Hypocritical rhetoric from Veterans’ Minister on Armed Forces Day: discrimination against Veterans’ with asbestos caused lung cancer

Today on Armed Forces Day we celebrate the inestimable contribution made by our Armed Services to us all, both from those currently who serve, and importantly those who have served us in the past. Many Government ministers and MP’s will no doubt take the opportunity to put out statements of support, with some referring to the Armed Forces Covenant, the pledge of the nation to ensure that all service personnel – past and present are treated fairly and with respect.

Veterans Minister, Johnny Mercer, tweeted today,

Happy Armed Forces day, and a huge thank you to those who continue to lace up their boots, throw on the uniform and live a life of Service to the Nation – continuing after they leave. I’m proud of every one of you, and I’ll endlessly fight for you.’

Unfortunately his claim to endlessly fight for veterans is inaccurate, and mere rhetoric. When it politically suits he is more than happy to fall in line.

An issue you will not hear about from Mr Mercer or any other Government minister today or any other day for that matter, and which speaks volumes about how this Government operates, is that of the payment of compensation to military veterans exposed to asbestos before 1987 and who have subsequently contracted lung cancer.

In December 2015 following a lobbying campaign led by the Royal British Legion the Government announced that from early 2016 veterans exposed to asbestos before 1987 whilst in the service of their country and who had in later life contracted the asbestos disease mesothelioma would be entitled to choose between receiving either a new lump sum payment of £140,000 or continuing to receive their existing veterans war pension.  The reason for the importance of the year 1987 was that up to that year military personnel were prevented by what is called Crown Immunity from suing the Government where they had been negligently injured in the service of their country. Following a change in the law in 1987 however any injury sustained after that time could be sued for. This did however in effect leave behind those who would in future years develop asbestos related conditions.

The basis upon which the Royal British Legion were to argue that veterans should receive a lump sum award was that under the Armed Forces Covenant service personnel were entitled to the same rights as civilians, and a civilian compensation scheme introduced in 2014, the Diffuse Mesothelioma Scheme, had caused a discrepancy in such rights between civilians and veterans. The 2014 Scheme is funded by the insurance industry, with compensation payments available to those who contract mesothelioma in situations where their former employer who exposed them to asbestos is no longer in business and no employers’ liability insurance policy can be found. Arguably the comparison between the specific circumstances triggering the civilian Scheme and the military one is somewhat tenuous as the barrier of Crown Immunity is entirely different to that faced by civilian claimants.

The 2014 Scheme does not however provide compensation for those with asbestos caused lung cancer, and because of this fact it was decided that the 2016 veterans’ compensation scheme would be restricted solely to those suffering mesothelioma. A simple example shows how bizarre and unfair, particularly in light of the Armed Services Covenant, this is. If two military personnel had worked alongside each other before 1987 and both had been negligently exposed to asbestos, with in later life one contracting mesothelioma and the other lung cancer, then only the one contracting mesothelioma would be able to claim a lump sum payment – this is just morally wrong.

In May 2019 I wrote to the then Defence Secretary, Penny Mordaunt, requesting that the Veterans Scheme be amended to include ex-service personnel who contract lung cancer. I received a holding email from the Ministry of Defence Secretariat in June 2019 informing me that they would look into it and get back to me.

In order to try to garner further support for an amendment to the Veterans Scheme to be made I wrote to a number of Conservative MP’s who had served in the armed forces, including Johnny Mercer. Mr Mercer unfortunately failed to respond. The only Conservative MP who was ultimately willing to support me on this issue and write to the Government was Sir Mike Penning.

Sir Mike Penning initially wrote to Amber Rudd, the Minister in charge of the Department for Work and Pensions; this letter was then forwarded to Johnny Mercer, who by this time was the newly appointed Minister for Veterans. The lengthy letter received by Sir Mike Penning on the 23rd August 2019, signed by Johnny Mercer, was other than a few cosmetic changes word for word the same as I had received on the 9th August 2019 from the Ministry of Defence Secretariat following their promise to further consider the issue of amending the Veterans’ compensation Scheme. The letter(s) failed to address the core issue of why lung cancer could not be included in the Scheme.

On the issue of the two letters being as good as identical, this raises serious questions about how Government ministers and MP’s work. Many people may not appreciate that when they write to their local MP on a particular issue they may well be receiving a stock response that has been provided to the MP by the Government. If they are going to operate in this way then arguably such letters to constituents should include a statement that it is a stock answer and not individually written by the MP. In the instance of Johnny Mercer signing a letter that had been written by a member of the Ministry of Defence Secretariat, if for example a University student had submitted such a piece of work as this letter, they would have been accused of plagiarism.

On the 21st August I sent a letter to the Ministry of Defence Secretariat requesting for it be forwarded to Mr Mercer. In this letter I provided a detailed analysis of why it was unfair that veterans with lung cancer were in effect being discriminated against. In September 2019 I received a response, not from Mr Mercer, but the Ministry of Defence Secretariat, that failed to address the core points I had made.

Sir Mike Penning wrote again to Mr Mercer in September, receiving a response from Mr Mercer in October that added little. He wrote again to Johnny Mercer in December, receiving a response in January of this year. This response contained something not mentioned in any of the previous correspondence which is of significant importance. Mr Mercer stated: –

‘I am fully satisfied that the MOD policy regarding the payment of a lump sum for Diffuse Mesothelioma under the WPS (War Pension Scheme) reflects the wider Government position. The MOD will reconsider its policy should the Government position change and other illnesses are included in the Mesothelioma Act 2014.’

On the 23rd February I sent a response to the Ministry of Defence Secretariat asking that it be forwarded to Mr Mercer. In this letter I made the following points regarding the Government position and policy that Mr Mercer referred to:-

‘The wider position being of course the Government’s refusal to include in the civilian Diffuse Mesothelioma Payment Scheme (DMPS) compensation for any disease other than mesothelioma. Let us be clear about the DMPS, whilst it may be Government policy to not widen the scope of the Scheme, the central reason behind this is that the funders of the DMPS – the insurance industry, would simply not accept it being widened.  So as such the policy is based on purely a financial consideration, not a morally reasoned position.

The 2016 lump sum compensation scheme for veterans is not however funded by the insurance industry, it is funded from the public purse. So what you would in effect be saying and are saying is the Government are not willing to fund such payments to veterans who have served their country.

It is also furthermore disappointing that you refer to the “Government position.” You are part of the Government, you are a Minister in it. The way you speak is as though you are detached from the decision-making of the Government. You have rightly made great play of the work you and your office undertake in support of veterans, but on this issue, which is perhaps more challenging, you are coming up badly short.

The Armed Forces Covenant as you know includes the words, “They deserve our respect and support, and fair treatment.” How is this fair treatment? It is simply discriminatory.’

In his January letter Mr Mercer had also referred to the MOD meeting the requirements of the Equality Act 2010, this being the primary UK legislation addressing discrimination. He stated that when the Royal British Legion initially raised the issue of possible lump sum compensation they had done so in the context of single war pensioners. Mr Mercer pointed out that to meet the requirements of the Equality Act both single and married veterans were given the choice as to whether they would like to continue to receive the War Pension or opt instead for the new lump sum payment. In the event Mr Mercer said that a high proportion of both single and married veterans elected for the lump sum award. In my February response letter I said that the concerns relating to meeting the requirements of the Equality Act that he had mentioned would no doubt relate to the protected characteristic of marital status, but I pointed out that another of the legislation’s protected characteristics was also applicable here – that of disability. Veterans with mesothelioma or lung cancer would be characterised as disabled, and yet only mesothelioma veterans were entitled to lump sum compensation. That I suggested was discriminatory and as such would be an infringement of the 2010 Act.

It may come as no surprise that I did not receive a response from Mr Mercer, but rather the response I received came from the Ministry of Defence Secretariat, who in a brief letter failed to address any of the points that I had raised.

Johnny Mercer as an ex-military man is used to taking orders from superiors and it seems he is happy to merely follow ‘Prime Minister’ Dominic Cummings diktats. I have seen no evidence whatsoever of his claim from today of ‘I’ll endlessly fight for you’ being true. Three times I have written to him and not once have I received a personal response. Perhaps if I were a donor to the Conservative Party or a ‘celebrity’ then things would be different. How often do we hear political parties saying around election time that they must listen more to ordinary peoples’ voices, only for this to be immediately conveniently forgotten about the day after election day.  The system is rotten, and we are governed by self-serving, hollow individuals. But we need to fight on so that justice can be achieved.

Covid 19 – The UK’s criminal lack of compassion and leadership #covid-19

At a time of crisis nations require strong leadership. Boris Johnson may fancy himself with his attempts at Churchillean type rhetoric, but his handling of the unfounding Covid-19 pandemic has been a disaster, and the price we are paying and will ultimately pay is going to be inestimable.

The initial ‘plan’ supposedly was to following scientific advice and create what has been termed herd immunity. In essence allowing a vast proportion of the country’s population to be infected and hope that they build up immunity with eventually the virus losing its impact. Problem was that this strategy meant that vast numbers would be at risk of dying – not thousands, or even tens of thousands, but hundreds of thousands. The strategy frankly would have been approved of by the Nazi’s with the survival of the fittest mentality. It effectively meant writing  off the lives of vast numbers. After coming in for an avalanche of criticism the approach of the UK government has now changed, but instead of decisively tacking the virus head-on, there has been a drip by drip approach of measures, with still a failure to shut the country down.

The government throughout have been concerned with the economic consequences – they have been fearful of shutting everything down because of the impact on the economy. This is the thinking of fools as whichever approach you take it is going to have a massive impact on the economy. The current approach is likely to lead to a long term sustained impact on the economy, as we face the consequences for a substantial period of time. If the government had properly grasped the nettle when the consequences of the virus were first seen in China then the needed approach was to shut everything down and the economic impact would have been sharp, but for a far shorter period of time.

How things may have been different with clear leadership – we have witnessed panic at the supermarkets, empty shelves, long queue’s outside in the early hours, and fingers pointed at the panic buyers and hoarders. It was a totally predictable situation – human beings go back to animal instincts of survival. If we had had the necessary leadership the government would have had discussions with the supermarkets weeks ago telling them that they needed to change their supply algorithms and ensure they had vastly  increased amounts of stock ready in place as there was going to be a tsunami of demand. Now we have forms of rationing taking place and people having to make continuous trips to supermarkets – we don’t want people making such trips, this is what exacerbates the spread of the virus!

Even as late as last friday when the government finally announced the shutting of pubs, there were pictures on social media of commuters rammed into tube trains – what a criminal disaster – the London NHS Trusts already are facing meltdown with cases. And still we do not have a complete country shutdown. The army should have been fully mobilised weeks ago.

Our NHS workers will heroically fight the battle, and some will pay with their lives as has occurred already in Italy. The government have put out an urgent call for medical staff and ventilators, and yesterday announced a deal with Private Health care operators for thousands more beds, doctors, nurses, ventilators and equipment. A deal! We are in a war time situation – equipment should be requisitioned. Reports this morning show nurses and doctors improvising because there is a lack of key basic personal protective equipment (PPE) supplies – this is an utter disgrace. If the government had shown true leadership again early on we would have been in a far stronger position than we are now.

Unfortunately we cannot turf this bumbling government out, but when the final reckoning comes the people will realise the catastrophe could have been different if we had had good solid and compassionate leadership, and hopefully Johnson, Cummings & Co will face the full wrath of the people.

Look for the positives, keep the light alive, and stay well.

Alan Mckenna

 

House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee Drone Report a rather mixed-bag

The House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee published its Report into Commercial and recreational drone use in the UK on Friday, and  arguably it is a rather mixed-bag in terms of its findings and recommendations.

Positively the Report recommends that the Government conduct a review into the controversially high cost of its new drone registration scheme, with the proposed annual cost of £16.50 needing to be fully justified. It also recommends that the Government consider allowing organised flying clubs are able to register as a single entity, rather than burdening club members financially with a separate registration requirement as currently proposed.

As regards the likely impact of the registration scheme, the Report states, ‘The Government should acknowledge that the proposed scheme will do little to mitigate the risks from nefarious drone users who will simply bypass registration and testing’, but it then goes on to recommend that a sliding scale of penalties for failing to register be introduced that would culminate with a custodial sentence. This is a very questionable recommendation, as clearly if it is accepted that deliberate criminal use of drones will not be deterred by a registration scheme then it must be asked what is the point in introducing a provision as severe as a prison sentence for non-registration?

A further questionable matter comes with the recommendation that the Government introduce a specific criminal offence prohibiting the weaponisation of a drone. It may be questioned again what purpose this may serve? Defining weaponisation may prove problematic, but as well it can be argued that there is no actual evidence of the need for such legislation and indeed existing legislation should be sufficient. This proposal unfortunately enables elements of the media to create sensationalist headlines and stories, as can be seen for example by the Daily Telegraph story on the Committee’s Report, which can exacerbate negativity surrounding drones.

The Report highlights the current challenges faced by drone operators when seeking permission to fly within airport Flight Restriction Zones, with there being no standard practice across the airport sector on how such permission may be granted, and it is recommended a standardised and unified system of access request be created. Evidence was submitted to the Committee showing that at least one airport is currently charging drone operators to fly within its air restriction zone. It can be argued that whilst an airport’s operations may be protected by the created zone under the applicable ANO provisions, the fact is the airport does not as such ‘own’ the airspace within its restriction zone and allowing it to charge to fly within that air space cannot be legally justified, and to continue to allow an airport to charge potentially could give rise to wider associated attempts to privatise air space.

Also, sensibly, given the controversy that has arisen over the potential severity of damage that might be caused to manned aircraft by drones, the Report recommends that a full risk assessment be carried out by the end of 2020.

The Report highlights what appears a failure by Government to have a co-ordinated plan to achieve the benefits of drone technology, and recommends the provision of a clear roadmap for future drone integration into UK society.

The Report concludes by pointing to the perceived public distrust towards drones and the need to address this, but it appears to recommend a possible solution based on talking ‘at’ rather than ‘with’ the public, stating, ‘The Government should act to improve public perception and awareness of drones by launching a public awareness campaign, no later than Summer 2020, that highlights the opportunities presented by drones and informs the public on the reality of the risks posed by drones.’

Whilst the Select Committee have identified a number of important matters and made recommendations on these key issues using fact and reasoned analysis, it is unfortunate that there are also aspects of the Report and its recommendations that are based not on fact, but rather on unsubstantiated opinions, some of which arguably are merely headline grabbing sensationalism.

Although the Report appears to seek to achieve balance between at times very differing perspectives and vested interests, it is disappointing how the public are rather side-lined, when it is acknowledged how important they are.

Contentious proposals put forward in new UK government drone consultation exercise

Although the enabling regulation was already in place for the creation of a UK drone registration scheme following an update to the Air Navigation Order, which sets the date for the schemes implementation as the 30th November 2019, key details such as the amount of the registration fee were still missing. With the publication of another drone consultation exercise, the proposed fee and other details have now been made known by the government. These are however somewhat contentious and arguably raise further questions over several aspects of the proposed scheme and the two tier structure of drone opertors and pilots for the flying of small unmanned aerial vehicles.

The size of the proposed charge £16.50, which is it appears at least in the early years to be levied annually on drone operators, has met with immediate criticism, as has the announcement of those who will be required to register under the new scheme. In addition to so-called leisure drone operators having to register, so will model aircraft operators, and those flying drones on a commercial basis who are already effectively registered with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), and who already have to pay an annual renewal fee currently set at £190 to enable them to continue operating drones commercially.

The government in the consultation document perhaps questionably describe the registration scheme as a service, and insist that it will be based on the so-called user pays principle, with no financial burden being faced by the taxpayer for the running of the scheme. It is perhaps somewhat unfortunate that the government speaks of it being based on the user pays principle, as part of the idea behind the scheme was driven  by concerns over the increasing number of drones coming into conflict with manned aircraft, with the hope being that a registration scheme might help in alleviating this problem. So it is questionable perhaps to describe it as a user pays system as such. It is also questionable why model aircraft operators are included, when there appears little if any evidence of a problem concerning such aircraft coming into conflict with manned aircraft, although the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), of which the UK is currently a member, requires all member states to introduce a registration scheme that includes model aircraft operators.

Why commercial drone operators will be paying two lots of registration fees is not explained in the consultation document, and it seems a rather bizarre decision to require their inclusion within the new scheme, with an uncharitable view perhaps being that they might be seen as more of a captive group, and as such are being used to subsidise the new scheme.

To arrive at the charge of £16.50 the government have made what can only be described as rudimenatry calculations. They admit to having no idea how many drone operators will actually register, so based upon registration data from the U.S. and Irish registration schemes, and using population sizes, they have arrived at an entirely speculative figure of 170,000 registrations. This number is then in turn used by dividing it into the anticipated running costs to arrive at the figure of £16.50.

The government appear to have carried out no meaningful research on the possible number of those who would be required to register, and indeed one of the questions they are seeking responses to in the consultation is whether the anticipated number is appropriate or not. The government should be criticised for not undertaking any substantive research on possible numbers. Strangely in the consultation document no mention is made of the number of drones sold in the UK. It may be asked why  reasonably accurate numbers are not available from manufacturers and retailers that could help in arriving at a workable meaningful number?

A further requirement revealed in the consultation document is that professional drone pilots, who already will have passed the required training in order to receive permission to fly commercially from the CAA, will also now have to undertake the basic online competency test being introduced for all drone pilots from November.

What has not yet been publically announced, but emerged from tweets posted by drone flying police officers who recently attended a meeting at the CAA headquarters, is that the online competency test will have to be taken by those aged 12 and above. The government have previously stated that whilst drone operators who are responsible for the managment of  drone will have to be at least 18 due to additional legal burdens placed on them, drone pilots can be any age. If the information regarding the age requirement for drone pilots to undertake the compentency test is correct, this could prove problematic as far as the Air Navigation Order (ANO) rules are currently worded. ANO 94F(2), which comes into force on the 30th November 2019, states,

The remote pilot of the small unmanned aircraft must not fly it unless the CAA has issued the remote pilot with an acknowledgement of competency which is valid for that flight at the time of the flight.’

It could be argued that unless the CAA vary the ANO it would seem perhaps that this compulsory requirement would as currently worded prevent any person who has not undertaken the test from legally flying, i.e. all under 12s.

The CAA might however seek to argue that ANO 94E provides them the regultory scope not to have to further update the ANO for drone pilots under 12. It states,

(1) Subject to the following provisions of this article, the CAA must issue an acknowledgement of competency to an individual, or renew that individual’s acknowledgement of competency, if the individual –

(d) has undergone such tests as the CAA may require.’

So the CAA may seek to argue that as they will not require under 12s to undertake the compentency test then there would be no requirement on the CAA to issue an acknowledgement of competency for them. This is arguably somewhat tenuous.

One further point that might be made in this regard comes in respect to consideration of a further ANO rule – Article 94(2), which states,

‘The remote pilot of a small unmanned aircraft may only fly the aircraft if reasonably satisfied that the flight can safely be made.’

Given that an under 12 will not be required to undertake a competency test it could be argued that perhaps their potential for liability is lessened on the basis that not having to undertake a competency test could lead them to consider a particular flight was safe in contrast to a child aged 12 and above, who having taken the test may consider a particular flight unsafe to make.

It is mystifying why the age restriction on taking the competency test has not been publically announced yet, and perhaps it would have been sensible to make it part of the new consultation exericse as clearly there appear some questionable matters surrounding it.

 

 

 

Inaccurate, sensationalist journalism impedes a true understanding of drone issues

An inaccurate news report produced by Sky News concerning drone related calls made by the public to UK police forces, and a subsequent copycat report by the Daily Telegraph, highlight the media’s apparent obsession with mere sensationalism over meaningful accurate reporting.

The so-called exclusive Sky News story published on the 23rd February, included a sub-heading which stated, ‘Forces receive more than 2400 reports of drone incidents in 2018 including criminal damage, harassment and voyeurism.’  The report went on to say, ‘Police Chiefs have warned drone users they will face “serious consequences” if they use the gadgets to commit crimes – with the number of reported incidents rising by 40% between 2016 and 2018.

Via freedom of information requests Sky News obtained drone call details from 20 Police Forces showing in Sky’s words, ‘2435 reports of drone incidents in 2018 – up 2% on 2017 (2377 incidents) and 42% higher than 2016 (1709 incidents).’

Four days before the Sky News report was published, I published details in this blog of drone calls logged by 24 Police Forces across the country in 2018, obtained via freedom of information requests that I had made. The data showed a rise from 3024 calls in 2017 to 3421 in 2018. Unlike the Sky News report my post provided a table of the number of calls received by each of the responding police forces. The table showed that 8 of the 24 forces actually had a drop in drone related calls being logged.

Sky News and the copycat Daily Telegraph report describe the calls as ‘incidents’. This is factually inaccurate. How can calls for example received from professional drone pilots telling the police where they will be flying be described as ‘incidents’? They cannot, and with there being a significant number of such calls logged, it points to both Sky and the Daily Telegraph being unconcerned about factual accuracy that might get in the way of a ‘good’, sensationalist story. The Sky report provides no inkling that some police forces have shown a decline a drone related calls, instead choosing to provide unbalanced sensationalist discussion of some of the specific calls made across a number of forces.

The real story, and the one that should have been reported and analysed, is that there appears from the data a slowdown in calls being made by the public in respect to drones. If there is a slowdown and perhaps a decline in the number of calls made then we need to consider what the factors might be for this development. We may ask for example whether leisure drone flyers are being more responsible? Perhaps alternatively there has been a decline in the leisure user flying of drones?

The Sky News report quotes Merseyside Police Deputy Chief Constable Serena Kennedy, the National Police Chiefs Council lead on the criminal use of drones, stating, ‘Those who chose to use drones for a criminal purpose should be in no doubt that they face serious consequences and police will use all available powers to investigate and prosecute them.’ She continued, ‘We are currently working with government, the Civil Aviation Authority and others on future legislation to meet the challenges and risks posed by drones. At the same time all forces are working together to ensure consistency in the way these incidents are recorded and investigated.’

The fact that Serena Kennedy uses the word incidents could perhaps absolve Sky News as to its own use of the word. That however would seem generous, as it is not clear the precise context in which Kennedy uses the word,  whether for example she is merely referring to the criminal use of drones.

A further point of interest is her reference to all police forces working together to ensure consistency in the recording and investigation of drone ‘incidents’  It is however questionable whether all forces are on board in achieving this aim. A feature of trying to obtain freedom of information data relating to drones from across all UK police forces is that there is no clear uniformity of practice. At best, some forces provide relatively good background detail on what specifically each call concerned, whilst other forces will only provide a number relating to a general police classification. At worst however, freedom of information requests for drone data are rejected because there is no easy searchable mechanism available, and with each record having to be gone through manually the cost involved enables the particular force to reject the FOI request. Without doubt, a uniform system would be significantly beneficial, enabling a much more accurate picture to be provided both regionally and nationally. It would also perhaps enable a more deeper questioning of why despite Serena Kennedy’s claims that the police will use all the powers available to them to prosecute offenders, to date in five years there have only been seven prosecutions for violations of the Air Navigation Order rules involving drones. This is surely a matter that a supposed professional media organisation should be reporting on rather than producing deliberately inaccurate sensationalism.

 

Number of Drone related calls received and logged by UK Police Forces in 2018

 

 

Police Force

 

2017

 

 

2018

 

Avon & Somerset 9 24
British Transport Police 67 152
Cambridgeshire 147 81
Cleveland 89 101
Derbyshire 89 131
Devon & Cornwall 143 159
Dorset 80 201
Durham 61 59
Dyfed-Powys 54 61
Essex 46 131
Greater Manchester 274 314
Hertfordshire 171 179
Kent 202 242
Lancashire 205 234
Lincolnshire 93 77
Merseyside 269 265
Metropolitan Police * 97 80
Northumbria 111 82
North Wales 11 25
North Yorkshire 19 29
Nottinghamshire 115 125
Police Service of Northern Ireland 258 301
South Wales 80 114
South Yorkshire 135 137
Staffordshire 193 168
Suffolk 88 79
Surrey 96 115
West Midlands 172 268
West Yorkshire 167 133
TOTAL 3541 4067

(This table will be updated if additional data becomes available – last updated 10th March 2019)

Police Scotland   – On 10th April 2018 Police Scotland introduced specific drone call log codes to better able them to record drone calls. Before this time they could not provide drone data. The number of drone calls logged from 10th April to 31st December 2018 was 646.

*Metropolitan Police   – On 18th October 2018 the Metropolitan Police introduced a specific drone tag to more effectively identify drone related calls. Previous drone call data publically provided came from only one of a number of databases in use and therefore gave an incomplete picture. From the 18th October 2018 to 31st December a total of 31 drone calls were logged. From the 1st January 2019 until the 10th January 2019 26 calls were logged.

Gatwick drone(s) – a preventable wake-up call? (Update)

The Gatwick drone incursions that caused chaos over three days at the busiest time of the year for airports will likely force the hand of the government into what some will consider as long overdue action. Unsurprisingly there are calls for further regulation, without at times those who make such demands really understanding what it is precisely that they are seeking. Even before the drone incursions occurred the government were already in the planning stage to add additional regulations, which include a compulsory registration scheme, and some additional police powers such as the ability to issue fixed penalty notices.

So would additional regulations have made any difference at Gatwick? We obviously still do not know the motives of those behind the illegal incursions, but given the numerous drone flights made at Gatwick over such a lengthy period of time, it has to be suggested that it is unlikely that any additional criminal penalties would have made any difference. Criminal laws are used to punish and deter. Amongst a number of regulatory provisions that appear to have been violated by those flying the drones is Air Navigation Order rule 240 which prohibits a person recklessly or negligently endangering an aircraft, for which the maximum penalty is 5 years in prison or an unlimited fine. Would increasing this to 10/20/30 years have made any difference?

It is perhaps somewhat ironic that one of the possible reasons for the Gatwick drone fiasco, which has economically been so disasterous, is that the government have been over several years fixated by the massively speculative financial benefits the emerging drone industry could benefit the UK economy by. Some might argue that has led them into a paralysis of doing nothing that could impact this sought after ‘golden egg’. But then it can be argued it is one thing creating new regulations that could impede drone commercial use and development, and quite another seeking to protect key infrastructure and maintaining the confidence of the public.

The government may seek to portray the incurisons as unique and without parallel, but the fact is this is not the first occurrence of an incursion at Gatwick which has led to disruption. On the 2nd July 2017 over a half hour period a drone incurison led to several hours of serious delay. Why were the lessons of this incident not learnt? This is a serious indictment of the government, and one they should rightly be held to account. It is no use saying the recent incursions were without parallel because clearly it could be envisaged that a malicious attempt to bring utter chaos to the airport at the busiest time of the year was a strong possibility. We must also go further and ask what immediate measures have been taken to better protect all key national infrastructure? Are they all so vulnerable?

The call for further regulation suffers from an additional weakness, and that is its value when enforcement of existing laws are so patchy. One of the statistics that has been much mentioned  following the Gatwick incursions are the large and growing number of drone near misses with manned aircraft. In not one of these many incidents reported to the Airprox Board which investigates such incidents has the drone pilot involved ever been identified. Outside of convictions for using drones to deliver contraband into prisons, since the first conviction in 2014 for violations of the Air Navigation Order rules there have in total only been it is believed seven convictions. The most recent being in November, when in Cambridgeshire a man was fined £184 for flying his drone in conflict with a Police helicopter that had been on a search and rescue mission. The low level of convictions speaks volumes. At a time of very stretched resources what are the Police to prioritise?

There has with the Gatwick incident been much discussion on the use of technological solutions, and why these have not been more widely adopted. Aviation Minister Baroness Sugg when pressed on such matters in the House of Lords, merely stated that the government remained in discussion with technology manufacturing companies.  The concern with the use of jamming equipment is the possibility of a collateral impact in seeking to block signals. Who or what else could be impacted by use of such equipment? There are laws in place on this with the Wireless Telegraphy Act 2006 making it illegal to use jamming equipment, but Part III of the Police Act 1997 provides for authorisation for law enforcement purposes.

Just two day’s before the Gatwick incident, the Guardian carried a report on the use of anti-drone technology in prisons, which suggested that the Government were considering doing a U-turn and possibly buying anti-drone technology to prevent contraband being delivered into prisons, whereas they had previously chosen not to do so on cost grounds. The reason for the possible change of heart was the apparent success of a system purchased for Les Nicolles prison on Guernsey. The Guernsey system called SkyFence was bought in May 2017, and operates by detecting incoming drones and then blocking signals so that the drone returns to where it came from. An interesting aspect to the Guernsey purchase of the system was that whilst when installed the prison authorities could use the detection part of the equipment, they could not use the blocking element because under the legislation, the Prisons (Interference with Wireless Telegraphy) Act 2012, which gives prisons governors the right to use technology to block wireless signals, this legislation when created did not cover Guernsey. It was only in April 2018 that secondary legislation was passed – the Prisons (Interference with Wireless Telegraphy)(Guernsey) Order 2018, to amend the original legislation to include Guernsey and thus allowing the second part of the equipment to be turned on at Les Nicolles.

One of the potential impacts of the Gatwick debacle is the effect on public confidence in the use of drone technology. Many in the industry and for example police forces who themselves use drones operationally have worked extremely hard to engage with the public over concerns they might have, and have sought to show the positives of the technology. Gatwick is a major setback, and the failure to address the known potential risks and concerns is a serious indictment of the Government, who now need to re-build trust as a matter of urgency, and hopefully accept responsibility and not seek to provide questionable and disrespectful excuses.

Update

The story has now highlighted a further issue in which the government have arguably been found wanting, and that is the regulation of the media. The couple from Crawley who were arrested on suspicion of being responsible for the incursions at Gatwick by Sussex Police, were released without charge, but in the time from their arrest until their release elements of the media went on what can only be described as an intrusive reporting frenzy. The names of the couple were splashed on front pages, alongside a number of pictures of them and their home. There were also highly questionable banner headlines such as from the Daily Mail with, ‘Are these the morons who ruined Christmas?’. Such reporting again raises serious questions over what is legally and morally allowable when police are conducting their enquiries and are questioning suspects. The recent case involving Sir Cliff Richard in which the BBC were found liable for violating his privacy rights in naming Sir Cliff is a prime salutory example.

The Government as part of the Conservative Party manifesto for the last election dropped the proposed second part of the Leveson Inquiry (Leveson 2) into press standards, and in May this year they saw off a House of Commons vote that sought to force them into having to conduct the second part.

Calls are already being heard for an enquiry into Gatwick, and it can be envisaged that such calls will now encompass the role of the press, and the wider question of press standards in general.

 

 

 

Urgent questions for the MOD and Government to answer following the disclosure of the Sea King helicopter asbestos alert

Recent media reports of an alert being issued by the Ministry of Defence (MOD) warning that large numbers of military engineers and former military engineers could have been exposed to asbestos whilst servicing Sea King helicopters, highlights both the historic exposure to asbestos our military personnel have faced, but also the ongoing risks that exist from asbestos that remains in situ. The alert also points once again to an arguable failure of government to fully and appropriately address all of the issues asbestos continues to pose.

The risk from asbestos to military engineering personnel servicing Sea Kings has been present since 1969 when the Sea Kings first entered service. A spokesperson for the MOD was reported as stating that items in current opertional Sea King helicopters suspected of containing asbestos were being urgently removed.  The Sea Kings continue to play a key aviation role, with the media pointing unsurprisingly to the fact that until last year Prince William flew Sea Kings in his role as an air ambulance pilot.

Sea King helicopters manufactured in the UK were also sold to a number of foreign governments, leading as part of the alert the MOD to contact those governments to warn of the possible dangers posed by the asbestos within the helicopters.

It is disturbing that the initial alert issued by the MOD did not come in the form of a public announcement, but rather in the form of a ‘secret’ document, sent to service and ex-service personnel recipients, who were asked not to share its details with those outside of the Armed Forces. What it may be asked have the MOD to hide that the alert was issued in such a cloak and dagger way, only of course for it to be leaked to the media? Over two weeks after the media disclosure of the alert the MOD finally issued a public news announcement, stating that they were conducting an investigation into whether the helicopters contain asbestos, and that advice to veterans would be published when available.

The catalyst for the initial alert appears to have been the tragic death of an Australian military engineer, Petty Officer Greg Lukes, who died in 2014 from kidney cancer, aged just 37. The Australian military report into his death, which was reported by Australian media in August 2016, states that the death was likely to have been caused by exposure to asbestos, petroleum, petroleum by-products, toxins, or a combination of these.

Why it must be asked did it take 2 years from the date of the official Australian report into the death of Greg Lukes for the MOD to warn military personnel of the potential exposure risks they have faced? Having issued the alert, the subsequent public announcement is a disgrace in merely stating that advice will be given when it is available. All those identified as being at potential risk of developing asbestos related diseases should undergo immediate health checks, and be regularly assessed for the rest of their lives, with this being co-ordinated by the MOD. Much has been made by this government and the previous coalition government of the armed forces covenant, in essence our debt to our service personnel.  Such a debt must surely involve co-ordinated health care.

There appears to have been a significant failure on the part of the MOD to protect its military personnel, but there are also questions over the information it may have provided foreign government purchasers of Sea King helicopters. Greg Lukes joined the Australian Navy as a 17 year old in 1997. In 1999 he joined the particular squadron in which he was to service Sea King helicopters. It should be asked when did the Australian Navy become aware of the asbestos within the helicopters? Had they been warned by the MOD? Just a year after Greg Lukes commenced his work in the squadron that would ultimately lead to his death, official documentation shows that the UK military had identified 49 items containing asbestos in Sea King helicopters. A UK Health and Safety Commission meeting report in 2003 states that the items containing asbestos in the helicopter were being replaced when suitable alternatives were found, and that Sea King helicopters it was said should be asbestos free by late 2005. There appear many questions that need to be answered.

A further aspect of the UK covenant to its service personnel must arguably be where such personnel do develop asbestos related diseases then financial compensation must be available to such victims and their families.  Historically however members of the Armed Forces were unable to sue for personal injuries suffered against the Crown due to Crown Immunity. This position changed with the passing of the Crown Proceedings (Armed Forces) Act 1987, allowing members and ex-members of the military to claim for personal injuries against the Crown sustained from the date the Act was passed. Section 1 of the 1987 Act makes clear that no action could be brought in respect to any act or omission involving the armed forces committed before the date of the passing of the 1987 Act. In other words where alleged negligence that led to an injury occurring came before 1987 involving a member of the armed forces, no claim was possible. This effectively prevented those military personnel exposed to asbestos before 1987 from then subsequently bringing claims and receiving compensation when they contracted an asbestos related disease after 1987.

The position remained unchanged in respect to the asbestos related disease mesothelioma until December 2015. Change in respect to mesothelioma came about due to the catalyst of the introduction of an insurer funded compensation scheme targeted at civilian victims of mesothelioma in 2012. The civilian scheme aimed to right an egregious wrong, in that whilst negligence on the part of an employer could be shown by a mesothelioma victim, where the employer was no longer in existence and no employers liability insurance policy as required by law could be identified, there was no mechanism by which compensation for the negligence could be paid. Following the new insurance industry funded scheme, the Diffuse Mesothelioma Payment Scheme 2012, the Royal British Legion argued that it was unfair that civilians could now receive large compensation payments but military personnel exposed to asbestos before 1987 who subsequently contracted mesothelioma remained unable to obtain lump sum compensation, being only entitled to a disablement pension from the government.

Following the campaign led by the Royal British Legion, the UK Government in December 2015 announced a change in the law enabling those military veterans with mesothelioma caused by exposure to asbestos before 1987 to be given the choice as to whether they wished to have a War Disablement Pension or alternatively to receive a newly government funded £140,000 lump sum compensation payment.

This change allowing military veterans exposed to asbestos before 1987 whilst in the armed forces who subsequently contract mesothelioma to claim a lump sum raises however a further significant issue that remains unresolved and is particularly pertinent given the Sea King helicopter alert. This concerns the fact that the December 2015 change introducing lump sum payments only relates to those veterans exposed to asbestos before 1987 who subsequently contract the disease mesothelioma, not any other asbestos related disease. As the law currently stands those who were exposed to asbestos before 1987, and it needs re-emphasising that Sea King helicopters have been in service since 1969, are barred from bringing a claim for compensation for any other condition outside of mesothelioma, and would only be entitled to the disablement pension. Given that Petty Officer Greg Lukes died from kidney cancer, with the official report pointing to asbestos as a contributory factor, it surely cannot be right that military veterans who worked on Sea Kings between 1969 and 1987 simply remain ineligible for lump sum compensation. More than this however, it cannot only be those military personnel exposed to asbestos whilst working on Sea King helicopters who should be fully compensated, all military veterans exposed to asbestos before 1987 whilst in the service of their country and who subsequently develop any asbestos related diseases should be morally entitled to compensation, not just those who have developed mesothelioma. There cannot be any moral justification to arbitrarily differentiate between diseases that have been negligently caused in this way.

Let us hope that the tragic death of Greg Lukes at such a young age will help in getting change to enable all military personnel obtain the necessary protection, health care and justice they deserve.

32% increase in drone related calls made to UK police forces in 2017

Across the 37 police forces who responded to freedom of information requests as to the number of calls they had received from the public concerning drones, a total of 4543 calls were logged in 2017, up from 3449 calls logged by the same forces in 2016. This is an overall 32% increase in calls.

The overall number of actual drone related calls is likely to be higher, as some forces were unable to provide data on the precise number of calls received, with the Metropolitan Police for example, giving only the number of specific crime related incidents logged by them.

Whilst the 32% average increase in calls across the country is substantial, there are wide variations between individual forces. Some forces, such as Derbyshire, Dorset, Gwent and Leicestershire, in fact, reported a decrease in the calls made to them.

As in 2016, the police force with the highest number of drone related calls logged was Sussex, with their calls received increasing from 240 in 2016 to 346 in 2017, almost one a day. The information provided by Sussex Police unfortunately is not detailed enough to be able to identify a clear picture of the precise nature of the calls being made to the Sussex force. One force who do however provide a clear breakdown of the calls received from the public are South Yorkshire Police. They have seen a 117% increase in calls in 2017, going up from 62 in 2016 to 135 calls last year. The largest single category of calls received by South Yorkshire related to drones flying over residential and public property, of which there were 68 calls. Within this type of call, some concerned possible privacy violations, others were noise concerns, whilst others were concerned with drones being used for criminal purposes. Other categories of calls that South Yorkshire Police received included 15 in respect to the theft of drones; 5 relating to drones being flown near schools or in the vicinity of children; and, 23 were made by professional drone flyers who were advising the police of the particular locations they were flying in. The government have been very concerned with the use of drones for flying contraband into prisons, and 6 of the calls made to South Yorkshire related to this problem.

The level of drone related calls made to the police in 2017 is certain to reinforce the government’s belief in the need for additional regulation, and this will indeed be arriving very shortly with a new Bill being introduced in Parliament addressing drone use. The government have already flagged up that the new Bill will include compulsory registration for drones weighing in excess of 250 grams and a requirement that drone flyers take a basic online test to ensure they have an understanding of the law and how to fly their drones safely.

Besides the use of drones to deliver contraband into prisons, the other major concern of the government has been in regards to the level of drone near misses with manned aircraft. Recently it has been claimed that a Russian hobbyist drone flyer was able to get his machine weighing just over 1kg to an altitude of 33000 feet. Whilst recent planned police operations have been successful in apprehending criminals flying contraband into prisons, there remains no reports of any drone pilots responsible for plane near misses being identified.

The increasing number of calls being received by the police nationally could be put down to the simple fact that there are more drones being bought and flown, and as such this increase is reflected in the concerns of the public. One unknown factor is the novelty factor, and some calls are being made simply on the basis that members of the public are not yet used to drone technology.

Drone related calls made by the Public to UK Police forces

Police Force 2016 2017
Avon & Somerset 7 9
British Transport 39 67
Cambridgeshire 71 147
Cleveland 84 89
Cumbria 35 41
Derbyshire 104 89
Devon & Cornwall 110 143
Dorset 155 80
Durham 23 61
Dyfed-Powys 35 54
Gt. Manchester 229 274
Gwent 44 39
Hertfordshire 142 171
Humberside 11 58
Kent 154 202
Lancashire 139 205
Leicestershire 35 32
Lincolnshire 46 93
Merseyside 206 269
Met Police 87 97
Norfolk 118 128
Northamptonshire 76 82
North Wales 3 11
Northumbria 71 111
North Yorkshire 19 19
Nottinghamshire 108 115
PSNI 197 258
South Wales 27 80
South Yorkshire 62 135
Staffordshire 150 193
Suffolk 82 88
Surrey 63 96
Sussex 240 346
Warwickshire 67 91
West Mercia 175 231
West Midlands 121 172
West Yorkshire 114 167
TOTAL 3449 4543

 

 

 

 

UK government drone proposals

The UK government has today ( 22nd July 2017) released its response to the drone public consultation exercise it carried out between December of last year and March of this year, and for the most part it remains very much a work in progress for most of the issues under consideration.

The one big decision that it has announced, which can hardly come as any surprise, is that the government will require drones above 250 grammes in weight to be registered. So why has it reached this decision, and why set it at above 250 grammes? The answers to these questions can be found in fresh research the government commissioned on the potential collision impact of drones hitting manned aircraft. It should be noted that even within a few hours of the research document being released, the way the research was undertaken has already been criticised by some drone users on the basis that unrealistic conditions were used when compared to actual flight scenarios.

That may or may not be true, but the government have clearly set their registration stall out, with plenty of encouragement from the British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA), who were one of the partner organisations in the collision impact research exercise. The results of this research showed that a 400 gramme drone could critically damage a helicopter windscreen and its tail rotor blade. Therefore, the government has chosen to set its registration requirement at machines weighing 250 grammes or more.

In its Consultation Report the government states that a registration scheme will help to improve safety, security and privacy. However, arguably the clear main focus of government attention is safety, and particularly safety in respect to manned aircraft. If the government were equally focussed on privacy for instance, then all drones (how will drones be defined for registration purposes?) no matter what weight, if they include a camera would need to have been registered, as it is perfectly possible to buy a drone under 250 grammes that possesses a decent quality, potentially privacy invasive filming system.

Whilst a registration scheme is to be introduced, there remain several unknowns conected to it. How much will the registration cost and will there be an annual renewal fee? The government have made clear that the drone user will be footing the bill for the running of the registration scheme. It also seems likely, although it has not been explicitly stated, that registration will not take place at the point of sale, when the drone is purchased. Arguably, a more robust registration scheme should be at the point of sale, but this would be burdensome  supposedly for retailers, so it is likely drone users will have to register after purchase.

But then comes another new feature of the government requirements – drone users will have to take a mandatory assessment test in order to at least in part be considered competent/eligible to fly their drone. How this is going to work is at present unclear. The government seem to be pointing to a form of online test to be taken at the same time as registration is made. So it could be that the test has to be successfully completed before registration can be undertaken. The test is described by the government as a basic knowledge of the law and how to fly safely, with the areas covered being safety, security and privacy. The use by the government of the word basic would point to a simple, straightforward awareness of the law test, but then for example when it comes to data protection and privacy law the word basic could arguably point to something a good deal more detailed.

In a move to allay some of the concerns of Model Aircraft Flying Clubs and their members, there is likely to be some exemptions as regards registration and the educational test. This if done correctly could encourage drone flyers or potential flyers to join such clubs.

Most of the other issues raised during the consultation exercise, such as insurance, electronic identification, and changes to the Air Navigation Order Rules and penalties imposed remain open issues for further consideration by the government.

When the registration scheme will become operational is unknown. It will be interesting to see whether following the introduction of the scheme there is a decline in the calls the public make to the police as regards drones, and the level of near misses to manned aircraft declines. Additionally, it will also be of interest to see how the police will deal with complaints they receive following the introduction of the registration scheme. A major problem for the police has been in regards to the level of resources they are prepared to commit to what in most instances they might consider low level offences.