13 Mar 2014

Armed forces are incapable of dealing with bullying

The apparently endless cycle is dispiriting and depressing. The assaults, the initiation rites, the beasting, the beatings, the rapes…and of course the suicides.

Look no further than the tragedy of Anne-Marie Ellement, the military policewoman who complained of being raped and was relentlessly bullied until she killed herself – in the news again just last week.

The British armed forces: institutions which have shown themselves largely incapable of dealing with issues like bullying, so clearly embedded in service culture. Why else would the cases still make the headlines year in, year out?

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So it is that soon after the Ellement tragedy comes news to day from the MOD of an overhaul to the system. The setting up of a new Ombudsman with – says the MOD – “dramatically boosted” powers to intervene for the first time in individual cases at an early stage.

Sounds long overdue and in fairness the MOD themselves indicate that it is. Internal documents sent to Channel 4 News show them recognising that the behaviour of the chain of command in handling complaints is part of the problem.

The Prince Of Wales And Duchess Of Cornwall Visit Parachute Regiment

 Injured soldier Tom Neathway, centre, whose complaints about bullying have yet to be resolved

Look closely at today’s MOD press release and you will not see the word “independent” used once and a genuine independent ombudsman is what critics – and victims – of the complaints system crave .

They won’t get it here.

The new Ombudsman will be appointed via the MOD system; their staff will be MOD appointed; they will still have no powers whatsoever to make decisions on any cases binding on the services except overturning a decision to exclude a complaint.

Critics say it is simply spin and rearranging the furniture to keep things just how the services want.

Ross McLeod – a former signals officer for 15 years who has presented evidence of services bullying to parliament told Channel 4 News: “This is just window-dressing and will make no real difference at all. There is still no proper independent oversight in any of this.

“It’s a gloss. Once you complain the ranks will still close, the intimidation and blackmailing will still occur and at the end of it all it is the military – internally – who will pass the verdict. It’s a sop.”

Those demanding truly independent oversight point to Employment Tribunals which can already pass verdicts on the military in discrimination cases and that has not impacted on the military capabilities of the services at all they say.

So why not extend real oversight? The answer – say critics – is that the MOD and military hate employment tribunals precisely because they have real teeth.

They don’t want anybody else on their turf thank you. The MOD contends the new Ombudsman will make a genuine difference and will offer “a vital alternative route for those who do not wish to approach their Chain of Command directly with their concerns in the first instance”.

All true – but note those words – “in the first instance”. Once the new Ombudsman decides there is a case to answer you will be back into the military system with all the intimidation that can bring.

Not always, but often enough in some cases to keep creating those headlines.

“It was sickening, ” says former para Tom Neathway, who lost two legs and an arm in Afghanistan, “in my case witnesses were intimidated. I was threatened they’d move me from specially equipped accommodation in Brize Norton over to Colchester, miles from all that. And that was exactly what happened.”

Tonight he speaks to Channel 4 News for the first time about his complaint. He says the process – several years old now – forced him out of the army in the end. It has still not been resolved.

A strange end for someone used by the MOD for propaganda purposes when it suited them, to portray the fine work it has done in rehabilitating terribly injured soldiers.

He featured largely in the TV series Wounded, he carried the Olympic Torch.

“Look,” he says to us, “if this kind of thing could happen to someone like me what hope is there? Until there’s a truly independent way of dealing with this stuff outside the chain of command nothing is really going to alter as far as I can see.

“I loved the army and I love my Regiment – but the way these things get dealt with is – well – it’s just no way to treat your own guys.”

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Stripped of the spin – an MOD-employed ombudsman with MOD employed staff will be able only to overturn a decision to exclude a complaint or review and recommend.

Note those words “review” and “recommend” – also known as status quo ante for a system even the MOD admits is not working. As a soldier, airman or sailor – you complain in future and basically the same, old and discredited MOD system will be waiting for you.

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