Following my statement to the House of Commons about the my ground-breaking inquiry into the experiences of women in the Armed Forces, I attended and spoke in a debate on the report and the Government's response.
You can also watch my closing remarks to the debate here.
You can read my opening speech here:
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Second Report of the Defence Committee, Protecting those who protect us: Women in the Armed Forces from Recruitment to Civilian Life, HC 154, and the Government Response, HC 904.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dr Huq. I thank the Liaison Committee for granting this important debate on the Ministry of Defence’s response to the Select Committee on Defence. By way of introduction, it was noted by the Defence Committee that recruitment targets had been missed yet again, and that yet again women had been over-represented in the complaints system. Our main concern at that time was to look at how this was compromising operational effectiveness and how it was impacting on the British military, so we agreed to look into the way that this was happening. As an ex-servicewoman myself, I agreed to chair that Sub-Committee. As a veteran, I also wanted to extend the scope of the inquiry to explore what challenges our female veterans face, given the limited information available on that topic.
Fully understanding the situation of women in the service necessitated us having access to servicewomen. That required the Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace), to lift the defence instruction notice that would ordinarily bar us from speaking to serving personnel. This meant that our inquiry was groundbreaking—the first ever of its kind, collecting evidence from the ground up—and its findings represented a valid account of what it was like, and is like, to serve as a woman in the UK armed forces. It is thanks to the Defence Secretary that I am here today, announcing the progress made as a direct response to our inquiry.
We did not anticipate the quantity and intensity of the evidence we received. It was women’s stories, experiences and lives, and it made for sobering reading. Some 4,200 women contributed, including 2,500 veterans—some whose service spanned back as far as Aden, others who were recently discharged. Just short of 10% of all serving women contributed to the inquiry, so the Committee are confident in the results. We heard shocking evidence, ranging from gang rape, systematic bullying, and collusion and cover-up in the extreme, to ill-fitting equipment, the inaccessibility of sanitary products, and feelings of being second-rate to men and disempowered. From veterans, we heard about a lack of female-specific services, poor transitional support, and feeling as if their service to their country was never valued.
To summarise the findings, 90% of all women would recommend a career in the military, as would I—that was so pleasing to hear—but when things go wrong, they go disastrously wrong. Some 84% stated that they faced extra challenges for being a woman; six out of 10 would never make a complaint for fear of repercussions; and 62% said they had experienced some form of abuse in service, whether harassment, bullying, discrimination or physical or sexual assault. Only 16% of sexual abuse allegations had had forensic evidence taken within the 14-day window of opportunity. Some 55% said veterans services did not meet their needs, while 76% found the MOD was not helpful when they transitioned to civilian life. As a result, the Defence Committee made 34 recommendations to the Ministry of Defence.
I will touch on a few thematic headings, starting with rape and criminal investigations. Having heard harrowing evidence of sexual assault, poor standards of investigation and manipulation of power to deliberately disadvantage servicewomen from complaining or seeking justice, the Committee concurred with the recommendation of the Government-commissioned, judge-led Lyons review that rape cases should be heard in civilian courts. The MOD rejected that recommendation and will instead continue to hold such cases within the court martial jurisdiction under the principle of concurrent jurisdiction.
The MOD has offered a string of explanations for why that should be so. I do not feel that any of them offer a reasoning for this decision, and I ask the Minister again to explain his rationale for not agreeing to that recommendation. However, the mandatory placing of a female on all court martial boards hearing complaints of a sexual nature is most welcome, as is a single service central admissibility unit to oversee such complaints.
Turning to the chain of command, extensive evidence was received regarding how having to report a complaint of harassment, bullying or discrimination or a complaint of a sexual nature to their chain of command severely compromised complainants’ outcomes, resulting in most complaints going unreported. Those who do report are often re-traumatised, facing life-changing consequences. In some cases it was a commanding officer who was the accused, judge and jury.
We are extremely pleased that the chain of command will be removed from all complaints of a sexual nature, which will now be investigated by an outsourced investigation service. That will mean a woman who has been assaulted by her commanding officer will not have to report it to her commanding officer. However, I would like the Minister to confirm the independence of that investigation service. Will he also confirm whether this process will be afforded to complaints of harassment, bullying and discrimination? According to the MOD’s response, the chain of command could be involved in “a small number of cases, where appropriate”, so can he clarify when that would be applied?
We are pleased that the MOD will establish a whole service defence serious crime unit, a diversity and inclusion unit and a victim and witness care unit, and it will mandate that a woman sit on all court martial boards involving sexual complaints. Those are significant changes and all credit is due.
On equipment, we found that women were being sent to the frontline with body armour not fit for purpose, helmets compromised by hairstyles, and ill-fitting clothing. The MOD has already commenced work to rectify most of those issues and will undertake a six-month sprint to ensure that the recommendations are met as soon as possible—thank you.
Despite 59% of respondents being veterans, with concerns ranging from a lack of specific female veterans services, particularly relating to post-traumatic stress disorder following sexual assault and incidents of abuse to the inappropriateness of male-focused transition services, we felt the MOD’s response on this subject was rather weak, signposting us to a veterans strategy due to be announced next week. I look forward to reviewing the strategy in relation to the recommendations made in the inquiry, and hope it captures specific women’s issues. I would also like to highlight that the services offered under Op Courage are provided only by NHS England, and a disparity in the accessibility and availability of services remains between veterans living in England and those living in devolved nations, including many in my constituency of Wrexham.
On measuring success, the MOD, by way of acknowledging that there are problems, which it already knew, has already introduced initiatives, such as mandatory bystander training and the bullying, harassment and discrimination helpline. Although our evidence suggested that women were generally aware of those services, they made little to no positive impact on the ground. Can the Minister explain how the MOD plans to measure outcomes and positive change as a result of these and future initiatives?
On recruitment and retention, despite the raft of family-friendly policies already in place, such as flexible and alternative working patterns, our research found that most women were denied access to those schemes by their commanding officers on operational grounds. I am pleased that the MOD has produced a families strategy, and look forward to reading it in detail when it is launched next week. However, there is already a victims charter, which informs servicewomen about their right to take a criminal complaint to the civilian courts, and no one whom we engaged with was aware of the charter or their rights. Can the Minister explain how the MOD intends to ensure that servicewomen are aware of those options and rights, and how uptake will be monitored? I applaud the MOD’s ambitious target of 30% servicewomen by 2030, which gives people like me a basis on which to scrutinise and hold to account the MOD. It shows the true commitment of Ministers and the Secretary of State to servicewomen.
On culture and leadership, our evidence uncovered a culture of collusion, cover-up and manipulation in which intimidation and abuse of power were all too common. I am sure that the outgoing Chief of the Defence Staff regrets using the term “laddish culture”, but that is exactly what we found—in abundance—across all ranks, services and command structures. That does not exclusively apply to men.
We are pleased that the MOD will undertake a pan-service culture audit, defence positive action plan, personal experience training and a review of the selection, education and training of lieutenant colonel ranks and above. We are pleased that there will be clear consequences for those who act unacceptably, with underperforming officers having citations placed on their personal records, and a strengthened procedure to make it easier to dismiss perpetrators of sexual assault. However, our evidence supports concerns that the MOD has a tendency to introduce many initiatives as a result of criticism but make little improvement on the ground.
The Committee’s inquiry came after a string of top-down studies—the Lyons review, Wigston, Gray and, latterly, Henriques. There was significant overlap with those reports, but it was not until the Committee’s inquiry, which gave servicewomen and veterans a platform through which to have their voices heard, that the MOD took action. It has been a catalyst for change. The problems faced by servicewomen and veterans have not arisen on any one Government’s watch, but it is this Government, the Conservative Government, who grasped that very uncomfortable nettle and were bold enough to make positive changes. It is time for a military levelling up, and the MOD has listened, has acknowledged that there are problems and, to its credit, is making massive strides to address them. However, there is still a way to go, and the devil is in the detail. I will continue to advocate on behalf of our servicewomen and veterans in my role in Parliament and as a member of the Defence Committee, which will undertake a review in a year’s time.
I thank all members of the Committee for their involvement and commitment. The 18-month inquiry has at times been harrowing and has required resilience. I specifically thank Lucy Arora, a Committee specialist, and my researcher Rachel Varley. Between us, we have heard and read all 4,200 pieces of evidence. However, the people who have made this happen—who have made the MOD listen, and acknowledge and address the suboptimal elements of military life—are all the women who contributed. It is they who made this possible, and they who have improved the lives of current and future generations of servicewomen. For that, I thank them.
And my closing remarks:
Thank you, Dr Huq. I want to finish on a positive note. I was on “Woman’s Hour” last week. Eight minutes after I had finished, I received an email, which said: “Idiots like you push women to enter a very male environment and then moan when the normal biological functions take place.”
That is the attitude that we here are trying to remove.
On a positive note, I met a young—compared with me—commanding officer last week. He had read this report independently, from cover to cover. He had changed his leadership style, with good results from the personnel in his unit, and he was even empowered to challenge a two-star who had very loudly said, “I can’t get used to seeing women on ships.” The good thing was that the two-star took the challenge as constructive criticism. Change is happening.
I thank everyone for their contributions today, the Minister for his response, and the ministerial team and Secretary of State for their support throughout this. Of course, the MOD has made massive changes. It is a very old—probably the oldest—male-dominated institution, and I appreciate all that it is doing. The hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) mentioned being global leaders. Throughout the Committee’s inquiry, we liaised with the US, which has been undertaking a similar inquiry, and more latterly Australia. I am pleased that the Minister has gone further and is going to scope an international conference in 2022 to look at the progression of women in the military. The world is waking up to the fact that there are issues for women who serve.
We have many inspirational women in our military right now, of every rank, and they are all an inspiration to others. The inquiry has not been about wokeing up the Army, of which I have been accused. It is about taking a stand. Treating people differently because of their gender, in this day and age, is totally unacceptable. The inquiry is about promoting British values of justice, fairness and equality, and ultimately it is about operational effectiveness.
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