Service Complaints Ombudsman/person for the UK Armed Forces

August 23, 2023

The Ombudsman/person is an independent body, in its more recent 2016 incarnation, appointed by the Ministry of Defence, providing impartial oversight of the Service Complaints system for members of the UK Armed Forces. There are similar Ombudspeople in a number of countries.

In May 2023, the Service Complaints Ombudsman/person (SCOAF) published its report on the UK Armed Forces Annual Report 2022 and gave details of the work undertaken by the Office throughout the year, and the current state of the Service Complaints system. Mariette Hughes, the Ombudsman/ person, reported that:

Whilst there have been a number of changes delivered and improvements made this year, unfortunately the system is still not yet operating in a way which is efficient, effective or fair.  However, this should not detract from the progress that has been made, and I am persuaded that real, lasting change is within our reach.

This is the seventh year in a row this assessment has been reached. The origin story stretches back further to the Deepcut Inquiry of 2006.

“To be efficient, effective and fair the system must:

  • handle and process complaints efficiently and eliminate backlogs and unnecessary delays 
  • achieve the purpose of resolving issues appropriately for Service personnel
  • ensure that the correct outcomes are reached, in a way that is open and transparent.“

In 2022, 935 Service complaints were ruled admissible and of these, 43% were upheld (partially or fully) in favour of the complainant. SCOAF received 356 applications to carry out investigations and made 214 referrals to help current or former Service personnel to access the Service Complaints System.

Improvements to the efficiency of the system, was demonstrated by 66% of Service complaints completed on time (the target is for complaints to be resolved within 24 weeks and the average was 35 weeks). And more cases were closed than were accepted. Changes to Service complaints legislation implemented in June 2022 has improved the independence of the system and more complaints have been reported. However, the Ombudsman/person makes clear, further work remains to be done to streamline the process and introduce casework efficiencies. 

The data evidence shows the primary reasons for lodging complaints: 

  • career management 39%, 
  • bullying, harassment and discrimination 24%, 
  • pay, pensions and allowances 9% 
  • and other (28%) includes: inappropriate behaviour (10%); and welfare, accommodation, medals, and other terms and conditions of Service (10%). 

Female personnel from the three Services are more than twice as likely to submit a complaint than male personnel, and these complaints were disproportionately raised in relation to bullying, harassment and discrimination. Ethnic minorities personnel were not overrepresented within the Service Complaints system as a whole but were nearly twice as likely to raise a complaint about bullying, harassment and discrimination.

The Ombudsman/person found that progress is being made, particularly in response to the House of Commons Defence Committee (HCDC) Report on Women in the Armed Forces, with positive changes starting to reach the complaints system. However, female personnel are still “over-represented within the Service Complaints system” and are also "disproportionately overrepresented within bullying, harassment and discrimination complaints". Serving female personnel make up 21% of complaints but only 12% of the Armed Forces.

The key issues identified that continue to affect the operation of the Complaints System include: 

  • changes to the appeals system
  • a lack of flexibility in dealing with the nuances of individual service complaints
  • the system not dealing with complaints at the lowest level 
  • the persistent view that the system will disadvantage or discriminate against Service personnel who raise complaints.  

These are serious concerns, particularly the perception that if an individual lodges a complaint they are likely to be disadvantaged or face discrimination. The report assessment looks forward and back. This year the Ombudsman/person has made five new recommendations with the intention of driving further improvements, which are:

  • working with the Ministry of Defence (MOD) and single Services to professionalise the system, 
  • improving awareness of the System
  • increasing SCOAF's ability to assess the performance of the System.  

The recommendations to the MOD that are expected to deliver lasting improvements are:

  • commitment to review case handling processes to achieve standardisation and professionalisation 
  • development of a dedicated area on the MOD intranet to provide information and signposting on Service Complaints
  • establishing a formal process of quality review allowing for oversight of the Service Complaints System
  • a standard operating procedure to be agreed to ensure that when changes occur within the Service Complaints System, the purpose and intended effect of the changes are captured fully. 
  • amending the allowable grounds of appealing a Service Complaint to include material error of reasoning, and to require that personnel exhaust the internal appeals process before a complaint is deemed finally determined. 

Many of the recommendations will be undertaken through collaborative partnership working.

Looking back, the Ombudsman/person decided to keep a number of recommendations open where further action is needed. For example, she has recognised the work undertaken to date by the MOD in response to the Defence Sub-Committee’s report on Women in the Armed Forces but has decided to keep this recommendation open until the work of the MOD, such as undertaking the first round of internal reviews, has been concluded. 

This year’s SCOAF report shows continuing trends from previous reports. In reference to the above report (Defence Sub-Committee on Women in the Armed Forces’ 2021 report), female Service personnel overwhelmingly reported experiencing additional challenges to their male colleagues. The Committee’s survey of over 4000 serving and former female service personnel found that 64% of veterans and 58% of those currently-serving had experienced bullying, discrimination and harassment in their Armed Forces career. Six in ten of these women did not report these incidents due to a lack of faith that the Complaints system would work as it was designed to. A third of those who did use the complaints system reported that it was an “extremely poor” one. 

The 2021 report also noted the persistence of daily challenges for female service personnel such as poorly fitting uniform and a lack of consideration being paid to women’s health issues. Recommendations made by the 2021 report are echoed by the 2022 SCOAF Report, which points to slow change within the Armed Forces and the need to repeat existing recommendations. 

In a recent interview with Women in Defence, Former Chief of Defence People, Lt General James Swift, spoke about the importance of having women on top-level boards in the Armed Forces, and creating an open environment where complaints can be raised and dealt with appropriately. He made clear his view that diversity ‘in the room’ is not enough to ensure diversity of thought, and senior leadership must listen and take note of the different contributors to ensure true diversity of personnel and opinion while preserving the ‘psychological safety’ of those speaking up. 

Lt General Swift’s perspective shows a more modern approach to management, as he speaks of a need to address the skills crisis that is occurring in the Armed Forces with a ‘21st Century Offer’ that views diversity in recruitment as key to meeting the security challenges we now face. He concedes that while the MOD should push for more diversity across its Services, some of those Services are more ready than others to fully integrate this measure, and that there is still backlash against inclusion policies despite evidence that they encourage the most qualified into armed services. 

The Shadow Secretary of State, R.H. John Healey at a meeting in the House of Commons on the 17th July 2023 committed an incoming Labour Government to strengthening the role of the Ombudsman/person. The meeting included a presentation by Dr Eva Hogl, the equivalent person within the German ombudsman/person system, elected by Parliament and named as the Bundestag Parliamentary Commissioner for the Armed Forces. She made the point that her powers were not simply to investigate complaints, but that she could be proactive and could, on her own initiative, visit, at no notice, any military site in Germany and any site to which German forces had deployed as NATO personnel or as UN peacekeepers. Her report had to be debated in Parliament and she had the right to speak in the debate. John Healey saw elements of this as the way forward for the UK.  

Any changes implemented need to be fully understood and bought into, to deliver the intended impact. SecurityWomen will monitor progress in the UK and Germany and across the world to seek to influence positive change.

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