Serious failings within Army led to deaths of young and vulnerable

The army is under pressure to implement radical reforms after facing criticism over "serious failings" in its treatment of young recruits.

In a scathing report by a parliamentary committee, MPs declared that only sweeping reforms would re-establish the Army's credibility over its care of young soldiers. The practice of the military conducting its own investigations over abuse allegations had failed abjectly, and an independent complaints commission with retrospective powers must be put in its place, they said.

The report, by the Commons Defence Committee, also urged a review of the policy of recruiting 16- and 17-year-olds and asked the Ministry of Defence to consider whether the age of joining should be raised to 18. The committee accused the military of a "serious failing" by not drawing up guidelines for those younger than 18, while acting "in loco parentis".

The committee called for instructors in charge of teenage soldiers to be subjected to criminal record checks, and said young recruits should be put in separate accommodation. It also recommended that they should not be issued with firearms while on guard duty.

The inquiry, among the longest held by the committee, was set up in response to the deaths of four recruits at Deepcut Barracks in Surrey. MPs said that the bereaved families, who had long campaigned against army verdicts of suicide, were treated "absolutely appallingly" and the MoD was "absolutely guilty of maladministration" towards them. But, the report rejected the demand by the families for a public inquiry, saying the matter should be investigated by the independent complaints commission which would have the power to make binding recommendations.

The MPs said the MoD was guilty of "lack of transparency in the investigative process and its outcome has fuelled the disquiet over the incidents. In relation to the Deepcut investigations, we recommend as full a disclosure as possible." In particular, it called for the publication of the review of the Surrey Police investigation into the deaths which was carried out by Devon and Cornwall Police.

The MoD was urged to "grasp the nettle", and warned that a failure to implement the recommendations would leave the Army with a "huge credibility problem".

Bruce George, the Labour chairman of the committee, said: "There has been a failure to implement the lessons learnt from earlier reviews. This is an issue that is not going to go away". Another MP, Kevan Jones, added: "The Army has no choice but to accept the report. If they do not, they will have to come up with an alternative."

The committee said its report went beyond Deepcut, and had discovered "shocking and worrying" experiences suffered by recruits elsewhere.

A young female was intimidated when she reported being raped by a senior male colleague, said MPs. A recruit had his jaw broken, but nothing was done about it. In another case a young soldier was put through strenuous exercise, against medical advice, and died.

The report warned that a "culture change" was needed in the forces - especially the Army - if bullying were to be tackled. As long as complaints were regarded as a "sign of weakness", victims would be reluctant to come forward.

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

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

The committee also criticised the MoD for the "insensitive" way it returned the belongings of dead soldiers to their families. Elaine Higgins, whose son died in Germany, found a box containing her son's possessions on her doorstep with personal items such as his wrist-watch still missing.

The families welcomed the report but said they would continue to press for a public inquiry while they waited for a number of other reports into the deaths.

Yvonne Collinson, from Perth, whose son, James, 17, died at Deepcut, said: "Obviously, today's report is very welcome. We certainly support the idea of an independent commission, it is an excellent idea. There are other reports coming and if they are as negative as this one, the Government will have to bow to our demands for a public inquiry."

Diane Gray, whose son Geoff, also 17, died, said: "The report is good. But it does not answer our questions about what happened there."

Her husband, Geoff, added: "What we will do with today's report is take it forward and use it as yet more ammunition that there was something desperately wrong, not only at Deepcut but beyond Deepcut as well."

The MoD said that it would give "due consideration" to the findings of the committee. However, on the issue of setting up the independent commission, it said nothing must be done to undermine the chain of command within the Army. "That is vital to the culture and the ethos of the Armed Forces and we would have to walk a very careful line between those two driving forces", he said.

The Ministry of Defence accepted that there were "weaknesses in some aspects of the training organisation" but added that a "far-reaching" review was under way.

THE MAIN POINTS

* An independent complaints commission, possibly under a military ombudsman, should be formed to investigate abuse claims, with retrospective powers. Its decisions should be binding for the military.

* The Ministry of Defence should review whether it should continue to recruit 16- and 17-year-olds and examine what they do in the Army. They should do guard duties only in pairs and they should not be issued with firearms while doing so.

* Criminal record checks should be done on instructors dealing with recruits under 18.

* Much more support should be given to families of those who die in non-combat circumstances.

* The Army should define clearly what it understands as "bullying" and the emphasis should be on prevention rather than merely reacting to complaints.

THE VICTIMS

Private Geoff Gray

He was found dead with two gunshot wounds to his head while on guard duty in September 2001. The Army said that Pte Gray, 17, from Seaham, Co Durham, had committed suicide but a coroner recorded an open verdict.

A ballistics expert investigating the death initially for the police, and then the families, Frank Swann, said it was "highly unlikely" that Pte Gray had killed himself. There were reports that someone was seen running from the scene, and suggestions that the body was moved.

Geoff and Diane Gray have called for a public inquiry. Mr Gray said: "The Army have failed in their duty of care not only to the young soldiers who have died, the young soldiers who were bullied, but they have also failed in their duty of care to us as parents, who have lost children within the armed forces." The Grays insist their son was murdered.

Private Cheryl James

The 17-year-old, from Llangollen, north Wales, was found dead with a bullet through her forehead in woodland near the barracks in November 1995. An inquest returned a open verdict after the Army insisted that she had committed suicide.

Frank Swann, the ballistics expert, concluded that it was "highly unlikely" that she had taken her own life. He maintained that she was probably trying to push the gun barrel away from her face in panic when she was shot. The bullet, removed during an army post-mortem examination, is missing.

Pte James' parents, Des and Doreen, believe their daughter was subjected to sexual harassment and intimidation at the barracks. A friend said she had been tearful after being forced to have sex with a soldier at the base. Mr and Mrs James have called for a public inquiry.

Private James Collinson

The 17-year-old from Perth was found dead with a single gunshot wound to his face while on guard duty. The Army said he had committed suicide. An inquest has still to be held.

The ballistics expert Frank Swann said it was "unlikely" the bullet wounds to the underside of Pte Collinson's chin and head were self-inflicted, but it was possible that they were the result of an accident.

His mother, Yvonne, said she would press on with her demand for a public inquiry: "Obviously, today's report is very welcome. However, we await several other reports from other bodies. We hope that if they are as negative as this one, the Government will have to bow to our demands for a public inquiry."

The defence committee said the Ministry of Defence must show more transparency over investigations into deaths such Pte Collinson's.

Private Sean Benton

The 20-year-old, from Hastings, East Sussex, was found dead with five gunshot wounds in June 1995 while on guard duty. The Army said he committed suicide and this was upheld at an inquest.

Frank Swann, a ballistics expert, insists it was impossible for Pte Benton to have killed himself. He suggests the soldier was shot four times from a distance and once from close-up.

Trevor Hunter, a friend of Pte Benton, said the young soldier had been he victim of abuse and ritual humiliation. "He was an easy target because he had a croaky voice and insisted on speaking his mind." It was claimed Pvt Benton was attacked as he slept one night by a gang wearing gas masks. He was also thrown through a window after answering back to a sergeant.

Pte Benton's mother, Linda, is certain he did not take his own life.

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