MPs have renewed calls for the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to move rape cases out of the court martial system as whistleblower evidence revealed ongoing sexual abuse within the armed services.
One servicewoman reported a rape on a base but was told her attacker would remain with his elite unit, according to written submissions provided to the Commons Defence Committee.
Another was said to have been groped and forcibly kissed by a male colleague at a Christmas party before allegedly being told by her chain of command that she should “understand things get a little out of hand”.
Conservative MP Sarah Atherton, chairwoman of the Defence Sub-Committee on Women in the Armed Forces, said the submissions reinforce the group’s view that cases of rape and sexual assault within the service should be handled by civilian courts.
The move was first proposed after a 2021 parliamentary report into the experiences of servicewomen but the MoD rejected the recommendation.
The evidence was given by uniformed and civilian clinicians and administrative support staff offering care to service personnel and their commands.
They have been anonymised as have the personnel their claims relate to, the committee said.
The case studies paint a damning picture of progress made to address failures in protecting servicewomen which were first laid bare by the 2021 report.
The MoD introduced new measures after the review and said last year that its policies “will ensure that defence continues to tackle unacceptable sexual behaviour”.
But Ms Atherton said that despite the “willingness to effect change… serious problems persist”.
The woman who was raped was moved across the country against her will to separate her from her attacker, according to the evidence.
She was placed in transit accommodation where she would “often hear unknown men in the corridor outside her room, and would struggle to sleep, pushing furniture in front of the door and not leaving her room for days due to fears of the men outside her door”, the written submission said.
The move was presented as a way to facilitate her access to therapy for trauma from the rape, but due to issues in the system it was more than a year before that happened, staff said.
Another case study described a “young servicewoman in training (who) awoke in her room on base to find a male member of training staff smelling her underwear; previously, she’d woken up to find him watching her sleeping”.
It added: “She describes on another occasion him holding her against a wall and telling her that her real reason to join the service was to ‘get the leg over as much as possible’.”
Few of the case studies involved women reporting incidents through an official complaints process, according to the evidence, but one who did ended up leaving the service with mental health issues while her alleged abusers “continue to serve and thrive”, the written submissions said.
Among the reforms the MoD unveiled after the initial sub-committee report was the removal of the chain of command from the complaints process.
Further measures included a review into strengthened powers to kick out those who are found to have committed sexual offences, and greater independence in the complaints process for bullying and harassment allegations.
However, the MoD did not accept a recommendation to move cases of rape and sexual assault out of military courts and into the civilian system.
According to the sub-committee’s 2021 findings, conviction rates in military courts were four to six times lower than in civilian courts.
Ms Atherton said: “The cases outlined in this evidence are heartrending and demonstrate serious failings within the military justice system and chain of command.
“Sexual assault and rape are heinous crimes. As this document shows, when these crimes take place in the armed forces, servicewomen often feel they have no option but to ‘put up and shut up’.
“They are often made to feel as though they must choose between justice and their career, while perpetrators of abuse seem to be protected.
“It’s been nearly two years since the publication of the Defence Committee’s report Women in the Armed Forces: Protecting those who protect us. The Ministry of Defence’s response at the time was largely positive and demonstrated a willingness to effect change.
“However, this damning evidence shows that serious problems persist. It reinforces our view that the complaints system is not functioning as it should be, and that criminal cases of sexual assault and rape must be removed from the Service Justice System and handed over to civilian courts.
“The evidence also speaks to a wider culture of institutional misogyny: looking the other way and discouraging victims from coming forward, with senior personnel hiding behind the excuse of ‘boys will be boys’. If we are to tackle these issues at a fundamental cultural level, there needs to be a considered and strategic response led by respected figures within the military.
“It takes a lot of thought and courage to speak out in these circumstances. I would like to thank the witnesses and all those who agreed to allow their stories to be told.”
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace suggested there had been insufficient evidence in 2021 that moving sexual assault cases out of the military courts would improve the system, on top of the other recommendations the ministry had adopted.
Mr Wallace said on Thursday that he had not had time to read the latest evidence in full but insisted “things are changing and getting better in the armed forces”.
“I put a huge amount of effort in adopting Sarah Atherton’s recommendations,” he told a press conference in Northwood.
“The only one we differed was because there was no real evidence that after all the measures we put in place, that that would somehow make the difference.”
An MoD spokesman said: “The experiences set out in these cases are totally unacceptable. No-one should be subjected to these incidents and any form of sexual assault, bullying, harassment, or discrimination will not be tolerated.
“We want personnel to have the confidence to report offences. Building that confidence in service justice is the reason we launched the independent Serious Crime Unit – empowered to investigate crimes anywhere in the world – and have made sure that complaints of bullying, harassment or discrimination are dealt with outside of the chain of command.
“These measures sit alongside a comprehensive improvement package, including a new victim and witness care unit and policy reforms such as our new zero tolerance approach to unacceptable sexual behaviour – which will ensure that anyone convicted of a sexual offence will be dismissed from service.”