Kirsten Oswald – 2016 Parliamentary Question to the Ministry of Defence

The below Parliamentary question was asked by Kirsten Oswald on 2016-04-26.

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence, when he last had discussions with the Chief of the Defence Staff on the need to improve response times to complaints from serving officers; and what was agreed in that discussion.

Mark Lancaster

The Service Complaints Ombudsman’s annual report for 2015 was published on 25 April 2016. Whilst there are no recommendations in this year’s report, given the introduction of a reformed complaints system and a fundamentally new Ombudsman role, the Ministry of Defence (MOD) is curently considering the report in detail to see what lessons there are for the complaints process or wider policies.

The aim of the reforms introduced on 1 January 2016 is to address long-standing concerns raised by the Service Complaints Commissioner that confidence in the system has been affected by complexity which has led to delay and by a lack of strong independent and effective oversight. Such a lack of confidence can in turn leave our personnel reluctant to raise issues and so have them resolved. The new process is streamlined, and Service personnel will now be able to approach the new Service Complaints Ombudsman if they are dissatisfied, which will make a real difference for individuals. The Ombudsman has significant new powers to hold the MOD to account for fair, effective and efficient complaints handllng. The Ombudsman comments in her report that she is hopeful that the new system will make a real impact on confidence levels. The MOD shares that view, and looks forward to the Ombudsman’s 2016 report for her assessment of whether the aims are being achieved.

It is important that all Service personnel know where to get information about how to make a service complaint, as well as about the role of the new Service Complaints Ombudsman and how to contact her. We will take further steps to communicate as widely as possible through appropriate channels the role of the new Ombudsman, particularly to junior personnel, which will supplement and support the visits undertaken and communication material produced by the Ombudsman.

Bullying, harassment and discrimination are not tolerated in the Armed Forces. Tackling such behaviour depends on our Service personnel having confidence that the complaints system will deal with their concerns appropriately and will treat them fairly. The Service Complaints Ombudsman will hold the MOD to account for how it handles complaints and how it treats its Service personnel under the complaints process. It is by raising complaints and approaching the Ombudsman if they are dissatisfied that complainants can ensure that the MOD is openly held to account. It is also through the Ombudsman’s recommendations that the MOD can identify where action needs to be taken to improve.

The finding by the Service Complaints Ombudsman that proportionately more women feel moved to make a Service complaint than their male colleagues is a concern. The Ombudsman goes on to commend the work that is being done by the Army in particular, where the issue is the most acute, to tackle this. The initiatives that she sets out in the report are continuing.

It is the responsibility of all those involved in the service complaints process to ensure complaints are handled effectively and efficiently. All complaints are to be dealt with promptly but fairly, regardless of the complainant’s rank or whether they are still serving. There have been no discussions with the Chief of the Defence Staff on the issues raised.