Army criticised over care of recruits

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The armed forces were today urged by MPs to establish an independent military complaints commission to deal with bullying and harassment in the services.

The armed forces were today urged by MPs to establish an independent military complaints commission to deal with bullying and harassment in the services.

In a highly critical report, the Commons Defence Select Committee said that the armed forces - particularly the Army - had "failed to grasp the nettle of duty of care" to its personnel.

It called on the Ministry of Defence to consider raising the age for recruits joining the services to 18.

The committee's report follows widespread complaints of bullying and harassment in the services in the wake of the deaths of four recruits at the Deepcut Army barracks in Surrey in shooting incidents.

The committee said that lack of sufficient data made it impossible to gauge the full extent of bullying in the forces.

But it said it was clear that the true level of bullying was under-reported and it blamed the culture within the services of characterising victims as "weak".

"In the past, insufficient weight has been given to the issue of bullying, which led to a tolerance of, or at least insufficient action being taken against, bullying," it said.

"In recent years, attempts have been made to implement what it termed 'zero tolerance', but much bullying by both superiors and peers will continue to go unreported unless the culture changes.

"Accessible and independent channels for reporting are essential. The Armed Forces, and particularly the Army, still do not seem to understand the extent to which their hierarchical structures make it likely that abuses will continue."

In calling for the creation of an independent military complaints commission, the committee said it should have the power to mount investigations and make binding recommendations on the services.

It also called for the introduction of professional counsellors in training camps who would be able to advise recruits and initiate monitoring and support for "at risk" individuals.

The committee stopped short of calling for the full independent inquiry demanded by the families, but said the final decision should rest with the new commission.

It was notably critical of the way in which inquiries such as Deepcut were carried out.

"The lack of transparency in the investigative process and its outcome has fuelled the disquiet surrounding incidents," the report said.

Although it praised moves to improve the process, the Defence Committee said a new protocol between the Home Department Police Forces and the MoD Service Police should be put in place "as a matter of urgency".

It said: "We note that the Service Police have emphasised the need to 'think murder'.

"Nevertheless, previous failings on the part of both civil and military police forces cannot pass without comment."

In a boost to the relatives who were eagerly awaiting today's report, the committee called into question the treatment of bereaved families.

It said: "We have to conclude that the level of suport given to the families of those who die in non-combat circumstances falls well short of what is provided to families of combat casualties."

Established procedures for informing next of kin and supporting bereaved relatives were "ignored" in the cases examined by the report.

It went on to criticise the policy that families should only be allowed to attend Boards of Inquiries - army-led investigations - in exceptional circumstances, saying it was "disappointed" by such a ruling.

The way in which personal effects belonging to the dead soldiers were returned to the families was "unacceptable".

Elaine Higgins, whose son Aled died in Germany, told the committee that a box of her son's possessions was left on her neighbour's doorstep with many items - including his watch - still missing.

When the watch was eventually returned to her, it was still covered in blood.

"The way in which personal items were returned to those families who gave evidence to us was unacceptable and contributed considerable additional distress," the report said.

Much attention was paid to the issue of age, with the committee calling for the MoD to effectively act "in loco parentis" for those under 18 years old.

And although it noted that urgent work was being carried out in regards to the armed forces policy on under-18s, it called the lack of any current guidance a "serious failing by MoD".

The committee recommended that the under-18s in the armed forces should be taken on in a training capacity and should stay in accommodation "suitable for their age".

The issue of guard duty four young soldiers was also examined.

Private Geoff Gray, 17, from Hackney, east London, was found with two gunshot wounds to his head while on guard duty in September 2001.

The dead soldier's father, also called Geoff, said the Army told him eight hours after his son's death that it was suicide.

But a coroner recorded an open verdict after hearing from witnesses that, during a search after the shots were fired, a figure was seen running away.

Today, the Defence Committee recommended that trainee soldiers undertake guard duty only in pairs and said no one under the age of 18 should be on armed guard duty.

The Liberal Democrat defence spokesman Paul Keetch said: "I'm glad that the committee has endorsed the Liberal Democrat policy of establishing an independent military complaints commission to deal with bullying and harassment in our armed forces.

"But it is unfortunate that the committee has not come out in favour of a full independent inquiry into the events at Deepcut.

"Raising the age of recruitment to 18 will not deal with the issues of bullying and harassment, as they can occur at any age."