Deepcut: 'There was clear evidence of foul abuse'

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An independent inquiry into the deaths of young army recruits at Deepcut barracks has uncovered "clear evidence of foul abuse", "institutional failings" and a "culture of intimidation".

Nicholas Blake QC called for 34 sets of reforms, including the appointment of a military ombudsman and restricting full military duties to those aged over 18. He warned that the Government will do "real damage to itself" and may have to face a public inquiry unless the recommendations were taken on board.

But the report, commissioned by the Ministry of Defence, concluded the four young soldiers were not "bullied to death" and had probably taken their own lives.

The families of the recruits - Pte Sean Benton, Pte James Collinson, Pte Geoff Gray and Pte Cheryl James - welcomed the call for an ombudsman. But they renewed their call for a public inquiry, saying Mr Blake's review had taken evidence in secret, making it difficult to challenge his findings.

In his 416-page findings Mr Blake highlighted a number of cases of alleged abuse, including sexual assaults, by instructors at the Surrey barracks, which have gone unpunished.

The QC was highly critical of the Army Prosecuting Authority for not pressing charges on a number of the cases and also of the decision to the posting of a non-commissioned officer, Leslie Skinner, to Deepcut as a gym instructor despite several accusations of indecent assaults on young male soldiers.

Skinner was convicted of indecent assault at a court martial in February 1998, imprisoned and discharged from the Army.

The Armed Forces minister, Adam Ingram, said last night that Mr Blake's recommendations would be considered but he refused to be drawn on whether a military ombudsman would be appointed and refused to discuss individual allegations of abuse.

Mr Ingram stressed the report had concluded that the Army had not "caused any of the deaths" but acknowledged there were "failures". He continued: "These issues that Mr Blake has ventilated needed ventilation in the way that he has done it. The Army is very much conscious of the damage this may have done to their reputation."

Mr Blake said trainees at Deepcut had suffered "harassment, discrimination and oppressive behaviour" from NCOs or other recruits. "A number of those who did not complain explained they had little confidence that the system could or would address their grievance.

"There is clear evidence of foul abuse," Mr Blake said. "This includes trainees being slapped and punched and a cup being thrown at a terrified trainee. Overweight trainees had bicycles ridden over them."

The report examined the conduct of three officers and NCOs - all identified by initials - who served at Deepcut between 1995 and 2000.

One of them was Sergeant B who was accused of abusing recruits, including Pte Benton, who claimed to have been headbutted, punched and kicked by him. The sergeant is also alleged to have propositioned five female recruits.

Sgt B, who denied the allegations, was investigated by the Royal Military Police. But the Army Prosecuting Authority decided he should not be charged as " a trial would not be in the public, including the service, interest." Mr Blake said he regarded the decision with "some surprise and considerable dismay."

Sgt B was finally discharged from the Army after being convicted in a civilian court of shoplifting.

Cheryl James's father, Des, said last night "The Ministry of Defence seems to have spent a lot of money on various inquiries to stop us having what we have always wanted, a public inquiry. The money spent so far could have paid for two public inquiries.

He continued: "Having a military ombudsman is a good idea. But Mr Blake has not given any timescale for that. Will we be talking about this is 18 months or two years time?"

Pte Gray and Pte Collinson

Geoff Gray, 17

Found dead with two gunshot wounds to his head while on guard duty in September 2001. The Army said he took his own life but an inquest recorded an open verdict. Reports suggested a figure was seen running away from the area and thes body was moved shortly after his death. Frank Swann, a ballistics expert said it was "highly unlikely" Gray killed himself.

James Collinson, 17

Found with a gunshot wound through his chin while on guard duty in March 2002. The Army said he killed himself but an inquest recorded an open verdict. Mr Swann said it was "unlikely" that the bullet wounds were self-inflicted but may have been an accident.

Pte Benton and Pte James

Sean Benton, 20

Found dead with five gunshot wounds in June 1995. The Army said it was suicide, a verdict echoed by an inquest. A friend claimed Pte Benton was viciously bullied. In 2003 the ballistics expert Frank Swann, who initially investigated for the police, said it was impossible for Benton to have killed himself.

Cheryl James, 18

Found with a bullet through her forehead in November 1995. The Army said it was suicide but a coroner recorded an open verdict. Her parents believe she suffered sexual harassment; a friend said she had been forced to have sex with a corporal. Swann said it was "highly unlikely" she shot herself.