One year on from the Wigston Review into Inappropriate Behaviours in the Armed Forces, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has today announced that it will establish a ‘helpline’ to tackle bullying, harassment and discrimination.
The Army already has one of these – it is called ‘Speak Out’, was specifically set up to deal with bullying, harassment and discrimination (BHD) and it has been in existence since 2011. The Army made much of this – and other helplines – in the past, notably when attempting to persuade the Deepcut families that things were much better these days. From what we can see, the main difference is that this new helpline will be open 24/7 and will be available to the Royal Navy and the RAF too. That is, of course, to be welcomed.
It is easy to be flippant – it is true that a helpline can be an important part of a wider package of reform. But a helpline cannot take charge of a report or insist that it is handled effectively.
In the experience of the (largely female) clients of the CMJ, the problem has not been the lack of a 24-hour helpline – it’s what happens to you after you report. We support many women who all describe the same thing – they have been the victim of sexual assault, or have experienced serious sexual harassment and, after they reported it, were treated very badly by their units including by their chain of command.
That is because those units and the leaders within those units, at best, have little to no understanding of how to support someone who has been sexually harassed or assaulted, minimising harassing or abusive behaviours, or worse, subscribing to outdated myths about how victims are supposed to behave. They routinely overlook the (inadequate) policies that govern what steps they are supposed to take in such a situation. Yet these are the people we task with handling these situations.
Here are the things the Armed Forces can do if they are serious about tackling sexual harassment and sexual assault:
- Do what the Ombudsman has repeatedly recommended the MoD should do and which they have repeatedly and deliberately avoided doing – get independent expert research done into why such disproportionate numbers of BAME and female service personnel are complaining of BHD in the first place – in this way, you listen to the people directly affected and learn from them;
- Give the Ombudsman meaningful powers at all key stages of the complaints process – not just at the end, by which time a complainant is exhausted and worn down and likely to give up. Let the Ombudsman take the more serious BHD complaints from the outset and give her complete control over them;
- Give the Ombudsman the staff and the resources to do this properly so she can employ expert independent BHD staff, unconnected to the Armed Forces;
- Ensure that all cases of sexual assault or other serious crime are dealt with by the civilian police and not the service police – that will send the message that you take this seriously and you genuinely want those allegations independently investigated from the outset by people with the right experience and expertise. The recent Service Justice Review revealed how wanting the service police and Service Prosecuting Authority lawyers are in handling serious sexual assault cases and it made some very important recommendations on how such cases should be handled – which the MoD immediately rejected (though, thanks to the actions of 3 brave women who took the Defence Secretary to court, they are now reviewing this);
- Recognise that your COs are not dealing with sexual assault or harassment cases well and frequently make a bad situation worse. All of our female clients tell us that the assault or the original harassment was bad enough, but what was just as bad or worse, was their treatment after the event, at the hands of their colleagues and superiors. For service personnel that believed they were part of a military family, this can be devastating;
- Start chucking these guys out. Most service personnel – men and women – do not want to serve alongside colleagues that harass or assault their people. Too often we get the impression of the attitude, ‘he may be a bit of a sex pest, but he’s a good soldier.’ In every case we have dealt with, the reporting woman is made to feel like the problem.
The recent BBC documentary Racism in the Ranks shows that BAME soldiers in the Army report very similar experiences. We have been contacted by a number of BAME veterans who report – years later – still being traumatised by the racism and abuse they suffered while serving, which was dismissed, at best, as banter, and at worst, deliberately covered up. Both the Armed Forces Continuous Attitude Survey and the Ombudsman’s annual report reveal how disproportionate the numbers of BHD complaints from BAME personnel are.
I am reliably informed this week that a service-wide virtual meeting was held for service personnel to hear directly from Air Chief Marshal Wigston and to discuss his report, one year on. One person managed to send an email to the facilitator, alerting the meeting to the fact that they were assisting a victim of assault who was having to work alongside their assailant. That enquiry was very quickly taken offline. One of the presenters actually said at one point, ‘much of domestic abuse is illegal’, begging a rather obvious question. Every person that presented to the meeting – save for the facilitator – was male. Every single person that called in and was selected to speak to the meeting was male. It appears that the Armed Forces lack a sense of irony.
It’s easy to stand on the side lines and throw stones. It is really important to acknowledge that this week the Chief of the Defence Staff General Sir Nick Carter made some very strong statements to the Defence Select Committee, admitting the existence of the ‘laddish culture’, noting that in the top 150 general officers across the tri-services only 3 are women and noting the dreadful impact unacceptable behaviour can have on people and operational effectiveness. It is absolutely clear he wants to sort this out. The trouble is, each time the MoD has the opportunity to do something really game-changing, it walks away and instead focuses on the stuff around the edges – like a helpline. Ensuring sexual assault cases are taken out of the military justice system, granting meaningful powers and resources to the independent Ombudsman and acting on her bigger recommendations – these are things the MoD has repeatedly been asked to do and has declined. More announcements are expected over the summer and into the autumn. We will watch with interest.