Unacceptable behaviour in Armed Forces down to 'pack of white middle-aged men' driving culture, major new report says

Dominic Nicholls
Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt during the  Pride in London 2019 parade. July 06, 2019. - Getty Images Europe

The Armed Forces has unacceptable levels of sexism, racism and bullying because it is led by a  "pack of white middle-aged men", a major new report has said.

The most in-depth study ever commissioned for the British military says “an unacceptable level of inappropriate behaviour persists” in the forces. 

The report, by Air Chief Marshal Mike Wigston, the incoming Chief of the Air Staff, describes the leadership of the RAF, Army and Navy as a "generation not used to having people from other diversity groups serving along side them" and says their behaviours are "shaped by an armed forces of 20 years ago"

The paper was commissioned in April after allegations of sexual harassment in the Army led the Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Mark Carleton-Smith, to produce a three-minute film in which he blasted behaviours “wildly at odds” with the standards expected from soldiers.

It recommends all senior officers from Brigadier (or Service equivalent) be sent on mandatory diversity training courses and calls for the appointment of a culture and behaviour tsar to lead a team of up to 50 personnel, responsible for the overall strategy and day to day management of complaints. 

"Tackling inappropriate behaviour is about the determination of leaders to change the culture; everything else hangs off that," the report says.

"Tackling inappropriate behaviour is about the determination of leaders to change the culture; everything else hangs off that," the report says. Photo of British Army Officers being commissioned at their Sovereign's Parade. August 10, 2018.  Credit: JULIAN SIMMONDS

The report notes that black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) troops make up 7 per cent of the Armed Forces but were more likely to complain about bullying. 

Of the Service Complaints received in 2018 concerning bullying, harassment and discrimination, 39 per cent were from BAME personnel; the equivalent figure for white troops was 24 per cent.

The paper identifies part of the problem as the “pack mentality of white middle-aged men, especially in positions of influence whose behaviours are shaped by the Armed Forces of 20 years ago”.

The report into inappropriate behaviour says the actions of this generation of senior officers towards their subordinates are “rarely considered to be malicious, rather perpetuated by a lack of understanding and education. 

“Use of language can be inappropriate and offensive, simply through a lack of understanding of how it may be perceived by a minority group."

It highlights how "microaggressions", the brief and commonplace daily verbal or behavioural indignities, could be unintentional, but none the less "communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative prejudicial slights and insults".

Last night Major General Julian Thompson said talk of establishing a Defence 'champion' for culture and behaviour made him "wince". 

"He's right to highlight a problem but surely it's better to crack down on people who do it, although you don't want to be too draconian. Recruits these days are less robust, but that's our society and you've got to deal with what you've got. 

The report says that "microaggressions" can be exacerbated by military culture. Image of Royal Marines attempting to reach the summit of Mount Snowden during Exercise Winter Walker in 2018. Credit: Leading Phot Dean Nixon

Although the latest Workplace Equality Index from Stonewall, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) campaign group, placed all three armed Services in the top 100 employers in the UK, the report noted that around a third of LGBT Service personnel have experienced negative comments or conduct from colleagues at work because of their sexual orientation.

Air Chief Marshal Wigston highlights how the current generation of recruits includes a greater proportion of BAME personnel, women and other underrepresented groups than ever before.

These groups will have grown up in a more open and permissive society prior to joining the military and the paper notes how the Armed Forces have historically lagged behind wider changes in society regarding what is no longer considered inappropriate behaviour.

The situation is exacerbated by the expectation that the military should have higher standards than the society it serves, the report adds.

The report cites figures from the latest Armed Forces Continuous Attitude Survey, which states that 12 per cent of respondents had reported having been subject to bullying, harassment or discrimination in the preceding 12 months, but only 6 per cent of those experiencing these behaviours made a formal complaint. 

Most of those who did not make a complaint did not believe anything would be done, with half also thinking that speaking out might adversely affect their career.

Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt said: “Whether it is crude comments, discriminatory treatment, or even offences of a sexual nature,  inappropriate behaviour has no place in society, let alone in our armed forces.

“This report sends a clear message and I am committed to ensuring its recommendations are delivered in full.

“In addition to the report, I want to ensure non-commissioned officers are able to address poor behaviour when they see it. They are the moral compass of the Armed Forces.”

Whilst the paper says that the great majority of Armed Forces personnel serve with honour and distinction, it makes 36 recommendations, all of which have been accepted by the Defence Secretary. It identified senior leadership as a key element to change if the culture around inappropriate behaviours was to be addressed. 

Air Chief Marshal Michael Wigston, the author of the report into inappropriate behaviour in the Armed Forces. 

Air Chief Marshal Wigston said: “The vast majority of people in the UK Armed Forces serve with courage, determination and professionalism; they are a great credit to our nation. 

“In stark contrast, my report found an unacceptable and persistent level of inappropriate behaviour in the UK Armed Forces.  This behaviour harms people, damages our reputation and almost certainly impacts our ability to attract and retain the talent we need. 

“By implementing the report’s recommendations, I am confident we can address the challenge of inappropriate behaviour in our Armed Forces.  It requires a determined effort to change the culture, driven persistently from the top and at every level of leadership below that.   

“Everyone has a part to play, and it’s not optional.”

A spokesperson for Liberty said: “Air Marshall Wigston has covered a lot of ground and made some important recommendations. But this review does nothing to help victims of sexual crime in the armed forces. 

“It does not call for cases of rape and serious sexual assault to be handled by civilian, not service police.  It says nothing about the poor conviction rate at court martial for sexual offences. It does not mention the concerns many service personnel have about the quality of service policing and prosecution, which makes victims scared to report sexual assaults in the first place.  

"There is still the need for robust, independent research into the underlying cause of why such high levels of female and BAME personnel are complaining of bullying, harassment and discrimination in the first place. This Review does not answer that question.”