MoD civil servant alleges three sexual assaults by colleagues

Female official speaks out about experiences of sexual assault following allegations of 'toxic' culture by 60 civil servants at Ministry of Defence
Ministry of Defence. Photo: Adobe Stock

By Tevye Markson

03 Jan 2024

A female civil servant at the Ministry of Defence has recounted suffering three separate sexual assaults while working at the MoD and the department’s inadequate response to her complaints.

The woman decided to speak out anonymously – via the Prospect trade union – after reading media reports in November that 60 senior female officials had made allegations of sexual assault, harassment and abuse in the MoD in a letter to permanent secretary David Williams.

The union said the civil servant – anonymised as X – “hopes that making the details of her experience public will help stop anything similar happening to someone else”.

In the testimony to Prospect, X said she experienced her first sexual assault a year after joining the MoD at a social work event, where a male colleague suddenly grabbed her breasts and squeezed them in front of other colleagues. She said she was shocked and embarrassed and asked him to stop but he repeated the action a minute later.

The second incident took place some years later, when X moved to a role based overseas, according to the testimony. She described how two weeks after the move, she was at the officers' mess – where military personnel socialise, eat and, in some cases, live – to try and meet new people. At the married quarters of an MoD couple, she felt a man’s hand running up and down her left thigh. She moved her legs away to stop him, but he did it again whilst sitting opposite his wife. A couple of weeks later, the same man plied her with alcohol despite her saying she did not want it. She was told by the man that she should be grateful.

X said she raised the incidents with her line manager, who spoke to the man’s manager. She asked that the man did not contact her or come near her. After being warned not to do this by his line manager, she said the man stood at her office door with both arms leaning high on the sides of the door frames, in what she described as in an intimidating manner, and telling her that nothing had happened.  

In the third, most recent, incident, X was at a work conference during a period when she was suffering from depression. After confiding in a colleague about her health, he became flirtatious and offered to escort her to her hotel room. She declined but he followed her anyway and asked to come into her room. X refused but he came into the room anyway and tried to kiss her. The following morning, the same man asked if X was OK and winked at her. X’s manager accepted her request her to limit her interaction with the man to online meetings, but she continued to feel intimidated by him.

X asked for CCTV footage from the hotel but was told she could only have it if she reported the incident to the police. She made a formal complaint to MoD. The defendant was not suspended during the investigation despite being X’s countersigning officer, and X was not entitled to receive support through this process. 

It is not clear whether the investigation led to further action, mirroring frustrations raised by other civil servants in the department that they never find out the outcome of their complaints.

The letter from 60 senior civil servants, sent in October last year, complained of a "hostile" and "toxic" culture at the MoD and a complaints system that was “not fit for purpose”. Williams said he was “disappointed and appalled” by the testimonies and that the issues raised were “being taken seriously and will be acted on”.

Sue Ferns, Prospect’s senior deputy general secretary, has urged the MoD to “stop being part of the problem, start taking allegations of this nature seriously, and introduce a proper system to deal with bullying and sexual harassment” following the revelations.

“That these assaults happened at all is shocking but for the MoD to so comprehensively fail to deal with the culprits, or take adequate measures to stop it happening again, is completely unacceptable,” she added.

“Abusive behaviour thrives in an atmosphere of permissiveness and cover up. It takes huge courage for women to come forward when these behaviours happen in a work-related setting, so when they do it is critical that their employer acts.”

Prospect wrote to the MoD in September 2022 calling for a review of bullying, harassment, discrimination and victimisation policies and procedure. The union attended a meeting in early December on bullying, harassment and discrimination but said there has been no meaningful engagement from the department on the policies.

An MoD spokesperson said: “No woman should be made to feel unsafe in the Ministry of Defence and this behaviour is not tolerated. We are committed to stamping this out and we continue to encourage anyone who has experienced or witnessed this kind of inexcusable behaviour, to report it immediately.”

The MoD has a bullying, harassment and discrimination helpline, which is available for all defence personnel. The helpline provides emotional support, guidance, and practical advice with trained BHD advisers available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

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