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Mr. Spellar: I thank the hon. Gentleman for the tone of his response, and should like to deal with some of the details that he raised. He rightly mentioned the greater risks from toxicity than from radiation, particularly the lack of any perceived link between radioactivity in the air and incidence of leukaemia. The World Health Organisation made its statement based on work that has been done with uranium miners who, while they show incidence of other cancers, do not show a higher incidence of leukaemia, and on the evidence from Chernobyl where, again, there was no increase in the incidence of leukaemia, as I understand from the WHO's reports. However, it is right to identify the fact that there are potential risks, and I shall come later to risk management.
The hon. Gentleman referred to data in other countries and how they are perceived. That reinforces the need to pool data and seek a common methodology and approach across the NATO countries. Discussions are taking place bilaterally and also at NATO level in that context. Indeed, there is a meeting of NATO countries this week.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the reason for the change and the impact of media coverage. Inevitably, greater concern will be felt by our troops reading the weight of media coverage on the subject. It is important that our forces have the best possible reassurance regarding their position. That is why we are looking at an expanded programme, in dialogue with the appropriate medical and scientific authorities, to ensure that we have the best possible mechanism for delivering that. As the hon. Gentleman rightly anticipated, we shall be having meetings at NATO.
The hon. Gentleman also talked about risk. It is important to stress that the correct philosophy is not risk avoidance, which is impossible and, as he suggested, may carry much greater risks to our forces in terms of loss of military capability. That is why I believe that it would be fundamentally wrong to move away from justifiable weapons that enable our people to undertake the tasks that the country gives them when we send them into conflict to fight and win.
We are concerned, however, with risk management--the evaluation and handling of risk, and the avoidance of unnecessary risk. That is why we are looking at further environmental studies, as I outlined in the statement, and at individual monitoring. We believe that that is the responsible way in which to handle the issue. I hope that that provides the necessary and justified reassurance to our forces that we are making our best efforts and using our best endeavours for their welfare.
Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South): Will the Minister accept that almost everybody here welcomes not only the statement but the enthusiastic, unprompted, spontaneous factors that led to his appearance at the Dispatch Box this
Mr. Spellar: I thank my hon. Friend for his concluding comments. When we came in as the new Administration, the previous occupant of this position, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, North and Bellshill (Dr. Reid), made it clear that we wanted to provide the best available resources to get to the facts and the truth and to be guided by the science. That is the basis of my statement today. We want to use the best possible scientific advice to establish the facts. If that means that we can only provide reassurance to our forces that there is no risk to them, that will be of value in itself. If there is a risk, we shall be able to consider how we can best manage it and remedy the position for individuals. Therefore, we have to be guided carefully by the science so that we make the best practical decisions for both the health of our forces and their operational effectiveness. My hon. Friend and his Select Committee will be working with us to achieve that aim.
Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford): On behalf of all those on the Liberal Democrat Benches may I welcome the statement and thank the Minister for his courtesy in supplying me with a copy of it? As for the timing, Mr. Speaker, you hear almost weekly requests for statements from the Government from those on the Opposition Benches, so it would be churlish to criticise the timing when such a statement is made. We welcome it. We also welcome any aim to ascertain a connection between DU and health risks for service personnel and civilians. Will the screening that he has announced be a one-off or will it be on-going?
In the Gulf, the cocktail of immunisations, environmental pollution and any agencies used by Iraq make it difficult to ascertain whether there is a definite link between DU and ill health. In the Balkans, such a distinction could be made clearer. Can the Minister give us a few more details? When will the tests begin? Will they be connected with the study that is already being undertaken by the Royal Society into so-called Gulf war syndrome?
The Minister mentioned the allies. The weapons were used in United Nations and NATO operations. How will discussions with the allies take place? He also mentioned the two training grounds. Can he give an absolute guarantee that those munitions have not been used on other testing sites in the United Kingdom, as there have been suggestions that they have? If there is contamination, what guidance will be given to the civilian populations in areas where the weapons were used, to non-governmental organisations and even to the British police and civilians
Mr. Spellar: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. He asks about the timing of implementation of the programme. That will depend on the scientific advice that we receive. As he rightly says, that advice will also be guided by the independent study that the Royal Society is conducting. As the spokesman said, the Royal Society instigated that study, but we have been happy to co-operate. We will be working with the Royal Society to get the best advice on the nature and timing of the programme and, equally importantly, evaluation of the results. We shall have discussions through NATO with our allies on the issue, in particular to ensure that we pool data so that we have a much wider database for the programme.
I am not aware of any sites in the United Kingdom where depleted uranium has been fired, apart from those that I identified in my statement. Of course, in other areas, some of the vehicles that were hit will already have been removed. In many areas the level of radiation is fairly low. An environmental evaluation will need to be undertaken as part of the programme. We shall obviously work with the United Nations mission in Kosovo precisely to determine the best way to handle such matters, because much of the responsibility for them lies within UNMIK's remit, rather than that of KFOR.
Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East): Although I welcome very much the assurance that the Minister has given to the Gulf veterans, does he accept that there is a need for continuing concern and care about the situation in areas where the weapons are being tested or destroyed? In particular, on the basis of the statement, can he give a clear assurance to the residents of Shoeburyness, Foulness and Great Wakering in my constituency that no meaningful health hazard has been identified from the activities there? Will he seek to persuade the local health authority to publish statistics that show that it has found no evidence of worrying health statistics that might be related to the destruction of weapons? Can he give us an assurance on supervision and control--for example, through the Environment Agency--when the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency goes through the changes involved in privatisation?
We welcome the statement, and the Minister's intention in making it, but does he accept that there is a genuine need to give continuing care, concern and attention to the areas where such weapons have been tested or destroyed?
Mr. Spellar: As I identified in the statement, the work at those sites is already under the supervision of the appropriate environment agency. That will continue irrespective of the ownership status of any site. We have