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Mr. Patrick Hall (Bedford) (Lab):
I thank the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms), as well as the Minister, through his private office, for allowing me a few minutes. Like the hon. Gentleman, I come to this issue through a constituent of mineMr. Peter Parker, who joined the RAF under national service and served as an aircraftman between 1951 and August 1953. Towards the end of his service, he recalls seeing an official notice seeking volunteers to attend CDEE Porton. His recollection is that both the notice and the advice that he
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obtained that related to it was very clear that the process he faced posed no risk to his health and, indeed, that he would be serving his country by participating in a programme of research into curing the common cold.
Mr. Parker was assisted in his decision to volunteer by being offered a 48-hour pass, plus 10 shillings. He attended a gas chamber on 4 May 1953, and while there, 20 mg of the nerve agent sarin was applied to a piece of cloth on this forearm. That gave him a terrible headache for many hours. Thankfully he recovered and got on with the rest of his life.
Mr. Parker did not know that a potentially lethal nerve agent had been applied to him; nor could he have known that two days later on 6 May 1953, at the same place, aircraftsman Ronald Maddison would die from the same process. He did not know any of that until approximately three years ago when he received a telephone call from Wiltshire police under Operation Antler.
Mr. Parker is one of hundreds of Porton Down veterans, many of whom believe that what they experienced has had a damaging impact on their health. I accept, though, that we must await the outcome of the epidemiological study, which I am very pleased to note the Government are funding, but that is not the only issue. There is another important matter at stake: my constituent believes that he was deceivedthat he was not in a position to give informed consent.
I believe that my constituent is right to want that issue to be addressed. I believe that he deserves an apology, and possibly compensation. Above all, what Mr. Parker, Mr. Shave and hundreds of other volunteers who passed through Porton Down over three or four decades deserve most is the truth. Given the circumstances, that has to mean an independent judicial and public inquiry. I have written to my hon. Friend the Minister about that. I hope that he recognises the force of the argument. In all decency, after 50 years, it is surely time for the truth to out.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Ivor Caplin): I congratulate the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) on securing this debate to discuss the case of his constituent, Mr. Douglas Shave, who participated in the service volunteer programme at Porton Down during the summer of 1950. I join him in welcoming other Members to this debate. There is a huge attendance for a late-night Adjournment debate.
The House is aware of the concerns of some of the former Porton Down veterans that have recently been widely aired in the media following the conclusion of the inquest into the death of Ronald Maddison. However, we should note that this debate is to raise the personal concerns of Mr. Shave. I intend to deal with the specifics of that case in my response. I hope, however, that the House will also reflect on the written ministerial statement that I made on 21 December. That set out the Government's position in relation to Porton Down and the legal process that is being undertaken.
Throughout Porton Down's history, some 20,000 volunteers have participated in the service volunteer programme, with many participating more
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than once. I mention that because it sets in context some of the numbers that have recently been reported. The past 30 years have seen more than 5,000 volunteers helping in the service volunteer programme, and currently between 100 and 150 volunteers a year are participating. The programme is aimed at ensuring that protective measures issued to our troops to counter the threat posed by chemical and biological weapons are safe and operationally acceptable prior to their introduction into service.
As part of the volunteer programme, some volunteers, particularly during the 1950s, were involved in studies to evaluate the effects of very low concentrations of chemical weapons agents such as nerve gases and mustard gas on the ability of unprotected personnel to operate normally. It is important to emphasise that the general purpose of the programme was not hidden. Other volunteers were involved in trials to develop effective clothing and medical counter-measures to protect service personnel, or to assess the ability of personnel to function with new equipment.
Not only was the programme essential; I know that the House will agree that it was also crucial that it was carried out in the safety of a controlled environment, with full medical and scientific back-up. I am in no doubt that the knowledge and the technology of the very complex field of chemical and biological defence could not have advanced without the contribution of volunteers participating in the service volunteer programme. I once again reiterate the gratitude that I and my predecessors have expressed towards all those who took part.
I am pleased to say that the vast majority of the service volunteers who participated in the programme are quite unconcerned about their attendance. Indeed, there is no evidence of any pattern of specific long-term ill health in former volunteers. A peer-reviewed paper has been published assessing the health of participants in the programme, as part of the independently run medical assessment programme based at St. Thomas's hospital. I note that Mr. Shave has been an attendee. The study concluded that there were no unusual patterns of disease or any unusual diseases occurring as a result of exposure to agents at Porton Down. Although I appreciate that that does not ease the suffering of Mr. Shave and others who suffer poor health, experience has shown that there is considerable value in providing reassurance where possible.
In addition to the medical assessment programme, we are also funding an epidemiological study being conducted under the auspices of the Medical Research Council. The study, which will track mortality and cancer incidences over many years, will conclude in 2006, and I can confirm that the results will then be published.
Given the ongoing level of publicity and media coverage regarding Porton Down volunteers, including the publication of Porton Down's free helpline number, which was initiated in 1998, I might have expected to receive a large number of inquiries for information. The reality is that that has not happened. Only just over 1,000 individuals have approached Porton Down for more information. I believe that Mr. Shave was one of the first to use the system.
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Of those, like Mr. Shave, who have inquired about their involvement in the programme, some have done so out of curiosity or as a result of publicity, and others because they have health concerns. Whatever the motivation, once an inquiry is received, staff at Porton Down begin the painstaking search of numerous experimental record books for details of the particular inquirer's participation in the programme. Those details are sometimes complicated and often difficult to interpret, but every effort is made to provide the clearest explanation to the inquirer. A formal written response is sent to the inquirer, together with an invitation to visit Porton Down to view the original record books and discuss any concerns with current members of staff.
Although I do not believe that Mr. Shave has accepted this invitation, I know that quite a few former volunteers have done so, and indeed some have made several visits. I believe that these visits have been successful, not least because we have been able to give details at the same time of the services offered by the medical assessment programme and potential eligibility for war pensions.
One of the accusations, made by the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), relates to how the trials were conducted. Volunteers for the service volunteer programme were drawn principally from the three services and were recruited through notices posted widely at military establishments. In the 1950s and 1960s, intakes were requested from individual arms of the services at specific times of year. The precise mechanisms for recruiting volunteers were arranged by the services themselves, not by Porton Down.
I note that Mr. Shave previously said that he volunteered to participate in studies on the common cold and not nerve agents. However, the chemical and biological defence establishment at Porton Down has never carried out work on the common cold. That research was undertaken at a Medical Research Council unit on the other side of Salisbury. Extensive independent searches by the Wiltshire police during the five years of its Operation Antler investigation have been unable to locate any evidence to indicate that Porton Down scientists involved in the service volunteer programme recruited individuals on the pretext of common cold research.
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) (Lab): I was around as a national serviceman at the time and had indirect knowledgealthough no direct knowledgethat the servicemen believed they were involved in research on the common cold.
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