It is now abundantly clear that there is a serious bullying problem in the British armed forces. A report by the Commons Defence Select Committee is scathing about the Army's failure to put a stop to the scandalous mistreatment of young recruits. According to the report, if a soldier complains of abuse he, or she, is unfairly characterised as "weak" by senior officers. Bullying, as a result, often goes unreported. The suicide of four young recruits at the Deepcut barracks in Surrey between 1995 and 2002 shows that this culture can be lethal.
The Defence Select Committee makes some sensible suggestions for reform, such as appointing counsellors to training camps and establishing a new independent complaints panel. Abused recruits would be much more likely to come forward if they could do so without first having to inform an often unsympathetic superior officer. It also makes sense to raise the minimum age at which recruits can join up. Two of the soldiers who committed suicide at Deepcut were not yet 18.
The Committee is particularly concerned about the way parents of young recruits who die in non-combat operations are dealt with by the Army. It regards the treatment of the Deepcut families - who were not permitted to attend the Army Boards of Inquiry into their children's deaths - as verging on cruelty. It certainly makes a sorry contrast with the consideration shown to bereaved parents whose children are killed in combat.
But, by failing to recommend that a public inquiry be called into the Deepcut deaths, the committee is guilty of letting down these families once again. Important questions remain unanswered about exactly what went on at those barracks. A dossier compiled by the Surrey police contains over 150 allegations of abuse at Deepcut. The conclusions of an independent ballistics expert have cast doubt on the verdict of suicide in two of the cases.
The committee has been admirably frank about the Army's culture of bullying - but it has failed to recognise that part of the solution must be to call a public inquiry into Deepcut. Without this, the impression that the Army is on the side of the bullies - rather than the vulnerable - will prove impossible to erase.