Written evidence submitted by the Service Complaints Ombudsman to the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill
- I welcome the opportunity to respond to the call for evidence in relation to the provisions of the Armed Forces Bill.
- As the Service Complaints Ombudsman for the Armed Forces, my role (and that of my team) is to provide independent oversight and investigations in support of an effective Service complaints process for members of the UK Armed Forces. Our vision is that all Service personnel have access to and confidence in a Service complaints system that is efficient, effective and fair.
- The primary way this oversight is provided is through my powers of referral and investigation. As Ombudsman, I can:
- Refer a Service person’s intention to make a Service complaint to their chain of command;
- Review a decision by the chain of command to not accept a complaint for investigation or to not allow a complaint to proceed to appeal for a further decision;
- Investigate allegations of undue delay in the handling of a Service complaint or Service matter;
- Investigate allegations of maladministration in the handling of a Service complaint which has completed the internal system, and
- Investigate the substance, or merits, of a Service complaint which has completed the internal system.
- I am aware that the Committee has heard evidence from a number of witnesses, including Nicola Williams, the previous Service Complaints Ombudsman for the Armed Forces. As the new Ombudsman, I have limited my submission to commenting on the proposals which relate directly to the future handling of Service Complaints.
- In general terms, I am broadly supportive of the vast number of proposals put forward for reform of the Service Complaints system, and I look forward to working with the MOD’s Service Complaints & Justice Transformation Team in moving these proposals forward.
- In particular, I am keen to contribute to further work around developing the KPI for timeliness, and working to improve the overall effectiveness and efficiency of the current system.
- However, I have significant concerns around the proposals to limit the timeframe and approach for raising appeals, both within the internal Service Complaints system, and in approaching my office. I cannot support these elements of the Armed Forces Bill.
Appealing DB decision
- There is a proposal to limit the timeframe for bringing an appeal at section 340D to 2 weeks, compared with the current period of 6 weeks. The reasoning proposed for this is that this will ‘increase efficiency and speed up the process within the statutory service complaints system’.
- However, as set out by Nicola Williams, there is little evidence to suggest that the delays in resolving complaints through the Service Complaints system occur at this stage of the matter.
- The average time taken for an appealed complaint to conclude in 2020 was 90 weeks, compared with the overall tri-Service target of 24 weeks. The appeal stage itself takes on average 60 weeks. In these circumstances, reducing the time for an individual to appeal by 4 weeks does not resolve the issue. There are more significant and fundamental delays occurring throughout the process, which should be the focus of improved efficiency, rather than the time allowed for an appeal.
- There is also the potential that this proposal could have the opposite effect to that which is intended. Limiting the timeframe whilst suggesting that exceptions could be made could complicate the process of deciding whether an appeal is admissible, and may in fact drive increased requests for SCOAF to review these decisions. It could also prevent Service personnel from receiving a fair review of their complaint by creating barriers to accessing the system.
- A further rationale given for the reduced timeframe is to ‘more closely align it with civilian process’ – however it is not clear which process/sector it is being compared with. As an example, I understand the time limit for appealing to Crown court to be 21 days, and Employment Tribunal appeals are within 42 days.
- The further proposed changes to the process for appealing a DB decision also appear unnecessarily restrictive, in terms of the proposal that appeals will only be allowed where there is evidence of a factual error, or new evidence has come to light.
- It does not seem fair nor reasonable to expect that an individual will be able to assimilate the outcome of a DB decision and identify factual errors or material new evidence, and submit this as an appeal within two weeks – particularly in light of the fact that many decisions are not issued by the DB within the target timeframe, and in some cases investigations have spanned years. It must also be considered that some Service personnel struggle with mental ill health as a result of their experiences, and may find it particularly difficult to absorb and deal with information in such a short timeframe.
- The proposals would appear to make the case that appeals are being routinely raised as a matter of course, or for frivolous reasons. Each year, SCOAF make a number of recommendations for redress and wider learning points, and request that further action be taken on cases. This indicates that the correct outcome is not always being reached through the Service Complaints system, and I would therefore strongly oppose any proposals that would seem to discourage Service personnel from raising their appeal.
- Placing a greater responsibility on Service personnel to jump through hoops before appeals are looked at risks hiding the issues by setting the bar artificially too high.
Applications to SCOAF
- In a similar vein, I have serious concerns around the proposal to restrict access to SCOAF as set out in 340H, by similarly restricting the way people can ask us to investigate and the time limit they have to do this.
- In the first instance, SCOAF already has a wide discretion and we can and do use this to decline to investigate complaints where we do not consider we would reach a significantly different outcome. I would argue therefore that limiting the sorts of appeals that can be brought to SCOAF and the time available to do so brings no additional value, whilst creating a perceived barrier against asking us to look into a complaint.
- In relation to the proposed shortening of the time limit from 6 to 2 weeks, the time limit to approach SCOAF is already short compared with other ombudsman schemes (Legal Ombudsman – 6 months, Financial Ombudsman – 6 months, Parliamentary & Health Service Ombudsman – 1 year, Property Ombudsman – 1year, Housing Ombudsman – 1year).
- Furthermore, for other ombudsman schemes, if you do not get a complaint response within a set timeframe, you are able to escalate your matter straight to the ombudsman for review and a final determination. However, an individual cannot ask SCOAF to investigate the substance of their matter unless the internal system has already been exhausted – and as set out previously, this is taking too long in the majority of cases.
- It appears perverse to expect Service personnel to engage with a system that currently takes too long, but for which there is no automatic right of escalation – but then to restrict their time limits for asking the ombudsman to investigate to two weeks.
- It is also worth noting that the time period allowed for individuals to approach SCOAF does not form part of the KPI, and therefore has no impact on the timeliness performance of the Service Complaints system.
18 March 2021
Written evidence submitted to the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill