Brian Cathcart: Deepcut is becoming the Army's Stephen Lawrence case

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Why is the Government so determined to prevent a full, independent inquiry into Deepcut? The question must have occurred to many who observed the undignified contortions of the armed forces minister, Adam Ingram, over the past week. In the Commons on Tuesday, he set up a "review" of the new allegations of abuse - but insisted its only purpose was to show that everything was fine. Then on Channel 4's Dispatches on Thursday, he explained that, if he didn't act on warnings of a crisis at the barracks, it was because he was waiting to find out whether the Navy and RAF were just as bad.

Why is the Government so determined to prevent a full, independent inquiry into Deepcut? The question must have occurred to many who observed the undignified contortions of the armed forces minister, Adam Ingram, over the past week. In the Commons on Tuesday, he set up a "review" of the new allegations of abuse - but insisted its only purpose was to show that everything was fine. Then on Channel 4's Dispatches on Thursday, he explained that, if he didn't act on warnings of a crisis at the barracks, it was because he was waiting to find out whether the Navy and RAF were just as bad.

This is political discourse worthy of Gilbert and Sullivan, but it is also a measure of the desperation now infecting government efforts to block an inquiry. They've tried all their tricks but the stench of scandal just won't go away.

And yet we must brace ourselves for plenty more bluster and skewed logic before ministers eventually give in to the demands of the bereaved families, and the reason is that the stakes are so very high.

Any full-scale public inquiry into Deepcut, it is now clear, threatens to do to the Army what the Stephen Lawrence inquiry did to the police service. It would be a historic cultural earthquake for an institution long accustomed to doing things its own way and with a minimum of accountability.

We think of the Lawrence inquiry as being about race, and it was, but its impact was wider and more profound. After the London teenager was murdered in 1993, no police officer involved in the investigation, nor any of their superiors up to the highest ranks, ever imagined they might be called to account for their actions.

And when, after four years of dogged resistance by the police leadership and the Tory government, the incoming Labour Home Secretary, Jack Straw, authorised a full inquiry, negligence and complacency on a breathtaking scale were exposed.

Scene-of-crime procedures and first aid training were damned as inadequate. Dealings with crime victims and their families had to be completely overhauled. Shocking ignorance and high-handedness in matters of race were exposed. Record-keeping and information handling were revealed as behind the times and the whole book of rules for tackling murders had to be rewritten.

Most telling of all, the procedures by which the police policed themselves emerged as a mockery - or even worse, a means of covering up mistakes.

The experience of seeing all this go under a public magnifying glass, month after month, was shocking for police at all levels and, though all is not perfect now, it has transformed attitudes throughout the system.

With the Army, the Deepcut scandal now embraces such a breadth of concerns that there is no doubt a proper inquiry would be equally far reaching.

The deaths of four young private soldiers, all from gunshot wounds sustained while on guard duty, remain at the heart of it. Their families and the public need to know, so far as it is possible to know, how and why they died.

In every case the Army decided it was suicide and in every case the parents are not satisfied with that. Is it physically possible, for example, that Sean Benton shot himself five times in the chest, and that Geoff Gray put two bullets into his own head?

These matters on their own will be difficult enough to unravel, but they are just the beginning. However they died, James Collinson and Cheryl James were both too young by Army rules to be on their own with a gun, so if they were, how did that happen?

As in the Lawrence case we need a full account of how the bereaved families were treated, because all of them felt the Army had been offhand and thoughtless, if not downright negligent. How could officers justify telling the parents these were suicides even before investigations had begun?

Then there are the investigations themselves, which, as the families have said, carry echoes of the Keystone Cops. Sean Benton's bloodstained shirt was laundered; the bullet that killed Cheryl James was lost; the records of the issue of guns at Deepcut on the night Geoff Gray died were destroyed; no fingerprints were taken from the gun that killed James Collinson. In each case there is much more like this.

The ripples from the deaths now move steadily outwards and upwards, but the need to satisfy public concerns does not diminish.

A proper inquiry would need to establish who took responsibility for these cack-handed investigations - at what rank the buck stops. Also pressing is the matter of lessons not learned, since the later deaths were handled no better than the early ones.

Why were senior officers not ensuring that all forensic procedures were pursued, that no doubts were allowed to arise? It is remarkable in this context that Collinson, the last to die, was not even given a full post mortem.

Anyone with any imagination, when confronted with this picture, will be inclined to wonder about a cover-up. At the very least it was a cock-up. Either way, the public has a right to know.

And out the ripples travel. The evidence of self-harm incidents, bullying, sexual abuse and even rape at Deepcut is alarming and could not be ignored by a public inquiry, not only because it could have a bearing on some of the deaths but also because it sheds light on the culture and management of the camp.

Did instructors (Deepcut is a training establishment) have a licence to toughen up young soldiers and forcibly weed out the weaker links? Were NCOs and junior officers keeping commanders in the dark?

And then the ripples pass beyond the camp perimeter into other camps, such as Catterick in Yorkshire, and other strata of the army, from the training administrators to the top brass themselves. What did they know and at what point did they know it? Why did they fail to act on those reports warning of the problems?

Any serious inquiry would have to ask whether the shortage of supervision at Deepcut was a result of government policy. How far did ministers force the Army to move resources "from the tail to the teeth", leaving unglamorous training establishments short-staffed? Last but not least comes that question prompted by Mr Ingram's latest flounder-ings: why has the Government resisted the inquiry so doggedly? Perhaps, at some time in the past two

years, a promise

was made by a minister to a soldier as they chatted beside a map of Iraq. Somebody needs to ask.

At the Lawrence inquiry, the interrogations began at police constable level and finished with the Metropolitan Commissioner, Sir Paul Condon, who endured one of his worst days in uniform giving evidence to Sir William Macpherson. Picture now the cavalcade of privates and sergeants, civil servants and possibly government ministers who will have to account for themselves to an intensive Deepcut inquiry.

All the signs are that this is what the public wants, and before long, it may be the least they will accept if they are to go on allowing their sons and daughters to sign up to fight.

For the Army, however, it represents a nightmare. Everything about its behaviour since the death of the first victim in 1995 suggests that it never expected to be held accountable, which means that when the shock comes it will be all the greater. No wonder senior commanders and their ministerial allies are desperate to stop it happening.

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