Documents to download

The Service complaints system provides a means for serving or former personnel to make a complaint about the treatment they received while subject to service law. This can include complaints of bullying, harassment or discrimination.

The Service Complaints system has never been efficient, effective or fair, despite annual reviews since 2008.

The Service Complaints Ombudsman provides independent oversight of the complaints system. The Ombudsman is required to report to Parliament annually on whether the system is efficient, effective and fair. Neither the Ombudsman nor her predecessor has assessed the system to be so. The Ministry of Defence is reforming the system and is “rolling out the first changes” in early 2021.

About the system

The complaints system is open to those who are or have been subject to service law and wish to complain about an alleged wrong relating to their service which occurred while they were subject to service law. This can include complaints of bullying, harassment and discrimination.

Some matters, such as housing, healthcare, pay and allowances, have their own complaints processes which must be completed before a Service complaint about them can be submitted. These are known as “special-to-type” processes. Allegations of criminal offences should be dealt with through the Service justice system.

A complainant can appeal if they are not satisfied with the decision taken. The Armed Forces (Service Complaints and Financial Assistance) Act 2015 streamlined the complaints system by reducing it to one level of appeal, rather than two. The Armed Forces Bill 2019-21 will further amend the appeals process by reducing the time limit in which a complainant can appeal a final decision. The Ministry of Defence says this is intended to speed up the process.

Once a complainant has completed the appeals stage, they can ask the Ombudsman to investigate if they believe their complaint was handled wrongly or improperly (maladministration) or if they believe the final decision was incorrect (substance). The Ombudsman can also review and overturn a decision on a complaint being ruled inadmissible when first submitted.

The most complained about areas are career management, bullying, harassment or discrimination, and pay, pensions and allowances. 

Criticisms of the system

Neither the Ombudsman nor her predecessor, the Service Complaints Commissioner, assessed the complaints system to be efficient, effective and fair.

In her most recent annual report (2019), the Ombudsman identified four significant problems in the system:

  • Low levels of confidence in the system by Service personnel
  • Length of time in resolving complaints – only 46 per cent of complaints were resolved within 24 weeks
  • Incomplete data
  • Negative impact on wellbeing of those making complaints or being named in a complaint

The Ombudsman says female and BAME personnel are overrepresented in the complaints system compared to their representation in the armed forces. They are also more likely to complain about bullying, harassment and discrimination – the rate of complaint about bullying, harassment and discrimination is nearly five times higher for female personnel than for male personnel.

Reflecting on the end of her five year tenure in post, the Ombudsman told MPs the culture within the armed forces still needs to change to encourage personnel to make complaints. She also called for the Ombudsman’s powers to be expanded to enable the Ombudsman to initiate investigations into complaints. 

The Defence Committee doubted whether the system “is fit for purpose” in a 2019 report. They also reflected on the overrepresentation of female and BAME personnel in the complaints system; delays in handling and resolving complaints in both the complaints system and Ombudsman’s office; and the MOD’s slow progress in implementing change which, the committee said, erodes Service personnel’s confidence in the Ombudsman’s office.

Surveys of Service personnel reflect a reluctance to complain about bullying, harassment or discrimination. Of the 12 per cent of service personnel who said they had been subject to bullying, harassment or discrimination in the previous 12 months, 90 per cent did not make a complaint (AFCAS 2019).

A Government commissioned review of inappropriate behaviour in the armed forces has also recommended changes to the system. The 2019 report by Air Chief Marshal Wigston found a “pressing need” to reform the complaints system. He said encouraging and enabling more complaints, and dealing with them better, would improve trust and signal the leadership’s determination to stamp out inappropriate behaviour.

Upon publication of a subsequent progress review into the Wigston recommendations, the MOD said it will reform the complaints system with the first changes being rolled out in early 2021.

Reforming the system and the Armed Forces Bill

The appeals process will be amended by the Armed Forces Bill 2019-21, which had its Second Reading on 8 February 2021. The Bill will reduce the time limit for a complainant to appeal a decision on a complaint. The MOD says this will speed up the process.

The Bill alsos create a new Service Police Complaints Commissioner and enables the creation of a regime for complaints relating to the Service police. This new regime will be modelled on the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC). Johnny Mercer, the Minister for Defence People and Veterans, explained the Commissioner’s new role:

They will have the power to investigate serious and sensitive matters involving the service police, including those relating to conduct, serious injury and death. They will also set the standards by which the service police should handle complaints. As in the case of civilian police, provision will be made to handle both whistleblowing and super-complaints.

John Healey, the shadow Secretary of State for Defence, and other MPs welcomed the new Commissioner role. 

Information on the Bill and its progress through Parliament can be found on Armed Forces Bill 2019-21.

Documents to download

Related posts