Operational Effectiveness of the Armed Forces July-November 2023
This period has been dominated by the following-
- RAF complacency and obfuscation prevailing over the misogynist culture in its ranks.
- Amnesia seemingly struck the highest ranks of the Armed Forces Service who appeared before the Defence Parliamentary Committee on 7th November.
- The increasing MoD use of Non-Statutory Inquiries, as its means for investigation, indicates a contempt for due process with it basically marking its own homework and obfuscating evidence.
- No notice release of the RAF Non-Statutory Enquiry into The Red Arrows and RAF Scampton and Command Leadership and management has further traumatised the victims.
- A continuous loop of evidence gathering by legislative and government bodies continues to delay substantive, corrective activity, with proper accountability being parked. And the plethora of authoritative, independent reports indicate senior military and civil servants believe their own narratives only.
Recent appearances at Parliamentary Defence Committee proceedings indicate Ministers and senior military personnel and senior civil servants are more concerned about protecting their reputations
During November 2023, there was a series of appearances by Ministers of Defence and senior military personnel and senior civil servants at Parliamentary Defence Committee proceedings looking into the Armed Forces Effectiveness. For those being questioned by the Committee on issues related to inappropriate behaviours, the majority seemed to view it as a damage limitation and self-justification exercise, with insincere regard for the serving and ex-personnel whose lives have been damaged.
First up, on 7th November 2023 was the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Marshall Sir Richard Knighton, stating that, “As the report set out, there was a culture in the Red Arrows at the time that was entirely unacceptable. We have seen improvements through the leadership in the culture on the team, and that continues to be the case. As I said in my statement, I have confidence in the leadership of the team today. “However, that current day leadership still includes members who were bystanders (and we believe in some cases, perpetrators) in a Unit where bullying and sexual harassing women was endemic. No senior leader has been prosecuted or held accountable. The message is clear to women that sanctions against misogynistic, corrosive behaviour will be limited in nature, and that the RAF will not and cannot provide a safe environment in which all women can work and prosper.
Also on 7th November 2023, Gen Sir Patrick Sanders, Chief of the General Staff (CGS), was probed about giving assurances to the wider public, “that the Army is fit for purpose, given the public issues around sexual misconduct at Sandhurst, which, we remember, is the seat of leadership development. This abhorrent cultural misogyny was also seen at Larkhill, home of the Royal Artillery. Again, no-one in senior leadership has been held to account.” CGS denied that this is the case at Sandhurst, but failed to be clear that only more junior leaders were punished. More broadly, CGS has called for a soldier’s leadership academy, implying that the cultural issues are caused by non-commissioned ranks. The IDA believes this is a deliberate blind-spot, failing to recognise the responsibility of senior leaders in the current toxic culture.
Credibility is further at stake given the chasm between the Army’s report on the suicide of Olivia Perks and that of the coroner. Again, the mitigating stance offered by CGS shows that the Army will not and cannot provide a safe environment in which all women can work and prosper. The Royal Navy is still to report on the misogynistic behaviours reported within its submariner cohort, over a year after the incident was raised; it too has opted to use a Non-Statutory Inquiry (NSI) format (see overleaf for more on this).
Guardian newspaper reveals 60 senior civilian female staff complained to MoD PUS about widespread toxic and hostile behaviour
The IDA has long been highlighting the toxic behaviour meted out on predominantly female service personnel, but as revealed in The Guardian newspaper on 16th November 2023, the issue is far more endemic, including women civil servants as well. A group of 60 senior civil servants sent a letter to the MoD PUS in October 2023 with their allegations including sexual assault, harassment and abuse by male colleagues. The letter included anonymised testimonies in which women described their personal experiences. This type of behaviour will not have been confined to only the senior civil service ranks, nor will it have been of recent vintage. Sources close to IDA, who have worked long–term in the MoD, confirm that such behaviour is relatively widespread, and mainly perpetrated by serving military, and not male civil servants.
Given that PUS said the issue was immediately raised with CDS, it is almost inconceivable that any of those who appeared before the Defence Committee before 16th November were in the dark. Presumably, their strategy was not to publicise it and hope the letter/issues would not surface publicly.
When, subsequently, the Chair of the Sub-Committee on Women in the Armed Forces, the Rt Hon Sarah Atherton, questioned the Minister for Defence People, the Rt Hon Andrew Murrison, in Parliament about this report, he replied that Non – Executive Directors would conduct an enquiry. Yet again keeping it all in house…
Women In Defence Committee examines witnesses who do little to reassure that they are doing much more than window dressing
With only a few weeks response time and limited methods offered for uploading evidence, the Parliamentary Defence Sub-Committee on Women in the Armed Forces requested its second set of written evidence since publishing its first report in July 2021. The Committee’s first follow-up session with the MoD was in November 2022, regarding initial progress made on matters raised in the report. At that time, MoD HQ marked its homework, saying it had made much progress, but failed to provide much evidence.
On 14th November 2023, the Committee held a second follow-up session with appearances from inter alia the Minister for Defence People, the Rt Hon Andrew Murrison; the First Sea Lord, Adm Sir Ben Key, and Sam des Forges, the Director of Conduct, Equity and Justice at the MoD. The Minister was very keen to paint a picture that the dial had been turned up when Sarah Atherton constantly asked why it has only been in the last six months there has been some introduction of policies designed to change military cultures, despite the Women in Defence report being first published in July 2021. As the Committee stated, only “the low-hanging fruit, and the more difficult issues are yet to be addressed”. The Minister maintained that the split between the civil and military justice systems was still equitable – which is at variance with the Lyons Report and the findings of the Women in Defence Committee, the IDA, countless victims and independent groups.
Under examination about zero tolerance, the role of trainers and inappropriate sexual behaviour or language, there was resultant confusion by all the witnesses showing the inconsistency of MoD policy and the high degree of discretion that was being levied within this alleged victim-centric approach. As Sarah Atherton succinctly stated, “Zero tolerance is zero tolerance. You have now deviated from that. “Some rather inappropriate comments by the Minister on wolf whistling and making a joke are best ignored.
Other key issues raised were the treatment of whistleblowers in the Red Arrows case; the low rate of convictions of the Defence Serious Crime Unit especially of rape cases where forensics investigations remain sub-optimal; a still very confusing system for the complainant; the chain of command is still being involved; women being penalised for making complaints and the fact that recruitment of women into the Armed forces has been falling.
The IDA submitted evidence to the Parliamentary Defence Sub-Committee on Women in the Armed Forces, which is displayed on the Parliamentary website. https://committees.parliament.uk/committee/24/defence-committee/news/197611/defence-committee-issues-call-for-written-evidence-on-women-in-the-armed-forces;
And the plethora of authoritative reports indicate senior military and civil servants believe their own narratives only
At a hearing before MPs, Mariette Hughes, the Head of the Service Complaints Ombudsman of the Armed Forces (SCOAF) highlighted the fact that recommendations that were made in 2016 had still not been actioned. Ms Hughes conceded that the service complaints system is, “not efficient, effective or fair, but is getting better”. Apparently, the workload of SCOAF has increased by more than 50%, yet the budget set by the MoD has not increased. This is resulting in delays to cases even being opened as is a lack of female assisting officers, as the complainant should be able to choose the gender of the assisting officer.
A study published by RUSI, in conjunction with leading academics in this field, has headlined that women in the UK military who report sexual assaults are being ostracised and punished for breaching minor rules. The research is the first peer-reviewed empirical study to explore experiences of sexual assault in the UK Armed forces, using in depth interviews with servicewomen, subject to sexual violence by male colleagues. This study reinforces the findings of the Women in Defence Committee and multiple other organisations, notably the Centre for Military Justice, involved in supporting victims. As Emma Norton, the director of the Centre for Military Justice commented recently, “It is the most profound, life-changing form of institutional betrayal”. It also shows the absolute hypocrisy of those officials who appeared at the Women in Defence proceedings on 14th November proclaiming a victim-centric approach is always taken. Clearly the much-heralded Defence Serious Crime Unit is not working properly.
Increasing Use of Non-Statutory Inquiries to investigate abuses is merely marking own homework, with a reduced evidential standard
There is an increasing use by the MoD of Non-Statutory Inquiries (NSIs) on the pretext that it offers speed, pace and confidentiality (whereas witnesses can be compelled to come forward and give evidence under a statutory inquiry; it is voluntary under an NSI). The 71-page NSI report on the Red Arrows published on 1st November 2023 did not name any of the perpetrators and sections outlining specific instances of sexual harassment were heavily redacted; the latter allegedly on legal advice. Indeed, at a Parliamentary Defence Committee hearing on 7th November 2023, Committee member, Martin Docherty-Hughes forcefully noted, “I am bamboozled by the fact that this is a non-statutory inquiry. I am absolutely bamboozled as to why that decision was made. I know that is not within your control, but as a member of this Committee who sat on the Sub-Committee on Women in the Armed Forces, chaired by the Member for Wrexham, I see no change. I am as appalled now as I was then about the treatment of women in the Armed Forces. Something has to change here. I don’t know if this opinion is shared by the Committee, but I think that a statutory inquiry, no matter how long it took, would have forced that change.”
The Release of the RAF Non-Statutory Enquiry into the Royal Airforce Aerobatics team (The Red Arrows) and RAF Scampton and Command Leadership and management report further traumatises the victims
Since the release of RAF Non-Statutory Enquiry into the Royal Airforce Aerobatics team (The Red Arrows) and RAF Scampton and Command Leadership and management report a number of the victims have come forward to express their deep dissatisfaction at some of the detail in the documents, the level to which they have been redacted and the failure to keep them informed or let them understand what has happened to the perpetrators of the unacceptable behaviours they endured. The reports are framed in such a way the RAF retains overall control of what was looked at, how it was looked at, what was done about it and what would be released. At no point has there been any independent oversight of the process. This, and how the reports were released, has led to deep dissatisfaction amongst many of the victims and in at least one case further re-traumatisation. The reports are simply cover-ups.
How Many More Evidence Gathering Exercises? Office of Veterans (OVA) initiates yet another consultation – merely shows real action and accountability being ‘kicked into the long grass’
On 26th October 2023 the OVA launched a major new consultation to gather evidence on the experiences of UK Armed Forces veterans. The deadline is 4th January 2024. In the foreword, Veterans Minister, Johnny Mercer, stated that, “This consultation scope will look across the entire landscape of the government policy, including health, housing, employment, veterans’ communities and their economic and social contributions. It will move us from a fragmented evidence base to one that the Office for Veterans’ Affairs can use to set strategy and support other departments and competent authorities as they design and deliver more joined up policy for veterans. I want to prevent veterans or their families facing disadvantages compared to their civilian peers. Only then, can we evaluate if the policies and structures in place cause no disadvantages for veterans and their families in succeeding in society, the workplace and their personal lives post-Service.”
The question to ask is why is there a requirement for more evidence? It is disingenuous for the Minister to state a “fragmented evidence base” is the issue, whereas the real issue is a nationwide fragmented system where postcode lottery persists where the MoD is unwilling to enact recommendations, despite the consultation repeatedly finding the same issues.
The IDA plans to provide evidence to the OVA enquiry.
Maybe the MoD can learn from other organisations – about creating a safe space for complaints?
The Health Service Safety Investigations Body (HSSIB) came into operation on 1st October 2023. It is a fully independent arm’s length body of the Department of Health and Social Care. It is designed to offer a ‘safe space’ to encourage patients, families, NHS staff and other participants to contribute to safety investigations fully and candidly, for the purposes of learning when things go wrong.
It is expected that the HSSIB will have a dedicated team of around 30 people with expertise in the NHS, safety-critical systems investigations, human factors disciplines and other professions including heathcare, military, aviation and law sectors. It is interesting to note that the military are involved in this new body.
The HSSIB will have the power to enter facilities, seize documents without the need for a warrant. It can compel individuals to answer questions, with anyone refusing to comply committing a criminal offence.
The IDA is seeking to set up an independent body to oversee MoD – the big difference here between the HSSIB and what the IDA is advocating is that the HSSIB does not seek to apportion blame or hold individuals to account. The IDA would seek to make these central to its operations.