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Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) (LD): Before we adjourn, I want to draw attention, yet again, to the way in which we as a nation treat service families. I suspect that every Member has a number of service families in their constituency; we certainly have plenty in the south-west.
Everyone plays lip service to the welfare of service families and, indeed, to the fact that service personnel are the most crucial asset of our armed forces. No doubt, the Prime Minister is repeating that mantra to our troops in Iraq today, but what sort of message is the Ministry of Defence sending them?
In a succession of recess Adjournment debates, I have drawn attention to a sad failure by the MOD. The Deputy Leader of the House is always meticulous in his promise to get a response from the MOD, yet that response is never as positive, encouraging and supportive of service families as I, and other Members, would like. That does not just have a damaging effect on morale, and, therefore, on recruitment and retention, but it is intrinsically immoral to exploit those who serve our country so well, in the most dangerous and demanding circumstances, and not to take full responsibility for the outcome.
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Let us consider the troops who suffered, and continue to suffer, serious health effects from their service on our behalf in the first Gulf war in 1991. I have an interestnot a financial interestas a member of the Royal British Legion Gulf war group, and I have long campaigned for a public inquiry into Gulf war illnesses. After the obdurate refusal of Conservative Ministers to investigate, we all hoped, on both sides of the House, for a more positive, optimistic attitude in 1997, with the change of Government. We hoped that there would be a fresh start.
Indeed, things looked good for a few weeks. The "Gulf Veterans' IllnessesA New Beginning" consultation paper made hopeful noises, but all too soon the very same refusal to open up the whole issue to public examination gave veterans and their families the feeling that the MOD was more concerned with protecting its secret mistakes than recognising the extent and devastating effect of those illnesses. When, eventually, in summer 2004, a wholly independent inquiry was set up under the chairmanship of Lord Lloyd of Berwick, with Dr. Norman Jones and Sir Michael Davies, Members on both sides of the House welcomed that initiative.
One would think that the MOD would have been only too pleased that someone was going to do that work, but its lack of co-operation has made the Ministry's reputation, especially among retired service personnel and their families, even worse than it was previously. There was a Scrooge-like response from the Veterans Minister, with niggling questions about the funding of the inquiry. The correspondence at the end of the report is staggering. Instead of addressing the real issuesthe concerns of a large number of our service personnelall he could do was go on and on about the charitable trust that was funding the inquiry.
Moreover, there was an absolute refusal to be questioned. I raised with the Prime Minister whether Ministers from the MOD and their officials were prepared to appear before the public inquiry and expose themselves to interrogation. They would not do so, and as a result, I believe, the inquiry has not been as comprehensive as one would have hoped, and they have made it clear yet again that the Ministry is not really interested.
Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I notice that the clock is not working, so the hon. Gentleman may have a good deal of time at his disposal. I understand that he is raising important issues about health and welfare. Has he also noticed the double standards of the Ministry of Defence in that serving soldiers are currently instructed not to speak out against the Government's policy on regimental amalgamations while senior officers are encouraged to support that policy? Has the hon. Gentleman anything to say about the MOD's double standards in news management?
I would love to be diverted along that route because I believe that there is an issue there, but I am trying to keep within the limit although, as a Front-Bench speaker, the clock does not run for me, which is something that I greatly appreciate. I would also have liked to make a contribution at the end of the debate, but I shall try to be as brief as I can, because I am well aware that many hon. Members want to speak.
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The inquiry report was published just a few weeks ago, in November 2004, and the very grudging response from the Ministry and the Ministerin a letter published in The Times, for goodness' sake, not a proper formal response to the inquiryis a staggering indictment of the way in which the Ministry continues to treat this matter. I quote briefly from the letter that appeared from the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Hove (Mr. Caplin), who is the Minister for Veterans. It says:
"I have made clear that we keep an open mind on the need for a public inquiry into Gulf veterans' illnesses. However, an inquiry could not contribute to answering the basic question of why some Gulf veterans are ill. Only scientific research might do so, which is why our research programme at a cost of £8.5 million is so important.
This is also the reason why I and Ministry of Defence officials did not appear at Lord Lloyd of Berwick's unofficial investigation. I did, however, supply a huge amount of written evidence and information to Lord Lloyd and am disappointed that this does not appear to have been taken fully into account in his conclusions."
It has been taken very fully into account and the report is a damning indictment of the Ministry's failure to examine the issues itself. In fact, Lord Lloyd's inquiry is comprehensive and comes up with a number of helpful recommendations. I do not propose to go into them all, but I want to quote briefly from the report resume, which the inquiry prepared. It said:
"The most likely explanation may be a combination of more than one cause against a background of stress, since at least some of the causes are thought to have a potentiating effect on each other. But all these causes are directly related to the veterans' service in the Gulf, in what was on any view a very toxic environment. No other possible causes have been proposed. In these circumstances it is not acceptable for the MOD to say:
Is that not an excellent summary of the situation? I am sure that hon. Members who have veterans in their constituencies who are still suffering from long-term illness recognise that, at long last, somebody has gone absolutely to the heart of the matter.
There are still huge problems to overcome. Yes, it would be good to be able to establish precisely what the research can tell us in terms of the causal effect. What we need to do, though, is to recognise that some very ill peopleprobably 600, but perhaps a great many moreare still not having those crucial issues addressed. Indeed, there are thousands of claims for war pensions. Some have been permitted, but the discrimination between one victim and another is one of the particular issues that causes most concern to those who are left out and denied that pension.
Hon. Members across the House support the call for a much more positive response to Lord Lloyd's report, and 96 Members of all parties have signed my early-day motion 81, calling for justice for victims of Gulf war illnesses. That is just the beginning. We cannot allow this situation to go on and on, because those who are already seriously ill will simply die before they obtain justice.
On a similar issue, I find it staggering, having raised some of these issues in the past, that the families of people who were killed in the early days of the second Gulf warafter the Iraq invasion, 20 months agostill
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do not know precisely why their loved ones were killed. Those families are equally badly served by the way in which the Ministry of Defence looks at these matters. In previous recess Adjournment debates, I have raised the case of Sergeant Steve Roberts, who was from my constituency. His family still do not know precisely, and absolutely, whether it was as a result of friendly fire that he was killed and whether, if he had been wearing enhanced combat body armourwhich of course was removed from him before he met his deathhe would be alive today. It is outrageous that we do not know, after all these many months, precisely what happened. Indeed, it would seem that the Ministry of Defence is more anxious to prosecute those members of his unit who may or may not have been part of that fatal accident, than it is to get to the truth and provide it to those families.
At Christmas, we all think of our families. I hope that all Members of the House will particularly think of those families whose loved ones have suffered serious ill health as a result of their service on behalf of their country or lost their life looking after our interests. I wish you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, every happiness during the coming family celebrations of Christmas, as I do all other hon. Members, but I hope that we shall have a thought for those who are not so lucky.
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