In her first interview since being appointed Service Complaints Ombudsman for the Armed Forces (SCOAF), Mariette Hughes has been speaking to Forces News about her new role and issues in the Service Complaints system.
Most notably, Ms Hughes said "delays" and "levels of trust and confidence that service personnel have" in the system are of "most concern".
Outlining her priorities for her time in the position, she said: "Raising awareness of my office throughout the Armed Forces so that more people know what the Ombudsman is and know what we're for.
"Sharing knowledge, sharing tips and tricks and really providing some on-the-ground assistance to help make those incremental improvements as we go on, as well as looking at the wider structural changes that the system needs."
Ms Hughes has chosen not to make any further recommendations for improvement to the Service Complaints system as "there are still 11 recommendations outstanding [from previous years] and some that were not adopted, which the Ombudsman feels need to be reassessed".
For a fourth year running, SCOAF has found the Service Complaints system is not efficient, effective or fair.
There was also a 54% increase in the number of formal statements of complaint that were processed by the services in 2020 compared to the year before.
A total of 1,833 formal statements of complaint were made in 2020 – up from 1,184 in 2019 and 1,185 in 2018.
Two pre-2016 complaints also remain open.
The Ombudsman's annual report revealed that both female and Black, Asian and Minority ethnic personnel were overrepresented in the number of complaints, and that nearly a third of complaints were about bullying, harassment, and discrimination.
"Until and unless the system starts to work better, our service personnel won't feel confident in using that system," Ms Hughes said.
"Fewer than half of service complaints are being resolved within the 24 weeks target, which is simply not good enough."
She said she is particularly concerned "around the over-representation of female and Black, Asian [and] Minority ethnic personnel within that system" and "the number of bullying harassment and discrimination complaints that we are seeing".
"If people are saying they feel they have been treated a certain way but don't feel confident enough to let the system help them, that to me is a real problem."
However, Ms Hughes also said there have been "several improvements to the reformed Service Complaints system".
Women in the Armed Forces Sub-Committee Chair, Sarah Atherton, said the complaints system process has "regressed in critical ways" and "real changes are needed".
"Service personnel have less confidence in the system and even more complaints are taking too long to get through.
"Real changes are needed from the MOD [Ministry of Defence] and services to give all personnel confidence in this system."
When asked by Forces News about the level of complaints, Ms Hughes said: "Career management in the Armed Forces is very different to every other sector out there in the world.
"It's experience-driven, but it is also very process-driven. You're incredibly reliant on the content of your yearly appraisal reports in order to be able to promote upwards.
"So, in terms of complaints handling that, to me, is a perfect storm of things that will cause people to perhaps feel dissatisfied and raise a complaint.
"It’s not really surprising to me that we see that proportion of complaints in the system."
In 2020, SCOAF received 170 applications for referral, an increase of 17% compared to 143 in 2019, and made 168 referrals to the services – two applications for referral were withdrawn.
In regards to cases that are picked up now, Ms Hughes said there may not be a visible improvement until the reports published in two or three years' time because of "statistical time lags".
This current report is the fifth report to cover the work of the Service Complaints system and the Ombudsman's office.
Recommendations will be made "in the summer" by the Women in the Armed Forces Sub-Committee inquiry.