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Lightweight Polyethylene Chest Plates

Volume 806: debated on Wednesday 30 September 2020

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of (1) whether current safety testing standards for lightweight polyethylene chest plates are fit for purpose, and (2) concerns expressed by experts about the safety of such chest plates.

My Lords, body armour certified by the Ministry of Defence and Home Office is rigorously assessed using internationally recognised test standards for the relevant roles and threat levels. The Defence Science and Technology Laboratory is aware of no scientific evidence that body armour is unsafe when used as advised. Recent claims based on unscientific tests cannot be corroborated by government scientific advisers.

One serving SAS soldier said:

“I’d sooner go into battle wearing no ballistic protection than using this plate. It shouldn’t have been brought into service”.

Ballistics experts, defence manufacturers, an NHS trauma consultant, the Police Federation and Police Firearms Officers Association have called for an urgent investigation into safety standards that might have applied in the 1980s but need updating. When will the Minister commission such an urgent investigation?

My Lords, the current deformation in clay standard for police equipment is 25 millimetres, which is far more stringent than international standards. The deformation in clay standard for MoD equipment is 44 millimetres. The testing meets those criteria.

My Lords, lighter-weight armour is welcome, but a report in the Mail on Sunday last month—I am sure that the Minister saw it—said that this type of body armour is not fit for purpose because of the risk of behind armour blunt trauma. Although the bullet itself is stopped, the force causes the plate to bulge into the body, causing serious damage. Is the Minister saying that the Mail on Sunday got it completely wrong and made up the tests that it carried out? An NHS trauma consultant described the resulting injuries as “unsurvivable”. This is all very disturbing and suggests that the standards used are inadequate. Has the Home Office discussed the Mail on Sunday findings with the Police Federation? If so, were its representatives satisfied as a result of those discussions?

The Home Office view is that the recent testing reported in the media was unscientific. On the tests, Home Office officials contacted the DSTL for its views: it does not believe that the Mail on Sunday tests demonstrate a weakness in the equipment that it has approved.

My Lords, the effectiveness of these lightweight polyethylene chest plates has been questioned. Has the Home Office considered using aluminium ceramic or, as the United States army uses, boron carbide, which also have the advantage of being much lighter? The only problem is that these materials are rather fragile when dropped and in extreme heat or cold. Can the Minister advise us?

I can advise that, clearly, the durability and usefulness of light materials are incredibly important, as my noble friend points out. Polyethylene plates have been shown to meet the rigorous testing that we demand.

My Lords, those who wear this body armour and protect us will want some comfort from the government following the reports referred to by noble Lords. Currently, the Government have three bodies that accredit this work; two of them are in the United States of America and one is in Germany. They are supposed to check this body armour every two years. To provide the comfort needed, can the Minister tell the House when these materials were last sent back to those three checking agencies to be tested?

I cannot give the noble Lord a date for when it was last tested, but I can certainly go back and get that information. I hope that that will provide the comfort he seeks.

My Lords, further to that, obviously there is concern about when official testing was last done. Given the seriousness of the position and the concern of the Police Federation, police firearms officers and others, surely it is appropriate to have further testing now to reassure those who are on the front line—indeed, to reassure all of us.

As I said to the noble Lord, Lord German, I will go back and establish when the tests were last done. That should comfort noble Lords.

My Lords, with reports that the new chest plate is potentially lethal for wearers, clearly it needs to be improved. Once that is achieved and the problems are corrected, can the Minister tell us, in the light of the tragic incident in Croydon last week, whether there are any plans to allow more police officers to wear such protection?

The noble Lord suggests that there is a problem. I am saying that the testing has not raised any problems with the new lighter equipment. As I have said—I will do this—I will go back and ask when the testing was last done.

My Lords, this equipment is vital to protect officers in dangerous situations in the line of duty. How can both the testing and procurement processes run their course and then serious concerns be raised as to the effectiveness of the equipment by the officers who wear these protective plates? Does the Minister not agree that this is potentially an appalling failure of process and procedure, and that an urgent investigation must take place? I do not want that to satisfy myself; I want the officers who wear this equipment to be satisfied that when they go out and put their lives on the line, they have the best possible equipment helping them.

My Lords, I do not think that anyone could disagree with the noble Lord’s point. I have said that these things are routinely tested. I will find the exact date when they were last tested. The DSTL does not believe that the Mail on Sunday tests demonstrate a weakness in the equipment that it has approved.