Military chain of command to be removed from dealing with sexual complaints

The Defence Secretary said the military is "implementing bold changes" following a landmark inquiry into women in defence.


The Ministry of Defence (MOD) has announced the military chain of command is set to be removed entirely from complaints of a sexual nature.

It comes as part of a series of changes following a report into the bullying and harassment of women in the armed services.

More than 4,000 women gave evidence to the Defence Sub-Committee on Women in the Armed Forces for its landmark inquiry, which found that 64% of female veterans and 58% of serving women reported experiencing bullying, harassment and discrimination (BHD) during their careers.

And the report found a large number of surveyed women said their experiences of the complaints system were "extremely poor", with complaints often being "brushed under the carpet".

Sarah Atherton MP, chairwoman of the sub-committee and an Army veteran, told Forces News it is "absolutely mammoth for the MOD to have agreed to do this".

"Certainly in the evidence we’ve collected, there was a lot of evidence to support the inappropriate use of the chain of command by commanding officers, which then negated actually enforcing a decent complaints procedure for women," she said.

"And we actually found that... the chain of command didn't want, really, that extra work. They wanted to be military leaders, they didn't want to be police or social workers."

Further adopted recommendations include a review into stronger ways of removing those who are found to have committed sexual offences, and greater independence in the system for the handling of BHD complaints.

Watch: Female veterans recall facing bullying and sexual assault in a study published in October.

However, the MOD said it did not accept a recommendation to move cases of rape and sexual assault from military courts to the civilian system.

According to the sub-committee, conviction rates in military courts are four to six times lower than in civilian courts.

Mr Atherton thanked the MOD for its "thorough" response and said "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".

"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. 

Watch: Women would rather go to "someone that isn't in their unit" when reporting sexual assault allegation.

"I hope that this is the beginning of a new era of accountability for the military."

However, she called the MOD's decision to dismiss the sub-committee's recommendation on military courts "disappointing", adding there was "clear evidence that the current system is failing to deliver justice".

Diane Allen, a former Army Lieutenant Colonel, told Forces News "just about everybody has recommended" serious sexual assaults and serious crimes should be moved to the civilian court.

"It's just very difficult to understand why... the MOD has said that we shouldn't."

There's also disappointment that the Ombudsman's recommendations won't be binding.

"What that means in practice is the victim can go all the way to appeal, they might actually get the ombudsman to agree with them, but the MOD can still say no," Ms Allen said.

"They can refuse the appeal because there are no binding recommendations."

Watch: Boris Johnson - Armed Forces fail to support serving women 'too often'.

In its response to the report, published on Thursday, the Government said the inquiry "made clear that on too many occasions Defence has failed to provide women with the experience they deserve".

The MOD unveiled a number of reforms aimed at addressing the issues highlighted in the report, including an ambition to increase female inflow by 30% by 2030.

Mr Wallace said: "While almost 90% of women who engaged with this inquiry said they would recommend a career in the Armed Forces, it’s clear further change is needed.

"I am grateful to all the women who contributed to the Defence Committee's report, we’ve listened carefully and are implementing bold changes in response.

"Having tested the recommendations with our own Service Women’s Networks, we are embracing almost all of them – and in many cases actually taking them further. 

"I look forward to continuing to work with them to hold all three services to account, and ensure we see meaningful progress."