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Nicola Williams – My last blog as Ombudsman

Nicola Williams full body shot
Nicola Williams – The first Service Complaints Ombudsman for the Armed Forces

This has been a hard blog for me to write. It’s my last one before I demit office at the end of the year, and there is a lot more to be said that can be captured in a few hundred words. How can I begin to capture here what it has meant to be the first Service Complaints Ombudsman – the first-ever Ombudsman for UK Defence – at the head of a team who, for the first time, had new and increased legislative powers to review decisions from the Services on complaints from Armed Forces personnel, and to investigate allegations of wrongs committed against them?

Truth to tell, it has taken me far longer to write than I anticipated, because I wanted to make it perfect. But ‘the great is the enemy of the good’ and rather than striving for perfection, I just thought I’d make it authentic and heartfelt instead.

People always leave the Thank You’s to the end, but I want to do them now. There are too many people – military, civilian, stakeholders and the SCOAF team – to name individually, but it does not in any way diminish my gratitude and appreciation for those who have been a part of my professional life since 2015.

To the military of all ranks: I know some of you were wary about this new system giving greater powers to a civilian Ombudsman who, as a condition of appointment, had no connection to the UK Armed Forces, but over time grew to respect my decisions as Ombudsman, even when challenging, as you knew they were rooted in fairness and underpinned by my many years of legal experience, both as a barrister and on the Bench. I loved getting to know something of the lives you lead, both within the United Kingdom and all across the world. The privilege of meeting you so many of you in person will stay with me long after I leave the office.

To the MOD civil servants who have worked closely with me and my team during my term as Ombudsman: the first term of anything is always difficult. Though we may not have made as much progress as we would have hoped with regard to implementing SCOAF recommendations, I appreciate the progress that has been made and hope this continues apace in 2021.

To our stakeholders, both within and outside the armed forces: I am always aware that you have a special and unique interest in what we do. Thank you for holding us accountable.

CHALLENGES

This leads me on to what is still outstanding, and the challenges I and my office have faced during my term. Although there has been broad compliance with the majority of recommendations I have made, far too many recommendations from our Annual Reports 2016-2019 remain outstanding. Two, in particular, which I consider are key to the Service complaints system operating efficiently, effectively and fairly. These concern undue delay, and the failure of the Services to meet the target of 90% of Service complaints to be resolved in 24 weeks; and the disproportionate number of female and BAME Service personnel making complaints, proportionate to their numbers in the Armed Forces. These two particular recommendations have now been outstanding for 3 years, 8 months as of the time of writing – a completely unacceptable length of time. And they are not the only ones.

I am always constantly amazed and proud of the consistently high quality of investigations conducted and reports produced by my Office, because another grave challenge throughout my term has been resources, particularly around staffing levels. The SCOAF team at full complement is not large. However, in my 5 years as Ombudsman (2016-20) we have only been at full staff complement for 3 months. We are constantly doing more with less. I hope at some point SCOAF will be able to do more – with more.

POSITIVES

However, despite the frustrations,  there are many more things to be proud of. As Commissioner in 2015, I was part of the transition scheme which set this office up from scratch. Defence had never had an Ombudsman before.  We at SCOAF have dealt with all complaints received in an independent, impartial and professional way, always exercising my civilian oversight fairly. The youngest of the three Services, the RAF, was established more than 100 years ago, and the Naval Service and the British Army have both been in existence far longer than that. The role of the Ombudsman has been in existence for just 5 years. In light of that, and the increasing pressure on resources, I am proud that trust and confidence both in me as Ombudsman and in SCOAF is high, and that I have to lead an office in which Service personnel can depend on our fairness and intellectual rigour when we conduct investigations.

I have personally read and signed over 1300 investigation reports. Sometimes my decisions are unwelcome, but they are always supported by evidence, always aware that my decisions, though binding on both the complainant and the respondent Service, can be challenged by way of Judicial Review. I am proud that, as of the time of writing, there has never been a successful Judicial Review of any decision I have made as Ombudsman.

My remit extends beyond making decisions on individual complaints – it is to ensure the Service complaints system operates efficiently, effectively and fairly. My office has helped to raise the standard of how Service complaints are dealt with generally. I know Service personnel appreciate a direct and candid message, courteously delivered. That is how I am personally and that has informed my engagement, both on those visits and in meetings with senior Service personnel.

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In my thank you list at the beginning of this blog, there was one cohort I have saved until last – my SCOAF team, past and present. None of what we have achieved as an office would be possible without the effort of each and every one of you. As the external face of the office, I am the pointy end of the spear, but a spear is much more than that. I am proud to have been the first-ever Service Complaints Ombudsman, and my successor is inheriting a wonderful team. Simply put, it has been a privilege to work with you; I can pay you no higher honour than that.

This has been a challenging year for all of us for all sorts of reasons, not least COVID-19. But if you are reading this, you have made it (almost) to the 2020 finish line and for that, we can all be truly grateful.

NICOLA WILLIAMS