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.
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.
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.
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.
Sexual Harassment 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.
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.
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:
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. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/may/03/women-launch-legal-action-to-stop-military-courts-trying-uk-cases