The government has agreed to carry out a series of reforms after acknowledging there have been serious failures in protecting women in the military from sexual harassment, bullying and discrimination.
The move follows a report by the Commons Defence Committee which spoke to victims of abuse and prejudice while highlighting the systematic failures which allowed this state of affairs to exist.
One of the key changes being made is that complaints of a sexual nature will be removed from the control of the chain of command which had been previously responsible for investigations, and was condemned by the MPs as a “single point of failure” in the process.
But the Ministry of Defence refused to act on the committee’s recommendation that cases of rape and sexual assaults should be taken out of military courts into the civilian legal framework. It also refused to limit the appeals time for those convicted to six weeks, and make decisions of the military ombudsman binding.
A Defence Serious Crime Unit headed by a new provost marshal will carry out investigations outside the chain of command. The numbers of women from the military sitting on court martial boards on cases of alleged sexual offences will be increased. A new Sexual Exploitation and Abuse Policy will address the issue of military personnel and sex workers and “ensure that the interests of the victim are prioritised”.
Complaints of bullying, harassment and discrimination will also be moved, apart from a small number of cases, from the command chain to a new outsourced investigation service.
The chiefs of staff of the services also pledged to look at effective ways of removing those who are found to have committed sexual offences, or have been responsible for inappropriate behaviour, but still remain in the armed forces. There will be a revised approach to prosecutions of sexual offences and a complaints system providing greater anonymity for victims will be set up by April 2022.
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) maintains that it seeks to have women comprising 30 per cent of the military by 2030 and have “six month sprints” on issues such as women’s health policies, equipment and uniforms to facilitate this.
Responding to the report Protecting those who protect us: Women in the Armed Forces from Recruitment to Civilian Life, the government noted that the document “made clear that on too many occasions defence has failed to provide women with the experience they deserve. Our servicewomen needed to tell their courageous testimonies, we needed to hear them, and we will ensure that we continue to hear their voices”.
“There will be a defence-wide strategy for how rape and serious sexual offences are handled within the Service Justice System, recognising the significance to our people and to the wider service community of the damage caused by sexual offending... Retaining and developing our women and giving them greater confidence that they can thrive, have successful careers in the armed forces and not be limited.”
As well as the Defence Committee report, the government’s decisions had been shaped by a review carried out in 2019 by air chief marshal Sir Michael Wigston. The investigation into the prevalence of unacceptable behaviour by the head of the RAF made 36 recommendations, said the MoD, 22 of which have been delivered and the remaining ones are “currently being progressed”.
The chair of the Women in the Armed Forces Sub-Committee, Sarah Atherton MP, said: “The strength of feeling on this issue is clear, with over 4,100 women contributing to our inquiry. There is much more work to do, but it is clear that improving the experiences of women in the armed forces is becoming a priority for the Ministry of Defence. I would like to thank the secretary of state for defence, Ben Wallace, for his ongoing commitment to servicewomen and veterans.”
“Our inquiry discovered that six out of 10 women who had experienced abuse, did not complain for fear of the impact it would have on their career, or because they thought nothing would be done. The fact that a servicewoman can now make a sexual complaint safe in the knowledge that her direct chain of command won’t be handling it is a huge step forward.”
Ms Atherton added “However, it is disappointing that the Ministry of Defence has refused to remove cases of rape from the court martial jurisdiction despite clear evidence that the current system is failing to deliver justice.
“The Ministry of Defence has moved immeasurably on the chain of command’s role in complaints. This change will make a real difference to the lives of servicewomen, and future service women.”
Ms Atherton added : “However, it is disappointing that the Ministry of Defence has refused to remove cases of rape from the court martial jurisdiction despite clear evidence that the current system is failing to deliver justice.
“It is clear that the military is a male-dominated institution and so I am pleased that the government has set itself ambitious targets... This ambition is welcome: let’s make sure these targets are met, not missed.”
Defence secretary Ben Wallace, said: “While almost 90 per cent of women who engaged with this inquiry said they would recommend a career in the armed forces, it’s clear further change is needed. I am grateful to all the women who contributed to the Defence Committee’s report, we’ve listened carefully and are implementing bold changes in response.
“Having tested the recommendations with our own Service Women’s Networks, we are embracing almost all of them – and in many cases actually taking them further. I look forward to continuing to work with them to hold all three services to account, and ensure we see meaningful progress.”
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