Select Committee on Defence First Report


5. In the Armed Forces, complaint and redress procedures are based firmly on the chain of command. Generally, complaints are dealt with at the lowest level possible, and progress, if not resolved, up the chain of command. If a complaint is not resolved at the level of commanding officer it may progress to a Service Board.[7]

6. Evidence to our predecessor Committee during its inquiry into Duty of Care suggested that the existing system was failing some Service personnel. That Committee was told that, particularly in the Army, officers were not considered approachable. That reluctance to discuss issues with officers, including officers specifically tasked with providing 'pastoral' care, reduced the likelihood that complaints would be made. The Committee also noted that in some cases Service personnel would wish to make a complaint against their superiors and this further reduced the likelihood of a complaint which would be heard in the first instance by the chain of command.[8]

7. Our predecessors' inquiry considered duty of care issues, such as bullying and harassment. The Committee made it clear that it did not envisage its recommendations relating to grievance mechanisms applying beyond those types of complaint.[9] MoD is proposing a package of measures to improve the Services' response to duty of care issues.[10] Few of those measures appear in the Bill as they do not require primary legislation.

8. In its report on Duty of Care, the previous Defence Committee recommended the establishment of an independent complaints commission and set out the general responsibilities and powers of such a commission. The crucial elements of the commission are that:

  • it is independent of the Armed Forces and MoD;
  • its recommendations would be binding;
  • it would have the power to look at past cases; and
  • it would have access rights to all documentation and persons.[11]

9. In response to our predecessors' report, the Government stated:

    [We] Accept that there is a case for introducing an independent element to the complaints system: there are different models for this, in this country and abroad, and their implications need detailed examination. We will carry out this work ahead of the introduction of the Armed Forces Bill planned for later this year.[12]

The Bill as introduced to the House by the Government includes provisions that establish a service complaint panel.[13] The panel would consider a "service complaint", which is defined as a complaint made by a current or former member of the Armed Forces, who believes that he has been "wronged in any matter relating to his service".[14] A service complaint panel's powers are derived from the Defence Council, which will appoint the panel's members except in certain cases when the Secretary of State for Defence may appoint an independent member. From the information on the face of the Bill it appears that MoD's promised "independent element in the complaints system" consists of a single voice on the panel. It appears that complaints could either reach the service complaint panel once the existing process through the chain of command has been exhausted, or if requested by the complainant.[15]

10. Many of the details about how the panel would work are to be set out in regulations to be made by the Secretary of State for Defence rather than being on the face of the Bill. For example, regulations will set out:

  • the definition of a service complaint; and
  • the time limits imposed on making a complaint; and
  • the circumstances in which an independent member would be appointed to the panel.

Although MoD provided some detail relating to the service complaints panel, such as suggesting that an independent member would be appointed when the panel considers a complaint relating to bullying and harassment, it remains very difficult to judge at this stage the full effect of the Government's proposals.[16] But it is clear that the Government has rejected the main principles of our predecessor Committee's recommendations—the Bill does not provide for a mechanism to deal with complaints that is truly independent of the chain of command.

11. The establishment of the service complaint panel may introduce, in limited circumstances, an independent voice in the consideration of complaints but we do not believe that is sufficient. We urge the Government to table amendments to strengthen the degree of independence in its proposals and to meet the requirements of the previous Defence Committee's recommendations. If it does not, we urge the Armed Forces Bill select committee to express a clear view on the inadequacy of the Bill as introduced and to amend the Bill accordingly.

12. We recommend that MoD publish the secondary legislation relating to the Armed Forces Bill, in draft if necessary, to inform the select committee's scrutiny of the Bill.

7   A complaint will formally pass to the Defence Council, whose functions in this respect will usually be discharged by the Service Boards (the Admiralty Board, the Army Board and Air Force Board). Back

8   See for example HC (2004-05) 63-I, paras 169-184, 278-284, 288-309 for discussion of the difficulties surrounding Service personnel, particularly trainees, making complaints.  Back

9   HC (2004-05) 63-I, para 425. Back

10   See the Government's response to The House of Commons Defence Committee's Third Report of Session 2004-05, Duty of Care, Cm 6620. Back

11   HC (2004-05) 63-I, paras 423-427. Back

12   Cm 6620, para 3. See also "MoD Signals Cultural Change in Armed Forces Training" Ministry of Defence Press Release 138/2005, 12 July 2005. Back

13   Armed Forces Bill, clauses 331 and 332 [Bill 94 (2005-06)]  Back

14   Ibid, clause 331 Back

15   Ibid, clause 330 (4)  Back

16   See Appendix, letter to the Chairman from the Secretary of State for Defence. Back

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