Warwickshire County Council has been sentenced for its role in what the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) described as the “greatest loss of fire-fighters in a single incident in the UK over the last 30 years”.
The Council, as Warwickshire Fire and Rescue Authority, pleaded guilty in January to a s2(1) breach of the HSWA 1974, by failing to ensure the health and safety of its employees. However, it disputed some of the facts alleged by the CPS, resulting in a Newton hearing, held this week, in which the judge determined the full nature of the council’s failures.
In May, three senior fire officers were put on trial for the manslaughter of four fire-fighters. John Averis, Ashley Stephens and Darren Yates-Badley died while tackling a blaze at a warehouse at Atherstone-on-Stour, in November 2007. Their colleague, Ian Reid, died later in hospital.
Two of the incident commanders, Adrian Ashley and Timothy Woodward, were found not guilty at the end of the six-week trial, while another senior officer, Paul Simmons, was acquitted earlier in proceedings on the direction of the judge.
Delivering his verdict today (7 December) on the Council’s failings, during a hearing at Stafford Crown Court, Mr Justice Macduff issued a £30,000 fine with no costs. According to the BBC, he “didn’t want the public purse to suffer any more than it needed to” following an investigation that cost nearly £5m.
He also said the fine did not sum up the cost of the four men’s lives but simply reflected deficiencies in record-keeping and information provided for fire crews at the time of the incident.
In a statement to SHP, the Council apologised for its failings. However, it highlighted that, since the incident, it had become a “model Fire Authority” – a description the judge is said to have accepted.
Councillor Richard Hobbs, portfolio holder, community safety, added: “No Fire Service can guarantee that nothing will ever go wrong again but we are confident that our service is as safe as it can be.
“A set of exceptional adverse factors conspired to bring about this tragedy and no one person or body was responsible. The judge concluded that even if service failings contributed to the deaths at all, they were a minor factor and of little weight compared with all the other unfortunate and unforeseeable factors.”
He also welcomed the judge going out of his way to exonerate the Fire Service’s incident commanders in his judgement.
Commenting after the verdict, Malcolm McHaffie, deputy head of special crime at the CPS, said: “This was a tragic and exceptional case in which four men lost their lives, representing the greatest loss of fire-fighters in a single incident in the UK in the last 30 years.
“Today’s sentencing recognises the duty owed by the Council, through Warwickshire Fire and Rescue Authority, to the fire-fighters it employed and its failure to meet this.”
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