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Senior Military Posts (Women)

Volume 575: debated on Monday 3 February 2014

The most tangible evidence of the progress that women have made in getting to the most senior ranks of the armed forces is the appointment in 2013 of Air Vice-Marshal Elaine West and Air Vice-Marshal Sue Gray as the first female two-star officers in the RAF. Air Vice-Marshal West is a project manager in the Defence Infrastructure Organisation, and Air Vice-Marshal Gray will be responsible for the procurement of future combat equipment, including fighter aircraft. I am sure the whole House will wish to offer both of them congratulations and the best of luck in their new appointments.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Will he tell the House what specific steps the armed forces are taking to improve the proportion of women serving in senior roles in the military?

The proportion of women in senior military posts is increasing. For instance, I believe that we now have about 30 female colonels serving in the British Army, but the increase is still not as fast as we would wish. Therefore, although we are now seeing the best and brightest of our people recognised and promoted irrespective of gender, we are working to address the under-representation of certain demographic groups, including women. To cite an example that illustrates our commitment, I am delighted that the Ministry of Defence will be hosting an event on 12 March, in conjunction with other Government Departments, to celebrate and support international women’s day.

I welcome the news that women are increasingly moving up into senior ranks in the armed forces, but despite that, women in senior military posts are still experiencing bullying and sexual harassment. When will we have an independent ombudsman service that can enforce zero tolerance of such behaviour throughout the armed forces?

I wish to make it perfectly plain to the hon. Lady and the House that we in the MOD and the armed forces do not tolerate such behaviour, and any allegations are thoroughly investigated. I want to be absolutely clear about that. She is well aware of our discussions with the Service Complaints Commissioner, as she and I have discussed the matter on several occasions. We have been talking to Dr Atkins about how we can modify her role in the future, and those discussions are progressing quite well. We have not sorted out all the remaining issues, but we hope to be in a position to make an announcement reasonably soon.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s news today. May the message go out from this House that bullying and harassment will not be tolerated, whether in the military, in politics, or in civilian or any other walk of life?

I find it difficult to improve on what my hon. Friend has just said so I will simply say: I agree.

Mr Speaker, you know I never like to be a curmudgeon, but can we not do better than this? When will we have female admirals and generals and other high-ranking female officers? There are not enough, and it has been too long; let us get a move on, or we will never attract high-flying women into the services.

On the specific naval point, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that Commander Sarah West is now the commanding officer of the Type 23 frigate HMS Portland and Commander Catherine Jordan is the commanding officer of the Type 23 frigate HMS St Albans. We have female officers in command of Royal Navy warships, protecting our waters around the coast and serving further in great waters. We are proud of them. I do not want to be curmudgeonly either, but an air vice-marshal is the equivalent of an admiral.

The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) asked about a military ombudsman, and my right hon. Friend talked about making a decision soon, but the excellent Dr Susan Atkins’ term of office is expiring soon. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister last month told us that he was taking a personal interest in whether we moved to a military ombudsman. May we know the time scale for this decision as soon as possible?

My right hon. Friend is a former Defence Minister and knows that phrases such as “relatively soon” are by definition not precise; nevertheless discussions with Dr Atkins have been proceeding well. I do not want to misinform the House and give the impression that every issue has been settled—it has not—but we have made genuinely good progress with Dr Atkins. I feel, therefore, that we are not that far from making an announcement, but I cannot give a firm timing until all those issues have been resolved.