The Service Complaints Commissioner (currently Dr Susan Atkins) is required to report annually on whether the current system for handling service complaints, which was set up by the Armed Forces Act 2006, is fair, efficient and effective. Dr Atkins has frequently criticised the system as ineffective, overloaded and beset by delay. In her annual report on service complaints for the year 2013, which was published on 27 March 2014, the Service Complaints Commissioner said she could not provide an assurance that the current system was working. She was critical of how long it took to resolve complaints, particularly those relating to bullying, harassment and improper behaviour. The Commissioner also raised the issue of the level of manpower needed to support the system. The House of Commons Defence Committee has also taken a close interest in these matters and published a report on the work of the Service Complaints Commissioner on 12 February 2013. This report raised concerns about the workings of the complaints system and recommended the creation of an Armed Forces Ombudsman.
The Government has worked with Dr Susan Atkins to consider the most appropriate way to reform the service complaints system. The Government's intentions for reform were set out in a written ministerial statement made on 13 March 2014. This Bill makes the legislative changes needed to take forward those reforms.
The Armed Forces (Service Complaints and Financial Assistance) Bill:
Creates a Service Complaints Ombudsman to replace the existing Service Complaints Commissioner. The Ombudsman will be appointed by Her Majesty on the recommendation of the Defence Secretary.
Sets out the framework for the redress of service complaints including who can make a complaint and how complaints will be investigated (both internally within the armed forces and, if necessary, by the Ombudsman). The Bill introduces a reformed and streamlined appeals process. The proposed service complaints process is set out at Annex B.
Gives the new Ombudsman powers in relation to the complaints system. These powers include the ability to investigate, on application by the complainant, whether an individual complaint has been handled properly during the internal process; a power to recommend action to the Defence Council to put matters right; a power to overturn a decision to exclude a complaint; and a power to require the production of information and documents for the purposes of an investigation (backed with the ability to refer a potential act of contempt of court to the High Court or Court of Session for them to inquire into). The detail of the complaints procedure will, as now, largely be set out in secondary legislation and the Bill includes powers to set out in regulations the details governing the reformed complaints system (including on the admissibility of complaints, eligibility of decision-makers, requirements relating to independent decision-making and procedural matters in relation to Ombudsman investigations). The Bill provides for the continuation of certain functions currently exercised by the Service Complaints Commissioner: the referral of allegations into the service complaints system, the right to be notified of the progress of those complaints and a duty to prepare an annual report on the system to the Secretary of State which is then laid before Parliament.
Includes a power to make payments to charities, benevolent organisations and others for the benefit of the armed forces community.