The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has “major weaknesses” in its safety systems putting the military and civilians at risk from accidental injuries and death, according to the MoD’s internal watchdog.
A new report from the Defence Safety Authority (DSA), the government agency which regulates safety across the armed forces, warns that shortages of trained staff, the poor state of buildings and equipment and “complacency” are jeopardising safety.
The total number of reported injuries from accidents in the army, navy, air force and civilian staff rose 11 per cent between 2017-18 and 2018-19 to 13,683. The injury rate has “significantly increased” since 2013-14 when it was below 10,000, the report says.
The UK government is accused of “shambolic management” by the Scottish National Party, which says the report should act as a “wakeup call” for ministers. The MoD insists that the safety of its personnel is “paramount”.
She gave the MoD a formal safety rating of “limited”, the second worst of four categories. This means that the MoD’s internal controls were operating effectively “except for some areas where significant weaknesses have been identified.”
Gray said that there had been improvements since 2017-18, but they were not sufficient. “Overall safety assurance for defence has marginally but measurably improved since last year but remains at limited due to some remaining major weaknesses in safety systems,” she concluded.
“Concerns over the material state of defence infrastructure and a lack of sufficient competent personnel are consistent safety themes reported by top level budget holders over the period of this report.”
Gray’s report said that there had been “numerous reports and observations of deficiencies in the fabric of the defence estate which could pose a threat to the safety of personnel and the environment.”
The Defence Accident Investigation Branch was deployed 37 times in 2018-19 for incidents with weapons, road vehicles, planes and ships. “Failure to follow procedures, lack of appropriate supervision, the taking of inappropriate levels of risk and a lack of or inadequate leadership remain prevalent,” Gray said.
There were additional problems with “poor maintenance and equipment husbandry”. A Foxhound patrol vehicle burst into flames on 13 June 2018 during training on Salisbury Plain in southern England, and a Warrior armoured vehicle caught fire and was destroyed on 13 July at a British army training base at Suffield in Alberta, Canada.
There have also been a series of accidents involving the “unintended discharge” of Glock pistols. One factor identified by an MoD inquiry was the lack of “training progression”.
Some of our most qualified and experienced personnel have made unnecessary mistakes. Sue Gray, Defence Safety Authority
Gray pointed out that the shortage of sufficient suitably qualified and experienced personnel “has been an enduring defence-wide concern for the last 14 years.”
There was also a “critical shortfall in head office governance and resourcing, highlighted by an almost complete absence of staff in head office to deal with health, safety and environmental protection matters,” she said.
The Ministry of Defence head office was “unsighted” on safety issues and “unclear about its responsibilities and had neither the processes nor personnel to discharge its governance and other responsibilities.”
There was “the risk of avoidable accidents being caused by complacency”, Gray warned. “Too often we have been surprised that such an experienced crew, team, unit, tradesman or operator could make such poor judgements as to risk or cause harm when they really should not.”
In recent years “some of our most qualified and experienced personnel have made unnecessary mistakes”, she said. This raised the question of “whether we have a problem with complacency in key areas”.
In 2018-19 there were four deaths caused by MoD accidents, two military and two civilian. These included a diving fatality at Portland Harbour in Dorset and a vehicle accident at Catterick training area in North Yorkshire.
Gray’s report urged the MoD to “consider whether complacency poses an increasing threat to safety”. She also recommended that the MoD “should consider whether the current measures to minimise injury and harm to defence personnel are adequate”.
The DSA report doesn’t include any information on the safety of nuclear weapons and submarines based at Faslane on the Clyde. An annex entitled “Defence Nuclear Domain Safety Assurance” is classified as “secret” without explanation.
The Ferret reported in December 2019 that an MoD decision to stop publishing nuclear safety reports was being challenged under freedom of information law. A ruling from an information tribunal is expected soon.
Campaigners are concerned about the secrecy. “The failings and incompetence in the areas of safety that we do have knowledge of makes me wonder what we’re not being told,” said David Cullen, director of the Nuclear Information Service.
“Are the nuclear safety failings they are hiding as bad as this, or worse? The MoD is looking less and less like an institution that can be trusted to manage a nuclear weapons programme.”
Critical mismanagement by the UK government has been at the expense of hard-working personnel and the UK taxpayer. Stewart McDonald MP, Scottish National Party
The SNP called on the MoD to tackle the problems. “This report only scratches the surface of the serious failings at the Ministry of Defence,” the party’s defence spokesperson, Stewart McDonald MP, told The Ferret.
“Critical mismanagement by the UK government has been at the expense of hard-working personnel and the UK taxpayer. Consistently, the MoD has failed to properly allocate resources and management up to the very top has fallen far short of what would be acceptable in any other sector.”
According to McDonald, there had been “billion-pound black holes” in MoD equipment plans and “massive overspends” on maintaining nuclear weapons while other key priorities, such as the size of the navy, were at “historic lows”.
The new report “must be taken as the long-overdue wakeup call to the defence secretary to act in the interests of those on the front line, dealing with deficiencies in the fabric of the defence estate which clearly fall short of acceptable standards,” he added.
“SNP MPs will continue to advocate for safe working conditions our service personnel, and will hold the UK government to account over their shambolic management of a government department of such huge strategic importance.”
A Ministry of Defence spokesperson said: “The safety of our personnel is of paramount importance and we are continually working to improve the processes in place.
“We thank the Defence Safety Authority for their report and will now carefully review its recommendations.”
Defence Safety Authority: Annual Assurance Report April 2018 to March 2019
Photo thanks to iStock/gynane.