‘We would have been spared decades of pain and uncertainty if there had just been a requirement in law that civilian police should handle the investigation into my daughter’s death’.
My daughter Cheryl died at Deepcut Army barracks on 27 November 1995. She had just had her 18th birthday. She died from a gunshot wound to the head, while she was on guard duty. Her death was ‘investigated’ by the military police and was never passed, as it should have been, to the civilian police.
The military police failings in the handling of her death were catastrophic and have meant that, decades on, we have never been able to be satisfied as to how she came by her death. Cheryl was of course not the only young person to die at Deepcut and the camp has been in the news again recently, with suggestions that there may have been a 5th death.
I have kept quite a low profile since my daughters second inquest in 2016. Grieving in the full glare of the public eye only adds to a family’s pain and my wife and I, after a brutal inquest process and getting on in years, felt that it was time for us to retreat and try to recover as best we could.
However, it is important that experiences like ours are considered as the Armed Forces Bill 2021 passes through Parliament. It is back before Parliament this week. The Bill contains a clause that covers the issue of jurisdiction and which police forces should have responsibility for investigating crimes on military property. But all the clause does – in its current form – is require prosecutors to develop a protocol that will govern these arrangements – it does not set out what the protocol should actually do and, in particular, it does not require very serious incidents on military property in the UK – including sudden deaths and rapes – to be handled by civilian authorities. It is so important that it should.
When my daughter died, there was a policy in place that said that her sudden death should have been investigated by the civilian police, not the military police. But that did not happen. The policy was ignored and so the military police took over – and messed up so badly that years later we have never been able to be satisfied as to how she died. A similar policy remains in place today. But it is nowhere near enough. We would have been spared decades of pain and uncertainty if there had just been a requirement in law that civilian police should handle the investigation into my daughter’s death. I simply cannot understand why the Government is not taking this once in a generation opportunity to fix this.
Exactly the same issues arise concerning serious sexual crimes. The Coroner found that Deepcut was a sexually very toxic and dangerous place to be. We know that very serious sexual offences took place there but were never investigated properly by the military police, something that lots of service women still say happens today. I believe strongly that all allegations of sexual assaults on military property should be investigated by civilian, not military police.
The law needs to change. This, after all was the recommendation of a senior independent judge that reported last year on the military justice system – who recommended that murder, manslaughter and rape cases should be handled by civilian authorities. There appears to be some cross-party support on the issue – with Labour and some prominent conservative MPs such as Sarah Atherton openly stating that such crimes should not be handled by the military. Today – on behalf of the other Deepcut families of Pte Sean Benton, Pte Geoff Gray and Pte James Collinson – I am urging MPs to support the amendment that would give this law the teeth it desperately needs.
Des James is the father of Pte Cheryl James who died at Deepcut barracks in 1995. In 2019, he set up the legal charity, Centre for Military Justice.