MPs call for new ombudsman to stop Armed Forces abuse
Deborah Haynes Defence Editor, The Times, 26 Feb 13
The Armed Forces have been urged to allow complaints of sexual harassment, bullying and other forms of abuse to be resolved by an outside authority for the first time.
An influential committee of MPs are concerned because servicemen and women who suffered abuse within the military decided against submitting complaints as they had no faith in the chain of command to deal with it. Others did not pursue grievances because they felt the Service Complaints Commissioner, the independent civilian charged with overseeing how complaints are handled, lacked power to act when things went wrong. The House of Commons Defence Committee also expressed alarm that a number of soldiers, sailors and airmen with grievances related to possible redundancy were deterred from making a complaint for fear of losing their job.
“There are too many reports of Service personnel reluctant to raise genuine complaints and grievances,” the MPs said in a report. “We are also concerned that complaints are not being raised when they implicate individuals higher within the chain of command.” They continued: “There are still too many instances of delay, inefficiency and lack of resources. These must be dealt with to ensure confidence in the system and commissioner.”
The comments came after The Times revealed major problems with the military’s ability to deal with complaints by Service personnel as well as concerns about the internal system of justice used by the Armed Forces, which is regarded by some as unjust. Susan Atkins, Service Complaints Commissioner, has repeatedly called for an independent Armed Forces ombudsman with the power to resolve cases on appeal instead of allowing them simply to go up the chain of command for resolution, which can take years and means the ultimate authority is the top-level command.
The Defence Committee threw its weight behind Dr Atkins, suggesting her role be beefed up from independent overseer without power to intervene when a complaint is mishandled. “The Government should change the role of the commissioner to one of an Armed Forces ombudsman,” it said. “Our servicemen and servicewomen deserve a complaints system as good as it can be. Not to provide this would be a failure of the nation’s duty to them.”
The Service Complaints Commissioner's website can be found at: http://armedforcescomplaints.independent.gov.uk/
This story links to this thread, too: http://www.arrse.co.uk/intelligence-cell/195142-service-complaints-system.html
My personal view, as a serving Regular Army Major (check my posting history back over the past decade, for verification), is as follows:
The Army currently suffers from a lack of regulatory oversight, of an independent and impartial third-party organisation to enforce checks and balances, which can insist upon fair and lawful behaviour, and with the power and resources to investigate misconduct, make determinations, and impose financial penalties (the only penalties which truly have the power to induce better behaviour). The current system, whereby the Army chain of command purports to investigate itself for misconduct, not only fails those who do report complaints and seek help, but even more egregiously, ensures that others suffering mistreatment realise that they too have no effective redress, and must suffer in silence.
Service personnel risk their lives for their country: deviations from civilian standards ought only to be those necessary and proportionate in a democratic society. In the British Army, the coin of the realm is power, manifested as rank. Rank can and does shield its holders from the consequences of misconduct. The Army is willing to cover-up mistakes, bully personnel, victimise those who complain, and harass those who are perceived to be ‘rocking the boat', in order to protect the power and prestige of the chain of command.
The Army has struggled with bullying for over 25 years: while it has certain purported, legitimate ‘official values', such as integrity and lawfulness, it has other, deep-seated and atavistic ‘traditional values' such as hierarchy, rank, power and prestige – even in the face of mistakes and mistreatment. When the two sets of values clash, this ‘values hierarchy' often results in ‘official values' being overridden by ‘traditional values', at victims' expense, and tragic cost.
Service personnel have no access to employment tribunals for unfair dismissal, and no right to a formally constituted independent professional association to safeguard their interests. Fear of reprisals and an “atmosphere of intimidation” mean that many victims will not come forward to complain or give evidence against their tormentors. Official figures on bullying are only the “tip of the iceberg” of the problem. The MOD has consistently persuaded ministers that avoiding external oversight is essential. An ombudsman was specifically recommended as far back at 1987, by Jack Ashley MP: ‘I propose an ombudsman not as a panacea—there is none available—but as the best and most important step that can be taken in the present circumstances.' (http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1988/jan/26/the-army)
Many senior Army officers confuse leadership with ritualised and oppressive display of status, authority and power and the maintenance of anachronistic standards of behaviour. The Army is damagingly out of step and time with wider social trends. Senior Army personnel are failing to perceive the need for change in response to wider social shifts. …But the problem goes deeper than this. The military hierarchy as it is presently constituted is largely incapable of effecting a change in a culture that they themselves embody. Senior Army officers are classic victims of groupthink, having a ‘an unquestioned belief in the group's inherent morality, thus enabling members to overlook the ethical consequences of their decisions.' The Army has neither the inclination, nor the ability, to make the service complaints system a success without external intervention: the SCC must be fully empowered as an ombudsman.
The Army has deflected calls for both external scrutiny, and the safeguards to which other bodies are subjected. The Roman poet Juvenal cautioned, ‘Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?', literally translated as "Who will guard the guards themselves?". In the Army's case, apparently no one. For perpetrators who outrank their victims, the benefits of misconduct, for example, bullying, victimisation and harassment, outweigh the risks and consequences of being caught or held to account.
Ombudsman institutions with powers to oversee the Armed Forces have been established in at least 37 states. The UK is an anomaly for the almost total lack of powers vested in the SCC. British service personnel are among the most vulnerable to mistreatment by their own employers of any western military. The Ombudsman for the Defence Forces in Ireland is an example of best practice. Any Ombudsman's lack of powers to enforce its findings will make it ''a last resort'' for people with grievances. The Army often believes, at an atavistic level, that it is above the law. This attitude is infused throughout the organisation, from senior officers to those who, following the killing of Baha Musa, engaged in "…a more or less obvious closing of ranks.” The former begets the latter. The MOD has a 25-year history of rejecting empowered oversight. In the last ten years the MOD has had seven secretaries of state who presumably have little time to master the minutiae of personnel policies, amidst a tsunami of other priorities, before they are replaced.
The risks of being overly deferential to rank should be heeded, and tempered by a robust and independent ombudsman system staffed, funded, and capable of both investigating Army misconduct, and imposing penalties upon the MOD when they fail. The lessons of Deepcut, and the recommendations of Sir Nicholas Blake QC's Deepcut Review, have been ignored by the MOD.
60% of soldiers leave the Army in their first six years of service – only 3% of officers stay in until retirement. The MOD, however, places the wellbeing of the former in to the hands of the latter. While this is the inevitable consequence of a hierarchical system, it does not encourage healthy debate and does not provide to parliament a representative cross-section of views regarding the merits of an empowered SCC.
The Service Complaints Commissioner must be imbued with the powers of an independent, impartial and empowered Armed Forces ombudsman – including the ability to impose financial penalties. The Army's raison d'être is the application of lethal force on the nation's behalf: this justifies a margin of appreciation from civilian society, but not the absolute and wholesale cleaving of employee protections.
So what, what can you do about it? Nothing? What difference can one person make? Actually, if you speak out, then working together, we can make an immense difference:
My personal opinion is that it is deeply unhealthy to have a conspiracy of silence that lets senior officers get away with treatment like that experienced by Prince Harry's flying instructor, documented by Channel 4 News here: http://www.channel4.com/news/soldiers-powerless-against-bullies-says-harrys-instructor
I can recount a litany of abuse (I use the word carefully) that the Army has got away with because of attitudes that encourage cover-ups and frightened people in to silence. For example, one of my friends was raped by her RSM in UOTC some years ago, and she was too terrified to report it until it was too late - because of the Army's culture of not speaking out. I am also aware of other cases where service personnel have not reported mistreatment because the perpetrators were a higher rank than them. Personally, I have never been the subject of disciplinary action, AGAI action, nor have I ever made a service complaint about my own treatment. I am however increasingly aware of many people who have been treated very badly. I don't intend to recite their cases here, suffice to say that it is galling to have a 40-year old Warrant Officer on the phone choking back tears because his wife has broken down under the pressure and desperately wants him to drop his complaint, because the Army have been blocking it, destroying evidence and lying with impunity. I know of another WO1(RSM) whose career and marriage was destroyed by the Army's mistreatment, to the horror of the RAF Legal Services officers (Sqn Ldr/Wg Cdr) who were advising him - but were powerless themselves to intervene. I know of another very recent case where someone was driven by the pressure of the Army's treatment to the point where she had a miscarriage, lost their baby, and attempted suicide - before the Army grudgingly conceded that they got it wrong after all. If you doubt any of this, feel free to message me for information. I am very busy with a variety of G1 tasks at the moment, and do not have time to contribute to ARRSE, I'm afraid.
If you have no criticism of the Service Complaints system, good for you. Well done. Feel free to pass on this thread and browse elsewhere on ARRSE. Almost by definition, those able to speak out about Service Complaints will only be those who have been driven to use the system. Please don't suggest that the only people to criticise a system must be those who have done something wrong: you make yourself sound like the racists of the 1980's who insisted their was no racism in the Army, the misogynists of the early 1990's who fought to sack pregnant service women, and the homophobes of the late 1990's who interrogated, persecuted and terminated the careers of gay personnel. (We could also talk about unlawful courts martial systems that were changed only after many improper convictions, or the manifold examples of failure of duty of care endemic in Deepcut and the surrounding inquiries.) If you're not familiar with the above, send me a PM with your email address, and I'll email you some background info. My point is that there are many excellent aspects of the Army, but its treatment of junior personnel (in which I include non-commissioned ranks up to junior officers) is often not one of those excellent aspects. The Army must evolve, and we all have a part to play in that.
Now, to be clear: if you are still serving, you can only speak out anonymously: to do otherwise is to lay yourself open to further victimisation by PS2(A). In my view, however, I am absolutely clear: speaking out to report people for mistreatment is entirely proper - we should not have a culture of "institutional self-defence that prevents honest acknowledgement of failure" (Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Health, a week ago: http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2013/feb/16/jeremy-hunt-nhs-bosses-whistleblowing
The Army does have a culture of institutional self-defence that prevents honest acknowledgement of failure at the moment, and it is not healthy. If you wish to speak to the press, you are adults and you should be treated as such (a novelty for the Army, I know...). Yes, on your head be it: only speak to people who you can trust, and ask them to keep your information anonymous if you need to (i.e. if you're still serving). There appear to be two journalists covering these stories:
Deborah Haynes, Defence Editor at The Times - email@example.com - http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/public/profile/Deborah-Haynes
Kris Jepson, Defence journalist at Channel 4 News - firstname.lastname@example.org - http://www.channel4.com/news/kris-jepson
In parliament, Madeleine Moon MP is also fighting for a fair Service Complaints system, and fair treatment of service personal. You have a legal right to contact your MP, and as Madeleine Moon is on the Defence Select Committee, you also have a legal right to contact her (protected by parliamentary privilege). She is contactable at email@example.com or via her Westminster researcher, Jenny Humpreys, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Both journalists are in contact with the next of kin of various victims of Army mistreatment (in some cases the grieving next of kin, as the individuals in question were driven to take their own life). There is nothing wrong with this, so Army HQ can do nothing. Deborah Haynes and Kris Jepson have done some excellent work to highlight the mistreatment of service personnel - if it wasn't for their work, for example, Bale Baleiwai and his family (wrongly accused and convicted at Summary Hearing, and cleared almost two years later), would have been deported: http://www.channel4.com/news/disciplined-fc-soldiers-should-have-british-citizenship (thanks to Channel 4 raising his profile, Bale was assisted with securing a court martial almost two years after his summary hearing, and was acquitted).
To be clear therefore:
1. My personal opinion: people have right, some would say an obligation, to speak out and report mistreatment.
2. Fact: if you are serving military, you should only speak out anonymously.
3. Fact: even if you are serving military, your relatives are perfectly at liberty to speak out on your behalf, and the Army can do nothing, as the MOD found at its expense in Danny Nightingale's case:
How the Ministry of Defence tried to prevent publication of Danny Nightingale's story, Sean Rayment, Defence Correspondent, The Daily Telegraph, 2 Dec 12:
‘The MoD...contacted Sgt Nightingale while he was in Colchester, ordering him to call his wife immediately and tell her not to co-operate with the press...Mrs Nightingale suspected that something was wrong and immediately phoned her lawyer saying that she believed he was making the call under duress...the D-Notice Committee...told me that naming Sgt Nightingale would breach the D-Notice contract...I explained that my view, and that of The Sunday Telegraph was that D-Notices should only be in used in matters of national security and not to stop embarrassing stories being published...just hours before The Sunday Telegraph was due to be published, I received an email from the MoD which claimed that the SAS had spoken to Sgt Nightingale and he was “horrified” at the thought of being named and his case being publicised....the claims contained in the email, of course, were nonsense, a fact which the MoD now accepts. Eighteen days later Sgt Nightingale was freed from military detention.'
Any questions, feel free to PM me, guys. I regret that I will not be checking this thread as I'm busy at work.
Update, added 13 Mar 13:
Call for ombudsman as army ‘kangaroo courts’ condemned
Deborah Haynes, Defence Editor, The Times, 13 Mar 13.
An army officer has attacked the military’s method of administering justice, which he says is ruining soldiers’ lives.
Major Ross McLeod has sent a 200-page study of the military justice system to politicians, lawyers and relatives to raise awareness about what he regards as the Ministry of Defence’s failure to respect the rule of law.
Issues raised in his report include:
• Allegations of soldiers’ careers destroyed by an internal justice system he likens to a “kangaroo court”;
• Claims that the military is failing to resolve allegations of bullying;
• Allegations that victims of abuse fear speaking out because they have lost faith in the chain of command;
• Calls for an overhaul of the Army’s internal sanctions regime to give all soldiers access to an employment tribunal;
• Calls for an Armed Forces Ombudsman to intervene when victims of alleged bullying, sexual harassment and other forms of abuse seek help.
“The Army has a dishonourable history of decades of misleading ministers down moral and legal black holes, from the sacking of pregnant servicewomen to the exclusion of homosexuals,” Major McLeod wrote in a letter.
“It is entirely proper that those of us who are in a position to articulate potential problems do so,” he added. “Army HQ may not appreciate exposure, but they must play the ball not the man.”
Unlike civilian employees, a soldier cannot challenge a decision against him or her at an employment tribunal unless the case is about race, gender or sexual discrimination.
Major McLeod’s report argues for all soldiers to be given access to an employment tribunal to end the over-arching power of commanding officers.
“roceedings under the Army’s internal sanctions regime . . . are kangaroo courts: biased and partisan tribunals, bounding inexorably towards predetermined conclusions,” he wrote.
After a series of reports in The Times on the issue, Labour has pledged to create an armed forces ombudsman if it forms the next government. Jim Murphy, the Shadow Defence Secretary, said it was vital to create a system of strong independent oversight of complaints by service personnel.
Major McLeod said that he formed his opinions during a protracted fight for his younger brother, Captain Gregg McLeod, who was disciplined after being found guilty last year of social misconduct — a charge he denies.
He called for a “root and branch” overhaul of the most serious sanctions regime — known as AGAI 67 — applied when a soldier is deemed to have breached the Service Test, which embodies the Army’s standards.
An MoD spokeswoman said: “The Administrative Action AGAI 67 system is an administrative rather than disciplinary process whereby action is taken against those whose standards of behaviour have fallen below that expected of serving personnel. Following the outcome, personnel can request a review of the action and the sanction awarded against them.”
The Times have published the full report on their website, here: The Times - Call for ombudsman as army ‘kangaroo courts’ condemned - but it can also be downloaded below:
The files published by The Times:
Overview - Maj R A McLeod R SIGNALS LLB MA.pdf
Part 1 - The need for an empowered Armed Forces Ombudsman.pdf
Part 2 - Threats to Service Personnel - and opportunities for mitigation.pdf