With yet more allegations of bullying and abuse in the armed forces, the time has come for the government to act on its promise to ensure that serving personnel are treated fairly and get access to the support they need when they leave active service.
One way that the Government could do this is to press ahead with plans to give legal teeth to the so-called Armed Forces Covenant, which is effectively a promise by the State to recognise the unique obligations and sacrifices made by members of the armed services and minimise the impact that serving might have on their civilian lives.
The Prime Minister was praised when he first announced his intention to give legal force to the Armed Forces Covenant. The Armed Forces Act that came into force in April last year has gone some way towards achieving this. The next step is for the Secretary of State for Defence to report on the extent to which membership of the armed forces puts personnel at a disadvantage in specific areas, including healthcare and housing. Importantly, however, employment rights are not one of the areas to be considered and this is wrong.
Currently, if a civilian has a grievance against his employer, he can make a complaint and if this isn't resolved fairly and expeditiously, he may be able to take the matter to an employment tribunal. By contrast, members of the armed forces do not have the same right of access to justice, unless the problem they experienced arose from discrimination. Even where discrimination is involved, the Service Complaints Procedure can still slow things down, causing significant delay and uncertainty.
The Service Complaints Procedure, which operates within all three of the armed services, was reformed in 2006 to help resolve issues affecting serving personnel following events at Deepcut Barracks between 1995 and 2002, when four soldiers died in mysterious circumstances amid reports of bullying. The aim was to create a system capable of rooting out bullying and other abuses and of preventing unnecessary deaths. Since then, there have been thousands of complaints made using the system, and it is estimated that 550 were brought last year alone - 10 per cent more than in 2011.
As a lawyer who regularly handles compensation claims on behalf of military personnel, I believe that the Service Complaints Procedure, despite all of its good intentions, is in fact failing. Not only are complaints still taking too long to resolve, those bringing them often say the process is made difficult for them. In some instances, even when the matter is resolved, they find little or nothing is done to change the circumstances that led to the abusive behaviour in the first place.
While the individual affected may feel vindicated if their complaint has been upheld, they quickly realise that, if nothing has actually changed, they may need to bring a further complaint to force through any remedial action. In the meantime, the uncertainty surrounding their complaint and its potential repercussions can cause considerable stress - sometimes leading to debilitating mental health problems.
A report published recently by Dr Susan Atkins, the Service Complaints Commissioner has highlighted several serious cases of delay leading to appalling results. In one case a young serviceman had to wait two-and-a-half years before his complaint, which had been rejected, was upheld. In the meantime his career had been damaged irrevocably.
While Dr Atkins' appointment has certainly helped to ensure that complaints of this nature are dealt with fairly, crucially she has no actual powers and has to rely on influence alone. The time has come to strengthen her role - making her a Service Ombudsman with powers at her disposal to make changes to the complaints system, to investigate and where necessary, force through positive action.
As part of any move to give legal teeth to the Armed Forces Covenant, the Service Complaints Procedure should be subjected to closer scrutiny and outside control. At the very least, the Secretary of State should make sure that employment-related disadvantages suffered by serving personnel are considered in his annual Covenant report.
Members of the armed forces have been suffering unfairly for too long and they deserve just treatment in all areas of life.
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