16th REPORT OF 2017–19: 'FAIRNESS WITHOUT FEAR: THE WORK OF THE SERVICE COMPLAINTS OMBUDSMAN' (HC 1889)
MOD 'has not come to terms with the creation of the Service Complaints Ombudsman', says Defence Committee
Defence Committee Press Notice – 7 August 2019
Neither the individual Armed Forces, nor the system for their independent oversight headed by the Service Complaints Ombudsman, Nicola Williams, has yet succeeded in establishing an effective and efficient system for handling grievances by serving personnel.
Within the Services, the key performance target of resolving 90% of complaints within 24 weeks has never been met, whilst decisions on the admissibility of complaints – supposed to be made within a fortnight – have taken up to 86 weeks to complete.
At the oversight level, the burden on the modestly-sized office of the Service Complaints Ombudsman has been disproportionate to resources ever since it superseded the office of the Service Complaints Commissioner in 2015.
This was largely because its role was widened to include 'the duty of re-examining the substance of complaints – rather than just ruling on the adequacy of procedures followed and time taken by the Services in handling them'.
The result has been 'large backlogs and unacceptable delays'.
The Defence Committee learned that, instead of looking on the Ombudsman as an asset, the Ministry of Defence took almost seven months to produce a 5-page response to her 2017 annual report.
It also failed to supply her with the results of internal Service reviews about high levels of complaints by female and ethnic minority personnel.
Government Legal Department lawyers were not always available to give advice when required, and delays in clearance by the Security Vetting service led to skilled applicants for posts in the Ombudsman's office looking elsewhere for employment.
The Committee concludes that the only solution that will have a lasting effect is for the individual Services to improve their own complaints procedures and practices, and not to rely upon the Ombudsman's office to make up for their own shortcomings.
It expresses concern at suggestions that pressure has been put on some complainants not to proceed, and demands a list of the provisions currently in place for each Service to monitor and record withdrawn complaints.
Defence Committee Chairman, Dr Julian Lewis MP, says:
"It is essential that Service personnel have a fair, effective and efficient complaints system to deal with valid grievances, but the Service Complaints Ombudsman has consistently reported that this does not exist.
"The burden on her own office stems significantly from the 2015 decision to task her staff with reinvestigating the substance of complaints, and not just maladministration by the individual Services in handling them.
"The whole system risks losing credibility in the absence of a plan to streamline procedures within the Services and to bring the workload of the Ombudsman back into balance with the resources made available to her office to deal with it."
[To read the full report, click here.]
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The role of the Service Complaints Ombudsman for the Armed Forces (SCOAF) is to provide independent and impartial oversight of the Service complaints system for members of the UK Armed Forces. This is done mainly by referring complaints from serving personnel to the chain of command and by carrying out independent investigations. SCOAF replaced the Office of the Service Complaints Commissioner (operational from 2008–2015) as part of a wide range of reforms to the overall Service complaints process.
The Ombudsman is required to produce an Annual Report to the Secretary of State for Defence on the fairness, efficiency and effectiveness of the Service complaints system. To date, the Ombudsman has never judged the Service complaints system to be efficient, effective and fair.
Staff shortages are a continuing challenge for SCOAF, with improvements having been introduced only recently. Staffing issues, together with the volume of cases and the complexity of many of them, are exacerbated by failings within the wider Service complaints system.
The negative culture towards complaints within the Services has discouraged serving personnel from coming forward and making a complaint. It is vital that the Ombudsman and complainants should play a significant role during the forthcoming review of the Armed Forces (Service Complaints and Financial Assistance) Act.
Issues within the Service complaints system are difficult to identify when there is only one metric to measure its performance objectively: a Key Performance Indicator (KPI) of 90% of Service complaints to be resolved within 24 weeks. To date no Service has achieved this target. An admissibility decision that should take two weeks is taking up to 86 weeks to complete. SCOAF is also falling below expected levels of performance with only 56% of all investigations completed within the time target.
It is also a serious concern that complaints from BAME and female Service personnel are disproportionately high, compared to their representation within the Armed Forces: in particular, they are far more likely to complain about bullying, harassment and discrimination.
The slow progress of the Ministry of Defence in implementing recommendations from the Ombudsman’s previous Annual Reports is unacceptable and erodes Service personnel’s confidence in SCOAF’s ability to make positive changes.
We seriously doubt that the current Service complaints system is fit for purpose. Service personnel have little faith in it, with surveys indicating that many personnel choose not to make a complaint – in some cases because of worries about the impact on their future careers. When complaints are raised, their handling is unacceptably slow, both by the Services themselves and by SCOAF. There is a lack of information about where delays enter the system and why: the MoD and SCOAF need to work together to ensure that much better data is recorded about the time taken during the various stages in complaints procedures.
We are also concerned about allegations that, when complaints have been raised, pressure has been put on complainants to withdraw them. This, if true, is a cause for considerable concern. However, the absence of proper records means that it is not possible to know how widespread the practice may be. Better procedures are needed to ensure that potential abuse of the system in this way cannot occur.
It is evident to us that complaint handling within SCOAF and across the Services is understaffed and inadequately resourced. The decision taken in 2015 to task a relatively small office with the duty of re-examining the substance of complaints – rather than just ruling on the adequacy of procedures followed and time taken by the Services in handling them – has led to large backlogs and unacceptable delays. A plan to bring the workload of the Ombudsman back into balance with the resources given to her to deal with it must urgently be prepared. Otherwise, the whole system risks losing credibility.