Skip to main content

Armed Forces (Service Complaints and Financial Assistance) Bill [HL]

Volume 756: debated on Monday 20 October 2014

Third Reading

Clause 2: Reform of system for redress of individual grievances

The Amendment

Moved by

Clause 2, page 6, line 25, at end insert—

“( ) The Ombudsman may, after advising the Secretary of State, investigate any matter deemed to be in the public interest on—

(a) any aspect of the system mentioned in section 340O(2)(a);(b) any matter relating to the Ombudsman’s functions under this Part;and make a report to the Secretary of State.”

My Lords, we have had debates in Committee and on Report on giving the Armed Forces Service Complaints Commissioner, now to be known as the ombudsman, wider powers to be able to report on thematic issues without being dependent on the Secretary of State asking for such reports. One reason for providing those wider powers—which is what this amendment seeks to do—is that, under the present arrangements, the commissioner has never been asked by a Secretary of State for Defence to report on a particular area of concern that she or the Secretary of State may have. It is therefore not credible to argue that the ability of the Secretary of State to call for such reports covers the situation.

The Commons Defence Select Committee believes there would be value in the commissioner—the ombudsman—being able to undertake research into and report on thematic issues, in addition to the annual reports, and that the ombudsman’s experience on these issues should be utilised. The Defence Committee reported that, during visits to units, the current commissioner had been informed of issues that would not necessarily come to her as complaints but on which she thought some work needed to be done. Such issues, which might refer to a general culture at a particular location or unit, or more widely, of discrimination or bullying, for example, would not be covered by new Section 340L, which relates to recommendations arising as a result of maladministration. A situation or treatment of an individual or individuals could be questionable or unacceptable without there being evidence of maladministration—assuming there was a willingness to make such a complaint, which relates to process, and whether a complaint has been conducted in a procedurally sound way.

In Committee, the Minister, on behalf of the Government, expressed concern that:

“an ombudsman with a wider remit to investigate matters of their own volition, notwithstanding whether they must first notify the Secretary of State of their intentions, could overlap with these other jurisdictions and cause confusion and difficulties”.—[Official Report, 9/7/14; col 243.]

That argument does not stand up. If that is the reason for not giving the ombudsman a wider remit in relation to thematic issues, then it must equally be a matter of concern under the powers in Section 340L. In respect of those powers, the Minister has said the ombudsman could make recommendations relating to wider systemic issues as a result of finding maladministration.

One difficulty of the Bill is that it is not clear what investigations, if any, the ombudsman can or cannot carry out on his or her own volition beyond investigating an individual complaint of maladministration. The Minister said in Committee that such recommendations could relate to systemic issues, but then said that the amendment seeking to provide for this went “beyond that required”, which would suggest that the Bill does not give, in the Government’s eyes, either the wider powers sought by the Defence Committee or sought in this amendment.

The Minister also said in Committee that there was scope for the ombudsman to raise wider issues,

“in appropriate ways … and to provide an input to investigations or inquiries conducted by other appropriate bodies”.—[Official Report, 9/7/14; col. 243.]

Clearly, the latter aspect, of providing an input into an investigation that somebody else has decided to initiate, does not meet the terms of this amendment, on the ability of the ombudsman to be able to carry out his or her own investigation and make his or her own recommendations.

I also have a concern that the Minister’s comment that there is scope under the Bill for the ombudsman to raise wider issues “in appropriate ways” is mainly a reference to being able to put something into the annual report. That view has been strengthened by the Minister’s statement on Report that:

“If systemic failings are identified through the complaints system, it is important that those are brought to the attention of both the individual service and the Ministry of Defence … the Bill gives the ombudsman scope to use their judgement to cover such matters in the annual report as they think relevant to the operation of the system or to the exercise of their role. The ombudsman’s annual reports, like those of the commissioner, will be able to look widely at the system of redress, the sort of complaints that are encountered and what sort of failings and misconduct the system has to deal with”.

The Minister also said on Report that the ombudsman could make wider recommendations,

“beyond those solely relating to maladministration, to addressing the effectiveness of the redress system or other systemic issues. Such wider recommendations could concern the better handling and investigations of complaints of a particular nature, where there is a finding of maladministration in connection with the handling of the complaint at hand. In addition, such recommendations could well concern the commissioning of training in carrying out investigations into certain matters—discrimination being a good example—or appointing a subject matter expert to investigate systemic issues or concerns that have apparently arisen. It is then fundamentally down to the services to respond appropriately and we would expect them to do so”.

It is evident from those quotes from what the Minister said on Report that the Government’s position is that, while the ombudsman can draw attention to systemic issues that have apparently arisen and recommend that they be investigated, the one thing that the Government are not prepared to allow the ombudsman to do is investigate such issues of concern on his or her own volition unless required by the Secretary of State to do so—and, as we know, Secretaries of State have a track record of not asking the commissioner to do so.

Indeed, the Minister made this position clear on Report when he said:

“Although we want the ombudsman to address wider issues, including where they have identified systemic abuse, we do not want the ombudsman to have any statutory powers to investigate thematic issues. We do not, for example, want the ombudsman to have any powers to require the production of papers or to question witnesses beyond the powers set out in respect of the exercise of the ombudsman’s primary function of investigating alleged maladministration in the handling of service complaints and whether, as a result, injustice has been caused”.

So the issue is not the principle of the ombudsman being able to call for the production of papers or questioning of witnesses—since that could relate to maladministration—but instead to do so in the context of an investigation into a thematic issue of concern to the ombudsman as opposed to an individual complaint of maladministration. The reason given for this stance by the Government on Report was that they,

“do not want the ombudsman to be an inspectorate for the Armed Forces or to perform the functions of a rapporteur. … Conferring such a role on the ombudsman would also serve to divert the resources of the office”.—[Official Report, 29/7/14; cols. 1544-6.]

I hope that the second reason is not a significant one, since it appears to be saying that the reason for not allowing the ombudsman to investigate thematic issues is not related to the merits or otherwise of so doing but rather because the resources cannot be provided to allow him or her to do so.

The report of the parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights on the Bill has recently been published. The committee welcomed the Bill,

“as a significant human rights enhancing measure”,

as have, I think, all parties. Indeed, the committee commended the Ministry of Defence for the exemplary way in which it had assisted it in its human rights scrutiny of the Bill. However, among the issues raised by the Joint Committee was the question of the independence of the ombudsman from the Government and the Armed Forces. The committee says that there is a need to demonstrate,

“the importance of the appearance of independence … to provide the necessary public confidence in the independence of the particular office holder”.

We may have different views on how that can be achieved, but I suggest that independence is not particularly enhanced by the Government saying,

“we do not want the ombudsman to have any statutory powers to investigate thematic issues”—[Official Report, 29/7/14; col. 1545.]

when the Armed Forces covenant sets out that the Armed Forces have,

“a responsibility to maintain an organisation which treats every individual fairly, with dignity and respect, and an environment which is free from bullying, harassment and discrimination”

and when the announcement of the creation of the ombudsman came a short time after the verdict was delivered on the inquest into the death of Corporal Anne-Marie Ellement. The inquest found that Anne-Marie had suffered workplace bullying, including rape-related bullying and the Coroner termed the situation a “hothouse”, concluding it was inevitable that incidents would occur.

It really is not clear why the Government are not prepared to go down the road of giving the ombudsman statutory powers to investigate thematic issues other than at the direction of the Secretary of State. What in reality are the concerns that cannot be overcome? What do the Government consider the ombudsman might do that would be unacceptable or would compromise national security if he or she had the right to investigate thematic issues of concern on their own volition? The recommendations arising from such an investigation would not be binding. They would have to go to the Secretary of State or Defence Council, who would decide whether to accept them in full or in part or not at all. Therefore, what is the concern that is so strong that a measure that would certainly enhance both the reality and the appearance of independence of the ombudsman cannot be countenanced? I beg to move.

My Lords, it is to the credit of your Lordships’ House that we have a Bill with only one amendment. It is a compliment to all sides of the House that we have managed to get a Bill that has got to this stage. I am a fairly new addition to this place but one amendment to a Bill seems a massive achievement. However, it is even greater than the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, just said. I believe that we have achieved an awful lot in the Bill and the amendment is almost clutching at straws or trying to find problems. I find that the commissioner—the ombudsman—will be able to take matters to the Defence Council and the problems described seem more in the realms of fantasy than reality.

As I see it in the Bill, in reality we have the ability to conduct investigations—I do not read it as saying that there can be no investigation of any sort. I do not think that the proposal by the noble Lords, Lord Rosser and Lord Tunnicliffe, gives the ombudsman that much more power than is there already. The ombudsman may investigate if a matter is,

“deemed to be in the public interest”.

In fact, most problems occur when particular members of the Armed Forces suffer some sort of bullying or have some complaint. That is where the complaints arise, rather than the big systemic complaints to which the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, referred. I do not see that the amendment is needed. There have been a lot of reassurances; they may not all be in the legislation but can be found in Hansard. But it has been proved that assurances given in Hansard can be taken and used in the appropriate manner.

If there is a vote, I shall certainly vote against the amendment, but I take this opportunity of asking my noble friend the Minister whether he would comment on a specific case. Perhaps he could say how, bearing in mind the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, the approach to that specific case would be helped and enhanced by the new legislation that we seek to pass. I refer to the case, reported over the last few days, of former Corporal Neathway, a paratrooper who was disabled. It took three years for his complaint to surface and for it to be seen that his commanding officers, at lower staff level and brigadier level, had not done what was necessary. What would happen under the new legislation, after the efforts of your Lordships’ House, with all the faults that the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, has sought to expose, if the case of this former corporal in a parachute regiment happened now rather than three years ago?

My Lords, the issues covered in this amendment have already been the subject of useful and detailed debates in Committee and on Report. I said on Report on 29 July that I would consider the issue further so that we could return to it this afternoon.

The Bill provides that the ombudsman’s primary function will be to investigate and report on allegations by complainants that there has been maladministration in handling their complaint. The reports from the ombudsman will contain binding decisions on whether there has been maladministration and whether, as a consequence, injustice has or could have been caused. The ombudsman can also make recommendations for remedial action including the reinvestigation of the complaint, suggested improvements to the way in which investigations into such allegations are carried out, or specific actions that would make the complaints system more effective. In addition to this, there is nothing to stop the ombudsman commenting on any underlying concern or pattern of behaviour that has given rise to the complaint.

As I said on Report, we envisage that, when the ombudsman considers it appropriate, he or she will publish information on any matters of general concern arising from the operation of the service complaints system, however such matters come to the ombudsman’s attention. We do not think that a statutory power needs to be provided for the ombudsman to be able to do this. We want the ombudsman to raise such issues as quickly as possible. When systemic failings are identified, it is important that they are brought to our attention so that they can be put right when possible.

My noble friend Lord Palmer of Childs Hill raised the really important issue of the Neathway case and asked how that case would be covered by the Bill. The Bill will mean that the complaints process in future is quicker; anyone who is unhappy with how their complaint has been handled will be able to approach the ombudsman—for example, if they believe that their case has taken too long to resolve. The ombudsman’s independent oversight will give the Armed Forces lessons in how to further improve the process.

A service complaint panel has reached a determination about the service complaint made by ex-Corporal Tom Neathway, the panel on behalf of the Defence Council has formally apologised to ex-Corporal Neathway and has made recommendations for the Army to consider. The Army has appointed a commanding officer unconnected with the events to consider all matters arising from the service complaint panel’s determination.

The Bill also provides that the ombudsman must produce an annual report. This will be able to look widely at the complaints system, the sort of cases it handles and what sort of failings and misconduct the system has identified. As I have said before, this is a wide and appropriate role for the ombudsman to have, using his or her knowledge and experience of the complaints system and any information that has come to light through that process, whether from the complainant, families, service welfare organisations, MPs or the services themselves. The ombudsman therefore has the ability to report on any underlying themes. The current commissioner has used her annual reports to comment on issues such as the effectiveness of the Army’s zero-tolerance policy on bullying.

The ombudsman can therefore report on a wide range of issues relating to the effectiveness, efficiency and fairness of the service complaints system, including on any systemic issues that have come to his or her attention. This can be done immediately through individual investigation reports, or by publishing information of general concern, or through the annual report.

The aim of this amendment, however, is to allow the ombudsman to carry out investigations into wider issues, such as a culture of bullying at a particular location, and to produce reports on those issues. Consequently, its purpose is to introduce a new role for the ombudsman that goes beyond that set out in the Bill.

There are three important reasons why we do not want the ombudsman to have such a power. First, carrying out such investigations would divert the ombudsman from their primary role of making the complaints system work better and, in particular, hold the chain of command to account in its handling of service complaints. Secondly, the ombudsman might not be the best person to carry out such an investigation. Such investigations might require the full-time dedication of a number of people with specific skills and expertise, such as investigators and lawyers. Finally, it is the chain of command that is responsible for the welfare of its people and for the environment in which they work. We would expect the ombudsman to bring any systemic failings to the attention of the individual service concerned, and to the Ministry of Defence, so that they can put things right. However, it is not for the ombudsman, in the manner of an inspectorate, then to go on to examine these issues.

I hope that I have made the Government’s position clear. We do not want the ombudsman to highlight any thematic issues they come across and to make these concerns quickly and publicly available. However, we do not want the ombudsman and supporting staff then to go off and investigate these matters. Giving him or her the power to do so would significantly change their role and distract them from the main task of making the service complaints system better.

As we have now reached the final stage of our consideration of this Bill, I thank all noble Lords for their work on it. I agree with my noble friend Lord Palmer and I also thank him for his support on this amendment. We have had some excellent debates on a number of issues, some of which we have looked at in considerable depth. I hope that all noble Lords feel that there has been adequate time for scrutiny. I am particularly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, for the constructive way that he has put the Opposition’s case, and to my noble friends Lord Thomas and Lord Palmer and others for their expert contributions. I also thank my noble friend Lady Jolly for her assistance, and officials both in this House and in the Ministry of Defence for ensuring the smooth running of the Bill.

With that, I ask noble Lords to reject this amendment.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response. I express no surprise that the Government have not felt able to accept this amendment, since the Minister indicated to me in a recent letter that the Government would not be tabling any amendments on thematic investigations for Third Reading. As we come to the end of our consideration of the Bill, I thank the Minister and the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, for their thoroughness and unfailing courtesy, at the Dispatch Box, in correspondence and outside the Chamber, in responding to issues that we have raised. I extend those thanks to the Bill team and to all noble Lords who have taken part.

I also thank the Minister for his kind words. I am grateful to him for having somewhat contradicted the noble Lord, Lord Palmer of Childs Hill, who clearly believes that the issue I am raising is of no significance. Indeed, I think he used the expression “clutching at straws”. The Minister clearly does not believe that the issue I am raising is clutching at straws. He has said specifically that the Government do not want the ombudsman to be able to carry out an investigation into, for example, bullying at a particular location. That is not a minor issue or clutching at straws; that would be a particularly useful and relevant role for the ombudsman to have. When the Minister talks about undermining the chain of command, it depends on whether the chain of command will regard the ombudsman as the enemy or as being of assistance to it in dealing with issues of military life and military personnel that arise. We are getting off on a very bad footing but I sense that the ombudsman will be regarded as the enemy, who should not be let out more often than is absolutely necessary.

In his response, the Minister reiterated the Government’s position: while they agree that the ombudsman should address wider issues, they do not want him to have any statutory powers to investigate those issues. The ombudsman can apparently report that there is a wider problem but he or she cannot fully investigate whether that is the case, or, if it is, the extent to which it is the case, and make recommendations. The ombudsman can do this if the Secretary of State requires him to do so but not of his own volition. We know that Secretaries of State do not ask—they have not asked the present commissioner—for such investigations to be carried out. Investigations into maladministration will not necessarily provide scope for raising matters of concern over thematic issues or abuses because such an investigation needs a specific complaint, or complaints, of maladministration. There does not have to be a procedural issue in how complaints are dealt with for there to be an issue of concern.

In conclusion, the main issue is that the Government intend that the ombudsman may only report, not investigate, concerns over systemic or thematic abuses or issues, and that it should then be up to the Defence Council or the Ministry of Defence whether any further action is taken to investigate those concerns. By definition, the ombudsman will not be able to substantiate such concerns or base any recommendations on the facts that emerge from the investigation. He or she will not have the power to investigate concerns beyond what arises from an individual complaint, not about the issue itself but about maladministration of the way a complaint has been dealt with. As the Joint Committee on Human Rights said, the appearance of the independence of the ombudsman is important to provide the necessary confidence. In opposing my amendment, the Government have not provided a sufficiently convincing explanation of the difficulties that would be caused by the ombudsman having the power to carry out investigations.

My Lords, I may be able to help the noble Lord. In winding up, I misread one word. I said that we do not want the ombudsman to highlight any thematic issues; I should have said that we do want the ombudsman to highlight the thematic issues. That was entirely my misreading.

Although that sounds like a significant change in the Government’s position, actually it is not. What the noble Lord has said is that the Government want the ombudsman to be able to highlight systemic issues—that is, to say, “I’ve been told that there is a problem”—but not to investigate the issue. I am grateful to the noble Lord for correcting what he said but it does not alter the position that the Government do not want the ombudsman to be able to investigate.

There is a difference between telling somebody that there is a problem and being able to investigate it. As I was saying when the Minister intervened, the Government have not provided a sufficiently convincing explanation of the difficulties that would be caused by the ombudsman having the power to carry out investigations into thematic issues of concern of his or her own volition, even though they do not dispute that it may be necessary to carry out such investigations—but only if the Secretary of State requires the ombudsman to do it. So it may be necessary if the Secretary of State wants it but not if the ombudsman thinks it should be done. That does not add up to a credible position on the Government’s behalf, and I wish to test the opinion of the House on my amendment.

A privilege amendment was made.


Moved by

My Lords, on Report, I moved an amendment about having a credit union for the Armed Forces. The noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, responding for the Government, was unable to accept my amendment but agreed that I could meet with the Minister responsible, Anna Soubry. That meeting took place at the MoD last week, and was very positive. Following the debate in the Chamber, a meeting also took place with forces charities which are supportive of a credit union for the Armed Forces. I understand that a discussion has taken place with the company which provides the payroll service for the MoD and it is hoped that either the costs will be considerably reduced or there will be no cost at all to the MoD.

What I understand to be happening next is that the MoD will identify a number of credit unions that are the right size to be able to deliver financial services to the Armed Forces community. We should be in a situation by the end of this year or early next year to offer the Armed Forces community credit union facilities that will provide loans, savings and other financial products that will be available through payroll deduction.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, for her kind assistance, Anna Soubry for working very hard on this, and the noble Lord, Lord Astor. I have been a supporter of the credit union movement my whole adult life and, as a Labour Co-op Member of your Lordships’ House, I am delighted that the campaign has proved successful and that members of the Armed Forces community will soon be able to benefit from this development, as will the Armed Forces charitable services. Could the Minister maybe say a few words to the House? I thank him very much for that.

Bill passed and sent to the Commons.