Archive photo of 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery live firing on Salisbury Plain (Picture: Royal Navy).
By Rhicha Kapila, Head of Military Claims at Bolt Burdon Kemp.
This year marks many British Forces anniversaries. It has been 100 years since the end of the First World War, as well as the RAF Centenary.
Although this is a year of celebration, it is not just an important opportunity to reflect on lives lost, but also veterans still living.
More than ever the spotlight has been on the welfare of our veterans and on whether the government is abiding by their duties in the Armed Forces Covenant.
It seems the authorities are listening – inquests were opened into the deaths of four soldiers and alleged abuse and bullying at Princess Royal Barracks Deepcut – there is more awareness around veteran’s mental health and rehabilitation with the new Defence and National Rehabilitation Centre which will open later this year.
However, it’s clear there is still a long way to go when it comes to fairly supporting those serving and our heroes who have come home.
Change from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is still needed, which was particularly highlighted in the recent inquest into the training accident which led to the deaths of Cpl Hatfield and Cpl Neilson last year at Castlemartin Range.
At the inquest, the coroner found that a design flaw was the reason behind why an Army tank exploded, killing the two soldiers.
At least this is another step towards tackling the MoD’s failure to detect defective equipment and keep their soldiers safe during training.
Cpl Hatfield and Cpl Neilson died at Castlemartin Range in Pembrokeshire when conducting a live firing exercise in 2017.
It was discovered that the MoD and gun designers had not properly checked the tank and its gun in the manufacturing process, meaning the gun was able to be fired without the airtight seal which would have prevented the release of explosive gases which caused the accident. Ammunition was also stored incorrectly leading to a second explosion.
After the conclusion of the inquest many, including the widow of Cpl Neilson, Jemma Neilson, have called for the MoD to make immediate changes to ensure an incident like this never occurs again.
However, it’s frustrating that not enough was being done by the MoD to prevent defective equipment being used by their soldiers already, despite many cases over the years highlighting such issues.
The decision in the landmark Snatch Land Rover case heard in the Supreme Court in 2013 resulted in soldiers and their families being able to claim for compensation for injuries or death sustained in combat if negligent battle preparations were proven, which included the use of defective equipment.
The government, however, is currently considering reform in respect of this decision and to widen the definition of combat to include procurement and decisions made outside of the heat of battle in Whitehall.
Of course, defective equipment can cause serious physical injury and death as well as mental health illnesses, such as PTSD, and the MoD must be held to account.
However, since then, lessons have still not been learned. 1,250 soldiers in the last five years have claimed compensation due to them suffering from non-freezing cold injuries after having to work in cold and wet conditions for long periods.
Even though these injuries can be prevented by soldiers being given the right equipment and training, the MoD still hasn’t done this.
Like any other employer, the military has a duty of care towards their personnel to ensure they are given the right equipment for the task in hand, and that it’s kept up to a safe standard and regularly inspected.
Personnel should be made aware of the risks of using the equipment, with appropriate personal protective equipment being given as well as training on how to use it properly.
They should be informed of any dangers found in risk assessments, and the MoD has to implement measures to protect them from these dangers.
Any defective equipment should not be used until it has been repaired. It’s clear that protocol wasn’t followed in the Castlemartin accident.
The Defence Sub-Committee set out to examine these challenges in the ‘Beyond endurance? Military exercises and the duty of care inquiry’ report in 2016.
It was recognised that the MoD has not always got the correct balance between adequate training and reducing risks resulting in life-changing injuries and deaths in training. Despite recommendations being made, we continue to see examples of inadequacies as in the Castlemartin case.
The coroner has sent the report of the Castlemartin inquest to BAE Systems and the MoD to ensure an accident like this will never occur again. In light of the report, it’s important that the MoD protects soldiers by adhering to regulations and upholding their duty of care to prevent serious injuries and death, not just in training but in combat too.
We all hope this inquest will set a precedent when it comes to defective equipment and more widely the government’s duty of care, but until the MoD start listening and adopting the calls for change, these preventable accidents may sadly continue.