Why it is time for an Armed Forces Ombudsman to strengthen military justice- Jim Murphy MP

Article in today’s Defence Management:

There are flaws in the current military justice system and reform is more important than ever to deal with bullying, harassment and inappropriate behaviour in the armed forces

It is time for reform to strengthen independent scrutiny of service complaints by creating an Armed Forces Ombudsman. Respecting the chain of command’s decision-making role, service personnel should have the opportunity to receive open and accountable justice. A Labour government would introduce cost-neutral reform though simplification of the present system to create a more powerful ombudsman in place of the current Service Complaints Commissioner.

For some time, flaws in the current system of military justice have been apparent. In 2011, the Service Complaints Commissioner herself described the system in her annual report as “not efficient, effective or fair”. There are persistent delays, the volume of old cases not dealt with creates a backlog and there is an increased level of complaints. Additionally, the commissioner does not have enough powers to correct courses of action the chain of command has taken.

Reform is now more important than ever. There have been a growing numbers of complaints over bullying, harassment and inappropriate behaviour. This is in part because of the higher visibility of the commissioner, but also due to the overhaul in force structures and mass redundancies resulting from the rushed 2010 Defence Review. Furthermore, the Defence Select Committee has expressed concern that a lack of confidence in the SCC’s powers has led personnel to not pursue their issues. Changes have been made, but they are insufficient to deal with these issues.

We need a new Armed Forces Ombudsman, with reform based on simplification; powers to make meaningful recommendations; respect for the freedom of the chain of command; and making the ombudsman central to the delivery of the Armed Forces Covenant.

Simplification can ensure personnel know how to act and the services available to them, but also to clarify accountability and authority at various stages of complaint procedure. To simplify and speed up the process, we would seek to remove one level of the current formal complaints procedure, which would also incur a cost saving.

The new ombudsman would not have powers to directly intervene while a complainant was in the formal complaints procedure, but would have the power to review a case after internal decision-making had concluded. Therefore the ombudsman would only be involved with a case which the chain of command had rejected or dealt with unsatisfactorily. This is similar to the procedure in Ireland.

The new Armed Forces Ombudsman would not be a decision-making body, but would have power to make recommendations that the chain of command would be compelled to respond to, whether re-opening a case or reviewing a specific decision. Recommendations could be made to the Defence Council or even the Secretary of State. The ombudsman would have right of access to all non-confident documentation they deem necessary to their investigation and could request earlier intervention during a formal investigative process.

As a result of the presence and profile of the Service Complaints Commissioner today, created by Labour in the Armed Forces Act 2006, many service personnel make complaints they would not have done previously without the commissioner’s oversight, so the right to refer remains important and would be retained by the ombudsman.

Overall, this new process and the creation of a new ombudsman would give those service personnel with a grievance against the justice system a means to independently have a review of the chain of command’s decision, something missing at present. Vitally, while enhancing the powers of scrutiny, recommendation and independence of the ombudsman, this system would protect the ultimate authority of the chain of command as the sole decision-maker.

This policy is proposed on the basis that it would be cost-neutral and Labour would only proceed with its implementation on that basis. The savings gained from simplification of the existing system would be reinvested in the establishment of an ombudsman. Labour would plan on the grounds that new funds would not be required.

Delivering real service justice must be central to our country’s efforts to continually strengthen the Armed Forces Covenant. To underline the importance of this process to the delivery of the principles of the Armed Forces Covenant, the head of the new Armed Forces Ombudsman would join the Covenant Reference Group and therefore be an important part of the Annual Covenant Report.

Each of us who cares for the armed forces and believes that their actions at home and overseas make us stronger as a nation know that the principles of fairness must run through their own structures from top to bottom. That is right not just to retain the indispensible bond with the nation they protect but to continue to set an example around the world.

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