The experiences of women in the armed forces make for sobering reading – we know there is work to do

Women must be confident that they can speak up, knowing that any investigation will be robust, fair and swift

Annabel Goldie
Saturday 24 July 2021 23:44
<p>The Defence Sub-Committee on women in the armed forces received an almost unprecedented level of engagement during its inquiry</p>

The Defence Sub-Committee on women in the armed forces received an almost unprecedented level of engagement during its inquiry

The Defence Sub-Committee report into women in the armed forces makes for sobering reading. There can be no excuses for the appalling bullying, harassment and discrimination many women have experienced while serving our country.

But, difficult though this evidence is to hear, we can’t deal comprehensively with these issues until we fully understand the extent of the problem. Indeed, that’s why the defence secretary made sure serving females could appear before the committee and speak frankly.

So I want to thank Sarah Atherton MP for leading this inquiry, and the more than 4,000 women who gave evidence. I am personally proud of their strength, courage and resilience in doing so. They have done a great service and we will now take time to carefully consider the report’s findings.

But it is also worth remembering that change is already under way. Following the wake-up call delivered by Air Chief Marshal Wigston’s review in 2019, we set about tackling this corrosive culture of bullying. Since then, an unequivocal message has been delivered by our secretary of state, the chief of the defence staff, and the permanent secretary, to all of our people, that there will be zero tolerance of intolerance, wherever they serve.

At the same time, we are determined to inject greater trust and confidence into the system. People must be confident that they can speak up, knowing any investigation will be robust, fair and swift.

That’s why we are launching a new service complaints investigations process. This new pilot will see complaints investigated more efficiently and more quickly, injecting trust back into the system. It will work alongside an independent 24/7 whole force anti-bullying and harassment helpline, as well as mandatory online courses on inappropriate behaviour.

We have bystander training, giving employees the tools and confidence to safely challenge unacceptable behaviour. We’ve also established a new Directorate for Diversity and Inclusion to make sure we deliver on our commitments.

Separately, we are acutely aware of the need to improve the way rape and serious sexual offences are dealt with in the service justice system. Such crimes have a devastating and lasting impact on people’s lives, so we must make the system fairer and more effective, encouraging survivors to come forward via a Ministry of Defence-wide strategy for handling rape and serious sexual offences.

Our new strategy will ensure survivors’ interests are prioritised. It will ensure they have the support they need for as long as they want it. And it will be completely transparent about what is to be expected from the process. The defence secretary has also asked Sir Richard Henriques to conduct an independent review into the ministry’s internal investigation processes and skills.

Clearly we still have considerable work to do, but it would also be wrong to overlook the significant progress we have made in recent years. More women are signing up to our armed forces in greater numbers every year. They are doing so because they know that it is an exciting and positive career choice, with greater opportunities now available than in the past. Nothing is beyond their reach, with all branches of the military now opened up to women.

And they also know that there is the potential for them to rise to the very top. In 21st-century Britain, I am proud that we have women generals, air marshals and, with the forthcoming promotion of Commodore Jude Terry to vice-admiral, our first female admiral.

But we are very far from being complacent. No woman should ever have to go through a repeat of the experiences in this report. So we will continue to listen and to learn, doing all we can to ensure those who join our ranks feel welcome, valued and free from fear.

As a defence minister, I have the privilege of seeing what our female personnel contribute to our country. And I know the difference they make, day in and day out. They deserve our support and they shall have it.

Baroness Goldie is minister of state at the Ministry of Defence

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