I welcome the words of the Secretary of State that it is his intention to modernise the law in relation to the Armed Forces and bring it into line with the requirements of the Human Rights Act.
My constituent Lance Corporal Derek McGregor died in July 2003 at Catterick Barracks. His family are awaiting a date to be set for the Coroner’s Inquest so I can not comment on the circumstances of his death.
Only to say this: since I met Derek’s father, Joe McGregor and the parents of children who lost their lives at Deepcut and other barracks in England, Northern Ireland and Overseas, the same phrases keep cropping up time and time again: “You have to understand – the Army is a law unto itself”; and: “You have to understand the Army is so arrogant – they think they can get away with murder”.
These are the mums and dads who have buried their children in tragic circumstances. But – all too frequently – the words reflect their experience.
Modernisation of the Armed Forces means removing the stain of Deepcut – once a rural location in leafy Surrey now a by-word for bullying and cover-up.
Modernisation means openness and accountability
Modernisation means that when a fatal incident occurs, the bereaved family are entitled to learn the truth; they are entitled to expect justice; they are entitled to believe that lessons will be learned to avoid such deaths in the future.
For every month that goes by, the families who have come together in the “Deepcut & Beyond” group become more convinced that only a full and independent public inquiry can deliver their demand for truth, justice and change.
At least five internal military inquiries, two police investigations costing at least £1 million, another police force investigating the integrity of the first; a Select Committee Inquiry, a review conducted behind closed doors by Nicholas Blake QC, another Inquest by the Queen’s coroner…
Every inquiry to date limited by its terms of reference… None with the powers sufficient to fulfil the requirements of the necessary public investigation of non-combat deaths… None with the weight and stature to make recommendations for lasting change… None with the authority to restore public confidence.
I believe this Bill as it stands will miss a valuable opportunity to address the vital issue of accountability. I will listen closely to hear whether the Minister has reflected further on the recommendation of the Surrey police – developed and advanced by the Defence Select Committee in its inquiry into the Duty of Care – that the Armed Services consider the value of establishing a mechanism for independent oversight.
The model advanced by the Select Committee was that of the office of Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland – a model that, thanks to the skills and leadership of Ombudsman Mrs Nuala ’Loan – is regarded universally as a world leader in police accountability.
The Deepcut & Beyond families’ group support the proposal for an ombudsman or independent complaints commissioner.
The group can also see the merit of an independent inspectorate along the lines of Her Majesties’ Inspectors of Police and Prisons.
Another proposal – particularly relevant while the Army continues to recruit under-18s to military service – is the creation of a system of lay visitors’ panels charged with involving army mums and dads in announced and unannounced barracks visits and interviews to monitor the well-being of service personnel.
The families involved in Deepcut & Beyond are concerned about the issue of impunity.
We rightly deplore those dictatorial regimes in which security personnel can do no wrong – that brutality, rape and murder in the course of an armed conflict – or behind the closed door of the military barracks – goes unpunished. In such regimes even a conviction in a civilian court may be regarded as a technical matter and temporary inconvenience. The soldier concerned may be welcomed back into the army and even promoted.
It has – as far as I am aware – always been the case for the British Army – and it is set out in the Queen’s Regulations – that in the event of a serious misdemeanour resulting in conviction and sentence to imprisonment by a civil court, the soldier would be automatically discharged.
The Deepcut & Beyond group has brought to my attention two cases in which the army has sought exemption from this rule on the grounds that the conviction did not bring into doubt the “integrity” of the soldiers concerned. In one case it involved the conviction of two soldiers for “murder”. [the Peter McBride case – GR] In another case it involved the conviction of a soldier for “manslaughter by gross negligence”.
While soldiers found to have used or be in possession of Class B drugs are routinely dismissed from service, I find no rationale to allow to remain those who are found responsible for the death of civilians or their fellow soldiers.
Perhaps the Minister can correct me, but it is my understanding that – if this Bill is passed – a soldier convicted of abuse of power, bullying, rape or murder will no longer be subject to automatic discharge and that they maintain their rank and position in the Armed Services throughout their prison sentence.
I believe such a move would be against would be against the meaning of the Human Rights Act and defeat the purpose of this Bill.
I am concerned also that in the light of the distrust created by the failure effectively to investigate deaths at Deepcut barracks and elsewhere and the continual denial that the Army has a problem with bullying and non-combat deaths – that legislation should be introduced extending the jurisdiction of the Court Martial. Public confidence requires such cases to be heard in public before a jury of twelve with all the protection for the right of a fair trial and the effective discharge of justice.