Outrage at MoD's rider death safety award

THE family of tragic horse rider Heather Bell has vowed to renew its campaign for stronger action to prevent further fatalities after being outraged by the award of a safety accolade to the agency they blame for her death.

Mrs Bell was thrown to her death at Middle Rasen by a low flying Ministry of Defence helicopter in June 2003 - seven years after it was first called on to review its low flying procedures.

It only changed its ways last year - 12 months after coroner Stuart Fisher recommended nine measures to improve rider safety and after three other fatalities under similar circumstances in eight years.

Now the British Horse Society has rewarded the MoD as 'the organisation that has done most to promote equestrian safety' by embarking on a thorough review of low flying 'with a commendable sense of urgency'.

Mrs Bell's widower Simon Bell said: "I am disgusted, upset, outraged and appalled not only at the gloating, triumphal tone of Director of Air Staff Dick Garwood's letter, but that such a well respected organisation as the BHS could be so incredibly insensitive, ignorant and irresponsible in making the award."

"If anyone deserves an award for promoting rider safety it is Stuart Fisher for doing more than anyone to force the issue.

"Also, without the campaign led by the Rasen Mail and pursued with such vigour by my legal team making it obvious that change was needed if the RAF was not to lose face, there would be no changes as they certainly weren't going to make them voluntarily."

Mr Bell is asking Edward Leigh MP to chase the MoD for action on other safety recommendations by the coroner which had not been pursued.

The MoD under took to introduce:

A freephone telephone number for horse riders to establish the likelihood of low flying locally;

Promotion of high visibility clothing to enable riders to be picked out by air crew up to a mile away;

Reducing the number of low level flights and limiting the scope for flight training to areas away from Lincolnshire;

Increased normal level from 50 feet above ground to 100.

"They just took the cheapest, easiest route, far too late. If they had acted in 1996 after Alex Nixon's death there's every possibility that three lives would have been saved, but they chose to ignore it then and twice more," said Mr Bell.

"I fear that now they have this award they will rest on their laurels and do nothing more but I am determined to keep up my campaign."

Such measures could - and should have been introduced in 1996 after the coroner investigating the death of Alexandra Nixon near Harrogate recommended a policy review, fearing other deaths would occur if they did not.

"The RAF did nothing and said they did not need to make changes."

Six months after Heather's death Melanie Dodds from Gwent died after her horse was spooked by a low flying Puma. Once again the RAF continued without change and after Anne Smith from Swaby died - on the opening day of Heather's inquest - as a result of a low flying RAF Hercules transporter, again the RAF did nothing to address the problems it was causing.

"I am greatly saddened that the recommendations made by Coroner Colin Moore in 1996 were ignored, as it is possible that three further needless deaths should have been avoided had the RAF acted in accordance with the recommendations.

"It took a further eight years before the MoD was forced into doing something and this happened solely because they could no longer do nothing," said Mr Bell.

"In my opinion, the MoD are guilty of gross negligence and should certainly not be in receipt of any award for safety. The changes that have been made have been too little too late. In fact one could say they resemble closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.

Mrs Bell's brother Paul Richmond said it was wrong for 'Heather's death to be a vehicle for self-congratulation for an obligation that should be in place without incentive'.

He was outraged that changes that had taken place without reference to the family or the Middle and Market Rasen communities and that it had taken so long - three years after his sister's death and two after Mrs Smith's close by.

He felt that the BHS was exhibiting 'hypocrisy' and 'exploiting Heather's accident to the upset of the family.

British Horse Society chief executive Graham Cory has apologised that its actions caused further distress but said the MoD had 'taken very much to heart the coroner's findings' and worked 'to ensure the inevitability of helicopters and horses operating simultaneously did not lead to further tragedies.'

He told Mr Richmond that the MoD needed recognition for not adopting the easy line by offering 'weasel words of comfort' with superficial actions of no great effect, but instead had 'not passed the buck and not delivered a whitewash.

"This in our estimation ran so counter to normal expectations that we felt it entirely appropriate to give it public recognition.

Mr Cory told Mr Richmond: "None of this will bring Heather back nor ease your pain. But perhaps you would reflect that, if Heather is the last victim of a fatal fall when a helicopter passes low overhead, then some redemptive good will have come out of this tragedy. "

In their commendation the British Horse Society said the MoD's review was made 'all the more effective as a result of the horse riding expertise of the senior RAF officer who led it'.

As a result Wing Commander Jon Taylor, who oversaw the Operation Bright Eyes initiative to highlight the extra safety aspects of riders wearing high-visibility gear, received an award personally and the two riders who rode for low flying experiments were awarded for their own bravery 'contributing significantly to the cause of equestrian safety'.

Mr Cory said: "In addition to all these positive initiatives, project leader Jon Taylor spoke at the society's safety conferences, giving all riders a better understanding of the needs for helicopters to fly at low levels and how we could work more closely together."

Air Commodore Garwood said in his letter to Mr Bell, "We are clearly very pleased with this recognition, but remain aware that riding safety is an ongoing issue, to which we will continue to apply our efforts."

The give away of 11,000 items of high visibility clothing, for which the MoD funded 14,000, had been 'extremely well received' as the MoD continued throughout 2006 in its efforts to improve the safety of riders.

• Do you think the MoD deserves such an award? Send your views to Jason.hippisley@jpress.co.uk or post them on the website forum.

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