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Dealing with Rape and Serious Sexual Offences: Defence’s Strategy

Volume 699: debated on Thursday 22 July 2021

Today I am pleased to announce the Ministry of Defence’s intent to publish a defence-wide strategy for dealing with rape and serious sexual offences in the service justice system (SJS).

As set out in the cross-Government violence against women and girls strategy published yesterday, crimes against women and girls is an unacceptable, preventable issue. To echo the Lord Chancellor in his statement on the end-to-end rape review on 21 June, rape and serious sexual offences are some of the most horrific crimes dealt with in both the civilian criminal justice system and the service justice system. They have devastating and lasting effects on victims, and it is only right that action is taken to improve public confidence, make the system fairer and more effective and encourage victims to come forward.

The SJS deals with significantly fewer cases of rape and serious sexual offending compared to the civilian criminal justice system. However, service personnel must have confidence that they will receive the same high-quality care, support and justice in either system. Viewed as a proportion of allegations reported rather than just the cases which reach court, in 2020 the conviction rate in the service justice system was around 8%1 compared to around 2% in the civilian criminal justice system2. While we are confident the SJS is capable of dealing with the most serious offences, it is still not good enough. Both systems must do better, which is why we will be producing a strategy that will pull together ongoing work across the whole of the SJS.

The Ministry of Defence has already been working with the agencies and bodies within the SJS to introduce improvements by implementing the majority of recommendations made in the service justice system review (2019) by HH Shaun Lyons. This includes measures such as the creation of a defence serious crime unit; changes to how the court martial operates; and better support for victims and witnesses.

In addition, the Defence Secretary has asked Sir Richard Henriques to conduct an independent review of policing, and prosecutorial and other processes for addressing allegations emanating from overseas operations. The review, which is due to report shortly, will set out recommendations on improving the investigative processes within the SJS.

Furthermore, the Defence Select Committee inquiry into women in the armed forces is due to publish its report shortly. The Committee has been looking at the experience of our female service personnel from recruitment to transition and considering whether there are unique challenges that are not adequately addressed by the current policies and services. The Committee received evidence from current and former female service personnel in their thousands, for which serving personnel were given special permission to contribute. We expect this report to make a number of recommendations in relation to the handling of rape and serious sexual offence cases, and we will review its evidence and recommendations with the full seriousness and sensitivity they deserve.

To build on these developments, and the recent publication of the violence against women and girls strategy, the Defence Secretary and I have commissioned a defence-wide strategy for how rape and serious sexual offences are dealt with in the SJS. The strategy will aim to reduce the prevalence and impact of rape and other serious sexual offending in the armed forces and improve the handling of those cases in the SJS. It will learn from the Government’s recent response to the review of the end-to-end handling of rape cases in the civilian criminal justice system and provide reassurance that the SJS is also determined to do better and hold component parts of the system to account for delivering improvements.

The strategy will recognise the importance to our people and to the wider service community of the damage caused by sexual offending. With that in mind, we will ensure that support is provided to those who want it, and reassurance that it will remain in place for as long as it is needed. In addition, we will be open and transparent about what victims can expect from the SJS at all stages of their case.

The strategy will bring together in one place all the provisions which the service justice system already has for dealing with cases of rape and serious sexual assault and ensure they are coherent across the whole system and that the interests of the victim are prioritised.