Marshal of the Royal Air Force Lord Craig of Radley has called on the new Government to consider repealing the recent legislation to establish a Service Complaints Ombudsman.
The coalition government's legislation to establish a service complaints ombudsman became law on 26 March. The legislation is intended to improve and strengthen the Service Complaints system by transforming the existing Service Complaints Commissioner into a new Service Complaints Ombudsman. The prospective Ombudsman, Nicola Williams, took up office as Service Complaints Commissioner in January 2015 but the legislation transforming her post has yet to be implemented.
In today's House of Lords debate about the Queen's Speech programme (28 May), Lord Craig said that the legislation
"... served to lessen the essential ethos of trust, both political and military, up and down the chain of command—a fundamental requirement of the Armed Forces."
Now that there was likely to be a delay in bringing forward a British Bill of Rights, he hoped "that the Government will consider dealing with the issue in the quinquennial Armed Forces Bill". The next Armed Forces Bill is due to be introduced in 2016.
Lord Craig viewed the proposed Service Complaints arrangements as a "combat lawfare" issue, along with the International Criminal Court.
"Lawfare" has various definitions, but in the context of combat, is a form of assymetric warfare involving "the exploitation of real, perceived, or even orchestrated incidents of law-of-war violations being employed as an unconventional means of confronting a superior military power."
Anxieties about "lawfare" were also raised by members of the House of Commons Defence Committee during its pre-appointment interview of the prospective Ombudsman, who confirmed that she was aware of that issue.
BAFF comment: Lord Craig had taken an active part in debating the legislation, and the continuing reservations of a former Chief of the Defence Staff must be taken seriously. He previously asserted that the current Chiefs of Staff had only accepted the reforms "on the basis of shotgun pressure upon them". His new call for the reforms to be cancelled is bound to cause concern to those responsible for implementing the legislation.
All complaints systems are subject to the possibility of spurious and/or malicious complaints, and Service Complaints are no exception. What is not clear is how complaints by serving or recently retired personnel could be exploited as a weapon of "combat lawfare" - that is to say, by an actual enemy - with any meaningful success.
We think that if there is truly a risk of service complaints being expoited by an enemy, the existence of an independent Service Complaints Ombudsman may help to maintain confidence in the integrity of the system. The Ombudsman function should also, in that scenario, help to protect genuine complainants against malicious accusations that they are indulging in "lawfare".
We trust that the Ministry of Defence has, by now, already assured the Service Complaints Commissioner that the Government has no intention of reneging on the reforms under the Armed Forces (Service Complaints and Financial Assistance) Act 2015. We would also welcome an early statement to that effect in Parliament.