Bereaved families, victims and Liberty call for Deepcut public inquiry

20 June 2016

Liberty has written to Defence Secretary Michael Fallon to request a public inquiry into physical and sexual abuse at the Surrey barracks.

The call comes in the wake of the inquest into the death of Private Cheryl James – who died at Deepcut in 1995 – which exposed to public scrutiny the toxic, violent and sexualised environment in which Cheryl and other young soldiers lived.

The inquest and two BBC documentaries that followed the verdict have brought to light the accounts of many current and former soldiers who claim to have suffered physical violence and/or sexual abuse at the camp.

Liberty has written to Mr Fallon on behalf of the families of Privates Cheryl James, Sean Benton and James Collinson – three of the four young soldiers who died at Deepcut between 1995 and 2002 – who all support a public inquiry into the experiences of those who suffered and survived their time there. [1]

The request is also made on behalf of former Deepcut recruits Mark Harrison, who was the victim of sexual assault and rape while serving at the barracks, and Daniel Griffiths, who alleges that he suffered a serious physical assault at the hands of a superior.

The families and victims wish to see a thorough and independent investigation into:

  • The large number of allegations made by servicemen and women about their treatment at Deepcut between 1993 and 2002.
  • The sexualised culture at the barracks.
  • Serious deficiencies in current legislation covering the Armed Forces, which mean members of the military are still not guaranteed a fair and independent investigation, should they report being the victim of crime. [2]   

The toxic environment at Deepcut

Following its 2002-2003 investigation into the four deaths at Deepcut, Surrey Police presented the Army with a dossier of 118 separate “duty of care and bullying issues”.

The vast majority were alleged to have taken place at Deepcut, and many consisted of multiple incidents of abuse or witnessed abuse. Very few appear to have been tested or investigated.

Delivering his verdict in the inquest into the death of Cheryl James on 3 June 2016, His Honour Judge Brian Barker CBE QC severely criticised many aspects of life at Deepcut in the mid-1990s. The inquest exposed:

  • There was little or no welfare provision.
  • There were far too few staff to deliver training and meet their duty of care obligations towards young trainees, many of whom were vulnerable and living away from home for the first time.
  • Many trainees had little to occupy them, and there was excessive, unsupervised access to alcohol even when underage.
  • The chain of command appeared to have no training in dealing with issues affecting teenagers and young adults.
  • The environment was sexualised and language and attitudes were misogynistic.

The Coroner emphasised that his inquest was not a public inquiry and that he could not investigate the physical and sexual violence individual recruits claimed to have experienced.

Lessons still to be learnt

Recent evidence reveals an ongoing, pervasive and deeply damaging culture of sexualised behaviour and harassment in the Armed Forces. [3]

Emma Norton, Lawyer for Liberty and solicitor for the families of Cheryl James, Sean Benton and James Collinson, said: “The fact that these allegations were never properly investigated continues to cast a long and shameful shadow over the British Army and undermines genuine attempts at reform.

“Without a public inquiry, those who describe serious assaults and other abuse at Deepcut will not have any chance to speak out about those experiences. They deserve to have them acknowledged, see those responsible held to account and know that lessons really are being learnt so other young recruits do not suffer in this way again.”

Mark Harrison, a victim of rape at Deepcut, said:

“I was the victim of sexual assault and rape at Deepcut.

“The man who did this to me was known by the Army to be a risk to young people because he had committed sexual offences before he came to Deepcut. Yet, even knowing this, the Army placed him in a position of trust where he was able to abuse me and others.

“His actions changed my life forever and I still struggle deeply today as a consequence. As a soldier, when something like this happens to you, it is not just the terrible assault itself that you have to try and recover from – it is the knowledge that the Army, which you were prepared to devote your life to if necessary, put you in that position and abandoned you.

“I want to be heard and I want to be assured that this could never happen again. A public inquiry is the only way this can happen.”

Des James, Cheryl James’s father, said:

“The MoD has wasted many years avoiding a public inquiry into Deepcut and even denying that an abusive culture existed until very recently.

“These are years that could have been used to reassure parents of future recruits, and years that could have been used compassionately to listen to and offer comfort to those recruits whose young lives have been so dreadfully affected.

“A public inquiry may finally draw a line under this dark stain on the reputation of the British Army.”

ENDS

Contact: Liberty press office on 020 7378 3656, 07973 831 128 or pressoffice@liberty-human-rights.org.uk.

Notes

1. The Benton and Collinson families continue to press for thorough, independent inquests into the deaths of Sean and James. On 14 June it was announced that the Attorney General had sent the case of Sean Benton back to the High Court following an application by Liberty acting for the family that the original inquest be quashed and a fresh inquest ordered.

2. Under the Armed Forces Act 2006 Schedule 2, A Commanding Officer in the Armed Forces remains able to choose to investigate an allegation of sexual assault him or herself. There is no legal requirement – as there is for most other criminal offences – to refer the matter to the police.

Military police remain able to investigate serious criminal offences including rape, sexual assault and other violent crime on military premises. They are not required to hand the cases to civilian police.

Royal Military Police, like other service police forces, are not subject to any outside independent oversight – despite some serious concerns about their expertise and ability to effectively investigate allegations of sexual offending.

3. Excerpt from the transcript of the inquest into the death of Cheryl James, 13 April 2016:

Q (Counsel).  I think there has been a recent survey, at least in 2014, conducted into sexual harassment in the army as a whole rather than just focusing on trainees.  Can you tell us about that?

A (BRIG JOHN DONNELLY). Yes, in 2014, we conducted a survey about 24,000 members of the army, all the female servicewomen and some servicemen too, to have a better understanding of the problem of sexual harassment in the army, to really understand the problems so we could make the cultural change. And the results were quite clear, that 90 per cent of respondents felt that the army had an overly sexualised culture, or certainly sexualised culture.39 per cent of respondents had had a distressing experience, sexual harassment or conduct short of harassment about 12 per cent had actually made a complaint and taken it further and found the whole thing very distressing, but also that a significant number of respondents did not have confidence in the complaint process.

In 2014, Opportunity Now conducted research which demonstrated that 23 per cent of women in the uniformed and armed services suffer sexual harassment. The average elsewhere is 12 per cent.