Defence CommitteeWritten Evidence from RAF Families Federation (SCC 003)

I write to provide evidence on the role of the Service Complaints Commissioner (SCC) from the perspective of RAF families. We have worked closely with the SCC since her office was established at around the same time the new RAF Families Federation was set up and, whilst only a small proportion of our casework overlaps, we have enjoyed good working relationships with Dr Atkins and her team and feel qualified to offer independent comment on her role and its impact on the RAF Service Complaints process.

From our perspective, over the past five years the SCC role has brought a much-needed focus to the staffing of complaints within the military system but has done little to address the root causes of the complaints themselves. Whilst I accept that the SCC’s Annual Reports indicate a definite improvement in the staffing of complaints within the RAF system, with increased speed of staffing, better centralisation of data and a greater awareness of the need to treat complainants fairly, I do not detect a significant reduction in the number of complaints crossing either the SCC’s desk or ours, and this is of some concern. There are still too many instances of personnel approaching our agencies seeking redress for the way they perceive they have been treated either by someone or by “the system”. Many feel that they are caught up in a complex process of even more complex regulations and express frustration at their inability to get a sensible and timely response once the “system” has kicked in. Moreover, to read for the 4th year running that the SCC does not consider the Service Complaints process to be “effective, effective or fair” is a worrying trend that indicates further effort and resource may be necessary.

I have previously expressed my concerns to the RAF personnel staffs, and to Ministers, that, in comparison to my (halcyon!) days in the RAF, the Service has lost so much manpower and expertise in the HR arena (replaced only to a certain extent by the JPA system and self-service) that the quality of staffing is not what the HR staff might wish it to be—they are often simply too busy fire-fighting to focus on the quality of service being provided to their people. I don’t blame the RAF for this—the HR staffs are doing a great job in difficult circumstances but when something or someone doesn’t quite fit the mould, or a case requires more specialist knowledge of the rules and processes, I detect a lack of resource at unit level, and perhaps at Command and MoD level, too, to provide bespoke advice and support to anyone facing particularly challenging circumstances. Complaints can all too easily arise in such situations and prompt and effective staffing, backed up by strong communication, are then key to achieving resolution. When this is not delivered, people will turn to us or to the SCC and, whilst we tend to deal with different types of issues (for example it is rare for us to receive details of a sexual or racial harassment or bullying cases) there are common themes, with appeals and complaints about CEA (Board) crossing both desks, and allowances in general appearing to be an area of significant complaint, particularly since the recent review of MoD allowances.

As evidence of the RAF FF’s concerns about Service Complaints, please find below an extract from a recent submission (July 2012) to the Min DPW&V which included reference to the Complaints process:

“Having just recently had a meeting with the Service Complaints Commissioner (SCC), I wish to raise a flag about our increasing concern that the Service Complaints process is becoming overwhelmed. We see only the ‘tip of the iceberg’ in terms of casework, but I worry that too many individuals are getting caught up in protracted staffing procedures and that it is taking too long to get their complaints heard, investigated and assessed. I understand there is a particular backlog in getting legal staffs to complete their part of the process—we hear of cases sitting with the lawyers for weeks on end. There also seem to be significant delays at the SPVA, which frustrates the complainant and the parent P staff in equal measure.

The stress that some families are enduring, particularly if the case is linked to recovery of large amounts of CEA, is in my view unacceptable and I wonder if a focus on this might be helpful? I’m not sure if the other Federations get as involved in Service Complaint-related casework as we do—it is a chain of command issue primarily. However, if a family member wishes to ask for our confidential and independent advice on a complaint they wish to pursue, as long as it has a tangible link to family (and we agree they have a case to answer) we are happy to support them through the process. Some of these are now almost two years old. I understand that the MoD has conducted a review of the Service Complaints process which was supposed to report at the end of May 12. I would welcome an update on this Review and seek the Minister’s reassurance that the Service Complaints process will be kept under close scrutiny and that the recommendations articulated in the SCC’s recent Annual Report are being taken seriously”.

Our perceptions regarding the role of the SCC are that the RAF families we represent tend to see Dr Atkins and her team as something of a “toothless tiger”. Personnel who have spoken with us about the possible need to refer their case to the SCC have expressed significant concern at the SCC’s lack of authority. They see her role as simply passing back to the chain of command to re-investigate something the chain of command has already reached a verdict upon—in effect, “marking their own homework”. Serving personnel and families we have dealt with over the last five years have indicated a need for a truly independent review of their case, using external investigators, not the chain of command and that, without this type of resource, the SCC is forced to rely on an internal review. The chances of that review reaching a different conclusion are considered slim. They also cite that it can take a long time to staff a case via the SCC offices and that despite additional staff resource, the SCC is still struggling to cope with a very high workload. Staffing casework promptly is a continuing battle and, whilst many of the delays are not down to the SCC, but are due to the delayed responses from the three Services, the perception is that a delay is a delay, no matter whose fault it is. And if that delay is perceived in advance of submitting a complaint, it may well dissuade some from using the SCC at all.

In sum, we believe the SCC brings a necessary focus to the Service Complaints process and that Dr Atkins and her team have driven improvement across all three Services, albeit to varying degrees. By virtue of the SCC’s access to the most senior military staffs and Ministers, we believe she is able to hold the Services to account but that her authority is limited and therefore further improvement is unlikely unless she is granted greater powers of independent investigation and the resources to undertake this additional task.

Dawn McCafferty
Chief Executive

July 2012

Prepared 25th February 2013