A fair, effective and efficient system for handling complaints is an important part of our delivery of the armed forces covenant, and it has rightly been the focus of considerable public debate. I am grateful to the Defence Select Committee for the close attention which they have given to this subject, and their constructive recommendations. I am particularly indebted to Dr Susan Atkins, the Service Complaints Commissioner (SCC), not only for her work in the context of the current system, but also for her advice and engagement on how we can do better. Many service complaints are dealt with promptly and successfully. However, it is generally recognised that the current system can only operate effectively across the armed forces by devoting a level of resources which is not sustainable in the longer term.
The then Minister for Defence Personnel, Welfare and Veterans, my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), informed the Select Committee last year that my Department was engaged in discussions with Dr Atkins on alternative models for handling complaints, and on the reform of the role of the commissioner. I am pleased to tell the House that this work has produced the outline of a new model for the service complaints system which we believe offers important advantages over the system introduced by the Armed Forces Act 2006.
The central feature of the new model is that the Service Complaints Commissioner would, in the future, have the power to consider whether a service complaint has been handled properly, once it has completed its normal internal stages. This is in contrast to the current arrangements under which the SCC cannot become involved in the handling of an individual complaint, other than to monitor its progress through the system. In the new model, where the commissioner finds no evidence of maladministration, a complaint would remain closed. However, if the commissioner considers that there has been maladministration in the handling of a complaint, he or she would make recommendations, formally to the Defence Council, for the complaint to be reopened and reconsidered. The Defence Council would remain responsible for the decisions taken in response to the SCC’s recommendations, thus maintaining the authority of the chain of command, but the SCC would be informed of those decisions and the reasons for them.
This aspect of the new model should lead to a higher proportion of complaints being decided more quickly. Complainants will gain a new right to apply to the independent commissioner, if they believe that the handling of their complaint has been subject to maladministration, instead of having the right to pursue further appeals within the internal complaints process. The commissioner will, in turn, be able to concentrate his or her attention on the cases of potential maladministration, including those which may have systemic implications.
The commissioner would also have a new role at an earlier stage of the complaints procedure. Where a decision is made not to allow a complaint to be considered within the service complaints system, because is it out of time or excluded on other grounds, a service person could ask the SCC to determine whether that decision was correct. At the same time, the commissioner will maintain the vital role which Dr Atkins performs today, of offering an alternative route for a service man or women, who does not wish to approach the chain of command directly, to have their concerns fed into the system. This remains an important safeguard, especially where allegations of bullying or harassment are involved. Finally, the requirement for an annual report to be laid before Parliament would continue, taking account of the new functions of the SCC.
The proposals I have outlined above represent a significant change to the way that service complaints are handled, and in particular to the role of the commissioner. As a result, I have decided that this new role would be better reflected in a change in the title of the commissioner’s post to the “service complaints ombudsman”.
Changes of this nature will require amendment to the Armed Forces Act, and an early opportunity will be sought to introduce the necessary legislation once detailed work, in which the commissioner will again be engaged, is complete.
In today’s armed forces, there is a strong commitment to ensuring that complaints from service personnel are taken seriously and handled fairly. No service man or woman should lack confidence in seeking redress through the current system. However we can do better, and, in particular, I believe we can resolve complaints more quickly. I believe that the approach I have outlined will strengthen the chain of command, support the interests of complainants, and enhance the contribution of the future service complaints ombudsman.