The Defence Committee has today published the report of its Inquiry into Women in the Armed Forces. 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’.
The Committee has come up with a set of really powerful recommendations that echo other independent reviews in recent years and which the MoD has repeatedly rejected.
They want the MoD to set up a central Defence Authority that would provide a (semi) independent reporting and investigation system for serious bullying, harassment and discrimination complaints, taking them outside of the single services themselves. This was the key recommendation of the Wigston Review into Unacceptable Behaviours in 2019. Despite the former Secretary of State for Defence stating to the House of Commons on 15 July 2019 that the MoD ‘accepted the recommendations of the report in full’, the MoD then rolled back on that. The current Secretary of State for Defence should be invited to correct the record to the House and explain why the position has changed and who is influencing these decisions. The Chief of Defence People, Lt Gen James Swift, giving evidence to the Committee on the issue, was not able to coherently explain to the Chair why the position had changed. At least he had the good grace to look embarrassed as he gave his evidence.
The Committee has called the MoD out on its outrageous plans to reduce the service complaints appeal deadline from an already tight six weeks, to just two weeks. All the signs are that the MoD is doubling down on this inexplicable, self-serving reform. With some other lawyers, we wrote to the Chief of Defence People about this issue last month and received a wholly unsatisfactory reply which you can read here: (Letter to CDP). As the Committee observes, ‘we struggle to understand why the MoD chose a step that may further reduce the already low level of confidence that Service Personnel have in the complaints system’. For the reasons we outline in our correspondence, this proposal severely undermines service personnel’s access to justice because it affects their right to apply to the Employment Tribunal, the only independent court to which service personnel have any realistic (and already very limited) access.
The Committee also wants: annual tri-service sexual harassment surveys; the Ombudsman’s recommendations to be binding; specialist support services to be properly funded and provided to victims of ‘military sexual trauma’; to remove the chain of command entirely from complaints of a sexual nature; and career progression to be affected for those found to have acted unacceptably.
Most importantly of all, the Committee wants rape and serious sexual assaults in the UK to be handled in the civilian justice system and taken out of the military justice system altogether. This builds upon the important work and recommendations of the independent review into the military justice system (the Lyons Review) that reported last year and which expressed such concern about the experience and competence of the military police, the Service Prosecuting Authority, and the quality and consistency of care and support for victims of sexual assaults in the military.
With such strong, clear recommendations it is extremely disappointing that so many members of the Committee did not feel able to support the amendment to the Armed Forces Bill 2021 that would have delivered the very thing they are now calling for. An amendment that would require all UK rape and serious sexual assaults to be handled in the civilian justice system was proposed but rejected by the House of Commons at third reading on 13 July 2021, including by several members of this Committee. There is speculation in some quarters that the Committee’s report may have been delayed until after that vote was called to avoid embarrassing some members of the Committee. Whatever the reason, it is a great shame that the House of Commons did not have the benefit of the Committee’s evidence when it voted. We hope the House of Lords will pick up the issue and make the necessary changes to the Bill and that, when it returns, Committee members may get another chance to put this right.
We can expect the usual warm words from the MoD in response to this powerful report. For the MoD, Baroness Goldie has already, bizarrely, cited the reduction in service complaint appeal times so heavily criticised by the Committee, as evidence of their willingness to improve. She remains silent about the calls for rape cases to be handled in the civilian justice system, referring instead to a ‘new’ Defence-wide strategy for rape. There is nothing to suggest she will accept the Committee’s recommendations, but she insists that service women shall nonetheless have their support. But as long as the Government and the MoD continue to ignore the central recommendations of Wigston, Lyons and now the Defence Committee, the women we work with will be right to question their commitment to meaningful change. Those women will have our support.