Ben Wallace – 2022 Statement on Women in the Armed Forces

The statement made by Ben Wallace, the Secretary of State for Defence, in the House of Commons on 19 July 2022.

I am delighted to provide an update on developments one year on from the publication of the comprehensive report of the Commons Defence Committee’s inquiry “Protecting Those Who Protect Us: Women in the Armed Forces from Recruitment to Civilian Life”. We would like to put on record our thanks for those who have enabled us to build on existing initiatives, develop new and innovative interventions and increase the pace of change. This includes the Defence Committee, the Ministry of Defence’s Diversity and Inclusion Team, the servicewomen’s networks and, in particular, Air Chief Marshal Wigston for his review on inappropriate behaviours in July 2019.

An extensive programme of further work has been delivered across Defence as part of the Government’s response to the inquiry. This includes training developments around the concept of consent, the transformation of the service complaints system, the stand-up of the Defence Serious Crime Unit HQ, the delivery of improvements to uniform and equipment for women, and the Servicewomen’s Health Improvement Sprint, all of which reinforce the commitment of our armed forces to being a truly inclusive employer.

In addition, two new policies and a strategy have been published today on as part of Defence’s commitment to deal with unacceptable sexual behaviour. These are the:

Zero Tolerance to Unacceptable Sexual Behaviour policy: a victim/survivor focused approach;

Zero Tolerance approach to Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (SEA) policy; and

Strategy for Tackling Sexual Offending in Defence.

They build on measures that Defence introduced in March 2022, which provided for mandatory discharge for anyone convicted of a sexual offence, and which also prohibited sexual relationships between instructors and trainees.

We recognise the need to tackle unacceptable sexual behaviour robustly at the earliest opportunity before it reaches criminal behaviour, and we have addressed this in the Zero Tolerance to Unacceptable Sexual Behaviour policy. The policy applies to all UK armed forces personnel and makes it clear that there is no place in Defence for unacceptable sexual behaviour. The policy places an emphasis on the support of victims/survivors, with a presumption of discharge from the armed forces for any person who has behaved in a sexually unacceptable way. Additionally, as set out in a previously published policy, any person in authority having a sexual relationship with a trainee or recruit will be discharged, and a new service offence is being developed which will reinforce this policy.

When personnel are working on behalf of Defence outside of the UK, the new SEA policy prohibits all sexual activity which involves the abuse of power, including the use of transactional sex workers. It ensures that every allegation will be acted upon and that administrative, disciplinary, or criminal proceedings will be pursued if there are grounds.

The strategy for tackling sexual offending in Defence also prioritises the victim/survivor and aims to reduce the prevalence and impact of sexual offending in the armed forces through increased reporting, engagement and successful prosecutions in the service justice system.

The armed forces offer a fantastic career opportunity for men and women, but, as the Committee’s report highlighted, their experiences are not always equal and in some cases are unacceptable. I am proud we have been able to deliver such important progress over this past year and am confident that the Ministry of Defence will continue to deliver further change at pace.