MoD review: Mordaunt must press pause and reconsider

Posted by Emma Norton on 07 May 2019

Congratulations to Penny Mordaunt, the first female Secretary of State for Defence in British history.  A Royal Navy reservist and former minister for the armed forces, she already appears to have a good deal more experience and credibility than her immediate predecessor.

As International Development Secretary, she had to address revelations and allegations of sexual harassment and predatory behaviour in the aid sector. This, sadly, will be highly relevant experience in her new role.

One of the first decisions she will have to make will be what to do about the hasty Review into “inappropriate behaviour in the armed forces” that was announced by her predecessor.

Covering up more than it will reveal

On 6 April 2019, reports appeared in the press that a serving 17-year-old female soldier had allegedly been sexually assaulted by several more senior, male soldiers. The same day, the former Secretary of State for Defence announced that he would be launching an urgent review.

At face value, this ought to have been welcomed. Any attempt by the Secretary of State to truly get to grips with the increasing numbers of alleged assaults and complaints made by female and minority ethnic personnel has got to be a step in the right direction. Right? Sadly, this risks being just another in a long line of inquiries that seems designed to cover up more than it reveals. There are numerous glaring problems with the review that perhaps hint at the real purpose behind it.

Ridiculously, the Review team is, as far as we know, still due to report by 10 May, barely a month after the allegation was revealed. By taking only a few weeks for review, the Secretary of State could be accused of conducting little more than a damage limitation response to a high-profile allegation. No credible review could develop a detailed understanding of the issues given the time allowed.

The topic and scope of the review are vast, covering sexual offending, sexual harassment and general undefined “inappropriate behaviour”.  It is impossible to see how such a range of complex issues could be addressed in just a month.

A wealth of evidence already exists

While the good intentions of those working on it are not in doubt, a review overseen by Air Marshal Michael Wigston, CBE, Deputy Commander for Capability at HQ Air Command, can hardly claim true independence. Experienced though he no doubt is, what particular expertise does the Air Marshal have when it comes to investigating bullying, harassment, sexual offending and discrimination? Why hasn’t oversight of the review been given to someone without a deep loyalty to the bodies under investigation?

Most importantly of all, the sudden calling of this Review ignores the wealth of evidence that has existed for many years and repeated calls for change from many quarters which have been ignored.

This review is not some great innovation - some watershed moment. In her last three annual reports the Service Complaints Ombudsman has expressed grave concern about the continued overrepresentation of both female and Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) service personnel in the Service complaints system. Though they make up only 11% of the Armed Forces, in 2018, female personnel accounted for 23% of all Service complaints made– a 3% increase on 2017.

Of those complaints, 43% concerned bullying, harassment or discrimination. By comparison, only 20% of complaints made by male personnel related to these issues.

Similarly, BAME personnel make up only 7% of the total strength of the Armed Forces, but made 13% of Service complaints in 2018. Of those, 39% concerned bullying, harassment or discrimination, compared with 24% of complaints made by white personnel.

The Army Sexual Harassment Survey of 2018 recorded an increase in the number of women reporting upsetting experiences as a consequence of targeted sexualised behaviour. Reports of “particularly upsetting experiences” are increasing with each survey. Worst of all are the figures on sexual assaults. 12% of the women who responded reported having been the victim of intentional sexual touching, 7% had been the subject of an attempted sexual assault, 5% were victims of serious sexual assault and 3% reported being the victim of rape. The vast majority of these incidents appear to have taken place in the workplace or in the training unit.

The Ombudsman has, every year, called for an independent study to be commissioned, to determine the root causes of the overrepresentation of female and BAME personnel in the service complaints process. She reiterated it in her latest Annual Report, published only last week. But the MoD has repeatedly failed to act upon that recommendation. 

Time to pause and reconsider the approach

The fact that the previous Secretary of State only seemed to react when an allegation hit the headlines did not offer much hope that this essentially closed-door review would perform the function it has been almost impossibly tasked to achieve. We call upon the new Secretary of State to press pause and ensure that this vitally important job is done properly.

She should examine the wealth of evidence that is already available, consult with and listen to the Ombudsman, meet with current and former members of the service affected as well as the Armed Forces’ other critical friends (and Liberty is one of them) who all want to see that our service men and women are offered the same levels of practical, emotional and professional support and access to justice as the people they risk their lives to defend. This is an area where the new Secretary of State can really make her mark.

Liberty’s own report on Military Justice addresses all these problems. And we have set up a helpline to advise serving people who need help (0203 102 9313).

Emma Norton

Emma Norton

Liberty
Head of Legal Casework