Women soldiers set to give testimony to Parliament over rape and bullying in the Armed Forces

Lucy Fisher
·3-min read
The conviction rate for rape in the military justice system is up to six times worse than in civilian courts - Anthony Upton
The conviction rate for rape in the military justice system is up to six times worse than in civilian courts - Anthony Upton

Female soldiers are set to call out "unpunished abuses of power" in the military after the Defence Secretary Ben Wallace lifted a gagging order so they can give testimony to MPs.

Sarah Atherton, Conservative MP and the only female former regular member of the Armed Forces in the House of Commons, will on Monday launch a sub-group of the Defence Select Committee to take evidence from women serving in the Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force.

It will provide a forum for the personnel to talk, with the assurance of anonymity, about their experiences of bullying, harassment and sexual abuse in the forces.

It comes amid concerns the conviction rate for rape in the military justice system is up to six times worse than in civilian courts.

Women are also significantly overrepresented, compared with men, in the proportion of complaints submitted annually within the Armed Forces.

Female personnel comprise 12 per cent of the military, but submitted 23 per cent of complaints in 2019. Almost four in 10 complaints made by women were about bullying, harassment and discrimination.

The Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace, stepped in to lift the gagging order on personnel that ordinarily prevents them talking to parliamentarians without authorisation.

Sarah Atherton, Conservative MP and the only female former regular member of the Armed Forces in the House of Commons, will on Monday launch a sub-group of the Defence Select Committee to take evidence from women serving in the Army, Royal Navy and Air Force - David Woolfall
Sarah Atherton, Conservative MP and the only female former regular member of the Armed Forces in the House of Commons, will on Monday launch a sub-group of the Defence Select Committee to take evidence from women serving in the Army, Royal Navy and Air Force - David Woolfall

In a letter to Ms Atherton, seen by The Telegraph, Mr Wallace confirmed he welcomed the submission of anonymous written evidence to parliamentarians about sexual abuse and harassment in the services.

He said: “This is an issue that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) takes very seriously, and we are already making significant progress."

He disclosed the MoD will conduct a sexual harassment survey next year.

Moves are also ongoing to update military policy and infrastructure, so that bad behaviour can be identified and reported at an earlier stage, while training is being rolled out to guide personnel who witness or hear about unacceptable conduct to intervene.

In September a new 24-hour hotline was launched for personnel to report abuse.

Mr Wallace vowed to “stamp out” harassment and bullying in the ranks after a major report by Air Chief Marshal Mike Wigston last year concluded that inappropriate behaviour persisted at unacceptable levels in the military.

The report highlighted the perception of a “pack mentality of white middle-aged men” dominating in the forces, particularly among the higher echelons.

Mr Wallace has commissioned a review of the progress made so far in implementing the 36 recommendations made by the Wigston report to tackle the issue.

General Sir Nick Carter, Chief of the Defence Staff, also raised concerns this summer about the “laddish” culture in the services and called for reform.

On Sunday evening, Ms Atherton welcomed the special dispensation for serving female personnel to speak with the subcommittee of MPs that she will chair.

It will “give women the platform they have, so far, been denied to call out unpunished abuses of power,” she said.

The MP, who previously served in the Intelligence Corps, added: “Too many incidences of bullying, harassment and rape in the military are not being investigated properly and victims are often left feeling more traumatised, angry and anxious than they were when they reported the incident in the first place.

“These are some of the bravest women I know – putting their lives on the line to keep us all safe.”

The subcommittee will start taking written and oral evidence from next month and submit a report with recommendations to the MoD in April 2021.