Deepcut demands a full public inquiry

The most callous thing in this vile cover-up is that no-one wanted to learn from one, two, three or even four deaths
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The Independent Online

We have a choice, says the Gulf War commander Tim Collins, between "a European army with hairnets who run away at the first sight of a Serbian warlord, or the British Army that stands up and does its duty and will remain to the last man". The Labour Government would appear to agree with him.

Still resisting almost universal calls for a public inquiry into the regime of fear alleged to have been conducted at Deepcut Barracks, the Government does not understand, it seems, that the commander is not correct. Even in the ranks of tough armies - and especially those ranks as the Marines have shown us in the Gulf - there is no room for people who see life in the armed forces as an outlet for sociopathic or sadistic behaviour.

I think that most people understand, just as well as the Ministry of Defence and the Government, that a degree of what might be called forceful insistence unheard of in civilian life is needed in the armed forces. More importantly, I believe that those at the giving and receiving end of such forceful insistence are in a much better position than newspaper columnists to hold an opinion about when a line is crossed and character-building epithets become overly abusive.

So yesterday's report in The Sun alleging that a section of a report presented to the Commons was left out because it detailed too much army bullying, is significant. The report, known as the Army's Continuous Attitude Survey, asked more than 1,000 soldiers and 800 officers their views on various issues. It found that 85 per cent of soldiers consider bullying to be a considerable problem, while 86 per cent of officers believe that there is also a problem with physical and mental abuse of recruits. Only a quarter were happy with the way that complaints about unfair treatment, harassment and bullying were handled.

Why was this information suppressed? In part, surely, because the Government has been arguing for a long time now that incidences of physical, mental or sexual abuse in the Army are isolated, even though to the casual observer it doesn't look that way.

This survey confirms that the problem is not just with milk-and-water civilians, emboldened by talk of rights and meritocracy and willfully ignorant of the unique preparation that potential combatants have to undergo. In the Army itself, people feel that things are not right. It is very important now that their hunches ought to be acted upon.

It has been nearly a decade since worries about the regime at Deepcut army training barracks first began to surface. At first, it was only the parents of Cheryl James, 18 - certain, as loving parents might have been expected to be, that their lively daughter would never have killed herself. No one listened too closely, back in November 1995, to their concerns.

After all, these were mainly that circumstantial evidence was inconsistent with the character of the girl they knew, who had been loving army training. Their daughter had shot herself in the head while on guard duty, even though she had spent a happy morning that day in the company of her boyfriend, also at Deepcut. She has left no suicide note, and curiously, even though she had always kept a diary, it could not be found. She had just opened a new bank account and had bought some Christmas presents.

But there were no hard facts to convince Cheryl's superiors that they had to have been wrong in their assessment of her mental state. Surrey Police were not called to the scene when her body was found, the gun found by her side was not fingerprinted, and later post-mortem evidence of bullet fragments was also mislaid. Today Cheryl's parents, rightly, feel Cheryl's death has never been explained as it should be. Yet, if three other young people had not themselves committed equally poorly explained suicides over the next few years, they would not, it is certain, be even as close as they are.

But the deaths of Sean Benton, 20, Geoff Gray, 17, and James Collinson, also 17, were investigated no more thoroughly than Ms James's was. Some people believe that these young people were not suicides at all, but murder victims. What really is incredible is that the Army appeared to believe that four suicides in seven years was not a warning that something was wrong at Deepcut.

Nor, so far, has the conviction for four and a half years of Leslie Skinner, a former Deepcut training instructor placed there even though he had a sex-crimes record and was found guilty earlier this year of sado-masochistic abuse of young people in his care. Nor, for that matter, the dossier handed over by Surrey Police which catalogued more than 100 incidents of bullying and abuse reported during their investigations into the four deaths.

Yet, somehow, despite the headlines, the horror, and the moving sight of the families of these young people setting the course of their lives aside in order to find out the truth about their loved ones, the Government doesn't seem to get it. In response to previous calls for a full inquiry, a Commons defence committee inquiry was set up to investigate the duty-of-care issue at Deepcut. It's a familiar government tactic now, the ring-fencing of an inquiry so that it isn't even within its remit to answer the questions that prompted its existence.

But MPs remain blasé about the manipulation they are so obviously taking part in. Bruce George, the Labour chairman of the committee, was told by parents that he ought to be hearing evidence from senior officers, including successive commanders at Deepcut. His response was extraordinarily pompous and insensitive.

"If it was any other group criticising our methodology, I would have thrown them out," Mr George explained, adding that the committee was carrying out a thorough inquiry within its terms of reference. He went on to say: "We're taking half of our time or more in wondering and agonising what happened to your kids ... We're turning down requests to do inquiries because we feel we have an obligation to your kids and kids who have not been well treated in the armed forces."

It comes to something, when people are expected to be grateful, that after many years their elected representatives are checking that the Army had discharged their duty of care to their dead children. I dare say that it does have to be accepted that very occasionally a recruit, unable to handle the pressures of army training, will take his own life. But what is being forgotten is that the death of a young person is so significant that people should be expected to learn from their experience.

The most callous thing of all in the vile cover-up that is Deepcut is that no one wanted to learn from one, two, three or even four deaths. Instead, they wanted the entire system, from the bottom to the top, to collude in the fiction that this was normal, a sad but acceptable wastage in army training.

Worst of all, this attitude sanctions and normalises outrageous behaviour, rather than identifies and changes it. No one knows if misjudgements of how much pressure a person could take, or acts of criminal sadism, were behind the four deaths. It is easy to see why the guilty at Deepcut would want to suppress such information. But it is impossible to see how the Army, let alone the Ministry of Defence, cannot see that the need for answers is urgent, and whatever happens can be of nothing but benefit to the armed forces.