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2 Apr 2003 : Column 734W—continued

Armed Forces Documentation

Bob Russell: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will provide members of HM armed forces serving in the Gulf with documentation to enable them to authorise a family member or other person to act for them in transactions relating to (a) car licensing, (b) insurance, (c) housing payments and (d) payments to utilities. [106090]

Mr. Ingram: Personnel are briefed prior to deployment on the need to make suitable arrangements to cover these sorts of eventualities during their period of absence. They are reminded that these are private matters for which they are responsible. The armed forces have not previously found it necessary to provide their deploying personnel with documentation advising them how to grant power of attorney to a family member. Families encountering specific difficulties are encouraged to seek assistance from Unit Welfare Officers.

Commercial Confidentiality

Rob Marris: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what guidance his Department issues to civil servants on how to deal with claims from organisations that the information they provide to the Department is commercially confidential. [105552]

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Dr. Moonie: When information is marked as commercially sensitive it is treated as such and protected and managed in accordance with the relevant security guidelines, any contract conditions and other departmental processes. The need to verify any claim of commercial confidentiality will generally arise only when considering whether the information should be disclosed to a third party. Ministry of Defence guidance requires officials to comply with the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information in deciding whether to disclose information. Exemption 13 of the Code of Practice relates to a third party's commercial confidences. In deciding whether or not to withhold information, officials must consider whether "unwarranted disclosure would harm the competitive position of a third party". While the decision ultimately rests with MOD, the third party whose interests may be adversely affected will normally be consulted. Even where, prima facie, the Exemption applies, the Code of Practice says that information should be disclosed if there is an overriding public interest in doing so and no statutory restriction or legal obligation to prevent this.

Department Catering Services

Mr. Bercow: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what the cost was of (a) in-house canteen and (b) other catering services provided by the Department in 2002. [104267]

Dr. Moonie: This information is not held centrally in the form requested and could be provided only at disproportionate cost.

Departmental Events

Mr. Bercow: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will list the (a) conferences, (b) seminars, (c) workshops, (d) exhibitions and (e) press conferences which have been sponsored by his Department and which took place on non-departmental premises in the last 12 months, broken down by title, purpose, date and cost. [104273]

Dr. Moonie: This information is not held centrally in the form requested and could be provided only at disproportionate cost. I regret I am therefore unable to provide a substantive answer under the terms of Exemption 9 of the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information.

Depleted Uranium

Ms Munn: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the United Nations Environment Programme study of Depleted Uranium in Bosnia published on 25 March. [105975]

Mr. Ingram: I welcome this report which adds to the body of evidence on the environmental effects of Depleted Uranium (DU) ammunition. Officials have made a preliminary assessment of the main body of the report including the conclusions and recommendations. The findings of this study are consistent with previous United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) studies in Kosovo (2001) and in Serbia and Montenegro (2002). We note the UNEP assessment that the recorded contamination levels are very low and do not present immediate radioactive or toxic risks for the environment

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or human health. We note also that anecdotal reports of rises in cancers in the Balkans were not substantiated by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as part of this project. UNEP say that,


We have stated previously that any DU contamination will be limited and localised and that actions to reduce any potential intakes will only be necessary in some extreme cases, and we note the findings of this report are consistent with that view. Specifically, the report concludes that DU contamination occurs at low levels, detectable with radiation monitors up to two metres around an impact at the surface, but also detectable in laboratory chemical analysis of soil up to 200 metres away in some cases. The report states that


Where Depleted Uranium has been detected in air and water, it has still been within normal levels of naturally occurring Uranium. The concentrations are described as very low and the resulting radiation doses insignificant. The report recommends that further work is carried out on the corrosion and dispersion of DU in the soil and possible subsequent uptake by groundwater. The Ministry of Defence's independent research programme on DU, announced in March 2002, already includes such work.

We support the view that sensible pragmatic precautions should be taken to protect the civil population in areas where armed conflicts occurred and that these precautions should address all potential hazards. In particular UNEP has drawn attention to the fact that past ammunition production and current ammunition destruction activities have produced surface concentrations of heavy metals above levels at which precautions should be taken. The report also draws attention to the fact that industrial radiation sources present a greater health risk than DU contamination. UNEP makes recommendations to raise awareness, train personnel in decontamination, strengthen the radiation safety infrastructure and to investigate health claims. This will be achieved initially by improving data capture of health statistics, particularly with regard to cancer registration and to improving knowledge of basic epidemiology and interpretation of clinical findings in clinical staff. We support these recommendations. The press release on the UNEP website gives a good summary of the findings.

Gurkhas

Miss McIntosh: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what representations he has received concerning the (a) pay, (b) pension and (c) service conditions of Gurkhas serving with British defence forces; and if he will make a statement. [106413]

Dr. Moonie: Since 1 October 2002, we have received representation from six hon. Members about Gurkha pensions and 11 hon. Members about Gurkha

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conditions of service more generally. We have also received enquiries from 25 members of the public and a petition of 445 signatures which seeks enhancements to Gurkha pension arrangements.

Gurkha terms and conditions of service are unique and reflect the status of Gurkhas as Nepalese citizens, recruited and discharged in Nepal. In a recent High Court ruling, Gurkha pay and pensions arrangements were judged to be fair and non-discriminatory. Inter alia, the Court noted that Gurkha remuneration is broadly in line with the pay of British personnel and that Gurkha pensions, available after only 15 years of service, compare favourably with professional salaries in Nepal. Although claims relating to Gurkha accompanied service provisions were also dismissed, we recognise that the current arrangements are a cause for concern and are therefore studying these aspects of the ruling very carefully.

Iraq

Llew Smith: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what depleted uranium munitions have been used by coalition forces in Iraq; and what steps are being taken to clean up the toxic and radiological pollution arising from their use. [105544]

Mr. Ingram: At this stage in the conflict, we are unable to give precise details of what depleted uranium (DU) munitions have been used by coalition forces in Iraq. The British Army's Challenger II tanks have been firing their 120 mm DU anti-tank rounds, but I am unable to comment on DU munitions belonging to United States forces.

It is not feasible to clean up DU residue in the midst of a war zone. The post-conflict administrators of Iraq will be responsible for monitoring DU levels in the environment, and cordoning off and decontaminating sites of penetrator impacts. The United Kingdom has a long tradition of providing practical and financial help in such situations.

Mr. Dismore: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence how many UK nationals are suspected to be fighting for Iraqi armed forces, terrorist groups or militias; how many UK nationals have recently been captured or detained in Iraq and are suspected of being a member of the Iraqi armed forces terrorist groups or militias; whether those captured or detained are being held as prisoners of war; whether they will face criminal charges under UK law; and if he will make a statement. [106061]

Mr. Ingram [holding answer 31 March 2003]: I can confirm that as of today, contrary to media reports, we have no record of any United Kingdom nationals having been detained as Prisoners of War by coalition forces. Captured members of the Iraqi armed forces will be treated as Prisoners of War. Should this include British nationals, such persons will also be afforded proper protection under the Geneva Conventions.

The Ministry of Defence is not in a position to make an assessment of the numbers of United Kingdom nationals that may be fighting for Iraqi armed forces, terrorist groups or militias.

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Llew Smith: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will place daily in the Library transcripts of press briefings by Coalition commanders at Centcom Media Centre in Qatar on the invasion of Iraq. [106412]

Dr. Moonie: I refer my hon. Friend to the answer my right hon. Friend the Minister of State gave on 5 March 2003, Official Report, column 1043W, to the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin). A copy of daily press briefings by Coalition commanders at the Centcom media centre in Qatar can be viewed on the Ministry of Defence website www.operations.mod.uk/telic/statements.htm.


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