Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20 - 39)



  20. Thank you. Obviously, there is no treatment for this. We understand why the tests are being done and welcome the tests. What counselling and support will be available to those who show a positive result?
  (Dr Moonie) First of all, I think we have to recognise that, certainly in the Gulf veterans, after ten years the levels are going to be very small, unless somebody, unknown to us, has ingested particles of DU. So the chances of picking up high results are relatively slim, and that is why we really have to go for this very sophisticated test in order to establish what the levels are. Another problem is, of course, that we have absolutely no knowledge of what the background level of DU is in the general population. These isotopes are generally in tiny quantities but, of course, they are present in all of us. So we are really breaking new ground here.

  21. You are going to be counselling people who do turn out to have unexpectedly high levels?
  (Dr Moonie) If they did, yes, we would be more than counselling them; we would be looking at them very closely to see what happens. If anybody turned out at higher than expected levels, what they would be offered is long-term monitoring to ensure that no adverse related effects occur. With regards to the general point, anybody who raises concerns—because they are going to professionals to be tested—will have those concerns directly dealt with. The GVIU has developed a considerable expertise in providing assurance for people. That is one of their main, underlying functions and something which they do very well indeed and is most appreciated by the veterans who go there.

  22. Final question: when we took evidence in December 1999 there was a considerable dispute between yourself and the veterans about testing for the presence of DU—about how it is actually conducted. Has the consultation process which you have undertaken in the last few months persuaded the Gulf veterans that the way you are carrying out these tests is, in fact, the correct one?
  (Dr Moonie) We have indirect evidence from the first consultation that there was very little disquiet expressed by the 37 respondents that we had. I think they were made on an individual basis, but the general consensus was that we had got it right in the area we are moving in. I do not have direct evidence; people have not actually come to us and said "Yes, we are happy with this", but they have not come to us particularly to say "We are unhappy" either, and I think that they would have done if they were. I think that we have moved to meet the concerns which they showed. The degree of detail that we are bringing into it in order to ensure that this system is very thorough and very accurate will reassure people that when they go to the theatre they are active on, the supervision and Oversight Board, including veterans representatives, will provide much greater security and peace of mind to people that they are going to get a proper test.

  Mr Viggers: May I follow the statistical point? You mention that NATO allies are pooling their information. How can you account for the extraordinary disparity in public attitude and politicians' attitudes here and in Italy, for instance, where, from conversations with Italians, from reading Italian newspapers and watching Italian television, there is a widespread feeling that this is a subject of enormous importance and concern, and politicians respond accordingly?


  23. Please remember we are being televised.
  (Dr Moonie) I think what I should say is that we looked at this very carefully after all the furore over the Christmas period. I passionately believe that what we have done is absolutely correct. I cannot speak for other people; people respond to media-induced crises in different ways. There is a great deal of ignorance about the epidemiology of the disease and the frequency with which in a young-to-middle-aged population certain conditions like cancer naturally occur. That has been fed on by the media, not just in this country but in others. People responded to it in the way they thought fit at the time. As you know, politicians do not always respond rationally when they are riding on the line and the press is clamouring for something to be done.

  24. What became of the soldiers, whether they were Portuguese or Spanish, who developed cancer, allegedly, as a result of exposure? Was that investigated by our NATO allies?
  (Dr Moonie) I think they are investigating that themselves. I think what we have to be very clear about is that all the scientific evidence on DU is that were it to produce any cancers at all—and that would only be because of massive exposure, because, remember, it is much less radioactive than ordinary uranium—it would take years, decades before these cancers would appear. Speaking as an epidemiologist myself in the past, the chances of any of these cancers coming from DU exposure are infinitesimal.

Mr Cann

  25. Could I ask a couple of questions about the proposed Oversight Board, which I understand will include veterans' representatives? How many members will the Board have, how many of them will be veterans and, importantly, have representatives of Gulf veterans indicated that they are willing to participate?
  (Dr Moonie) I have not, as yet, seen the full responses. I am unaware yet of who has actually requested specifically to go on the Board, as opposed to just approving the setting-up of the Board. It has got to be large enough to have confidence in what it does and small enough for it not to degenerate into, as you know very large committees can do, something which will not be productive. I would envisage it will have a considerable majority of people from outside our own area; so there will be experts on it, there will be representatives of Gulf veterans and one or two of our own people who have specific knowledge and expertise in the subject. I think you are asking me to guess what size it is likely to be. I think my own view would be round about 12 people. It might be slightly larger.

  26. Thank you. Do you believe that their participation in the Oversight Board is likely to overcome the "many reservations" veterans have about MoD involvement in the screening programme?
  (Dr Moonie) We have been very specific that it is going to have a majority of people from outside the MoD. The last thing I would want people to believe is that we were just packing a committee in order to get the responses that we want. We shall ensure that there is a fair representation of the spectrum of veterans' representatives and scientific experts so that any concerns that they have can be allayed by people who are not seen to be directly responsible to us.

Mr Gapes

  27. You have already touched on this indirectly, but we seem to have—despite various assurances, statements and publications in the British Medical Journal, Lancet reports and other scientific evidence—a very wide public concern about possible adverse health effects of exposure to depleted uranium. This seems to be prevalent, despite all the evidence and all the scientific studies saying, as you just did, that there is no evidence of the risk, or that the risk is lower than with naturally occurring uranium, and that there is no risk particularly quickly after exposure—it takes decades, as you said. Why is this?
  (Dr Moonie) It is very easy for somebody like me who, before I spent half a lifetime in politics, spent half a lifetime in medicine, to talk with confidence about something that I know quite a bit about. It is much more difficult for the general population, who, frankly, do not have an enormous scientific knowledge, for whom radioactivity is something frankly mysterious and dangerous. It is very difficult, therefore, to allay their fears. You can talk to the press, but they will not necessarily report you in the way that you hoped they would and they will give equal weight to non-scientifically validated views, which take the opposite point of view to your own, in order to provide balance. All you can do is continually repeat what we know to be true, and where there are residual concerns that you cannot completely dispel just by giving that reassurance, then I think—as we have done with the retrospective exposure assessments we are ready to do—you have to respond to people's continuing concerns and given them further reassurance.

  28. Is there not a danger that your decision, for the best of motives, to embark on this testing programme will, in fact, rather than helping to allay these concerns actually feed this media frenzy, if you like, and that misguided perceptions about potential contact with any depleted uranium will still be, in a sense, seen to be more of a problem than it is, because you are carrying out this testing programme?
  (Dr Moonie) There is, at least in theory, a danger that that will happen. You are doing something, therefore there must be a core reason for it. There is a simple reason for it: people were concerned and continued to be concerned after assurance. I think that we owe these people a bit of extra effort. In view of the long history of the way in which successive governments have handled Gulf veterans' illnesses, in particular, I think it is incumbent on us to go that extra mile and to provide that extra assurance, whatever the cost in terms of public perception may be. I have to say I believe that what I have seen in the press since we have made that decision is a general acceptance that what we are doing is right. So we have actually responded to the concerns and, paradoxically, we have reduced anxiety about it if we are seen to be doing something about it.

  Chairman: We are now moving on to the military use of depleted uranium.

Mr Viggers

  29. Just to get a sense of perspective, there have been some 10,000 depleted uranium shells fired in a range in Scotland. We used 100 depleted uranium shells in the Gulf War and none in the Balkans, whereas the Americans used about 900,000 in the Gulf War, I understand. We currently use depleted uranium in Phalanx anti-aircraft, anti-missile guns in the Royal Navy and with the 120mm Challenger tank rounds. We are phasing them out in Phalanx because tungsten is found to be more effective.
  (Dr Moonie) We have now seen that a tungsten alloy in that particular situation provides a longer reach and therefore destroys a missile further away from the target.

  30. Depleted uranium is currently used and projected for the future in the Challenger round and it is your intention to continue with that?
  (Dr Moonie) It is, yes.

  31. Have there been any changes in safety procedures since the beginning of this year?
  (Dr Moonie) As you know from previous information we have given you, we have developed protocols and information to give to people on how to handle depleted uranium. We insist, if people go into a confined environment where it has been fired and is likely to be left around, that people wear full biological protection. If people are on the outside of a tank that has been hit, say, they must wear appropriate gloves if they are going to be handling material and wear a face mask. These were developed as an advice. They have now been implemented as an advice and they have been given to all our troops as they are sent to Kosovo. They are given a further briefing once they get there on the danger of the environment that they are going to because DU is not by any means the only hazard that they are going to be finding in that area. We have put into practice what we were saying we were going to do at an earlier date. I do not know if that answers the concerns that you have.

  32. Are you continuing to investigate further safety and health improvement measures?
  (Dr Moonie) Yes. That is a continuous process now. It is something which has developed over the years. We are not going to claim credit for this but we are much more aware now of potential hazards and much better equipped to deal with them and to produce proper guidance for people. That is something which will apply in the future as well. I have to stress that, while there is no better alternative available, we intend to continue using the DU round in tanks.

  33. Have you stepped up research to find viable alternatives to DU?
  (Dr Moonie) Research is going on in a wide variety of areas. At present, it is not terribly promising. DU is a remarkably effective penetrator and so far nothing has been developed in the way of armour that would leave the vehicle capable of moving. There are areas of research that we are looking at. We have looked at other materials. Nothing has yet proved to give anything like the rate of penetration that DU does. We can look at novel ideas. We are looking at them all the time obviously, but I would not say we were stepping up. There is a strong programme of research ongoing, both here and in the United States, looking for alternatives. In fact, that is the way in which the new tungsten alloys were found to be better than DU for the much lighter rounds that the Phalanx fires.

  34. Are other countries also setting up research or have any moved to a different form of alternative to DU?
  (Dr Moonie) Not to my knowledge, no.

  35. Other than for reasons that tungsten—?
  (Dr Moonie) I can assure you that if we find a better material which, biologically and practically, is easier to use and is as effective or more effective, then we will use it.

  36. We mentioned earlier countries where concern appears to be more widespread, albeit in your submission without justification. Has any country changed its policy on the use of DU as a result of public concern?
  (Dr Moonie) Not as far as I know.


  37. We will now move on to Gulf veterans' illnesses. Are you satisfied that the current War Pensions Scheme is adequately meeting the needs of Gulf veterans?
  (Dr Moonie) If we look at the two schemes which are currently administered, I think that they do, yes, in the round. Obviously, there may be exceptions. There may be people who feel that they have been unfairly treated. I think that is always the case with a pension scheme but, by and large, I think people have been fairly treated and seem to be well satisfied.

  38. Will this fall within your remit of Minister for Veterans' Affairs?
  (Dr Moonie) I believe it will, yes, assuming I am retained in that role after the election and assuming we are in a position to do that.

  39. If anyone has any complaints about the War Pensions Scheme, address them to you over the next few weeks, or at least to your office?
  (Dr Moonie) I think it is currently Mr Bayley's concern in the DSS.

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