There has been some welcome press coverage over the weekend in advance of today’s vote in the Commons on the Armed Forces Bill.
This article in the Independent explains how Johnny Mercer MP, the former minister that was once in charge of the Bill before his resignation from Government, was pushing hard behind the scenes to change the law to better protect women and men that are the victims of sexual assaults. Other senior Tories, like Tobias Ellwood MP, seem increasingly concerned at the Government’s position too and may rebel when the Bill – now amended by the Lords to ensure rape and other serious offences in the UK should be heard in the civil system – comes back to the Commons today.
This article on the BBC quotes extensively from a Royal Navy sexual assault survivor who explains, in light of her horrific experiences, why the law needs to change to give service personnel the same access to justice as civilians. She is urging the Commons to keep the Lords amendment.
Today is crunch time.
When the law was changed in 2009 to allow the Court Martial to hear serious criminal cases that have happened in the UK, Parliament was assured time and time again that the last thing the armed forces wanted was to be able to routinely handle rape or serious sexual assault cases for itself – the proper forum for those cases where they had occurred in the UK was accepted to be the civilian justice system. But Parliament was persuaded that the law needed to be changed to allow exceptional cases, along with overseas cases, to be heard in the Court Martial. That meant those cases would be investigated by military police and prosecuted by military lawyers.
And over the years, more and more of these cases have been heard in the military justice system when there was no need for them to be heard there. That was something that Parliament never intended, as the debates at the time make clear. Outcomes in those rape cases that make it to Court Martial are very poor and some of the described experiences of the women and men that have had to go through it are terrible.
There is nothing about rape in the military that requires military expertise to investigate or prosecute it. The Government has not been able to come up with one good reason why military rape cases need to be kept inside the military system.
It’s time for Parliament to set things right.
We urge MPs today to vote to keep the Lords amendment to the Armed Forces Bill that would create a presumption that in UK murder, manslaughter, serious sexual assault including rape, domestic and child abuse cases, it must be the civilian authorities that take the lead, not the military authorities.