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Service complaints ombudsman’s first report out

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UK Armed Forces, service complaints ombudsman's first report out, Nicola Williams, Although they make up just 11 per cent of the total serving force, women make up 22 per cent of complainants.

The Service Complaints Ombudsman, Nicola Williams, published her first annual report recently, Liberty has reported – and bullying and discrimination persist in the Armed Forces.

This report covers Williams’s first year in charge of the new Office of the Service Complaints Ombudsman for the Armed Forces (OSCO), and, Liberty reports, it paints a worrying picture, with bullying and discrimination still a very serious problem in the military.

The Service Complaints process changed on 1 January 2016. The aim of the change was to make the process simpler and more streamlined with one instead of two levels of appeal.

And the role of the Service Complaints Ombudsman is to provide independent and impartial scrutiny of the handling of complaints made by members of the UK Armed Forces.

The Ombudsman achieves this by 1. Helping Service personnel access the complaints system 2. Undertaking investigations and 3.Overseeing and reporting on the Service complaints system

Before Williams’ appointment as Ombudsman, serving women and men had to make do with a Service Complaints Commissioner who was constrained by very limited powers. She was, for example, 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 was not functioning efficiently, effectively or fairly – and she repeatedly called for independence and greater powers for the office.

That changed after the Coroner’s verdict at the inquest into the death of Corporal 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 to finally have been recognised.

But there are few surprises in OSCO’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) relate to allegations of bullying, discrimination and harassment.

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

And women who have suffered sexual harassment or sexual assault find navigating the service complaints system is a process can be drawn-out, insensitive and, in some cases, re-traumatising.

They are passed from pillar to post, have to deal with seemingly ever-changing personnel working on their complaint, suffer from a lack of female ‘assisting officers’, whose role is to support and assist a complainant, and are thus asked repeatedly about the original harassment or assault. The process can be horrendous.

The OSCO recommends that specialist training be provided to investigators working on such cases and that sensitive complaints be assigned to those investigators. This would clearly make a huge difference to vulnerable complainants and those with sensitive cases.

The OSCO has also recommended 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.

It appears the Ombudsman does want to see results, Liberty reports. When asked by an attendee at the report’s launch 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. And, Liberty said, it will be watching them.

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