Don Touhig on developments and progress on the Armed Forces Bill
When I wrote about Armed Forces Bill before its Lords Second Reading back in February, I said that I had a sense of déjà vu – something that has only got stronger as we have continued the Bill’s progress.
During that time, we’ve had interesting debates covering everything from the composition of the Court Martial, territoriality of offences and sentencing, enlistment of minors, reporting about employment discrimination affecting reservists, compensation for mental illness caused by service, and the publication of statistics about sexual assault and rape.
Labour has pressed several amendments – one relating to the aforementioned statistics, another on the Commanding Officer’s discretion not to investigate complaints of sexual assault, and a third on parity of esteem on compensation for victims of mental health.
The Bill is important and has had cross-party support throughout the Commons and Lords, which we welcome and are glad to have been part of it. With Lords Report later today and Third Reading on 5th May, I look forward to working with the government to strengthen the Bill further.
Some may ask why we have made it a priority to see the publication of statistics on sexual assault and rape in the forces. I’ll tell you why: because there is an ‘overtly sexualised’ culture in the military. Not my words but those of Brigadier John Donnelly, the director of the Army’s personnel services when giving evidence at the inquest into the death of Private Cheryl James at Deepcut.
Brigadier Donnelly went on to say that Army chiefs were given a ‘wake-up’ call by a 2014 survey. This found that 90% of respondents thought this of the culture, while 39% said they had directly experienced sexual harassment or conduct close to it. While the results led to a top-down response, the Brigadier was clear that it wouldn’t happen overnight. So for me the best way to begin to change such a culture is to keep the spotlight on it. Transparency is our best weapon in getting the message across that sexual misconduct in our Armed Forces will not be tolerated.
Britain is blessed in having the finest, most professional and dedicated Armed Forces in the world. The men and women who serve should not have their reputation stained and their good named tainted by such actions. Labour has been encouraged that the government is listening and I am more than hopeful that the Minister will accept the merits of our argument that details of sexual assault and rape should be published.
We have also suggested a way to review the powers of commanding officers not to proceed with a complaint about sexual misconduct. And the government will also hopefully move towards our position on mental health compensation.
For me the whole experience of this Bill has seen Parliament working at its best, with all sides recognising that problems exist and being prepared to find common ground to solve them.
Lord Don Touhig is Shadow Defence Minister in the House of Lords
Published 27th April 2016