A document seen by Channel 4 News warns of a surge in complaints within the army this year, as MPs add their voices to calls for an independent armed forces ombudsman.
The “restricted” document warns the army must “anticipate” a potential surge of complaints because of “redundancy, [and] pension changes”. It suggests a new 24-week deadline for resolving complaints will result in an increase of unresolved cases of “630 cases by mid-2013″.
When a soldier has a grievance they can lodge a complaint to the Service Complaints Commissioner. Complaints range from bullying, harassment and employment rights to serious criminal allegations like sexual assault.
Currently the commissioner’s role is to provide “rigorous and independent oversight” over the complaints system, but a Defence Committee report published today, has called for the role to be replaced by a more powerful armed forces ombudsman which can investigate complaints.
The ministers say they are “disappointed” the MoD continues to oppose introducing an armed forces ombudsman.
Defence Committee member Madeleine Moon MP told Channel 4 News she is sceptical whether the committee’s recommendations will be heeded.
She said: “I hope the government will see sense and listen. Sadly I fear that the lobbying from the chain of command will block the opening up of the antiquated system that is so badly needed.”
The ministers’ call comes after a recent report was leaked to Channel 4 News, which revealed how “service personnel are currently denied a fully-empowered ombudsman.”
The MoD will provide a formal response in April, but a spokesperson said: “The Service Complaints Commissioner provides vital independent oversight of the complaints system to ensure it operates as effectively and efficiently as possible.
“Rather than acting as an ombudsman after an event, the commissioner is able to contribute while complaints are still active. To reduce delays, the Commissioner’s role is being strengthened and she will be able to raise any concerns direct with the chain of command.”
The committee also recommended the MoD:
• Researches into why there is a lack of confidence in chain of command dealing with complaints.
• Monitors the performance of commanding officers dealing with complaints.
• Investigates if fears of redundancy are deterring personnel making complaints.
• Researches sexual offences in the armed forces in order to encourage more victims to report it.
• Addresses the disparity between the numbers of anonymous reporting of bullying and harassment, compared to the actual number of complaints.
In January Channel 4 News was shown an email written by Prince Harry’s flight instructor, former Sergeant Major Michael Booley, in which he claimed his complaint had been “plagued with delays, rejections and bullying tactics”.
Another former army officer told Channel 4 News he suffered bullying and abuse when he returned from Iraq, saying he had “a lengthy and unpleasant battle” to get treatment for his “combat related injuries”.
He says his career was damaged by the way his complaint was investigated.
“The investigation was conducted ‘in-house’ by the unit’s new commander; it was wholly about protecting the good name of the unit. A commander is clearly not going to find failings in the way his own unit is run. Nor is it the ‘army way’ to identify any such failing in a brother officer.
“The entire process was conducted behind closed doors, I was not consulted and any witness statements were accepted as correct fact over anything I had submitted. I had no opportunity to challenge the falsehoods; the investigation did just enough to discredit my observations and no more. A selected section of the final report was presented to me as a fait accompli; I had to fight to get sight of the whole report.”
He says troops have little faith in the complaints system, claiming it’s a “toothless tiger” which “misses the core issue in any complaint.”
He says the army itself needs to change to make the complaints system fair, adding: “The failing comes from the institution of ‘army officer’ that sees fit to protect people like that. I think it unlikely that an ombudsman is likely to change the end state of any complaint.”