“Neither efficient, effective or fair” - where can soldiers turn when things go wrong?

Posted by Emma Norton on 10 May 2018

In January, the Armed Forces released a new recruitment campaign designed to show their human side. Soldiers talked about how they feel comfortable in the Army regardless of their gender, religion, sexuality or emotions.

It’s good to see the military attempting to clean up their reputation for having a tough, toxic culture – but in the past it’s been difficult to see if the public rhetoric is matched by real change for real soldiers.

Sean Benton (centre) with mum Linda and dad Harry at Sean's passing out parade

In 2016, the Armed Forces took an important step in overcoming their skepticism of truly independent oversight, when they appointed a Service Complaints Ombudsman with new powers to investigate issues for herself. But her second annual report shows there’s a long way to go before the people who fight for their country can have faith that their complaints will be taken seriously.

There is some encouraging stuff – the time it’s taking for complaints to be progressed (though still too long) is reducing and more  Harassment Investigation Officers are being recruited to work on more sensitive cases.

But overall the Ombudsman has found the service complaints process is “neither efficient, effective or fair”, echoing the findings of her predecessor the Service Complaints Commissioner who made the same pronouncement year after year.

Minority report

Female and Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) service personnel are still over-represented in the complaints system. They account for 20 per cent and 10 per cent of complaints, respectively, but make up just 11 per cent and 7 per cent of the Armed Forces, respectively. These figures are marginally down from last year, but equality is still a long way off.

More alarming is the nature of the complaints being made by these groups. Bullying, harassment and discrimination constituted around 45 per cent of complaints from women and around 55 per cent of complaints from BAME people.

Last year the Ombudsman recommended the Ministry of Defence (MoD) commission a study to determine the root cause of this over-representation, with concrete action to address it in place by the end of this year. But she suggests the MoD is planning to conduct the study itself and observes, diplomatically, that she “is not confident that the approach taken in implementing this recommendation will lead to the intended outcome”.

If this piece of work is to have any real teeth and lead to reform, it needs to be independent. Presumably, that’s exactly why the MoD has kept it in-house.

It’s a shame the Ombudsman  has missed an opportunity to call for this important study to be conducted afresh and independently.

The right to complain

The Ombudsman is concerned about continued reports from personnel that they have been discouraged from complaining by service complaint handlers, or even advised that doing so could harm their careers.

The Armed Forces Continuous Attitude Survey (AFCAS) 2017 shows there is a real impact on soldiers – with 13 per cent reporting experiencing bullying, harassment or discrimination in the preceding 12 months. Of these, only 10 per cent made a formal complaint.

The most common reasons given for not complaining were feeling that “nothing would be done” (59 per cent) and that complaining would adversely affect their career (52 per cent). The survey also indicated limited knowledge of the complaints system.

The slow pace of change

As the second inquest into one of the four Deepcut deaths draws to a close next month, this is a timely reminder of the importance of an independent, rigorous complaints process in which soldiers can have confidence.

A number of witnesses at the inquest into the death of Private Sean Benton, who died in 1995, have said they had nowhere to turn when things went badly wrong. And it was the same at the inquest into the death of Pte Cheryl James two years ago.  

The families of the dead soldiers believe that, had their loved ones had someone or somewhere they could have gone to for help, things might have turned out differently for them. The Ombudsman’s role – and the need for greater reform of the service complaints system more widely – is incredibly important.

At the heart of many of the issues identified by the Ombudsman lies the common thread of the Armed Forces’ reluctance to countenance independent (read, civilian) involvement, oversight or criticism.

It will be interesting to see how the MoD reacts to this latest round of practical, evidence-based recommendations and whether, off their own bat, they reconsider how best to address the serious problem of bullying and harassment of women and minorities.

If they do nothing, the MoD should not be surprised if the Army’s latest recruitment campaign backfires. They would do well to listen to their critical friends.

Emma Norton

Emma Norton

Head of Legal Casework