'Large backlogs and unacceptable delays’ affecting the Service Complaints Ombudsman

07 August 2019

Neither the individual Armed Forces, nor the system for their independent oversight headed by the Service Complaints Ombudsman, Nicola Williams, has yet succeeded in establishing an effective and efficient system for handling grievances by serving personnel.

Within the Services, the key performance target of resolving 90% of complaints within 24 weeks has never been met, whilst decisions on the admissibility of complaints – supposed to be made within a fortnight – have taken up to 86 weeks to complete.

At the oversight level, the burden on the modestly-sized office of the Service Complaints Ombudsman has been disproportionate to resources ever since it superseded the office of the Service Complaints Commissioner in 2015.

This was largely because its role was widened to include 'the duty of re-examining the substance of complaints – rather than just ruling on the adequacy of procedures followed and time taken by the Services in handling them'.

The result has been 'large backlogs and unacceptable delays'.

The Defence Committee learned that, instead of looking on the Ombudsman as an asset, the Ministry of Defence took almost seven months to produce a 5-page response to her 2017 annual report.

It also failed to supply her with the results of internal Service reviews about high levels of complaints by female and ethnic minority personnel.

Government Legal Department lawyers were not always available to give advice when required, and delays in clearance by the Security Vetting service led to skilled applicants for posts in the Ombudsman's office looking elsewhere for employment.

The Committee concludes that the only solution that will have a lasting effect is for the individual Services to improve their own complaints procedures and practices, and not to rely upon the Ombudsman's office to make up for their own shortcomings.

It expresses concern at suggestions that pressure has been put on some complainants not to proceed, and demands a list of the provisions currently in place for each Service to monitor and record withdrawn complaints.

Chair’s comments

Defence Committee chairman, Dr Julian Lewis MP, says:

"It is essential that Service personnel have a fair, effective and efficient complaints system to deal with valid grievances, but the Service Complaints Ombudsman has consistently reported that this does not exist.

The burden on her own office stems significantly from the 2015 decision to task her staff with reinvestigating the substance of complaints, and not just maladministration by the individual Services in handling them.

The whole system risks losing credibility in the absence of a plan to streamline procedures within the Services and to bring the workload of the Ombudsman back into balance with the resources made available to her office to deal with it."

Further information

Image: MOD

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