hands of Deepcut. Can the Minister assure me that he has total confidence in the current leadership at Deepcut? Will he assure the leadership and the broader community that an excellent job is now being done? Will he give us a clear indication of what the future of the barracks will be and tell us what Defence Estates is up to?
I pay tribute to the current leadership and those who carry out the role of instructor. The quality of the young corporals and sergeants, who throw their hearts into trying to create the high-quality trainees and front-line soldiers that we so need, never ceases to amaze me, as I saw on my last visit. There is no question about that. The last inspection by the adult learning inspectorate said that Deepcut had become an exemplar. Perhaps that is a feature of the focus that has been on it, but I think that it would have happened anyway because of the intense effort that has gone in to lift the quality of what we do in the training environment. The “train the trainers” process will train instructors. We are opening a school at Pirbright in 2007 to do just that, and it will be designed to give quality training to those who become trainers. That has not been done before and was a deficiency. I pay tribute to those who deliver training at Deepcut.
I have not seen the hon. Gentleman’s letter. I do not know what has happened to it. It was not addressed to me and I suppose that it is somewhere within the big sausage machine. No doubt he will get an answer in due course. The defence training review means that I cannot tell him the future of Deepcut, any more than I can tell him the future of any part of the training environment. It is a comprehensive undertaking and a major examination of how best we can deliver training outputs. There will be change. I cannot say how it will affect Deepcut. I do not think that people want to wash their hands of it, which is why I pay tribute to those who deliver the service there. Let us remember that 1,700 recruits go through that establishment each year, as I am sure he is only too well aware. All of them are of a very high quality.
I thank my right hon. Friend for the comprehensive and thoughtful response to the Blake inquiry. Of course, families will not be wholly satisfied short of a public inquiry, but that was not recommended and I suspect that he will not suggest it today.
Recommendation 31 deals with legal representation before and during an inquest, and with legal advice that is given earlier. My right hon. Friend said that exceptional funding is available for inquests, but given what else he said, such tragedies will be more exceptional. Is it possible for him to say that legal representation will be available in every case to assist families immediately and in the inquests that may follow?
My hon. Friend is right about the public inquiry. He is only too well aware that Mr. Blake did not, after all his examination, consider it necessary, assuming that a lot of other things take place. We are delivering on those.
I gave a lot of thought to all the recommendations, but to recommendation 31 in particular because of the position that families find themselves in at coroners’ inquests. However, inquests are not adversarial, as my hon. Friend will know. If we inject a legal process into the arrangements, we could change their very nature. There are other ways in which individuals and families can seek legal remedy, given the circumstances.
The process is about establishing the facts and getting as much background as possible on what happened. It is then left to others to judge whether a wrongdoing or whatever had taken place. The approach that we—society as a whole—take to supporting families at coroners’ inquests or fatal accident inquiries in Scotland is to give legal support only in exceptional circumstances. It is a matter for the Department with responsibility to consider whether it needs to change the scope and framework of inquests. A Coroners Bill is out for consultation. My hon. Friend may want to make representations accordingly.
May I, too, congratulate the Government on their positive response to some of the recommendations? Does the Minister accept, however, that my constituents, Jim and Yvonne Collinson, and the other Deepcut families are no closer to finding out how and why their children died? The Blake report was good in places, but it only told us so much about what happened at Deepcut. Does he accept that, given the Government’s positive response to the report, we must find out how and why those young people died? The only way to do so is to compel witnesses to come forward and cross-examine them in a public inquiry.
No, I do not, because that would not achieve the end result sought by the hon. Gentleman. The Blake review was exhaustive, and it examined all of that territory. I do not think that anything was held back or that Mr. Blake was hoodwinked—I am not saying that the hon. Gentleman made such a suggestion. Mr. Blake put a great deal of effort into the review and, while he was critical of some aspects of what was going on, he revealed information of which we were not previously aware, allowing us to take action accordingly.
The presumption behind the hon. Gentleman’s question is that the process of a public inquiry would lead to the “how” and “why”, but we cannot be certain that it would do so. There have been five police reports, and we have conducted our own internal investigations. He said that Blake’s was a good report in part, but I think that it is a good report in total. If Mr. Blake had concluded that a public inquiry was necessary, I would have been in a dilemma, given my view that that was not the case. I would have had to weigh his opinion against my own. It is with a sense of relief that I find that I do not have to do so, as he advances an extremely solid argument to support the conclusion that a public inquiry is not necessary. I hope that we all use our best judgment to find on the same basis. It is easy to continue running a campaign, but for what purpose, if it does not produce the result that is sought?
I often think that dealing with the Ministry of Defence is like pushing water uphill. We are slowly getting there, given the announcement of a commissioner, who will provide the independent oversight that is needed. Like the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) and my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble), I am concerned that we have not been provided with details of the commissioner’s role and remit. My right hon. Friend the Minister said that we needed more discussion, but following a report by the Select Committee on Defence and discussion of the Armed Forces Bill, is it not time to determine the detail of the commissioner’s role? Unless we do so, we will be reluctant to support the proposal when we debate the Armed Forces Bill in the House. Unlike the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), I believe that it is vital that the commissioner should be independent. The expectation that he should be associated with the armed forces is quite wrong, so I urge the Minister not to appoint anyone who is connected in any way with the military chain of command.
I am sorry that my hon. Friend thinks that he is pushing water uphill. I do not know whether he is Jack and I am Jill, or whether it is the other way round, but this is a very good complex issue. Having served on a Select Committee, I know that it is easy for Select Committees to offer headline solutions.
The hon. Gentleman is critical, but I should be grateful if he allowed me to express my view. It is easy to provide headlines and expect someone else to deliver, which is exactly what the Select Committee recommended. It was a helpful recommendation, and I do not wish to diminish it. The first piece of legislation that I steered through the House as a Northern Ireland Minister dealt with the reform of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and one of the main issues that it addressed was the need to put in place an ombudsman to deal with police complaints. It took us a long time to achieve agreement, as my hon. Friend will accept, but it was not a case of pushing water uphill. It was a case of getting the best definition because it had to stand the test of time.
We are fortunate that we have the Armed Forces Bill, which allows proper scrutiny through the parliamentary process, rather than a prescriptive definition, top and bottom, by a Minister, albeit a Minister such as I, who has a great deal of detailed knowledge of the subject. I am prepared to set out the very broad but very specific parameters of what we are seeking to do with the new position, and I want to hear what is said and whether we have gone far enough once we define it in the Bill.
I can think of no better way of arriving at the best conclusion than having that whole debate in the open, rather than by ministerial edict. As for being prescriptive, my hon. Friend said what should not happen. I am not responding to that, because I want to hear the arguments for and against. We have time to do it. We can do it through a form of legislation. We have the vehicle for that, fortuitously. I know that my hon. Friend will continue to participate in that debate.
I am sure the Minister will agree that we need fair, robust and disciplined training for our armed forces. When I went through basic training as a 16-year-old soldier, one thing that we had then which we do not have now to address the myriad problems that young people have was trained soldiers in the barrack rooms with us throughout our basic training. When I recently visited the training regiment at Pirbright, several times while I was there the question was, “Would you like to have training soldiers in the rooms with you?” and the answer was, “Yes, we would,” because it addresses the camaraderie and the training that they needed. Will the Minister consider that? He mentioned that we would debate the Armed Forces Bill when it returns from the other place. Can he confirm that we will have an opportunity to debate it in the House?
That depends what happens in the other place. I am not the master of that. The fact that the Bill is to be amended means that it will have to come back. I will not go into parliamentary procedure, but I am sure the hon. Gentleman will find an opportunity to say what he wants to say about the detail.
On the subject of trained soldiers alongside recruits, is that desirable? Does it raise accommodation issues? I prefer to hear what those who are expert in the matter say, rather than expressing the ministerial position. It could be a sensible proposition. The hon. Gentleman said it helped him, but maybe he needed a lot of help.
We must consider what benefits would flow from the proposal. Then there is the question of how many people would be required. Is there a benefit? Possibly. How many would need to be available to deliver it? The instructors are trained soldiers, as we know—
I hope I do not get the same admonition, Mr. Speaker.
One of the aims that we seek to achieve with the new accommodation blocks is a better spirit of camaraderie. One of the failings of single living accommodation was that it allowed individuals, trained or untrained, to live in an isolated room of their own. We have therefore reconstructed our approach so that there is now a common area and more integration. We need trained personnel close to all of that, but—at the risk of contradicting my earlier comment that it would be wrong of a Minister to try to impose a solution—it would have to be with a light touch, not a heavy touch. It must be carefully managed so that people grow and are not dragged up. People should grow naturally with best example, not forced example.
I want to preface my remarks to the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox)—
I have one quick question. I am heartened that the Minister has written to Surrey police, but I want to place it on the record that I have not received a response to my letter to Surrey police in two and a half months and that none of the families—I represent the Gray family—has received anything. Can anything be done to pursue that matter? On recommendation 31, I fully endorse the comments by my right hon. Friend the Minister and wonder what conversations he has had with the Department for Constitutional Affairs. On recommendation 26, has he had any contact with the Canadian forces about their experiment with an ombudsman, which has been highly successful and did not involve anyone with a military background? I welcome the steps in response to recommendation 26, but I wonder what further progress will be made.
I am sorry that my hon. Friend did not get the chance to put all her questions. I am also sorry to hear her comments about Surrey police, and suggest that she take up the matter with the relevant Minister. It is a matter of regret that the families have not received a response, and I will see what more I can do in that particular area. On the experience of others, whether it involves Canadians, Australians or the Dutch, we have examined how we can best deliver our objectives. I have not had a discussion with the Canadian forces, but I have examined what is possible in terms of structure and therefore output.
The window has been left slightly open because of the Armed Forces Bill. We have defined the broad parameters of what we are seeking to do, and our objectives are comprehensive and will make a substantial difference. If, however, other examples are brought into play during the process of consideration, we must consider them and respond according to the normal democratic processes. There is no doubt in my mind that the debate in the other place on that issue will be intense.
Nicholas Blake clearly stated that if the Government refused to establish an independent commissioner for military complaints, he would call for a full, independent public inquiry into the Deepcut deaths. Is it not obvious that the Government have refused that specific recommendation and that years of co-operation and patience on the part of the parents have been paid back with secrecy and defensiveness by the authorities and a process that actually refers complaints back into the chain of command for action? Does the Minister recognise that he has left us no option but to force a full independent public inquiry, presumably with Nicholas Blake’s support, without which the parents will receive few answers, little disclosure, no commissioner and no justice?
The hon. Gentleman and I have worked closely on this matter, but a big gap has appeared, which I regret. Nicholas Blake did not make that point in his report and did not make it a condition, and only he can comment on whether he is satisfied or otherwise with our recommendations. Rather than jumping to the conclusion that Mr. Blake is not satisfied, the hon. Gentleman should wait to hear what, if anything, Mr. Blake says. I do not accept that there has been secrecy and defensiveness. I do not know how many statements I have made to the House or how much more transparency is required. Our actions have been extensive, and I think that we have gone a considerable way to meeting what the hon. Gentleman wants. The point underlying the hon. Gentleman’s argument is that the chain of command should be stripped of responsibility.
I am trying to interpret what the hon. Gentleman has said, in the same way as he interpreted what Mr. Blake has said. If he is saying that putting the complaint back to the chain of command somehow undermines the quality of the decision-making process, I disagree fundamentally, and I will tell him why. The chain of command has to ensure proper discipline and structure in the organisation for which it is responsible. We cannot allow that to be transferred to someone else, even someone with a military background. We have rejected Mr. Blake’s recommendation that someone with a civilian background should try to determine the right to go to legal process, because there is nowhere in our civil processes where that would apply.
This matter has been given very careful consideration. I uphold the primacy of the chain of command. I recognise that it has made mistakes in the past and will do so in the future. It is not perfect, but that is not for the want of professionalism, commitment and a determination to deliver what is best. The hon. Gentleman’s judgment should be based on how many recruits go through that training environment year upon year. It is not a broken regime. If anything, it is an exemplar for the rest of the public service, and it passes muster with anything internationally.
Following Deepcut and, perhaps more importantly, the growing separation between the military and the rest of society and the enormous operational commitment now undertaken by the armed forces, the challenge faced by the training establishment in producing the world-class soldiers referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) grows all the time. Does the Minister accept not only that the Army must put its best officers and NCOs into the training establishment, but that the Government must support investment in the training establishment—preferably with money from the Treasury, but if that is not available, from the balance of resources that he presides over? The training establishment will have to get more resources, perhaps at the expense of the equipment programme or other areas, because people who are making the change from ordinary members of society into world-class soldiers must have the necessary investment now and a growing scale of investment in future.
If I did not know that before, I certainly know it now, not only because of what the hon. Gentleman has said but because of the learning process that I have had to go through over the past five years in dealing with this issue. That is why more resources have been put into the training environment and why we corrected the decision made in past years. I am not making an adverse comment, but merely saying that a decision was taken that had to be reversed because it had not produced the right results, and we therefore had to find a new way of doing things.
We are instituting the “train the trainer” environment and opening up a new school for all instructors because, as the hon. Gentleman will know, the best soldier is not necessarily the best instructor and the best officer is not necessarily the best person to run a training establishment. It is a question of finding the right people for the right roles. If someone needs to make up a deficiency in their knowledge base, that is what their training process will entail. It will lift their skills and knowledge and the subtleties that they have to apply in dealing with young people, and sometimes not-so-young people, as they put them through that training environment. I would argue that we have very high-quality training, although I know that the hon. Gentleman is not saying anything different. I agree, however, that we have to make it even better because of the demands that are now placed upon our service personnel.
The introduction of the service complaints commissioner provides a new process by which people can make complaints, but it is a formal process which some recruits might find intimidating. Does the Minister agree that the Army chaplaincy plays a valuable role as regards complaints within the armed services? Is he aware that currently the Territorial Army is 26 undermanned as far as chaplains are concerned and that the regular Army is looking for 16 extra chaplains? What will he do to address that important issue?
I agree with what the hon. Gentleman says. Others should listen to the way in which the argument was presented. If the process that we are considering has to be triggered, that almost constitutes a failure because it means that all the other duty of care mechanisms that we have put in place will somehow not have picked up the problem. That is why we are investing so heavily not only in the chaplaincy but in all the other informal and formal structures so that people know that anonymous helplines are available, that they can go to Samaritans, the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service and a range of contact points.
The other important aspect is that all our instructors will be better trained to pick up the noises off. If there is a problem, they should tackle it quickly. If anything goes to the commissioner, that is, in a sense, a failure, assuming that the case is proven. It may not be—a case could be anecdotal or not add up to anything. However, we need the protective mechanism so that, if people feel that nobody has been listening to them—that has been part of the complaint in the past—that final recourse is available. It could end up on a Minister’s desk. The process is therefore well rounded but it has to succeed at the bottom, not only at the top. If it does not succeed at the bottom, we have a problem. I do not believe that we have a problem; we have issues to which we must attend, and we are doing that.
I cannot provide a specific answer on the chaplaincy—we do not have the power to dragoon members of the Churches or of other faiths into uniform. However, I appreciate that it is an important part of what we do and I hope that the Churches and other faith groups are examining how best they can help us.