Calls for military to lose immunity from prosecution over safety breaches
Published: 03 Mar 2020

A recent investigation carried out by BBC Wales revealed that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) breached health and safety laws 40 times and 148 service personnel have died during training exercises, in the past 20 years.

The offences took place not during the active service in war zones, but during the training and selection process, where soldiers died while being exposed to extreme temperatures and weather conditions whilst performing intense physical exercises, as well as using unsafe equipment, machinery and vehicles.

Currently, the MoD, as a Governmental Department, enjoys Crown privilege. This means while health and safety legislation applies to the MoD, it is not subject to criminal enforcement in the courts. Instead of the criminal enforcement action, there are certain administrative arrangements that mirror them - ultimately leading to a Crown Censure instead of prosecution. The Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 does not apply to MoD's work activities and operations abroad.

The BBC reports that the families that decided to report on the deaths of their loved ones during army practice, expressed concerns that lives are put at risk.

In 2013 an incident occurred where three SAS soldiers lost their lives during a fitness test, where they were marching against the clock on the Brecon Beacons. The 16-mile march happened on one of the hottest days of the year, soldiers also had to carry a 25kg (3st 13lb) backpack all the way. On that day, of the 41 men taking part in the exercise, 18 dropped out, collapsed or were withdrawn. Two of the men that collapsed died at the scene, while one died later in the hospital. It was later found during the inquest that the paramedics from the helicopter attending the incident were told that "we occasionally get deaths on these exercises".

The BBC investigation also obtained an internal MoD review commissioned in 2002 after a series of diving deaths. The report recommended "substantial changes" to the equipment and training to meet "21st Century standards". In 2004 a soldier died during an exercise in Germany, using the same diving kit the Army was warned to replace just two years earlier, however, those concerns were overruled.

A few years later another soldier died at the National Diving and Activity Centre near Chepstow. An inquiry found that lessons had not been learned and the Army was lacking formal training for diving officers.

Ms Hilary Meredith, who represented the widow of one of the soldiers, said that the MoD "can be criticised but there are no sanctions or teeth to make them sit up and change the way we look after those people who serve us".

"I think, quite shockingly, the only way to make change is to really be extreme - remove immunity so the MoD takes responsibility and is sanctioned or fined if there is a reckless disregard to life."

In a statement, a spokesperson for MoD said that it regularly monitored and audited training and "all deaths in training are investigated" to "ensure that all accidents are minimised". The statement also mentioned that their heat illness policy had been updated six times since 2015, and a full safety review was undertaken into diving activities in 2018, which is currently ongoing.

A freedom of information request revealed that preventable injuries have cost the MoD more than £56m between 2012 and 2019.