Strange case of the army ''suicides''

When four young soldiers were found dead at the Deepcut barracks in Surrey, their parents called for

When Tony Blair got to his feet in the Commons last month to brush off the latest question about the Deepcut deaths, he had some statistics handy. "There has been a very detailed police investigation," he declared, "with about 900 witnesses being interviewed and 1,500 statements taken over 15 months, and we are grateful to the chief constable of Surrey Police for his report."

The message was clear: the deaths by gunshot of four young recruits at the Surrey barracks have been thoroughly, professionally and even laboriously looked into by the police and the matter is closed. There is no need for a public inquiry.

Blair's remarks carried an echo. Back in early 1997, when John Major's government was fighting off calls for a public inquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence, we were told in very similar terms how busy the police had been. In that case, it was 2,600 interviews and 1,500 lines of inquiry over 36 months.

This is nothing more than an official device to mask an absence of satisfactory results, like a football manager telling you after the match how tirelessly his players have run around chasing the ball, while failing to mention that they lost two-nil.

And just as all that police effort did not end the Lawrence affair in 1997, so, despite interviewing 900 people, Surrey Police has not solved the Deepcut mysteries. In fact, no matter how vigorously the government brandishes the air freshener, the nasty smell of scandal still clings to the barracks.

One striking indicator is the status of that police report. With Blair, the Secretary of State for Defence, Geoff Hoon, and the armed forces minister, Adam Ingram, all pointing to it as proof that an inquiry would be a waste of time, you might be forgiven for assuming its contents had been made public. They have not.

Completed last September and running to more than 2,500 pages, the Surrey report into the circumstances of the four deaths remains firmly under lock and key. Only a subsidiary section dealing with policy issues has been released.

Even the bereaved families, who are surely entitled to know what happened at Deepcut, have been denied access to the documented findings, receiving only verbal briefings that have not dispelled their anxieties. A concession was offered which bordered on the absurd: one family was recently told that it could read part of the report provided the family solicitor undertook in advance that it would share the contents with no unauthorised person - not its own barrister, not the other families, not its MP and certainly not the press or the public. The family rejected the offer.

As for the public, our knowledge of the report's contents is limited to a single sentence in a press statement issued last September: "Despite the scale of the investigation, no evidence has come to light so far to indicate any prospect of a prosecution directly related to these deaths."

Carefully chosen words: note that they do not actually say there have been no crimes, just that there is not enough evidence to put anyone on trial. Pressed by the families, Surrey officers admitted that in none of the four cases were they able to state with certainty that the death was suicide, nor could they firmly rule out the possibility that some other person was involved. In other words, it remains possible that one or more of the dead soldiers was killed by somebody else.

It is just over two years since we learned that four young recruits - Sean Benton, Cheryl James, Geoff Gray and James Collinson - had died separately, in unexplained and sometimes baffling circumstances, at the headquarters of the Royal Logistics Corps in Surrey. How did we discover this? Not because the army or the government told us. As late as March 2002, seven years after the first death, each of the families still believed it was the only one to have lost children in this way. While they were all sceptical about the army's account of events, they were also isolated and felt more or less helpless.

The first sign of a deeper problem came when word of mouth made a connection between the Grays and Collinsons, and they spoke on the phone. Even then, it needed several more weeks and the efforts of BBC documentary researchers to trace the other two families and put them all in touch. Only when the fathers and mothers of the four began working together did we begin to grasp the scale of what had happened; only when they made a public fuss did the bare facts begin to emerge.

Those facts were certainly bare. Most of us have retained a vague impression that it was all a bit suspicious. Some of the victims, for example, appeared to have shot themselves more than once. They did not leave notes. Bodies seemed to have been moved after death. The forensic work was patchy. Evidence went missing.

Press and television investigations in that summer of 2002 added further scraps of information, raising suspicions of a serious bullying problem at Deepcut, even a breakdown in normal discipline and morality. It still wasn't much to go on. Two years later, astonishingly, almost nothing of substance has been added to this piddling sum of public knowledge. The families, kept in the dark at the time of their loss, remain almost as much in the dark today.

The police investigation has contributed to this. The first three deaths were investigated by the army itself, but in the public clamour that followed the fourth - that of Private Collinson - the civilian Surrey Police belatedly took over, and was soon obliged to extend its scrutiny back over the others. This had the effect that all questions were met with the stock official response that, with a police investigation under way, any comment would be inappropriate. The investigation lasted 15 months and the lid remained on all that time.

Since it ended and the report was completed last year, that lid has stayed firmly down. Who is responsible? The Ministry of Defence, which had access to the report so that it could brief ministers, says that Surrey Police has ownership of it. Surrey Police says it does not belong to the force any longer, but is the property of the coroner. The Surrey coroner, Michael Burgess, is said to be pondering the report while reaching a decision on reopening inquests.

But he does not need exclusive access for that. With or without new inquests, the report could and surely should be made public immediately, in the public interest, especially when the Prime Minister holds it up as the reason to rule out an inquiry that nearly 200 MPs believe necessary. Indeed, it would be a fitting gesture from Blair if he himself ensured publication of the report.

With the report still secret, however, ministers are continuing to rely on that economical one-line summary - the one about there being no evidence to justify a prosecution - to dampen public doubts. At the same time, they peddle an upbeat message about looking to the future rather than the past.

But the past remains unexplained, and alarmingly so. Does the one-line summary tell us, for example, how young Cheryl James came to be in possession of a gun when it was against regulations, whether it was true she had been raped, or why the bullet extracted from her head disappeared?

Does it remove all concern at reports that Sean Benton was thrown from an upstairs window, and does it explain how he managed to shoot himself five times in the chest, or why his bloodstained shirt was immediately laundered? Does it help us understand how Geoff Gray shot himself twice in the head, why he appeared to have moved after his death, or why there were bruises on his body? Does it tell us how James Collinson managed to shoot himself when he went out on guard duty armed only with a torch, or why photographs of the death scene show him in two different postures? Does it tell us why, in every case, the parents felt they were hustled and pressurised by the army into accepting that the deaths were suicides, even before any proper investigation could have taken place?

It does not. Perhaps the full Surrey Police report can give us the answers and perhaps it can't. Either way, the families and the public are entitled to know, promptly and in full, what evidence has been found and whether the police have done their job, and until we have that much information we have no reason to shed the suspicions we formed in 2002.

As Private Gray's father, also called Geoff, puts it: "What are we supposed to believe, when so much is being kept from us?"