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10.40 pm

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Dr. John Reid): First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) on his good fortune so early in his career in securing an Adjournment debate on such an important subject. There are few Members of this place who are qualified to speak with the authority that he does on this subject.

I congratulate also the two occupants of the Opposition Front Bench on their new positions. I refer to the shadow Secretary of State for Defence, late of transport and Ealing, Acton, who has transferred from bikes to tanks--the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young)--and his hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key), who is now, as I understand it, the shadow Armed Forces Minister. I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his post. It is unusual to have two such eminent members of the Opposition in their places so late at night. I can think only that they have taken the advice of the Glasgow police and decided to travel in twos on dangerous occasions.

We are dealing with an extremely important and grave matter for those who are affected by it. The Government share my hon. Friend's concern for veterans of the Gulf war who have, since their return from service in that conflict, fallen ill. We recognise that we owe them a debt of honour. Those men and women have served their country and have the right to expect us to discharge our duty as expeditiously and attentively as possible. I can assure them that the Government will be tireless in their efforts to understand the reasons for veterans' ill health.

My hon. Friend will be aware that last month, within a week of coming into the position that I now hold, I announced a package of new measures designed to address veterans' concerns. Some of those measures have been implemented. Others will take a little longer, but veterans can be confident that the Government will be a Government of action, not of words.

As a signal of the Government's determination to deal openly and honestly with Gulf veterans, I promised--I have already carried out the promise--to meet veterans' representatives, to listen to what they had to say and to ascertain how that should inform our actions. It is vital that veterans should have the opportunity to put their concerns to us directly, and it was not without a little pride that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I were able to invite them for the first time through the portals of the Ministry of Defence--their Ministry of Defence, not my or the Government's Ministry. I hope that more meetings will take place in future.

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In dealing with the concerns of veterans, I try to approach them by making it plain from the start that there are some things--three in particular--that I cannot do. I want to make it plain to the House also that I cannot do them. It is not in my gift to do them.

First, I cannot tell veterans exactly what is wrong with them. Secondly, I cannot tell them the cause or causes of their illness. Thirdly, because I cannot do the first and the second, I cannot tell them whether anyone is to blame. Those are matters that ultimately will be adjudicated upon only by those who have either the legal or medical experience to do so.

However, although we may not know the exact nature of the link between those illnesses, we know that people are ill. I cannot tell them what caused their illnesses, but I have a duty to do everything I can to unearth the cause or causes. Although I do not know whether anyone will ultimately be shown to be to blame, I have a duty to those service men and women to give them the information as openly and as fully as possible, so as to allow them to decide whether someone is to blame and to take appropriate action, as any citizen would.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): I pay tribute to the Minister and his colleagues for responding rapidly to the problem. He knows of my interest as chairman of the all-party organophosphates group. One of its members in the other place raised this matter in a debate last night.

Will the Minister go one step further? I took to heart what he said about what he can tell veterans. Will he give a further undertaking that the Government will do everything in their power to learn lessons, so as to ensure that there is no repetition of what happened in the Gulf, and that people in other walks of life who may be exposed to the dangers of OPs are not affected? Will he give a specific undertaking that his Department and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will work closely together to get to the bottom of the problem, because, as he well knows, they have not done so in the past?

Dr. Reid: I can give the hon. Gentleman an assurance on both counts. However, I do not want explicitly or implicitly to lead him to believe that I know that organophosphates are the cause or causes of this illness or these illnesses. There are almost as many suggested causes as there are advocates in the House of the need to support the veterans. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of them. Depleted uranium and organophosphates are suggested causes. It is contended that the use or destruction of chemical weapons could be the cause. There is a range of possibilities, including vaccines and nerve agent pre-treatment tablets. Almost every week there is another suggestion: some believe that it is hysteria, whereas a potentially important paper that was produced last week suggested that there could be an interaction between tablets and organophosphates.

I do not want to say that any of those supposed or alleged causes are, on medical grounds, more proven than others. I give the hon. Gentleman an assurance that we shall try to learn lessons, and shall work closely with the other Departments that are examining the problem.

I mentioned that I had taken some first steps. I met the veterans, and I said that we would explore the possible effects of vaccines and NAP tablets. We have made some

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progress, and in the not too distant future I shall announce how we propose to carry out that research. I announced that we would put resources into reducing the backlog of people who were waiting for medical examinations, and we have made some progress on that. I made it clear that I would ask for a scientific explanation of the decisions taken to use injections and NAP tablets, and I shall make that public.

Those measures are under way, and I shall make an announcement to the House on them and on a number of other issues when I respond to the Select Committee on Defence in the near future. I promise the House that it will be a matter not of months, but of weeks.

During my meeting with veterans' representatives and through other channels, veterans repeatedly voiced concern about the departure from the medical assessment programme of Group Captain Coker. That matter has been raised in this House and in the other place. Many veterans fear that he was removed from the programme because of his sympathy for them. Whatever the truth of those allegations, I know that he was liked and respected by the veterans, and many wanted him to return to the programme.

I undertook to speak to Group Captain Coker, and during our conversation I invited him back to participate in the medical assessment programme. He did not want to return from the United States, for understandable personal reasons. I offered him a place on an advisory team that will work with me, and he gladly accepted. I am pleased to say that he will come back to assist and advise me, as part of a team, on our general approach. That will not only help our efforts, but send another badly needed sign of good faith to the veterans. I am glad to tell my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North that it has been warmly welcomed on both counts by prominent representatives of the veterans.

My hon. Friend explored in some detail the problems that surround any attempt to research the illnesses now being experienced by some Gulf war veterans. The two epidemiological research studies that the Ministry of Defence is funding, on the recommendation of the Medical Research Council, remain a vital element of our response to veterans' health concerns, because ultimately they alone will tell us whether Gulf veterans are suffering from an excess of ill health, over and above what would have been expected had they not been deployed to the Gulf. I value the MRC's supervision of the programme. The results of all other research that might have a bearing on the veterans' illnesses will ultimately need to be set in the context of the results of that epidemiological research.

However, I was not content--nor were the Government--to wait a further three years, until the results came out, before proceeding with any other relevant research. As my hon. Friend pointed out, last month I announced that new research would be carried out to examine the possible health effects of having multiple vaccinations and taking other medications concurrently. I hope that that research will shed light on the illnesses now experienced by some Gulf veterans, but it is also vital to inform any decision to use medical counter-measures should the same situation ever arise again.

I was more than a little surprised, on those grounds alone, that nothing had been done in six years to find out the effect of the vaccines involved. More detailed

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proposals on how the research should be carried out are currently being developed, and, as I have said, I hope to be able to report on progress when I reply to the Defence Committee's paper.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): Can we hear some explanation of why the process took so long? Endlessly, a number of then Opposition Members--including me--asked the right questions.


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