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Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford) (LD): I thank the Minister for an early sight of the statement. I concur with him on sending condolences from the House to those members of the armed forces and British citizens who have been killed today in Iraq.
I welcome the statement but like other hon. Members I am disappointed. We should note the great work that has been done by hon. Members on both sides of the House in pursuing these matters. The families have been so stoic and so strong in their campaign.
On behalf of the Liberal Democrats, I welcome what the Ministry of Defence has already donethe Army learning account, the audit by the director of operational capability and, today, the £23 million addition for training. Will the Minister tell us whether that is for the Army specifically or whether it will be used across all three armed services?
I also welcome the adult learning inspectorate report. Again, can the Minister for the armed forces say whether it will carry out a one-off inspection of training bases or is that inspection to be ongoing? If so, for how long? While I accept that that is all very good for the future, the central question as to what happened in the past has not been addressed. I suspect that none of us is any closer to knowing what happened at Deepcut.
I too pay tribute to our armed forces for their professionalism and gallantry, and I accept that their training has to be different from any other, but sadly, I suspect that eventually there will be some form of independent inquiry into what happened at Deepcut, although that will come after more delay, more heartache and more legal wrangling. Does the Minister not believe that it would have been better to have announced such an inquiry todaybetter for the
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families, better for the MOD in the long run and, most importantly, better for the members of our armed forces?
Mr. Ingram: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his opening comments. He asks what the £23 million is for. I indicated in the statement broadly where it would gointo the initial training environment. It will go where it is primarily needed in those areas. The balance has to be struck and like all resources, they have to be properly allocated.
The hon. Gentleman also asks about whether the ALI will make one report or whether this will be the first of a series. Again, I made that clear, I hope, in my statement, a copy of which I gave to him. There will be an initial inspection during which the ALI will visit Deepcut. It will make a report by Easter, so there will be a six-month study period after which there will be a rolling programme of inspections. Again as I said in my statement, the ALI will also be entitled to go back and look at what it has already studied, ensuringif a recommendation has been made and we have said that something will be fixedthat it has the right to reinvestigate.
I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman takes the view that he does not know what happened at Deepcut. I suggest that the Surrey police report tells us a lot. What we cannot do is say with certainty precisely what happened. He is of the view that a public inquiry will be able to achieve something that Surrey police did notafter 900 interviews and taking 1,500 witness statementsand decide that there is new evidence. Well, I have to say that the Surrey police report, after 15 months of investigation, has given us a good overhaul and examination. I recommend that he read it again; it may help him.
Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley) (Lab): The Minister is aware that I raised a case last week regarding Catterick camp. I understand the idea of an independent review, but it would not make any difference to the recruit whose case I raised. When he went to see his commanding officerthe Tuesday after I raised it on the Mondayhe was told that his career was in jeopardy. He was told by the military police, in front of his mother, that his career could be in jeopardy. I can tell the Minister now that he has left the Army. If that is the attitude at that level, how can an independent inquiry, or anything independent, get to the bottom of anything that goes on in the Army?
Mr. Ingram: I am sorry to hear about that series of events. When my hon. Friend raised them with me, we immediately launched an investigation of the circumstances. I have not had a report on that, but his words today will again be subject to examination. It is a matter of regret that the young person has decided to leave the Army.
I am not saying that my hon. Friend is not telling me accurately about the matters that have been reported to him, but I have to find out the veracity of this from the other side, as we all have to do: when we are dealing with any constituent, we should try to seek
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the balance to the argument. It may prove to be the case that what he says is right. If that is the case, it is unacceptable.
Does the Minister agree that Surrey police have done an excellent job in producing such a thorough report? Will he recognise that in my constituency there is huge support for our local regiment, the Royal Logistic Corps? The senior officers now at Princess Royal barracks, Deepcut, who have been responsible for the co-operation with the Surrey police investigation, but were not, of course, the senior officers in command at the time of any of the deaths, have had an enormously difficult job to do, both in terms of retaining local confidence in the Army and in rebutting a great deal of uninformed, prejudicial and sometimes even hysterical media reporting. Will the Minister recognise that those local people who support the Army want the Royal Logistic Corps to stay in our area, want the Princess Royal barracks, Deepcut to have a good future and are concerned about the risk that, in order to remove an embarrassing name, Deepcut might be disposed of? Is he prepared to examine that and, if necessary, meet me and leading local councillors and council officers, to discuss the long-term future of the Army in my area?
Mr. Ingram: I echo the hon. Gentleman's sentiments about the Surrey police. It was a thorough investigation. They honestly recognised the failings of the civilian police in matters of this nature in the opening section of the report. The civilian police should take immediate primacy in all such investigations and it is a matter for the civil courts to deal with through the coroner's inquest or whatever else may follow. I repeat, however, that the 15-month report, with 900 witnesses and 1,500 witness statements, was, without question, very intensive.
The hon. Gentleman is also right about the officers, non-commissioned officers and instructors of the RLC at Deepcut. I have spoken to many of them and I know how hurt they are by all this. When criticisms are made, we must examine the past and the impact on the present and the possible future. We put thousands of young people through that training system, not just at Deepcut but elsewhere, and those who are recruited into that process, and those who run it, must have certainty about its quality. As has been recognised in statements to the House, there is a high quality that is evidenced by what is produced. As to the future of the barracks, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence has responsibility for training establishments and I am sure that he will be only too happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and whoever else he may want to bring along at the appropriate time.
Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye) (Lab):
My right hon. Friend will know that his decision to deny a public inquiry will distress people such as my constituents, Harry and Linda Benton, who still need to find an answer to what happened to their son, Sean. My right hon. Friend said in his statement that the place for
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that was within the inquest system. Is he really suggesting that, after eight years, the only answer is to reopen inquests so that they may get to the truth?
Mr. Ingram: Yes, I am. I have faith in the coroners' system. Now, with the European convention on human rights, the Government can take great credit for putting into place that corpus of law, which defined how such bodies should operate in the interests of victims to get at the truth and examine key areas. One of the cases, that of James Collinson, has still to be considered by the coroner and I suggest that we should wait to see what comes out of that. Clearly, if there are criticisms of the MOD or matters that we have to address, we must take them on board. To those who may think that that is already the case, I have to say that that is not a proven case and we must wait for the findings of that inquest. Legal remedies are open to others if they wish to return to the civil courts.
Annabelle Ewing (Perth) (SNP): I associate myself with the remarks about the tragic deaths in Iraq made at the outset. Since James Collinson was found dead at Deepcut on 23 March 2002, his mother Yvonne and his father Jim are no nearer to finding out the truth as to how and why their 17-year-old son died. Surrey police have apologised to all four families for not maintaining primacy in the investigation and for delegating that to the Army. The Army concluded that it was suicide after only three days, with no proper forensic evidence gathering having been carried out. Does the Minister therefore accept that, by refusing a public inquiry today, he is prolonging the anguish of the Collinson family and the other families, who will now be forced to go to the courts to seek a ruling on the issue? Surely this is manifestly unjust and fails to restore public confidence in the Army and the MOD.
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