Deepcut public inquiry could be 'best method' of finding truth says Army head
A public inquiry into Deepcut barracks should be held if it is the "best method" of getting to the truth, the head of the Army has said.
General Sir Nick Carter apologised "unreservedly" to the parents of Private Cheryl James after an inquest which found she killed herself also criticised the care offered to recruits at Deepcut barracks.
The family of Pte James, from Llangollen, north Wales, have vowed to continue their fight for justice for the teenage soldier after the "immense disappointment" of an inquest which found her death was suicide.
Gen Carter said the armed forces "need to get to the truth" of what happened at the barracks.
Asked if that should be through a public inquiry, he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "If that's the best method of getting to the heart of the matter then I guess that should be the way that we go."
Gen Carter said he was committed to making the Army "genuinely inclusive" and vowed the service would be "sure to learn" from the inquest.
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, he said: "As the head of the Army, but also as a father, I deeply regret Cheryl's tragic death and I want to apologise unreservedly to Mr and Mrs James for the duty of care failings at Deepcut Barracks in 1995.
"After the comprehensive inquest into Cheryl's death that concluded yesterday, we will be sure to learn from the recommendations made in the coroner's conclusions.
"The tragedy of Cheryl's death has taught us some hard lessons and will serve as a constant reminder for me and for all of those who both lead and serve in the Army of the importance of ensuring all of our people are valued and have the opportunity to flourish."
After hearing three months of evidence from more than 100 witnesses, coroner Brian Barker QC ruled the 18-year-old died from an intentionally "self-inflicted shot" from her rifle at Deepcut Barracks.
Her body was found near an entrance gate on November 27 1995, not far from where she had been carrying out lone guard duty at the Surrey army base.
She was one of four recruits who died there over seven years.
Mr Barker was scathing of the environment at the training camp, with the inquest hearing sexual promiscuity and heavy drinking were rife while Pte James was stationed there.
Instructors and officers flouted Army rules and had sexual relationships with the young recruits, and some instructors "saw young females as a sexual challenge".
But he found that while morale was low and Pte James was desperate to leave the military, there was "no basis to establish that Ms James' disillusionment with the Army or any dislike of the Deepcut regime was, on the balance of probabilities, such as to cause her to wish to die".
After the verdict at Woking Coroner's Court, Ms James' father Des James said the family was "deeply saddened" by the inquest's findings and that they did not believe the evidence led to the conclusions the coroner had reached.
With his wife Doreen by his side, he said: "The evidence has revealed serious and profound failures in the care and supervision that ought to have been provided to her and to all the other young people that joined up with her.
"Deepcut was a toxic and horrible environment for a young woman and we have no doubt that this would have had a terrible impact on those that were required to live in it."
Speaking to the Press Association, Mr James said he believed his daughter would be alive today if she had not gone to Deepcut and called for an inquiry into how the culture at the barracks had been created.
In an interview with Newsnight on Friday, General Lord Dannatt also called for a public inquiry into allegations of harassment and bullying at Deepcut Army Barracks.
He said: "Yes there should be a public inquiry. I think that's the only practical and reasonable response to this because I think people have a right to know.
"But I would stress again that if there are individuals who went through training at Deepcut or indeed elsewhere and believe that they suffered bullying or sexual harassment, that's not been investigated, they should complain. If they're still serving, to the service police or to the civilian police."
Formally recording a verdict of suicide at the inquest, Mr Barker said: "There can be no reasonable doubt that Ms James carried out an intended action and knew that its consequence would be death.
"I'm satisfied so that I'm sure Ms James inflicted the fatal shot and intended to die."
Pte James' parents listened intently as Mr Barker launched an attack on welfare standards at Deepcut, saying the general culture of the base fell below the standard expected and that the "haphazard provision of welfare support was insufficient".
He also criticised the fact that Pte James was left on lone armed guard duty, which he described as a "potentially dangerous activity" and was against Army regulations.
Non-commissioned officers (NCOs) meted out guard duty to trainees as punishment, which was also against Army rules.
Described as "vivacious and bubbly", Pte James had mixed feelings about being in the Army and often spoke with friends and other recruits about being unhappy and wanting to leave.
She repeatedly talked of shooting herself, but her friends thought this was just "banter", the inquest heard.
At the time of her death Pte James was caught up in a love triangle with two soldiers.
She had been in a relationship with Royal Engineer Simeon Carr-Minns but then started a sexual relationship with another squaddie at Deepcut, Paul Wilkinson.
Both wanted to be in an exclusive relationship with her and were upset at the situation, the inquest heard.
Mr Barker was also deeply critical about the poor quality of the initial investigations into Pte James' death, saying there was an early assumption of suicide.
The scene where her body was found was compromised and not adequately investigated, and ballistics tests were not carried out to see if the bullet was fired by her rifle.
Mr Barker said: "This has left unanswered questions which understandably fuelled speculation as to how Ms James died."
The coroner said it was "regrettable" her death was not better investigated at the time and praised her parents for their fight for justice, applauding their "patience and loving fortitude".
After the verdict, Brigadier John Donnelly, head of Army personal services, said he was sorry for the care Pte James received - an apology her family welcomed.
He said: "We are truly sorry for the low levels of supervision that we provided for the trainees at Deepcut in 1995, and for the policies that were applied to using trainees for guard duties, and that we took too long to recognise and rectify the situation."
Detective Superintendent Adam Hibbert of Surrey Police also apologised to Pte James' family, saying the force had accepted that mistakes were made during the investigation.