Today, I made a statement to the House of Commons about my ground-breaking inquiry into the experiences of women in the Armed Forces. This statement was an opportunity to outline the findings of the inquiry, the recommendations in the report and the Government's response. This was then followed by questions from fellow Members of the House.
You can read my full speech here:
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is a real privilege to be able to give this statement to the House today, on behalf of the Defence Committee. First, I wish to put on the record my interest as parliamentary patron for the veterans’ charity Forward Assist.
In July, the Defence Committee published a report on the lived experiences of women in the armed forces and female veterans. The intention was that, on publication of the report, we would come to the House and give a Select Committee statement on its findings and recommendations. However, as the report was released during recess, the decision was made to delay the statement to the House until the Ministry of Defence responded. Last week, we received a 40-page response from the MOD, and I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for granting the time for this statement, which gives me the opportunity to speak on behalf of the Defence Committee.
I wish to acknowledge the people who, over the past 18 months, made the report happen: first, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), who graciously relinquished his chairmanship of the Sub-Committee, allowing me to chair the inquiry; secondly, my colleagues on the Defence Committee, who showed continual commitment and support throughout the inquiry; thirdly, the Committee staff, including the chief Clerk Mark Etherton and the Committee specialist Lucy Arora, who have been a pleasure to work with; and, finally, Rachel Varley, my parliamentary researcher, who spent many days at my side reading and listening to some very sobering evidence.
I thank the Secretary of State for lifting the defence instruction notice to allow servicewomen to speak to the Committee, which is normally forbidden. That illustrates the Secretary of State’s dedication to our endeavour. Thanks to that decision, just short of 10% of the female serving population came forward to give their accounts. I put on the record my most sincere thanks to the 4,106 women and veterans who completed our survey, in addition to the 76 pieces of oral and written evidence that we received. The inquiry happened thanks to all who contributed, and the credit is theirs.
Let me quickly outline the report, its scope and our recommendations before I address the response from the Ministry of Defence. The inquiry looked at the whole military life cycle of a servicewoman, from recruitment and retention to the transition to civilian life. The scope of the inquiry was therefore vast. I have limited time so I shall focus on four main themes: recruitment and retention, especially in respect of those with families; the role of the chain of command in overseeing complaints; the service justice system; and, finally, the issues that female veterans face when they transition to civilian life.
Incredibly, 90% of women would recommend a career in the military, as I would. However, when things go wrong, they go dramatically wrong. I and the rest of the Committee were shocked to discover the volume of women who told us that they had experienced bullying, harassment, intimidation, discrimination and worse: serious sexual assault and rape. In fact, 62% of the women surveyed said that they had experienced abuse while serving. One of the big issues was how the lodging of a complaint coloured their military careers going forward and how the complaint had a legacy that impacted on the rest of their lives.
The Committee made 35 recommendations; I will not run through them all, but I will explain a few of the key areas. First, we recommended that for complaints of a sexual nature, the chain of command should be entirely removed from the complaints process. The reason for that recommendation was that in some extremely harrowing cases the perpetrator was also the commanding officer, with servicewomen unable to escape the environment where the assault took place or avoid the perpetrator.
We also recommended an increase in the independence of the complaints and investigations processes, which should move away from being managed within the unit where the alleged incident occurred; a central defence authority, which should sit outside the single services, to deal with complaints; that the decisions of the service ombudsman be binding; and that cases of serious sexual assault, rape, murder and manslaughter be removed from court martial jurisdiction and heard in civilian courts.
Servicewomen reported to us failings in kit, uniform and equipment—including body armour made for men, helmets falling below their eyes and no sanitary products available on operations—that have huge impacts on operational effectiveness. We recommended that be rectified so that women have suitable kit that enhances rather than inhibits their combat ability.
On retention, most women who leave the Army do so after returning from having children. We recommended policies to improve family and personal life, including the swift roll-out of wraparound childcare to all bases and all services by the end of 2022, and a more flexible working environment.
On veterans, we recommended more recognition for women who have served. Of all the veterans and armed forces charities in the UK, there is only one that deals solely with women veterans: Salute Her in Newcastle. I wish personally to thank Paula Edwards, who runs the charity, for giving evidence to the inquiry and then supporting the extra 147 new referrals—in addition to the 1,800 women she currently supports—as a result of the inquiry.
Let me outline the MOD’s response. First, I put it on the record that the Secretary of State was two months late in issuing the reply. However, I forgive him as he has agreed to most of our recommendations. Crucially, the MOD has agreed to remove the chain of command’s remit from complaints of a sexual nature. That is hugely transformative and will improve the service for women currently serving and for those who serve in future. One question that I have for the Minister and hope to address in this afternoon’s Westminster Hall debate is how it will all work in practice. The devil is in the detail. I need confirmation that if a servicewoman is sexually assaulted, there will be a reporting and investigating process that is completely outside the chain of command, so that she can continue to work without fear of repercussion.
The MOD has also agreed to make the complaints system for non-sexual offences more independent by employing an outsourced investigations service. However, ambiguity remains over the alternative reporting mechanism and just how involved the chain of command will be in complaints relating to harassment, bullying and discrimination.
The service chiefs will be commissioning a six-month sprint to look at women’s health needs and uniforms. In fact, some months ago, prior to the publication of the report, the MOD announced the roll out of sanitary products for all those on operations and more choice on hairstyles—I am reliable informed that one style is called “battle braids”. I am pleased that the MOD is already making changes in those areas. Such changes have huge impacts on the day-to-day living of women and their sense of being valued, recognised and listened to.
I was disappointed that the MOD refused to accept the recommendation to remove rape from military jurisdiction and to place it into civilian courts. The Secretary of State and Ministers know the strength of feeling on this issue and the evidence to support the recommendation is clear for all to see.
In many ways, the Secretary of State went further in his response to our report, which is most welcome. I am pleased about the aspirational target of having 30% women in the armed forces by 2030, showing ongoing commitment to our servicewomen. Having liaised with our equivalent committee in the United States, I am pleased that the Secretary of State has committed to scoping an international conference next year, to look at best practice and progress as the world is waking up to the issues faced by women serving in the military.
This report has taken almost 18 months of work and is the first time that the issues faced by women in the armed forces and female veterans have been examined in this way. The inquiry gave them a platform and their voices have been heard. As a veteran, it has been an honour to chair the inquiry. I commend this special report to the House.
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