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31 Oct 2002 : Column 1023—continued

Annabelle Ewing (Perth): We are talking about recruitment. Is the Minister worried about the impact on recruitment of young people to the Army as a result of increasing public concern about circumstances surrounding the deaths of four young soldiers at the Deepcut Army barracks, including that of James Collinson, whose family live in my constituency? [Interruption.] Members may ask how that is relevant, but there is an issue about public confidence in the Army. Is the Minister not concerned that that will have an impact on future recruitment? We need to ensure that all the good things that he is talking about can be properly implemented. Will the Minister comment on that? Perhaps the way forward—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady must resume her seat immediately when I am on my feet. She has stretched her intervention to extremes.

Mr. Ingram: I well understand the hon. Lady's point. Any death in the armed services in a non-combatant role is always to be regretted. There has been a sizeable number of such deaths, almost 50 per cent. of which are

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caused by road traffic accidents. That is not to minimise the impact of any of the deaths, including suicides—those that have been officially declared suicides. As for the case raised by the hon. Lady, she is a lawyer, so she should know that I am constrained by a current police investigation. She may have supported the reopening of that investigation by Surrey police and, if so, I am surprised that she is asking me to comment while it is under way. We await the outcome of that robust, in-depth analysis, which I understand will be published early in the new year, although that depends on Surrey police. It is worth pointing out to the House that Surrey police said in a press statement on 30 April:

Hopefully, the hon. Lady appreciates the way in which that constrains any comment on those cases.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath) rose—

Mr. Ingram: May I just finish dealing with the intervention by the hon. Lady, who linked the issue to problems in recruitment? People are rushing to judgment who should know better—they should wait to find out what the police say. Some months ago, I asked the Army to take a health check on all the ways in which it delivers initial training. On top of that, I made an announcement in the House on 17 October, mindful of wider concerns that we conduct an in-depth appraisal of training of non-officer recruits in all three services. That work is being conducted independently of service commands, and I intend to make its findings public. I have already announced that to the House.

In addition, the Select Committee on Defence is due to carry out its own inquiry. I understand that it will wait until the police investigations have been completed and reported on. We must establish the facts before we come to conclusions.

I understand the sensitivity of the matter and the grief within individual families, which may become collective. Before I took up my present job, I was the Minister with responsibility for victims. I set up a range of victim responses in Northern Ireland. I am only too well aware of the problems associated with these matters. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence met one of the families earlier this year. We do our best to try to take on the depth of feeling. I hope that the hon. Lady now understands the way in which we are constrained.

Even with all the publicity, we are doing exceptionally well in recruiting terms, to such an extent as to put pressure on our training pipeline. There is no relationship between the two at present. However, the more the hon. Lady raises concerns without establishing the facts, the more she may work against the recruitment strategy. There is an onus on all right hon. and hon. Members first to establish and examine the facts and then come to judgment. We must not come to a rushed judgment. It is always difficult to strip out the emotion. We must try to find what is best for the families, for the armed forces, and for the defence of this country.

Mr. Hawkins: As the constituency Member for Deepcut, I associate myself with everything that the Minister has said about this matter. May I pay tribute to both Ministers for the way in which they have

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responded to the concerns that I have raised? While sharing the grief of the families, I hope that the Minister will agree with me that both the current commanding officer at Deepcut and his colleagues and Surrey police are approaching the matter in a responsible way.

As the Minister was aware, I was waiting for a more relevant part of his speech before intervening. However, as the matter has been raised, I ask him to join me in condemning some rather sensationalist and irresponsible journalism. I understand that many tabloid newspapers are having reporters permanently stationed in local pubs in my constituency to try to pick up any little tittle-tattle or scuttle-butt that they can then have blazoned in the largest headlines available to them. That is certainly not helping the defence interests of this country, nor is it helping the understandable grief of the families involved. I ask the Minister to continue his responsible and restrained approach and wait for the report of the Surrey police.

Mr. Ingram: I am grateful for that intervention. I share the view expressed about the commanding officer and the Surrey police. They have had to take all the criticisms and speculation in the media, which are not solely made up by the media because sometimes people are speaking to representatives of the media. They then expand upon what has been said and maximise the headline impact. It does everyone who is trying to deliver an important service a great disservice when the matter is tackled in that way. I share the hon. Gentleman's concerns. I hope that those who are trying to exploit what are undoubtedly matters of deep grief will step back for a moment. I hope that the media, like right hon. and hon. Members will show a measure of responsibility.

Mr. Dalyell: Before I ask the Minister of State a general question on policy, may I thank the Under-Secretary of State for the care that he and his office have shown in respect of one of my constituents, who will be known to him?

It has hitherto been axiomatic that any problems were dealt with within the military, within the Army. What is the Government's attitude to bringing in the police from outside? That is rather a new development. It might be interesting for the House to know what the thinking was, in general terms, on bringing in the civilian police.

Mr. Ingram: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his opening compliments to my ministerial colleague. There is a big misunderstanding, promulgated by the press in its reporting of the matter. The police have always had primacy in such incidents. They pass on their findings to the internal branch of the Ministry of Defence police, who are as professional as the civilian police and equally committed to establishing the truth. A board of inquiry follows. If the board sets out matters that need to be addressed, we seek to address them. That happened in the case of two of the earlier suicides at Deepcut, as they were then described. The board of inquiry made recommendations, which were progressively developed

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and rolled out by the previous Administration. In addition, the findings of a board of inquiry are made available to the families, if they so wish.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham): I fully support the view that we should await the outcome of the police investigation, and I do not think that some of the more sensationalist headlines have been helpful to the debate about what is going on at Deepcut, or to the families. But does my right hon. Friend recognise that the hon. Member for Perth (Annabelle Ewing) raised an important point? If four people have died, possibly as a result of suicide, something is seriously wrong, and that could affect recruitment.

Mr. Ingram: I knew that there was a big Xbut" in that question. My hon. Friend said that he accepts the way in which I answered the hon. Lady.

Mr. Jones: I did not say that.

Mr. Ingram: So my hon. Friend does not accept that I am constrained while waiting for the outcome of the police investigation. I thought that he accepted that that was the correct approach. [Interruption.] I can deal with heckling. If my hon. Friend wants to intervene again and correct any misunderstanding on my part, he should do so. My understanding was that he accepted that I was constrained. He goes on to draw a conclusion. He does not know what the police will say, but he says that something is deeply worrying and something needs to be done, so we should get on with it. That is how I interpret his comments.

I tried to make it clear that we entirely understand the depth of the grief of individual families, and the collective grief. We are trying to work our way through the matter. I pointed out that it has not had an impact on recruitment. I do not want to make too much of that, because the situation could be changing as we consider it. The more the lurid headlines and sensationalist arguments are raised by those who may not have a direct interest as a constituency Member of Parliament, the more likely it is that there will be a deleterious effect on recruitment. We need caution and careful thinking. We must wait for the facts, get them marshalled, and then make judgments. That is the way we approach such matters in the Ministry of Defence. To do otherwise would serve no one, least of all the families or the bigger issue of the defence of this country.

The new arrangements on which I was commenting complement and improve our existing practices for using the armed forces at the request of emergency services and local authorities in support of civil contingencies. They add a new capability, but they do not mean that we will use only volunteer reserves in this role. In future, as now, in the event of an incident, the regional commander will be able to judge which of the units at his disposal best match the needs of the authorities seeking support. Precisely what units are employed in a given situation will, as ever, depend on what we are asked to do and what we have available in the time scale required.

There will be some 280 new reserve posts in Army division and brigade headquarters to provide regional planning, liaison and command and control for such

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operations. These brigade reaction teams will work with the emergency services and local authorities to develop specific plans for the use of CCRFs in their areas. Regional planning will also consider where other formed units, including those in the reserve forces of all three services, have capabilities that can be incorporated into planned incident responses. In the event of an incident, the brigade teams will be capable of providing a 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week command structure.

Individuals volunteering for CCRF duties will receive additional training of five days a year, and we intend to provide additional training of two days a year for all the volunteer reserves in the three services in support of civil contingencies activity generally.

2 (National Communications) Signal Brigade will be assigned the role of providing the communications infrastructure to support the regional command chain. We have started the procurement process to give it new communications equipment compatible with that being adopted by the emergency services. That is a key part of ensuring that the military response can be employed effectively alongside those primarily responsible for dealing with civil contingencies. 2 Signal Brigade will provide an interim military capability from the end of this year, although the achievement of a full national communications capability depends on the emergency services own communications improvement programme and will not be complete before 2006.

In total, there will be an addition of some 700 new volunteer reserve posts, and some 130,000 man training days to the volunteer reserves in order to create that new capability.

We expect to have an initial operating capability in place by the end of the year. We plan a regional full operating capability by 31 December next year, which will include all new posts recruited and filled, and all regional plans fully in place and tested. The complete capability will not be in place until 2006 when the new national communications infrastructure is fully deployed.

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