The Falkland Islands aren’t just home to Rockhopper Penguins and pale maidens – the archipelago is also home to the men and women serving with the British Forces South Atlantic Islands. I had the great honour of starting my new year with a trip to visit the Service personnel based there and thought you might be interested in hearing a little bit about that trip and why I place such importance on visiting Service personnel at home and abroad.
It’s a long way to the Falkland Islands – around 20hrs in transit when flying from Brize Norton – but it is a trip that is certainly well worth it as I had the privilege of learning earlier this month.
The Falkland Islands, and also Ascension Island where I had a stopover, are picturesque and somewhere I hope to explore at my leisure another time. Although I got a chance to see some of the islands, first and foremost I was there in my capacity as the Service Complaints Ombudsman – to meet with and speak to as many of the more than 1,000 personnel based there as possible. This is something that I consider to be one of the most important parts of the job.
As the Ombudsman I provide independent and impartial oversight of what is effectively an internal workplace grievance system for Service personnel. There are many different aspects to the work I undertake, most of which concerns my legal mandate to make referrals, conduct investigations and report on the system as a whole. A requirement of my appointment is that I have never served in the Armed Forces, so it is important that I understand the issues facing Service personnel in their daily lives (good and bad) from their perspective to help me undertake my role effectively.
With Service personnel being stationed in many locations across the UK and serving in over 80 countries all over the world it would be impossible for me to get to every location – that would be a full-time job in itself! But I do try and get to around 10 different units each year, including one overseas visit and will continue to do so until the end of my term in 2020.
Contrary to what some people might think, when I undertake a visit it doesn’t indicate that there is a problem that I have come to investigate or that a unit has “too many” Service complaints. How I choose where to visit is based on a number of factors, but can often be the result of a direct invitation or a suggestion made during the course of an earlier visit or meeting. While every visit is different in terms of location the purpose remains the same – to learn more about the work and culture of the Armed Forces. My visit to the Falkland Islands was no different to any other in that regard and Commodore Darren Bone, Commander British Forces South Atlantic Islands, and his ADC Lt Sam Velickovic RN ensured I had a brilliant programme which gave me ample opportunity to do this.
In addition to learning about the work that the British Forces do in the Falklands and meeting with key personnel involved with the welfare of Service personnel, I had the opportunity to run a number of focus groups with Service personnel.
These focus groups are the central component of every visit I undertake. When arranging a visit I ask to meet individual Service personnel in small groups usually by rank and without anyone from the chain of command present. This allows for a full and open discussion to take place and for me to truly hear about the whole of Service life from different perspectives. Although I cannot talk about specific complaints, personnel can ask any questions they have about the process or my role, and discuss issues or experiences they have had that may give rise to a complaint or that are a positive reflection of life in the Services.
Even with the period of time I had in the Falklands it still wasn’t long enough to meet everyone and I was thankful to have a short interview with Simon Marlow on BFBS Falklands so that my message could reach all of those Service personnel I didn’t have the opportunity to meet and I hope that the message was well received.
It was a fantastic trip and everyone I met could not have been more welcoming or willing to engage and discuss the issues that were important to them. This only served to reiterate in my mind that meeting Service personnel at home and abroad is one of the greatest privileges I have in this role and I look forward to meeting many more of you over the next few years.