Women 'let down' and 'very much offended' by Armed Forces complaints system

Disproportionately high numbers of complaints from minority groups within the British military have been highlighted, alongside delays to the processing of such complaints.

Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill has continued its scrutiny of the proposal, with the Service Complaints system has come under fire as evidence was given by a number of witnesses representing groups who have faced discrimination in the past.

Although the Armed Forces Bill aims to enshrine the military covenant in law and ensure nobody is disadvantaged by their service, the hearing has revealed that many within the Armed Forces feel they remain disadvantaged due to their gender, ethnic background or sexual orientation.

Nicola Williams stood as Service Complaints Ombudsman from 2016 to 2020, a role created in 2015 to offer an alternative route for service personnel who do not wish to approach the chain of command with allegations.

The Ombudsman produces an annual report on the fairness, efficiency and effectiveness of the Service Complaints system.

During Ms Williams' time in the position, many recommendations to the complaints system were not realised.

"Delay is something that puts off everyone making a service complaint, because you know that, sadly, things are not kept as confidential within the services as they should," she said.

"People work closely together, things get out. Once they get out, you might think" 'Well, I can deal with that for six months,' but you can't deal with it for a year, two years, three years," she added, claiming it is "unfair" to expect anyone to do so.

September 2020 saw the launch of an around-the-clock, confidential bullying helpline within the military, staffed by trained advisors with the aim of ensuring concerns are dealt with "quickly and appropriately".

Ms Williams' last report, covering 2019, revealed that 39% of women made complaints about bullying, harassment and discrimination, compared to 21% of men.

Anonymous troops
Delays within the complaints system can dissuade personnel from using it, said its former ombudsman.

The Ministry of Defence (MOD) has conducted a review of the service complaints commission following recommendations from the Service Complaints Ombudsman.

It also considered recommendations from the House of Commons Defence Select Committee and Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Michael Wigston, following his report on inappropriate behaviours in defence.

Retired Lieutenant Colonel Diane Allen resigned from the Army in 2020 after 30 years, citing bigotry within the service and a lack of support as her reasons for leaving.

She says women are "disproportionately represented" in the complaints system.

"I think we were let down and felt very much offended by the fact that only one of 36 of the recommendations to tackle inappropriate behaviour has actually been enacted and all others have been effectively shelved," she added.

Tony Wright, Chief Executive of Salute Her, a support service for female veterans, says he believes rape accusations and serious sexual assault charges should be taken out of the military justice system altogether.

"I am absolutely convinced that if we were having specialist, independent social workers, if you like, who understood this issue and understood best practice in supporting victims, then we would get a completely different outcome," he said.

The treatment of former servicemen and women before the ban on homosexual personnel was lifted in the year 2000 has meant many are still suffering, according to the Armed Forces LGBTQ+ community.

Craig Jones, Joint Chief Executive of Fighting With Pride: The LGBT+ Military Charity, said there is still "a lot of work to do".

"We have individuals who have sexual offences on their civilian records which have no place in modern times," he said.