MP’s inquiry outcome sees “improving the experiences of women in the Armed Forces is becoming a priority for the Ministry of Defence”
Earlier this year, Wrexham MP Sarah Atherton chaired a report into the experiences of women in the Armed Forces and veterans, with the UK Government’s response published today.
In total, around 4200 survey submissions were received from serving women and veterans and heard from witnesses over three sessions in Parliament.
The inquiry explored the experience of female service personnel from recruitment to transition, and if there were unique challenges that are not adequately addressed by the current policies and services. Challenges looked at included incidences where female serving personnel are the victim of sexual offences, recruitment and retention of female personnel and transition to civilian life female service leavers have a lower employment rate and a higher economic inactivity rate.
The Defence Select Committee today published the Government response to the report, with the Government agreeing with the majority of the Committee’s recommendations.
Wrexham’s MP and Chair of the Women in the Armed Forces Sub-Committee, Sarah Atherton, said, “I would like to thank the Ministry of Defence for its thorough response. 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.
“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.
“Our inquiry discovered that six out of ten 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. There is also set to be a more robust process for handling complaints of Bullying, Harassment and Discrimination – although questions remain over what this means in practice. I hope that this is the beginning of a new era of accountability for the military.
“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, such as doubling the proportion of female recruits, and has accelerated workstreams on women’s health, uniform and equipment. This ambition is welcome: let’s make sure these targets are met, not missed.
“The response provides little clarity on improvements for veterans, and we hope that the Ministry of Defence will go further in 2022 to ensure that available services are meeting their needs – including for those with in-service experiences of sexual harassment, assault and rape.
“I have nothing but admiration for the female service personnel and veterans who contributed towards this inquiry. The credit is yours. For too long, women in the Armed Forces have suffered, often in silence. I know that we are united in our goal that the next generation of female serving personnel will not have to endure bullying, harassment and, in the worst cases, sexual assault and rape.
“This is by no means the end of our Committee’s work on women in the Armed Forces. We will continue to advocate for military women and will closely monitor the progress on the commitments made in this response.”
- After hearing evidence during the inquiry that the Chain of Command was a “single point of failure” in the complaints process, the Committee report recommended that the Chain of Command is removed entirely from complaints of a sexual nature. In response, the Government has confirmed that “all Service Complaints of a sexual nature will be required to be fully dealt with outside of the direct Chain of Command”.
- There will also be greater independence in the system for the handling of complaints of Bullying, Harassment and Discrimination, for example a new Outsourced Investigation Service and a centralised Service team that handles complaint admissibility decisions. The response notes that the “Chain of Command will only be decision makers on complaints in a small number of cases, where appropriate”.
- The Government’s response also announced that the Chiefs of Staff are reviewing stronger ways of removing those who are found to have committed sexual offences, with a strong onus on removing leaders who are falling short. By April 2022, the Ministry of Defence (MOD) commits to a “revised approach” to publishing Service Justice sexual offending prosecutions, as well as anonymised Service Complaints.
- The MOD will work to a new Level of Ambition of 30% female inflow by 2030, more than doubling its target for the inflow of women into the Armed Forces. The Department has committed to a “six-month sprint” on Women’s Health Policies and work on uniform and equipment, to accelerate relevant initiatives. The MOD have also committed to holding an international conference in 2022 to share the response and best practice with our partner nations.
- The MOD did not accept the Committee’s recommendations to remove cases of rape and sexual assault from military courts into the civilian system, to keep the appeals time limit at 6 weeks or to make the Ombudsman’s decisions binding. It also has not provided detail on how it will improve female veterans’ experiences, but it will give more information in an updated ‘Strategy for Our Veterans Action Plan’ (due this month).
Following the Ministry of Defence’s response to the report, female veteran and secretary of the Wrexham Royal Artillery branch, Anne Knowles, said,
“I was recruited into the Army in 1989 as a Women’s Royal Army Corps (WRAC) and I was subsequently re-badged to the Royal Artillery when the WRAC was disbanded. As one of the first women in a hitherto all male corps, the going was particularly tough in those early days. Many girls were subjected to verbal abuse, derision, and humiliation on a regular basis. Sadly, my career came to an end in 1996 when my commanding officer informed me that he had no place for females in his battery and that I would not attain further promotion.
“Thank goodness that things have changed, but Sarah’s report has highlighted the persistence of some of these issues for many of our servicewomen today. Hopefully, the recommendations in this report will ensure females face fewer barriers, ensuring that their service lives provide the rewards and job satisfaction that they deserve.”
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