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Defence Committee

Volume 705: debated on Thursday 9 December 2021

Select Committee statement

We now come to the Select Committee statement. Sarah Atherton will speak for up to 10 minutes, during which no interventions may be taken. At the conclusion of her statement, I will call Members to put questions on the subject of the statement and call her to respond to those in turn. Front Benchers may also, of course, take part in questioning. I call Sarah Atherton to speak on behalf of the Defence Committee.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is a real privilege to be able to give this statement to the House today, on behalf of the Defence Committee. First, I wish to put on the record my interest as parliamentary patron for the veterans’ charity Forward Assist.

In July, the Defence Committee published a report on the lived experiences of women in the armed forces and female veterans. The intention was that, on publication of the report, we would come to the House and give a Select Committee statement on its findings and recommendations. However, as the report was released during recess, the decision was made to delay the statement to the House until the Ministry of Defence responded. Last week, we received a 40-page response from the MOD, and I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for granting the time for this statement, which gives me the opportunity to speak on behalf of the Defence Committee.

I wish to acknowledge the people who, over the past 18 months, made the report happen: first, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), who graciously relinquished his chairmanship of the Sub-Committee, allowing me to chair the inquiry; secondly, my colleagues on the Defence Committee, who showed continual commitment and support throughout the inquiry; thirdly, the Committee staff, including the chief Clerk Mark Etherton and the Committee specialist Lucy Arora, who have been a pleasure to work with; and, finally, Rachel Varley, my parliamentary researcher, who spent many days at my side reading and listening to some very sobering evidence.

I thank the Secretary of State for lifting the defence instruction notice to allow servicewomen to speak to the Committee, which is normally forbidden. That illustrates the Secretary of State’s dedication to our endeavour. Thanks to that decision, just short of 10% of the female serving population came forward to give their accounts. I put on the record my most sincere thanks to the 4,106 women and veterans who completed our survey, in addition to the 76 pieces of oral and written evidence that we received. The inquiry happened thanks to all who contributed, and the credit is theirs.

Let me quickly outline the report, its scope and our recommendations before I address the response from the Ministry of Defence. The inquiry looked at the whole military life cycle of a servicewoman, from recruitment and retention to the transition to civilian life. The scope of the inquiry was therefore vast. I have limited time so I shall focus on four main themes: recruitment and retention, especially in respect of those with families; the role of the chain of command in overseeing complaints; the service justice system; and, finally, the issues that female veterans face when they transition to civilian life.

Incredibly, 90% of women would recommend a career in the military, as I would. However, when things go wrong, they go dramatically wrong. I and the rest of the Committee were shocked to discover the volume of women who told us that they had experienced bullying, harassment, intimidation, discrimination and worse: serious sexual assault and rape. In fact, 62% of the women surveyed said that they had experienced abuse while serving. One of the big issues was how the lodging of a complaint coloured their military careers going forward and how the complaint had a legacy that impacted on the rest of their lives.

The Committee made 35 recommendations; I will not run through them all, but I will explain a few of the key areas. First, we recommended that for complaints of a sexual nature, the chain of command should be entirely removed from the complaints process. The reason for that recommendation was that in some extremely harrowing cases the perpetrator was also the commanding officer, with servicewomen unable to escape the environment where the assault took place or avoid the perpetrator.

We also recommended an increase in the independence of the complaints and investigations processes, which should move away from being managed within the unit where the alleged incident occurred; a central defence authority, which should sit outside the single services, to deal with complaints; that the decisions of the service ombudsman be binding; and that cases of serious sexual assault, rape, murder and manslaughter be removed from court martial jurisdiction and heard in civilian courts.

Servicewomen reported to us failings in kit, uniform and equipment—including body armour made for men, helmets falling below their eyes and no sanitary products available on operations—that have huge impacts on operational effectiveness. We recommended that be rectified so that women have suitable kit that enhances rather than inhibits their combat ability.

On retention, most women who leave the Army do so after returning from having children. We recommended policies to improve family and personal life, including the swift roll-out of wraparound childcare to all bases and all services by the end of 2022, and a more flexible working environment.

On veterans, we recommended more recognition for women who have served. Of all the veterans and armed forces charities in the UK, there is only one that deals solely with women veterans: Salute Her in Newcastle. I wish personally to thank Paula Edwards, who runs the charity, for giving evidence to the inquiry and then supporting the extra 147 new referrals—in addition to the 1,800 women she currently supports—as a result of the inquiry.

Let me outline the MOD’s response. First, I put it on the record that the Secretary of State was two months late in issuing the reply. However, I forgive him as he has agreed to most of our recommendations. Crucially, the MOD has agreed to remove the chain of command’s remit from complaints of a sexual nature. That is hugely transformative and will improve the service for women currently serving and for those who serve in future. One question that I have for the Minister and hope to address in this afternoon’s Westminster Hall debate is how it will all work in practice. The devil is in the detail. I need confirmation that if a servicewoman is sexually assaulted, there will be a reporting and investigating process that is completely outside the chain of command, so that she can continue to work without fear of repercussion.

The MOD has also agreed to make the complaints system for non-sexual offences more independent by employing an outsourced investigations service. However, ambiguity remains over the alternative reporting mechanism and just how involved the chain of command will be in complaints relating to harassment, bullying and discrimination.

The service chiefs will be commissioning a six-month sprint to look at women’s health needs and uniforms. In fact, some months ago, prior to the publication of the report, the MOD announced the roll out of sanitary products for all those on operations and more choice on hairstyles—I am reliable informed that one style is called “battle braids”. I am pleased that the MOD is already making changes in those areas. Such changes have huge impacts on the day-to-day living of women and their sense of being valued, recognised and listened to.

I was disappointed that the MOD refused to accept the recommendation to remove rape from military jurisdiction and to place it into civilian courts. The Secretary of State and Ministers know the strength of feeling on this issue and the evidence to support the recommendation is clear for all to see.

In many ways, the Secretary of State went further in his response to our report, which is most welcome. I am pleased about the aspirational target of having 30% women in the armed forces by 2030, showing ongoing commitment to our servicewomen. Having liaised with our equivalent committee in the United States, I am pleased that the Secretary of State has committed to scoping an international conference next year, to look at best practice and progress as the world is waking up to the issues faced by women serving in the military.

This report has taken almost 18 months of work and is the first time that the issues faced by women in the armed forces and female veterans have been examined in this way. The inquiry gave them a platform and their voices have been heard. As a veteran, it has been an honour to chair the inquiry. I commend this special report to the House.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton) on chairing a most extraordinary exposition of some of the most profoundly disturbing issues that women face not only in modern life but specifically in the armed forces. They are a credit not only to their constituents and to the Committee but to women who seek a role in the armed forces.

On the cultural change that is required across the forces, which is mentioned in the report, does my hon. Friend agree that cultural change is also required specifically among the officer corps and that that should not be based on gender? Critically, around the Army Servicewomen’s Network, we should ensure equity of representation for younger women and for Black and minority ethnic women in the armed forces, and not only reflect the upper ranks who, frankly, seem in the report to be part of the cultural problem at the heart of this devastating investigation.

I thank the hon. Member for his question. He has been extremely supportive throughout this work, and, like me, sits on the Defence Committee. He is quite right: we both identified that we needed to make sure that the voice of the junior ranks was equal to that of the senior ranks. I know that the Ministry of Defence has referred back to the women’s defence network, and I have assurances from the Secretary of State that there was junior rank representation on that Committee. As far as leadership is concerned, the MOD has introduced a raft of initiatives around leadership. Performance assessments have been adapted to make sure that underperforming officers are sanctioned with a process that makes it easier to get them removed from their positions, but we, the Defence Committee, will keep a watching brief on this.

I, too, pay tribute to my hon. Friend who has done such an amazing job. It proves the importance of scrutiny and what can be done with a sub-Committee, and it was a pleasure to participate. It was also quite shocking to hear some of the evidence from across all three services. We have now opened up all appointments to women across all three services, but, clearly, there is a lot more to do. The fact that we got a 40-page response from the MOD is significant and shows how seriously the work is being taken. I ask the Minister to consider this question of taking serious offences out of the military courts and into civilian ones, and I say well done to my hon. Friend for standing firm on this belief. The Justice Lyons report also said that this view should be recommended. I understand that the position cost my hon. Friend her Parliamentary Private Secretary’s job. I hope the Whips will recognise why she had to stand firm, and that it will not be too long before she is back into that post. I say well done to her. I am pleased that we are able to explore these matters further in the Westminster Hall debate this afternoon.

I also congratulate the hon. Member on leading this report. I have just a couple of questions. The Government’s response to the Committee’s report says that many women do not experience harassment, but they are concerned that 11% of women in the services faced sexual harassment last year. Sexual harassment, particularly in the workplace, is under-reported. Does the Committee consider the Government’s statement a fair one, or does it agree that that statistic may not be reflective of the reality?

Secondly, one thing that comes through is the hard work that the RAF has put in to making its force a more welcoming environment for women, and it is clearly a priority. Does the Committee agree that the RAF seems to be a front-runner in the forces in addressing concerns, and has it considered how that could be further honed and implemented across the forces?

I thank the hon. Member for her questions. Based on the evidence that we have received, I absolutely disagree with the MOD’s statement about the level of abuse. Some 62% of our survey respondents had received some sort of abuse. The RAF did the best out of the three services. We had the least amount of evidence coming in from the RAF. This needs to be looked at. It is a younger service. We need to be modelling what it is doing and extrapolating that to the other services. We also have the Wigston review, and I am pleased to say that, in its response, the MOD says that it will give a thorough review of its recommendations in, I believe, 2023.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for her report, which is born out of her own experience in the services. I am sure that the service personnel and veterans whom I represent in Swindon will have great cause to thank her for what she has achieved. In particular, I was struck by the point that she made about the importance of holding the investigative process in a far more independent way. Is that not vital if the capacity of the Service Prosecuting Authority is to be enhanced? One worry I have about moving serious offences into the civilian courts is that that could have the unintended consequence of downgrading the investigative capacity of the Service Prosecuting Authority. Probably the better answer is the enhancement of the reliability, independence and integrity of the investigative process so that we see more victims coming forward and for that reaction to see a rise in the number of cases being brought. It seems that the numbers coming forward are very low, which leads to a vicious cycle of inexperience and poor outcomes for far too many servicewomen.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his question, and recognise that he was the previous Justice Minister. He is quite right when it comes to investigations. Many women told me that the investigation process was almost as traumatic as the incident itself, which then affected their future lives. Many of them were discharged on the back of the incident and the investigation, and then a lot of them had mental health issues and problems going back into civilian life. That is where the problem lies. Looking at investigations, I know that, on the back of the evidence that we provided, the MOD is making a few movements in that regard. With only 16% of cases having any forensic evidence taken, how can we expect cases to get to the courts for a conviction? That in itself is a problem, as is the lack of victim support. I know that the MOD has outsourced its investigations unit and that it is putting in place victim support units. I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his question.

I warmly commend my hon. Friend for the work that she has done on her Committee and for her report. Her Committee highlights the fact that juggling service life with family life can be hard for all service personnel, but especially for women, who are more often the main care giver, especially for dual-serving couples, and especially against a background of longer and more frequent deployments. Is she satisfied with the Government’s response to these concerns?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. The MOD has had strategies in place for many years around flexible working. I think my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) may have been involved with putting those in place, but some of the evidence that we heard was that, while they were available, they were hard to get. Personnel were denied access to these schemes because of operational effectiveness. Their commanding officers were not granting the schemes. One thing we want to look at is the accessibility of these schemes. There is absolutely no point putting policies, strategies and initiatives in place if they do not make a positive impact on the ground. I know that, next week, the Minister will introduce his family strategy, which I will look at with interest. Most women leave the military after returning from maternity leave, which is a problem that needs to be embraced. I am confident that the Minister is trying to do that, particularly around dual-serving couples.

I congratulate the hon. Member on this comprehensive and, at times, quite harrowing report. It is a huge body of work and some of it made for quite difficult reading. I was most disturbed by the tenfold increase in cases of rape and sexual assault on the under-18s. Given the Government response to her report, is she confident that servicewomen are safe from sexual violence in their workplace? Furthermore, given that rape and sexual assault will continue to be dealt with by court martial rather than by civilian courts, will she return to this issue at any future date to see whether there has been any increase in the number of convictions as a result?

I thank the hon. Member for her question. The Secretary of State asked the Defence Committee to visit Harrogate to see what it was doing around support for young servicewomen, and we were quite impressed. The MOD has acknowledged that there is a problem, which is a big step in itself. It is one of our oldest, most male-dominated institutions and it has now recognised and vocalised that there is a problem and is putting plans in place around supporting those women, which is a massive step forward. I was quite pleased with what I saw in Harrogate, and I did go with scrutinising eyes. With regard to serious sexual assault, murder, manslaughter and rape being held within the military service justice system, I am disappointed. To me, the evidence was overwhelming. Over this period, the MOD gave us quite a few streams of evidence and statistics, and, quite frankly, I was not convinced by any of them. The last one seemed to conflate two lots of databases, one of which was about conviction rates. The MOD seemed to be quite happy that it was investigating more and was therefore doing better, but I would say if it is investigating more, it has a problem—and my question would be, if it is investigating more, why are more cases not getting to the courts? That question raises concerns about the investigation process, which the MOD has acknowledged, and it is putting plans in place. The Defence Committee is going to be conducting a review of the MOD’s recommendations and progress on them in a year’s time, and I will continue, if permitted, to pursue this issue.

I thank the hon. Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton) for her hard work in delivering this groundbreaking report, and all the female service personnel and veterans who took part.

The majority of women in our armed forces have satisfying and successful careers serving our country, and I am pleased to see that most would recommend it to others. The Government, in their response to the report, have agreed to some much-needed recommendations that will enhance this experience further. Commitments have been made on fundamental issues with uniform and equipment, and complaints will finally move towards being independent from the chain of command. I hope that those changes will happen swiftly. However, as has been mentioned already, the report reveals that far too many serving women are still experiencing harassment, discrimination, assault and bullying while serving.

We will have the opportunity to discuss the report in more detail in Westminster Hall this afternoon, but I want to address one of the most important points now. The Minister has said that he will not remove cases on most serious crimes from the service justice system and put them into the civilian courts. In the debate earlier this week, he justified this by arguing that his position allows the victim to choose between civilian proceedings and court martial, and that this is necessary in a small number of cases.

I pay tribute to the charity Salute Her, of which the hon. Member for Wrexham is a patron. When I spoke to the organisation this week, it said that of the 600 victims of sexual assault it has supported, not one has wanted to go through the military court system. I think that the hon. Lady agrees that it is simply not acceptable for the Government to ignore the incredibly important recommendation in this report to ensure that the most serious crimes are heard not in courts martial, but in civilian courts. Does she agree that the Government should relook at this matter?

I thank the hon. Lady for her support over the last 18 months. Obviously, I agree that the Government should look at that issue again, and we will be looking at it as we go forward.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton) for this extremely powerful and hugely important report. I look forward to continuing to discuss these issues later in Westminster Hall, but I want at the moment just to put on record my absolute assurance that we see this report as an urgent opportunity and a lever to drive urgent and positive institutional change so that women can thrive and prosper in the military.