Defence Committee Quizzes Mariette Hughes, MOD Candidate For Forces Ombudsman Role

Currently acting chief ombudsman, Mariette Hughes is the Ministry of Defence’s preferred candidate to take over the role in January.

The Defence Committee has questioned Mariette Hughes as part of the recruitment process to find the next Service Complaints Ombudsman.

Ms Hughes, who is currently Acting Chief Ombudsman until the process is complete, is the Ministry of Defence’s (MOD's) preferred candidate to take over the role in January.

The Service Complaints Ombudsman deals with workplace complaints from anyone serving in the Army, Royal Navy or Royal Air Force.

It’s an independent and impartial role for personnel from any of the three services who want to raise a complaint but don’t want to go through the chain of command. 

The Chief Ombudsman role holds equivalent rank to a three-star general.

In addition to their daily duties, the Chief Ombudsman must submit an annual progress report to Parliament.

If appointed, Ms Hughes says she wants to find out why so many service personnel are still reluctant to come forward with complaints.

“I’m a fundamental believer that access to justice and access to redress are cornerstones of our society so having an effective complaints system and an ombudsman system that works is really important to me.

“Our armed services are such a fundamental part of who we are as a nation, that it's so important they have a system that supports them while they protect us, so the work really matters to me."

She continued: “The key issues for me coming in will be looking into, firstly, the number of people who express an unwillingness to complain; so, the number of people in the [Armed Forces] Continuous Attitude Survey who said they wouldn’t feel comfortable raising a complaint.

Anonymous troops with Union Jack CREDIT MoD
Ms Hughes said, if chosen, she would look into the reasons why some personnel don't feel comfortable raising a complaint. (Picture: MOD).

“That is, to my view, as much an issue for the Service Complaints System itself as it is for the ombudsman.

“We need to be pursuing a system where people feel even if they can’t go directly to the chain of command, that they can come to the ombudsman and have that assurance that, firstly, it’s going to be looked at, it’s going to be looked at correctly and also that there’s going to be no repercussions on them for having spoken up and having raised that issue.

“The other main issue for me would be the overrepresentation of black and minority ethnic personnel who are represented in the complaints system as well as the over-representation of female serving personnel.”

When asked whether she would struggle being on the MOD payroll while having to hold the department to account, she added: “Whilst I might be an employee of the Ministry of Defence, my decisions must stand on their own.

“They must be beyond reproach and they must be absolutely based on evidence, and clear.”

In all four of her annual reports, outgoing Service Complaints Ombudsman Nicola Williams has said, despite continued improvements, the system is still not efficient, effective or fair.

The Government appointed Nicola Williams as the first Service Complaints Ombudsman in 2015 so claims of bullying and harassment in the Armed Forces would be handled more quickly and effectively.

The position replaced the role of Service Complaints Commissioner.

If Mariette Hughes is appointed to the role, she will take up her post on 1 January 2021.