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I grew up in Plymouth, a city with a proud naval tradition. Many of my peers joined the Royal Navy. I pursued a career in law and, eventually, found a way to help the Armed Forces community through my work. I have always admired Service personnel: their honesty, their sense of duty, and their sense of humour in desperate situations. However, when a colleague asked me recently about how I would feel if my daughter joined the military, I struggled to be positive about the idea, especially knowing how some servicewomen have been treated. in fact, it frightened me, and I would like to explain why.
The MOD approach: stuck in the 1970s
As a young lawyer I dealt with a lot of sexual harassment and discrimination claims in London. Most of my clients were civilian women embarking on professional careers in the City. In those days, cases were plentiful and most banks, financial organisations and other employers, did what they could to resolve them quickly, quietly and without fuss, or at least they learnt to do this to avoid the terrible publicity that such claims attracted, which was bad for business. Employers wanted to avoid developing the wrong reputation, and this also helped some victims move forwards with their lives, without the rancour of lengthy proceedings.
Over time, in conjunction with numerous positive changes in law, and pressures both within workplaces and in wider society, many employers came to accept and understand that what was once simply bad for business was also unethical and wrong. Women deserve equal rights and opportunities. The law required all employers to do what they could to achieve that. Employers today wear their equality and diversity policies on their sleeves, and new generations of employees won’t allow them to do otherwise. That’s not to say that there aren’t those employers who still buck the trend, or that equality has been achieved. But things generally have moved in the right direction.
When I started bringing these same types of claims for Servicewomen against the MOD, I realised quite quickly that this was a very different type of employer, with a different agenda. In fact, the cases felt as if I had stepped into a time warp, and I was practising in the 1970s. The MOD’s legal policy was (and remains) very simple: crush complainants and wear them down. Victim-blame them. Tarnish their careers. Belittle their experiences. Everything is focused on protecting the Chain of Command and maintaining the ‘good’ reputation of the military. After some 15 years of litigating almost exclusively against the MOD, I can say with some confidence that the agenda has not changed. Many lawyers in my field will say the same.
The Atherton report
This is not a new cultural problem; it is an old problem, and it haunts our Services. You only need to read the ‘Atherton’ report to understand why. The report was published in July 2021 and followed a parliamentary inquiry, spearheaded by Sarah Atherton MP, into the lives of Servicewomen. Whilst the report did not exclusively seek to explore issues like sexual harassment and discrimination, these made up a significant proportion of the evidence gathered; more than 4,000 Service women and veterans submitted evidence to the inquiry. As part of that evidence, I was invited by the Defence Committee to give evidence on behalf of many of my clients, all Servicewomen who had suffered a mixture of bullying, harassment, discrimination and sexual assault.
On 14 November 2023 the Defence Committee held a follow-up session to hear from the MOD about what progress has been made since the Atherton report was published, and ahead of that session the Committee called for written evidence on whether enough change has been seen in the two years since the report was published. Many welcomed the inquiry and the efforts of those in Government to effect change, as did I, but I do not think that there has been enough change within the MOD since that watershed moment. Any change that I have seen has been incremental at best. The MOD’s evidence was lacking; despite being plagued by ongoing scandals it remains adamant that things are moving in the right direction. The evidence suggests that they are not.
My colleagues and I have dealt with thousands of enquiries over the years, many of which included Service Complaints brought by Servicewomen (a Service Complaint is the military’s equivalent to a civilian grievance process). The cases we have dealt with include a number of worrying features:
- Violence. A spectrum of sexual crimes, the most extreme involving rape and serious sexual assault. It is far more common in the military than in the civilian sphere.
- Coercion. A number of cases involve inappropriate relationships between training staff and junior staff. Superiors will often encourage complainants to downsize their complaints, or drop them completely.
- Stigma. Those who complain are often victimised. Their careers are marked. Colleagues will shun them.
- Victim-blaming. Counter-complaints are a typical and heavy-handed way of defending against complaints. The careers of complainants are scrutinised and criticised as a means to apply pressure, often without relevance or justification.
- Delays. Service complaints can take many months and sometimes years to conclude. The delays are inordinate, unfair and unexplained.
- Excuses. Inappropriate behaviour is always diluted. The word ‘banter’ has often been used, and still is, to explain away sexual harassment.
- Dissatisfaction. The large proportion of complainants lose their careers, either because they develop mental health issues and are medically discharged, or because they lose their faith and trust in the Service.
These are a few of the features from case studies my colleagues and I submitted as evidence to the Inquiry in 2021. The problem is that these features have not changed in any appreciable way since, and I still see cases with the same hallmarks today. Below is one such recent story:
Amy (not her real name) comes from a military family. She wanted to serve her country. During her training in 2021 and 2022, she experienced sexual harassment, stalking and discrimination. She had evidence of this and shared it with her Chain of Command. Despite this, she received little to no support. No steps were taken to investigate or punish those involved. In fact, one of her superiors was implicated in the harassment. Eventually, she was diagnosed with a mental health condition as a result of the harassment. Being dissatisfied with the response from her Chain of Command, she complained to the Royal Military Police. The investigation moved at a snail’s pace and months later the uncertainty was making her health worse. In the meantime, her colleagues began to avoid her. In the run-up to her medical discharge, her Commanding Officer approached her and encouraged to drop the RMP investigation. Her CO knew that Amy was in treatment for a mental health disorder at the time.
This year Amy brought a Service Complaint about her experiences, including a complaint that her CO coerced her into dropping the investigation. Her Service Complaint was determined as out of time, having been brought a month or so late, even though witnesses were available, records of her complaints clearly existed and despite serious allegations that’s she was coerced into dropping her complaints by a Senior Officer.
How convenient for the MOD, and how shameful. Its new ‘zero tolerance’ policy is meant to oblige it to investigate, reflect and improve, but instead it knocks out complaints where it can so as to avoid the embarrassment of an investigation. In fact, the first thing the MOD did following the Atherton report was to overhaul the appeals system for Service Complaints, reducing the time and scope of appeals and making it harder for complainants to get a fair hearing.
Civilians would not accept this, why should Service personnel? What legacy is this leaving for the thousands of Servicewomen who provided evidence to the inquiry? What foundation does this lay for the future of women in our Armed Forces?
Unfortunately, many of the excellent recommendations made in the Atherton report have not yet been adopted by the MOD, including some crucial steps that might lead to lasting change:
- Sexual crimes are still investigated by the RMP instead of the civilian police, despite woeful conviction rates within the Service Justice System.
- The Service Complaints process is still not truly independent and the new ‘Single Service Secretariat’, which was meant to generate that independence, is now focusing on quashing complaints like never before.
- The Service Complaints Ombudsman for the Armed Forces (SCOAF) remains toothless; the MOD cannot be bound by her decisions.
- Complainants rarely if ever find out what has happened to those who harassed and harmed them. Justice needs to be seen to be done; and lessons are not being learned.
Perhaps most depressing is that none of the recommendations are new and they have been canvassed for many years by various governments, lawyers and agencies interested in the welfare of Service personnel. For example:
- The Lyons report in 2018 strongly recommended that sexual crimes be investigated by the civilian police instead of through the Service Justice System.
- The Wigston report published in July 2019 concluded that there was a cultural problem of inappropriate behaviour within the Armed Forces that had to be remedied, making some 36 recommendations for change.
- SCOAF has reported year-on-year for several years that the Service complaints system is not efficient, effective or fair, and that Servicewomen remain overrepresented in that system (i.e. because they are subjected to the most discrimination and harassment).
There are many more examples. The missing link in all of this is the will for change from within the MOD.
Servicewomen deserve better
The MOD is keen to point us all to statistics that complaints are being dealt with quickly, but these statistics do not show us how they are being concluded; largely without justice being done. It is also keen to point us to statistics of satisfaction amongst Service personnel; most Service women reflect positively on their Service. But it won’t canvass the veteran community out of fear of uncovering the ugly truth.
Amy is not a statistic. She is a woman who wanted to serve her country. She is somebody’s daughter, and sister, and one day could have been a leader. Her reward was a total disregard for her welfare. She has now lost a promising military career because of the sexual harassment she faced. Her condition has been worsened by her disappointment in the lack of support by her Chain of Command, and she must now find her way through Civvy Street with the added burden of a mental health disorder.
Today, I think about what I would do if my daughter wanted to join the military. Knowing what I know, what my clients have experienced, and having read much of the evidence submitted to Parliament, I have come to the conclusion that I would do everything in my power to convince her not to join. That is an incredibly sad admission to make, but Servicewomen deserve better.
Ahmed Al-Nahhas is a Solicitor-Advocate and Head of the military claims team at Bolt Burdon Kemp. He specialises in acting for Service personnel and veterans in claims involving serious injury. He has provided evidence as a subject matter expert to Parliament in relation to the welfare of Service personnel, and particularly the treatment of Servicewomen. He has also written the first book in the field of military claims, 'A Practical Guide to Military Claims'.