After 5 years the Armed Forces Complaints System is Still Inefficient and Undermines Confidence in the Chain of Command- Service Complaint Commissioner Urges Ombudsman as Way Ahead

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Today the Service Complaints Commissioner Dr Susan Atkins presents her Annual Report for the past year to Parliament. It makes stark reading. In her report Dr Atkins presents, for the fifth year in a row, how poorly the system is dealing with complaints Service personnel have made when things have gone wrong in their Service lives. She concludes that the system is still not working efficiently, effectively or fairly and that, after 5 years, this is unacceptable.

Some of the key conclusions in the Report are:

  • After five years of operation, the Service complaints system is still not working efficiently, effectively or fairly. It is neither swift, nor easy to use. The Services too often focus on the process rather than justice and have lost sight of the individual.
  • The Navy currently has the best record in dealing with Service complaints but the position in the Army and Air Force has worsened since 2011.
  • The number of people contacting the Service Complaints Commissioner (SCC) has continued to rise steadily and having the SCC has given confidence to many who would otherwise have not spoken out.
  • Users of the Service complaints system believe that delay by the chain of command is unfair to those bringing complaints and those complained about, fails to protect Service personnel and undermines confidence in the chain of command.
  • The SCC strongly believes that an Armed Forces Ombudsman is required, to simplify the Service complaints system, support operational effectiveness and deliver justice for Service personnel.

Speaking today, the Service Complaints Commissioner for the Armed Forces (SCC) Dr Susan Atkins said:

“My report gives an in-depth picture of the SCC’s work and the performance of the Royal Navy, Army and RAF in dealing with complaints from Service personnel during 2012. For the fifth year running, I find that the Armed Forces have failed to give Servicemen and Servicewomen an efficient, effective and fair system through which they can raise a complaint. It is not right that Service personnel have to wait for a year or longer to have their problems resolved. It is not an efficient or effective use of resources to have senior Officers’ time tied up in dealing with problems that could have been resolved if dealt with more swiftly. The system is too complex, too bureaucratic and needs to be simplified.”

The report shows the limits of the SCC’s powers to ensure that the Services deal with complaints from Service personnel in a timely and proper way.

Dr Atkins went on to say:

“As in my 2010 and 2011 Annual Reports, I recommend that my role should be changed to that of Ombudsman for the Armed Forces. This recommendation was robustly endorsed by the House of Commons Defence Committee in their recent report on my work. An Ombudsman for the Armed Forces is an essential step to improving confidence in the system and the chain of command, and ensuring the fair treatment of Service personnel.”

“Both my Annual Report and the Report published in February by the Defence Committee urge the Ministry of Defence to grip this issue more effectively, especially in relation to the time taken to deliver justice. “

THE FACTS

  • The majority of Service personnel (75%) are aware of the SCC role and how the SCC can help them
  • 572 potential Service complaints were received by the Service Complaints Commissioner (SCC) in 2012, of which 13 per cent were from Servicewomen.
  • This is a third more than in 2011 and nearly two thirds more than 2010.
  • Service complaints made directly to the Services also increased.
  • The types of complaints and the way they are handled varies between the three Services. The Navy currently has the best record in resolving cases in a timely way. The position in the Army and RAF worsened in 2012.
  • 525 new Service complaints were made in the Army in 2012, a relatively low increase (7%) compared to 2011. However by the end of the year, there were still 582 Service complaints awaiting decision at Commanding Officer level.
  • Despite the Army streamlining how it handles appeals, backlogs at the end of the year were greater than in 2011. If the cases at Army Board level were decided at the 2012 rate, it would take 3 years to decide the backlog.
  • At the end of 2012 the Army had 430 cases which had been in the system for over 6 months. Only 77 of those complaints were made in 2012.
  • The numbers of Service complaints made to the RAF chain of command doubled in 2012 and the numbers of complaints about bullying trebled. Delay continued to be a problem in the RAF, particularly at Unit level, and backlogs increased. The RAF had 148 Service complaints which had been in the system for more than 24 weeks at the end of 2012.
  • Unlike the Army and RAF, very few complaints in the Navy were about bullying or other improper behaviour. Most concerned poor administration. The Navy resolved most of the complaints made during 2012 and removed its backlog at Navy Board level.
  • There was also a significant reduction in numbers of formal and informal complaints about improper behaviour across the Navy. That said, the Navy has the highest number of anonymous reports of incidents of bullying, harassment and discrimination, according to the Armed Forces Continuous Attitude Survey (AFCAS). The reasons for this disparity are not clear and should be investigated.
  • A new single time target of 24 weeks has been agreed for the resolution of all new Service complaints made after 1 January 2013, wherever and however they are resolved.
  • The SCC’s powers have also been strengthened slightly to enable her to make reports to Ministers, if she is not satisfied with the timely or proper handling of individual cases.
  • Whilst welcoming these developments, the SCC does not believe they are sufficient. She is not optimistic about the Services’ ability to meet these deadlines under the current complex system used by the Services, which is inefficient and too resource hungry.
  • An increasing theme amongst those who contacted the SCC in 2012 was a lack of confidence in the chain of command to resolve their complaint fairly and a perception of closing of ranks. The SCC is most concerned at the potential erosion in confidence in the chain of command, which she believes is essential to operational effectiveness and at the heart of military life.

Dr Atkins continued:

“An Armed Forces Ombudsman would enable the system to be simplified in a way that promotes fairness to individuals and supports operational effectiveness. It would preserve the primacy of the chain of command but more effectively hold the Services to account for the just and fair treatment of Service personnel as part of the Armed Forces Covenant. Our Servicemen and Servicewomen deserve nothing less.”

The SCC’s 2012 Annual Report will be available online from 11.30am on 21 March 2013 at: http://armedforcescomplaints.independent.gov.uk/newsandpublications.htm

Notes

  • The Service Complaints Commissioner for the Armed Forces (SCC) was created by the Armed Forces Act 2006 to help combat improper behaviour in the Armed Forces, particularly bullying, harassment and unlawful discrimination. This followed recommendations made by the House of Commons Defence Committee in its Report on Duty of Care 2004-2005 and by Sir Nicholas Blake QC in the Deepcut Review into the circumstances surrounding the deaths of four young soldiers at Princess Royal Barracks, Deepcut. The SCC role became operational on 1 January 2008.
  • The Commissioner has not been satisfied in any of her four previous Annual Reports that the Service complaints system was working efficiently, effectively or fairly.
  • The Commissioner recommended that her role change to that of an Armed Forces Ombudsman in her 2010 Annual Report and repeated that recommendation in her 2011 Annual Report. The Defence Committee took evidence from the Commissioner on her 2011 Annual Report, including her recommendation for an Ombudsman, on 21 November 2012 and published their report on the work of the Commissioner on 26 February 2013 (House of Commons Defence Committee: The Work of the Service Complaints Commissioner for the Armed Forces, Eighth Report of Session 2012-13, HC 720).
  • Photographs of the Commissioner Dr Susan Atkins are available from Regional News Network. Issued on behalf of the Service Complaints Commissioner by Regional News Network

For interviews and more media information please call Roger Eustis Tel: 01223 370780 email roger.eustis@co.gsi.gov.uk

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