Service Complaints Commissioner for the Armed Forces submits first Annual Report
The Service complaints system is well designed but needs some significant improvements in practice if it is to achieve its purpose - according to the Service Complaints Commissionerâs first Annual Report laid before Parliament today.
The Report found that, although the complaints system meets the basic principles of a good complaints system, there were issues around accessibility, timeliness, communication and management information. Too few Service men and women have confidence in the system and do not come forward when things go wrong â for example, for fear of being seen as a âtrouble makerâ.
These are just some of the issues identified by Dr Susan Atkins, following a successful year as the first Service Complaints Commissioner for the Armed Forces. Her first Annual Report, submitted today to the Secretary of State for Defence, covers the setting up and operation of her Office, an analysis of how the new complaints system is working and comments on the performance of both.
Dr Atkins said: âMy aim is to ensure that all Service men and women and their families have confidence in the complaints system and are treated properly. This first year has been very much about taking stock and establishing a baseline on how the Services are handling complaints, what is being done well and what needs to improve for complaints to be dealt with fairly, efficiently and effectively.
âI have found a genuine commitment by leaders of all three Services to tackle and root out all forms of improper and unacceptable behaviour and an understanding of the contribution an effective complaints system can make to achieving this. But at present the process generally takes too long and complainants are not always kept informed as the system requires. When this happens, it is neither fair on the complainants or those complained about and affects team as well as individual performance and morale.â
Last year saw Dr Atkins establish her roles and responsibilities as an independent point of contact, get to understand how complaints are being dealt with by the Services and identify where weaknesses have appeared in the system.
Dr Atkins said: âAlthough the report provides some examples of good practice, there needs to be a step-change in thinking about complaints. Currently, the focus is on individual redress not organisational improvement. It needs to be about both. A complaint needs to be seen as a warning light on a Commanding Officerâs dashboard - an indication that something needs to be investigated and if necessary fixed to ensure his or her team can perform smoothly.â
Over half of the 172 people who contacted the Commissionerâs Office with potential complaints about their treatment at work alleged they had suffered some sort of unacceptable behaviour including bullying, harassment and discrimination. The Commissioner referred most of these to the chain of command to be investigated under her oversight. Very few of these cases have been concluded internally during the year.
Dr Atkins added: âAround 19% of those who contacted my Office were parents or other family members. I am convinced from listening to all those who have contacted me and those Iâve met on visits throughout the year, that my role meets a real need. Bullying, harassment and discrimination have no place in todayâs Armed Forces. People need to have confidence to speak out in the knowledge that action will be taken.
âWhere an investigation reveals things have gone wrong, it needs to be put right swiftly and effectively and lessons shared to prevent others suffering in the same way in future. A shift in attitude and improved management information will be key. Itâs a long haul, not a short fix, but there are steps that the Services should and can take immediately. I look forward to working with the Services and the MOD to deliver these improvements.â
The report makes 17 recommendations for action and sets out objectives for the Services and the Commissionerâs Office to achieve significant improvements, particularly to reduce the gap between levels of bullying and harassment Service men and women report in surveys and the numbers of complaints they make.
A full list of the Commissionerâs findings can be found in Chapter 7 of the Annual Report (starting on page 82). The Report can be accessed on the website at: http://armedforcescomplaints.independent.gov.uk