Military police have launched 35 investigations into racially aggravated crimes over the past five years, prompting warnings that many service personnel from BAME backgrounds are “suffering in silence”.
The number of military police investigations – which the Ministry of Defence has admitted is low – was revealed following a Freedom of Information Act by the Guardian and cover those conducted in the army, navy and air force since 2015.
Twenty two, including eight in 2018 and one this year, were launched by the Royal Military Police (RMP). Nine took place outside the UK. The Royal Air Force Police have launched nine investigations since 2015 and the Royal Navy Police carried out four.Advertisement
Emma Norton, a lawyer and head of legal casework at human rights group Liberty said: “We also know that many people don’t even report this kind of problem in the first place for fear that it may harm their career. So there are likely to be large numbers of affected people who are suffering in silence.”
Aside from alleged crimes, Norton said it was already known that disproportionate numbers of BAME service personnel made complaints about allegations of bullying, harassment and discrimination under the service complaints procedure when compared with their numbers in the forces overall. BAME personnel account for 7% of the armed forces total strength but 13% of complaints.
The issue of racism in the armed forces was brought into sharp focus earlier this month when an employment judge ruled that two former paratroopers were subjected to racial harassment while in the army and had endured “degrading, humiliating and offensive environment”.
Nkululeko Zulu and Hani Gue had taken the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to a tribunal claiming it had failed to take reasonable steps to prevent discrimination and harassment against them.
The issue comes at a particularly sensitive time for the armed forces, which faces an army recruitment crisis, and has been running high profile campaigns aimed at recruiting more people from a diversity of genders, sexualities, ethnicities and faiths.
But questions also remain about what happened after the investigations carried out in recent years by the armed forces police which, unlike civilian police forces, do not charge suspects.
The same Freedom of Information request reveals that 26 of the investigations were instead referred either to the Service Prosecuting Authority (SPA), the organisation within the MoD that initiates and conducts prosecutions in criminal cases, or to a commanding officer to deal with.
COs have two course of action: to deal with the case at a summary hearing or refer it to the SPA.
However, the powers of COs to perform such an important criminal legal role remains controversial, with groups such as Liberty having expressed serious concerns about whether they have the necessary training or experience to do so. Concerns have also been raised, for example, that sexual offences have been downgraded so that they become a non-sexual offence and therefore can be dealt with by a commanding officer and not have to go to court at all.
The MoD said: “While the numbers shown in the FOI are relatively low, the armed forces do not tolerate racist behaviour in any form. Any allegations of illegal or inappropriate behaviour are taken extremely seriously and investigated thoroughly.
“This year we published a review into inappropriate behaviours and [we] are currently in the process of implementing its recommendations.”
The service complaints ombudsman for the armed forces has been calling for independent research to be conducted into why disproportionate numbers of women and BAME people are complaining of bullying, harassment and discrimination.
Those calls were backed up in July in a report by the House of Commons defence committee, which said it it was unacceptable that the ombudsman had been excluded from previous internal reviews by each service and had not seen the results of recent reviews. Some female and ethnic minority personnel opted not to raise grievances as they had “little faith” in the complaints system, the report added.
Written by: Ben Quinn