The UK government and military top brass have been strongly criticised over “disingenuous” efforts to tackle bullying, harassment and sexual assault within the armed forces.
Defence secretary Ben Wallace held an emergency meeting on Monday to address growing concerns over the treatment of servicewomen with senior commanders, including General Sir Mark Carleton-Smith, chief of the general staff.
However, lawyers and the opposition Labour party questioned how committed Wallace or the Ministry of Defence were to reform in light of the meeting’s outcomes.
In a joint statement following the meeting, Wallace and Carleton-Smith said: “We had a full and frank discussion about a range of issues.
“Recent events have brought to light important issues that require all our people to play their part in resolving. We agreed that together we will address these core and cultural issues.”
In an earlier statement, the army said Wallace was “determined” to “drive out unacceptable behaviour at all levels”.
Emma Norton, director of the Centre for Military Justice, a non-governmental organisation, hit back that it was “really quite disingenuous” to suggest Wallace was serious about taking action given independent calls for reform had not been acted upon by the MoD.
The lawyer, who has represented servicewomen, told the Financial Times: “They know very well what they need to do and they are just not doing it.”
The Wigston Review, a report commissioned by the MoD to look into unacceptable behaviour in the armed services, recommended more than two years ago that serious discrimination and harassment complaints should be taken away from the individual services.
“It’s about not letting the army or the navy investigate themselves,” Norton said. “If Mr Wallace is serious about tackling this issue then why didn’t he act on this recommendation two years ago?”
She added that Wallace had also “repeatedly rejected” the recommendation to hand over cases of serious sexual assault and rape to the civilian legal authorities.
“Holding a meeting for the benefit of the press and issuing a press release is not the way to solve this issue,” she said.
MoD officials said the government had taken on the recommendation set out in the Henriques Review last month to establish a defence serious crime unit. Officials said the DSCU would combine “the resource and specialist skills from across the single services” under one unit.
They added that it would have military commander who was “hierarchically, institutionally and practically” independent of the chain of command and of those whom it investigated.
However, Labour argued it was still not independent and would have no input from the civilian prosecution service.
Responding to the readout of the meeting, shadow defence secretary John Healey said: “This is a totally inadequate statement. The defence secretary has had four reviews into the culture and failings in the military justice system, yet still no reform. If he wants something done, he should lead by example and act to implement those recommendations immediately and in full.”
A report published this year by the House of Commons defence select committee’s subcommittee on women in the armed forces found that of those surveyed, 64 per cent of female veterans and 58 per cent of women serving in the army experienced bullying, discrimination and harassment a some point in their careers.
Wallace has said the MoD has reviewed the report in detail and would submit a response in due course.
The issue of sexual assault within the military has become more pressing in recent weeks following claims that British soldiers were involved in the killing of a Kenyan woman in 2012.
Agnes Wanjiru’s body was found in a septic tank two months after she went missing near the British Army Training Unit Kenya (Batuk). The Sunday Times reported that no action was taken at the time after a soldier reported his colleague had killed the 21-year old.
The MoD said on Sunday it was working with the Kenyan police, who are leading what remains an “active investigation”.