Complaint of sexual offences in the armed forces will be dealt with outside the chain of command in future – but military police will retain the right to investigate allegations of rape, the Ministry of Defence announced on Thursday.
The government commitment came in response to a landmark parliamentary inquiry into the experiences of women who serve or have served in the armed forces, although it was criticised for not going far enough with calls that only civilian forces should investigate allegations of rape and sexual abuse.
Sarah Atherton, the Conservative MP who chaired the inquiry, said she believed “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”.
But she added that it was “disappointing” that the MoD had refused to remove rape inquiries from the court martial system “despite clear evidence that the current system is failing to deliver justice”.
Labour also said an opportunity has been missed to take rape cases out of the military system. Stephanie Peacock, a junior shadow defence minister, said: “Without facing these issues head on, the government will never tackle the sexual harassment in the armed forces on the scale it exists, let alone provide the support needed to assist those who have experienced it.”
Atherton’s inquiry, undertaken by a special subcommittee of the defence committee, concluded that “six out of 10” women in the forces who had experienced abuse had not complained for “fear of the impact it would have on their career, or because they thought nothing would be done”.
It took evidence from more than 4,100 women who had either served in the military or were still serving. Overall, two-thirds of those who responded said they experienced bullying, sexual harassment and discrimination – and the report concluded that the armed forces were “failing to protect” female recruits.
There were specific accounts of gang-rape, sex for promotion or advancement, and trophies or contests to “bag the women” on camp or on ships. Some women revealed they were intimidated for refusing sexual advances or admitted that they had seen colleagues being attacked but had been too scared to report it.
The armed forces have been battered by allegations of harassment and abuse in recent weeks, including the unresolved 2012 killing of the 21-year-old Agnes Wanjiru, a Kenyan hairdresser who had turned to sex work to support her family. It was alleged a British soldier had confessed to her murder to colleagues, with his identity an open secret within the Duke of Lancaster’s regiment for years.
Formally responding to the inquiry on Thursday, the MoD said “all service complaints of a sexual nature will be required to be fully dealt with outside of the direct chain of command”. Each of the services would use independent investigators from central units, while decisions and appeals would also be heard independently.
But it added that Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, had previously decided to retain “the existing principle of concurrency” between civilian and military police – in which either can investigate an allegation of rape, sexual assault or other serious crime, as long as it is thought to have occurred in the UK.
Conviction rates for rape are far lower in the military justice system, Atherton’s inquiry noted. It quoted official figures that the average conviction rate for rapes heard at courts martial between 2015 and 2020 was about 16%, compared with 34% in the civilian system. Rape and other serious cases have only been handled by the military police and courts martial system since 2006, it added.
The MoD also announced that it wanted to dramatically increase the proportion of women serving in the armed forces, and set a new target that 30% of new recruits should be female by 2030.
Women currently account for 11% of forces personnel, with the proportion of new recruits marginally higher at 12.6% across regulars and reserves. But that remains well below an existing target of 15%.
Wallace said that it was clear from Atherton’s report that further change was 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,” he said.