Military personnel have been deterred from making complaints about bullying and victimisation within the armed forces because of fears they will be put in the frontline for redundancy, a report warns today.
The problem is another reason why the system for investigating harassment and other abuses should be overhauled and scrutinised by a new Armed Forces Ombudsman working outside the military chain of command, say MPs on the defence select committee.
Their report said the current procedures led to backlogs and concern that many soldiers, sailors and pilots have been too nervous to raise complaints against senior officers because of what it might do to their careers.
MPs were told the heads of the army, air force and navy did not understand the role of an ombudsman, but “were sure they didn’t want one” – a position that showed discussions about the proposal “had not been as productive as they should have been.”
At the moment, complaints are overseen by a Services Complaints Commissioner, but the office does not have enough resources, and there are backlogs of cases, particularly in the army and the RAF.
Though the number of anonymous ‘contacts’ the commissioner has received about bullying and harassment has increased for the last three years, the number of actual cases investigated remains low.
The processes remain unnecessarily complex and drawn out, the report says.
Many claims have not been pursued because the alleged victim “did not have confidence to pursue this matter through the chain of command”, the report suggests.
MPs say the Ministry of Defence must urgently commission research into why people are being deterred. It must also instigate a study into the level of sexual offences within the armed forces.
“Without accurate figures, the MoD is unaware of how severe a problem it is dealing with in relation to sexual offences within the armed forces.”
The report adds: “We are concerned that the commissioner and others are reporting that fears of redundancy among service personnel appear to be deterring them from making service complaints. It is unacceptable that personnel who believe they have a genuine grievance in relation to redundancy or any other matter are reluctant to seek redress or resolution because they fear the consequences of making a complaint.
“As a matter of urgency the MoD and the commissioner should investigate this matter.”
James Arbuthnot, Tory chair of the committee, said he remained disappointed the MoD remained opposed to the appointment of an ombudsman with beefed up powers and oversight.
“There are too many reports of service personnel being reluctant to raise genuine complaints and grievances. We are also concerned that complaints are not being raised when they implicate individuals above the complainant within the chain of command.
“The government should change the role of the commissioner to one of an Armed Forces Ombudsman. Our servicemen and servicewomen deserve a complaints system that is as good as it can be. Not to provide this would be a failure of the nation’s duty to them.”
Lieutenant Colonel Douglas Young, chairman of the British Armed Forces Federation, said: “We have said for more than four years that an Armed Forces Ombudsman should be appointed in order to provide a complaints system that service personnel can trust and we are pleased that the House of Commons defence committee now agrees with us.
“It is clear to us that the current system fails to adequately protect the interests of those who make complaints as well as those who are complained about, and we will continue to campaign to change it.”