Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr. Watts.)
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Pope, and to introduce a debate on the first annual report of the first Service Complaints Commissioner. Dr. Susan Atkins was appointed in the late autumn of 2007 and assumed her full responsibility to receive and monitor complaints from 1 January 2008. During the year of her office, Dr. Atkins has made herself available for discussion and dialogue with Members of Parliament, attending meetings of the all-party group on Army deaths and appearing formally before the Select Committee on Defence.
The commissioner describes the process of establishing an office that should remain independent of the Ministry of Defence, while gaining trust and building confidence in the positive role of independent oversight. Dr. Atkins has shown considerable energy in bringing together a team of newly recruited staff and developing a mechanism for handling complaints that is sufficiently robust and demonstrably fair.
As chair of the all-party group, I hear the anger of families who have lost loved ones, not only at Deepcut barracks but at barracks throughout the UK and overseas. Those families have experienced the inability of the armed services to deal with sudden death and the failure of all the systems that should be in place to guarantee an effective investigation.
When the father of Cheryl James, who died from gunshot wounds at Deepcut barracks, heard that I was introducing the debate, he said that
“the only real question is why Sir Nicholas Blake QC told families he would support our call for a public inquiry if the Government did not appoint a truly independent Armed Forces Ombudsman with the power to investigate complaints: They didn’t and he didn’t.”
Families feel very bitter, angry and let down because they have not had answers to the questions that they need answered about the deaths of their loved ones.
It is interesting that the hon. Lady has been talking about Deepcut. Could she explain how she thinks that the independent complaints commissioner could become involved in an event in which, tragically, the servicemen involved are dead? In other words, does part of her remit say that she could look into not only things that are going wrong today in the armed services, but things to do with the ways in which servicemen, tragically, have been killed or have died?
The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point and I will come to it, because I want to explore the existing role and remit of the Service Complaints Commissioner and where I think it could and should be extended. The commissioner herself, in her inquiry, makes it clear that this is her first year and first report and that she will be considering in future years whether her position should be extended. I have one or two ideas on that.
Dr. Atkins sets out the role and responsibilities of the commissioner defined by the Armed Forces Act 2006. She describes the role as twofold:
“firstly, to provide a rigorous and independent oversight of how the Service Complaints System is working and to report annually to ministers and Parliament…secondly, to provide an alternative point of contact for Service men or women who do not feel they can raise a complaint with their chain of command without her oversight.”
The commissioner may also receive representations submitted on behalf of a serviceman or woman, whether from friends, family members or anyone else with legitimate concerns. The 2006 Act specifically refers to cases being raised by a Member of Parliament.
The commissioner’s role is not that of an independent ombudsman, and I regret that the Government did not feel able to accept the considered conclusions of both the Defence Committee and the Deepcut review conducted by Nicholas Blake, QC. In my view, the services have suffered from the absence of independent oversight and require a system of institutionalised checks and balances equivalent to those established to assist the police service and the Prison Service. The modern approach would be to welcome an independent ombudsman or commissioner with powers to initiate inquiries and conduct investigations where he or she regards it as appropriate to do so. Without acceptance of such a policy change, the oversight system is structurally flawed. As a result, confidence in the armed services is undermined and will continue to be an issue of public concern.
I think that protection of the lives of service personnel would also benefit from the establishment of an office that is equivalent to that of Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons and police and is responsible for offering external advice on shortcomings and possible improvements in efficiency and effectiveness. I also believe that the services should, wherever possible, establish lay visitor panels to carry out inspections of military facilities, particularly training camps.
However, in Dr. Atkins we have a Service Complaints Commissioner who has expressed her determination to see the complaints system working effectively and fairly. That objective has merit, regardless of the outcome of the wider debate. Dr. Atkins has approached her job with an open mind, and I respect the way in which she has produced the report and liaised with Members of Parliament, families and service personnel.
Having said that, I am genuinely mystified by Dr. Atkins’s conviction that she has no legal authority to handle the complaint of a relative or next of kin that relates to the circumstances of a death in the armed services or how such a death was handled. Outside the field of combat, the civilian police should have primacy in the investigation of the death, but that does not absolve the military of all responsibilities that arise from the duty of care. Failure to address the concerns of a bereaved family cannot be justified on the ground that the subject of the complaint is no longer a member of the armed services. That was not discussed in the passage of the Bill that became the 2006 Act and does not seem to assist the purpose of the legislation.
Does my right hon. Friend the Minister agree with me that there should be no barrier to the commissioner’s receiving a complaint regarding a death, the circumstances of that death, its effective investigation or measures taken to draw lessons in the public interest?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way again. I understand the point that she is making, which is interesting, but does she not think that if the commissioner were allowed to go down the track that she is advocating, there would potentially be a conflict with the role either of the coroner or of the military? One thinks, for example, of the Chinook crash on the Mull of Kintyre or the Hercules XV179 crash. Would the commissioner be authorised to investigate those cases that have perfectly properly been looked into by other authorities?
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. However, on many occasions I have raised questions in the House about how families obtain answers to the questions about how their loved one died and on every occasion I have been told by Ministers from the MOD that they obtain their answers through the inquest system, but sadly the way in which the inquest system works has not given those families the answers that they deserve.
I am not casting any aspersions on coroners. I am on record as praising the coroners of Wiltshire and Oxfordshire, who have built up a great expertise in dealing with Army deaths. However, the coroner system, because of the way in which it has been set up, is an inquisitorial system that has limits. The hon. Gentleman and I have debated this issue in the past. Families usually do not have legal representation in a coroner’s court where the MOD does, so they feel at a disadvantage from the start. In the case of many of the families who come to me—I am referring to the Deepcut and Beyond families group—their loved ones died several years ago. When I speak to them, they often tell me about the most appalling circumstances at inquests where the coroner’s court met for 15 minutes and dealt with the issue, so they have not had answers.
I am not saying that the hon. Gentleman has not made an important point. He has, and the issue needs to be clarified.
Since December 2008, the Service Complaints Commissioner has had a role in the notification of unexplained deaths, so the Government have recognised the issue. What I am looking for at this first stage of the debate on Dr. Atkins’s role and responsibilities is for us to examine the complexities of such issues and consider how her role can be better used, without, of course, trespassing on any criminal investigation, the operation of the coroners’ courts or any other court proceedings that might come into effect following the death of someone in the armed services.
My hon. Friend is going into these issues in great detail, but she has just told the Chamber that the MOD usually has legal representation whereas the families do not. That is not so. The MOD usually does not have legal representation and is not represented legally in the majority of cases at coroners’ courts.
I hear what the Minister says. The families that come to the all-party group—they are part of the Deepcut and Beyond families group—tell me of their experiences. In their experience, the inquest can, as I outlined, be a very brief affair, although that tended to be more the case some years ago. More recently, the MOD has been represented by an array of barristers, while the family has not been. When families have sought legal aid funding, they have found themselves in a difficult position because they have been means-tested, as anyone else in the legal aid system would be. They feel disadvantaged, and we need to equalise that situation. Where there is an unexplained death, and there may be article 2 implications under the Human Rights Act 1998, the MOD needs to look seriously at the support that the families receive, to ensure that they feel that the inquest system gives them answers. Increasingly, coroners are giving narrative verdicts, which lay a duty on the MOD to provide answers.
The hon. Lady’s description matches the experience of my constituents Jim and Yvonne Collinson—they lost their son James at Deepcut—at their public inquest just a couple of years ago. However, families are being failed not just by the inquest system, but by the Ministry of Defence’s own boards of inquiry. Ten years after their son’s death, Jim and Yvonne Collinson are still waiting for the board of inquiry into what happened to him. That is incredible, given that boards of inquiry are established to look at precedents to see whether lessons can be learned. I do not know whether the hon. Lady has a view on the issue, but is it something that the Service Complaints Commissioner could also look at?
I agree that there are serious delays with some boards of inquiry. There is also concern about how evidence that is given to a board of inquiry can then be used in a coroner’s inquest. Above all, however, we have to put the families at the centre of this. They need answers about what has happened to their loved ones. As the Service Complaints Commissioner makes clear in her report—I shall go on to speak about this—she wants lessons to be learned so that they can be used to improve the delivery of the duty of care to our service personnel, as well as the efficiency and effectiveness of our armed services. This should be a win-win situation.
The hon. Lady mentioned the difficulties and limitations of the inquest system as it stands. She will be aware that Des and Doreen James, whose daughter Cheryl was, I believe, murdered at Deepcut barracks, were told before the inquest even took place that she committed suicide. Is the hon. Lady aware that there was a perfunctory inquest, which Des and Doreen James were able to attend only part of, and which simply confirmed the Army’s claims? Is she also aware that people such as Des and Doreen James have had their faith in the state entirely shattered, not least because, in the 14 years since Cheryl’s death, they have been unable to have the police inquiry into the previous police inquiry released so that they can find out what went wrong?
Before the hon. Gentleman arrived, I quoted his constituent Des James. Out of courtesy to the hon. Gentleman, I will repeat what I said. The father of Cheryl James made the important point about today’s debate that
“the only real question is why Sir Nicholas Blake QC told families he would support our call for a public inquiry if the Government did not appoint a truly independent Armed Forces Ombudsman with the powers to investigate complaints: They didn’t and he didn’t.”
Mr. James is understandably angry about that. One thing that I want to come out of the appointment of the Service Complaints Commissioner is that families feel that they can approach her and that she has a responsibility to look into unexplained deaths. As I mentioned, the MOD has recognised that she should have a role, but it relates to the notification of unexplained deaths. I urge the Minister to ensure that Dr. Atkins is kept in touch with the progress of Royal Military Police and civilian police investigations, the service inquiry and the coroner’s inquest.
I take the point made by the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) about respective responsibilities, and I am urging not that the commissioner become involved in the investigation process, but that she be kept informed. We can then learn from experience what role, if any, she should have. Again, however, my touchstone is making sure that the families get answers to their questions.
Will my hon. Friend accept that the original reason why the Defence Committee recommended an ombudsman was not so much to make things easier for a subsequent inquest and inquiry, but to prevent bullying and deaths? As Dr. Atkins says, one problem with the present system is the lack of confidence in it. It is vital that service personnel and their families can confidently make complaints and take up issues, not so that we can resolve problems after someone has died, but so that we can prevent bullying and deaths.
My hon. Friend makes exactly the right point. I will talk later about the importance of a culture change in our armed forces. Families that have lost loved ones in non-combat circumstances want answers about what happened to them, but they also want lessons to be learned—they want our armed services to respond differently and to prevent incidents wherever possible. Clearly, some accidents will not be preventable, but there are ways in which our armed services can deliver better on their duty of care to individuals.
I hope that nothing that the hon. Lady says will be taken as a vote of no confidence in the advent of the coronial service’s involvement in proceedings into the deaths of servicemen, and I am thinking particularly of deaths outwith the United Kingdom. The coronial service has done the armed forces community a great service in the way in which it has proceeded in recent years, and I am thinking particularly, in a partisan way, of the coroner who sits in Trowbridge. I have to say that I share the concerns that have been expressed about the confusion that the system advocated by the hon. Lady may introduce into the investigation of serious complaints about the treatment of people in the armed forces.
I fear that the hon. Gentleman misunderstands what I have said. I am on record in this place as praising the efforts of our coroners. I am making it clear that the coronial system and inquests have failed some families in the past. Within the operation of the existing system, in spite of the good work of many coroners, many families who seek proper answers about why their family members died still do not get them. The point that I am making is that when we debated the 2006 Act and considered the role of the proposed ombudsman or Service Complaints Commissioner, there were comments about how important it was that the office should have a role in listening to complaints from families about deaths of loved ones. I was therefore surprised and taken aback when Dr. Atkins came to the first of two meetings of the all-party group on Army deaths that she attended, and made it clear that she had no role in the system. Since then the position has changed and Dr. Atkins is notified of deaths.
I am being very careful about what I am saying and do not propose anything that would trespass on the proper responsibility of either the coroner’s court or the police or, indeed, of the board of inquiry, in making investigations. I am, however, saying that the families who come to me highlight serious concerns about all of those. The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) spoke in an intervention about serious delays in a board of inquiry. There is concern that some individuals who have given evidence to boards of inquiry cannot be questioned when a coroner’s inquest is called on the same death.
I welcome some of the proposals in the Coroners and Justice Bill, such as the charter for bereaved families, which will be an excellent move forward, and the change in rule 43 of the coroner’s rules, enabling the coroner to send a narrative verdict to the appropriate Department, which must respond within 56 days. Things are moving ahead.
The point that I am making now, in my consideration of the responsibilities of the Service Complaints Commissioner, is about her new role of being notified of unexplained deaths: what is the purpose of notifying her, and can that purpose be taken further? It seems that she is simply notified, full stop; but will families have an opportunity to contact her, as they can about complaints that concern living members of the armed forces? In answer to the point made by the hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison), I am not suggesting a new process; I am drawing attention to the fact that whereas previously the commissioner had no role in relation to deaths, she now has a role and is notified of them. I am asking what seems a perfectly sensible question: can and should that role be expanded, and if so, how can it be expanded without trespassing on the perfectly proper current arrangements for investigation?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the strong leadership that she gives with respect to the tragic events affecting the Deepcut and Beyond families. Surely the point of Dr. Atkins’s appointment is to bring transparency and clarity into the process. Perhaps something could be done together with Daniel’s Trust, which is an organisation set up by Lynn Farr and Norma Langford, a constituent of mine, the death of whose son in Belize was said to be suicide, although his parents claim that that would have been totally out of character. Surely that is what we should aim for: to improve the situation and to support families who have tragically lost sons and daughters.
I have met my hon. Friend’s constituent and she and Lynn Farr do sterling work through Daniel’s Trust. I shall refer to them later, and they are an excellent example of an organisation that members of the armed forces trust. They go to Daniel’s Trust to complain or express concern, when they will not go through the chain of command. That highlights issues that the Service Complaints Commissioner raises about the gap between the number of complaints that are raised with other organisations and those that come to her through a formal process.
I want to move on to take further what the commissioner says in her report. She provides a clear and comprehensive account of her responsibilities and the work undertaken so far. She accepts the need for greater awareness of her role and describes the difficulties of establishing a baseline of good and bad practice against which she can measure future progress. Dr. Atkins talks of narrowing the gap between perceptions of harassment and bullying and the number of complaints perceived. The commissioner has made a start in pushing for an audit of the service complaints system, but available information about the number of complaints received reflects more accurately the findings of the recruit training survey of 2006-07 that 31 per cent. of trainees believed that if they submitted a complaint it would not be dealt with fairly. Dr. Atkins’s first-year experience shows a real need for the Service Complaints Commissioner’s role to include helping to improve the service complaints system and giving servicemen and women and their families confidence that they will be treated properly.
Does not the way the Service Complaints Commissioner system is set up focus predominantly on individual redress—not, especially, on organisational improvement? The commissioner makes that clear in her report. Does my hon. Friend think that it is possible under the existing legislation for those two aims to be at the heart of what the commissioner is doing, avoiding a sole focus on individual cases, important though those are? How can the commissioner stand back and draw general conclusions and suggest general improvements for the organisation?
My hon. Friend anticipates the conclusion of my speech, because I shall make exactly that point, and agree with what the commissioner says in her summary of her conclusions.
Dr. Atkins reports that a 2005 survey found that 42 per cent. of servicewomen felt there was a problem with sexual harassment. More than two thirds of women interviewed reported experiencing adverse sexual behaviour ranging from unwelcome comments to criminal assault in the previous year; 15 per cent. reported having a “particularly upsetting experience”. On 21 February 2008, in response to a question at column 859W, the Ministry of Defence reported that only 32 complaints of sexual harassment and eight of sexual discrimination in the armed forces had been received in 2006-07. That is startling evidence that under-reporting is rife. I agree with the commissioner that robust reporting systems should be available to support the complaints process. It is difficult to make decisions about management procedures and future policy without reliable statistical evidence. That should be available from unit level to the highest echelons of the services.
Dr. Atkins draws eight main conclusions and bases her 17 recommendations on them. The Service Complaints Commissioner regards timeliness of handling and communicating complaints as a critical aspect of provision but finds current performance “generally poor”. She makes recommendations on timetable target-setting, use of specialist equality investigation teams and measures to ensure effective communication with the complainant and the person who is complained about.
I should like the Minister to address a point about allegations of bullying. When soldiers are being bullied or perceive that they are at risk they frequently need protection, and that must be prompt. The findings of the Surrey police so-called fifth report into incidents at Deepcut barracks between 1995 and 2002 provide a wealth of information about the internal service culture on the camp at the time. It is well known that the police investigation of the conduct of training instructor Leslie Skinner led to a successful prosecution. However, Surrey police say that not one of the 13 alleged victims had felt confident enough to access any of the welfare services, confidential information lines, faith-based counsellors or senior officers that should have been able to provide redress.
In my capacity as chair of the all-party group on army deaths, I have been told by concerned parents and groups such as Daniel’s Trust that recruits who are being bullied or who fear that they are at risk of bullying believe that they have no option but to escape immediate risk by going AWOL. What steps will the Minister take to assure recruits who feel under threat of bullying that their safety can be guaranteed and that action can be taken without delay?
The Service Complaints Commissioner states:
“There is a need for more ownership and proactive management of complaints at the heart of command”.
I wish to make two points about that. First, I want to see a culture change in the armed services, and Parliament has a critical role to play in that.
The commissioner finds that too few servicemen and women have the confidence to speak out when treated badly. All service personnel should feel able to voice their concerns if they are victim to bullying, discrimination or harassment. There should be an open and honest environment for everyone. Complainants should not be seen as troublemakers. They should be supported, not shunned. Many feel that making a complaint will impact negatively on their career, and there is evidence that some wait until they leave the services before making a complaint.
The enlightened employer should encourage feedback and protect whistleblowers who act in the public interest. The environment that pertains in the armed services clearly presents a greater challenge for the exercise of that responsibility, but I invite the Minister to join me in asserting that the greater risk of maintaining a culture of silence and complicity requires that solutions are found.
The second point is this: the commissioner should be given greater assistance in developing a flexible approach to what should be regarded as a complaint. Why should the evidence given and the allegations made by the BBC about bullying at Catterick not be given the formal status of a complaint requiring investigation? The commissioner is required to receive communications from a Member of Parliament on behalf of service personnel. Does such a communication constitute a formal complaint? If not, why not? Dr. Atkins refers in her report to receiving letters from Members of Parliament. Will the Minister assure me that he is routinely informed of serious incidents, and that commanding officers are required to ensure that a death in barracks is reported to the commissioner within 24 hours?
Dr. Atkins concludes that the focus of the service complaints system, which is to provide individual redress, must be broadened to take account of the need to address failure and to learn from it. If mistakes are identified, the system should provide a means by which they can be addressed. Complainants need to be secure in the knowledge that they will be treated seriously and well, and that complaints should result in organisational improvement. There should be evidence to show that once complaints are proved, changes are made. That is similar to the direction taken by the Government in their proposals for coroner law reform. The commissioner makes specific recommendations, but I wonder whether the Minister, when responding to the debate, will find a form of words to endorse the dual purpose approach that she advocates.
The Service Complaints Commissioner reports her wish to promote greater awareness of the existence and role of her office. I understand the difficulty of achieving a satisfactory level of recognition in the first year; the Irish ombudsman found a similar time lag. Although that guarantee of awareness will ultimately show the commissioner's effectiveness in meeting her objectives, I believe we all have a role to play. The Minister should draw up a plan to promote awareness and to ensure that we have parliamentary time to discuss it.
In my role as chair of the all-party group on army deaths, I am keenly aware of the work of bereaved families in trying to prevent the children of others falling victim to the same fate. If those families have confidence in the role of the commissioner, they will willingly promote her services. I bring to the attention of the House an initiative taken by Debra Williams, whose son Gavin was beasted to death at Lucknow barracks in 2006. Debra used her son’s story to urge others to work together to prevent future loss of life. Her website—stopbeastingsinthearmy.com—provides information and advice for families who think that their children may be at risk. It is important to find a way to give victims a voice in the process of creating greater awareness. The commissioner is already in touch with a number of such groups, but MPs and the Government could provide more help.
The commissioner concludes that there is inconsistency of practice on the handling of complaints across and within the services. She also believes that the lack of expertise in handling complaints is a common cause of failings. Can the Minister confirm that resources will be made available to monitor the system effectively, and to identify priority areas for improvement? Will he agree to review guidance to deal with the confusion caused by the different procedures required for equality and diversity complaints, and complaints about other matters?
When complaints about bullying and harassment arise in the public domain, the response of the MOD press office is sometimes too defensive. The standard approach of affirming the policy of zero tolerance towards bullying is well meaning but sometimes empty. The implication is that the existence of the policy has eradicated the problem. It would be better if the position was restated as a tri-service commitment to work towards the elimination of bullying and harassment, while ensuring that the Service Complaints Commissioner has been notified.
The commissioner argues that a system of complaints works best if the complaint is about a matter within the scope of command of the armed services, and recommends that the service secretariats should review the handling of complaints that arise outside the scope of the chain of command. Her report concludes that the complaints system is geared to work at the top levels and not at the lowest appropriate level, and it makes specific recommendations in order to address that imbalance. Finally, Dr. Atkins finds that the complaints system is accessible in theory but beset by barriers in practice. That is also the prime concern of bereaved families and those who contact anti-bullying organisations.
The Royal British Legion has been at the forefront of the campaign to give new meaning and substance to the military covenant. I believe that an open and transparent system for investigating complaints, and for making effective redress and institutional response to identified failure, must be at the heart of the Government’s support for service personnel.
This is the Service Complaints Commissioner’s first report, and she is clearly describing work in progress. In that first year, Dr. Atkins was contacted by 193 people, and I have no doubt that more will come forward this year. Her conclusions and recommendations mark out a method that will establish a workable baseline from which future progress can be gauged and accurately assessed. The commissioner’s proposals are carefully constructed as a coherent framework, and I urge the Government to respond to the block of recommendations as a whole.
This will not be our last debate on accountability and oversight of the armed services. Failure to address these issues will undermine the ability of Her Majesty’s armed services to deliver the effective and efficient service that we need. Oversight is an aspect of good governance that we must get right. We have a responsibility to continue the debate, to learn from experience and take the process forward. I place on the record my thanks to the Service Complaints Commissioner, who has done an excellent job in the role that Parliament gave her. I am sure that we will discuss the nature of that role at greater length as she produces many more reports.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble). This is the second time in two days that I have followed her when speaking in this Chamber, but yesterday I named her constituency incorrectly, so I am pleased to have the chance to get it right today. She has introduced an extremely important debate and did so extremely well. I agree with much of what she had to say.
I wonder about the process by which the Service Complaints Commissioner’s report was brought to the notice of Parliament. As I understand it—I am ready to be corrected—there is at present no formal way for the commissioner to report to Parliament. I wonder whether it might not be sensible for the report to be more readily available—for example, through the Vote Office, which I think was not the case this year. I obtained my copy by downloading it from the internet. In future years, it might be sensible to have in place a formal method by which the commissioner can make her report known to Parliament.
Like the hon. Lady, I congratulate the commissioner on her excellent work in an undoubtedly difficult first year. She has had to get herself and her services known around the armed services, and has no doubt had to handle some very needy and difficult cases among the 190-odd that she has heard so far. I am certain that, on occasions, servicemen and women who might be nervous of their chain of command, or who might be victims of bullying, harassment or discrimination, have no other way to raise their concerns with the authorities. It is useful to have a means by which they can.
There have been a number of cases in my constituency. In two recent ones, bullying was alleged and the individuals involved went AWOL. I am glad to say that, the families officer from the 9th Supply Regiment in Hullavington handled the situation extremely well, visited the soldiers in a secret location and reported back. That case is under investigation, but was handled extremely sensitively—as far as I am aware—by the regiment. However, at another time, it might not have been, so it would be useful to have the commissioner in the background, as a back-stop for soldiers. I therefore congratulate her on the difficult work that she has done. I am grateful that she is there.
I enter two caveats on that point. First, there is a very narrow dividing line between applying the sort of difficult, rigid discipline necessary to make armed servicemen in battle do things that you and I, Mr. Pope, would not willingly do. I suspect that most of us here have visited theatres of war. We ask these young men and women to do things that we here would not do in any circumstances. That requires an especially firm form of discipline that must be inculcated into new regimental recruits in a particular way. There is a very narrow dividing line between finding ways to inculcate such discipline and bullying and harassment, and occasionally people step over that line.
Beasting has been mentioned. Most in the armed services would acknowledge that beasting is not a very good way of instilling discipline, and I would be very surprised if it is used very widely, but a company sergeant major being rough with new recruits—not physically, but in a command sort of a way—is a traditional part of the Army way of life. It is not necessarily a bad thing in itself. Being nice to recruits will not necessarily do them any good. The importance of the commissioner’s role is in judging when that dividing line has been overstepped.
I am on the record as saying in earlier debates on this matter that the training that our armed services receive is different from that received by someone in civilian life doing a civilian job. Dr. Atkins, when she gave evidence to the Select Committee on her first report, also recognised that point, saying that there is a difference between training in the armed services and training to work in Sainsbury’s. I agree with her. She also said that we need a fair complaints system, because otherwise there would just be a moaning system, and we cannot have that. If people have a complaint, it needs to be looked at.
The hon. Lady makes my point very much better than I did, and she is, of course, absolutely right.
The second caveat is this: the armed services have always had an extremely good complaints system. In my experience of the armed services—as chairman of the all-party group on the Army, a former Territorial Army soldier and an MP with quite a large number of servicemen in my constituency—by and large, the regiment, or RAF Lyneham, which is also in my constituency, go out of their way to address problems as they arise. They do not want these things to happen, and when an allegation of bullying or harassment is made, the families officer in particular goes out of their way to discover the truth. One must also bear in mind that an allegation of bullying or harassment is not necessarily the same thing as bullying or harassment. Very often, an allegation might not hold up under scrutiny. None the less, I accept the commissioner’s role, which is a particularly useful one, and I can think of quite a number of constituency cases in which I was glad to have her in the background.
I had a slight difficulty, however, with one part of the hon. Lady’s contribution. She suggested that the role laid down in the 2006 Act for the commissioner to scrutinise the armed services complaints procedure—that is really what it says in the Act—should be extended to a generalised investigation of the circumstances surrounding an otherwise unexplained death of an armed serviceman. Like us all, the hon. Lady is very concerned about the circumstances surrounding the very unfortunate deaths at Deepcut. That was a more or less unique set of circumstances. The original Select Committee report that led to the establishment of the commissioner was particularly concerned about Deepcut.
Leaving Deepcut to one side, however, should we accept the principle that the role of the commissioner is to investigate all armed services deaths where no other explanation is known? In a number of cases, that might be sensible—when a person dies from beasting, in the example that the hon. Lady gave, or when there is an unexplained death in barracks. Such cases might well be worthy of further investigation by the commissioner if there is suspicion of improper behaviour by the armed services, but I believe—I am ready to be corrected—that by far the largest number of armed services deaths are caused by road traffic accidents. In such cases I presume that the commissioner would have no role—unless the equipment or vehicle was defective, I suppose.
That argument could be developed further. I mentioned earlier the tragic deaths of 10 servicemen in a Hercules XV179 in Baghdad in 2004 or 2005. A High Court case is pending. The families are suing the Ministry of Defence, because it did not fit foam suppressant in the wing tank of the Hercules aircraft. That is a matter for the High Court, and we cannot discuss it here. The coroner reviewed the case very carefully and came out heavily against the MOD. However, the notion that the commissioner might act on behalf of those families would seem to cut across the High Court, which is considering the matter, and the coroner, who produced an extremely critical report and said that the MOD was badly at fault. There was a similar case involving a Nimrod. For a third authority—a lady with no particular back-up or support—to throw her twopence worth into such an extremely complicated and difficult inquiry would be plain wrong.
Establishing an independent ombudsman to do precisely what the coroner ought to be doing, merely because the hon. Lady has a number of complaints about the way in which the coronial system works, would seem to be a diversion of effort. The Coroners and Justice Bill is being considered in the other place, where I hope the point about barristers at inquests will be taken into account. There is something to be said for that. Surely, however, if there is something wrong with the way in which families are handled in the coronial system—I made this point during Second Reading and the Committee stage of the Bill—that is an argument for improving the coronial system. The notion of introducing a third organisation—the commissioner—to make up for perceived deficiencies in the coronial system or regimental chain of command seems administratively complicated.
The hon. Gentleman apparently fails to understand that the coroner is not a detective. The coroner establishes the cause of death, but that does not mean that the coroner’s report can identify why that cause of death occurred. Does he not understand that those of us who believe that young recruits were murdered at Deepcut Army barracks do not expect the coroner to be able to prove that point? That was explained by Nicholas Blake QC, when he called for either the full disclosure of the Devon and Cornwall police report into the Surrey police handling of those death, or a full independent public inquiry. Does the hon. Gentleman disagree with Nicholas Blake?
I have difficulty with the hon. Gentleman’s intervention on two fronts. First, he is quite wrong: the coroner’s job is indeed to establish the cause of death. That is precisely what the coroner is required to do under law. However, let us imagine that he is not doing his job. The hon. Gentleman seems to suggest that the complaints commissioner should become what he describes as a “detective”, but the 2006 Act did not establish the complaints commissioner as a detective to look into the facts. The hon. Gentleman does not like not only what the coroner did, but what the police did—he says that they had looked into the matter and also got it wrong. He seems to be proposing that the Service Complaints Commissioner should say, “You, Mr. Coroner, are no good. I did not like your conclusion. You, the police service, are no good either. I now set myself up as a new kind of detective. I will look into the complex series of reasons behind the deaths, and I want my voice to be heard above both of yours.” [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman waves his hands in the air in a charming way as only he does, but I said a moment ago that we should put Deepcut to one side. We are not discussing Deepcut, but whether or not the commissioner can do a useful job today in investigating complaints by servicemen who are alive. By talking about whether or not the commissioner should be an alternative coroner, we have diverted the debate away from its extremely important subject.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I will finish my point first. We are a bit short on time.
In the report, which I have read only lightly, the commissioner does not ask for the ability to set herself up as an alternative coroner. Her job, and the job clearly laid down in the 2006 Act, is to scrutinise the way in which the complaints system within the armed services is working. In other words, if the complaints system is not working well, it is her job to scrutinise that. If we, in this debate or in other discussions, were led to a sort of generalised belief that somehow neither the coronial system nor the chain of command system were working and that we had to set up an alternative to both, we would be doing the complaints commission system itself a disservice.
The hon. Gentleman misinterprets what I said. I thought that I had clarified my point in answer to his hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison). I am not asking for the commissioner to be a separate investigating body. I am pointing out deficiencies in the existing system, some of which are being addressed through the Coroners and Justice Bill. Questions relating to boards of inquiry and their link to the coroners’ system have not been properly addressed. The Government have already said that the complaints commissioner should be notified of a death; I am simply asking that she be kept informed of the progress of the investigation of that death. Surely the hon. Gentleman agrees with me that if a pattern is emerging across a series of deaths of which the commissioner and the armed forces should be aware, she should report on that. Not all road traffic accidents are the same: some might have a cause of which she and the Army should be aware and on which they should act.
I have obviously touched a raw nerve. I was not answering the hon. Lady’s intervention, but that of the hon. Member for Pembroke—
I knew it was a place in Wales. The hon. Lady is absolutely right that we are not asking here for extra powers for the commissioner. Plainly, we are not. We are not seeking to find some way to investigate deaths. The commissioner’s main job must be to investigate the complaints of living servicemen—that is plainly laid out in the 2006 Act—about harassment, discrimination and bullying. That is the problem we face. We need to know whether or not there is an endemic problem of that sort in the armed services today.
In that context, I congratulate the hon. Lady on calling this important debate. I congratulate and thank the commissioner for her outstanding work in her first year of operation. I enjoin the Government to encourage her in what she is doing and to find a way to allow her to report directly to Parliament—perhaps through MOD Ministers or something of the sort—in future years, and not to be tempted by calls for the widening of her powers.
Before I call the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), may I remind hon. Members that it is customary for us to begin the winding-up speeches at half-past 10?
I accept and acknowledge your guidance, Mr. Pope.
I am standing here because, for about seven years, I have been trying to clarify why Cheryl James, the daughter of my constituents Des and Doreen James, died at Deepcut barracks. I am left in little doubt that she was murdered and that there has been a systemic cover-up of her murder and probably the murder of three other recruits at that Army camp.
My frustration with the situation arises from the fact that, at every turn, it seems that the Army and, to an extent, the police have been quite happy to conspire to cover up the circumstances of those deaths. My direct response to the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) is that no coroner would be able to get to the heart of the matter as an independent and effective Service Complaints Commissioner could. He fails to understand that a coroner is not able to exercise the authority to establish whether systemic bullying, or nefarious practices that lead directly to the death of recruits, are going on at an Army barracks. The coroner is simply required to establish the cause of death, and not why the victim suffered those causes. It is for that reason that we need to examine the reach of the powers of the Service Complaints Commissioner, as the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) has said.
I am astounded that, after all these years, we still have not got full disclosure of the facts pertaining to the Deepcut deaths. The only reason that we have made any progress at all is that we have persisted in trying to expose the murders. I remember the day I was attempting to force the Government to respond to an urgent question regarding the deaths at Deepcut when, lo and behold, the MOD Minister, the right hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr. Ingram), decided to make a statement to launch the Nicholas Blake inquiry. Naively I thought that the inquiry would be objective and would lead to progress, but, sadly, it seems to have been as big a sham as the rest of the process. That is why it is necessary that we look closely at the powers of the Service Complaints Commissioner and decide whether those powers are sufficient to get to the heart of cases such as those at Deepcut. In my last exchange with the Minister, he brushed me off by saying that it was not necessary or appropriate for him to respond in detail to the question that I asked on the Floor of the House. He implied that I was a conspiracy theorist. Well, I am a conspiracy theorist because I believe that there has been a conspiracy to cover up four deaths at Deepcut Army barracks. [Interruption.]
The Minister for the Armed Forces is clearly entertained by this, but I can tell him that the parents are not. Des James is one of the most reasonable and circumspect individuals whom I have had the honour to represent. I am sorry to tell the Minister that Des James has no faith in the state’s ability to investigate itself when individuals are murdered within state structures. Mr. James recently saw a play at the Tricycle theatre that covered those very points. When the Minister’s predecessor was invited to attend the play, he sent a message to Des James that said:
“I have no wish to see the play because I believe it will not be balanced and will reflect an all too painful analysis.”
In another e-mail, he said that he believed the play would be
“strong on polemic and weak on objective analysis.”
I did not say that.
I can show the Minister the text that was sent to Des James. Is that the sympathy that we can expect from the Government? How on earth is there any consistency between the alleged empathy with the plight of parents who have lost their offspring within the military system that the Minister expresses and comments such as those are sent directly to one of the parents of a deceased child?
I have two specific requests to make. Will the Minister tell me whether he is certain that the four who died at Deepcut Army barracks were not murdered? Will he tell us on the record that they were not murdered? Secondly, why on earth is it that, so much time after the Nicholas Blake inquiry, we still have not had an independent public inquiry into those deaths? The Minister will recall that Nicholas Blake said that if the Devon and Cornwall police report into Surrey police’s handling of the deaths at Deepcut Army barracks was not made public, we should have a full, independent public inquiry. That is on the record, but the report has not been published, nor have we had the inquiry. When will the Minister ensure that one or other of those takes place?
I have tried time and again to use the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to have the Devon and Cornwall police report released, but it has not been released. It is in the public interest to get to the heart of why the four recruits died at Deepcut. Unless the Minister is willing to make progress today, the matter will go to the courts. That will lead to yet another embarrassing series of revelations, when the Government and the Minister could simply put right something that has been very wrong for 14 years.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) on the way in which she introduced the debate. As she said, this is the first occasion on which we have such a report to debate and the first opportunity to make a judgment on how the new system is performing. She tangled with some difficult and emotive issues in an even-handed and level-headed way and I agreed with a number of the points that she made.
The new commissioner has made herself available to Members of the House and everybody else with whom she interacts. She has been very open and I commend her on it. I met her to discuss her work and it is clear that she is setting about her role within the terms laid down by Parliament with determination. She has a clear vision of where she is going. I am impressed by her general approach and encouraged by some of the things that she told me. She said that in some instances, initially, she found some resistance to her involvement in inquiries, and some scepticism and suspicion of her role. However, she said that even in the short time in which she has been in post, there has been a thawing of some of the hostility towards her and a willingness on the part of the armed forces to interact with her, which is welcome.
None the less, at this stage, she is only beginning to scratch the surface of the problems, based on the surveys to which the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood referred when she introduced the debate. The experience, impressions and belief of armed service personnel is that the problem is more widespread than the scale of the cases with which the commissioner is dealing would imply. I am not suggesting that all cases ought to end up with the commissioner; it is hoped that the chain of command will be capable of dealing with the lion’s share. However, I believe that there is a bigger problem than she has yet begun to tangle with. It is her first year of operation. The 193 cases that she has considered do not constitute a large number, but I expect that when we debate such things in future, the number will have increased.
For the first time probably, the debate gives us the opportunity to consider whether we believe that the system that has been created has given adequate power and independence to the commissioner. My party colleagues and I wanted the commissioner to have a stronger role and preferred the proposal for an ombudsman, which the Defence Committee and others suggested. Nothing so far has given me occasion to change my view that we need an official with greater powers than we have given to the commissioner. I noted with interest some of the proposals that the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood made, particularly her suggestion that the role should be vaguely analogous to that of Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons and that there should be a role for lay visitors. Both proposals are interesting. We must give it time, but I believe that we have not given adequate powers to the commissioner.
The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) made an excellent speech in the defence procurement debate on Monday afternoon and I found myself heckling him, in a sympathetic fashion, from a sedentary position. I am rather less in agreement with what he said in this debate. He started off by correctly reminding us that young personnel new to the armed services must learn to accept military discipline. They are going to be put into theatres of war, where complete military discipline is essential to their survival and the successful prosecution of their objectives. It would therefore be no great kindness to young recruits to treat them with kid gloves or to avoid the need for them to accept those harsh realities from the outset. However, precisely because it is their duty to obey the chain of command virtually unquestioningly, it is all the more important that there is a separate, independent avenue to go down if they have a genuine grievance that they do not feel able to raise with the chain of command.
I fundamentally disagree with some of the points that the hon. Gentleman made. In particular, I do not agree that allowing a commissioner to have a power of investigation—at the moment, all she can do is monitor the investigations that the armed forces carry out—would somehow cut across what other people do. The role of the police is to examine whether the law has been broken and whether there has been any criminality. That is all—their role does not go beyond that. The coroner’s role is to establish the cause of death. Coroners have slightly more latitude than the police to go beyond that. They often look at some of the background, and they may make recommendations, as the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood said, based on what comes to their attention in the course of their inquiries. However, even the coroner’s role is limited. Many aggrieved service personnel and their families want more investigation into the nooks and crannies, beyond that which the police or the coroner have a duty to undertake.
I disagree with the hon. Member for North Wiltshire that court action would cut across any investigatory powers given to the commissioner. I would compare the situation with what happens when there is a death or maiming in a hospital. In that case, the police are called in to investigate potential criminality and the coroner looks at the cause of death, but an aggrieved patient or their family might wish to take the matter either to court or to the health service ombudsman. Many ombudsmen exercise their powers only as long as court proceedings are not taking place, but it is perfectly common for them to go over the same ground that the police or a coroner might go over to learn more and to determine whether there has been any systematic failure, as the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood said. I am not persuaded that we will not need to come back in future and extend further powers to the commissioner to create something more akin to an ombudsman.
We ask an awful lot of our armed services personnel. The bullying and harassment about which we have heard a lot this morning are undoubtedly unacceptable. I am quite convinced that there are the beginnings of a shift in culture, but there is further to go. Nevertheless, armed forces personnel may wish to raise matters other than bullying and harassment. They might want to raise the inadequacy of their kit, for example, on which one coroner has commented. I should have thought it preferable for people to make complaints before the event rather than looking at things in retrospect.
The hon. Member for North Wiltshire said that many people die in road traffic accidents. Some years ago, a constituent of mine was maimed by a collision with a vehicle while on physical training. To this day, he blames the Army for what happened, but he has never had the opportunity to have his case looked at. That was a question not of faulty equipment, but of faulty procedure. There is a lot more to come. The commissioner’s reports in future years will give us further opportunity to judge whether we have given the office adequate powers. I am not convinced that we have done so and I believe that we will have to return to the matter in future to extend the commissioner’s role or something akin to it.
May I start by declaring my interests in the Register? I congratulate the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) on securing this debate and on the excellent way in which she presented it. The debate has been excellent, but slightly odd in that the meat of the Service Complaints Commissioner’s first report has been set to one side as we have debated wider issues relating to Deepcut. However, Deepcut is important, as it underpins the creation of the post.
It seems to me that the investigation of Deepcut is not the function of the Service Complaints Commissioner as the post is constituted. However, the prevention of a future Deepcut most certainly is. I welcome the creation of the post, as it will give a level of transparency to our armed forces and assist in changing some unhelpful elements of the culture. Somebody mentioned beasting earlier. I have not been beasted in my service career, but I was training to be a diver in Portsmouth at the time—many here will remember it—when an Army soldier died while being beasted on the mud at Portsmouth. Around that time, we started to wonder whether some aspects of the training of young people in our armed forces were appropriate.
Since that time, I have been concerned about how professionally those people are managed. Professionalism comes in many guises. It involves the way in which we conduct ourselves on operations, of course, but it also involves things such as how people are trained and how they are looked after and stewarded during the training period. There is no question in my mind but that beasting, although it was certainly part of the service culture at the time, was not what might be called professional, if for no other reason than that it causes mortality and morbidity from time to time. That is in nobody’s interests, let alone those of the organisation concerned. Such things need to be addressed, and I believe that the Service Complaints Commissioner might be part of a preventive strategy to ensure that they are less likely to happen.
Several hon. Members referred to the Service Complaints Commissioner as independent. We must accept that hers is a sort of independence—a semi-detached oversight—as she reports to Ministers and her budget comes from the Ministry of Defence, so we need to be slightly careful about the status that we accord to that office. It is important that we have such people to examine organisations that could be called total or closed, or that have the attributes of such organisations. The armed forces certainly have those attributes, as a number of hon. Members have mentioned.
According to the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey), the Service Complaints Commissioner had some concerns about how she was initially received. I must say that it does not come across that way in her report, although I can understand why an organisation such as the armed forces might resist somebody like Dr. Atkins: an inquisitorial new appointment meant to shine light on darkness. However, the more thoughtful elements of the chain of command will probably welcome the Service Complaints Commissioner. That is certainly what I am hearing from those to whom I talk in the armed forces.
The Service Complaints Commissioner makes suggestions about how her role might be expanded, but they are pretty subtle. Although the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood eloquently described how the role might be developed over the years, that does not really come across in Dr. Atkins’s first report. We will have to see how it evolves as the years go by, but it would be premature at this stage—she has been doing the job for little more than 12 months—to suggest that it should be radically overhauled. That would be a little unfair. At this stage, the balance that has been struck is about right. I would like to see how the office copes during the next few years and its subsequent reports. We will have to keep it under review, of course—we keep everything under review in this place, do we not?—but it seems to be a pretty good starter for 10. I look forward to the commissioner’s contribution as the months and years roll by.
Having been ever so nice, I think that it would be wrong of me not to raise one or two slight concerns. The report talks throughout of accountability. The Service Complaints Commissioner says that she accounts publicly to Ministers and Parliament; she says it on page 82 and again on page 15, and it is a thread throughout the whole publication. We could debate how she might be held to account, but it is important that we use language judiciously. I am not aware of any meaningful accounting to Parliament. We are indebted to the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood for securing this debate; otherwise, we would not have had a formal opportunity to discuss the report at all. Some might think that I am being a bit pedantic in making the distinction, but it is important that we consider it.
The commissioner found that knowledge of her role was poor. She is being a little harsh on herself. In the evidence that she gives in the annexe, which touches on the most recent service continuous attitude survey, we find that knowledge of how to complain overall is pretty poor within the armed forces. It is not specifically about her role; it is simply that people do not know where to go. Still, a key index for the current year is that she will improve recognition of her office, and I look forward to seeing her achieve that target and reading her report on it in a year’s time.
The commissioner mentions timeliness in the investigation of complaints, which is important. On a grander scale, we can consider the delayed inquiry into Iraq as evidence why we should conduct any inquiry or investigation in a timely fashion. As the months and years go by, unfortunately, memories fade and evidence is destroyed. I endorse wholeheartedly and with great feeling her concerns about the lack of timeliness in the investigation of some complaints within the armed forces.
Dr. Atkins points out that the complaints should be sorted out at as low a level as possible. It is a pity that she has had to say that, as it is just good management practice to ensure that complaints, concerns and worries are sorted out quickly and at as low a level as possible. I would have thought that that was axiomatic. I hope that the armed forces will consider how current procedures lead to the escalation and formalisation of complaints, which is off-putting to many people, particularly those of relatively junior ranks.
To be rather prosaic in the context of many of the remarks made today, the financial position is given briefly in annexe 4. It appears to be fairly summary. It would be nice, for future years, to have an account of superannuation, for example, in the breakdown of costs. We must be accountable for all money these days—at least, the Minister must—and it seems odd that things such as salaries should be cited but superannuation should not. Maybe we need to give that a bit of thought.
In conclusion, I think that the commissioner will be of particular use to families. I know from my experience that they often find it extremely difficult to approach the chain of command and the usual channels. They feel that such an approach might have an adverse impact on their careers, and there are significant grounds for supposing so. I hope that Dr. Atkins will be able to provide an alternative conduit for many of those concerns and that, as a result, the satisfaction of service families—on whom we rely as well as servicemen themselves—will be enhanced and improved. Service families constitute one area where this particular officer will have a particular part to play.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) on securing this debate. I am grateful for her long-standing interest and engagement in this issue. She has put a lot of effort into these matters over a long period. I am grateful for the many contributions that have been made to this interesting debate. I will respond to as many of the points as I can in the time that I have.
The operational effectiveness of the armed forces depends on mutual trust and respect. It is crucial that our people have confidence in the system that investigates their complaints. That must be prompt and fair, while complementing the command structure that is fundamental to carrying out successful military operations. The Service Complaints Commissioner, Dr. Susan Atkins, provides valuable independent oversight of our system. She is a key component of that system.
The Ministry of Defence and the services are wholly committed to the welfare of our people. We welcome the commissioner’s first annual report on the fairness, effectiveness and efficiency of the complaints system. It commends the three services on their commitment to tackling all forms of unacceptable behaviour and on ensuring that servicemen and women are treated well. Dr. Atkins has reported that the complaints system is well designed and is working, but there is scope for improvement. I acknowledge and accept that. It is her job to help us to improve the system, but not her job alone. It must be taken seriously by all three services and by the MOD, which is considering the commissioner’s report in detail. We expect to provide a formal response in the summer.
We are building a good working relationship with the commissioner. The MOD and the services are committed to raising awareness of Dr. Atkins’ role among all servicemen and women. The commissioner will issue 40,000 leaflets to armed forces personnel all over the world with the full support of the chain of command. Furthermore, the commissioner continues to visit our people regularly and has the opportunity freely to talk to all ranks.
Widening the commissioner’s power has been advocated today. The Government committed themselves to the establishment of a Service Complaints Commissioner in their response to the Deepcut review published in June 2006. Provisions had already been proposed in the Armed Forces Bill for an independent external reviewer who would examine the fairness, effectiveness and efficiency of the service complaints system and report to Ministers annually.
A big difference between those who advocate an ombudsman and those of us who support the current role is that we do not want the chain of command to be circumvented. We are committed to the chain of command doing the job that we require it to do. Rather than circumvent that, which a different system of complaints such as an ombudsman might do, we want the Service Complaints Commissioner to work with the chain of command and to help it to improve the system and to change the culture that has existed in the armed forces.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood asked about the culture, but acknowledged that she was complaining about the culture that existed in Deepcut 10 years ago. It has been acknowledged that that culture was unacceptable and a lot has been done to try to change it over the years. We have set up the complaints commissioner and taken attitude surveys which show that people are still reluctant to complain to try to change the culture and force those issues out so that we can amend a system that has been unsatisfactory in the past.
I acknowledge that a lot has changed since the Deepcut inquiry. However, the Service Complaints Commissioner’s report highlights huge differences between different commanding officers and senior officers. She points to poor and good examples. Surely when the armed services look at the report they should ensure that all commanding officers behave according to the good practice that she has highlighted and that poor practice is done away with.
Precisely. That is why the commissioner said what she said in her first report. We will respond to that and hon. Members will see how that goes. That is the point that the commissioner was making. My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), who is no longer in the Chamber, said that the commissioner should be given the opportunity to raise wider issues, not just individual cases. She has done so: some wider issues are contained in her first report. As she gets more experience of the system and receives more feedback on it, more detailed issues will come out in subsequent reports, which we will have to respond to. I do not disagree with my hon. Friend at all.
The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) complained that he could not get a copy of the report. I do not know why. There was a written ministerial statement on 4 March and copies were made available in the Vote Office in the normal way. We also made it available on the internet, which is how he obtained it. I do not recognise the problem that he raises.
The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) has made very serious allegations without providing a shred of evidence to support them. He is basically saying that two police forces and the MOD all conspired to cover up these murders and that Sir Nicholas Blake conducted a sham inquiry. The only thing, it seems, that gets to the bottom of these issues is a play. Perhaps the next time we have an inquiry into very serious matters such as the deaths of young Army trainees, we ought to invite a playwright to conduct it. That seems to be the thrust of what the hon. Gentleman proposes. He has made allegations about things that I am supposed to have said. I will check up on that. If I am wrong I will apologise to him, but if he is wrong he will apologise to me.
I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman. If he is wrong, he will apologise to me—let me make that point to him.
No, I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman. He made an allegation. I will check the record and come back to him. If he is wrong, he will withdraw the allegation.
On a point of order, Mr. Pope. I am not blaming the current Minister. I want to make it absolutely clear—I was referring to one of his predecessors. I will speak to the Minister after the debate to clarify exactly who I meant.
That is not a matter for their Chair, but it is on the record.
I am not sure that that is what the record will show when we go into it.
The hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) suggested that the Service Complaints Commissioner should be able to provide a conduit for complaints from families. She can do that, and has already done so. It is an important part of her role that she provides an alternative conduit for people to raise complaints, whether they are members of the services or their families. If people do not wish to go through the chain of command, they have another way to feed their complaints in.
The hon. Gentleman said that he was not concerned about the number of complaints because in any organisation they should be dealt with quickly and promptly at a low level. I absolutely agree with him that that is the ideal. However, there is no evidence that that is being done effectively in every part of the armed forces. The Service Complaints Commissioner said that she wants that to happen systematically across the board, but that it is not yet happening. I think that she is probably right. There is a major problem with complaints not being dealt with quickly at a low level that we need to put right. In the time available to me, I have been unable to respond to many issues that have been raised. I will write to hon. Members to try to fill in the gaps on the more substantial points, which are perfectly worthy and deserve a response.