Examination of Witnesses (Questions 132-176)
Q132 Chair: Welcome to the Committee.
I am afraid we are starting early, in the extraordinary hope that,
therefore, we might finish early.
Turning to our witnesses, you are well known
to the Select Committee on Defencecertainly to the previous
onebut would you like to introduce yourselves to the Armed
Forces Bill Committee?
Dr Atkins: Thank you very much.
I am Susan Atkins, the Service Complaints Commissioner, and I
have with me Darren Beck, who since the summer has been my head
I thought that, because some Committee Members
might not be quite as familiar as others with my work, it might
be helpful to set the scene about my role.
Q133 Chair: That would be very
helpful. Please do.
Dr Atkins: The post of Service
Complaints Commissioner was set up in the wake of the Deepcut
report and the House of Commons Defence Select Committee Report
on the Duty of Care. My role was to oversee and to make an annual
report to Ministers and Parliament on the Service complaints system.
My remit is limited to Service complaints.
The definition of a Service complaint is a complaint
by a serving or, in some circumstances, former serving man or
woman who feels wronged in their Service life. In essence, it
is a workplace grievance system, but the grievances differ from
those brought by employees in other walks of life in three respects.
First, there is limited right of access to the courts and employment
tribunals to protect employment rights. Secondly, Service life,
as you are aware, is different from a nine-to-five working life.
Working in a service affects where you live, where your children
go to school, what medical care you get and, sometimes, the welfare
services you have access to. If you are mistreated at work, you
cannot simply go home and fail to turn up. You may ask for premature
voluntary retirement, but normally you have to give 12 months'
notice, and if you just decide to pack your bag and leave, you
will be declared AWOL.
That leads to a third difference. What in civilian
employment might simply be disciplinary, in military parlance,
administrative action, which means in the Services that you are
liable to criminal action. You might have committed a criminal
offence. For those reasons, civilian oversight is very important.
As SCC, I cannot independently investigate complaints.
I can receive them, and I have power to refer them to the chain
of command. If I do so when the complaint is about any sort of
improper behaviour, the chain of command has to keep me informed
regularly. If the complaints are about other matters, I can ask
them to do so. My office has received more than 900 complaints
over the past three years, and I have referred more than 500.
The Service Complaints Commissioner's role and
the new Service complaints system came into effect on 1 January
2008. I have made two Annual Reports, which have been laid before
Parliament, and I am preparing my third Annual Report, which I
hope to present to the Secretary of State for Defence in March.
I will try to answer your questions as fully
as I can. I understand that you are particularly interested in
clause 2, on the Armed Forces Covenant. I want to stress that
I am independent of the Ministry of Defence and have not been
consulted on that aspect of the Bill, or on any other clause.
I am not part of the External Reference Group. My work, however,
forms an integral part of the Military Covenant and I am very
happy to explain why that is so.
I am happy to answer questions on the clause
on that basis, and beg your understanding, if the answer to any
question is, "It's still work in progress,". I hope
you will understand. If I do not have an immediate answer at my
fingertips, I will be happy to provide information in writing
as soon as possible.
Q134 Chair: Thank you very much.
Although this question is not directly relevant to the Bill, it
forms the background of the questions we will ask. How well do
you think that the Act that set you up worked? What was its success
rate? Could it have done more? Should it have done less? How do
you feel it went?
Dr Atkins: If I may, I will talk
about the Service Complaints Commissioner role, then the system
in general, because I think that the working of the system and
how the Act is doing are integral to the SCC role.
I have three functions. The first is to be a
point of access for vulnerable Service men and women. I'm there
to provide annual assurance on the system: I have to give a report
to Ministers as to the efficiency, effectiveness and fairness
of the system, and I can make recommendations for improvement.
I also oversee individual cases.
On the first, the SCC role and the system have
worked well. I mentioned that we have been contacted by more than
900 peoplethat is, Service personnel, former Service personnel
and their families. In particular for senior officers, private
soldiers and soldiers in training, it tends to be the families
who contact us, which works very well. We have allthe Services
and Iseen a significant increase in complaints in the third
year, and my referrals accounted for around half of those Service
complaints in 2010. So, in terms of us playing a role to give
people confidence to make Service complaints where they would
not have had confidence before, I think you can say that we are
I took a look, as an outsider and someone with
expertise in the area, at the system when I came in. I have made
recommendations, nearly all of which have been accepted. They
have been acted on or are in the course of being implemented.
The Services have changed, making significant changes and improvements
to how they do business. They have set up central units, which
now provide expertise to the chain of command. They require the
chain of command to contact the centre, so they have seen a significant
increase in complaints this past year.
I think that one of the main reasons that people
come to me is that they fear the chain of command will sweep a
complaint under the carpet. If the increase that the Services
are seeing in complaints at level 1unit levelis
because they are being required to contact the centre, the system
has actually acted on that fear that complaints were being swept
under the carpet and would be ignored.
I asked how many complaints a year, and the
Services did not know. I asked how quickly they were being dealt
with, and the Services obviously could not tell me, because they
did not know how many there were.
We have worked together to do two things. First,
a new recording module has been introduced, which went live on
1 January this year, so that there will be reliable and accurate
statistics available to the Services and to me to do the analysis
so we can spot where things are going wrong. Secondly, at my recommendation,
they have also set time targets. Although the targets are, initially,
a lot longer than I would like them to be, the Services are now
monitoring how welland how timelythey are dealing
However, as the Ministers and former Ministers
know, delay is the issue. Cases are taking far too long. That
has a number of effects. First, the cases get more complexpositions
harden, and distrust and lack of confidence grow. Cases stay in
the system for a lot longer than they could have done. Some are
very difficult to resolve. Delay is the key aspect that needs
to be tackled. Other things appear to be working wellmaybe
you would like to hear a little more about this in the sessionsuch
as the Service Complaints Panels with independent members. The
range of decisions made by Service Complaints Panels with independent
members is much greater than the range of decisions made by Service
Complaints Panels on their own, and is much more akin to the range
at Service board level. We need to find out why. In summary, it
is a good start. The system is working quite well, but it is over-engineered,
takes too long and needs to be simplified. We need to take another
Q135 Chair: We will come on to
Service Complaints Panels. The issue of delayis that something
that should have been dealt with in the Act?
Dr Atkins: The Act, if you recall,
simplified the previous system. People who have been involved
in this longer than I have will correct me if I am wrong, but
I think there were at least five levels. There were different
rules and practices in each of the three Services. Moving to three
levels was seen as a significant improvement. In my first year
and my first Report, I said that the system complied with the
principles of best practice. Last year, I recommended that the
Services review the benefits of three levels. This year, I am
likely to recommend that they move to two levels, because the
time has come to do that. That will require a redesign of where
the protections go. I discussed why it was not only a workplace
grievance system. If you are designing out some of the levels
that are designed to give protections, you have to put your protections
in somewhere else.
Q136 Mr Jones: When your post
was introduced, I know that there was a feeling in the chain of
command that this would be the end of the world. I know that it
was opposed at the time by at least the Conservative part of the
Opposition, if not the Liberal Democrats. What is the attitude
now in the chain of command? Are you getting the co-operation
that you need? Are some of the delays that you have referred to
down to the fact that some are not taking the process seriously,
or are trying to frustrate the system?
Dr Atkins: I was very pleased
to have had a conversation with the new Chief of the Defence Staff
the other day. He mentioned to me that he thought that I was an
integral part of modern defence. He has given me permission to
say that publicly. I do think that that is the way that the top
levels of the Service treat me. I talk with the heads of the Services
and those I work with, even down to the intermediate levels, where
I am felt to have made a valuable contribution. I now present
to every Commanding Officer-designate course, to the senior command
course and to the Army's intermediate course.
On the issue of powers, there has been some
insistence that decisions are still to be made by the chain of
command. I can ask questions or raise concerns on an individual
case, but I cannot make any binding recommendations or directions,
or require a matter to be put right and correct at the lowest
level. I have had cases where I have spotted something going very
badly wrong at the beginning, and have not been able to do anything
about it, and my concerns have been upheld at the end of the process.
That could be two or three years later.
Q137 Christopher Pincher: Dr Atkins,
you mentioned some of the issues that you face with your work,
particularly delays of complaints. What are the implications
of the Bill for your work?
Dr Atkins: I am not sure that
much in the Bill will affect my work. It will certainly not affect
delay. I welcome the proposals for enabling there to be more independent
members on Service Complaints Panels, but, quite clearly, adding
an extra degree of independence, where appropriate, at the end
of a process, and given the design of the system, even if everything
went through in the minimum time limits, it would be 50 weeks.
That is a year from start to conclusion. At the appeal level,
which is where a Service Complaints Panel comes in, nothing in
there will tackle delay.
Q138 Christopher Pincher: Do you
think that the Covenant Report being produced and laid before
Parliamentelements of it concerning education, health and
housingmight generate more complaints than you have seen
Dr Atkins: It may do. I work
very closely with the Families Federations and the other welfare
charities and agencies. Sometimes they pass individuals to me
and vice versa. The difficulty is that I exist for Service personnel,
and although families can contact me, they cannot make a Service
complaint. On medical treatment, for instance, we have had a number
of complaints where we have been approached by a wife in relation
to IVF treatment. They have been getting IVF treatment when they
have been serving with the Services abroad, but it is a different
PCT by the time they get back. We have been able to sort that
out. Some family issues are of concern to the serving member,
but a lot of family issues we cannot deal with.
Even when a welfare issue is raised by the serving
member, there are separate complaints systems for housing, education
and medical treatment. Some matters such as pensions are excluded
from the Service complaints system entirely, but issues of pay,
education, housing and medical treatment can come into the Service
complaints system, but only after they have been through the specialist
system. It is very tortuous, and I think that the relationship
with the Armed Forces Covenant is the other way round.
I understand that this morning you heard from
Service officers about how they viewed the duty on the chain of
command to give care as being an integral part of the Armed Forces
Covenant, and that, of course, was in the Report of the Task Force
on the Military Covenant. I think that I have a very rich oversight
of and insight into some of those welfare issues, and I can provide
information that informs the Minister's Report on the Covenant,
not the other way round. There is, of course, in the Act the
ability for the Secretary of State to ask me to make a special
report on any matter that is to do with the exercise of my functions.
That might be something that could be explored. Indeed, my counterparts
in other jurisdictions very often have a responsibility for welfare
issues as well as complaints.
Q139 Thomas Docherty: Just to
take you back to the point that you made about IVF, I have certainly
had some information that there is an inconsistency across the
country. Some PCTs apparently have a two-year requirement for
residency. Just out of interest, have you had many representations
on that issue as a complaint from Service personnel?
Dr Atkins: We've had a few. We've
always been able to get them sorted out, because I have been involved.
I should say I am working very closely with Defence Medical Services,
and I have been to its Board. If there is a complaint about medical
treatment, and if it is urgent, I ring up a contact there and
we get it sorted out.
Q140 Gemma Doyle: We've already
covered quite a bit about the way the Panels work, but would you
like to see a measure to guarantee at least one independent member
on every Complaints Panel?
Dr Atkins: I'm not sure that I
would go that far, but I'll think about it. At present, as you
know, there are certain categories that need an independent member.
As I understand it, the clauses in this Bill give some discretion
outside categories. I think that would be a potential improvement,
because there could be issues that are quite complicated. Having
an independent member, even though it is not in that categoryor,
indeed, two independent memberswould be a step forward.
For instance, there is a requirement for there to be an independent
member when a complaint is about the exercise of Service police
powers. It seems there may be a really good case to be made that
there should be two independents there, and somebody should have
expertise in policing and police professional standards.
Q141 Gemma Doyle: You mentioned
that the system is still quite slow. Is that simply because of
the way the system is designed or is there a resourcing issue?
Dr Atkins: It's both, but it's
certainly design. As part of the work I've been doing for this
year's Annual Report, I have compared the Service workplace grievance
systemthe Service complaints systemwith the MoD
civilian workplace system. I mentioned that even if everything
went through the three levels in the minimum timesthe current
targets are twice and four times thatit takes 50 weeks.
It takes between 14 and 20 weeks at a minimum for the MoD's system,
which it has for its civilian employees. There are other complaints
systems in the military to do with familiesfor instance,
in Germany, where the minimum is 20 to 22 weeks, so there's a
design issue here.
I understand why the protections have been put
in, but if I look at the sorts of case that come about, not all
those cases need those protections. My view now, after three years,
is that the very protections that were put in place are actually
causing detriment. They are not working and they're causing detriment
to all cases.
Q142 Mr Jones: Clause 20(7) says
that the Secretary of State will have powers to bring forward
regulations requiring the Defence Council to delegate its functions
to an SCP, which will obviously require an independent element.
Do you think it is right that the Defence Council should retain
its function of being able to determine when an independent element
is in a Service Complaints Panel?
Dr Atkins: There are two aspects,
as I understand the clause. They probably need to be separated.
Just bear with me, because they go to answering your question.
The first is that, case by case, the Defence Council can make
a decision about whether there is a need for a fully independent
panel. The questions that need to be asked are not easy, and they
are complex. First, you have to find out whether it falls within
Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights. That is
not clear yet. Then you have to ask whether the issue is one of
military judgment. Even if it is, you have to ask whether the
case depends on facts. It seems to me that it may be right for
the Defence Council to make that decision, but I have concerns
that that decision on individual cases can be delegated to a civil
servant or an officer. That wording follows the current Act, but
there are categories in the current Act, so it is just an administrative
matter: "Is this bullying? Yes, we need an SCP within an
These are real questions of detail, and I do
not think that the Servicecertainly not at officer levelshould
be the gatekeeper to that. It needs an amendment. It should be
that a SCP sits with an independent member, or that some independent
element looks at that, in the same way that a court may have a
Q143 Mr Jones: The reason I ask
is that this morning we were told that the three Services implement
this in their different ways in terms of numbers. Is there a bias
perhaps towards certain Services not having independent panels?
Have you come across that?
Dr Atkins: The Navy and the RAF
have used SCPs with independent members more than the Army. That
is not necessarily bias; I think it is an issue of backlog. The
Army still has 29 cases that are pre-2008 at level 3. I think
there are 66 cases at level 3 under the new system. It is a matter
of capacity, and it goes to Ms Doyle's question on whether this
is design or resources.
Q144 Mr Jones:
But is there a resistance within the Army to having independent
Dr Atkins: I have not picked up
a resistance, no. Can I go back to the second question? As I understand
it, as and when the case law is clear that there can be categoriesI
have been briefed on this aspect by the MoDit seems to
me that it will be a much easier question. You could leave that
to the Defence Council. I would anticipate that I would oversee
those. Alternatively, you could make it a requirement, which probably
does not need legislation, just a gentleman's understanding as
it were, with the Services and the MoD, that I am informed of
Q145 Christopher Pincher: Just
following on from your responses to Kevan Jones's questions. The
Bill provides for the removal of the requirement for one of the
SCP members to be a Senior Officer, so not a Commodore, an Air
Commodore or a Brigadier. Do you think that that has any implications
for the seniority of the SCP and the way people view its decisions?
Dr Atkins: Yes, that is the second
area of concern that I have. I understand that provision is there,
because it needs to be there to enable there to be totally independent
panels. The risk, of course, as you rightly point out, is that
it opens up any Service Complaint Panel to be at a level lower
than a one star. My experience of the past three years is that
there is a correlation between seniority and wisdom. Once you
get to the senior levels, you do find panels, boards and individuals
who can see the wood for the trees and who are very willing to
hold up their hands and say, "We've made a mistake."
I have seen cases under my oversight where it has been obvious
to me that what is being decided is unreasonableit has
been resisted, and there is a sort of service blindness throughout
its travel up, and then it goes to a Service Board or to a Service
Complaints Panel of Senior Officers, and they say, "This
is ridiculous; there is injustice being done here," and they
change it immediately.
I have written to the MoD and flagged this up,
but I would want it really understood that this is not an opening
up for Service Complaints Panels to be staffed by people of lower
rank. Membership of a Service Complaints Panel ought to be based
on the quality of the person making a decision and not the rank
of the person bringing the complaint.
Q146 Christopher Pincher: Then
can I ask whether, in your letter to the Secretary of State, you
made a recommendation, or did you simply raise a concern?
Dr Atkins: At present, I have
raised a concern with officials. If the Committee would find it
helpful, I can write to the Minister and put it in the Annual
Q147 Chair: It would be helpful
if we could at least see a copy. Have you written to officials?
Dr Atkins: I had a conversation.
I raised the concern when I was being briefed on this aspect,
and I dropped a line to the Official who briefed me. But I can
Q148 Chair: If you could let us
have a copy of that, it would be helpful.
Dr Atkins: Yes.
Q149 Jack Lopresti: Having now
been in your post for three years, do you believe that your powers
and resources as Commissioner are sufficient?
Dr Atkins: The short answer is
no, but it is a work in progress. I am considering some options
and some different models, and I have been talking with the Services
about them. I think it would be only courteous to give my thoughts,
because it is a detailed argument, on that to the Minister first.
Thomas Docherty: He's here.
Dr Atkins: But not the Secretary
of State. I am appointed by the Secretary of State, and I report
to the Secretary of State.
Q150 Jack Lopresti: I appreciate
that but, without being specific, would the Bill provide the appropriate
vehicle for making those changes?
Dr Atkins: It depends what sort
of changes. I am very happy to talk about them. It seems to me
that there are broadly four different models. There is increasing
my current oversight powers to enable me, if I do spot something
at the beginning, to be able to write and to have that acted on.
That might be useful to have in legislation, but it can probably
be done by an agreement with the Services. I am pleased to see
that the Minister is nodding at that.
Q151 Mr Jones: Can I just ask
you about the resources? You are still doing a lot of legacy cases.
What percentage of the cases you are dealing with would be considered
legacy casesones from beforebecause they do take
a long time to get through? In terms of resource allocation, one
of the key things will be once they are done. Have you any indication
what the average tempo is going to be once you have the legacy
cases out of the way?
Dr Atkins: For my cases?
Mr Jones: Yes.
Dr Atkins: No. We had 434 new
cases last year, and 200 cases in the system. I have had three
casework staff since last July, so currently the ratio is 1:200.
The average in oversight bodies is about 1:60 or 1:70.
Q152 Mr Jones: But how many legacy
cases are you dealing with?
Dr Atkins: I don't know how many
legacy cases are in the system. We have some legacy cases. For
me, legacy means 2008 and 2009the 200 that we have.
Q153 Jack Lopresti: Do you believe
that the provisions regarding the Annual Report on the Armed Forces
Covenant will be a positive step towards improving the welfare
of Service personnel generally?
Dr Atkins: Yes, that must be the
case. The work on the Command Paper started when I was first appointed.
Just getting people to talk about that, and raising those things,
is good. The issue will be what actually gets done. One of my
concerns, and not just on welfare issues, is that there are occasions
when I have the same problem coming in over and over again. One
of the key messages that I gave to the Services was that the complaints
are a valuable resource. They are about continuous improvement,
operational effectiveness and welfare, and the Military Covenant
is actually designed for operational effectiveness, as well as
for fairness and justice.
Q154 Bob Russell: Mr Jones and
I are the sole survivors from the 2006 Act. I concur with his
observation that the job that you now hold was not exactly universally
welcomed, and I am pleased that you said that there does not appear
to be any opposition now that you are in post. How is the private
soldier, or indeed the wife of a private soldier, made aware of
your existence and the process of drawing matters to your attention?
Dr Atkins: In the Army, every
trainee gets a briefing about the Service Complaints Commissioner
as an integral part of the information, and cards are handed out.
I distribute posters and leaflets across all three Services, and
I also have a website. I have mentioned that I work closely with
the charities and the welfare agencies. Some of those are informal,
such as Daniel's Trust. So people hear about us through word of
mouth and through the chain of command. Overseas, at the beginning
of 2009, I did a public broadcast advert for BFBS. Interestingly,
we have seen an increased number of complaints from soldiers in
Q155 Bob Russell: The follow-up
question is that every Member of Parliament here would confirm
that we are contacted by constituents when, in reality, they would
be better off going to their local council, or whatever. Are people
bypassing everything and going straight to you?
Dr Atkins: Well, people can come
straight to methat is the whole pointand sometimes
about matters that are not within our remit, but we pass them
on. If it is about families, we signpost and send them to the
Q156 Bob Russell: Would you be
happy to receive people from the Colchester Garrison that come
my way? I've just passed on my casework here.
Dr Atkins: We do get people from
Colchester, actually. And please do send them.
Bob Russell: Thank you.
Dr Atkins: But don't flood me.
Q157 Alex Cunningham: As the Government
move towards a more prescribed understanding of the Military Covenant,
do you think it is likely that complaints will arise about the
MoD failing to meet its obligations toward particular individuals?
Assuming that you say yes, will the existing complaints system
be able to handle complaints of that nature?
Dr Atkins: I am not sure that
the Bill's provisions in relation to the Military Covenant will
make a big difference in that regard. First, there is a very big
barrier to making a complaint. The word "complaint"
probably needs looking at, because it is still perceived to be
trouble. In my first Annual ReportI still use this as part
of my talksthere is a quote saying that the military don't
like failure. If you make a complaint, you are a troublemaker;
if a complaint is made on your watch, you are a failure as an
officer. Basically, it was trouble all round.
People in the military are loyal and are expected
to put up with a hell of a lot, and they do. So making a complaint
is a very big issue, and it is an issue for the families, because
they know what they are letting themselves in for. Many of the
people who write to me feel that it used to be a two-way deal,
and now it's a one-way street.
I flagged up with the Services and the MoD last
July that, whatever came out of the Strategic Defence and Security
Review, there were going to be complaints and that they needed
to put in place proposals and provisions to deal with them. That
is why I believe that, although it may not be the sexy end of
Service expenditure, the resources for dealing with complaints
must be protected.
Q158 Alex Cunningham: So you personally
are not expecting a requirement for additional resources to deal
with complaints in this area?
Dr Atkins: What I am saying is
that the resources that the Services have got should not be cut.
There is an increase, and it is likely to go up a lot. I agree
with you, but I don't think it is necessarily because of the focus
on the Military Covenant.
Q159 Alex Cunningham: We were
talking this morning about what should be reported to the Minister.
It was suggested that perhaps minimum standards should be laid
down. Does the absence of minimum standards mean that there isn't
anything to complain about in the Military Covenant?
Dr Atkins: Well, people can still
complain if they have a new baby at home and their boiler hasn't
been mended for six weeks in the coldest winter.
Q160 Alex Cunningham: But they
do that without the Military Covenant.
Dr Atkins: Yes, and they will
have minimum standards. It is not something I have given thought
to. I think there are pros and cons. I will sayand we find
this in my areathat because the guidance talks about certain
time frames, and it is 30 working days for a complaint to be dealt
with rather than 60 or 120 at the current time, you raise expectations.
There may be very good reasons why you can't meet such minimum
standards and people will complain, when it is not actually reasonable
to do so. I haven't given much thought to it, but I will.
Q161 Gemma Doyle: My question
is somewhat similar to Alex's, so apologies if you feel you have
already answered it. We heard an opinion from the Bill Team earlier
today that the Bill enshrines the Military Covenant in law, but
it does not define itI have to say, there has been debate
over whether it does actually enshrine the Covenant in law. How
would you deal with a complaint about something that is enshrined
in law, but not defined anywhere at the moment?
Dr Atkins: My working definition
is a Service complaint, to bring it within my remit. That means
that somebody has been wronged in their Service life. So, if they
have been wronged in any aspectand I have talked about
Service life not being 9 to 5 and it encompassing all those issues
that are included in the Military Covenantit can fall into
There is a gap relating to veterans, and the
Military Covenant is supposed to cover veterans. The gap is this:
although, as a veterana former Service personyou
can use the Service complaints system, you can only do so if it
concerns a wrong in your Service life and you bring the complaint
within three months of the wrong happening, unless there were
just and explicable reasons not to do so. So, it's very difficult
for veterans to use the Service complaints system to deal with
any wrong. If a complaint is not accepted, the mechanism for asking
for that to be appealed is through another Service complaint.
Veterans cannot do that because the refusal to accept takes place
after they have stopped serving. So, there is a gap, and my concern
is not in relation to serving persons and their families; the
issue is in relation to veterans.
Q162 Gemma Doyle: And, as the
Bill stands, it does not address that issue.
Dr Atkins: No, because the gap
is in the Armed Forces Act, and it is not addressed.
Q163 Thomas Docherty: Clauses
13 and 20, relating to the reduction in ranks for disciplinary
offences, give greatest flexibility to Commanding Officers to
make decisions. Do you have any concerns about the COs having
greater discretion at a local level?
Dr Atkins: Interestingly, we have
had cases, including one fairly recently, on precisely this issue,
with a Warrant Officera senior NCO. He had been informed
thatit went before the Captain's table, and the CO dealt
with ithe would get a period of detention, and he would
be reduced in rank for that period of detention. In fact, it is
an automatic reduction in rank, permanently. He can't make a Service
complaint about the finding, the decision and the sentence, because
that is excluded from the Service complaints system. What he made
a complaint about was the process, but there was nothing that
could be done because it is in law.
In those terms, the Bill corrects a potential
wrong and it is to be welcomed. Giving Commanding Officers discretion
always runs the risk of inconsistency, of maliceand of
bias. Interestingly, that is not only in our cases, but in the
Armed Forces' Continuous Assessment Survey. Biasjust being
picked on, or being treated differently just because of who you
areis the largest category of discrimination in that survey.
It is not unlawful discrimination. Currently, unless you are able
to show that the Commanding Officer acted in an improper way by
reducing you in rank, you cannot bring a Service complaint.
I think that the Bill is a good thing. Does
it run the risk? Yes, but it runs no greater risk than commanding
officers giving sentences in normal disciplinary matters anyway.
Q164 Mr Jones: The old Bill introduced
what I think the Army calls AGAI 67, which I do not think the
other two Services had. It is very sensible in my opinion, and
it allows instant justice for minor offences. Has that worked
in practice? Have you ever seen people complain that it is being
used by, as you say, certain officers at a low level as a way
of punishing people? Have you had any complaints along that front,
or has it been a good thing? I thought that it was.
Dr Atkins: One of the reasons
for doing it was to stop the beasting, or reefing, in the Marineswhereby
NCOs and Warrant Officers were alleged to have taken matters into
their own handsand to put it through a formal process.
We still get complaints that individuals have been given a series
of AGAI 67s for a variety of things because the Warrant Officer
or Sergeant does not like them and is picking on them. We refer
them and oversee them. Sometimes there is a case, and sometimes
the person does not want to be the in the Army and is getting
into all sorts of trouble. Does it work? I cannot tell you. I
can only explain what we see and the variety of things that we
Q165 Mr Jones: Has it worked in
the other two Services? The RAF and Navy did not have it, did
Dr Atkins: We don't tend to get
cases from them. I can't think of very many. We get cases like
that from the Marines, but they are very few and I flagged up
last year that Marines do not appear to know about the Service
complaints system, and certainly not about the SCC. That is something
that they may have been working on to try to increase that awareness.
Those sorts of complaints happen in the Marines and in the Army.
Q166 Thomas Docherty: I am also
a member of the Defence Committee. You wrote to us a couple of
months ago seeking inputI will paraphrase, if I mayto
help validate or assess your operations. Do you think there is
any scope or mechanism that could be included in the Bill that
would provide a mechanism for greater validation of your work
that you would find helpful?
Dr Atkins: I certainly think that
it is useful that my role is a statutory office and now has to
be subject to the approval of the Committee. I would very much
welcome accounting to the Defence Committee on my work, because
Q167 Thomas Docherty: Sorry, so
you see it as being about the Defence Committee rather than any
Dr Atkins: I think that accounting
to Parliament through the Defence Committee is helpful. After
my first Annual Report, there was a debate in the House of Commons,
and I think that that was very helpful, not least because it spreads
knowledge and understanding. As an independent member, and as
an independent member with responsibilities to Service men and
women, I think that anything that increases the accountability
of the role is to be welcomed.
Q168 Thomas Docherty: At the risk
of putting words in your mouth, you would like some sort of formal
Dr Atkins: I don't know whether
that needs to be in the Bill. I think that that is for you and
your fellow Members and the House of Commons to consider. But
I think that the accountability mechanism is a good one.
Q169 Thomas Docherty: Finally,
do you feel, having had a chance to reflect upon and digest the
Bill, that there are any other measures or provisions that will
affect either your office and your work or, indeed, the wider
welfare provision, that would be helpful for this Committee or
the House in general to consider including?
Dr Atkins: No. I will watch the
impact of the provisions on the Service police with interest.
That was an area that I flagged up last year in the Annual Report,
because I think that the effectiveness of the Service police and
confidence in the Service police has an impact that is much broader
than one might immediately consider. A lot of cases about bullying
and harassment start as Service complaints, many of them through
me. If there is an issue that it could be a criminal offence,
it goes to the service police. What happens very often is that
because it is Service police asking questions, everybody suddenly
forgets, was not there, cannot remember, and nothing happens.
Those who were Members of the Defence Committee
when my role was set up will remember that Sir Nicholas Blake's
original recommendations for the Commissioner role was that the
Commissioner would have the right, if a Commanding Officer failed
to take action or to put a case to court martial, to ask for a
prosecution. That role went to the Director of Service Prosecutions
under the Act. When I asked the question of someone briefing me
on the Bill, I was assured that the provisions of the Bill are
sufficiently wide for HMIC to look at that as part of its inspections.
That would be the area: just so that we could make absolutely
sure what is happening there. It is outside my remit; I cannot
ask the Service for those things. If something starts as a Service
complaint and it goes into the criminal justice system, it moves
out of my ken. That is an area that needs to be looked at. I did
ask the question yesterday, and was told that would be within
Q170 Bob Russell: Does your remit
include taking up issues on behalf of war widows or other bereaved
family members, who have concerns about what is ongoing? Do you
think that is something that the Military Covenant ought to be
addressing as well?
Dr Atkins: The short answer is
no, it does not. I have had a few individuals in those circumstances
write to me. I then get in touch with the top of the Service and
pass them through. You may recall in my Annual Report, I drew
attention to the fact of families of soldiers, sailors and airmen
and women who came from Scotland and the coroners, and the gap
there, which legislation closed. I also invited views on whether
my remit should be extended. Families who feel, after their loved
one has died, that issues were going wrong to which they wanted
an answer, do find it very difficult. I am sure Members of Parliament
hear about a lot of these. One reason Sir Nicholas Blake wanted
the Commissioner there was so that they cannot be fobbed off.
There may be a role for that. Where people come to us, we try
Bob Russell: I really appreciate that.
Q171 Mr Jones: But on that point,
is there not a danger if you do not define it? There is a case
for bereaved familiescertainly in the cases I have dealt
with, as a Minister and on the Defence Select Committeewhere
children die in Service. There is a remit there. Is there not
a danger if you do not define it, that you push your remit way
over to veterans going a long way back? That would dilute the
purpose and key role that you were created to do, which was to
deal with complaints in Service.
Dr Atkins: There is. I can give
two examples of that. I was approached by a few families who felt
that the person who diedand it was not an operational deathhad
been treated badly and was in the process of, and wanted to make,
a Service complaint. They died of illness before being able to
get an answer to that. I pushed those through and overcame the
resistance of, "We are not going to answer to that, because
they cannot make a Service complaint." A very bureaucratic
answer. That is a circumstance so akin to my role that that is
not extending the remit too much.
The numbers of complaints that I do not refer
are reducing; in the early years, they were about 40%. A fair
proportion of the complaints that I do not put into the systemnot
a lotare from people who want to raise something that happened
to them in the Services a very long time ago. Just in the last
few weeks, I received one that was about something that went wrong
in 1979. Interestingly, someone from the Service referred that
person to me, so that he could be assured that it was not pushed
under the carpet.
I have not put those cases into the system for
precisely the reason that you suggest: the focus is the here and
now. I understand that if something has gone badly wrong and,
towards the end of your life, it is preying on your mind, you
want to get it settled. But there are lots of reasons why the
Service complaints system cannot deal with that.
Q172 Mr Jones: The difficulty
is not just your remit. We are familiar with the Deepcut deaths,
for example. Some of the difficulties there relate to the time
it would take to investigate complaints. With evidence being so
way off, it would be time-consumingyou would not get answers
even if you threw a lot of resources at it.
Dr Atkins: Yes. This is an issue
that other oversight bodies find. When I was at the Independent
Police Complaints Commission as Chief Executive, the Secretary
of State asked the IPCC to look at a particular case that was
causing concern, which was outside its remit. There are occasions
when it might be appropriate. It is a workplace grievance system.
Q173 Thomas Docherty: Dr Atkins,
it sounds as if we have a situation where there is potentially
a problem; but, for want of a better phrase, because of your good
sense, that hasn't occurred on your watch. Would it be fair to
say, however, that there is the potential for one of your successors
in the future to take a broader interpretation of their powers?
I wonder whether having something that is written down and more
clearly defined might be helpful.
Well, what would you mean by a broader interpretation?
Thomas Docherty: To cite the examples
that you've used, you use your judgment. Technicallyor,
perhaps, potentiallya different holder of your post might
have decided to reopen those cases. I am suggesting that that
was your judgment, rather than it being clearly defined that you
couldn't reopen those cases.
Dr Atkins: What I could change
is making a decision. When people come to me, do I think this
is likely to be accepted as out of time? The test is not mine;
the test is the chain of command. Is it just inequitable? I should
say that I have referred cases that were 12 or 15 years old. Just
because they happened a long time ago doesn't mean that I haven't
referred them. I have referred them in cases where the allegations
were of a Deepcut nature. It seemed to me these were so seriousI
think we referred one just the other day that went back to the
1980s. So I will do that, but I have to give an assurance that
the system is working efficiently, effectively and fairly. It
does not seem consistent for me to put in what could be hundreds
or thousands of complaints to the Service, who would simply say,
"This is too long ago. It was important to you, but in the
scheme of things, it was minor. We haven't got access to the material,
so there is nothing we can do." That could really impact
on the fairness of the system to sort out the problems of today.
Q174 Mr Jones: In terms of Reservistsseeing
as Mark Lancaster is not hereand the number of complaints
you get, are there any special challenges that Reservists face,
which regular members of the Armed Forces don't face?
Dr Atkins: Yes. We haven't had
many, if any, complaints from Reservists in relation to operations.
The complaints we get are threefold. On complaints about policy,
the terms and conditions are different. In the Army particularly,
there were different terms of engagement and different categories,
so that was very complicated. At least one of the cases that we
put through was helpful to bringing about the review in a speedy
way. There are cases at the other end, particularly in the TA,
that concern the combination of civilian life and Reserve Service.
They are rubbing points, where the chain of command doesn't appear
to be understanding, and they can get sorted out quickly. Then
there are the ones in between, which are put through and the Commanding
Officer needs to sort out. We get quite a lot, and a lot of them
have been on the policy end and relate to the terms and conditions
Q175 Chair: Does it worry you
at all that you haven't had many, if any, complaints from Reservists
on operations? Does that suggest they might be less aware of your
availability to them than Regular Forces?
Dr Atkins: It could be.
Q176 Chair: Is that something
you should consider?
Dr Atkins: I think it is something
we should consider.
Chair: Right. Thank you very much. Are
there any further questions about this? Thank you both very much
indeed. Mr Beck, Dr Atkins has done such a fantastic job that
you didn't even need to open your mouth.
Dr Atkins: He can buy me a drink
Chair: Thank you both very much indeed
for coming to give evidence.