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11.55 pm

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. John Spellar): I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton) for this opportunity to discuss the work of the former Ministry of Supply establishment at Nancekuke in Cornwall and also the case of her constituent, Mr. Tom Griffiths. She is a strong campaigner for her constituents and we take her representations seriously. I also want to record our appreciation of our skilled staff at Nancekuke, Porton Down and elsewhere, whose work has played such a vital role in the defence of our country and our freedom.

Before I deal with the specifics of the case and the other points raised, I have to say that I do not entirely agree with my hon. Friend's view on the issue, although I entirely understand the background to the concerns that she has raised. I hope that what I have to say this evening will allay fears that former employees at Nancekuke were at significant risk of being poisoned by nerve gas or, indeed, that activities at the site might have posed, or still might pose, some sort of hazard to the local population.

It might be useful if I describe briefly the history of the establishment at Nancekuke and the site's present situation. I am sure that the House is aware of the use of chemical warfare by the Germans in the first world war when many of our service men suffered the debilitating effects of gases such as mustard and chlorine. I am sure that the House can also appreciate the devastating effects, not only for the individuals concerned but for our military operations. Those threats heralded the start of the research and development that have underpinned the UK's chemical and biological defence capability to the present day.

The great war laid down the principles for the study of chemical warfare and chemical defence and, by the outbreak of the second world war, the ability to protect the UK and its forces against the use of gas had been brought to a level that was superior to that of any other nation. The development of our retaliatory capacity had been more limited but was greatly intensified during the second world war.

Undoubtedly, at the time, our preparedness and that of our allies, did much to influence our opponents' decision not to use their considerable chemical warfare capability and we must be thankful that we were spared the additional casualties that would have been inflicted. However, it was the discovery of German shells containing nerve agents that provided a new dimension to the concept of chemical warfare and impetus to activities during the post-war period.

The site at Nancekuke was one of several involved in the nerve agent programme. Established initially as an autonomous facility of the Ministry of Supply in 1951, Nancekuke was concerned at first with the investigation of processes for the production of chemical warfare agents.

A chemical called GB--known to the Germans as sarin--emerged as the nerve agent on which the UK's chemical weapons were to be based and for that reason

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was among the agents studied at Nancekuke. A pilot plant was built with a capability of producing up to one ton of nerve agent a week. Plans were also laid for a large-scale production plant. However, those never came to fruition because the UK decided to abandon its offensive chemical warfare capability in 1956.

The pilot plant was decommissioned and, from then on, the work at Nancekuke was carried out solely in support of the defensive programme seeking to address the services' requirements for equipment to detect nerve agents in the field, for prophylaxis and therapy for nerve agent poisoning, for the protection of individuals and facilities, and for monitoring decontamination and residual contamination of terrain and equipment. Various nerve agents were produced but only on a laboratory bench scale.

The House should be aware, however, that the work at Nancekuke was more wide-ranging than just the small-scale production of chemicals and agents for research and studies into the stability of those materials. There were many activities that did not involve working with nerve agents at all. For example, some production and development was concerned with riot control agents, chemicals for detectors, drugs for development as counter-measures, training stimulants and charcoal cloth for NBC--nuclear, biological and chemical--protective suits.

I turn now to the general health of personnel working at Nancekuke. There is no evidence that personnel were likely to suffer effects on their health as a result of working there, or that the local population was in danger.

I can say that because similar concerns were raised by the then Member for North Cornwall some 30 years ago, as my hon. Friend mentioned. They led to two studies by the Registrar General of the mortality and health of former employees up to 1969. As my hon. Friend knows from the answers to her recent parliamentary questions on this issue, the first study showed that the mortality of persons employed at Nancekuke was actually rather less than the average for England and Wales as a whole, possibly, it is said, due to climate and social conditions. This is also one specific instance in this matter where I have to disagree with her about secrecy: the results of the review were not kept secret but were published in the Official Report in 1970.

My hon. Friend noted that 41 deaths out of a work force of 150 seems extraordinarily large. However, the deaths relate to the sum total of people who worked at Nancekuke over approximately its first 20 years, not to the number in any one year. Additionally, the number of staff on the site varied by year and, for some years, was in the region of 300. Regrettably, we no longer have records of precisely how many people were employed at Nancekuke over the period, but it probably ran into a couple of thousand.

I shall risk disagreeing with my hon. Friend again. We are not convinced that the second study that looked at sickness data in Nancekuke employees warrants such attention as it has received recently in the media. Although the study into sickness and absenteeism among employees at Nancekuke could be taken to imply a greater incidence of some illnesses in some workers, it is worth stating the original expert conclusion that, due to a variety of factors, the data were insufficiently robust to be used as firm evidence of increased ill health among staff.

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That was also the view of the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys in 1992, and that lack of statistical robustness is the reason why the results were not published formally. In fact, the paper itself explains why the comparisons between sickness rates at Nancekuke and the population at large might be considered invalid.

For example, the data from Nancekuke includes all sickness absences, no matter how short, whereas the national data come from social security records that are confined to absences of at least four days. In addition, the industrial workers at Nancekuke constitute only a subset of the total work force at the site and yet were compared with the total UK working population. The report states that that

There are also a number of other issues that could be held to invalidate the report. They include age ranges, national versus regional differences for illnesses such as flu, and Nancekuke's insistence--for understandable reasons--on medical examination for all minor episodes of illness. I do not have time to go into detail about them here but, in view of those shortcomings, it might have been expected that another review would have been carried out. However, all these years later, we do not know why that was not the case.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): Given the lack of a review, will the Minister make it possible for those hon. Members--such as myself and the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton)--to see the papers that are available to him? Clearly, there is no longer an issue of secrecy in this regard, but would it be possible to satisfy ourselves about the accuracy of what he is telling us?

Mr. Spellar: I shall look into the matter, and write to the hon. Gentleman.

On secrecy, I am sure that there is no question about the need for some classification to have been applied to various elements of the work at Nancekuke at the time. I should be very surprised if we disagreed on the issue of national security and the great sensitivities surrounding the chemical defence programme, but I understand that the need to protect such information can lead to unwarranted speculation and suspicion. However, the sickness data were not classified, and I am therefore pleased that I responded as I did to the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler).

Before I move away from possible health effects, it is fitting to turn to the case that my hon. Friend raised tonight--that of her constituent, Mr. Tom Griffiths, a Nancekuke employee who was accidentally exposed to sarin in 1958. I agree entirely with her that this was a very regrettable and unfortunate incident, but it was an accident, not an inevitable and predictable event. My Department accepted that, as a result of the accident, Mr. Griffiths suffered some short-term ill effects, and he received compensation in 1976. This is the only case that I am aware that my Department appears to have dealt with, and I am aware of only two cases that were handled by the then Department of Health and Social Security around 1970.

The decision to close Nancekuke and transfer the remaining work to another establishment was taken during the 1976 defence review. Since 1980, the site has been

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known as RAF Portreath. It is currently an Air Surveillance and Control System--ASACS--reporting post. As such, it forms part of the United Kingdom's air defence system. RAF Portreath also occasionally acts as a relief landing ground for search and rescue helicopters on training activities operating out of RAF St. Mawgan.

I assure my hon. Friend that great consideration was given to drawing up a plan for the closure of Nancekuke in an orderly and phased manner, with due consideration of decontamination and disposal processes. It was certainly not the case that the withdrawal was careless or hurried, and no chemical warfare agents were ever disposed of to either the sea or the land at Nancekuke. In all, in the region of 20 tonnes of sarin were produced. Most of the nerve agents were chemically deactivated, and only small quantities were transferred to Porton for defence research. I am not aware of any chemical warfare agents being transferred to the United States, other than a few laboratory samples. Any other materials and decontaminated plant and equipment were disposed of at a number of clearly identifiable locations on the site.

Nevertheless, I recognise that there has been an evolution in thinking about matters such as contamination of water supplies. My hon. Friend will be pleased to learn about the land quality assessment that is under way at the site, in line with my Department's policy of undertaking such assessments over a 10-year period from 1996. In particular, surface soil and water samples which have been undertaken by the National Rivers Authority have shown no signs of contamination from toxic agents and, as a responsible landlord, we are considering how best to take this work forward, including appropriate consultation with the representatives of local authorities, the Environment Agency for England and Wales, English Nature, and other Departments.

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My hon. Friend raised the issue of clear-up operations at Porton Down, but that is an essentially different situation. The site of concern there was a munitions testing range rather than a production facility.

The House may also be interested to know that the former activities at Nancekuke were declared by the United Kingdom under the terms of the chemical weapons convention in 1997. In addition, a team of international inspectors has confirmed that the production facilities have been destroyed and that the few buildings remaining were not being used for chemical weapon purposes. The site will be open for such inspection for at least another 10 years.

My hon. Friend asks if she may visit the site. She will be glad to know that the RAF will be happy to host her at RAF Portreath.

In conclusion, I hope that my hon. Friend and her constituents will now feel more confident about this issue. As Minister of State for the Armed Forces, I have had the opportunity to understand in some detail the importance of our progress in understanding chemical, and, indeed, biological weapons. Nancekuke provided a valuable contribution, which is still relevant in this very uncertain post-cold war world.

I commend to the House our public paper, published last July, which sets out our policy and strategy for defending the United Kingdom and United Kingdom armed forces against the threat of biological and chemical weapons. As I said at the outset, I also commend the excellent work undertaken by our employees in providing this service in defence of this country and of our freedoms.

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