Families promise to fight on after Ingram rules out inquiry into deaths at Deepcut

The government yesterday rejected demands for a public inquiry into deaths of young soldiers at Deepcut barracks.

However, the treatment of recruits will now be independently scrutinised by the Adult Learning Inspectorate. It will be given an extra £23 million to examine military establishments, including Deepcut, with specific emphasis on care and welfare, Adam Ingram, the Armed Forces minister, told the Commons.

But the families of the four soldiers who died at the barracks in Surrey said they will take legal action following Mr Ingram's refusal of an inquiry.

Geoff Gray, one of the bereaved fathers who met Mr Ingram earlier yesterday, said: "We are extremely angry. We came to the Government with a very simple question: how did our children die? Surrey Police could not tell us that. Adam Ingram had the ideal opportunity to give us the answer."

After a 15-month investigation, Surrey Police published its report in March into the deaths between 1995 and 2002 of privates Sean Benton, 20, Cheryl James, 18, Geoff Gray and James Collinson, 17. They all died from gunshot wounds, and the families have refused to accept officials' explanations that they killed themselves.

The report, the sixth prompted by the deaths, uncovered repeated bullying, and failure to learn the lessons of the past at Deepcut. It also advised the Government to launch a "broader inquiry" to examine bullying and the care of young soldiers in the armed forces.

Mr Ingram said three of the cases had been investigated through coroners' inquests and intensive police reinvestigations. Pte Collinson's case had yet to be heard by the coroner. The inquest would be held in public and this was the proper place to examine the circumstances of sudden deaths, the minister said.

Mr Ingram said he understood the "depth of feeling and the passion of the families who lost loved ones at Deepcut". But, he added: "I am not persuaded, given the intensive investigations and inquiries and the new measures I have put in place, what more a public inquiry would achieve.

"I have asked that this first initial inspection focus on initial training across all three services and to look specifically at care and welfare. It will include Deepcut.

"There will be no no-go areas. The inspectorate will report to ministers by Easter next year. The report will be published."

He said one of the issues examined will be the access of young soldiers to live ammunition. But he added: "We are training soldiers and not social workers and at some stage they have to be trained and have to be confident in the use of firearms and live ammunition.

"This is a well-tried and tested training system. There have been failures. We are addressing them now and we have got to get them right."

MPs who have campaigned for families of soldiers who have suffered bullying said there would be widespread anger at the Government's failure to order a public inquiry. Kevin McNamara, Labour MP for Hull North, said: "There will be a great deal of disappointment, indeed anger, at the decision not to hold a public inquiry. This will be felt very deeply by the families at Deepcut, who want to know how and why their loved ones died.

"The families will be seeking a judicial review. Will you particularly bear in mind that there will be grave suspicion about the points you have raised over the independent examination of training procedures."

Lembit Opik, the Liberal Democrat MP for Montgomeryshire, added: "The case is so compelling, the number of MPs so large, that at some point the Government is going to have to recognise an independent inquiry will answer the questions of the parents, of the public, of the MPs, and ultimately give the lessons that the Army needs to learn."

The Conservative MP Gerald Howarth said: "It is also a tragedy for the Army because it has damaged public confidence in its ability to fulfil its required duty of care towards the young men and women in its charge, a duty which I know it takes very seriously."

The Adult Learning Inspectorate is a non-departmental public body set up to inspect education and training for five million people funded by public money. Established under the Learning and Skills Act 2000 it started inspections in April 2001.

Nicky Perry, director of inspection for the inspectorate, said: "We are independent and honest in our judgements. We reveal what does, and does not, work for the learner and publish our findings with grades that reveal the strengths and weaknesses of the training provided."