Bullying and discrimination persist in the Armed Forces – the MoD must act

Posted by Emma Norton on 10 April 2017

Last week, the Service Complaints Ombudsman Nicola Williams published her first annual report.

It covers her first year in charge of the new Service Complaints Ombudsman for the Armed Forces (SCOAF) – and it paints a worrying picture of the bullying and discrimination still a very serious problem within our military. 

Before Ms Williams’ appointment as Ombudsman, serving men and women had to make do with a Service Complaints Commissioner who was constrained by very limited powers – including that she was unable to investigate the substance of a complaint for herself or make binding recommendations.

Despite her personal efforts, year after year the former Commissioner had no alternative but to state publicly that the complaints system for serving men and women wasn’t functioning efficiently, effectively or fairly – and she continued to call for independence and greater powers for the office.

Few surprises

But that changed following the Coroner’s verdict at the inquest into the death of Cpl Anne-Marie Ellement in 2014, and his conclusion that bullying and work-related despair had contributed to her decision to take her own life.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) was finally forced to concede that serving personnel were entitled to an independent and empowered formal Ombudsman who would oversee and investigate their complaints. The value of independence and impartiality appeared finally to be recognised.

For those of us working with current or former serving women, there are few surprises in SCOAF’s first report.

Although they make up just 11 per cent of the total serving force, women make up  22 per cent of complainants. And, of the complaints made by women, a huge proportion (43 per cent) relates to allegations of bullying, discrimination and harassment.

The figure is even worse for BAME personnel, for whom 61 per cent of complaints comprise allegations of bullying, discrimination and harassment.

Welcome recommendations

Our experience helping women who have suffered sexual harassment or sexual assault to navigate the service complaints system is that the process can be drawn-out, insensitive and, in some cases, re-traumatising.

Passed from pillar to post, having to deal with seemingly ever-changing personnel working on their complaint, suffering a lack of female ‘assisting officers’ (whose role is to support and assist a complainant) and being asked repeatedly about the original harassment or assault – the process can be horrendous.

We were extremely pleased to read SCOAF’s recommendation that specialist training be provided to investigators working on such cases and that sensitive complaints be assigned to those investigators.

This would make a huge difference to vulnerable complainants and those with sensitive cases.

The MoD must act

SCOAF’s recommendation that the MoD commission a study to determine the root cause of why so many female and BAME personnel are making complaints – and that appropriate action be taken to address this – is also welcome. It appears the Ombudsman wants to see results.

At her report’s launch, when asked by an attendee how the Armed Forces compared to other civilian organisations which have to deal with complaints about racism and sexism, the Ombudsman replied: “badly”.

The Armed Forces need people who can speak truth to power. It’s vital the MoD urgently acts on the Ombudsman’s recommendations. Liberty will be watching them.

  • Liberty’s Soldiers’ Rights campaign seeks to ensure the fundamental human rights of our troops are safeguarded and respected.

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Emma Norton

Emma Norton

Head of Legal Casework