Richard Rosser says we owe it to our armed forces to strengthen the proposals for a Complaints Ombudsman
Today sees the Second Reading of the Coalition’s latest Armed Forces Bill, the key feature of which is to replace the existing Service Complaints Commissioner with a Service Complaints Ombudsman.
The Commissioner was established in 2008 by the last Labour government following, in particular, concerns arising from the Deepcut Inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the deaths of four trainees at an Army Training establishment. Its current role is to refer complaints directly from service personnel into the system, and make enquiries if these are not resolved within 24 weeks.
The Commissioner however has been critical of the present arrangements and how in practice they work, calling for the role to be strengthened and changed to that of an Ombudsman – something we have publicly supported for over a year. The problems have been caused by delays (the Army met its target for resolution of complaints in only 25% of cases), the unreliability of data provided to the Commissioner on how complaints were being handled, and a lack of confidence in the system from service personnel.
Under the terms of the Bill, the new Ombudsman will have the legal power to review individual cases where somebody feels their complaint has not been properly handled, and then to report the findings with recommendations for correcting any default or maladministration found. While we are backing this because it is in line with the approach we have been advocating, the government has up until now declined to adopt this approach.
Still, there are points we wish to pursue. We want for example, to give the Ombudsman the power to undertake investigations on their own initiative when a number of complaints are received over a course of time that indicate a systematic abuse.
The current Commissioner has apparently never been asked by the Secretary of State to report on a particular area of concern she may have outside the normal annual reporting cycle. When asked by the Defence Select Committee what she might have looked at, the Commissioner said cases of bullying (including assault), mental health, access to services and race, plus the handling of those cases. The views of the Commissioner about the failings of the current system, and her lack of powers are particularly pertinent with regard to sexual assault. This hit the headlines in 2011 when Corporal Anne-Marie Ellement committed suicide after complaining of suffering from bullying following an allegation she made against two male colleagues of rape.
The details of how the proposed new arrangements will actually function will be set out in Regulations which are currently not yet available – even in draft form. The wording of these could be crucial in determining the effectiveness or otherwise of the Ombudsman, so we will be pressing Ministers for a sight of them before we get to the Committee stage of the Bill.
Bearing in mind that the current arrangements have not worked satisfactorily, we shall also be asking the government what steps it will take to address the comment of the Commissioner in her 2013 Annual Report that “Communicating the new system across the Services and educating NCOs and Officers in how to manage complaints will be the key to success”.
A further key to success of the new system will be the level of support and backing the Ombudsman receives from senior military personnel and Ministers, since the recommendations made by the Ombudsman will not be binding but considered by the top level Defence Council.
Our hope and expectation is that under the new arrangements for an Ombudsman, our service personnel will benefit from a simpler and faster system for resolving complaints in which they can have confidence. They deserve nothing less.
Lord Richard Rosser is a Shadow Defence Minister in the House of Lords
Published 23rd June 2014