Military complaint system ‘failing’

Published: Thursday 23rd October 2014 by The News Editor

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A proposed military complaints watchdog needs stronger powers if personnel are to trust its independence from commanders, MPs said.

Legislation to introduce an ombudsman system is being debated by Parliament amid warnings that the present set-up is “failing”.

The influential Commons defence committee proposed a series of amendments to the Armed Forces (Service Complaints and Financial Assistance) Bill, warning it “still falls short of best practice in other European countries”.

They include a ban on anyone taking the ombudsman post who has served in the armed forces within the previous five years, the power to investigate the substance of complaints, not just their handling by military justice, and restricting the Defence Secretary’s right to keep investigation results secret.

A service complaints commissioner, Susan Atkins, has been in place since 2008 but she has consistently declined to sign off the system as “working efficiently, effectively and fairly”.

In her most recent report, Dr Atkins said the system was “failing” and needed to be made simpler, faster and more accountable – pointing to a rise in reported cases of bullying, harassment and discrimination in the Army last year, reversing a downward trend in recent years.

The committee rejected the concerns of some military top brass that a powerful new ombudsman would undermine the chain of command, and said it was vital to address ” significant uncertainty over the relationship between the power of the ombudsman and that of the military commanders”.

“Instead it will build confidence in the chain of command as service personnel see that their commanders take seriously their duty of care and are willing to rectify mistakes,” its report concluded.

Other proposed changes include:

:: The power to investigate delays to military investigations of complaints

:: Allowing the ombudsman to initiate reviews into wider issues concerning military procedures

:: Restricting ministers’ right to suppress publication of reports to cases threatening national security or personal safety

:: Making explicit in the legislation that ombudsman recommendations are binding on the Defence Council

The chairman of the committee, Tory MP Rory Stewart, said: “It is vital that any future ombudsman is seen by service personnel as being entirely independent.

“The MoD’s proposals will leave it still too closely involved in controlling the ombudsman’s investigations.

“We would like wider power for the ombudsman and clearer guarantees of genuine independence. This will not undermine the chain of command, it will build confidence in it.”

Madeleine Moon MP, a Labour member of the committee, said: “The changes proposed by the committee also address the problem of delays in handling service complaints. The Bill and our proposed changes will encourage the services to resolve problems in swifter and more effective ways.”

Dr Atkins said: “The report is the product of a valuable consultation process and the welfare of servicemen and women has been at the heart of all that has been said. I have been pleased to play my part in this process and the conclusions and recommendations are broadly reflective of what I have had to say.

“I would like to take this opportunity to thank the committee for the active interest and support they have always provided to the work of the service complaints commissioner.

“Today’s report shows that there is a common understanding on the need for reform, underpinned by a widespread and overwhelming desire to deliver a more efficient and effective complaints process – something which is not only accountable and fair, but something which is seen to be accountable and fair.

“The Bill still has some way to go before it completes its passage through Parliament and becomes law; this report is an important part of the democratic process.”

Published: Thursday 23rd October 2014 by The News Editor

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