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I regularly speak with Service personnel and veterans who feel let down by the Ministry of Defence (MoD), whether in relation to housing, health care, or bullying and harassment; the MoD is failing it’s people. In this article, I will explore how and why this is happening and what the MoD might do to change things for the better.
I often hear the same thing from the people that I represent. Time and time again they say to me that they joined the military because they valued a sense of purpose and belonging. They wanted to serve their country. They wanted to do a good job. They wanted financial security for their families. When something goes wrong they want to feel that they work for an organisation that will have their best interests at heart, that will listen to their concerns and act on them.
Responsibility and accountability
Every Remembrance Sunday the country comes together to commemorate those who have laid down their lives in service of their country. For many people, whether or not they have served themselves, this is an important and necessary tradition as a way of recognising sacrifice and the debt we owe to others.
It is unfortunate that the Service itself is not showing this same respect to our current Service personnel and veterans, and we see daily reminders of the ways in which people are being let down by the MoD.
The Guardian recently reported that nearly a third of UK military homes need repair and that Service personnel who have tried to raise the issue by exercising their legal rights have been threatened with having their pay docked.
It seems to me that there is a major issue with responsibility and accountability, and this is what often leaves individuals feeling disillusioned. Clients tell me that if someone had held their hands up, apologised, and tried to resolve the situation then things might have gone very differently. But it is virtually unheard of for the MoD to apologise where someone has been injured during their Service, even when as a direct result of the MoD’s own negligence.
Clearly, there are too often failings in responsibility that lead to things going wrong, and accountability in dealing with the aftermath.
Accepting “unacceptable” behaviours
A lot of my clients’ issues revolve around the way the military deals with incidents of bullying, discrimination, harassment and assault.
The military has its own system for dealing with such complaints, which is the Service Complaints process. This process has come under criticism for being slow and bureaucratic. The 2021 report from the Service Complaint Ombudsman concluded that the system “is not yet operating in a way that is efficient, effective or fair.”
In cases of harassment and assault the Service Police investigate and the Service Prosecuting Authority decide whether to prosecute a case. It was recently reported that eight in ten rape charges tried by a military Court Martial over the past three years ended without conviction — and that’s only those that get that far. These sorts of statistics have prompted calls for serious incidents of assault to be tried in civilian courts.
The lesson from all this is clear: when serious incidents occur, the MoD is simply not capable of effectively and impartially either investigating or delivering justice.
There have been a number of very tragic cases reported where personnel have taken their own lives. The investigations and inquiries which have followed have carried on for many years and even decades because of a lack of transparency and a willingness to admit what has gone wrong.
The extent to which personnel and their families are made to feel isolated, alienated, and even blamed in this process, and the resulting detrimental impact to their mental health, has been highlighted to me by many of my clients. Notably, these are people who are already vulnerable by virtue of what they have been through.
Protecting those who protect us
For those whose careers have come to an end due to injury or illness sustained in Service, there may be the option of seeking financial compensation under the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme. However, I hear regularly from people who had had claims rejected on a technicality or have spent many years waiting for a decision. While decisions are pending an individual may already be out of a job and not receiving a regular income. This can lead to dire financial consequence if someone can no longer afford to pay their mortgage and bills. As the cost of living crisis bites this is going to become more and more of an issue.
Another very pressing issue relates to health care. Virtually every person I speak to in relation to an existing or potential claim reports that they were not provided with adequate care and support when they are going through the process of a medical discharge. The level of support and treatment for some people can be very good. The MoD have some of the best rehabilitation facilities in the world. But not everyone is able to access these services. It can be hit and miss. Some personnel aren’t given the opportunity to extend their service so they have time to complete rehabilitation before they are let go, and transition to civilian health care can be anything but smooth or easy.
A way forward
It would be wrong to suggest that the MoD is ignoring the problems that exist but unfortunately a combination of culture and cut backs have often meant that the will and resources are lacking. As a result more and more people are falling through the cracks and having to rely on local public services or charities to pick up the pieces.
Because of this reliance, the government has had to pass the Armed Forces Act to ensure that Service personnel and veterans are prioritised when it comes to accessing public services. Arguably this would not be necessary if the MoD itself prioritised the needs of its personnel to make sure that they had access to housing, health care and welfare support that would both look after them properly during their Service, and allow them to make a successful transition to life on civvy street.
What this comes down to is ensuring there is a system in place so that every individual is given the same opportunities and is valued in the same way. All personnel should come to the end of their career knowing that their sacrifice has been recognised and appreciated. A change in culture is needed so that when a problem is raised it is not seen as a failing by the individual, but rather a failure in the system that needs to be addressed. Failings should be acknowledged openly otherwise lessons can’t be learnt.
In my opinion the MoD should:
- Have an impartial and independent system for dealing with the most serious incidents of workplace bullying, harassment and assault;
- Continue to work in partnership with the NHS to ensure a smooth transition when it comes to medical care and treatment and implement a feedback system whereby any failings can be identified and remedied;
- Build upon the existing support services when it comes to addressing an individual’s needs at the point of discharge whether that be in relation to housing, further education or finding work.
There is so much to celebrate in terms of what a Service career has to offer and we can all see in events such as Remembrance Sunday that it is a career that many veterans are rightly proud of. I hope that now and in the future all personnel can look back at their careers in the same way and feel that their contribution has been valued.
Hannah Swarbrick is a Senior Associate in the Military team at Bolt Burdon Kemp. She works on a wide variety of complex and high value personal injury and clinical negligence claims on behalf of service personnel and their families.
Hannah is passionate about supporting her clients, many of whom have suffered life-changing injuries. She has an understanding of the issues which affect service personnel whose careers have been ended by injury and the process of transition from military to civilian life. She fights to secure early compensation to ensure that her clients’ care and treatment needs are met as soon as possible.