59.The Service complaints system provides an avenue for personnel subject to Service law to raise a grievance related to their Service life, similar to other workplace grievance systems. It was established in its current form by the AFA 2006, replacing single Service processes. The AFA 2006 also introduced oversight in the form of the Service Complaints Commissioner, which was later replaced by a Service Complaints Ombudsman for the Armed Forces (SCOAF) in 2015. At the same time the appeals process was also streamlined, reducing it to one level of appeal rather than two. Once a decision has been made at this level, the complainant can ask the Ombudsman to investigate whether they feel it was not handled correctly or the final decision is wrong, or if they feel their complaint has been subject to undue delay or was wrongly rejected for investigation.
60.The Service complaints system has been subject to criticism, especially for delay, and the Defence Committee said in 2019 that “we seriously doubt that the current Service complaints system is fit for purpose”. The SCOAF also makes an annual report to the MoD and concluded in the last annual report that it was “not efficient, effective, or fair.” This report also noted that Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) and female Service personnel were overrepresented in the Service complaints system, proportionally making more complaints. The performance target of resolving 90% of complaints within 24 weeks has never been met.
61.In April 2019 the then Secretary of State for Defence Gavin Williamson commissioned Air Marshal Michael Wigston to conduct a review into inappropriate behaviours in the Armed Forces. This identified “a pressing need to reform the Service Complaints system”, and echoed the findings of the Ombudsman that BAME and female personnel were disproportionately affected by such behaviours. Wigston made 36 recommendations, which were accepted, and a progress review in 2020 stated that “good progress has been made” in implementation, despite the Covid-19 pandemic. Some witnesses however expressed concerns. Nicola Williams, the former SCOAF, said that while the Wigston review was “excellent”, only one recommendation had been implemented to date. Others felt that the proposed solution to the recommendation for a Defence Authority would not be providing a new, separate route for complaints outside of the Chain of Command. Addressing how the new Director of Diversity and Inclusion fulfilled this role, Lieutenant General James Swift OBE said:
The total independence in this place continues to be driven by the service complaints ombudsman, who, as you know, sits completely outside of MoD processes. What Air Marshal Wigston was driving for here was for someone who could take a holistic view across defence and really drive best practice, and that is what the director of D&I will do, in order to make sure that we achieve greater momentum in this important area.
62.Clause 10 of the Bill concerns appeals against a first instance decision and applications to the SCOAF for complaints that have been finally determined. The current time limit for both is six weeks, and Clause 10 would reduce this to two weeks, with the regulations allowing exemptions in some cases. It also reduces grounds for appeal against first instance decisions, with the stated aim of reducing the number of speculative appeals. The Government also states that these measures are “part of wider reforms to increase efficiency and speed up the process within the statutory service complaints system.” While wider efforts to reduce the long delays seen in the complaints system have been argued to be necessary and the changes in the Bill relatively narrow, some witnesses had reservations about this clause. Lieutenant Colonel (retired) Diane Allen OBE, a former officer in the British Army, called it “profoundly unfair”.
The current SCOAF, Mariette Hughes, told us that despite supporting other reform measures, she had “significant concerns” about the changes in Clause 10. Nicola Williams, the former SCOAF, said:
Certainly, in my experience as the ombudsman—I am speaking on the basis of five years’ experience—the delays are in the front part of the system, not the back. In other words, the delay is usually on the way to a level 1 decision and not from a level 1 to a level 2, to appeal, or from appeals to the Service Complaints Ombudsman. Therefore, if you reduce the time limit from six weeks to two, not only is that a drastic reduction—a two-thirds reduction right off the bat—but it also will not actually address the wrong. It will come across, in my respectful submission, as if you are trying to prevent people from exercising their right to appeal, although there is no attempt in the Bill to reduce the length of time that the matter takes to get to a level 1 decision.
63.We heard from the MoD about some of the other measures they are introducing to tackle delay at the ‘front-end’ of the system, including central admissibility functions and standing decision boards with specialists in common areas for complaints, functions currently carried out by commanding officers. David Howarth, Head of Service Complaints and Justice Transformation, MoD, also told us:
[…] We are making the guidance for complainants much easier to read; we are going to give them early access to assisting officers to help them through the process; we are simplifying a lot of the forms and the content; we are also going to be providing access to informal resolution, if that is appropriate, for low-level complaints, and providing commanding officers with the ability to deal with low-level complaints through minor awards that will keep them out of the system.
64.We heard that reducing the burden on commanding officers reviewing complaints and speeding up the process for all parties is crucial, as “delay is the single most corrosive factor in service complaints from top to bottom.”
65.We welcome efforts to speed up the complaints process, provided that necessary safeguards remain in place to ensure fair access. Concerns remain around the Service Complaints System, particularly tackling delay which reduces confidence and negatively impacts all parties. It is particularly concerning that female and BAME personnel continue to be overrepresented amongst complainants and we note with concern that the response to our survey indicated that only 15% of respondents believe the decision to reduce the time limit in which an appeal can be made from 6 weeks to 2 weeks gave them enough time to receive “fair treatment”. We also note that 34.8% of respondents responded that they were “not sure” and there therefore needs to be greater clarity on this matter.The Ministry of Defence should prioritise implementing all recommendations of the Wigston review within 6 months, ensuring solutions take account of the needs of victims and provide appropriate avenues to redress external to the single Services’ chain of command where needed.