MoD acts to check sex harassment in forces

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Political Correspondent

The Ministry of Defence has taken a tentative first step towards systematic monitoring of sexual harassment in the armed forces, in the wake of a substantial payout to a servicewoman subjected to persistent abuse by male soldiers.

Belated recognition that the military has failed to take proper measures to curb what is suspected to be a routine menace is revealed in a letter to the Liberal Democrats' defence spokesman, Menzies Campbell, in which Earl Howe, a junior defence minister, admits there is no central record of harassment complaints.

Of the limited number of complaints the minister was able to identify, many were found to be justified. Servicemen had been reprimanded, fined, sentenced to detention or dismissed. One RAF officer received six months' detention, was demoted to the ranks and eventually dismissed with disgrace following a court martial.

Mr Campbell had asked in a House of Commons question for details of complaints in all three services over the past 10 years after Lynn Goodall, a former acting sergeant in the Royal Signals, won pounds 47,500 in an industrial tribunal settlement after alleging abuse and intimidation on a promotion course.

The Royal Navy holds no central record of complaints, while the Army records only those complaints referred up the chain of command since 1993, excluding earlier cases and those dealt with at unit level. The RAF holds details only of complaints investigated by RAF police since 1989. The move to discover the real extent of a culture that tends to dismiss women as "tarts" or "dykes" or as inappropriate for active service comes as the ministry prepares to review its policy of sacking gays and lesbians, and in the wake of an estimated pounds 40m in payouts after the European Court of Justice ruled that the policy of dismissing pregnant servicewomen was unlawful.

In his reply to the minister yesterday, Mr Campbell urged that the monitoring system be implemented as soon as possible. "The nature of service life and the increasing opportunities available to women can easily create circumstances where sexual harassment arises," he said.

Demeaning treatment reported by servicewomen ranges from routine suggestive remarks, groping, boasting of sexual exploits and the discussion of women soldiers' sex lives by subordinates, to discrimination in training and promotion.

In the case of Ms Goodall, 30, it proved both embarrassing and costly to the Ministry of Defence. Her experiences included being told to strip down her breasts when running, that she was not wanted on the course and that "if you are here you'd better be fucking good". She and another woman were failed for not completing a run, but two men who could not do it were passed. Other cases are in the pipeline.

Lord Howe said in his letter: "We are examining the possibility of recording information on complaints of sexual harassment on a more comprehensive basis in each service, in order to monitor such complaints more effectively."