Women

Military Complaints System 'Perverse, Toxic And Unpleasant'

MPs have been hearing from serving women in the military who say they face sexism and a culture where complaints go unheard.

The Armed Forces complaints system is "perverse, toxic and unpleasant", and "truly damaging people’s mental health", a Defence Select Committee session has heard.

Former British Army officer, Lieutenant Colonel (Ret'd) Diane Allen was speaking on the opening day of a discussion about women in the Armed Forces.

She said: "Military leaders are being placed in an almost impossible moral dilemma in that their careers are being judged on how many complaints they actually have.

"This means, of course, it's in their career interest to quell any scent, quell any actual complaints."

More than 4,000 serving women and veterans have submitted their experiences anonymously to the defence sub-committee survey.

Some 9% of serving female personnel took part, after Defence Secretary Ben Wallace lifted the Defence Instruction and Notice (DIN) so they could participate.

Lt Col (Ret'd) Allen resigned from the military last year, claiming it failed to tackle sexual assault, harassment and everyday sexism.

She told the committee that commanding officers sometimes turn "a blind eye" to complaints and in some cases end up "actively coercing women to withhold information".

"There is both the culture and the attitude - this sense of not being welcomed," the former officer added.

"There are stories of initiation ceremonies that are designed to embarrass women."

WATCH: Female personnel joined a panel discussion to talk about why they joined the military and the challenges of service.

Also testifying was Paula Edwards, a mental health therapist at the veterans' charity Salute Her.

She helps women who have been raped or suffered 'military sexual trauma' while serving.

"For the hundreds of women who come to our service, they don't get any support, they don't get sexual assault screening," Ms Edwards said.

"When they do make a complaint, its often to a perpetrator or to somebody who victim-blames and makes that woman feel like she's to blame, like she was asking for it."

She added that if the term 'military sexual trauma' was recognised by the Ministry of Defence (MOD), it would be a "game-changer" for veterans, meaning they could "understand what has happened to them and then they would be able to seek help".

Ms Edwards added: "I think it's maybe because the Ministry of Defence don't know how to manage women's unique needs or the challenges that they'll face around military sexual trauma; around reporting, service complaints, what do they do about it, I think it's a really complex issue."

In response to the Women in the Armed Forces Defence Select Committee session, an MOD spokesperson said: "We are grateful to current and former servicewomen whose testimony makes clear that on too many occasions defence failed to provide adequate support.

"We support this inquiry's important work and will carefully consider its findings.

"Great strides have been made in this area, the majority of women have long and fulfilling careers in the military, but much more needs to be done.

The committee will publish its full report with recommendations in June (Picture: Royal Navy).

"We are committed to improving the experience for women in the Armed Forces in every area of their lives.

"Anyone who falls short of our high standards of behaviour will be dealt with robustly, including dismissal and possible police investigation.

"There is no room for any form of discrimination in the military."

The committee's investigation is being led by Conservative MP Sarah Atherton, who served in the Intelligence Corps.

The committee will hear more evidence in the coming weeks, and publish its full report with recommendations in June.

The investigation will cover possible barriers to female personnel filing complaints, whether the experiences of female Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) personnel differ, and why women choose to leave the Armed Forces.

Since 2018, all roles in the British military have been open to women.

In September, a  24-hour confidential hotline was launched to provide support for personnel experiencing or witnessing bullying, harassment or discrimination in the Armed Forces.

It came two months after Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Nick Carter said the Armed Forces must stamp out the "laddish culture" responsible for driving out talented female and minority ethnic personnel.