Select Committee on Armed Forces First Report

6  Redress of complaints and Service inquiries

Complaints procedure

110. The majority of the Bill's provisions relate to imposing discipline. The provisions on redress of complaints in Clauses 330 to 333 provide for a new mechanism for involving the upper tiers of the chain of command in resolving complaints. We focused on the more serious complaints that can arise relating to the treatment of an individual, such as bullying or harassment. MoD provided us with information about non-statutory action being taken to improve redress of grievance and welfare services.[205] The starting point for the Armed Forces in cases of redress is to seek the solution at the lowest possible level in the chain of command. Mr Miller explained MoD's view:

    Seeking to resolve that seems to us to be something which is best dealt with through the chain of command initially and through the Defence Council panel if an earlier resolution cannot be achieved.[206]

111. Mr Miller told us that the majority of complaints are relatively trivial.[207] Mr Salvetti, a civilian lawyer specialising in redress cases, notes in his written evidence that on occasion he has advised a Service man or woman that it would be more appropriate to resolve the issue within the chain of command.[208] However, he also notes that there is a general lack of understanding and knowledge of the procedures, both among those bringing the complaint and those responsible for resolving it. His written evidence states:

    Generally, at lower levels the Chain of Command is neither interested to support individuals nor, indeed, at lower levels does anyone appear to have sufficient or detailed knowledge. I have also discovered from time to time that, in fact, those that should or ought to be providing help and support within the Chain of Command are not prepared to do this either on the basis that it is too much trouble or, alternatively, that they do not want to become 'tainted' with the procedures which will, inevitably, go higher through the Chain of Command to 1 star/2 star or above.[209]


112. The Bill includes provisions for the establishment of a Service Complaint Panel.[210] The composition of the panel is set out in the Bill, including the provision that would allow the Secretary of State to appoint an independent member in certain circumstances. According to the explanatory notes to the Bill, that power is likely to be exercised for complaints involving bullying or harassment.[211] The MoD memorandum states:

    The inclusion of an external, independent member on a Service Complaint Panel will be appropriate in cases where it is important to ensure that an issue is considered by a person who is external to the Services and MOD. In such cases, an independent member should increase confidence in the system.[212]

113. We debated, during the Standing Committee phase of our proceedings, the benefit those changes would bring to the Armed Forces.[213] Witnesses from the Deepcut & Beyond group did not consider that the proposals would be sufficient to satisfy the need for independent involvement. Furthermore, independent involvement at the Service Board level was considered to be too far removed from the level at which most complaints are considered. Mrs Farr, founder of Daniel's Trust and a member of Deepcut & Beyond, told us "… it needs changing right at the bottom, not at the top".[214]

114. Mr Salvetti did not consider the proposals for an independent member on the Service Complaint Board to be necessary in all cases.[215] He concluded that, "it is important to have something but probably at a higher level and certainly not down at the bottom levels of redress where that is normally dealt with".[216] Mrs Antrobus, of WRVS, told us that:

    I think there is a great danger that the more people who are put into the system the more the chain of command's authority—and we are talking about a military environment—is diluted. I think it is important that that is still maintained without frightening anybody off about being able to come and complain.[217]

115. SSAFA Forces Help emphasised its "absolute support for the need to preserve the integrity of the Service chain of command", but said that claims "that military capability and good order will be threatened by such independent participation" were overstated. Indeed, SSAFA Forces Help considered it likely that the chain of command's ability to resolve complaints would be "significantly enhanced by appropriately informed independent participation".[218]

116. We welcome the establishment of the Service Complaint Panel as a mechanism to consider complaints at the highest level. The changes proposed in the Bill will allow complaints to reach this level more swiftly and will provide the Service Complaint Panel with the power to grant redress as it sees fit. The addition of an independent voice in appropriate circumstances is also welcome.

117. Few complaints are likely to reach the level of the Service Complaint Panel. The Armed Forces continuous attitude surveys consistently indicate that actual levels of bullying are higher than reported levels, and that Service personnel do not report complaints because they do not believe they will be resolved.[219] For example, in a recent Army continuous attitude survey 35% of respondents chose not to complain of unfair treatment, discrimination, harassment or bullying because they "did not believe anything would be done…".[220] The same percentage of recipients did not complain because they "believed such a step would adversely affect…" their career.[221]

118. Mr Miller explained that there were a number of initiatives at the unit level to improve the handling of complaints. He referred to proposals to improve the support for those who make a complaint, and introducing mediation at the unit level.[222] He conceded:

    … more worrying is the possibility that people feel for some reason that it is not appropriate or not worth their while to lodge a complaint.[223]

119. The question that MoD and the Armed Forces need to address is whether the discrepancy between the level of bullying and harassment suggested by the Services' continuous attitude survey and the few cases of bullying and harassment that reach the Service Board level is due to the satisfactory resolution of those complaints at lower levels in the complaints process. If that is not the case, MoD must look again at the problem of ensuring that Service personnel feel able to make a complaint and that it will be dealt with fairly.

120. In evidence to us, Mr Salvetti said that there was little understanding of the present system. He told us that "many Service personnel have no knowledge of the system even as it exists at the moment".[224] His point was echoed by Commodore Branscombe, who told us that the problem is "access, transparency and awareness of the redress of complaints [are] not good in general".[225] Witnesses from WRVS and SSAFA Forces Help confirmed that there was a lack of understanding about the process.[226]

121. We are clear that there is a need for robust and timely redress of complaints. A wide range of circumstances may be covered by the redress system, from relatively trivial matters through to the most serious abuses of bullying and harassment. MoD has, as a result of the various reviews undertaken into training, provided additional resources to improve the accessibility of the complaint procedures. We are not convinced that this is sufficient, and we note that the Government has said that they will consider the need for further changes.

A military complaints commissioner

122. We considered the need for a military complaints commissioner during our formal consideration of the Bill.[227] The Defence Committee in the last Parliament recommended an independent military complaints commission.[228] Similar approaches have also been advocated by Deepcut & Beyond and others.[229] The role of the independent commissioner would be to provide an alternative route to the chain of command for those seeking redress.[230] Some witnesses questioned whether independent involvement would be detrimental. SSAFA Forces Help's written evidence recommended that independent participation was suitable "ideally […] at all levels" of the redress of grievance process, and that the Service Board "is too inaccessible, and in practice relatively rarely attained".[231]

123. Padre Olliff, chaplain at Pirbright training camp, told us that he supported an independent system because he had "seen complaints that have not been handled properly within the system". He supported the separation of the Commanding Officer's responsibilities for operational matters and administrative matters.[232] Mr Salvetti's view was that an ombudsman approach, if applied across the broad range of redress, could lead to greater delays.[233]

124. The Deepcut Review undertaken by Nicholas Blake QC contains several recommendations that impinge on the redress of grievance procedures.[234] The Minister for the Armed Forces, in his statement on the Deepcut Review, told the House of Commons that:

    We now need to look at every one of Mr Blake's 34 detailed recommendations to see how they should best be taken forward to address the weaknesses identified as quickly and as effectively as possible. […] and the Bill gives us the opportunity to implement any changes deemed appropriate.[235]

The Review recommends the establishment of an independent military complaints procedure.[236] We have not considered Mr Blake's recommendations in detail, and note that, in relation to the functions of an ombudsman, there is some distance between his recommendations and the Defence Committee's proposals, particularly in relation to the relationship between the ombudsman and the Director of Service Prosecutions. During the Standing Committee phase of our deliberations, the Minister confirmed that the Government would have to examine Mr Blake's recommendations in detail, and undertook that MoD would review the proposals for a military complaints commissioner "in the light of Mr Blake's report".[237]

125. We remain unconvinced that an Ombudsman is the appropriate way to deal with problems with redress of complaint. Similarly, a Commissioner, as some on the Committee have suggested as an alternative, would not, in our view, serve the sort of purpose required. Nevertheless, we believe there is scope to deal with grievances more effectively, particularly those involving cases of alleged bullying. In our view, the overriding need is to draw a clear distinction between the proper exercise of discipline in a military context and incidents which cross over the line into abuse or bullying. We recognise that there is a delicate balance to be struck.

126. We note the fact that MOD has an anti-bullying policy. Consistent with the provisions elsewhere in the Bill, it should be developed on a tri-Service basis. However, we recognise that a policy of this kind can only be enforced if there are people designated to make sure that it is applied in appropriate individual cases.

127. We understand that Parliament, the Government and the Services will need time to digest and consider the Deepcut Review undertaken by Nicholas Blake QC, and we would not want proposals to be introduced hastily. We think it inappropriate to make recommendations on the issues on which Mr Blake commented prior to the Government response to the Deepcut Review. We doubt that the Government response will be swift enough to result in amendments to the Bill.

128. Space in the legislative timetable is at a premium. If MoD does want to make further changes to the redress of grievance procedures that require primary legislation but is unable to make the necessary amendments to this Bill, we urge the Government's business managers to allow time for the necessary legislation to be considered as soon as possible.

129. In written evidence, MoD explains that the redress of grievance procedures will be subject to "annual assessment by an independent reviewer, who would report directly to the Secretary of State".[238] Mrs Jones explained that the reviewer would be a "completely external person with an appropriate background [who] will look in particular at the way the process is operating".[239] She told us that the reviewer

    … will have the ability to look at any cases that have been considered during a year. He will not be able to re-open those cases but he will be able to review the process to see that it is working properly, in a timely fashion, fairly and effectively.[240]

We welcome the establishment of an independent reviewer for the Armed Forces redress of complaint procedures.

Daniel's Trust

130. We were impressed by the evidence from Mrs Farr and Mrs Langford about their work with Daniel's Trust, which primarily helps Service personnel who are experiencing difficulties, often related to bullying and redress of complaint, within the Armed Forces.[241] Mrs Farr told us that she set up the trust in memory of her son who died at ITC Catterick. She explained that

    … families and young soldiers started contacting us, asking for help with problems they were having with the Army, families whose sons had died, young soldiers that were being bullied and other issues that they were experiencing with the Army. […] I felt if I could help other families and other young soldiers who are experiencing problems, then that is what I intend to do.[242]

131. Members of the Trust have visited senior officers at ITC Catterick. Mrs Farr said that she had discussed with senior officers at ITC Catterick why soldiers contacted the Trust rather than using the procedures in place within the military. She told us that the officers could not provide an explanation.[243]

132. It was clear that the effectiveness of the Trust's approach hinged on the combination of an independent person to whom Service personnel could turn to without fear, and on the ability of members of Daniel's Trust to communicate their concerns directly to senior commanders at ITC Catterick.[244] Other welfare organisations, such as the WRVS, emphasised the importance of direct links with Commanding Officers and the chain of command.[245]

133. We acknowledge the success of Daniel's Trust. Its success depends on the relationship between those receiving the complaint and individual Commanding Officers. It may not be possible to apply this model more widely, but, we urge MoD to be open to such ad hoc independent involvement.

Armed Forces Federation

134. During the Standing Committee phase of our deliberations, we debated proposals for an Armed Forces Federation, which have been developed on Service-related internet talk boards.[246] Collective complaints are not permitted in the military, as they constitute mutiny.[247] Mr Salvetti told us that he had been involved in cases in which several members of the Armed Forces had a complaint relating to the same issue, and that being unable to make a joint complaint was a difficulty.[248] However, he was not convinced that a 'trade union' approach was appropriate for the Services, rather he considered Service personnel needed "… better knowledge and better representation in terms of what they are doing, and better access to legal advice".[249]

135. General Walker, Chief of the Defence Staff, dismissed the idea of a federation. He said: "I do think it would be something that weakened the chain of command" and he gave an example of why he did not support the proposal:

    When I was commanding in Bosnia, one of the battalions of one of the nations, and I will not tell you which one, laid down its arms because, it said, the pay deal was not right, so they put their arms down. Do you really see British Armed Services doing that? That is the sort of trouble you get into when there is a representative body who are fighting back at home, your soldiers are at the front and they do not appear to be achieving. [250]

136. The Steering Group for a British Armed Forces Federation responded to General Walker's evidence, stating that its proposals "specifically rule out any questions of any kind of industrial action or insubordination in any circumstances".[251] During our visits, we found that Service men and women, including relatively senior officers, were not opposed to the proposal, although they felt ill-informed as to the precise nature of the proposed organisation and its functions and powers.[252]

137. During the Standing Committee phase of our deliberations it was argued that a Federation might be able to address genuine concerns among Service personnel. However, the Minister argued: "There are sufficient avenues for soldiers, sailors and airmen to express their views on matters that affect their service or welfare".[253] He added that "… we are not complacent, and continual monitoring allows us to improve and shape policy to the best advantage of the Services".[254]

138. Senior military commanders expressed strong opposition to the proposal for an Armed Forces Federation. There was some support in the Committee for the proposal but currently, there is no clear consensus as to whether or not any specific form of collective representation is either necessary or desirable. Some Members believed it was not an issue that can be left in abeyance permanently and believed MoD should undertake a review of the situation with a broad process of consultation covering all Services and ranks at the earliest possible opportunity. Others disagreed.

Service inquiries

139. Currently the Services have a range of internal inquiry mechanisms. The Bill will replace them with a single Service inquiry format, which will have a firm statutory basis and greater powers.[255] The intention is to make the inquiry process more efficient and effective. Commodore Fraser explained, for example, that currently Naval inquiries are established on a prerogative rather than statutory basis and that the changes in the Bill will provide for witnesses being summoned to attend, and giving evidence under oath.[256] We are content with the proposals in the Bill to harmonise internal Armed Forces inquiries and to provide them with greater powers.

140. The Defence Committee in the last Parliament recommended that there should be a presumption that next of kin should be able to attend Boards of Inquiry.[257] MoD maintains that there should be no presumption for next of kin to attend such inquiries, although they are sometimes admitted. MoD officials explained that a Board of Inquiry is an internal process convened for Service reasons to determine how a serious incident happened and why, and to make recommendations to prevent a recurrence.[258] The Board does not apportion blame. Commodore Fraser told us that:

    They were always intended as very much an internal inquiry to be set up very quickly indeed and quite deliberately to make sure that you had got the facts […] you want absolute candour from your witnesses and you want to be able to move as quickly as you possibly can because the whole idea is to learn lessons and then put those lessons into effect straightaway before any other processes.[259]

141. MoD argued that the presence of next of kin could lead to witnesses being less frank in their evidence, and therefore hampering the Board's work.[260] We note that inquests and civilian courts are able to conduct their affairs satisfactorily with next of kin present. We do not believe that next of kin should be excluded on the basis that their presence will inhibit witnesses from providing the fullest evidence.

142. MoD explained that there in some circumstances it would be difficult to enable next of kin to attend because an inquiry would need to convene very quickly, often in remote, or dangerous, overseas locations.[261] That view was reinforced during our visits to Cyprus, Oman and Iraq where Commanding Officers provided us with examples of inquiries that had had to proceed very quickly.

143. The previous Defence Committee, SSAFA Forces Help and Deepcut & Beyond have been critical of MoD policy not to provide a presumption that next of kin may attend Boards of Inquiry. Mr Blake's Deepcut Review also recommends that there be a presumption that next of kin attend Boards of Inquiry. SSAFA Forces Help observed in its written evidence that, subject to a valid reason for exclusion:

    … attendance by next of kin should be allowed as a matter of course.

    This would not only help the families come to terms with their loss, but also, in demonstrating compassionate openness, restore trust and confidence in the MOD system.[262]

In her evidence to the Committee, Mrs Farr said that she knew of several instances in which families were allowed to attend. She explained that:

    At the last board of inquiry at Catterick the parents were notified when the board of inquiry was taking place. The soldier's ex-wife and his current partner were allowed to attend and his parents who were in Germany had a video link set up to their hotel room for them to give evidence.[263]

Mr Gray told us that:

    There is a total inconsistency with boards of inquiry. Some families are totally excluded and do not even know when the board of inquiry is going on. Some families have been included by video link to allow them to watch the proceedings. Some families are given the full board of inquiry in a decent and respectful way. Other families have had to travel to service stations to rendezvous with an Army officer who has then handed the board of inquiry over. I personally think that families should be allowed to sit in on boards of inquiry.[264]

144. MoD witnesses explained the level of contact with families on boards of inquiry.[265] Air Commodore Hughesdon said that:

    We do try to help people through their obvious desire to understand what has gone on and as part of that, in a similar way to the Army, we have continual briefing of next of kin through dedicated appointed officers…[266]

Brigadier Andrews told us that the Army had established an aftercare and incident support cell, whose staff "maintain close contact with the family that has been affected by an incident of death or serious injury".[267]

145. MoD expressed concern that inquiries might be delayed if there was a statutory presumption of right for next of kin to attend. MoD witnesses added that delays could occur because members of the inquiry might feel obliged to alter times and locations of hearings to accommodate next of kin.[268] During the Standing Committee phase, the Minister said:

    Mr Blake's report made some recommendations about next of kin and boards of inquiry. Clearly, we will have to examine his recommendations in detail. […] Again, I give an undertaking that we will return to the matter as soon as we can. I recognise that it might not be possible for us to come to some conclusions before the Committee reports to the House, but I will expect the subject to come up on Report, and I aim to have some responses at that stage.[269]

146. Given the specific and urgent nature of some Service inquiries, it is difficult for there always to be a presumption that next of kin will be entitled to attend. Nevertheless, for inquiries into, for example, an unexplained death in a training establishment, where the difficulties of location and timing do not exist, we would wish the inquiry to look sympathetically on the wishes of next of kin to attend.

147. We recommend that guidance for Service inquiries advises that next of kin not be excluded as a matter of routine. We are not persuaded by the argument that the presence of next of kin would impede the inquiry's ability to conduct its affairs, so long as those attending are fully aware of the purpose, limitations and powers of the inquiry.

205   Ev 130-131 Back

206   Q 465 Back

207   Q 729; see Q 259 Back

208   Ev 153 Back

209   Ibid. Back

210   Clause 331 enables the Defence Council to delegate all or some of its responsibilities for dealing with complaints to a Service Complaint Panel. Back

211   Explanatory notes to the Armed Forces Bill, page 112, see also Ev 132 Back

212   Ev 132 Back

213   Annex Volume II, 29 March 2006, 131-134 Back

214   Q 661 Back

215   Q 257 Back

216   Q 257, see Q 300 [Commodore Branscombe] Back

217   Q 284 Back

218   Ev 157 Back

219   See for example HC (2004-05) 63-II, pages 296-301 and HC (2004-05) 63-I, paras 267-274 for discussion on level of bullying at initial training establishments. Back

220   Armed Forces Continuous Attitude Surveys, Army, December 2004-April 2005. Back

221   Ibid. Back

222   Q 725 Back

223   Q 729 Back

224   Q 257 Back

225   Q 269 Back

226   Qq 279-281 Back

227   Annex Volume II, 29 March 2006, cols 113-131 Back

228   Defence Committee, Third Report of Session 2004-05, Duty of Care, HC 63, paras 421-427; see also Defence Committee, The Armed Forces Bill, paras 5-12. Back

229   Ev 158, 167-169, 181-182, 187 Back

230   See Ev 167-169, 192-193, and Defence Committee, Duty of Care, paras 421-427 for a discussion of the sorts of powers an independent ombudsman or commissioner would require. Back

231   Ev 157 Back

232   Q 288 Back

233   Q 259 Back

234   Blake Review, See Recommendations 20, 21, 22, 23, 25, pages 397-400  Back

235   HC Deb, 29 March 2006, col 855 Back

236   Blake Review, Recommendation 26, page 403 Back

237   Annex Volume II, 29 March 2006, col 129 Back

238   Ev 133 Back

239   Q 732 Back

240   Ibid. Back

241   Ev 172-173; see also "Joining Forces to Stop Bullies" The Northern Echo, 28 December 2005, p 4 Back

242   Q 631 Back

243   Q 640 Back

244   See Qq 677, 675, 640, 643, 648, 651, 653 Back

245   Q 271 Back

246   Annex Volume II, 30 March 2006, cols 207-214; See Army Rumour Service, website, and "Angry soldiers demand 'trade' federation: Courts martial and equipment failures fuel rank and file discontent" The Guardian, 26 January 2006, p 1; "Soldiers plan federation to fight for their rights; New body will represent all the services" The Glasgow Herald, 13 January 2006, p 1 Back

247   See Ev 182, Qq 260-262 Back

248   Q 261 Back

249   Q 264 Back

250   Qq 410, 404-405 Back

251   Ev 190 Back

252   See Ev 190-191 for a 'Draft 10 point summary' of the proposals. Back

253   Annex Volume II, 30 March 2006, col 213 Back

254   Ibid. Back

255   Clause 337 permits the Secretary of State to make regulations for inquiries to be held in prescribed circumstances. Subsection (4) enables regulations to include similar provisions to section 35 of the Inquiries Act 2005, which provides for sanctions to be imposed for non-compliance with an inquiry panel. Back

256   Q 478 Back

257   Defence Committee, Duty of Care, paras 341-344 , Defence Committee, Tri-Service Armed Forces Bill, paras 90-97. See also Ev 158, 171-172 Back

258   Qq 479 ff Back

259   Q 479 Back

260   Qq 491 ff, 750 Back

261   Qq 487 ff Back

262   Ev 158 Back

263   Q 685 [Mrs Farr] Back

264   Ibid. [Mr Gray] Back

265   Qq 480-487 Back

266   Q 487 Back

267   Q 755, see also Ev 201 Back

268   Q 750 Back

269   Annex Volume II, 30 March 2006, col 143 Back

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