AT A GLANCE – a quick overview of the latest evidence on bullying, harassment, sexual assaults and complaints

This page is designed to provide a quick overview of where the key evidence can be located concerning matters relating to bullying, harassment, discrimination, sexual offending and complaints in the Armed Forces.  We try and update the guide as new papers and reports are published, in chronological order. 

The Service Complaints Ombudsman for the Armed Forces

The Service Complaints Ombudsman for the Armed Forces (the Ombudsman) has only existed since 2016. (She took over from the office of the Service Complaints Commissioner who produced annual reports but had far fewer powers).

          Prevalence of bullying and harassment 

In each annual report since then, the Ombudsman has expressed concern at the over-representation of BAME people and women in the Armed Forces in the complaints system and what may underly it.

In her first annual report of 2016, she said this:

The Ombudsman is concerned about the continued overrepresentation of both female and Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) Service personnel in the Service complaints system Tri-Service. The disproportionate representation of female and BAME personnel as complainants (21% and 10%) compared to representation in the Armed Forces (11% and 7%) not only continued for the third consecutive year, but actually increased for female personnel. Bullying, discrimination and harassment were more commonly the cause of complaints for these groups.

She recommended that the Ministry of Defence commission a study by the end of April 2018 to determine the root causes of the overrepresentation of female and BAME personnel in the Service complaints system and that appropriate action was taken to try and redress the situation by the end of December 2018, including putting the appropriate support mechanisms in place. 

The MoD did not do that.

Then, in her Annual Report 2017, she said this: 

For the second year running, the Ombudsman has concerns about the continued overrepresentation of both female and BAME Service personnel in the Service complaints system. While making up only 11% of the total strength of the Armed Forces, female personnel made up 20% of the Service complaints system overall. In addition, 44% of complaints made by female personnel concerned bullying, harassment or discrimination, while this only accounted for 19% of complaints made by male personnel. Likewise, BAME personnel make up only 7% of the total strength of the Armed Forces, but 10% of the Service complaints system overall. 57% of complaints made by BAME personnel concerned bullying, harassment or discrimination, while only 21% of complaints made by white personnel concerned these issues. Recommendation 1.10 in Annual Report 2016 called for the Ministry of Defence to commission a study by the end of April 2018 to determine the root causes of this overrepresentation and to take action to remedy this. ….The Ombudsman is disappointed that this recommendation has been interpreted in the narrowest sense by the Ministry of Defence. Given the discussion and context that preceded the recommendation, the Ombudsman felt it was evident that it was an independent study that was being recommended. However, the work undertaken on this recommendation to date has focused on the single Services reviewing their own data to determine the causes of overrepresentation. While the Ombudsman encourages ongoing review and improvement, she is not confident that this approach will produce the intended outcome and urges the Ministry of Defence to reconsider how the recommendation is implemented.

The MoD did not change its approach or act upon her recommendation for independent investigation.

Then, in her Annual Report 2018, published in 2019, she said this: 

For the 3rd consecutive year, female and BAME personnel are overrepresented in the service complaints system. While making up only 11% of the total strength of the Armed Forces, female personnel made 23% of the admissible Service complaints in 2018 – a 3% increase on 2017. In addition, 43% of complaints made by female personnel concerned bullying, harassment or discrimination, while this only accounted for 20% of complaints made by male personnel. BAME personnel make up only 7% of the total strength of the Armed Forces, however they made 13% of the admissible Service complaints in 2018. In addition, 39% of complaints made by BAME personnel concerned bullying, harassment or discrimination, while this only accounted for 24% of complaints made by white personnel. 

The Ombudsman reiterated the fact that, three years previously she had recommended that the MoD commission a study to determine the root causes of this overrepresentation and to take action to remedy it.

In her 2020 report, published in 2021 (Nicola Williams’ fifth and final report as Ombudsman, presented by new incoming Ombudsman Marietta Hughes) it was again found that both female and BAME personnel were overrepresented in the Service Complaints system as a whole (21% and 15%, respectively) compared to their representation in the UK Armed Forces (12% and 8%, respectively). There were 198 Service Complaints concerning bullying, harassment or discrimination in 2020 which accounted for 27% of total service complaints. 

In her report she said this:

‘’Female personnel had nearly twice the rate of Service Complaints than males. Although this over-representation was found in all complaint categories, it was primarily driven by bullying, harassment or discrimination. The rate at which female Service personnel raised bullying, harassment or discrimination Service Complaints was four times larger than the equivalent figure for male Service personnel. The rate of reported bullying, harassment or discrimination Service Complaints by female personnel has not changed by a significant amount in the last three years.

BAME personnel make up 8% of the total strength of the UK Armed Forces, compared to white personnel (92%). BAME personnel continue to be overrepresented in the Service Complaints system. This is primarily driven by the number of bullying, harassment or discrimination Service Complaints made by BAME personnel who are twice as likely to make a Service Complaint.’’

The Ombudsman also raised her disappointment in the time the MOD has taken to progress the recommendations in her previous Annual Reports from 2016 to 2019. Although, progress had been made against some of these recommendations, the pace had been slower than envisaged as there were still 11 recommendations outstanding – and some that had been rejected – which the Ombudsman wanted to be reassessed.

In her 2021 report, the new Ombudsman found that female service personnel remained over-represented in the system: they comprised 12% of personnel, but 23% of Service Complaints. BAME service personnel comprised 11% of personnel, and 12% of Service Complaints.

the Ombudsman said that ‘the underlying issues which lead to complaints remain the same. There has been very little wider cultural change, particularly around the experience of female and BAME personnel. Whilst SCOAF notes the response to the HCDC report ‘Women in the Armed Forces’, it is concerning that one in ten women are still reporting that they have experienced sexual harassment. The Ombudsman is also disappointed that a formal response highlighting the findings of the study into the lived experiences of BAME personnel has not been forthcoming. This study was published in May 2021 with a copy provided to the Services, the Ministry of Defence and the Ombudsman. SCOAF was advised at the time that a paper would be taken to the Defence People Leadership Team on this matter, but as of yet has received no further update on how the cultural issues identified will be addressed’.

          Being pressurised not to complain

The Ombudsman has also repeatedly warned that she is aware of potential complainants being warned that they ought not to complain for fear of the impact on their career.

In her 2018 report she said this: 

As the Ombudsman outlined in Annual Report 2017, there was strong anecdotal evidence that individuals were withdrawing complaints after being told that pursuing a complaint would adversely impact their careers. For this reason, the Ombudsman believes there is merit in analysing and reporting the data the single Services currently collect concerning the reasons for withdrawal…Confidence in the Service complaints system has consistently been low: an issue that has been discussed in consecutive Annual Reports by the Ombudsman and the former Service Complaints Commissioner. Confidence in the system means that individuals feel confident that: • they can make a complaint • the complaint will be taken seriously, handled properly and investigated thoroughly • a fair decision will be reached – regardless of whether that decision is in their favour • there will be no adverse impact from making a complaint, whether it is the treatment they receive from others or a negative impact on their career.

In her 2017 report she had specifically warned that:

only one in ten personnel who experience bullying, harassment or discrimination make a Service complaint. The main reasons given for not complaining were a belief that nothing would be done (59%) and concerns that it would have a negative impact on the complainant’s career (52%).

She set out her concerns at length:

The Ombudsman also has concerns about the continued reports from personnel that they were discouraged from making a Service complaint or advised that it was not in the best interest of their career to do so. The Ombudsman is not only concerned about the apparent persistence of this attitude among Service complaint handlers and other individuals charged with providing advice to complainants, but also of the failure of the Services to act on this where they have been made aware of it. An example of the latter is where the Ombudsman has referred an individual’s intention to make a Service complaint. Following a referral, the Services are required to update the Ombudsman when key events occur, including the withdrawal or closure of a complaint. While a referral does not require an individual to commit to the formal process, the decision as to whether to pursue informal resolution or to withdraw a complaint must be theirs alone to make, and made without pressure, regardless of the subtlety of that pressure. Over the years there has been substantial anecdotal information that pressure has been applied on individuals to not proceed with a complaint. The OSCO, and before it the Office of the Service Complaints Commissioner, has seen emails sent by individual complainants stating that they have chosen not to pursue their complaint because they have been advised that it would not be in their best interests, they would be seen as a troublemaker, it would have a negative impact on their career or that it would be bad for unit cohesion. Eg: “I am…..under the impression that from a work standing that if the complaint is lodged it would simply bring unwanted attention towards myself from the chain of command that would hamper working relationships and cause stress in the upcoming months.” This is also an issue that personnel have raised with the Ombudsman directly on outreach visits. One of the concerns raised with the Ombudsman on such a visit in 2017 was that making a Service complaint had a negative impact on promotion prospects. “It could be said that ‘X is a good [Service person], but he/ she is a troublemaker’ – which is what anyone who makes a Service complaint will be called”. The Ombudsman is concerned that in such instances the withdrawal is processed and accepted as “voluntary” when the reasons provided demonstrate otherwise. Where individuals are told that making a complaint will have nothing but negative consequences for them, the decision to not pursue that complaint can never be characterised as voluntary. Levels of confidence in the system will never improve as long as these attitudes towards complaints prevail. Going forward the OSCO will be challenging all such instances it is made aware of and also expects the single Services to do this as part of changing the culture of complaints across the Armed Forces.

In her 2021 report the new Ombudsman cited AFCAS reporting that 11% of personnel experienced bullying, harassment or discrimination in the previous 12 months. However, 89% of those individuals did not go on to make a complaint. She noted that these figures had not changed significantly since the previous year. The reasons given for not raising complaints were overwhelmingly that personnel did not believe anything would be done about it (55%) and that complaining would adversely affect their career (49%).

Armed Forces Continuous Attitude Survey

The Army’s own harassment survey published in 2019 revealed that just over one in ten (11%) of personnel reported that they had been subject to bullying, discrimination or harassment in the previous 12 months. In 2020, the AFCAS survey revealed that this figure had increased, now 12% reported that they had been subject to bullying, harassment or discrimination in the previous 12 months.

When you look at the figures for gender, the statistics are even more stark, with 20% of female respondents in 2020 reporting having been the subject of bullying, harassment or discrimination in the preceding 12 months.

The vast majority of personnel who had been subject to bullying, discrimination or harassment did not make a complaint (over 90%).

The top three reasons why personnel did not make a formal written complaint were:

  • not believing anything would be done if a complaint was made (57% in 2019, which rose to 60% by 2020);
  • belief that it might adversely affect their career (50% in 2019, which rose to 52% by 2020);
  • not wanting to go through the complaints procedure (30% in 2019).

Of those who made formal complaint about bullying, discrimination and/or harassment, over half were dissatisfied with the time taken and the outcome of the complaint process.

The 2022 published survey is here:

Sexual Harassment Surveys 

2018 survey:

The Army conducted and published its own sexual harassment survey in 2018, called Speak Out. 

The survey indicated that both generalised sexualised behaviours – those relating to the culture and working environment – and sexualised behaviour targeted at a specific person had reduced slightly since 2015. But there was an increase in women reporting upsetting experiences as a consequence of targeted sexualised behaviour. And reports of “particularly upsetting experiences” had increased.  

The figures on sexual assaults were shocking.

  • 12% of respondents who reported upsetting behaviours, said that they had been the victim of intentional sexual touching;
  • 7%  had been the subject of an attempted sexual assault;
  • 5% were victims of serious sexual assault; and
  • 2% reported being the victim of rape. 

The vast majority of these incidents (57%) appeared to have taken place in the workplace or in the training unit.

Less than half told anyone at work about it.

For those who complained about sexual harassment, the outcomes were poor. Very high rates of dissatisfaction were recorded in terms of how well a complaint outcome was communicated to the victim, follow up action taken against the person responsible and the amount of time taken to resolve the complaint. 

Three-quarters of those who made a formal complaint said that they had suffered negative consequences as a result.

Nine out of ten had thought about leaving the Army altogether.

2022 survey:

In 2022 an updated version of the survey was published.

There had been an observable increase in the reporting of targeted sexualised behaviours, behaviours that include coercive sexual favours and assault.

Especially shocking was the proportion of service personnel saying they had suffered a ‘particularly upsetting experience’, which has significantly increased since 2018.

In 2018, 15% of service women reported a particularly upsetting experience (already an increase from the previous survey in 2015).

But in 2022, 35% of servicewomen reported a particularly upsetting experience in the previous 12 months.  The figure for men is 13% (up from 2% from the last survey), also a huge increase.

The reason for this is unlikely to be increased confidence in reporting because, as the survey shows, those people are not in fact reporting these experiences, they are just disclosing them in confidence to an anonymous survey. The figures may be a reflection of an increasing unwillingness on the part of service personnel to put up with behaviours that they have previously tolerated (though see below, in relation to ‘generalised’ sexual behaviours which slightly contradicts this theory). An alternative explanation of course is that things are getting worse, not better.

Lots of the behaviours categorised as a ‘particularly upsetting experience’ would actually constitute a criminal offence: such as sending unwanted sexually explicit material; revenge porn offences; and sexual assaults, ranging from unwanted sexual touching to rape.

The proportion disclosing rape appear to have doubled from 2% of those that reported a particularly upsetting experience in 2018, to 4% in this survey.

The vast majority (65%) did not tell anyone about the upsetting experience – help seeking from official Army channels such as welfare, the helplines, the unit’s equality & diversity staff, or the padres was described as ‘minimal’.

Very few formally reported their experiences. The survey notes, ‘there still seem to be significant barriers to reporting sexual harassment’ including ‘the perceived negative repercussions of making a complaint’.

Reasons for not reporting included that the person did not think anything would be done about it, did not know what to do or feared a negative impact such as being labelled a troublemaker.

In those rare cases where they did formally report, they were dissatisfied with the time taken to investigate it, and dissatisfied with the outcome. A third that had reported described negative outcomes.

In a quarter of cases, the upsetting behaviours lasted for 2 months or more.

In 77% of ‘particularly upsetting behaviours’ the perpetrator was male.

It is notable that the burden of experiencing the upsetting behaviours appears to fall disproportionately on Other Ranks (ORs) as compared to Officers.

Generalised sexualised behaviours remain a common experience in the Army, though people are less likely to find them offensive than they were in 2018. Women however are more likely to find these behaviours offensive than men. In quite a striking conclusion, given all the work that has gone on in recent years to tackle unacceptable behaviours, the authors assume this level of tolerance is due to personnel being increasingly accepting the behaviours as ‘banter’, or resigning themselves to it being ‘just the way it is’. If the Wigston and Gray and reports were to have had the impacts hoped for, you might have expected acceptance of this kind of behaviour to reduce, not go up.

In terms of efforts made to try and prevent sexual harassment, respondents were largely positive about how the Army approaches this. However the above data appears to show that improved ‘command climates’ are not having the hoped-for change on the ground.

Our blog here:

MoD Sexual Offences Bulletins

Since 2016 the MoD has been collating and publishing some (limited) statistics on sexual offending within the Armed Forces. 

In 2017, 49 rape cases got to court martial, resulting in just 2 convictions.  In 2018, the number of rape cases getting to court martial dropped to just 10, with only 3 leading to a conviction. In 2019, 15 rape cases got to court martial, resulting in just 3 convictions.

In any case, large amounts of data concerning sexual offending are simply not being collated and published at all.  The published statistics do not include any information about sexual offending by members of the Armed Forces which is dealt with by the civilian authorities; nor does it include any sexual offending that does not fall within the scope of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 (such as harassment and stalking offences, revenge porn offences, extreme pornography offences and some offences against children).

Domestic abuse statistics are not collated or published at all.

In 2022 the MoD changed the way they published the data. You can access all the years of data via this link. It is important to look at the data tables and not rely on the MoD’s summary reports.


Wigston Review into Inappropriate Behaviour

In April 2019, the Defence Secretary commissioned Air Chief Marshal Michael Wigston CBE to conduct a review into inappropriate behaviour in the Armed Forces. It followed repeated instances of inappropriate and allegedly unlawful behaviour, including an alleged sexual assault on a 17 year old trainee, which led to the arrest of six soldiers.

The review found an “unacceptable level” of inappropriate behaviour in the UK Armed Forces and a “sub-optimal” system for dealing with it.

The review observed that the “new generation” of armed forces personnel are led by a “pack mentality of white, middle-aged men, especially in positions of influence whose behaviours are shaped by the armed forces of 20 years ago”.

The Air Chief Marshal made a number of recommendations which have been accepted in principle.  He observed:

Our own surveys and external stakeholders highlight repeatedly the inadequacies of the current system for raising complaints about inappropriate behaviour. There is a pressing need to reform the Service Complaints system which could include: anonymous reporting of inappropriate behaviours; a parallel channel for making Service Complaints outwith the chain of command; better support for complainants of inappropriate behaviour; and a dedicated central Service Complaints team equipped to deal with a selection of complaints, including the most complex allegations of bullying, harassment and discrimination.

He also observed:

the disproportionate overrepresentation of women and ethnic minorities – and a lack of data on other minority groups – in the service complaints system is of widespread concern.

He called for the establishment of a Defence Authority that would ‘house the central Service Complaints team.’

At the end of 2020, a review into the progress of applying the Wigston Review recommendations was published:

This quietly revealed that even though the MoD had agreed to accept all the recommendations, the establishment of a Defence Authority would not be taken forward.

The Service Justice System Review (SJSR)

This was an independent review, conducted by a senior retired criminal (civilian) judge, HHJ Shawn Lyons and Sir Jon Murphy (former Chief Constable of Manchester Police) of the service justice system. It took place over 3 years and reported on 27 February 2020. It comprises three large reports, Part One (dated 29 March 2018), a Policing Review and Part Two (dated 29 March 2019).

It made a large number of recommendations to the MoD to improve the effectiveness of the Service Police and the Service Prosecuting Authority, the key recommendations of which related to the matter of jurisdiction and whether cases should be taken forward in the service justice system at all.  The Review concluded that murder, rape and manslaughter cases that are alleged to take place in the UK should be taken forward by the civilian justice system, not the service justice system. The Review pointed out that this had always been the intention of Parliament and formally recommended that murder, manslaughter, rape, sexual assault by penetration, domestic abuse and child abuse offences should be handled in the civilian justice system, except where the consent of the Attorney General was obtained.

On the same day that the SJSR was published, the MoD rejected the key recommendations. There was no public consultation or Parliamentary debate.

That matter is now the subject of ongoing litigation brought by 3 rape survivors, represented by the CMJ.

The Defence Inquiry on Women in the Armed Forces

In July 2021 the Defence Committee of the House of Commons conducted an inquiry into the experiences of women in the armed forces. Its report can be accessed here:

The Committee heard from over 4,100 women and examined many different aspects of service life. It has listened to women at every stage of their career, including those starting out and women that left service long ago.

While there has been much progress in the past few years, the overall picture remains very bleak in places. Just 5.2% of senior officers and 13.9% of junior officers are women. The gender imbalance is most severe among senior officers, with the Ministry of Defence estimating that it will take 300 years for women to achieve equality at the current rate. Endemic, pernicious sexism seems to have characterised so many of the experiences described in the submissions. Women describe having to adapt their behaviour and expectations to suit to the ‘white male prototype’ that, on the MoD’s own shocking evidence, can so often be defensive, resistant and hostile to change, with women and service personnel of colour bearing the brunt.

Unsurprisingly, where things are particularly bad is in relation to the shocking and unacceptable way in which the Ministry of Defence treats women that experience sexual harassment, discrimination and sexual assault.

62% of the respondents to the Inquiry describe having been subjected to bullying, harassment and discrimination, which included sexual offences. The Committee noted that in 2021, 89% of service personnel that had been subjected to this kind of behaviour did not even formally complain about it. They thought that nothing would be done or it that, if they did complain, it would adversely affect their career. It seems they were right to be afraid, because of those that did complain to the Army, nine out of ten thought about leaving as a result.

The Committee received ‘truly shocking evidence from female service personnel’ of sexual assault and rape, ‘some of which even more disturbingly involved senior officers acting as wrongdoers.’ Women reported serious procedural failures in the handling of their criminal cases, inadequate responses from the Service Prosecuting Authority, disclosure of sensitive information by the service police to the chain of command and reluctance on the part of the chain of command to report or respond appropriately to sexual assaults. As the Committee says, ‘when things go wrong, they go dramatically wrong’. For our blog on the report, as well as our view on the disappointing MoD’s response to the report, see here:

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