The former recruits who gave accounts of their own abuse at the hands of the non-commissioned officers there are to be praised for their bravery in discussing what is not just appalling abuse but also a breakdown in the chain of accountability that left them feeling powerless to prevent it.
It is not enough that these facts have been revealed.
Everybody responsible for what happened at Deepcut – from the perpetrators in the base itself to the Army chiefs who used it as a dumping-ground for the dregs of the service – should be held accountable and be punished for their part in it.
We have a rule in the UK that justice must be seen to be done.
So let’s see some real justice now.
The inquest into the death of the young army recruit Cheryl James just weeks after her 18th birthday at the Deepcut barracks in Surrey has come 21 years too late. Too late for her parents, Des and Doreen James, who have had to fight all the way to find out what happened to their daughter in the final hours of her life. Too late for memory or evidence to show whether she was unlawfully killed. Too late to have contributed, as a proper investigation might have, to preventing the deaths of two other young recruits who also died, like Private James, apparently by their own hand, in the years afterwards. And late, but not too late, to hold the army to account.
The coroner, Brian Barker QC, found that Private James died from a self-inflicted shot. But he also found serious failures in the army’s duty of care to the young woman. There were too few officers; the recruits were bored and indisciplined. Drink-fuelled parties were frequent. A clean up at around the time of the death in 1995 found 800 used condoms. Officers used their rank to demand sex, and traded permission for long weekends off in return for sexual favours. Although nearly a third of the recruits were female, there were only two women officers. During the inquest, a senior officer in charge of personnel admitted that sexual activity was “part of the core of everyday life”. And, when she died, Private James, against army policy, was on armed guard duty on her own. They may have been over the age of consent, but these recruits were too young to be left so alone, so vulnerable to exploit and to be exploited.
Private James’s death was the second at the barracks in five months. But because it was assumed to be a suicide, it was not investigated by the local police, Surrey, but by the military. The army investigated itself. The first inquest, three weeks after her death, took just one hour to reach an open verdict. Mr and Mrs James, helped by the human rights organisation Liberty, fought for years to get access to the papers relating to their daughter’s death that they needed to mount their successful appeal to the attorney general for a new inquest.
Inquests held under article 2 of the European convention on human rights require the coroner or the inquest jury to explain not just how, but in what circumstances a person died. They are transforming the accountability of state bodies. That is why the Deepcut coroner delivered a long and detailed narrative of the events around Cheryl James’s death, and why in its findings the jury at the Hillsborough inquest at last gave certainty to the families of the 96 who died.
But on its own, an article 2 inquest is not enough… It is essential that those representing the bereaved have parity of funding with the other side. Otherwise evidence and assertions will go unchallenged. The inquest findings are only the beginning, though, of getting the change which is the purpose of accountability. The campaigning group Inquest, which has driven the campaign to hold public bodies to account, is right to press for more. It is not enough for jury or coroner to describe the factors that contributed to the death if there is no system to make sure that what happened then won’t happen again. That means some kind of framework to compel reforms and monitor results. That is what most of the bereaved families want when they embark on the gruelling search for cause and consequence. It is the least that they deserve.
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