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Royal Navy: Conduct towards Women

Volume 721: debated on Monday 31 October 2022

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on conduct towards women in the Royal Navy.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his timely question. Before I get going, I would like to declare my interest as entered in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests: I am a serving reservist and, more particularly for this particular urgent question, I have two daughters who are currently serving in the armed forces.

I was concerned by the recent reports in the media that have prompted this UQ, little knowing that I would be answering it this afternoon. Allegations of bullying, harassment and sexual assault in the Submarine Service are and will be taken extremely seriously. Any activity that falls short of the highest standards in the Royal Navy is totally unacceptable and not a true reflection of what life should be. Sexual assault and harassment have no place in the Royal Navy and will not be tolerated.

The First Sea Lord has directed a formal investigation into these allegations, and this commenced on 24 October. This independent investigating team, led by a senior female officer, will thoroughly examine the allegations and report back very soon. It is understood that the named individual has agreed to meet the investigation team to provide her account. While this investigation will review specific allegations, Defence will also review the culture of the submarine community and report to Ministers in due course. The House will understand that it would be premature to offer any further comment or debate until those investigations are complete. However, anyone who is found culpable will be held accountable for their actions regardless of their rank or status.

While some of the incidents referred to in the media are historical, it is important to note the large-scale policy changes that were introduced across Defence in the past year. As a result, Defence will deal with incidents and allegations of sexual abuse better. The new policies will ensure zero tolerance of unacceptable sexual behaviour or of sexual exploitation and abuse within Defence. All allegations of sexual offences will be responded to, victims will be given greater support and there will be a presumption of discharge for anyone found to be engaging in this kind of behaviour.

These policies will ensure that Defence will deal with these types of incidents differently. They will build trust and confidence in Defence’s ability to deal with unacceptable behaviour and demonstrate that supporting people who are victims of unacceptable sexual behaviour is a top priority. The House should be reassured that the Royal Navy has taken and is continuing to take decisive action to address the allegations that have been brought to light and will report to Ministers when the investigations are complete, at which point I feel sure that there will be a further opportunity to explore the detail.

Britain can be immensely proud of its Royal Navy, which over the centuries has helped to define who we are as a nation. Today it is globally recognised as arguably the best-trained, best-motivated and best-disciplined maritime force in the world. It is therefore deeply concerning to see more reports emerging of inappropriate behaviour against women, this time on the very submarines that provide our nuclear deterrent.

I welcome the statement and the First Sea Lord’s promise of another investigation. Only three years ago, the Ministry of Defence was obliged to commission its own study, the Wigston review, which admitted

“an unacceptable level of…behaviour and a sub-optimal system for dealing with it”.

The Defence Committee carried out a study last year, and over 4,000 female personnel replied to our survey run by my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton). Sixty-four per cent. of respondents said they had endured bullying, harassment, intimidation, discrimination or sexual abuse, and few had any faith in the mechanism through which these concerns could be addressed.

My Committee made two clear recommendations: first, the establishment of a central defence authority to provide a reporting system outside the chain of command and, secondly, the removal of the chain of command entirely from complaints of a sexual nature. Will the MOD now implement these recommendations and encourage others, both serving and retired, to share their concerns on safety?

Women have proudly served in our armed forces for over a century, and all roles are now open to women. To be fair, the majority leave with a positive view of their time in uniform. This is about a few personnel who bring the Submarine Service into disrepute. It is about a systemic failure of the chain of command, and the MOD must now accept its role and prioritise putting this right.

I thank my right hon. Friend again. He is correct to put matters in these terms. He has been robust and forthright, which I respect.

My right hon. Friend will know that the great majority of women serving in our armed forces today respond positively when asked about their experiences and say they would recommend the services to others. He will also be aware of the work done this year in response to his Committee’s report. I would like to say I have read it from cover to cover, but I have been in post for only a few hours, so he will forgive me for not doing so. I get the gist of it, and I will study it extremely carefully.

My right hon. Friend will know that the MOD has already accepted the great majority of the report. He and I have been around a long time, and I cannot think of a Select Committee report in recent times that has had so many of its recommendations accepted and carried out. He will be familiar with “Tackling Sexual Offending in Defence” and the two pieces of work on a zero-tolerance approach that have been published this year.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton) and their Committee. The great majority of the recommendations are being carried out or will be carried out.

I welcome the new Minister to his position. Those who serve in our armed forces should expect the highest standards of professionalism and personal conduct, which must be supported and reinforced by the Government. As the son of a Royal Navy submariner, I know that the Submarine Service is on the frontline of our national defence. Every submariner must be confident that the people they serve alongside in the Royal Navy have their back. These claims of abuse are extremely serious and must be thoroughly investigated, and those responsible must be held accountable.

These reports lift the lid on a culture of abuse and cover-up in our armed forces. In far too many cases, victims are unable to raise their experiences within the chain of command. Women account for 11% of our forces personnel but, between 2019 and last year, 81% of victims of sexual assault in the military were women, and almost half of them were at the start of their military career. Behind these statistics are hundreds of women who have been let down. This cannot be allowed to continue. Victims of sexual abuse serving in our armed forces must have confidence in the processes that allow them to report their experiences, and they must know that robust action will be taken.

I suggest that the Minister reads the Defence Committee’s report before coming back to the House to tell us how he will implement all of it. Will he make the investigation he has just announced a public investigation so we can see what action is needed? Can he explain why the Government continue to resist Labour’s proposal that the most serious cases, including murder, manslaughter and rape, should be tried in civilian courts instead of military courts? What progress has been made on the RAF’s review of allegations of sexual assault, which was announced in August? Will those findings be made public?

Our armed forces are the very best in the world, and they deserve the very best, too. The Government must step up and protect those who protect us.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his points. I agree with him about external scrutiny. That is why the investigation that has been set up, which will report soon, to which I referred, will include an individual from outside Defence, who is currently being selected for his or her independence, probity and integrity, who will be alongside that investigation. I do not know where this is going to go. I suspect it is going to be complicated and may take a while. I want it to report quickly, but I do not want to put a time limit on it necessarily.

However, it is going to report “soon”—that wonderful, plastic term. It will have within it an independent individual —the hon. Gentleman will understand that that is a divergence from the norm—because I am absolutely clear that there needs to be oversight of this that is outside the process. He will know full well that these investigations are conducted properly always—I have been involved with a number myself—but there has to be the appearance also of their being transparent. I hope that that will give him some reassurance.

The hon. Gentleman refers to the Henriques report, most of which of course was accepted. He may also be aware of the joint protocol that will be drawn up for the very serious offences that he cites between the civilian and the service prosecuting authorities. I hope that that goes some way to addressing that outstanding concern that I know he has.

A parallel strand of work is being set up by the commander of the submarine flotilla to look into conduct and culture. That will be headed by Colonel Tony de Reya from the Royal Marines. That will report, I hope, by the end of the year. It is separate from the investigation on the specific that I have cited in my opening remarks, but, obviously, it will touch on much of the same material. I look forward to returning to the House to discuss that once Ministers have had a chance to examine its findings and conclusions.

It must not come down to one brave woman being prepared to speak out; there have to be processes in place where every woman and man serving in our armed forces has the confidence to come forward. I say gently to my right hon. Friend that we cannot simply be looking at the culture in the submarine community. This happens across our armed forces and we need to have processes that are swift and give redress to those victims, so that they come forward with confidence. I have a constituent who is not at the start of her military career—she is a lieutenant colonel—who waited 10 years before the Ministry of Defence took her complaint seriously. We have to have faster justice for the women who have been victims of this sort of culture.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. This is my 42nd year in Defence as a regular and reservist, and over that time things have changed dramatically—I am happy to say that is the case—particularly in the past few years. I accept all of her comments. There is no room for complacency. With two daughters in the armed forces, I am certainly not complacent. However, I have to refer to some of the objective data that we have, some of which is to do with the sexual harassment surveys that each of the three services conduct and that show a positive trend. We can argue as to whether that is fast enough, and certainly it should not be the antidote to complacency. Nevertheless, it is positive in terms of the experience of people feeling supported and feeling that their complaints will be dealt with outside the chain of command, where appropriate, with action taken. That is very positive, but she is right to say that there is no room for any complacency and a single complaint is one too many.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I think we are all agreed that the reports that emerged over the weekend are truly shocking, and I pay tribute to the women who have spoken out about the abuse they suffered, including Sophie Brook, the former Royal Navy lieutenant, who described her abuse as being “constant”. She said that it came from the top down, confirming what Emma Norton, from the Centre for Military Justice, said about there being a culture of

“Nasty, pernicious, endemic, sexual harassment”,

within which people acted with impunity. That must change.

Therefore, I am sceptical about the First Sea Lord’s announcement of yet another internal investigation. It is simply not good enough. As the MP for Argyll and Bute, which takes in the naval base at Faslane, I understand that this episode casts a shadow over the entire service. I am sure that there are thousands of hard-working, thoroughly decent Royal Navy personnel who will demand that those responsible, irrespective of their rank or status, are rooted out and disciplined. They will want a thorough independent investigation, one that can report without fear or favour. So does the Minister agree that that can be achieved only by a fully transparent, truly independent investigation of these facts?

It would be nice to have the facts first. That is the point of the investigation that was launched on 24 October, which—let us be clear—was before the publication of the lurid accounts that appeared in the media. I think that gives a signal of intent that Defence is looking at these matters very seriously, as does the inclusion of a non-Defence person in the investigation, which is important. The hon. Member will note the number of senior officers who have been dealt with severely because of transgression in this particular area. That is also an indication of how seriously Defence takes such matters. He is right to push me on this, but I point him to the series of three major reports by Defence during the course of the year that outline what Defence will now do to ensure that the environment is as good as possible for those who have had cause to make serious allegations in the recent past.

The allegations that we have heard are clearly horrifying, and I know that the investigation will have to take its course, but it is equally disturbing that there does not appear to have been a safe, independent route of complaint for the people involved. Whatever the outcome, will the Minister confirm that that at least will be put right?

The excellent report by our right hon. Friend’s Select Committee, and my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham in particular, makes some recommendations along those lines, and much of that has been accepted, so the general trajectory of the environment—in particular for women who have found that Defence has in the past not provided the background against which they would want to conduct their careers and lives—will be improved. It is worth underscoring—our right hon. Friend made this point—that the great majority of women serving in our armed forces today have a positive experience that they would recommend to others.

I refer hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests: I am a trustee of the Agnes Wanjiru trust. Agnes Wanjiru was a prostituted woman in Kenya who was murdered on the site where there were military personnel; I will say no more about the case, except that it has not been pushed forward.

The Minister has referred to a number of documents that have been produced since other cases have come to light. There have been a number of documents of progress. One document to which he referred is on sexual exploitation policy, which now disallows Defence forces having sex with sexually exploited people abroad. However, the document specifically says:

“While the policy is not intended to apply in the UK”.

Does the Minister think it is okay that the Department has written into a document that it is fine for British military personnel to sexually exploit people in the UK?

I welcome my right hon. Friend the Minister to his place.

The incident we are discussing is horrifying, but the statistics in the Defence Committee report—that over half of women in the armed forces have experienced bullying and harassment in the workplace—are also totally unacceptable. There are simply no excuses for such behaviour. We have had women in the armed forces for many years, but only recently in very senior roles. How many excellent women heading for senior roles does the Minister think have left the armed forces because of the culture of bullying and harassment?

Bullying and harassment of women is particularly appalling, but we have to understand and be honest with ourselves that it has historically been a feature of service life more generally. I suspect the behaviour that my hon. Friend has just described has been a feature of the retention issue for many years. It is wasteful, it is wrong, and it has to stop. We hope that 30% of our service personnel will be women by 2030, so the issue is quite a big deal in terms of the whole force. Although we are dealing with the issue in relation specifically to women in the armed forces today, it is applicable right across Defence. It is wrong for the organisation, and it is wrong for the individuals and their families.

Minister, this has to stop. As the Chair of the Defence Committee said, we have had the Wigston report and the report from the House of Commons Select Committee, ably chaired by the hon. Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton). May I say that her sacking does not fill me with a great deal of confidence that these things are going to be taken seriously? What evidence does the Ministry of Defence need for change? Without an independent process, either in investigations or prosecutions, which the MOD resisted fiercely in the Armed Forces Bill, things will not change, Minister.

The right hon. Gentleman is correct to put me on the spot on this. I would, however, cite some of the evidence. I mentioned earlier the sexual harassment survey, which is an important survey. It is conducted rigorously, it has been conducted longer for the Army than for the other two forces, but its conclusions are fairly clear: while there are no grounds for complacency at all in this, things are improving. As to what is being done, tackling sexual offending in Defence was the biggest part of the response to the report, to which we referred earlier. The great majority of its recommendations have been accepted and they are being rolled out at pace. The survey was published only in summer 2021 and already in summer this year we have had this major contribution that accepts most of the report and says how it is being rolled out.

I warmly congratulate my right hon. Friend on rejoining the Defence ministerial team. With his experience of professional service in the Royal Navy, he will be aware of the vital role of commanding officers of naval units in terms of discipline. I am surprised therefore that not more is being made of the fact that commanding officers ought perhaps to have it brought to their attention that their own careers will not progress well if they allow not only incidents, but a culture of sexual exploitation, insult or abuse in their units. What does he have to say about that?

I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for his kind remarks and for his question. He will know that a significant number of very senior officers’ careers have been brought to an end in these matters. That is an indication of how Defence views commanding officers who fail to grip this. I also point out that, in the event that the commanding officers fail in the eyes of the ombudsman, their annual appraisal will be annotated accordingly, which has very severe implications for their hopes of future preferment. In those ways, we can inculcate into the senior cadre that this is their responsibility and they need to grip it. He will also know that we have taken some of this outside the chain of command completely, so that people can have confidence that they can report allegations and have them dealt with appropriately and seriously without the fear of retribution. There is, if you like, a double lock there, which gives me great hope for the future.

I welcome the Minister to his place. These reports are despicable. We repeatedly hear about situations such as this happening within our armed forces. Research shows that female recruits under the age of 18 face substantially elevated risk of sexual violence. Last year, more than one in 10 girls serving in the armed forces aged under 18 were victims of a sexual offence, according to records of military police investigations. I know from my own time serving with soldiers and with young recruits how pervasive this behaviour can be. Will the Minister commit to taking a meaningful step by shifting responsibility for serious charges, including rape and sexual assault, from military courts to the civilian justice system, so that we can better protect young service personnel?

The hon. Gentleman knows from his own background the importance of these matters, and I welcome the expertise he is able to bring to the House. People who are in positions of responsibility must not abuse those who are potentially subject to their predations. The teaching profession has implemented changes in recent years to the relationship between teachers and children, and Defence is taking note of that. He refers to recruits under the age of 18, who are minors and are in a similar position, so he can be assured that we are closely considering how we can emulate the situation that now pertains to civilian education, so that it properly applies in a defence setting. He also touched on the Henriques report: the bulk of those recommendations were carried out, although I suspect we could have a debate about the three most serious offences, but Defence’s position remains that they should be a matter for the service justice system.

I, too, welcome the Minister to his place. As the Chair of the recent Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, a regular officer for 26 years and now a senior veteran, I can tell the House with some authority that our armed forces are full of brilliant people at all ranks and levels. In the interest of balance, and noting how far the MOD has come in recent decades in dealing with such sordid behaviour, I urge the Minister to maintain a sense of pragmatism and proportionality. Rather than saying that the forces have an endemic problem, I think this is indicative of individual poor behaviour and the inquiry must look accordingly.

I think I touched on that subject when I referred to the Select Committee’s report and the positive comments it made about the experience of most women in our armed forces. We must not put people off joining our armed forces unduly, but equally we must take these allegations very seriously.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton) for her report; when I was on the armed forces parliamentary scheme last year, many in senior positions referred to that report, and it should not be cast aside. We in the Labour party have long argued that the more serious cases, including sexual assault and rape, should be tried in civilian courts rather than through the military justice services. I was also on the Bill Committee for the Armed Forces Bill, so I ask the Minister to explain why the Government continue to resist that move? Sexual assault cases need to be in civilian courts.

Henriques dealt with the three most serious offences, although he could have chosen other offences as well. The judgment has been made that the status quo is probably appropriate, but with the design of a joint protocol between civilian and service to ensure that practice is the same. I hope the hon. Lady will accept that.

I welcome my right hon. Friend to his place. I want to raise the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton). Her review mattered because, for the first time, women in the armed forces were no longer gagged. They believed that that meant they would be listened to and that change would come. My concern is that the sexual violence policy that the MOD has just introduced has a five-year vision. Five years is too long. Surely my right hon. Friend the Minister can agree that no military commander would accept a five-year deadline to deliver any effect within the MOD, so why are we accepting it for sexual policies?

I would not say that we are not doing anything to deal with the situation—I have outlined a number of ways that we are doing exactly that, and referred to the sexual harassment survey, with respect to my hon. Friend, which gives some evidential basis to say that matters are improving. That is not to say that we are in any way complacent, and I want to see changes rolled out as soon as possible, but I think she should give credit to Defence for working hard on this matter and taking it seriously at the highest level.

I have spoken to Dr Shonagh Dillon, the founder and chief executive of the charity Aurora New Dawn, which works with women survivors of abuse in the military. She is very clear what is required to give women sufficient courage to remain within the services in the face of what, according to the evidence, appears to be a culture of such difficulties. She says that what is needed are fully independent investigations into such allegations. When will the Ministry of Defence look into having fully independent investigations, given the advice of the Wigston review and subsequent recommendations to that effect?

I hope it reassures the hon. and learned Lady to learn that in my few hours in post, I have made sure that the investigation to which I referred has significant independent involvement. That is not a given in Defence—it is something of a departure—but it is important that someone completely independent of Defence be heavily involved, both for transparency, and so that people ultimately accept what the investigation comes up with. That may give her an indication of how I view these matters.

The hon. and learned Lady is absolutely right about victims. She will be aware, I hope, of the victim and witness care unit, which is about to be set up in the defence serious crime unit. That will give added support to the victims of these horrendous offences.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has suggested that the future of the Royal Navy may well be in subsea vessels, but we cannot expect to staff a fleet, or to recruit, when reports of misogyny and absolutely terrible abuse hang over the submarine service, so will my right hon. Friend confirm the Government’s view that this behaviour is completely unacceptable? Will he work towards ensuring that people can have faith in the system of training, reporting and redress, so that we make sure that the incidents reported in the press are the last of their type?

My hon. Friend is right. The case in question relates to the submarine flotilla, but I think that the lessons will be more generally applicable. I agree entirely that this kind of behaviour has no place in our Royal Navy, or in defence more generally.

The north-east is proud to send so many young men and women into the armed forces—more than any other region. As a consequence, we have many veterans living in our region. A 2019 report from the north-east charity Forward Assist, “No Man’s Land”, highlighted the experience of women veterans, and in particular the unacceptable sexual harassment that they had to deal with. It also highlighted the lack of mental health support for them when they left the armed services, and particularly the lack of online support for those feeling isolated. What will the Minister do to ensure that women veterans have the mental health support that they need and deserve after their service?

I hesitate ever so slightly because I have been professionally involved in this area. A set of rules that take my name apply; they govern how servicemen and women who leave the armed forces for medical reasons are managed in civilian life, and help them to transition. The great majority of veterans transition to civilian life very well. The hon. Lady will be aware of that. In fact, there is good evidence to suggest that they do better than the civilian cohort. However, it is important that we continue to support their mental health. Over the past five years, matters have improved dramatically, not least as regards career transition and veterans’ ability to continue to access support through the services.

I was angry over the weekend, not just because of this dreadful case of sexual harassment and bullying in the Navy, and not just because I have three daughters and five grand-daughters, and another due on Thursday, but because it is the inalienable right of women to be free from this sort of treatment, yet everywhere I have worked, it is still there—in the manufacturing sector; in the universities, where I spent 13 years; here in the House; and in Whitehall. This behaviour is still everywhere, and we have to do something about it fast.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman; there is no question about that. I speak specifically about defence, of course, but what he says goes for society more generally, too.

What will Ministers do to ensure that no female officer brave enough to come forward and report abuse will experience professional discrimination, such as having promotion opportunities withheld from them?

I hope that I explained in my previous remarks the importance that Defence assigns to this, particularly when it comes to senior officers who may be complicit in some of the behaviour that we are discussing. This is very important: if someone’s career is on the line, it does affect their thinking fairly dramatically. I would also commend to the hon. Member the victim and witness care unit that will be established by December for the most serious offences, which will give people much-needed support that was previously lacking.

I welcome the Minister back to his post. Will he join me in noting the amazing achievement of Private Carter, who just last week became the first woman soldier to pass the all-arms pre-parachute selection course, P Company? It is a timely reminder of the outstanding contribution that women make to our armed forces. Does the Minister agree with me that every woman who steps forward to serve, whether in the Royal Navy or whichever bit of defence it might be, deserves nothing less than complete and total respect at all times?

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. It is no mean feat even these days to join the armed forces as a woman. The challenges remain enormous, although I hope they are becoming less. I am particularly proud of my two daughters who are serving in the armed forces. Respect to them and strength to their arm.

It is highly disturbing to hear of a woman in the armed forces being sexually assaulted and violently abused. Last year the Defence Committee’s report “Women in the Armed Forces” uncovered shocking levels of abuse and identified bullying, harassment, intimidation and discrimination in the armed forces. This stops women fulfilling their potential, and in many instances the abusers are promoted and rise through the ranks. This is unacceptable. Women in the armed forces really do need to be protected, so will the Minister confirm how many of the Committee’s recommendations have been implemented to date?

If the hon. Lady is referring to the House of Commons’ Defence Committee’s report, as I said earlier, the great majority of those recommendations were accepted or partially accepted, which is pretty much unprecedented in my experience, so my congratulations to the Chair of the Committee, who is in his place. Let me be clear: the behaviour that this touches upon is wholly and completely unacceptable. It is unacceptable in the armed forces, it is unacceptable in society in general, and it needs to be stamped out.