Delays and bullying still a problem for the service complaints system
On 12th May 2020 the Service Complaints Ombudsman for the Armed Forces (SCOAF) released her Annual Report and overall it does not make encouraging reading. While there has been some progress by individual Services, the Navy for example resolved 74% of its Service Complaints within the 24 week target, there have been disappointing results such as 25% of complaints raised being about bullying, harassment and discrimination.
The Report reminded us of the 2019 Armed Forces Continuous Attitudes Survey which found that:
- 93% of those asked had experienced bullying, harassment or discrimination in the previous 12 months and had chosen not to complain
- 57% said they did not believe that anything would be done and 50% believed it would adversely affect their career
Clearly there continues to be a lack of confidence in the Service Complaints system and reading this Report, it is understandable why. The Report highlighted some key problems with the Service Complaint process which I discuss here:
Many of the service personnel I speak to tell me about their frustration with the time taken for their complaints to be resolved. The Army only completed 32% of its investigations in the target 24 week period, which was worse than in 2018. According to the Wigston Report on Inappropriate Behaviour, the average time to resolve a complaint about inappropriate sexual behaviour in the private sector is around two months.
The Report found that not only was there delay across all the Services in meeting the target of all Service Complaints being completed in 24 weeks, of the 73 cases the Ombudsman was asked to investigate, there was undue delay in 53% off them. The Ombudsman noted that for many of those who make a complaint it has a significant effect on their wellbeing. The length of time a Service Complaint investigation takes can add to the stress that the complainant is under. Some reported to the Ombudsman that due to the length of the delay that they no longer wished to know the outcome, fearing it was going to have a negative effect on their mental health. The Report found that there is often a worrying lack of information. Some of those making a Service Complaint are fortunate to have a supportive and proactive Assisting Officer but for those who do not, they are often left not knowing what is happening for months on end. The Report has recommended that by December 2020 a leaflet is produced to inform those making complaints as well as respondents of the wellbeing support that is available. I know from speaking to personnel that if support is there, it should make the process more bearable for them, but this does not solve the problem of undue delays.
The Report again highlights the problem with diversity. For the fourth year in a row female and BAME personnel are overrepresented in the Service Complaints system: 23% and 12% compared to 11 and 8% of their Service Strength. This shows that little has changed.
Of the Service Complaints made by BAME personnel 33% were about bullying, harassment and discrimination. This is compared to only 23% of all service complaints made by white personnel concerning the same issue. What this shows is that BAME personnel are more likely to be bullied, harassed and/or discriminated against than white personnel. Following her own recommendations, the Ombudsman was promised that an independent review would take place into diversity in the Service Complaint process but this has still not happened.
While the Report contains a number of recommendations, the Ombudsman has also endorsed those recommendations made in the Wigston Report last year, which I discussed in my earlier blog post. However, these recommendations have not yet been adopted.
What the Report further reinforces is that a complete root and branch reform of the Service Complaint process is required. Until this happens service personnel will not have confidence in it, undue delays will continue, with women and BAME being overrepresented: it will remain unfit for purpose.