Defence minister Baroness Goldie has said her department is “on a journey” to tackle bullying and harassment of women in the armed forces – with a “climate change” already under way.
But she said she expects “more complaints to surface” as a result of this shift – adding that while this will not be “comfortable” for the Ministry of Defence (MoD), it is preferable that women feel “confident” reporting their experiences.
The minister was speaking at an evidence session to assess the Government’s progress on recommendations to improve the experience of servicewomen, laid out in a landmark report last year.
The Defence Sub-Committee on Women in the Armed Forces received an almost unprecedented level of engagement during its inquiry, with the “horror stories” it heard painting “a difficult picture for women in the military”.
On Tuesday, the Defence Committee heard updates from senior figures in the Navy, Army and Air Force on how their respective services were responding to the findings.
Rear Admiral Jude Terry, Major General Paul Griffiths and Air Marshal Richard Knighton reported various developments, including “maximising talent”, introducing a number of reporting mechanisms, and educating people on “what is normal and acceptable”.
Asked about claims of bullying and sexual harassment against women in some parts of the forces, including the submarine service and the Red Arrows, Baroness Goldie said the MoD is “on a journey here”.
“We’ve made significant changes in the last year of which (the) committee is aware, and these are deep, significant, enduring changes which are to address culture and produce a framework that is substantial and that actually is capable of delivering improvement,” she added.
“What I think we are seeing… is that, I’m certainly hearing anecdotally and I defer to my service colleagues here, they can tell you for themselves, but I’m hearing both from the Servicewomen’s Network and individually from servicewomen that they are aware of a climate change, they are aware of a significant improvement in how we’re trying to address these issues.”
But she said she expects “more complaints to surface” as a result of these changes.
“Now that will not be comfortable for the MoD, but I would far rather that these areas of behaviour came out into the open, that the women felt confident in the system to report them, that they are robustly investigated, and if the perpetrators are found culpable, they will be dealt with and dealt with in a very blunt and effective manner,” she said.
This sentiment was echoed by Rear Admiral Terry, who said it was a signal of “success” that complaints had gone up year on year.
“This time last year we had approximately 114 service complaints within the system,” she said.
“We now have 131 in the system which would indicate that… people have more faith in the system in order to complain.
“One of the things about these changes is that we are going to see an increase in complaints. That to me looks like success in terms of people feeling confident and comfortable in the system.”
Baroness Goldie was also challenged on former defence minister Sarah Atherton, who chaired the sub-committee behind the inquiry.
Ms Atherton was handed a ministerial post by former prime minister Liz Truss in September, but she returned to the backbenches after only five weeks when Rishi Sunak took the reins at No 10.
The defence minister told the committee she had been “delighted” when Ms Atherton joined her in the department.
She said the matter was out of her “sphere of authority” when it was put to her that it was awkward for the MP she described as a “trailblazer” to be demoted from Government.
Last year the MoD announced a number of reforms to address the issues highlighted in the Women in the Armed Forces report, including an ambition to increase female inflow by 30% by 2030.
It also said the chain of command would be entirely removed from complaints of a sexual nature, after a large number of women questioned said their experiences of the system were “extremely poor”.
However, the department said it did not accept a recommendation to move cases of rape and sexual assault from military courts to the civilian system, where the sub-committee said there was a higher conviction rate.
Challenged on this at Thursday’s session, Baroness Goldie said “a significantly higher number of cases are referred to the service police, and referred by the service police to the prosecuting authority”.
She said it may be true that some referrals going forward for prosecution in the military system have “less evidence” or “weaker evidence” behind them, in which case it would be “predictable” convictions do not follow.