Skip to main content

Military Justice System

Volume 557: debated on Thursday 31 January 2013

[Jim Dobbin in the Chair]

It is a pleasure, Mr Dobbin, to serve under your chairmanship for what I believe is a very important and serious debate this afternoon.

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate, and I thank colleagues for their support. A number of colleagues who wanted to speak in this debate have been unable to do so, either because of Committee meetings elsewhere in the House or constituency responsibilities.

The British military is a highly efficient, effective and disciplined force. This debate will examine the military justice system. Serving and ex-service personnel, military and civilian charities, and statutory and non-statutory organisations have all expressed to me their concerns about the system set up to address both complaints and criminality. I repeatedly asked everyone I met, “Is there a problem?”, and I was told, “Yes, there is. Keep digging.” I thank them all for their willingness to share what at times were distressing stories about the complaints and injustices that people have faced. It is right and appropriate that the problems within the armed forces are raised in this House. It is Parliament’s responsibility to ensure that necessary changes are supported, promoted and implemented.

This will be a wide-ranging debate. I could take 60 minutes of the 90 minutes allowed for the debate just for my speech—I promise Members that I will not do so—and still not do the subject justice. I am pleased that the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), will respond to the debate. He has been most generous in meeting me, along with senior military police officers, to discuss some of the concerns that I am raising today; I thank him for that. I am confident that he is also eager to address the problems that I will outline today, and I am also confident that we will get the changes that we need.

As I explained to the Minister when we met, my interest in military justice was sparked by learning of the extent of rape and sexual assault in the US armed forces. A report found that in the US a female soldier was more likely to be raped than killed or injured by enemy fire, in both Iraq and Afghanistan. In the US in 2011, 3,192 service personnel reported being raped or sexually assaulted. The US Department of Defence admitted that 80% of victims do not report the crime against them, and the conviction rate for sexual assault was just 8%.

However, the US is tackling the problem. Having visited numerous US bases recently, I can report seeing billboard-size posters on the walls of bases, and every toilet door has a poster and every corridor is covered in posters, all of which highlight the importance of ending sexual assault and rape within the US military. In Australia, the Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, recently issued an apology to all servicemen and women who had suffered abuse. So Britain is not alone in needing to tackle this issue. We do not have the same scale of the problem as in the US, but we cannot be complacent. For the sake of the reputation and integrity of our armed forces, the issues raised today must be addressed.

I have been inundated by e-mails and letters from people who have been through the military justice system having their complaints and offences examined. All of them felt that they did not receive justice and were dealt with unfairly. Most of them wish to remain anonymous, as they are fearful of what will happen if they are identified as complainants. Meetings away from the House to protect the identities of individuals have been necessary and—well-founded or not—a level of fear exists. Sadly, for many people the experience has led to mental health problems.

Cases have highlighted problems with the conduct of summary hearings and problems created by the lack of access to an independent employment tribunal system. Many people accepted the findings of a summary hearing, which they saw as a hearing into a disciplinary issue, without realising that they would incur a criminal conviction. Many only discovered that years later when they left the services and applied for residency or civilian employment. They accepted the summary hearing and its findings because the alternative would have been a court martial.

The system runs on a basis of “Shut up, put up and don’t make waves or you’ll regret it”. Stories of bullying and harassment resulting from complaints and attempts to fight injustice were numerous. I apologise that I will not have time to refer individually to the many stories that I have heard.

Are you suggesting that someone found guilty of absence or minor theft incurs a criminal record that follows them into civilian life? If you are, I am slightly concerned by that.

Mr Dobbin, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that you answer the question, but I can confirm that someone guilty of a minor theft would incur a criminal record. Someone responsible for a disciplinary issue of a minor order, such as failing to salute, would not. What is sad is that criminal records are seen differently depending on which part of the United Kingdom they are recorded in. Someone might get a criminal record for a certain offence in England and Wales, but not in Scotland. I hope that other Members will address that issue later, as I will not have time to do so. In the system, people face bullying when they register complaints.

In 2005, the Equal Opportunities Commission suspended a formal investigation into sexual harassment following an agreement with the Ministry of Defence. Surveys were instituted in 2006, 2007 and 2009 asking servicewomen and men how they perceived sexual harassment, what experience of it they had had and whether they had reported it; sexual harassment goes through the complaints system.

A total of 9,000 servicewomen responded to the survey in 2006, and reported widespread sexualised behaviour. Some 67% had encountered behaviours ranging from unwelcome comments to sexual assaults; 21% cited their line manager as a perpetrator, and 36% cited another senior person. Some 35% said that they did not think they would be believed if they complained, and only 5% made a formal written complaint. In 2009, 78% of the 16,000 servicewomen who replied had experienced an unwelcome comment, and 65% had been asked about their sex lives or been told sexual jokes. The number of people who made formal complaints hardly changed between 2006 and 2009, although awareness of what constituted sexual harassment increased.

I quote two brief responses to the 2006 survey:

“A friend was out on an exercise when a group of men ducked her head in a bucket of water and each time she came up for breath she had to repeat ‘I am useless and I am a female’. She told the story and said it was a joke but I could see she was upset.”

Another person said:

“Go through the complaints procedure—you must be joking! We’ve no confidence in it at all. One senior officer was suddenly removed from the unit I was on…all kinds of high-ranking bods came to investigate. It was a sexual harassment case. But he popped up elsewhere and we never heard any more about it. It doesn’t give you confidence when you see the officers getting away with it”.

The military knows that it has a problem. Why else would the Adjutant-General ask Major-General Lorimer’s views on equality and diversity? Major-General Lorimer, replying in November 2012 after his survey of 6,000 personnel, said:

“Every female officer or other rank that my Command Sergeant Major has spoken to claims to have been the subject of unwanted sexual attention…There is an overriding sense that soldiers who believe that they have been treated unfairly are not inclined to report the fact because they lack trust that the chain of command will deal appropriately with the complaint.”

Sexual harassment has not gone away. I am told that in the military culture, sexual harassment is an everyday occurrence. Making a complaint is not an option because it involves reporting through the chain of command, which could include the perpetrator or a friend of the perpetrator, and because the complaint could have consequences for the victim’s future career. The perpetrator may often be seen as a good soldier who is not to be lost and who must be protected. I am told that reporting results in social isolation and ostracism within the unit and is seen as showing a lack of mettle and an inability to get on with others. The victims are seen as being at fault: they are the ones who should not have been drinking or in the room, and apparently they also lack a sense of humour. In the military, fortunately, at least women cannot be blamed for wearing high heels and short skirts.

A culture in which sexual harassment is prevalent can be a factor in rape and sexual assault, which are criminal offences. A US Department of Defence survey found that 55% of women and 38% of men reported that their assailant sexually harassed or stalked them prior to the incident of rape or sexual assault.

I have tried to establish how many rapes and sexual assaults are reported by serving personnel, and have received conflicting data. A response to one of my myriad parliamentary questions stated that 18 rapes were reported across the three services in 2011. When I asked for a gender breakdown of those 18 rape victims, the number dropped to four: three female and one male. In a letter from the Minister for the Armed Forces, the right hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan), I was informed that the figures were lower because the original figures included reports by civilians, which implies that 14 civilians or members of the local community had been raped by members of the armed forces.

The figures for sexual assault in 2011 are confusing. A reply from June 2012 said that there had been 36 reported sexual assaults across the three services, but one in July 2012 said that there had been 58, and one in November 2012 said that there had been 40. Yet the Army Justice Board’s item 6, “Allegations of rape and sexual offences”, shows more than 80 allegations of rape and more than 60 allegations of sexual assault in 2011. In the three years between 2010 and mid-2012, a parliamentary question informed me that there had been 53 rapes, but Army Justice Board figures show 268. According to a parliamentary question, there were 86 sexual assaults, but again, an Army Justice Board slide shows 179.

The figure of 53 rapes is for those reported to the service police. The Times was told that the 268 cases may include cases reported by members of the Army and cases investigated by civilian police in which the alleged victim was not a member of the armed forces. However, the Home Office tells me that it has no equivalent data on civilian police referrals of rapes and sexual assaults within the armed forces. The MOD reply to The Times states that the figures include that information. It also suggests that 215 civilians may have been raped by serving members of the military.

This is not just about the rape and sexual assault of women. Although the figures that I have are small, servicemen too are victims of rape and sexual assault; in the 2007 survey, 26 servicemen reported having been sexually assaulted. I asked a parliamentary question about how many service personnel had been discharged or left the forces following a conviction. I was told that the information was not held centrally and could only be provided at a disproportionate cost.

Another parliamentary answer underlined further confusion, stating that

“in the UK the civilian police deal with the vast majority of cases of rape or sexual assault allegedly involving a member of the armed forces. The Service Police investigate a relatively small number of cases.”—[Official Report, 7 January 2013; Vol. 556, c. 36W.]

It is not clear whether that refers to rapes or sexual assaults perpetrated against personnel or by personnel against civilians, or why service police may at any time be involved in investigating offences against civilians.

Who investigates what is unclear. Another question showed that a protocol exists between Ministry of Defence police, service police and civilian police, stating that

“while there may be concurrent jurisdiction, local civilian forces have primacy…There are no specific guidelines issued to the Service Police…on whether allegations of rape or sexual assault made by armed forces personnel should be referred to the civilian police for investigation.”—[Official Report, 7 January 2013; Vol. 556, c. 36W.]

We know that personnel have reported offences to their local civilian police forces and have then found themselves referred back to the service police. There appears to be no formal external inspection by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary of the three service police forces, and there is no independent oversight of the forces in the form of an independent police complaints commission.

Reliance on reports of rape and sexual assault is a problem. There is reticence to report also in the civilian world. A recent study estimated that 67,000 women were victims of rape last year and that only 15% of women report rape to the police, but only 4% of servicewomen ever make a complaint about anything. Why are they not complaining to their chain of command? The chain of command is fundamental to how our armed forces are organised, with complaints and reports of criminal acts being passed up the chain to the commanding officers, who have responsibility for discipline and welfare. The COs combine the roles of judge, jury, manager, social worker and enforcer of discipline, and they are in a position of considerable power and influence. The 2006 survey indicated that in 57% of cases the sexual harassment was perpetrated in the chain of command.

Where a case is to be prosecuted, it is taken via court martial and passed to the Service Prosecuting Authority—SPA—which decides whether to proceed. I know how seriously the authority takes its cases, but there are concerns about the continuity of case ownership and the quality of information that the authority is fed by the chain of command. A letter from the SPA to the Chief of the General Staff stated:

“We were not informed that the soldier referred had attempted suicide and had been sectioned under the Mental Health Act. In another case it was only fortuitous that we discovered that the accused was the brother of a soldier killed in Afghanistan and had ‘gone off the rails’ on one occasion in an otherwise exemplary career. The list goes on. We would welcome more active engagement with COs when referring cases to us to better inform our judgment when considering the service interest. In appropriate cases we engage with the three services to consider their views on the service interest. While the ultimate decision is for the SPA we welcome representations.”

I have consulted widely about the changes we need to address the reputation, integrity and operation of one of the finest militaries in the world. The men and women who serve in our armed forces need to know that stamping out injustice is the priority of all personnel. They need to know that the person standing next to them values and respects them, and sees them as an equal.

In relation to complaints and criminality, we must have accurate data. It is unacceptable that the extent of the problem of rape and sexual assault is not clearly known and set out, or is being obscured, and I ask the Minister to address that problem. Responsibility for the investigation of rape and sexual assault should be clear and transparent. It should rest with either the service police or the civilian police, and accurate records should be maintained. I ask the Minister to address that, too.

Everyone I spoke to agreed that the most difficult problem is a cultural one. I was told “equality and diversity jobs are seen as something for softies who cannot operate on the front line.” Major-General Lorimer suggested:

“We will derive most benefit from the introduction of widespread, effective and professionalised equality and diversity training. Deepening our soldiers’ understanding of the issues and driving lasting, attitudinal changes to behaviour will, in my view, cement respect for others in the forefront of our normal daily routine, where it should be.”

I do not think that anyone would disagree with that, but to bring cultural change such training must come from civilian experts and not simply involve personnel listening to a law lecture. It needs to be external experts talking inside the closed system of the military. Will the Minister commit to that?

Senior oversight was seen as essential by everyone. I was told that until there is a very senior officer responsible for driving the change and reporting directly to the Chief of the General Staff and the chiefs of staff committee, little will happen. I was also told that change will be limited until there are women air marshals, admirals and major-generals, but I hope that that is wrong. The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills recently said in relation to the financial services sector that frequent travel and working in remote areas of the world had been cited as barriers to appointing more women, but that successful, modern companies learn to adapt, and said that

“doing nothing is not an option anymore”

where senior positions are concerned. Will the Minister commit, please, to such senior-level posting?

The Service Complaints Commissioner—SCC—exists to provide service personnel with a vehicle by which to make complaints about non-criminal issues such as sexual harassment and bullying. Everyone has stressed the need for the commissioner to become an ombudsman. The 2011 Service Complaints Commissioner’s report states that

“for the fourth year running, I am unable to say the Service complaints system is working efficiently, effectively or fairly.”

Is not the Service Complaints Commissioner separate from the military justice system? It is a complaints system, not a justice system, and she—the current commissioner—is not in the justice system as such.

As the hon. Gentleman might have realised from my speech, I have tried to talk about the two parallel issues. The military justice system means someone being able to get access to justice for the complaints they are pursuing. I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees that sexual harassment is a matter of justice, even though it is not necessarily a criminal offence. Sexual harassment cases dealt with by the Service Complaints Commissioner would be a form of complaint, hence I have included both issues in my speech.

The problem is the lack of capacity for the Service Complaints Commissioner to investigate complaints. The Deepcut inquiry recommended external oversight and an inquiry capability provided by an ombudsman. The chain of command rejected that because of a fear that it would undermine its authority. The 2011 Service Complaints Commissioner’s report states:

“The SCC is judged by Ministers and Service Chiefs to be playing an effective part in assuring the proper treatment of Service Personnel. The Government’s formal response to my Annual Report 2010 confirmed the value Ministers and the Service Chiefs placed on my work and my team. They commented that: ‘The independent oversight and scrutiny you provide of the process is fundamental to the continued improvements that are being made to the way in which we manage Service complaints.’”

Will the Minister commit to the creation of an ombudsman?

The military is a command and control organisation, whose members are used to being directed from above. It is an organisation capable of cultural change. Major-General Lorimer noted in his letter that

“racism is now regarded by the vast majority as being entirely unacceptable”.

The necessary changes must be implemented. We need accurate data. We need summary hearings brought into the 21st century, the criminal records issue addressed, external inspection and oversight of the military police, the Service Prosecuting Authority having continuity of prosecution teams, and an ombudsman, all well supported by the chain of command, so that men and women can serve with pride, security and equality.

We are sending our service personnel to protect, build and secure populations in countries threatened by terrorism, where people need to know that our military represent our society’s values of equality, transparent justice and integrity. I hope that we see that move forward today.

I intend to start the wind- ups at around 4.40 pm, so Members have roughly seven minutes. If they can keep to that, all four Members who are standing will be able to take part.

I draw attention to my interest as a member of reserve forces.

I was the Member of Parliament who asked the Select Committee on Defence, of which I am a member, to take evidence from the Service Complaints Commissioner on some of the issues touched on by the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon). I asked because of some of my casework as Member of Parliament for Portsmouth North.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. I will raise various points, but it is important to put on record that these cases are not the norm. I say that not to belittle the issues that have been raised or to dispute the figures that she quoted. The one message that must go out from this Chamber today is that if someone in the armed forces has been the victim of such behaviour, they must report it. As a member of the Royal Naval Reserve, I would say it is their duty to do so. We must ensure that people do not lose confidence in their ability to report such matters.

I am glad the hon. Lady recognises that our armed forces are highly professional, and I testify that the training we receive and the protocols we are taught are extremely politically correct—in fact, they might be a little over the top for our own Speaker—but they are very good. The emphasis in training on leadership, responsibility and integrity is important. I disagree with her on the armed forces’ ability to address equality issues with their own people without relying on external trainers; I think they can address that in-house.

The hon. Lady might wish to seek out Captain Hancock, as she now is, who received her fourth band of gold on the day I passed out of Dartmouth. She has done an amazing amount of work on equality in the armed forces and is a real trailblazer. I think she was the first female club swinger for that service.

We must recognise that the cases we are discussing are not the norm, and we must also recognise the good work that has gone on. In her session before the Defence Committee, Dr Sue Atkins highlighted many examples of good practice, such as how the Royal Navy addressed the backlog of complaints that all the services were facing by being extremely pragmatic, by empowering people lower down the command chain to clear the general admin cases—issues about pay, terms and conditions, and so on—and by putting resources into the more serious issues that the hon. Lady has raised.

The bulk of the cases addressed by the Service Complaints Commissioner are on things such as pay and admin. I have raised with the Minister many times the importance of getting that right and the woes of joint personnel administration. It is important to learn from that and to note that the lessons and good practice that are going on in one service are being shared across the other services. There are many things in the Service Complaints Commissioner’s report that give us confidence for the future.

Unfortunately, things go wrong, particularly in a case I have dealt with: a nasty assault that I will not detail, although the Minister is aware. I will highlight a few learnings from that. First, it would be helpful if serious allegations are immediately picked up centrally. The chap I was dealing with, after he made his allegation, was placed back in the unit with the perpetrators of the assault. That is absolutely wrong, and if allegations were picked up centrally, that would not happen.

Secondly, there are clearly complexities in taking statements from individuals. Someone may be deployed between an incident happening and being reported, but it is important that we ensure such investigations take place swiftly.

Thirdly, there must be support for the individual. From my experience, I praise the work of the Royal Marines. The chap I was dealing with is from the Army. He had a placement on light duties with the Royal Marines, which was not only a way of parking him until things were resolved; there was proactive work to help him to get his confidence back. That was deeply impressive.

I also want to highlight support for families. People who have experienced a traumatic event often leave their unit and their service accommodation to stay with their parents, who are sometimes elderly. With the emotions they are going through, such people might be violent or kicking off a bit, and dealing and coping with that is particularly hard for older parents. In cases I have seen, the Service Complaints Commissioner and the Naval Families Federation were wonderful: they got in touch with the individual, and were able to provide him with a safe house to go to when things got a bit too much at home.

Finally, we must be aware of how we deliver sometimes bad news to victims of assaults. If an investigation has not gone their way, or if a panel has made a decision that might be difficult for them to hear, support for the commanding officer or the other ranks who may have to deliver that news is vital. On occasion that is done badly. In the case I was dealing with, for example, the parents were asked to be the messenger, which is not good.

We must ensure that people are properly supported. Such cases are not the norm, but they are evidence for why the Service Complaints Commissioner’s role is incredibly important. Her intervention in the cases I have dealt with has been extremely useful. She respects the chain of command, but she points out what is not acceptable. She gives practical help to the individuals and families involved, and, as an individual and an office, she can call on a great network of people across the services. Although this guy was from the Army, the Navy and the Marines provided assistance.

The Service Complaints Commissioner is frustrated in acting swiftly and having basic common sense taken up and acted upon. We must support her and the role. I agree with her call that she should be an ombudsman, which would make a difference in the small cases where we have difficult issues to address. She should be allowed to investigate and report on some of those issues. Given the myriad figures quoted by the hon. Lady, everyone would benefit from ensuring we have got the facts right.

Complaints are seen as an employer-employee dispute. If someone makes a complaint and then dies, whether it is in service or if they are hit by a bus when crossing the road, the complaint dies with them. That is deeply unsatisfactory not only for the family of the victim, but for the person against whom the accusation has been made. The Service Complaints Commissioner ought to be involved in the development of the military covenant, and certainly with its annual report.

Those are all sensible measures that would help to get better outcomes for victims and better support for commanding officers.

As I recall, Dr Atkins said that she is often overwhelmed by the cases and overfaced by many of the problems.

There is a resource issue. The bulk of the cases the Service Complaints Commissioner is addressing are technical. Although serious for the people making the complaints, the cases are about terms and conditions, pay and so on. We need to address her resources, but we must also consider how she may use them and who else she can call on.

The things we would like to see for the Service Complaints Commissioner are completely compatible with the chain of command. I thank the Minister for his support with the casework issues I have raised with him. When we deal with tough stuff such as this, and the general challenge of defence, it is reassuring that we have a ministerial team that, as well as talking the talk, has walked the walk. The Minister is a former Territorial Army officer for the Royal Anglian Regiment, and his colleagues have distinguished service careers, too. I think he appreciates what needs to happen for us to improve on the good work that has already gone on.

We all owe Dr Sue Atkins a tremendous debt of gratitude for her excellent work in moving this agenda on, day to day, whether speaking at a warrant officers’ conference or in the work she does on these complaints.

My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier), who is not here today, deserves a mention. The way that he dealt with the case of Sergeant Danny Nightingale, getting the balance right between justice and the debt and duty of care that we owe to those—

Order. I remind hon. Members that the case of Danny Nightingale is sub judice and should not be mentioned in this Chamber.

I apologise, Mr Dobbin.

The balance that my hon. Friend struck on those issues, between justice and our duty of care to individuals who serve, and the services that they work in, shows exactly how we should approach these issues.

The hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier) wanted to attend, but he is serving on a Bill Committee and that is the only reason why he is not here.

That was my final point, Mr Dobbin. I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention and for securing today’s debate.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) on securing the debate. I apologise to her and to you, Mr Dobbin, and particularly to the Minister, because due to the change in timings I have to leave before the end of the debate.

I start by expressing my respect and admiration for the armed forces and my gratitude for the work that they do, including the Royal Military Police, who often investigate alleged criminal offences in difficult circumstances and face unique challenges. Nothing that I am going to say should detract from that at all.

Nevertheless, in the course of military justice and the way it is conducted—not so much to do with the facts of law in any case—some recurrent themes to do with process and transparency seem to occur a little too often. The confidence of the public and the people involved comes from good process and a degree of transparency. My hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Sir Nick Harvey), the former Armed Forces Minister said,

“It ruffles an awful lot of feathers and people of a traditional viewpoint don’t agree, but if it is the view even of the commissioner that there is still a need for an independent ombudsman figure, I think we ought to sit up and take notice of that.”

He is right. I urge the Minister to seriously consider the establishment of such an ombudsman figure.

We are talking about a number of different things in this debate, including complaints, some about matters of law and others about matters of natural justice but not involving the criminal law. I want to focus on the conduct of legal cases, but not the matters of law involved. A number of cases have been mentioned. The hon. Member for Bridgend raised important points relating to those involving sexual harassment and rape, where, of course, the civilian justice system has evolved markedly over recent years in an attempt to be more sensitive and supportive of victims. There may be questions about whether the same kind of progress and evolution has taken place in the military justice system.

Tom Deacon, a former airman, does not contest the facts of an incident in 2007, when he apparently damaged a barrack room door with a vacuum cleaner—that must have been quite a party—but he argues that the criminal conviction he received was unduly harsh. The issue is not so much the legal facts of whether that criminal conviction was right or wrong; in his case, he was not warned that a criminal conviction was even possible in a summary hearing. The summary hearing took place behind closed doors and he did not find out about the verdict until three years afterwards, when it emerged through a Criminal Records Bureau check. His comment to the media was:

“The MoD can do what they like…They are completely above the law.”

I am sure that no hon. Member would necessarily endorse such a harsh judgment, but if there is even a perception of that kind it must give us pause and require us to pay attention to what is happening.

The Minister will be aware of a case that I raised with the Ministry of Defence over several years, which has subsequently been taken up by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), who has conscientiously supported a former constituent of mine, Mr Wayne Moore. The Minister replied in detail to an Adjournment debate last year on this case, expressing confidence in the legal outcome and that, in this case, there had been no real prospect of a conviction being secured. Again, this is not the place for anyone to challenge that judgment. Yet I think that the Minister would accept that, in that case, there were missed investigative opportunities—admitted by the Service Prosecuting Authority—unwarranted delays, particularly in the adequate gathering of evidence and poor communication between various military authorities, particularly between the SPA and the Royal Military Police. There was also poor communication between those authorities and Mr Moore, who was at various stages left in the dark for months on end about what was happening in the process. I am sure that other hon. Members will mention other cases.

The creation of an ombudsman in response to such problems with process and transparency will by no means be a panacea. It will not reassure everybody in every case that has not gone the way that they would want it to go—it will not cure all these things, which are sometimes cultural and sometimes to do with the conduct of individual officers and authorities—but it would at least mean that there was some recourse to an independent view of whether the process had been properly carried out. As the Service Complaints Commissioner herself has said,

“The purpose of the Service Complaints Commissioner was to give confidence to people using the system. For five years I said delay is a problem. If you had an independent level of appeal at the end you could simplify the system. It was my view that that would give people confidence in the system.”

Confidence is what we need here. An ombudsman figure would be independent and would be perceived as such. I am sure that an ombudsman would not be able to second guess the legal facts of cases that had become criminal cases, but would be able to investigate process and the conduct of military authorities and to suggest redress, as other ombudsman authorities can. An ombudsman figure would provide a powerful incentive to have better conduct of such cases and it would at least allow failings that had occurred to be identified and addressed by Ministers or the military authorities, even if it could not necessarily bring about redress in every case.

Nobody is above the law and no one is suggesting that the British military are above the law, but greater transparency and scrutiny, and access to independent review, might ensure that that is also seen to be the case.

I am not going to talk about specific cases. I want to talk about the system of military justice, just to put it on the record. Military justice is superimposed on civilian law. It is an addition to, not a subtraction from, the civil law of our land. Military law imposes additional responsibilities on people who are subject to it. Military justice has evolved recently. It has changed quite a lot—notably in 2006—and was amended in 2011.

Criminal cases in the Army are investigated by the Special Investigation Branch of the Royal Military Police, and I understand that there is an SIB element in the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force as well. The Special Investigation Branch of all three services deals only with criminal investigations. The SIB is independent of the military chain of command. Its investigators report directly to the Director of Service Prosecutions, who is currently Bruce Houlder, QC. He and not the military authorities decides whether a serious prosecution should go ahead. I accept the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) was talking about the interface with complaints, but I will talk specifically about the system—if it works, which it normally does.

The system itself is okay, but it does go wrong, normally because of human beings. In 2010 Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate reported that the Service Prosecuting Authority was one of the most successful areas that it had investigated throughout the land. The military justice system has of course changed—quite significantly—since I left the Army in the dark ages of 1996 but, in principle, it still consists of three levels. First, normally, a person charged under military law appears in front of his or her sub-unit commander—in the Army, for instance, usually a company commander, normally a major. Those charged have the right to have a friend or adviser present. They also have the right to opt for court martial should they so wish. If a sub-unit commander deals with a case of petty discipline such as insubordination, the accused has the right to appeal up to 14 days thereafter, against both the verdict and the punishment.

The next level is the commanding officer—normally, in the Army a lieutenant-colonel, in the Navy a commander and in the Royal Air Force at least a wing commander. Again, the accused has the right to have a friend or adviser present—they are clearly told about that right—or they can opt for trial by court martial, if they so wish.

My hon. Friend is speaking from great knowledge and experience, but one of the complications, as in the case of Mr Moore, my former constituent, is that a civilian is sometimes the alleged victim. The SIB process, therefore, which was involved in his case, is particularly untransparent to people who are not part of the military.

If a civilian is involved, as I understand it, civilian police and civilian court proceedings deal with the case. I do not know any specific instances and I am not going to go through it, but that is my understanding from when I was a commanding officer—a long time ago, as I said.

At commanding officer level, the accused has a right to have a friend or adviser present. Again, however, he or she can opt for trial by court martial. If convicted and sentenced, that person also has 14 days in which to appeal.

At the third level is the possibility of a court martial, which is obviously for serious cases. Again, accused personnel in such circumstances have the right to be represented properly—normally, in courts martial at which I have been present, by someone quite senior, such as a Queen’s counsel. The armed forces insist that things are done properly, and such people are brought out to wherever the court martial is taking place. Someone convicted by a court martial has the right to appeal to the court martial appeal court, which operates as part of the Court of Appeal and consists of civilian judges—nothing military. I am trying to point out that the system includes a largely civilian component.

In summary, there will always be cases in which military justice could have been improved. In general, however, the system itself is pretty good for all members of the armed forces, and indeed for civilians who work under military law. I note the time, so I will now sit down.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) on securing this important debate.

I reiterate the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) about respect for everyone in our armed forces, including those who seek to ensure that justice within them is true and fair. I have, however, been dismayed by constituents’ concerns about possible miscarriages of justice, denial of fundamental rights and, in certain cases, abuse. That is in addition to serious allegations, well documented in The Times newspaper, by service personnel who have bravely decided to speak out. It takes courage to serve in our armed forces, so we should not be surprised that such personnel have found the courage to speak out about what they see as the closing of ranks above them.

Those who have come forward have highlighted worrying cases, including maltreatment of personnel, service personnel with criminal convictions as a result of otherwise casual processes and people finding their charges against others dropped without notice or due process. Some who have spoken out or rightly sought redress have been targeted with unfair sanctions or informal social exclusion. Ultimately, the huge time delays involved in having appeals investigated result in disillusionment, anxiety and resentment. In some cases at least, something serious has gone wrong, and appropriate investigation and review are warranted.

I fully appreciate that in some respects the military operate outside, or as my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) described it, supplement what we might normally consider the legal framework of civil society.

Much better—I defer to my hon. Friend’s choice of language.

The armed forces, I understand, are heavily reliant on a hierarchy that provides a rigid chain of command and that fosters and values highly the principles of loyalty and authority. Orders are given and orders must be obeyed. Such factors help us to understand the frame within which military justice operates, but can they ever be excuses for denying justice?

We have heard much about serious and criminal matters in the debate but, instead of repeating such points, it might be helpful if I drew attention to some issues to do with what one might think of as administrative justice and the operation of service complaints. Understanding the culture surrounding the issue is certainly relevant. I have received reports of hearings behind closed doors and of superior officers acting as both prosecution and, effectively, judge. Such matters, if allowed to happen, make access to a proper appeal process against those decisions all the more important. Furthermore, if the process is drawn out for as long as we read about in some cases, such appeals risk being rendered irrelevant on the ground by the time that they are concluded.

I hope that we all want to see values of independence and openness instilled into the proceedings, to restore the faith of service personnel in the system and to ensure that they receive justice. We have heard much reference to the better understanding of the situation that has come from the work of the Service Complaints Commissioner, Dr Susan Atkins. She has continually voiced complaints about the length of time appeals take to be heard and how, in some cases, appeals have not even been dealt with before people leave the armed forces.

When we ask for independent oversight of such processes, I have read that some people point to the role of Dr Atkins and say, “There you are, there is independent oversight.” What good is that independent oversight, however, if the Ministry of Defence does not act sufficiently to resolve the very criticisms that are aired by the Service Complaints Commissioner in her work?

I am anxious to leave time for the Minister to give a full response, and many of the concerns have been well aired. I add my support to the calls for a strengthened institution to provide independent oversight capability. Clearly one option is an independent ombudsman. I would like the Minister to address the parallels with the Independent Police Complaints Commission, and to say whether there is a case for equivalent powers in the oversight of military justice. The confidence of service personnel in how the system operates is important. We ask an enormous amount of them, and they go out of their way to protect others, so it is of great concern when we hear reports of instances, such as have been well outlined in this debate, of our armed forces being unable to protect their own.

The principles of transparency and accountability are key in reaching what must ultimately be everyone’s objective for the justice system. With transparency and the accountability that that brings, everyone is removed from any conflict or any temptation away from what is at the heart of any justice system: that the conclusions reached and the sanctions imposed are ultimately understood to be fair.

It is a pleasure, Mr Dobbin, to serve under your chairmanship today. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) on drawing attention to the important issues that we are debating. The vast majority of our armed forces do their job with the utmost professionalism and commitment, and nothing we say here today should take away from our gratitude for their service. However, we have a responsibility in this place to give an accurate reflection of the issues we discuss, and some people, not necessarily in this Chamber but outside, may want to suggest that there is no problem. A combination of the statistics and the stories shows that there is a problem, and it needs to be addressed.

Servicemen and women need to have confidence in their justice system. They need to know that if they are wronged against, they will get redress, and if they wrong someone else, they will be held accountable. The key principle of the armed forces covenant is that no one serving in the forces, their families, or veterans should be disadvantaged because of their service, and there is agreement that the covenant should cover all aspects of life in the service community. There is a paragraph in the 2012 covenant report abut the Service Complaints Commissioner, but the wider and more complex issue of military justice is not covered, and I hope that that will be on the agenda for the next report.

There is concern that the system is not properly serving the forces. When the same person in an organisation is responsible for discipline and justice, there is a real danger that the lines may become blurred. We must look properly at giving people access to justice outwith the chain of command. It is not difficult, even for those of us who have never been in the forces, to see how concerns about career prospects, promotion, redundancies and relationships with colleagues and senior officers might get in the way of ensuring that justice is done.

I am a little worried about where the hon. Lady is going in her remarks. Is she suggesting that commanding officers should be divorced from the system and that someone else should deal with military justice inside it? That is not the military way, and it would not help.

With respect, the phrase, “It is not the military way”, is sometimes part of the problem. I am happy to repeat what I said: I think we must look at whether there is a need to give people access to justice outwith the chain of command. As I said, it is not difficult to see how the lines may become blurred, and we have heard many examples of that today.

The figures on sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape are extremely worrying, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend outlined. Such actions should not be tolerated in any workplace. I appreciate that the armed forces are a unique working environment, but that must not be an excuse for any toleration of such behaviour. Even when complaints are made, there is concern that they are not treated or taken forward as they should be. The chain of command is integral to service life and it is right that there is a distinct service justice system that recognises the unique nature of service life, but that does not mean that we should not look at ways to ensure it works as well as possible and whether it could work better.

We have heard a little about the summary hearings process, which is used to deal with both discipline issues and minor criminal offences. A commanding officer handles the whole process from start to finish, receiving the initial complaint, investigating it, carrying out the hearing and finally issuing the judgment and punishment. The commanding officer acts as prosecutor, judge and jury all in one, and we must seriously consider whether external oversight is required.

Nacro, the crime reduction charity, recently published a report on military convictions and criminal records. It found inconsistencies in the way punishments are recorded in the hearings system. For example, as the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) outlined, if someone has committed a minor offence and is fined, that is added to their civilian criminal record. However, if someone has committed a more serious offence and been demoted in rank, that is not recorded on their criminal record because there is no way for it to be recorded on the police national computer. In some cases, it is only after the serving person has left the forces and is trying to get a job that they find out that that minor fine is preventing them from getting on with life in civvy street because they now have a criminal record. Nacro also found inconsistency in the rehabilitation period, and highlighted that the period for a fine was five years, the same as for service detention, which is a much more serious punishment, presumably for a much more serious offence.

I understand that there are concerns about the annex 40K form system, and that there are instances of them going missing, with the result that the information is not always recorded on the police national computer, which again highlights inconsistency.

Some serious issues have been raised today, including the level of sexual harassment experienced by women in the forces, some serious cases of assault and rape, concerns that individuals may not feel able to report incidents, and concerns about whether the system is as open and transparent as it should be when complaints are made.

I think that all parties agree that the Service Complaints Commissioner is doing an excellent job, but she and the British Armed Forces Federation have called for the creation of an ombudsman, and we agree with that proposal. We also believe that independent oversight of the military police, similar to the role of the Independent Police Complaints Commission, should be considered, and I hope the Minister will explain the Government’s thinking on that. When the Service Complaints Commissioner was originally set up, it was seen as controversial. At the time, it was quite a culture change, but it is now seen as crucial to the process, and we should not be scared about looking at whether further changes need to be made.

People have tragically lost their lives because they felt that the system let them down. It is not in any way about painting the armed forces, and the police within the military, in a bad light, but we let down those who take their responsibilities seriously if we allow wrongs to go unchallenged, and we run the risk of losing valuable people if justice is not available and people feel unable to continue in their jobs.

I am very pleased that we have had the opportunity to discuss matters today. I hope that this is the beginning of a discussion, because there are issues that need further exploration and consideration.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Dobbin. I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) on securing this important debate. It is testimony to her determination to raise the profile of the issues under examination today, and I know that she takes these matters seriously. She kindly said that I do as well, and I hope that in my remarks over the next few minutes, I will be able to persuade her and the rest of the Chamber that I intend to continue taking this issue seriously.

Our armed forces can be asked to deploy anywhere in the world, often in unstable areas. That kind of agility and reach, coupled with the professionalism that is their hallmark, requires the highest standards of discipline. In order to enforce those standards, they are subject to a justice system that, although encompassing the key tenets of the UK criminal justice system, is, to some extent, separate and distinct from it. That point was made clearly by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), who brings to bear in this debate his personal experience as the commanding officer of a regular infantry battalion—and a very good battalion at that.

The system that we have in place reflects both the unique role of the armed forces and the environment in which they live and work. It recognises offences specific to the armed forces and calls to account those who are found, after a proper investigation, to have fallen short of the high standards that we rightfully expect. The Armed Forces Act 2006 drew together the disciplinary systems of the three services, so that all service personnel are dealt with under a common system. Acknowledging that our armed forces train and operate in some countries with legal systems unlike our own, the service justice system applies a single code, based on our own criminal laws, transportable anywhere in the world.

Separate from the service justice system, but acting in parallel with it, is the distinct service complaints process. That has been a matter of considerable discussion this afternoon, and was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt), the hon. Members for Chippenham (Duncan Hames), for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) and for West Dunbartonshire (Gemma Doyle) as well as the hon. Member for Bridgend. The Service Complaints Commissioner, Dr Susan Atkins, and her staff act as an independent starting point for personnel who want to make a complaint but are concerned about how their chain of command might deal with it. In addition, they provide independent oversight of how the complaints system is working and report back to Ministers and Parliament. In cases of bullying, harassment or discrimination, the MOD is obliged by law to update the commissioner on progress with allegations that she has referred to the chain of command for investigation.

I have great respect for the role of the commissioner and recognise the enormous benefits that we have derived from Dr Atkins’s unique, independent position. I met Dr Atkins before Christmas and will do so again in March. We are actively engaging with her to determine what further resources, including staff, we can offer to assist her in carrying out her important work. One thing that we will discuss in March is the expected benefits of the changes that we have just made this month to speed up the administration of the complaints system—changes that I believe will have a real effect in 2013. For instance, we are encouraging greater use of informal means of resolution, and stressing to commanding officers the importance of getting to grips with complaints early to maintain unit cohesion and, ultimately, operational effectiveness.

In addition, we have also provided a formalised avenue for the Service Complaints Commissioner to approach commanding officers directly, so that if she feels that a complaint has not been dealt with with sufficient alacrity, she can now formally approach the relevant commanding officer and raise that personally with that CO, in order to allow that to progress. To some degree—to be as complete as possible—that already happened in some cases informally, but we wanted to formalise it to make it clearer that the SCC had that right in just about all cases. She—and she can be quite a feisty lady, I have to say—can now go to a CO directly, bang the table and say, “You’ve not dealt with this in the way you should have done”, or “You’ve not dealt with it quickly enough.” By that method, she can accelerate the process.

As I say, we have just brought in those reforms. They have literally just begun, but we believe that they will help to speed up the process. Where there have been delays, we hope that the changes will help to reduce them significantly in 2013.

I thank the Minister for giving way. That is excellent news, and from the cases that I have been dealing with, I know that it will help greatly, so that is a good thing. Will the SCC also have similar powers if she spots trends with less serious complaints, such as admin, or something that can easily be rectified? Can she speak directly to someone who could rectify that situation?

My understanding is that the SCC can go directly to a commanding officer about any complaint. She can use her discretion. Whether she would want to go to the CO about every single matter is an issue of balance, and a judgment for the commissioner herself, but she has the formal right to do so if she wishes. If, for some reason, a relatively minor complaint has been—to use a colloquialism—gummed up in the system for some time, she would have the option to go straight to the CO in the unit and say, “Do what you can to speed it up, please.” In our discussions in March, I am hoping to review those matters and take stock of how the new system has been operating in the first three months or so. We believe that it will help to speed up the process materially.

The hon. Member for Bridgend kindly acknowledged that she and I met in early January to discuss sexual offences involving service personnel. I trust that she left that meeting in the MOD with no doubts whatever about how seriously I take her concerns.

The hon. Lady is kind enough to nod her assent. Sexual offences of any kind are not to be tolerated anywhere in the Ministry of Defence. When reported, they are dealt with by specially trained investigators conversant with modern techniques in identifying offences, evidence gathering, forensics, and crime scene management. To support victims of such crimes, service police are able to draw on specialist civilian facilities such as sexual assault referral centres when they believe that may be appropriate. A number of safeguards are in place to ensure that investigations are handled properly and professionally. Allegations of serious sexual offences must be reported to the service police, who act independently of the chain of command, as we have heard, and answer to their service provost marshal.

If sufficient evidence is found to charge an individual with one of those offences, the case must be referred to the Director of Service Prosecutions, currently a civilian QC, who carries out his functions under the general superintendence of the Attorney-General rather than the Ministry of Defence. He decides whether charges should be brought, which is a process that mirrors the relationship between the civilian police and the Crown Prosecution Service. In essence, it is the same principle.

In the United Kingdom, members of the armed forces are subject to both service and civilian criminal jurisdiction. Broadly—I make the point broadly—offences that have a civilian context are dealt with in the civilian jurisdiction. Service police would generally lead an investigation only if both suspect and victim are serving members of the armed forces. Servicemen and women are entitled to report offences either to service or civilian police.

As the hon. Lady is aware—we have discussed this at some length, I think it is fair to say—there is therefore no single, consolidated set of statistics relating to sexual offences involving members of the armed forces, and there are considerable practical obstacles to producing such a comprehensive overall report. Let me give an example of why that is. A service man or woman who suffered a sexual assault might have suffered it while on leave in their home town and reported it to their local, Home Office police force, rather than to the service police, particularly if the alleged perpetrator was a civilian, not a member of the armed forces. The point that I am making is that it is difficult, with the data that we have available, to provide an overall and comprehensive report.

However, against the background that I have set out, I have been pressing my Department hard to produce the most accurate information possible. That work is still in hand. It is complex, and given the seriousness of the subject, we must be thorough, but the initial trends suggest that incidents of sexual offences in the armed forces are declining. That work needs time to mature; it will not be finished tomorrow night. I therefore say in all seriousness to the hon. Lady, before she beats her well trodden path to the Table Office, that it would be helpful if she could allow us to evolve that work. In return, I give her a sincere assurance that as the work matures, I will write to her to update her on its progress, and of course, in accordance with convention, I will then place a copy of that letter in the Library of the House.

If hon. Members consult the annual reports published by the Service Complaints Commissioner, they will see that the total number of complaints about sexual harassment has fallen year on year since 2008. That is reflected in the most recent armed forces continuous attitude survey, which shows a recent decrease in the number of respondents who believe that they have been subject to discrimination, harassment or bullying.

For the avoidance of doubt, let me say that of course even one occurrence is too many, but it is vital that the reputations of the massive majority of our outstanding servicemen and women are not tarnished by the actions of a few. None the less, my Department will continue to be proactive in raising awareness of the standards of behaviour that we expect and in tackling offences across the whole spectrum. I am pleased to report that positive steps are being taken across the services. I shall choose one example from each.

The Army’s Speak Out campaign informs Army personnel of the bullying, harassment and discrimination helpline. The Army has established that confidential helpline to allow service personnel who believe that they may be victims of that to report it. The Army also has a poster campaign that targets sexual offenders and reassures victims. We have consulted local authorities that are leaders in that field, and the hon. Member for Bridgend was shown some examples of that work when she came to visit me in the Ministry of Defence.

The RAF has in place mandatory equality and diversity training, designed with the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, and is planning to conduct a sexual harassment survey in mid-2013. The Royal Navy police have conducted an internal communications campaign aimed at raising awareness of sexual offending. Reducing sexual offending also features as an area of priority in the RNP’s annual strategic assessment.

Further to impress on the Department the importance that I attach to this issue, I have convened a meeting of the provost marshals of the three single services to discuss how best we can continue to ensure that these offences are recorded, investigated and then thoroughly pursued. In essence, I will speak to the head of each of the three service police forces so that we can discuss this in detail.

In addition, I spoke yesterday on precisely this issue to the principal personnel officers for the three services: the Second Sea Lord, in the case of the Royal Navy; the Adjutant-General, in the case of the Army; and the Air Member for Personnel, in the case of the Royal Air Force. It is very clear that we are all of the same mind—that this kind of behaviour is unacceptable and must be challenged head-on. I will be discussing this issue further with the three principal personnel officers in the near future.

As I said at the outset, I believe that the hon. Lady and, I hope, other hon. Members who have participated in this debate accept that my Department takes the issues under discussion very seriously. The hon. Lady should be in no doubt: we are not complacent and we are taking steps to expose and eradicate behaviour that has no place in an institution with such an outstanding heritage and reputation.

The right hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire—sorry, I mean the hon. Lady; it is only a matter of time—asked whether we had considered the possibility of empowering a body such as the Independent Police Complaints Commission, or an equivalent, to take a role in overseeing the work of the service police. As she may be aware, there is already a protocol, which has been signed by the three provost marshals, which says that if one of those police services needs to be investigated, in the first instance one of the other service police forces will conduct that investigation, in the way that one civilian Home Office police force might be asked to investigate another if there is a serious matter to be looked into. That protocol, as I understand it, is already in existence and in operation.

The hon. Lady’s question was whether we would go further and ask the IPCC to have an overall role. That is a slightly complex question, and I will explain why. Let us say that it was to be given that responsibility. As I understand it, under current legislation the IPCC has no remit in Germany, so if, for instance, it was asked to investigate the work of one of the service police forces there, it would not, at the moment, have the power to do that. The point I am making is that it is not an absolutely straightforward choice. However, I can tell the hon. Lady that work is under way to consider that possibility. No decisions have yet been taken, but giving the IPCC such a role is something that we are in the middle of considering at the moment, although we have not yet reached a conclusion, partly for some of the reasons that I have just given. I hope that that deals with her question.

As I have said, changes will be made this month—in fact, they have already been made—to give the Service Complaints Commissioner better oversight of delays in handling complaints and their causes. That will also give those who approach her, I hope, even greater confidence that she can have a positive impact. The single services have put in place a number of measures both to deter potential offenders and to encourage victims to speak out. I will get the chance to judge the impact of that for myself as I talk to our servicemen and women up and down the country and overseas. In my role as the Minister for defence personnel, welfare and veterans, I try to travel as much as I can, practically, to visit our servicemen and women, and that will be something that I will have my ears open for.

Specifically on sexual offences, we will continue to provide the right training and resources to those who investigate and prosecute these abhorrent crimes and best support those who have been subjected to them. We ask an awful lot of our servicemen and women. We expect them to adhere to the highest standards of conduct and operational effectiveness. In return, whether they are in Aldershot or Afghanistan, they are entitled to a service justice system that provides consistent and fair access to justice for both offender and victim and a complaints process that is fast, effective and efficient. They deserve nothing less, and we are doing our best to deliver it.

Before I call the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) to wind up the debate, I point out that the debate must finish at 5.14 pm.

We heard an excellent speech from the hon. Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) in which she outlined the importance of not deploying individuals back to units where perhaps perpetrators of offences are still serving. I endorse that call, and I am sure that the Minister will have heard that request. The hon. Lady also made an excellent point in relation to the support for families of victims. I welcome also her call for an ombudsman.

The hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) also called for an ombudsman. In addition, he called for recognition of the importance of support for victims. One of the things that I have heard repeatedly from people who felt that they had been victims was that there was no support in their units from their chain of command. If what had happened to them had happened in the civilian system, they would have received such support. I agree that the investigative process needs to be examined by an ombudsman, which he also called for.

The hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) spoke with great insight and personal experience of operating within the chain of command, but I feel that operating within it does not necessarily mean that he has heard some of the tragic stories that have come my way over the past few months and weeks. I welcome his endorsement of the Special Investigation Branch. It is an excellent branch of the military, but the problem for many of the victims has been that they never got that far: their attempts to bring forward their experience as a victim never reached either the military police or the Special Investigation Branch. They were squashed earlier in the chain of command by threats and intimidation and did not take their complaint and experience further.

The hon. Member for Chippenham (Duncan Hames) talked of the social isolation of those who speak out, delays in the process and hearings behind closed doors. He called for increased confidence in the system and faith in the justice system, which we all endorse. He, too, called for an ombudsman.

I was particularly pleased to hear my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (Gemma Doyle) mention the problems that the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders highlighted on openness and transparency, in particular the findings of summary hearings. Such hearings have left people with criminal records; a more serious offence often leads not to a criminal record but merely to a demotion, whereas a minor offence can lead to a criminal record. There needs to be greater understanding in the chain of command of the consequences of the findings of summary hearings.

I entirely endorse that point. Someone committing a minor misdemeanour should not get a criminal record. That has to be sorted out.

I thank the hon. Gentleman.

Finally, I welcome some of the commitments in the Minister’s response. I welcome the fact that the Service Complaints Commissioner will be given additional staff and that she will have access to commanding officers to assist the progress of any complaint that is being delayed. That is an excellent step. I also welcome his commitment on sexual offences. He said that they must be reported to the service police and the Special Investigation Branch. I hope that he will drive that message deep down into the armed forces, because the reputation of everyone in the forces is damaged by one perpetrator. We must drive it out.

I welcome the Minister’s commitment to the provision of new data and the clarification of the data that are out there. Doing such things is absolutely essential to clarify what problems we have and to ensure that they can be indentified and dealt with. I also welcome all the individual initiatives that he outlined for the three forces. We need to ensure that they learn from one other to guarantee that best practice—

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(13)).