MoD to close Deepcut barracks

By Francis Elliott,Andrew Johnson
Sunday 07 March 2004 01:00

The Ministry of Defence is to close the notorious Deepcut Army barracks, where four young recruits were found shot dead in mysterious circumstances, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.

Surrey police, who have taken 15,000 statements during their investigation into the deaths, last week published a damning report highlighting bullying and intimidation of recruits at the Princess Royal barracks in Deepcut.

The Army has argued that the deaths were suicide, but the soldiers' families have insisted they were murder. The Surrey police investigation found no evidence of "third party involvement".

Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence, hopes to resist calls for a public inquiry into the deaths by announcing that the barracks are to close, the IoS has learnt.

The decision follows an internal review of training facilities, which recommends the closure and sale of Deepcut. The Royal Logistics Corps' headquarters will relocate to North Yorkshire.

Although it has been taken primarily on economic grounds, ministers are aware of the symbolic value of the decision to shut down a facility that has become a by-word for bullying in the Army.

"It allows a fresh start and, hopefully, will draw a line under the events there," said one senior figure yesterday.

An MoD spokeswoman said last night: "We continually review our estate. No final decisions have been taken."

Four soldiers at the barracks died from gunshot wounds between 1995 and 2002: Privates Sean Benton, 20; Cheryl James, 18; Geoff Gray, 17; and James Collinson, 17.

Pte Gray's father - also called Geoff - said the proposed closure only made the need for a public inquiry more urgent. "We need an inquiry before it closes," he said. "There are people who have been there for years, and we don't want them disappearing into the woodwork."

Mr Hoon was warned last night that he would face a legal challenge if he turns down the request of the relatives of the dead soldiers to hold a full public inquiry.

John Cooper, a barrister and authority on cases of cruelty and degrading treatment, who is acting on behalf of the families, said they would have a "powerful case" in a judicial review.

The families wrote to Mr Hoon last week setting out the case under European law for an inquiry. Mr Hoon responded on Friday, saying the matter was being considered by government solicitors. Mr Cooper added that the families were preparing to sue the Army for "substantial damages" due to breach of duty of care.

The legal threat follows the publication on Thursday of a report by Surrey police into the deaths, which criticised the Army for bullying and harassment, and called for a wider inquiry into the training of recruits.

Four other investigations by Surrey police concluded that there was no evidence of third party involvement, implying that the recruits took their own lives.

Mr Cooper said: "We are prepared and ready to go to court. The families have a powerful case because every single investigation has not had the participation of the families."

A Surrey police spokesman said a "handful" of allegations of assault at Deepcut thrown up by the inquiry were being investigated with a view to possible prosecution.

A former training officer at the barracks is due to appear in court in September charged with one male rape and 11 indecent assaults.