National Ombudsmen
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Worst example in nine years of a government department 'getting things wrong'

‘The worst example I have seen, in nearly nine years as Parliamentary Ombudsman, of a government department getting things wrong and then repeatedly failing to put things right or learn from its mistakes.’ This is how Ann Abraham has described the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the Service Personnel and Veterans Agency’s (the Agency) treatment of a family who were interned by the Japanese during the Second World War. In her report, Defending the Indefensible, published today, the Ombudsman condemns the scheme devised by the MoD and the Agency to put right errors in an earlier compensation scheme for British groups interned by the Japanese. She describes the family’s treatment by the MoD and the Agency as ‘disgraceful’, ‘unfair’ and ‘extraordinarily insensitive’.

The Ombudsman’s report is of her investigation into a complaint by Mr A and his siblings, who were British civilians interned by the Japanese in Singapore in 1945. In 2000 they applied to the compensation scheme set up by the British Government to recognise the ‘debt of honour’ owed by the UK to British prisonersa of war and civilian internees. They were denied compensation because they did not have a close enough link to the UK to qualify. Following an earlier complaint to the Ombudsman about the scheme, Mr A and his siblings had received a £500 payment and an apology. In 2007, the MoD set up a further scheme to compensate those whose applications to the original scheme were wrongly rejected. Mr A’s family was invited to apply to this second scheme, but their application was refused and they were told that the previous apology and payment had been given to them in error.

During the Ombudsman’s investigation, Mr A said that the protracted dealings with the MoD and the Agency caused him and his siblings to relive their traumatic experiences in the internment camp. He described this as ‘not just mental anguish, but torture’. Sadly, he died before the investigation was concluded.

The Ombudsman’s investigation found that Mr A and his siblings were subjected to prolonged and aggravated distress by the British Government during the 10 years that they struggled to resolve their compensation claims with the MoD. The MoD mismanaged the administration of the second compensation scheme and their actions contradicted statements by their own Minister. They did not explain the payment criteria clearly and also decided, wrongly, that Mr A and his siblings should not receive compensation. Despite this, they invited him and his siblings to apply for the scheme. Finally, in rejecting Mr A’s and his siblings’ claims to this scheme the Agency incorrectly and offensively retracted a previous apology issued to them.

Reflecting on the MoD’s handling of the case, Ms Abraham said:

‘Those failings are unacceptable in any context. In the context of a compensation scheme intended to recognise the unique circumstances and the exceptional suffering of British people held captive in the Far East during the Second World War - to whom Britain owed a debt of honour - they were unforgiveable.’

The Ombudsman recommended that the Secretary of State for Defence apologise personally to Mr A’s widow and his siblings and pays them the compensation wrongly denied to them (£4,000 each) plus a further £5,000 each in recognition of the distress they suffered. The MoD should also review all other applicants to the second compensation scheme and pay £4,000 compensation to any they find to have been in the same position as Mr A. The MoD has accepted all the recommendations and will launch its own review of what went wrong.

Ms Abraham said;

‘I am putting this report into the public domain in the hope that something positive will come out of this disgraceful story. The British Government should hang its head in shame at the way it treated Mr A and his siblings - say sorry - and then set about ensuring that nothing like this ever happens again.

There is learning here for government which goes well beyond the Ministry of Defence. This report should be required reading for every aspiring senior civil servant.’

Notes to Editors:

  1. Ann Abraham holds the post of Parliamentary Ombudsman and is also the Health Service Ombudsman for England. She is appointed by the Crown and is completely independent of government and the NHS.
  2. The Ombudsman’s role is to consider complaints that government departments, a range of other public bodies in the UK and the NHS in England, have not acted properly or fairly or have provided a poor service.
  3. In 2000 the British Government decided to establish an ex gratia compensation scheme to make payments to surviving members of British groups interned by the Japanese. It was clear from the outset that this compensation scheme was intended to provide tangible recognition of the ‘debt of honour’ that the UK owed to British prisoners of war and civilian internees. Mr A and his siblings thought they met the eligibility criteria and duly applied. However, they were all refused payment on the basis of what was described as the ‘bloodlink criterion’ – a test of the closeness of people’s connection to the UK. This test had not been referred to in the Minister’s Statement in November 2000 and was introduced much later, many months into the operation of the scheme.
  4. In 2007, the Minister announced a further ex gratia compensation scheme, the ‘injury to feelings scheme’, with payments of £4,000 to compensate people, like Mr A and his siblings, whose applications to the original scheme had been rejected unlawfully on grounds of national origin.
  5. This is the second time that the Ombudsman has investigated complaints about ‘debt of honour’ compensation schemes. The first investigation, Debt of Honour was in 2005. This investigation found injustice as a consequence of maladministration in the way the scheme was announced, devised and implemented. The Ombudsman made a number of recommendations for remedy, some of which the MoD did not initially accept, but all of which were eventually complied with, following a report by the Public Administration Select Committee and a series of legal challenges.
  6. Defending the Indefensible recommendations for remedy: The Ombudsman made the following recommendations for remedy. All of which were accepted by the MoD. They were :
    • The MoD pay Mr A’s widow, and each of Mr A’s four siblings, the £4,000 injury to feelings payment to which they were entitled, together with interest from the date they were incorrectly denied this payment.
    • The MoD pay Mrs A on Mr A’s behalf, and each of Mr A’s four siblings, £5,000 in recognition of the outrage and distress they have suffered as a result of the Ministry and the Agency’s maladministration.
    • The Secretary of State for Defence writes a personal apology to Mr A’s widow and to each of his siblings, apologising for the shameful way that the Ministry and the Agency have dealt with these matters, and for the impact of their maladministration on Mr A and his siblings; and outlining the Ministry’s plans to ensure that other individuals in the same situation will be compensated appropriately.
    • The MoD review all other applicants under the injury to feelings scheme and, where it identifies individuals who are in the same position as Mr A and his siblings, that they should also receive the £4,000 payment, with interest. The MoD has also agreed to review the internal mechanisms in place which allowed senior civil servants to get things so wrong, for so long, and which have had such a devastating impact on individuals who deserve so much better.
  7. To contact the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman’s Press Office please call 0300 061 4996/3924 or email press@ombudsman.org.uk.

             Read the full report

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