Defence CommitteeWritten evidence from the British Armed Forces Federation (BAFF) ( SCC 002 )

Introduction

1. This Memorandum is submitted on behalf of the British Armed Forces Federation (BAFF), an independent all-ranks tri-service representative staff association formed in December 2006 for serving members of Her Majesty’s Forces, including the reserves. Former members of the forces may also join.

2. As a body which seeks to represent its members irrespective of rank, BAFF’s interest in the service complaints system is primarily on behalf of the actual or potential complainer, but also includes those administering the complaints system and those who, with or without justification, find themselves complained about.

3. Our predecessors the BAFF Steering Group strongly supported the establishment of the Service Complaints Commissioner (SCC) under the Armed Forces Act 2006. BAFF has always been of the view that the Commissioner’s powers and role should be increased to that of a full Armed Forces ombudsman responsible to Parliament.

4. We welcome the present inquiry, and are mindful of the significant role of the Defence Committee’s predecessors in developing the debate which eventually led to the establishment of the SCC. The recommendations in the predecessor Committee’s Duty of Care report1 have, however, yet to be fully implemented.

5. We acknowledge the forthright commitment of Ministers and Service Chiefs to making the new system work and to cooperating fully with the Commissioner.

6. It is worth recalling that previous Ministers and Chiefs set their faces for many years against any move from the basic service complaints system under the single service discipline Acts of 1955–57.2 Yet it would be very difficult to argue now that the 1955 system, such as it was, could it any way be appropriate for today’s all volunteer professional forces.

7. While the Committee has invited written submissions from interested parties, Members will be aware that the Ministry of Defence’s 2012 instruction on “Contact with parliamentarians” effectively forbids such contact by an individual member of the Armed Forces (without, of course, seeking to constrain contact with their constituency MP “on a purely personal matter”).

Bullying

8. Because of its corrosive effect not only on individuals but also upon military discipline and cohesion, dealing with bullying must remain a priority for all concerned. While it can occur in any institution or any walk of life, bullying can be particularly damaging in the hierarchical and sometimes isolated service environment.

9. We have seen evidence of the “abuse of power or undermining of authority, particularly with regard to non commissioned and commissioned officers” which the SCC mentions in her 2011 report.3

10. We agree with the Commissioner4 that the steady rise of “prescribed behaviour” complaints in the Army, particularly complaints about bullying, does not necessarily mean that there has been a rise in the actual incidence of such behaviour. Increased awareness may also play a part.

Information and Awareness

11. It is encouraging that the 2011 AFCAS report5 shows a trend of increasing awareness of the SCC’s existence, but awareness is still too low, even amongst commissioned officers. (10% of commissioned RAF respondents had “never heard of the Service Complaints Commissioner”).

Perceptions and Culture

12. While the Services have in general responded extremely well to the development of the present service complaints system, there are cultural factors which have made it difficult for some officers to adjust. It can be difficult in any walk of life to deal with challenges (whether justified or not) to one’s actions or decisions. It is entirely understandable that this can be even more difficult in the service environment.

13. We have seen a case in which a Commanding Officer, on becoming aware that a service wife had written to the SCC about matters of principle arising from a former unit, withdrew his personal support to the serviceman and arranged for the family to be dealt with thereafter by a subordinate. This shows that, unfortunately, there is still some factual basis to the perception that submitting a service complaint or involving the Commissioner may, as she puts it, have a “deleterious impact”6 on the complainant.

14. The current atmosphere of redundancy and uncertainty is bound to increase the perception that submitting a service complaint may not be in the best interests of the complainer. Some will be particularly reluctant to seek redress if it is seen to involve their present commanding officer, as opposed to some impersonal administrative failing.

European Dimension

15. BAFF currently has non-voting Observer status with the Brussels-based European Organisation of Military Associations (EUROMIL). As a result of that connection we are aware that the Commissioner and her office are highly regarded in other countries which already have, or are considering, some form of Armed Forces ombudsman institution. We have also observed that the appointment of the SCC has, if anything, enhanced the professional image of the United Kingdom Armed Forces amongst our overseas colleagues.

16. At a conference in December 2009 Hans-Gert Pöttering, the past President of the European Parliament, called for the creation of a European Military Ombudsman to be a focal contact point for various issues, including rules of engagement (ROE). BAFF opposed this proposal within EUROMIL on a number of grounds. Our strong reservations were shared by many of our overseas counterparts, including our concern about devaluing the status of national oversight arrangements, and a revised proposal was subsequently dropped.

17. The Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers adopted on 24 February 2010 a Recommendation7 to member states on human rights of members of the Armed Forces. The United Kingdom (Ministry of Defence) was represented on the Working Group which revised the recommendations, as was BAFF through our Chairman’s membership of the EUROMIL observer delegation. The recommendations include the following:

Members of the Armed Forces should have the possibility of lodging a complaint with an independent body in respect of their human rights. Members of the Armed Forces who claim to have been victims of harassment or bullying should have access to a complaint mechanism independent of the chain of command.

18. The Explanatory Memorandum accompanying the Recommendation cites in some detail the merits and benefits of a military ombudsman institution. The Council of Europe has recently (July 2012) initiated a review of national implementation of the recommendations. We consider the United Kingdom to be achieving or exceeding many (but not all) of the recommendations and that in many respects (but not all) our Armed Forces offer an example of good or best practice.

19. While references to human rights in the context of Armed Forces personnel are often dismissed, the European Convention of Human Rights has in reality contributed directly or indirectly to a number of changes which were initially opposed, but are now generally accepted as beneficial and sensible. These include far-reaching changes to the court martial and summary justice systems, the requirement to hold inquests into the deaths of Armed Forces personnel abroad (notwithstanding reservations about aspects of some inquests), the ending of discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, and of course the introduction of the current redress system and the establishment of the SCC.

The Armed Forces Ombudsman Model

20. Against that background, BAFF shares the SCC’s view that her powers should be reviewed and that, of the four models examined in her Annual Report 2010,8 the most efficient and effective model would be an Armed Forces Ombudsman. We agree that this would best protect the authority of the chain of command, and provide fairness both to individuals and to those complained about.

21. The detailed remit and procedures for the Armed Forces Ombudsman would need to be carefully designed, but unlike the position in 2006, the arrangements can now build on the experience acquired since then by the SCC, Ministry of Defence and Service authorities.

Complaints about Medical Treatment and Medical Discharges

22. We note the increase in contacts with the SCC about complaints of medical treatment and medical discharges, and the intention of the Surgeon General to revise and update the medical treatment complaints system and review its relationship with the service complaints system.9 With ever-greater inter-agency working and integration between Defence Medical Services (DMS) and the National Health Service (NHS), there must be increasing likelihood that an individual complaint about treatment involves both DMS and NHS staff. This factor will no doubt play its part in the Surgeon General’s review, and may support the case for oversight by an Armed Forces ombudsman operating in cooperation, and on an equal footing, with the NHS Ombudsman (Public Services Ombudsman in Scotland).

Complaints by Reserve Forces Personnel

23. We note that contacts from volunteer reserves made up 7% of all contacts to the SCC about potential Service complaints in 2011.10 We have no data on the degree of awareness of the SCC amongst volunteer reserve personnel. We suspect that they tend to be less aware of the SCC than their regular counterparts, but also less likely to be deterred by career considerations from submitting a complaint and/or making contact with the SCC.

24. With increased reserves recruitment under FR20, and the prospect of changes to reservists’ Terms and Conditions of Service, the handling of complaints by reservists may acquire more prominence in the future.

Conclusion

25. We are very grateful for the opportunity to make this submission, and would be pleased to submit further evidence on any particular points should that be helpful.

September 2012

1 “Duty of Care”, Defence Committee, Third Report of Session 2004–05, HC 63–1.

2 Army Act 1955 (C.18), Air Force Act 1955 (c.19), Naval Discipline Act 1957 (c.53).

3 SCC’s Annual Report 2011, p 14.

4 SCC’s Annual Report 2011, p 24.

5 Armed Forces Continuous Attitude Survey Main Results Edition 2012. Released 23 Aug 2012.

6 SCC’s Annual Report 2011, p 15.

7 Recommendation CM/Rec(2010)4 of the Committee of Ministers to member states on human rights of members of the Armed Forces (Adopted by the Committee of Ministers on 24 February 2010 at the 1077th meeting of the Ministers’ Deputies.)

8 SCC’s Annual Report 2010, pp 59–80, Ch 4—”Improvements for the future”.

9 SCC’s Annual Report 2011. p 1.

10 SCC’s Annual Report 2011. p 13, footnote to fig.1.

Prepared 25th February 2013