Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Does the Minister accept that some soldiers returning from the Gulf war and the Balkans have developed very serious illnesses? Is he aware--I am sure that he is--of my constituent, Mr. Dave Robertson? He went to the Gulf war a fit, healthy, active career soldier, but developed into an absolute wreck when he came back. His skin bleeds for no reason; he bleeds internally; he has developed epilepsy; he has regular seizures; and he has had a number of strokes. He sees a neurologist, an orthopaedic surgeon and a rheumatologist. He has respiratory problems; he has had pneumonia and pleurisy; and he has chronic fatigue syndrome. He needs permanent daily support just to exist.
If depleted uranium was not the cause of that, what was? If it was not depleted uranium, was it the toxic vaccines that were given to Mr. Robertson as a matter of course to prevent him from suffering illnesses? The previous Tory Government did nothing about that for nearly 10 years. There are many people, such as Mr. Robertson, who have deep, deep health problems, and it is the responsibility of a responsible, caring Government, such as this, to do something about it and try to find out exactly why Mr. Robertson and many of his colleagues have those illnesses.
Mr. Spellar: I fully understand the feeling that my hon. Friend has for his constituent. Indeed, several hon. Members have constituents who served in the Gulf and who are suffering from illnesses. That is precisely why previous Ministers for the Armed Forces have announced a range of studies, which the Government have continued, to try to ascertain the causes of those illnesses. There is a difference between veterans from the Gulf and those from Bosnia and Kosovo, in that those who served in the Balkans do not show higher levels of illness compared with a comparable group.
It is certainly true that a number of Gulf veterans suffer from illnesses and that they are showing considerable symptoms. However, the root causes of those illnesses is still not clear from the work that we and other allied countries have undertaken.
We have funded several programmes. Some of them have already reported, but others have still to report because they will run for a number of years and are extremely extensive. We have funded those programmes to get to the bottom of the causes of the Gulf war illnesses, to see what can be done to remedy the illnesses of those who served in the Gulf and to avoid a similar situation in the future.
Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex): May I warmly welcome the Minister's statement? It is clear that he is doing the right thing, and that the research will build on the work that was put in place by the Secretary of State and the substantial work--I am sure that the Minister will acknowledge this--that was put in place by the previous Government but that failed to come to the same conclusion. Indeed, we are not significantly further
Will the Minister reassure the House that in the work done on testing armour-piercing weapons, all effective steps were taken to protect those who took part in the work? Will the research that now takes place consider in detail the equipment that was used and the clothes that were worn by those who examined the targets almost immediately after the test firings?
Mr. Spellar: I shall certainly write to the hon. Gentleman about the detailed points that he has raised. As I said in my statement, the work was undertaken under the control of the environmental agencies and under the appropriate ionising radiation regulations. It was subsequently evaluated by W. S. Atkins, who are extremely professional and experienced consultants on this matter. Therefore, we have received a considerable degree of reassurance regarding the environmental safety of the work force involved and the surrounding environment, and thus the residents in the area.
I fully acknowledge that work has been undertaken to try to ascertain the cause of the illnesses suffered by Gulf veterans that are now universally acknowledged to exist. Although we still have not determined the cause, we might have eliminated a number of possible causes.
Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley): Can my hon. Friend confirm or deny whether tests of the weapons have taken or will take place in Northumberland? As I suspect that he will tell us that the civilian population is safe, why does he not test the weapons in his constituency?
Mr. Spellar: Possibly because I represent one of the most urban constituencies in the country, where the amount of open land available is considerably less than at Otterburn. Its use by the armed forces is greatly welcomed by the residents for whom the work is a significant source of employment. The area's use helps to maintain an attractive national park and to sustain a considerable number of wildlife, which may be less disturbed by human intrusion.
I am not aware of depleted uranium rounds having been used at Otterburn. Equally, our application for the extension of Otterburn is related not to depleted uranium but much more to rocket-launching systems and the capacity of the AS90, which is a considerable addition to our military capability and one that I am sure we shall all welcome.
Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport): In some countries--notably, the United States--the attitude is that if their service personnel are put in harm's way and suffer in any manner, they should be supported and compensated. However, in this country the attitude sometimes is that if a service man suffers injury, he must demonstrate that he is injured and that he derived that injury from serving in the armed forces. That is not a party political point; it is based on constituency experience.
It is right that we should compensate and seek to assist those people who are injured while serving the country. At the same time, we have a duty to the taxpayer to assure ourselves that an individual's claim is a proper case for compensation. However, as the hon. Gentleman knows, war pensions are administered by the Department of Social Security. He will also be aware of the attributable pension, which is payable to people who are injured while serving in the armed forces, although with a slightly different burden of proof.
Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East): My hon. Friend rightly stressed the paramount need to reassure our armed forces. There will, of course, be similar concerns among our allies, the Portuguese, the Italians and the Greeks. He also properly said that there should be a pooling of data. Has that not been done comprehensively already? Are we initiating that? To what extent is that a matter not for individual Governments, but for NATO itself to lead?
Mr. Spellar: That matter will be discussed by NATO with a view to drawing up a common methodology, leading to a future pooling of data. However, the actual assessment of individuals' conditions, in all the countries that my right hon. Friend mentioned, is at an early stage. In the one or two countries where there have been programmes of testing for uranium, there has been a fairly limited take-up and, indeed, no presence of uranium has been detected. Urgent discussions are taking place between NATO members to ascertain each country's position. The prime responsibility for delivering programmes at the sharp end will lie with national Governments. However, it is appropriate for discussions to take place at a NATO level to try to co-ordinate them.
Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): Can the Minister reassure my constituents that no depleted uranium has been fired, stored or transported at Aberporth in my constituency, and that there is no health risk to them? Will he also expand on what he said in response to the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) regarding the responsibility for toxicity after the privatisation of DERA sites?
Mr. Spellar: That was a slightly different question from the one posed by the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) on the contamination of a site. As far as I am aware, responsibility for that will lie with the site's owner, although transitional arrangements will be undertaken, depending on the individual circumstances of each site. I am not aware that any depleted uranium rounds were fired at Aberporth. However, I shall check on details of its involvement with depleted uranium and write to the hon. Gentleman.
Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton): I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for his statement, but will he take it from me that the absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence? Veterans' cases have demonstrated