The Problem

The Sarah Atherton review into Women in the Armed Forces has completed its initial session of oral evidence – it has stimulated a number of issues, now in the media and public domain, one of the simplest and more shocking was the failure by the MoD to provide essential sanitary products for women deployed into operational theatres.

Once it hit the public domain, give the MoD credit where it is due, the issue was solved in less than 36 hours and a solution was announced by the minister.  However, it is symptomatic of what is wrong in much of Defence. A rapid, defensive, after the fact, reaction was needed where a minister had to get involved in what should have been a simple issue that never raised its head.

It suggests, either women in defence didn’t feel comfortable asking for basic needs to be catered for, a failure; defence not realising that when it deployed women than sanitary items would be needed, a failure; or defence was aware but did nothing until it was embarrassed through public evidence to Parliament, a failure.

If defence failed with this issue, then it is no wonder over 4000 women have sent their mainly harrowing stories into the Atherton Enquiry. The IDA is aware it has stimulated a huge number of additional stories from women who have come forward after the oral evidence session. What is shocking is a large proportion are still serving but feel silenced – unable to ask for basic needs (uniform, equipment, sanitary products).

Many issues will never be brought to the attention of the chain of Command as that is the same chain with direct influence over career progression. Ms Nicola Williams the previous SCO, highlighted to the Defence Select Committee that 90% of those who should complain, don’t. The IDA has identified the issue is much broader – women do not feel able to speak up safely – for fear of retribution from the chain of command.

Air Chief Marshall Sir Mike Wigston said in opening remarks, with Danuta Grey to his one-year review of the Wigston report into inappropriate behaviours that his work had been rushed and there were still “dark corners” he was aware of.  There are many ‘dark corners’ he is also unaware of.  It is these “dark corners” that will continue to necessitate enquiries such as the one instigated by Sarah Atherton MP and will continue to require oversight from the Defence Select Committee or sub committees in order to hold Defence to account, simply because it has failed to hold itself to account time and time again.

On 11th March, His Honour Judge Alan Large, Judge Advocate General, said to the Armed Forces Bill Committee, “They drink too much; they end up in the wrong bed. The rest is history. It is a rape allegation. It goes to court. What is the conviction rate? I do not know the answer, but I would have thought it was about the same as the one we get, because our servicepeople are thoroughly good people, but they drink too much, something goes wrong and they end up in court.” Can that comment ever be considered acceptable from the one person in defence who is supposed to be truly independent? It represents a cultural issue that must be dealt with.

In a Tweet on 12th march the Command Sergeant Major for the UKs warfighting Division said: Ironsides It’s time to take a knee. If your message is not positive, does not support the soldiers, their families and the equipment you need to rethink before you hit send. Ask yourself what am I doing to make the Iron Soldiers more effective or the platform harder to kill? Can only be interpreted as an instruction, unless it’s good news, don’t speak out. This exemplifies the real cultural issues there are across Defence.

I could fill hundreds of pages of more and more examples but that doesn’t point to answers. It just points to ‘bolted horses’ the time has come to fix the stable doors and fences around the stables!

The Solution

The solution is to deliver a truly Independent Defence Authority building on the recommendation in the Wigston Report into inappropriate behaviours which according to Sir Mike Wigston,” has been accepted completely by the Ministers’’. So, why is there nothing about a Defence Authority in the Armed Forces Bill?

A defence authority must be completely independent of the MoD and sit outside the culture His Honour Judge Alan Large perpetuated in his comment. It must not be independent by dint of personality only which Ms Nicola Williams emphasised in her evidence before Christmas. And it must have teeth – the current Ombudsman can only make advisory comments – the IDA has seen that the MoD currently ignores these.

It must be a safe place for all to go to for advice, reconciliation, mediation and resolution. It must have a remit to support the chain of command by resolving issues at the lowest possible level with least impact on operational effectiveness but better enhancing operational outputs thereby supporting the Chain of Command by giving a safe place for unsafe conversations.  It must be trusted.

It must be a cultural enabler and not dissenter, building on the best there is in the Armed Forces but calling out what is unacceptable in an appropriate way. Todays learned culture in defence has taken many years to get to where it is. It can only be helped to change through external assistance. The IDA should become the Mentor and Conscience for Defence.

A possible structure is:

Working with the MoD possibly via VCDS but with no formal relationship outside a legislated relationship the IDA would pool necessary HR, knowledge, legal and administrative needs in a secretariat providing support to an inspectorate acting continuously across defence in an OFSTED type role, able to reinspect areas at short notice if needed.

A new Armed Forces Ombudsman would have a confidential grievance and issue reporting capability and a remit to provide professional support to resolve issues at the lowest appropriate level. It would have the ability to provide professional advice to individuals and the CoC using IDA capabilities.

The Service Veterans Ombudsman, building on what already exists would have a similar remit but working closely with local authorities, the NHS and the third sector. And the SCO would be the conduit for issues that count be resolved at a lower level or remained in dispute.

A possible structure from a functional perspective could be:

Advising all would be an Advisory Board of non-executives some of whom form the core of resolution panels where needed. Overall direction would be from an independent department such as the Duchy of Lancaster, appropriate with the Monarch being the overall commander of British Forces.

To have an authority beyond the pure moral authority of experienced individuals who want to make a difference, the establishment of the IDA should be in the Armed Forces Bill, thereby enshrining an enduring legal authority, but more importantly giving it the teeth to act.  The executive board should be chaired by a former captain of industry and possibly have a Defence People Minister as a permanent member.

It is likely that at worst the IDA would be cost neutral to HM Treasury through use of existing resources and more likely cost saving. Reducing costly enquiries, resolving complaints early and at lower levels, void of uniformed costs, improve retention, reduce the burden pushed to other departments such as Health or local community.

It is distinctly possible to have a core IDA running within 6 months given the authority and resources and making a difference almost immediately.

The Benefits

The first benefit is to the individual, able to safely air, get advice on and have issues resolved at the lowest level without immediate potential career implications. This, by second order, would lead to a burden being removed from the chain of command so it could focus on, thirdly, the delivery of military capability and finally retention would improve. Furthermore, it would better manage transitional, complex issues from being pushed to other government departments such as health and social services or to local services or the third sector.  The cost benefits would be in the £Billions over time. 

Sir Mike Wigston’s “dark corners” would have a safe place for enlightenment and a mechanism for resolution without having to resort to Parliamentary Enquiries. Areas for improvement would be highlighted in a non-blame environment so as to enhance the chains of command and thereby military capability – the purpose of Defence.

The MoD, Defence, the Chain of Command and that arm of Parliament which holds each to account would have a trusted conscience – highlighting issues and, utilising specialist advisory board capabilities, to signpost (and enforce, where necessary) solutions. This proposal is a Win Win for Defence, Parliament and the UK.

The Risks

The risks are greatest if it doesn’t exist. The Atherton Enquiry will likely undermine confidence further for women and other military minorities from considering joining defence unless there is a solution.  It will impact on morale.

Sir Mike Wigston’s “dark corners” will perpetuate. Without an independent authority, the MoD will be facing more embarrassing exposes, more failures and last-minute policy changes and their leadership failures will continue to embarrass the government, the MoD and thereby affect recruiting and retention.  Failure to act will increase costs to the taxpayer.

Risks would further be enhanced if the Authority isn’t given ‘teeth,’ through true independence. It must be able to mandate rather than recommend. Direct rather than advise, on the most serious issues.

The risk of not doing something would be to further reinforce that people are not defences greatest asset. The risk of doing nothing is that every issue will have to be considered through parliamentary committee to be properly and independently explored and resolved.


CDS said himself in July 19, that the problems with ‘laddish culture’ and upwardly looking leadership meant that Defence may need to go further than the Wigston report.  Therefore, we suggest that the All-Party Defence Select Committee, recommend an amendment to the Armed Forces Bill that mandates the creation of an Independent Defence Authority.  That ‘further’ can only be cost effectively delivered by an independent body.