Hundreds of young army recruits are still suffering from physical beatings and intimidation at the hands of their instructors, despite a series of fatalities at training camps in recent years and amid allegations that soldiers were being bullied to death.
A series of previously unpublicised reports obtained by this newspaper highlight growing concern surrounding the issue this weekend. They include a new annual survey of recruits by the Ministry of Defence that reveals that hundreds report having been beaten or intimidated by their superiors. More than one in 10 of all trainee soldiers – what the report describes as a "notable minority" – claimed to have been unfairly or badly treated and, of these, more than one in five said they had been picked on continually.
According to the report, made available to MPs just over a week ago, less than three-quarters of recruits felt that training was always conducted without sexual or racial harassment. And nearly a quarter did not feel able to take their concerns to a person in authority.
Another, unpublished, report obtained this weekend sheds light on the extent of abuse being suffered by service personnel. The MoD's first annual report into bullying and harassment states that there were more than 600 complaints recorded in the year to 2007. The document, which up to now has only been circulated within the military, says that the official complaints hint at a far bigger problem: "Research shows that many more of you experience bullying or harassment than the number of complaints recorded." It adds that people may be reluctant to seek help "due to a fear of victimisation".
In a foreword to the report, the Chief of the Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, warns: "Bullying and harassment undermine team cohesion, damage our operational effectiveness and will not be tolerated."
Many serving in the military are so unhappy that they are taking overdoses of painkillers or cutting themselves, according to an unpublished study by researchers at Imperial College London into suicidal behaviour among soldiers. The study, for the MoD, says five serving soldiers a week require treatment for self-harm. The work is based on in-depth interviews with a number of army medical staff and soldiers, and was made available to MPs within the past two weeks.
The researchers conclude that self-harm could be reduced if unhappy soldiers were allowed to leave the Army more easily, recommending that newly enlisted soldiers should be able to give a three- to six-month notice period rather than having to wait three years before giving a year's notice.
Last night the Liberal Democrat MP Mike Hancock, a member of the House of Commons Defence Committee, said that the new reports tarnished the image of the Army at a time when service chiefs were struggling to attract recruits. Vowing to bring army chiefs to account, he said: "These reports should be immediately handed over to the Defence Committee because they appear to fly in the face of the commitments the MoD made when we presented our Duty of Care report more than three years ago. Senior staff in the British Army need to be asked some very serious questions about how they are tackling this problem, and I will demand that they come before the committee to answer to us."
A decade on from the start of the Deepcut scandals, in which several army recruits at the training camp in Surrey were found shot dead, and despite a series of other deaths around the country in which bullying has been implicated, abuse and harassment remain commonplace, say campaigners. In September, allegations that staff assaulted and urinated on recruits at Catterick barracks in North Yorkshire resulted in five instructors being suspended from duty.
The legacy of army bullying continues to claim lives, according to Lynn Farr, who set up a campaign against such abuse after the death of her 18-year-old son, Daniel, during training at Catterick in 1997. "We helped one young soldier who came out three years ago through being bullied and the treatment he'd received at Catterick," she said. "He died earlier this year of a drug and alcohol overdose – he was just 21."
A spokesman for the Forces Law network of solicitors said: "We continue to hear of cases of unreasonable violence towards recruits which could amount to a criminal assault by the instructor. However, because of fear of reprisals most soldiers refuse to make any formal complaint." He added: "Despite the numerous scandals of the past few years, bullying continues to be part of army culture."
An MoD spokesman said: "Bullying and harassment is absolutely unacceptable and fundamentally at odds with the core values of the armed forces. We take all allegations of inappropriate behaviour extremely seriously and investigate thoroughly."Soldier's suicide 'I won't miss this world and it won't miss me'
Lance Corporal Derek McGregor, above, had been at Catterick barracks in North Yorkshire barely a fortnight when he was found hanged in his quarters in July 2003. In a note left for his family, the 21-year-old wrote: "I don't have any friends and people laugh at me ... I won't miss this world and I am sure it will not miss me." He was the 13th young soldier to die at the barracks since 1996.
His family had to wait five years for an inquest, which concluded this August with the coroner saying that there was no evidence L/Cpl McGregor had been bullied. His mother, Liz McManus, said: "I have waited five years for this and it has left me with more questions than answers. I feel that they failed him."
His father, Joseph McGregor, recalled: "I saw him lying there at Catterick and he had cuts to his face and stomach, bruising and a black eye. If the Army didn't put that rope around his neck, then they forced him into a corner where he saw it as his only way out." By Jonathan OwenReuse content