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Women in the Armed Forces

Volume 705: debated on Thursday 9 December 2021

[Dr Rupa Huq in the Chair]

I remind hon. Members that they are expected to wear face coverings for the duration of the debate when they are not speaking, in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. I also remind Members that they are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test twice a week if they are coming on to the estate: you can have one very handily downstairs in Portcullis House, or you can have one at home—we are not fussy. Members are also asked to give each other and members of staff space when entering and leaving the room.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Second Report of the Defence Committee, Protecting those who protect us: Women in the Armed Forces from Recruitment to Civilian Life, HC 154, and the Government Response, HC 904.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dr Huq. I thank the Liaison Committee for granting this important debate on the Ministry of Defence’s response to the Select Committee on Defence. By way of introduction, it was noted by the Defence Committee that recruitment targets had been missed yet again, and that yet again women had been over-represented in the complaints system. Our main concern at that time was to look at how this was compromising operational effectiveness and how it was impacting on the British military, so we agreed to look into the way that this was happening. As an ex-servicewoman myself, I agreed to chair that Sub-Committee. As a veteran, I also wanted to extend the scope of the inquiry to explore what challenges our female veterans face, given the limited information available on that topic.

Fully understanding the situation of women in the service necessitated us having access to servicewomen. That required the Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace), to lift the defence instruction notice that would ordinarily bar us from speaking to serving personnel. This meant that our inquiry was groundbreaking—the first ever of its kind, collecting evidence from the ground up—and its findings represented a valid account of what it was like, and is like, to serve as a woman in the UK armed forces. It is thanks to the Defence Secretary that I am here today, announcing the progress made as a direct response to our inquiry.

We did not anticipate the quantity and intensity of the evidence we received. It was women’s stories, experiences and lives, and it made for sobering reading. Some 4,200 women contributed, including 2,500 veterans—some whose service spanned back as far as Aden, others who were recently discharged. Just short of 10% of all serving women contributed to the inquiry, so the Committee are confident in the results. We heard shocking evidence, ranging from gang rape, systematic bullying, and collusion and cover-up in the extreme, to ill-fitting equipment, the inaccessibility of sanitary products, and feelings of being second-rate to men and disempowered. From veterans, we heard about a lack of female-specific services, poor transitional support, and feeling as if their service to their country was never valued.

To summarise the findings, 90% of all women would recommend a career in the military, as would I—that was so pleasing to hear—but when things go wrong, they go disastrously wrong. Some 84% stated that they faced extra challenges for being a woman; six out of 10 would never make a complaint for fear of repercussions; and 62% said they had experienced some form of abuse in service, whether harassment, bullying, discrimination or physical or sexual assault. Only 16% of sexual abuse allegations had had forensic evidence taken within the 14-day window of opportunity. Some 55% said veterans services did not meet their needs, while 76% found the MOD was not helpful when they transitioned to civilian life. As a result, the Defence Committee made 34 recommendations to the Ministry of Defence.

I will touch on a few thematic headings, starting with rape and criminal investigations. Having heard harrowing evidence of sexual assault, poor standards of investigation and manipulation of power to deliberately disadvantage servicewomen from complaining or seeking justice, the Committee concurred with the recommendation of the Government-commissioned, judge-led Lyons review that rape cases should be heard in civilian courts. The MOD rejected that recommendation and will instead continue to hold such cases within the court martial jurisdiction under the principle of concurrent jurisdiction.

The MOD has offered a string of explanations for why that should be so. I do not feel that any of them offer a reasoning for this decision, and I ask the Minister again to explain his rationale for not agreeing to that recommendation. However, the mandatory placing of a female on all court martial boards hearing complaints of a sexual nature is most welcome, as is a single service central admissibility unit to oversee such complaints.

Turning to the chain of command, extensive evidence was received regarding how having to report a complaint of harassment, bullying or discrimination or a complaint of a sexual nature to their chain of command severely compromised complainants’ outcomes, resulting in most complaints going unreported. Those who do report are often re-traumatised, facing life-changing consequences. In some cases it was a commanding officer who was the accused, judge and jury.

We are extremely pleased that the chain of command will be removed from all complaints of a sexual nature, which will now be investigated by an outsourced investigation service. That will mean a woman who has been assaulted by her commanding officer will not have to report it to her commanding officer. However, I would like the Minister to confirm the independence of that investigation service. Will he also confirm whether this process will be afforded to complaints of harassment, bullying and discrimination? According to the MOD’s response, the chain of command could be involved in

“a small number of cases, where appropriate”,

so can he clarify when that would be applied?

We are pleased that the MOD will establish a whole service defence serious crime unit, a diversity and inclusion unit and a victim and witness care unit, and it will mandate that a woman sit on all court martial boards involving sexual complaints. Those are significant changes and all credit is due.

On equipment, we found that women were being sent to the frontline with body armour not fit for purpose, helmets compromised by hairstyles, and ill-fitting clothing. The MOD has already commenced work to rectify most of those issues and will undertake a six-month sprint to ensure that the recommendations are met as soon as possible—thank you.

Despite 59% of respondents being veterans, with concerns ranging from a lack of specific female veterans services, particularly relating to post-traumatic stress disorder following sexual assault and incidents of abuse to the inappropriateness of male-focused transition services, we felt the MOD’s response on this subject was rather weak, signposting us to a veterans strategy due to be announced next week. I look forward to reviewing the strategy in relation to the recommendations made in the inquiry, and hope it captures specific women’s issues. I would also like to highlight that the services offered under Op Courage are provided only by NHS England, and a disparity in the accessibility and availability of services remains between veterans living in England and those living in devolved nations, including many in my constituency of Wrexham.

On measuring success, the MOD, by way of acknowledging that there are problems, which it already knew, has already introduced initiatives, such as mandatory bystander training and the bullying, harassment and discrimination helpline. Although our evidence suggested that women were generally aware of those services, they made little to no positive impact on the ground. Can the Minister explain how the MOD plans to measure outcomes and positive change as a result of these and future initiatives?

On recruitment and retention, despite the raft of family-friendly policies already in place, such as flexible and alternative working patterns, our research found that most women were denied access to those schemes by their commanding officers on operational grounds. I am pleased that the MOD has produced a families strategy, and look forward to reading it in detail when it is launched next week. However, there is already a victims charter, which informs servicewomen about their right to take a criminal complaint to the civilian courts, and no one whom we engaged with was aware of the charter or their rights. Can the Minister explain how the MOD intends to ensure that servicewomen are aware of those options and rights, and how uptake will be monitored? I applaud the MOD’s ambitious target of 30% servicewomen by 2030, which gives people like me a basis on which to scrutinise and hold to account the MOD. It shows the true commitment of Ministers and the Secretary of State to servicewomen.

On culture and leadership, our evidence uncovered a culture of collusion, cover-up and manipulation in which intimidation and abuse of power were all too common. I am sure that the outgoing Chief of the Defence Staff regrets using the term “laddish culture”, but that is exactly what we found—in abundance—across all ranks, services and command structures. That does not exclusively apply to men.

We are pleased that the MOD will undertake a pan-service culture audit, defence positive action plan, personal experience training and a review of the selection, education and training of lieutenant colonel ranks and above. We are pleased that there will be clear consequences for those who act unacceptably, with underperforming officers having citations placed on their personal records, and a strengthened procedure to make it easier to dismiss perpetrators of sexual assault. However, our evidence supports concerns that the MOD has a tendency to introduce many initiatives as a result of criticism but make little improvement on the ground.

The Committee’s inquiry came after a string of top-down studies—the Lyons review, Wigston, Gray and, latterly, Henriques. There was significant overlap with those reports, but it was not until the Committee’s inquiry, which gave servicewomen and veterans a platform through which to have their voices heard, that the MOD took action. It has been a catalyst for change. The problems faced by servicewomen and veterans have not arisen on any one Government’s watch, but it is this Government, the Conservative Government, who grasped that very uncomfortable nettle and were bold enough to make positive changes. It is time for a military levelling up, and the MOD has listened, has acknowledged that there are problems and, to its credit, is making massive strides to address them. However, there is still a way to go, and the devil is in the detail. I will continue to advocate on behalf of our servicewomen and veterans in my role in Parliament and as a member of the Defence Committee, which will undertake a review in a year’s time.

I thank all members of the Committee for their involvement and commitment. The 18-month inquiry has at times been harrowing and has required resilience. I specifically thank Lucy Arora, a Committee specialist, and my researcher Rachel Varley. Between us, we have heard and read all 4,200 pieces of evidence. However, the people who have made this happen—who have made the MOD listen, and acknowledge and address the suboptimal elements of military life—are all the women who contributed. It is they who made this possible, and they who have improved the lives of current and future generations of servicewomen. For that, I thank them.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Dr Huq. I declare an interest as a patron of veterans’ charity Forward Assist.

I thank the hon. Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton), the only female bar myself on the Defence Committee. She has been steadfast in her efforts to get permission from the Secretary of State to make this inquiry possible. I also thank her for her excellent and sensitive chairing of our Sub-Committee, and for the subsequent publication of the report that we are now debating.

Before I make specific comments on our inquiry, I reiterate the point made in the report that the armed forces do and can provide women with fulfilling careers and opportunities. Indeed, 90% of women told us that they would recommend the forces to women. As our report noted, however, when things go wrong they go dramatically wrong, generally with dire consequences for the victim.

It is welcome that, of our 40 recommendations, the Government have accepted 37, but the rejection of our recommendations on complaints of sexual offences will come as a bitter and agonising blow to those women who shared with us their trauma. I want them to know that, despite the obstinacy of the Government, some of us will not stop fighting for them, to ensure that in the future no one suffers the same pain that they have.

As in many organisations that tend to police themselves, making a complaint in the armed forces becomes fraught with worries of being ostracised, stigmatised and shut out, and of career prospects being greatly diminished. Women have told us that it is well known that if they make a complaint there will be ramifications—not for the perpetrator, but for the complainant, the victim. Those statements are supported by the fact that the Service Complaints Ombudsman has never judged the military’s internal complaints system as efficient, effective and fair. Servicewomen are overrepresented in all complaints, but even more in complaints of bullying, harassment and discrimination.

Despite the MOD’s claim that women’s complaints are falling all the time, they remain at exactly the same level as in 2016. Of those who are brave enough to come forward to make a complaint, more than 90% said that they had suffered negative consequences, and that they felt uncomfortable and humiliated and wanted to leave the forces, such that in 2021, 89% of those who had suffered in that way did not make a complaint. We heard a litany of failings, from failure to investigate properly to witness statements not being taken; senior officers as perpetrators; loss of evidence; not being believed when making an allegation of sexual harassment or assault, or being pressured into not referring that to the police; and complaints taking up to a decade to be concluded and resulting in further bullying, harassment and discrimination.

I am not sure whether the Minister has—I sincerely hope he has not—had any direct experience of going through a complaints process, or spent time supporting someone close to him who has. If he had, he would understand the courage it takes to make a complaint in the first place, and how re-traumatising and utterly exhausting that in itself can be. For someone to find that no one believes them or, worse, that people believe them but are too scared, or too worried about self-preservation or protecting the organisation—above doing the right thing—is utterly soul-destroying. There can be no lonelier feeling.

When that takes place in a closed environment, away from a person’s home and loved ones, it can become utterly unbearable. If they are making a complaint about sexual assault or rape, it becomes intolerable. Every day is a sentence and filled with mental anguish and physical pain. Even though we always repeat the message—a true message—that it was not their fault, the shame and guilt will remain with the victim forever.

That is why I am deeply concerned that the Government have rejected our recommendation and our pleas throughout the passage of the Armed Forces Bill to remove cases of rape from the military courts, and that they refuse to accept the existence of military sexual trauma. That sends the wrong message and does not encourage the cultural change that we need. I am not sure what it is that the Government have against rape victims, but the figures for conviction in the civilian system are dire, at a record low of 34% between 2015 and 2020. In courts martial, that figure falls to 16%. It is clear that victims are being failed. While it is welcome that the Government have committed to service complaints of a sexual nature being outside the direction of command, it is simply not enough, as the hon. Member for Wrexham said.

The Government’s rejection, in their official delayed response to our report, was not convincing enough. The Minister’s response on Monday in the Chamber was equally unconvincing. I make a further plea to him today to make it crystal clear to victims, those serving and veterans why this Government do not think that when it comes to the most hideous of crimes, those serving in our forces can expect a lesser commitment to justice than civilians.

I end my comments by thanking all the women who came forward to share their trauma with us. It is their bravery that will drive me and others to keep pushing for change, because we owe it to them, every single woman serving, veterans and all who follow them.

It is a pleasure to participate in this important debate, Dr Huq. It follows on from the statement that was made earlier. I join others in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton) on putting together an incredible report and on leading the Sub-Committee, which provided some of the solutions that we are looking at here today.

I start by touching on the bigger picture, because we are rightly proud of our armed forces. One question we posed in this inquiry was to ask those who participated in it whether they would recommend joining the armed forces to others. The underlying answer was absolutely yes, but that does not disguise the deep and concerning problems that we are just starting to discuss here today.

It is worth outlining the important societal bond that our military have in the United Kingdom, which is arguably unique in the world. We recruit from the gene pool of the general public. If it is not attractive, does not reflect society or if we are not able to take advantage of the skill sets out there, we will not have a professional Army, Air Force or Navy. When we recruit, it is important that the rest of society sees how well we treat those who serve, whether they be reservists or regulars, and how well they are then looked after when they pack up their uniform for the last time, slide it across to the quartermaster and become a veteran. So, it is important that we look at the questions posed here and some of the concerning answers that have already been touched upon.

As we deal with these issues, my concern is that it is not the first time that they have been raised. We have spoken about the Wigston review and we had the Lyons report. This is not the first time that we are addressing these issues, but this is a comprehensive report. I hope that, in his response, the Minister will recognise why we need not just answers but to see the changes taking place, so that in a year’s time the Defence Committee does not have to undertake another report or call upon another independent study, as I had to call upon the Lyons report about justice only a couple of years ago.

The world is getting more dangerous; we are aware of that. The integrated review confirms the fact that the threats are increasing, and that there is an increased ambition for us to play a role on the international stage. To do so, we need to ensure that we attract the best. It is wonderful to see that every single role in the Army, the Air Force and the Navy is now open to both males and females. Whatever their sex, people can still do whatever role they want to do, whether they want to fly a plane or drive a truck or a tank. They are no longer prohibited from making their mark in whichever area they wish.

I will take advantage of the debate to say that this is probably the wrong time to be cutting the Army by 10,000, but ultimately that is for another day. In attracting the best, we want more women to come forward. I hope the Minister will acknowledge that the ambition for 30% of our armed forces to be female will be a challenge and a struggle; but if we answer some of the issues that we are dealing with today, that target will be a lot easier to secure.

I praise my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham for doing such a superb job. The fact that we had more than 4,000 participants come forward to share their stories, some of them very harrowing indeed, is a testament to how important the inquiry has been.

I pay tribute to the MOD as well. Every time our Committee produces a report there is an obligation for the Department to reply, but rarely do we get a 40-page document of such detail. It is good to see that 33 of the recommendations have automatically been accepted. Others have been looked at with interest, but there are a couple that concern us that have already been touched on, and I will come to those in a second. As a summary of the work-life balance and the challenges facing women in the armed forces today, the report is an incredible outline of where we are.

Participating in some of the groups was very moving, but it is disturbing that our armed forces today are still subject to some of the prejudices and behaviours that I thought had disappeared long ago. I am very grateful to all those brave people who stepped forward and shared their individual stories.

The issues I have are, first, to do with flexible working. The Minister is aware that we now offer that, so that we can strike a better work-like balance, but it is subject to operational commitments. The studies of my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham on the Sub-Committee show that although flexible working is there on paper, in practice it is not taken up. Does the Minister have figures on what percentage of the armed forces take advantage of that?

Secondly, I echo what has been said about the serious offences. When I was sitting in the Minister’s seat, it was my view to honour the reflections of the Lyons study. Justice Lyons said that it was better for the serious cases of rape and serious assault to be moved to civilian courts, where there is the expertise, understanding and appreciation of how to deal with those offences. The military courts do not have that experience. They do not come across such events frequently enough to make the wisest of judgments. That is why we wanted the report to go forward.

Again I iterate what I said in the Chamber today. It was very brave, when the Lords amendment came up at the beginning of the week, for my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham to vote in favour of supporting it, only to be punished by the Whips Office because she stayed loyal to the report and recommendations that the entire Committee supported. I hope that, in their wisdom, the Whips Office will recognise that it is a little bit churlish and silly to go down that road. She had no choice but to do that, as did others, and I hope we will see her back in her role as a Parliamentary Private Secretary in the very near future.

The issue of uniforms fitting is critical. We should be able to get that right in this day and age. I can remember when MOD ’95 came in. The Minister might recall from his own experience the big change that took place in equipment. It was quite a dramatic upgrade in what we had on the battlefield as infanteers. There was an awful lot more flexibility, but it was designed for men, not women, and that needs to change.

We need another revolution in how we are able to recruit and look after women in our armed forces. Historically, there have been some major changes—advances, even—not only in how the armed forces were seen, but in how they were perceived to operate. We had the Cardwell reforms of the 1870s and the Haldane reforms prior to the first world war. We now need another gargantuan step forward that embraces the offering that women bring to our armed forces. The statements that we hear frequently about global Britain, as outlined in the integrated review and the Ministry of Defence’s own mission statement, refer to our being a

“problem-solving and burden-sharing nation”.

Let us be that exemplar, and let us show how we mean to go forward in getting the best from our society and allowing them to serve our nation with pride.

I start by sincerely commending the hon. Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton) for her bold leadership throughout this inquiry, from its conception to the publication of the report. This is a bold and comprehensive piece of work that probably should have been done decades ago, and it was because of her commitment and drive that it took wheels and ran. I congratulate her on it and commend her for it, and I think many servicewomen and retired servicewomen will be extremely thankful to her.

The Chair of the Defence Committee, the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), made the important point that society watches how we treat service personnel, so it is important that we get this right and do not have another decade during which things do not go as they should for women in the armed forces. He also mentioned diversity. Diversity is important, not because it is part of a box-ticking exercise or somebody said it had to be achieved, but because it brings a fresh way of looking at a situation and a different perspective. That is why we need diversity across all walks of life, but particularly in the armed forces. The armed forces can and should be an exemplar for other parts of society.

I suppose that is disappointing that the Government took so long on this issue. By the same token, however, their response has been comprehensive—that is not usual—so there are positives to it. We now need to see how quickly they implement the changes that they have committed to making.

As the hon. Member for Wrexham highlighted in her opening remarks, the report uncovered really harrowing accounts of gang rape, assault by senior officers, bullying for refusing sexual advances, contests to bag the woman and sexual exploitation of women generally. The worrying issue of the complainant themselves facing consequences, as mentioned by the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck), is one that we need to take seriously. It will take quite a lot of effort to shift that culture, and it would be interesting to hear from the Minister how he proposes to ensure that that cultural shift takes place. That cannot happen, or at least it will not have the impact that we need, if women are still too worried about the consequences of making a report.

Since the publication of the report, we have seen a series of media reports detailing further accounts of serious acts of misconduct by members of the armed forces towards servicewomen and towards civilian women. To be clear, the culture and therefore the behaviour are determined by those at the top of the chain of command. They are the ones who set the tone. Senior officers—both male and female, unfortunately—are turning a blind eye to what is going on or, in some circumstances, even encouraging this behaviour. That has to stop, and things have to change.

When we heard General Sir Nick Carter remark a couple of weeks ago that although the Army requires a fundamental cultural shift to increase the number of female recruits, it encourages “a laddish culture” because

“ultimately our soldiers have to go close and personal with the enemy”,

I think many of us put our heads in our hands and thought, “What on earth is going on here?” His words demonstrate precisely the kind of prejudice that must be rooted out in order to stop unacceptable behaviour and restore confidence in the professionalism and values of our armed forces.

The Government must also formally apologise to servicewomen for failing to protect them from this culture of violence and misogyny. We need not only a formal apology, but urgent action. As I said, I welcome many of the plans in the Government’s response, and I acknowledge that 33 of the Committee’s recommendations have been accepted by the Government. It is also important to state that the current Defence Secretary has done more to root out misogynist behaviour than many of his predecessors, but without new provisions—we had hoped to see some new provisions in the Armed Forces Bill—progress will be limited.

The Government’s rejection of the Lords amendment that would have seen rape and sexual assault tried in a civilian court was a really disappointing blow to many of the servicewomen who supported it. Servicewoman A, who was raped while serving in the Royal Navy, stated:

“There were extremely serious failings in the handling of my case at court martial which ultimately meant it collapsed. This amendment will make the process independent. It will encourage more service personnel to report crimes. It will mean we have some protection from the appalling consequences we suffer when we report rape within our units.”

If Servicewoman A’s case had been tried in a civilian court, she would have been six times more likely to see justice. I wonder how she is feeling now about the rejection of that amendment. Why are the Government blocking it, when it is so reasonable and well considered? Are they concerned that visibility and awareness will increase as a public spotlight is shone on the issue? I believe that a spotlight would be beneficial. What is happening has to be out in the open before change can take place. I say to the Minister that it is not too late to accept this change, and we really should do so. Changes can still be made to the Armed Forces Bill, or we can change legislation at a later date.

I want to make some comments about young women in the armed forces. A freedom of information request by the Child Rights International Network shows a tenfold increase in the number of servicewomen aged 16 and 17 making complaints of rape and sexual assault. That equates to about one in 40, which is double the rate for their civilian counterparts. Despite that, there was no mention of these young women in the UK Government’s response, and no specific measures were included to tackle the violence they face. That represents a total neglect of the duty of care that all institutions have for those under the age of 18.

I am not convinced that the strategies outlined in the Government’s response go far enough to eradicate the permissive environment in the armed forces when it comes to bullying, sexual harassment and assault. This is not an overarching national action plan, such as the one that the Finnish defence forces are implementing; it is not the establishment of a dedicated harassment protection unit, as has been established in the Spanish military; and, sadly, it is not the transferral of rape and sexual assault cases from the military to civilian courts. It is not a radical overhaul, according to the Centre for Military Justice, which says that the Government

“stand accused of picking the lower hanging fruit over fundamental reform.”

Flexible working was mentioned by the Chair of the Defence Committee, the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East, but it is dependent on operational requirements. Who decides what the operational requirements are? That makes it very easy to reject those requests. Will the Government make a formal apology to the women who experienced abuse and discrimination in the armed forces? How will protections be put in place for 16 and 17-year-olds? I hope the Defence Committee reviews the implementation, and I hope the Government also plan to do so.

Finally, I pay tribute to the servicewomen who have had the bravery to step forward and talk about their experiences. Once again, I thank the hon. Member for Wrexham for bringing this issue into the sharp focus that it requires.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dr Huq. I begin by thanking the hon. Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton) for all her work in delivering the report, and I place on record my thanks to the service personnel and veterans who contributed to this groundbreaking inquiry.

As the report highlights, the vast majority of our female personnel have fantastic, fulfilling careers serving our country and would recommend it to others. Last week, the Government promised some very welcome changes to make this experience even better. As the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) pointed out, the Government response to the report is comprehensive. It is great that uniform and equipment will be improved to make sure that helmets, armour and uniform fit properly. That is a fundamental change. I am also pleased that steps will be taken towards independence from the chain of command in the service complaints system. It represents important progress for female personnel to have their complaints of sexual assault dealt with by someone outside their direct chain of command. Among the other recommendations, I welcome the new set of policies on women’s health and the targets for increasing the inflow of women into our armed forces, although I have concerns that the current targets are not being met.

However, as the report emphasises, when things go wrong for women in the armed forces, they go dramatically wrong. The Government must act more quickly if they are to resolve issues of bullying, violence and harassment in the culture of our armed forces. The most serious aspect of the report is the level of sexual violence it reveals, as highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck). Female service personnel are more than 10 times more likely than males to have experienced sexual harassment in the last 12 months. The revelations were accompanied by shocking evidence, with many cases, disturbingly, involving senior officers as wrongdoers.

As a result, in line with the Lyons review and Labour policy, the report recommends that the most serious offences be tried in civilian courts. The Armed Forces Bill offered a number of clear chances to implement that proposal, but the Government voted against it again and again. The Minister was pressed repeatedly by Members from across the House in the debate on the Bill on Monday to explain that position, and I simply do not understand his logic. He claimed he was confident that the new serious crime unit and the service justice system are capable of dealing with all offences, citing the statistic that 1.6% of rapes reported to civilian police made it to court in 2020, compared with 50% of those reported to the military police. Not only are those percentages a poor comparison because of the size of the populations that they reflect, but the Minister neglected to mention that conviction rates in military courts are far lower than in civilian courts. Between 2015 and 2020, the conviction rate for rape cases tried under court martial was just 9%.

Even when there are convictions in military courts, offenders often get off on light charges. I met a serving member of the armed forces, who wished to remain anonymous. She shared with me her experience of sexual assault and the painful ordeal she had to go through in attempting to get justice. On the day of her trial, the charge was reduced from a criminal case to a disciplinary matter. In that instance, the defendant was convicted of misconduct through alcohol under section 20 of the Armed Forces Act 2006, despite the fact that the manual of service law explicitly states that section 20 should not be used for more serious offences. Worse still, the women involved are forced to remain silent afterwards for fear of bringing the armed forces into disrepute, or being accused of doing so.

The serving member was moved to contact me as she not only felt that the system had denied her justice but was “appalled” by the Government’s response to my parliamentary question on military sexual trauma, the existence of which the Ministry of Defence continues to refute. On 12 July this year, I submitted a parliamentary question asking what steps the Ministry of Defence had taken to ensure understanding and acknowledgement of that term, and it told me that it does not accept the term. In its response to the report, the MOD denies the existence of military sexual trauma once again.

The charity Salute Her—I have met representatives from it over the last few months, and the report commends it for its work and support—points to other countries, such as the US, that are already using the term to gather insight into the experiences of assault faced by women in the armed forces and to change policy accordingly. If this Government refuse to acknowledge military sexual trauma, the Minister will not be able to understand sexual assault in the armed forces fully, tackle it at scale or provide the support that victims need.

According to the report, nearly 62% of female service personnel and veterans have experienced bullying, harassment and discrimination, and nearly 40% say that their experience of the complaints system was extremely poor. However, instead of building real reform into the complaints system, the Ministry of Defence has attempted to apply a quick fix, giving itself licence to reduce the appeal period to two weeks. It has ignored appeals against that in proceedings on the Armed Forces Bill, and it has done so again in the response to this report. Fixing the complaints system is not just about making the process faster; it is about ensuring that women feel able to bring their complaints to light and guaranteeing that those complaints will be taken seriously.

Overall, we will never see the significant change that is needed to make women welcome in the military without addressing the culture that allows assault, bullying and discrimination to take place. After accepting the recommendations of the Wigston review, the Ministry of Defence is well aware that too little has been done to implement them; as the Chair of the Defence Committee, the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), highlighted, only one of the 36 recommendations on inappropriate behaviour has been achieved. It is therefore a huge disappointment that the Ministry of Defence has rejected this report’s recommendation for an in-depth review of the implementation of Wigston next year.

Also key to the culture is ensuring that women feel they are fairly represented at all levels. However, according to the current trends for inflow of women into the armed forces, the MOD will not meet its 30% target, which is set out in the response, for more than 80 years. The mistake of wasting time, stalling on targets and letting the culture go unchecked must not be made again. Women remain in danger every day that the culture is not addressed.

I conclude with a few questions for the Minister. I would like him to explain how the Department will begin to understand and tackle the problem of widespread sexual assault and violence in the military, if it will not recognise that military sexual trauma exists. Will he tell the House why the Ministry of Defence has failed to implement many of the Wigston Review recommendations, leading to another damning report of this nature? Will he commit now to finally establishing a central defence authority with responsibility for culture in the armed forces?

I thank the Committee and our service personnel once again for this groundbreaking report. I welcome the range of recommendations accepted by the Government and I look forward to seeing many more women complete successful careers in our armed forces. However, if we are to tackle the serious issue of harassment, bullying and sexual assault in our armed forces, the Government can and must go much further.

I am pleased to respond to this debate and acknowledge the huge importance of the work carried out by my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton). It was good to hear her speak in the main Chamber earlier.

We institutionally acknowledge that this is a groundbreaking piece of work, and we will use it as a positive lever, as I have said, to accelerate the necessary institutional change in support of all women serving in the armed forces. I note that the scale of the involvement of former and currently serving female service personnel was significant. The historical arc that their service represented, reaching back to Aden and going through to the 1990s and very recent years, was extremely useful. I hope that the report pointed out some positive improvements, but of course it also illustrated very clearly the huge amount of work that needs to be done. I reiterate that we see this as a very positive opportunity to drive change. That was why the Defence Secretary, when he was approached by my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham, was very keen that serving female personnel be allowed to give their testimony. He thought that that was a necessary factor in improving the utility and currency of the report, and we are very pleased to see the outcome.

I am grateful for the several contributions in the debate. As well as the speech from my hon. Friend, I was very pleased to hear from the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck), my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) and the hon. Members for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) and for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock). I will quickly address some of the questions before making some broader remarks.

I will address the issue of concurrent jurisdiction straight up. It was a common theme of today’s debate and was, of course, before the House on Monday night. Regarding some of the statistical analysis that has been done this afternoon, I think it will be useful if I point out that according to MOD figures, from June to November this year, there was a 50% conviction rate within the service justice system for rape offences. Over the past six months, of the 13 individuals tried at court martial for rape, six were found guilty and seven were found not guilty. That is why we have confidence in our conviction rate, but of course, we entirely acknowledge that it is too low, and that we must have a wholehearted institutional drive for better outcomes.

In the broader context, though, we regard it as important that we maintain concurrency as part of the service justice system capability. We are cautious, lest salami-slicing capabilities from the service justice system undermines the viability of the whole organisation. That is particularly the case because, as defence, we are expeditionary by design—designed to travel the world and war fight on behalf of the state—and we need an expeditionary justice system to travel with us. Of course, the numbers are very small and the scenarios often unique, but given that we are expeditionary by design and are sometimes required to operate in ungoverned spaces where there is no legal framework, we regard the ability to have an expeditionary service justice system as an important component, which we do not want to undermine by removing concurrency.

The Minister is aware of the yellow card procedures and what happens in an operational environment, and he is absolutely right that conduct in those environments needs to be dealt with from a different perspective. The issue that we are trying to shed light on is what happens here in the UK. It is not salami-slicing. As we have said, it is clear that there is expertise in the civilian courts, so let us shift those cases across to the civilian courts, which have the experience that military courts do not. Justice Ministers have called for this in the past, and we are doing so here today.

I thank my right hon. and gallant Friend for that intervention. Of course, the jurisdiction is concurrent, so the choice of where these cases are best heard remains with the civilian prosecutor. I am not saying that we should have an absolute approach to this: my point is that we need to retain concurrency because of the essential expeditionary nature of our work. However, in simple terms, the civilian prosecutor will always have the final say, and it is quite right that that is the case.

It might be because I am no legal expert, or because it is the end of the week and we are all a bit tired, but I am still not really clear. For my benefit and the benefit of those listening, will the Minister explain whether he believes that by not removing rape from military courts, victims will have more or less access to justice, and could he explain how?

I thank the hon. Member for her intervention. It is conceivable that a case being tried in the courts martial may actually be a better outcome for the welfare needs of a victim, due to the constraints around career sustainability or location. Clearly, I am not saying that that is a given; I am saying that the civilian prosecutor should have the final say, but it is entirely conceivable that not having a case taken out of courts martial and into the civilian system may be a better outcome for the welfare interests of the victim.

It is conceivable, but it is not very likely. I am sure the Minister is aware of Salute Her, the charity, which I spoke to yesterday and which was very involved in the report. We spoke about the fact that it has helped 600 victims of sexual assault and not one of them said they wanted their case heard in court martial. What does the Minister say to that charity on that point?

I would remind the charity that that is why we have concurrent jurisdiction and why it is entirely plausible. If cases would be better heard in the civilian context, they will be. That is a decision for the civilian prosecutor.

The Minister can correct me if I am wrong, but I believe he said that, ultimately, it can still be decided in civilian court, if that happens. Why are we keeping the courts martial if a case can ultimately be decided in a civilian court? Why do we have a two-tier system?

As I mentioned, and I think the hon. Member for Barnsley East agrees, it might conceivably be advantageous to the victim for a case to be heard in the courts martial, due to career considerations, geography or constraints about their career progression. It is conceivable that it might be better for their welfare. It is good to have that flexibility in case that scenario occurs. However, the bottom line is that the civilian prosecutor will always have the final say.

The Minister has spoken about the civilian courts and the increased number of convictions, which I think we all welcome. However, in her opening remarks, the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) talked about victims’ reluctance to come forward because of how they would be treated. How does he propose to deal with that?

That is a very good question. We need to be much more public about the outcomes of cases of this nature in order to give serving women confidence. The Secretary of State is very clear about increasing the number of women on courts martial. It is about the whole package that will give women confidence that their complaints will be heard independently and credibly.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham asked about the independence of complaints of a sexual nature, and I can 100% confirm that that provision is now in place. If a serviceperson makes a complaint of a sexual nature, it will be handled entirely independently of the chain of command by the single service secretariat. My hon. Friend asked how we would measure outcomes. We will do that by being very public about our statistical performance and our outcomes. I also welcome the fact that our progress will be entirely accountable to Parliament. I look forward to her scrutiny throughout the delivery phase of all this work.

You have not mentioned cases of harassment, bullying and discrimination. Are they going to be dealt with within the same process as you just outlined now? Going back to the further point about welfare, am I right in thinking that what you said is that rape cases should primarily be heard within the military jurisdiction because of welfare reasons? We know from our evidence and from visits to Salute Her that women are retraumatised during that process, and that actually only 16% of investigations regarding women who make an accusation of sexual abuse have any forensic evidence. How are you promoting and encouraging welfare by keeping it in that current system?

Order. May I just say that the Chairman of Ways and Means, Dame Eleanor Laing, is very hot on people not saying “you”? I know that we are discussing a very sensitive subject. I think the point has been made. Let us all try and avoid the word you in this room.

Let me be very clear: I am not saying that these cases should be heard in the military system. I am saying that it is right that we have the flexibility of concurrent jurisdiction. I am saying it is conceivable that, for the benefit and the convenience, and therefore the welfare, of a hypothetical victim, hearing a case in the court martial might be appropriate. However, that is, of course, entirely a decision for the civilian prosecutor.

My hon. Friend asked me about bullying, harassment and discrimination. That has not been removed from the chain of command. We still believe this it is about institutionalising a robust response from the chain of command. The chain needs to be part of the solution, not the problem. That is why we keep complaints of bullying, harassment and discrimination within the chain of command system. That is right and proper, because a lot of this is solved by better leadership. It is not about entirely decanting these issues from sub-unit commanders; it is about ensuring that people step up and realise that it is a function of their own professionalism to be able to deal with these sorts of cases.

One way in which the Secretary of State has gone further than the Committee’s recommendations is by requiring career reporting in the formal reports on commanding officers to include their approach to these cases. If a commanding officer goes against or does not fulfil their duty, or receives a complaint from the Service Complaints Ombudsman about a grievance, that should be reflected in the career profile of a person in authority. That is important measure will ensure that, institutionally, everyone has bought into this and is part of the solution, not just the problem.

The hon. Member for South Shields also mentioned service complaints. I was pleased with her reference to Salute Her. I have visited Salute Her, and I acknowledge the important work that it does. The Office for Veterans’ Affairs will be commissioning important research into the experience of women veterans. We look forward to that being announced next week when we formally launch the veterans strategy. I know it will be of particular interest to Salute Her.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East mentioned the importance of recruitment and flexible working. I remember when he was Minister on the Public Bill Committee scrutinising the Armed Forces (Flexible Working) Act 2018. I will write to him with some figures. I do not have figures today, but I do have very positive anecdotal experience of talking to serving females about the benefits of flexible working. He should be very proud of the Bill he took through. Allowing people to drop the kids at school and then do a day’s work in a more flexible way, when operational requirements allow, is of significant personal benefit.

The hon. Member for Glasgow North West mentioned diversity having value, rather than just being a box-ticking exercise. I commend that. As our new Chief of the Defence Staff referred to, this is not about wokefulness. It is about ensuring that we are a highly capable war-fighting machine that can deploy around the world to defeat the nation’s enemies. Diversity is a necessary precondition of that. We cannot afford not to be diverse, because diversity makes us more robust and, in this context, much more lethal.

That plays into the question the hon. Lady asked about how we achieve this cultural shift. It is all about leadership, ultimately. It is about a huge range of technical provisions, some of which I will mention in a minute, but the bottom line is that it has got to be backed up by leadership. Leaders need to be instilling this vision in their people. That plays into some of the questions from the hon. Member for Barnsley East. We are going to deliver this through good military leadership. I should mention that we have accepted 33 and partially accepted four of the Committee’s recommendations, and noted 13 points that are conclusions rather than recommendations.

Let me canter through some of the departmental and institutional improvements that we are getting after. The service chiefs have commissioned a policy review to strengthen the available levers for dismissing or discharging those who are found to have committed sexual offences or unacceptable sexual behaviour. We are developing a new sexual exploitation and abuse policy, which will look at the use of transactional sex workers, for example. We take extremely seriously the overseas context, which has been mentioned, so we are looking at what kinds of policy provision we can put in place for it.

We aim to build trust in the service complaints system and the service justice system through a revised approach to publication of successful service justice sexual offending prosecutions, alongside anonymised service complaint cases, so that women who are serving can see that those issues are taken seriously and that justice is delivered. As I have said, those cases will be taken outside the chain of command, and—this was mentioned in passing —we are very pleased to be delivering the defence serious crimes unit as a mainstay of the Armed Forces Bill.

As I have already mentioned, the Secretary of State is determined that there should be more female representation on courts martial boards. Broader than that, moving from the technical, legalistic provision, it is about ensuring that the broader cultural environment for women serving is satisfactory. We are doing a six-month review to accelerate existing work to deliver a range of new women’s health policies in the workplace, in response to feedback from serving women. The chiefs of staff are leading an urgent six-month review accelerating existing work to address uniform and equipment improvements, which was mentioned by a number of hon. Members. I am pleased to report that new combat clothing, plus a female optimised VIRTUS scalable tactical vest, which is basically, body armour—will be issued by summer next year. So we are cracking on and buying the right equipment for serving women as well as men who happen to be smaller than average. That is good news on body armour.

It is also important to note that we are putting broader lifestyle support measures in place. Flexible service was mentioned. Importantly, with regard to supporting family life, wraparound childcare is now being piloted, and the recent feedback that I have had from members of the Royal Air Force serving in High Wycombe is that it is an absolute game changer in allowing a spouse to work and dramatically improving family cohesion. We look forward to that being rolled out in due course. That is one of the important components of the family strategy that will be formally launched next week. All hon. Members will get a copy of it with a “Dear colleague” letter explaining some of the excellent details. Basically, it puts the service family at the heart of defence and delivers choice and flexibility.

I should say a word about trying to see the positives and reinforcing the fact that service life should be seen as a positive opportunity for women. It is not just about mitigating bad behaviour but about celebrating and reinforcing good behaviour and the amazing array of positive opportunities that come through service. That is all about leadership. As I said, an important component of leadership is how those in authority and leadership positions deal with complaints as well as ensure a work-life balance and inclusive leadership—in other words, acknowledging the needs of the family when possible—at sub-unit level. We seek to empower leaders to help us drive this institutional change. Of course we are trying to regulate bad behaviour, but it is also about inspiring leaders to be part of the delivery mechanism for positive institutional change.

We have an ambition of 30% female inflow, but the bottom line is that we will achieve that only if we have really positive female role models who attract female recruits. Recently, I was pleased to visit the King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery. I spoke to a range of brilliant service personnel, some of whom had served for 18 years and others for three or four years, and they were unanimous in the message that they love service life. Of course some had critical feedback, and I was pleased to take note of that. They are the sort of individuals who will inspire more females to join and acknowledge that it is an excellent career.

I mentioned the veterans’ charity Salute Her. When we launch the veterans’ strategy next week, we will commit to better understanding the needs of female veterans. That will be extremely important, and we will track that.

I will conclude with role models. As a Department, institutionally we are there to ensure there is a robust and independent service justice system that gives women confidence that they can serve with dignity and thrive in every role—since 2018, every role in the armed forces is open to women. The bottom line is that this kind of institutional change can be brought about only by servicewomen themselves. The best accelerant of the change will be to have brilliant women at the very top of the military, driving forward institutional change and inspiring more women to join and serve. That is why our target is 30%.

I would like to mention three women in particular. The first is Major General Sharon Nesmith of the army recruiting and initial training team; it is people like her who will effect this change. It is also people like Air Vice-Marshal Maria Byford, who is chief of staff personnel and air secretary, and the soon-to-be Rear Admiral Jude Terry, who will be promoted to that rank in August next year. They are role models who will drive positive change. Their own careers show young women who are considering a career in the armed forces that women can serve and thrive in the Army, that they should join, and that they will have a great career and will flourish in the armed forces.

Thank you, Dr Huq. I want to finish on a positive note. I was on “Woman’s Hour” last week. Eight minutes after I had finished, I received an email, which said:

“Idiots like you push women to enter a very male environment and then moan when the normal biological functions take place.”

That is the attitude that we here are trying to remove.

On a positive note, I met a young—compared with me—commanding officer last week. He had read this report independently, from cover to cover. He had changed his leadership style, with good results from the personnel in his unit, and he was even empowered to challenge a two-star who had very loudly said, “I can’t get used to seeing women on ships.” The good thing was that the two-star took the challenge as constructive criticism. Change is happening.

I thank everyone for their contributions today, the Minister for his response, and the ministerial team and Secretary of State for their support throughout this. Of course, the MOD has made massive changes. It is a very old—probably the oldest—male-dominated institution, and I appreciate all that it is doing. The hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) mentioned being global leaders. Throughout the Committee’s inquiry, we liaised with the US, which has been undertaking a similar inquiry, and more latterly Australia. I am pleased that the Minister has gone further and is going to scope an international conference in 2022 to look at the progression of women in the military. The world is waking up to the fact that there are issues for women who serve.

We have many inspirational women in our military right now, of every rank, and they are all an inspiration to others. The inquiry has not been about wokeing up the Army, of which I have been accused. It is about taking a stand. Treating people differently because of their gender, in this day and age, is totally unacceptable. The inquiry is about promoting British values of justice, fairness and equality, and ultimately it is about operational effectiveness.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the Second Report of the Defence Committee, Protecting those who protect us: Women in the Armed Forces from Recruitment to Civilian Life, HC 154, and the Government Response, HC 904.

Sitting adjourned.