Parliamentary Committees and Public Enquiries
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Defence Committee calls for new Armed Forces Ombudsman

In a report published today, Tuesday 26 February 2013, the House of Commons Defence Committee says the Government should change the role of the Service Complaints Commissioner to one of an Armed Forces Ombudsman, holding the Services to account for the proper administration of their complaints processes and the delivery of justice, and identifying possible improvements to the system.

The existing Commissioner has regularly reported that the current Service complaints system is not efficient, effective or fair and needs simplification and redesign. The Committee supports the changes to the role of the Commissioner that have been agreed with the MoD, but is nonetheless disappointed that the MoD and the Services continue to be opposed to changing the role to that of an Armed Forces Ombudsman. It also says it is essential that the Commissioner and Service complaints secretariats are sufficiently resourced to provide an effective and efficient complaints system that inspires confidence, and that current resources are used in the most efficient manner.

The Committee was concerned and disappointed to hear that Service personnel do not always have confidence to pursue a potential complaint through the chain of command under the existing system. While some Service personnel may pursue the matter through the Commissioner, the Committee is worried that some may decide not to pursue their grievance at all. It says the MoD and Service Chiefs should commission research into the reasons for the lack of confidence in the chain of command.

The MoD should also review the systems in place for monitoring the performance of commanding officers in respect of complaints. The Commissioner and others report that fears of redundancy among Service personnel appear to be deterring them from making Service complaints: the Committee says it is unacceptable that Service personnel should fear the consequences of making a complaint on any matter. The MoD and the Commissioner should urgently investigate this matter and report their findings to the Committee.

The number of contacts that the Commissioner receives about bullying, harassment, improper behaviour and victimisation has continued to increase. Although this may indicate an increasing confidence in reporting such matters, it also suggests continuing problems in these areas. The Committee is concerned about the continuing gap between anonymous reporting of incidents and the actual numbers of complaints and says further action is required to address this disparity.

The number of sexual harassment and other sexual offences allegations made to the Commissioner remains low despite evidence suggesting there may be a much higher incidence of such offences. The Committee says the MoD should instigate new research into the level of sexual offences in the Armed Forces and the actions required to tackle it and encourage possible victims to report such allegations.

Chair of the Committee Rt Hon James Arbuthnnot MP said:

"The Service complaints system is an important part of ensuring that the duty of care that the nation owes to its Service personnel is carried out effectively. We acknowledge the progress made in delivering a fair, just and efficient Service complaints system but there is a long way to go. There are too many reports of Service personnel being reluctant to raise genuine complaints and grievances. We are also concerned that complaints are not being raised when they implicate individuals above the complainant within the chain of command.

This is a time of great changes in the Defence arena and many of these changes may lead to an increase in the number of Service complaints. There are still too many instances of delay and inefficiency in part caused by a lack of resources. This must be dealt with urgently so as to ensure there is confidence in the system and the Commissioner. The Government should change the role of the Commissioner to one of an Armed Forces Ombudsman. Our Servicemen and Servicewomen deserve a complaints system that is as good as it can be. Not to provide this would be a failure of the nation’s duty to them."

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