The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr Mark Francois): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Dobbin. I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) on securing this important debate. It is testimony to her determination to raise the profile of the issues under examination today, and I know that she takes these matters seriously. She kindly said that I do as well, and I hope that in my

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remarks over the next few minutes, I will be able to persuade her and the rest of the Chamber that I intend to continue taking this issue seriously.

Our armed forces can be asked to deploy anywhere in the world, often in unstable areas. That kind of agility and reach, coupled with the professionalism that is their hallmark, requires the highest standards of discipline. In order to enforce those standards, they are subject to a justice system that, although encompassing the key tenets of the UK criminal justice system, is, to some extent, separate and distinct from it. That point was made clearly by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), who brings to bear in this debate his personal experience as the commanding officer of a regular infantry battalion—and a very good battalion at that.

The system that we have in place reflects both the unique role of the armed forces and the environment in which they live and work. It recognises offences specific to the armed forces and calls to account those who are found, after a proper investigation, to have fallen short of the high standards that we rightfully expect. The Armed Forces Act 2006 drew together the disciplinary systems of the three services, so that all service personnel are dealt with under a common system. Acknowledging that our armed forces train and operate in some countries with legal systems unlike our own, the service justice system applies a single code, based on our own criminal laws, transportable anywhere in the world.

Separate from the service justice system, but acting in parallel with it, is the distinct service complaints process. That has been a matter of considerable discussion this afternoon, and was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt), the hon. Members for Chippenham (Duncan Hames), for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) and for West Dunbartonshire (Gemma Doyle) as well as the hon. Member for Bridgend. The Service Complaints Commissioner, Dr Susan Atkins, and her staff act as an independent starting point for personnel who want to make a complaint but are concerned about how their chain of command might deal with it. In addition, they provide independent oversight of how the complaints system is working and report back to Ministers and Parliament. In cases of bullying, harassment or discrimination, the MOD is obliged by law to update the commissioner on progress with allegations that she has referred to the chain of command for investigation.

I have great respect for the role of the commissioner and recognise the enormous benefits that we have derived from Dr Atkins’s unique, independent position. I met Dr Atkins before Christmas and will do so again in March. We are actively engaging with her to determine what further resources, including staff, we can offer to assist her in carrying out her important work. One thing that we will discuss in March is the expected benefits of the changes that we have just made this month to speed up the administration of the complaints system—changes that I believe will have a real effect in 2013. For instance, we are encouraging greater use of informal means of resolution, and stressing to commanding officers the importance of getting to grips with complaints early to maintain unit cohesion and, ultimately, operational effectiveness.

In addition, we have also provided a formalised avenue for the Service Complaints Commissioner to approach commanding officers directly, so that if she feels that a

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complaint has not been dealt with with sufficient alacrity, she can now formally approach the relevant commanding officer and raise that personally with that CO, in order to allow that to progress. To some degree—to be as complete as possible—that already happened in some cases informally, but we wanted to formalise it to make it clearer that the SCC had that right in just about all cases. She—and she can be quite a feisty lady, I have to say—can now go to a CO directly, bang the table and say, “You’ve not dealt with this in the way you should have done”, or “You’ve not dealt with it quickly enough.” By that method, she can accelerate the process.

As I say, we have just brought in those reforms. They have literally just begun, but we believe that they will help to speed up the process. Where there have been delays, we hope that the changes will help to reduce them significantly in 2013.

Penny Mordaunt: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Francois: I gladly give way to Sub-Lieutenant Mordaunt.

Penny Mordaunt: I thank the Minister for giving way. That is excellent news, and from the cases that I have been dealing with, I know that it will help greatly, so that is a good thing. Will the SCC also have similar powers if she spots trends with less serious complaints, such as admin, or something that can easily be rectified? Can she speak directly to someone who could rectify that situation?

Mr Francois: My understanding is that the SCC can go directly to a commanding officer about any complaint. She can use her discretion. Whether she would want to go to the CO about every single matter is an issue of balance, and a judgment for the commissioner herself, but she has the formal right to do so if she wishes. If, for some reason, a relatively minor complaint has been—to use a colloquialism—gummed up in the system for some time, she would have the option to go straight to the CO in the unit and say, “Do what you can to speed it up, please.” In our discussions in March, I am hoping to review those matters and take stock of how the new system has been operating in the first three months or so. We believe that it will help to speed up the process materially.

The hon. Member for Bridgend kindly acknowledged that she and I met in early January to discuss sexual offences involving service personnel. I trust that she left that meeting in the MOD with no doubts whatever about how seriously I take her concerns.

Mrs Moon indicated assent.

Mr Francois: The hon. Lady is kind enough to nod her assent. Sexual offences of any kind are not to be tolerated anywhere in the Ministry of Defence. When reported, they are dealt with by specially trained investigators conversant with modern techniques in identifying offences, evidence gathering, forensics, and crime scene management. To support victims of such crimes, service police are able to draw on specialist civilian facilities such as sexual assault referral centres when they believe that may be appropriate. A number of safeguards are in place to ensure that investigations are

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handled properly and professionally. Allegations of serious sexual offences must be reported to the service police, who act independently of the chain of command, as we have heard, and answer to their service provost marshal.

If sufficient evidence is found to charge an individual with one of those offences, the case must be referred to the Director of Service Prosecutions, currently a civilian QC, who carries out his functions under the general superintendence of the Attorney-General rather than the Ministry of Defence. He decides whether charges should be brought, which is a process that mirrors the relationship between the civilian police and the Crown Prosecution Service. In essence, it is the same principle.

In the United Kingdom, members of the armed forces are subject to both service and civilian criminal jurisdiction. Broadly—I make the point broadly—offences that have a civilian context are dealt with in the civilian jurisdiction. Service police would generally lead an investigation only if both suspect and victim are serving members of the armed forces. Servicemen and women are entitled to report offences either to service or civilian police.

As the hon. Lady is aware—we have discussed this at some length, I think it is fair to say—there is therefore no single, consolidated set of statistics relating to sexual offences involving members of the armed forces, and there are considerable practical obstacles to producing such a comprehensive overall report. Let me give an example of why that is. A service man or woman who suffered a sexual assault might have suffered it while on leave in their home town and reported it to their local, Home Office police force, rather than to the service police, particularly if the alleged perpetrator was a civilian, not a member of the armed forces. The point that I am making is that it is difficult, with the data that we have available, to provide an overall and comprehensive report.

However, against the background that I have set out, I have been pressing my Department hard to produce the most accurate information possible. That work is still in hand. It is complex, and given the seriousness of the subject, we must be thorough, but the initial trends suggest that incidents of sexual offences in the armed forces are declining. That work needs time to mature; it will not be finished tomorrow night. I therefore say in all seriousness to the hon. Lady, before she beats her well trodden path to the Table Office, that it would be helpful if she could allow us to evolve that work. In return, I give her a sincere assurance that as the work matures, I will write to her to update her on its progress, and of course, in accordance with convention, I will then place a copy of that letter in the Library of the House.

If hon. Members consult the annual reports published by the Service Complaints Commissioner, they will see that the total number of complaints about sexual harassment has fallen year on year since 2008. That is reflected in the most recent armed forces continuous attitude survey, which shows a recent decrease in the number of respondents who believe that they have been subject to discrimination, harassment or bullying.

For the avoidance of doubt, let me say that of course even one occurrence is too many, but it is vital that the reputations of the massive majority of our outstanding

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servicemen and women are not tarnished by the actions of a few. None the less, my Department will continue to be proactive in raising awareness of the standards of behaviour that we expect and in tackling offences across the whole spectrum. I am pleased to report that positive steps are being taken across the services. I shall choose one example from each.

The Army’s Speak Out campaign informs Army personnel of the bullying, harassment and discrimination helpline. The Army has established that confidential helpline to allow service personnel who believe that they may be victims of that to report it. The Army also has a poster campaign that targets sexual offenders and reassures victims. We have consulted local authorities that are leaders in that field, and the hon. Member for Bridgend was shown some examples of that work when she came to visit me in the Ministry of Defence.

The RAF has in place mandatory equality and diversity training, designed with the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, and is planning to conduct a sexual harassment survey in mid-2013. The Royal Navy police have conducted an internal communications campaign aimed at raising awareness of sexual offending. Reducing sexual offending also features as an area of priority in the RNP’s annual strategic assessment.

Further to impress on the Department the importance that I attach to this issue, I have convened a meeting of the provost marshals of the three single services to discuss how best we can continue to ensure that these offences are recorded, investigated and then thoroughly pursued. In essence, I will speak to the head of each of the three service police forces so that we can discuss this in detail.

In addition, I spoke yesterday on precisely this issue to the principal personnel officers for the three services: the Second Sea Lord, in the case of the Royal Navy; the Adjutant-General, in the case of the Army; and the Air Member for Personnel, in the case of the Royal Air Force. It is very clear that we are all of the same mind—that this kind of behaviour is unacceptable and must be challenged head-on. I will be discussing this issue further with the three principal personnel officers in the near future.

As I said at the outset, I believe that the hon. Lady and, I hope, other hon. Members who have participated in this debate accept that my Department takes the issues under discussion very seriously. The hon. Lady should be in no doubt: we are not complacent and we are taking steps to expose and eradicate behaviour that has no place in an institution with such an outstanding heritage and reputation.

The right hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire—sorry, I mean the hon. Lady; it is only a matter of time—asked whether we had considered the possibility of empowering a body such as the Independent Police Complaints Commission, or an equivalent, to take a role in overseeing the work of the service police. As she may be aware, there is already a protocol, which has been signed by the three provost marshals, which says that if one of those police services needs to be investigated, in the first instance one of the other service police forces will conduct that investigation, in the way that one civilian Home Office police force might be asked to investigate another if there is a serious matter to be looked into. That protocol, as I understand it, is already in existence and in operation.

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The hon. Lady’s question was whether we would go further and ask the IPCC to have an overall role. That is a slightly complex question, and I will explain why. Let us say that it was to be given that responsibility. As I understand it, under current legislation the IPCC has no remit in Germany, so if, for instance, it was asked to investigate the work of one of the service police forces there, it would not, at the moment, have the power to do that. The point I am making is that it is not an absolutely straightforward choice. However, I can tell the hon. Lady that work is under way to consider that possibility. No decisions have yet been taken, but giving the IPCC such a role is something that we are in the middle of considering at the moment, although we have not yet reached a conclusion, partly for some of the reasons that I have just given. I hope that that deals with her question.

As I have said, changes will be made this month—in fact, they have already been made—to give the Service Complaints Commissioner better oversight of delays in handling complaints and their causes. That will also give those who approach her, I hope, even greater confidence that she can have a positive impact. The single services have put in place a number of measures both to deter potential offenders and to encourage victims to speak out. I will get the chance to judge the impact of that for myself as I talk to our servicemen and women up and down the country and overseas. In my role as the Minister for defence personnel, welfare and veterans, I try to travel as much as I can, practically, to visit our servicemen and women, and that will be something that I will have my ears open for.

Specifically on sexual offences, we will continue to provide the right training and resources to those who investigate and prosecute these abhorrent crimes and best support those who have been subjected to them. We ask an awful lot of our servicemen and women. We expect them to adhere to the highest standards of conduct and operational effectiveness. In return, whether they are in Aldershot or Afghanistan, they are entitled to a service justice system that provides consistent and fair access to justice for both offender and victim and a complaints process that is fast, effective and efficient. They deserve nothing less, and we are doing our best to deliver it.

Jim Dobbin (in the Chair): Before I call the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) to wind up the debate, I point out that the debate must finish at 5.14 pm.

5.8 pm

Mrs Moon: We heard an excellent speech from the hon. Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) in which she outlined the importance of not deploying individuals back to units where perhaps perpetrators of offences are still serving. I endorse that call, and I am sure that the Minister will have heard that request. The hon. Lady also made an excellent point in relation to the support for families of victims. I welcome also her call for an ombudsman.

The hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) also called for an ombudsman. In addition, he called for recognition of the importance of support for victims. One of the things that I have heard repeatedly from people who felt that they had been victims was that there was no support in their units from their chain of

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command. If what had happened to them had happened in the civilian system, they would have received such support. I agree that the investigative process needs to be examined by an ombudsman, which he also called for.

The hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) spoke with great insight and personal experience of operating within the chain of command, but I feel that operating within it does not necessarily mean that he has heard some of the tragic stories that have come my way over the past few months and weeks. I welcome his endorsement of the Special Investigation Branch. It is an excellent branch of the military, but the problem for many of the victims has been that they never got that far: their attempts to bring forward their experience as a victim never reached either the military police or the Special Investigation Branch. They were squashed earlier in the chain of command by threats and intimidation and did not take their complaint and experience further.

The hon. Member for Chippenham (Duncan Hames) talked of the social isolation of those who speak out, delays in the process and hearings behind closed doors. He called for increased confidence in the system and faith in the justice system, which we all endorse. He, too, called for an ombudsman.

I was particularly pleased to hear my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (Gemma Doyle) mention the problems that the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders highlighted on openness and transparency, in particular the findings of summary hearings. Such hearings have left people with criminal records; a more serious offence often leads not to a criminal record but merely to a demotion, whereas a minor offence can lead to a criminal record. There needs to be greater understanding in the chain of command of the consequences of the findings of summary hearings.

Bob Stewart: I entirely endorse that point. Someone committing a minor misdemeanour should not get a criminal record. That has to be sorted out.

Mrs Moon: I thank the hon. Gentleman.

Finally, I welcome some of the commitments in the Minister’s response. I welcome the fact that the Service Complaints Commissioner will be given additional staff and that she will have access to commanding officers to assist the progress of any complaint that is being delayed. That is an excellent step. I also welcome his commitment on sexual offences. He said that they must be reported to the service police and the Special Investigation Branch. I hope that he will drive that message deep down into the armed forces, because the reputation of everyone in the forces is damaged by one perpetrator. We must drive it out.

I welcome the Minister’s commitment to the provision of new data and the clarification of the data that are out there. Doing such things is absolutely essential to clarify what problems we have and to ensure that they can be indentified and dealt with. I also welcome all the individual initiatives that he outlined for the three forces. We need to ensure that they learn from one other to guarantee that best practice—

5.14 pm

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(13)).