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The final recommendation of our inquiry report concerned pension appeal tribunals, which provide the mechanism for veterans or their widows to appeal against the more or less automatic decision not to award a war pension. The system is complex and long-winded and judgment is often inconsistent, with precedent not being applied from one hearing to the next. Veterans with almost identical experiences and conditions receive different
outcomes. Our inquiry therefore called for a complete overhaul of the system, perhaps even removing nuclear test veterans from the war pensions process altogether because they are such a unique group. I suggest that the Minister and representatives of the Ministry of Defence should sit down with the veterans and sort the problem outa process that will require political courage and leadership.
Let me deliver a final thought to the Minister. We are not dealing with this issue in isolation, and we are already being left hopelessly far behind other nations in honouring our debt of gratitude to veterans. The Isle of Man Government will pay compensation in the region of £8,000 to each of the estimated eight Manx veterans involved in the tests, the New Zealand Government have already provided money for the Al Rowlands experiments and scientific tests, and the Canadian Government have offered to settle with their test veterans. In the United States, atomic veterans are eligible for presumptive compensation based on 21 identified cancers. A person who has one of those cancers and was involved in the tests will receive compensation automatically.
The contrast between the different approaches is well illustrated by the case of Mr. Roy Prescott, whose son wrote to me during our inquiry. He was one of 500 British servicemen who, having served on Christmas Island, were loaned to the United States for further tests on the island in the early 1960s. Mr. Prescott later became ill and applied for a British war pension, but that was turned down. He then applied to the United States compensation programme, was accepted and received a substantial one-off payment. We therefore see the absurdity of other countries compensating our own veterans because we have failed to do so.
The Ministry of Defence has been cagey and resistant for too long. We owe a duty of care to our test veterans. The Minister is new in his position and I ask him to commit to a fresh appraisal regarding our debt of gratitude. This is not a party political issue. My early-day motion 156 attracted signatures from Members in all parts of the House. I therefore ask the Minister some very simple questions. Will he now replicate the Rowland study on British veterans? What further study is he prepared to carry out on the descendents of veteransa matter that could be with us for many years to come? Will he sit down with veterans and address the question of tribunals and compensation, and do it now?
These veterans just want justice for themselves and their descendents. They served their country. What they now expect is their country to be honest with them. While any solution is likely to be characterised as much by political compromise as by scientific rigour, this is, without doubt, a political problem. Time is now short, and I suggest to the new Minister that the best should not be the enemy of the good.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Kevan Jones): I congratulate the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) on securing this important debate, and I pay tribute to the work done by him and my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson). I know about the tremendous work they contributed to the inquiry of last year.
I have listened carefully to the hon. Gentlemans comments, and I wish to begin by putting it on the record that the Ministry of Defence recognises the debt of gratitude we have to the servicemen who took part in these nuclear tests. They were important tests that helped to keep this nation secure at a difficult time in terms of nuclear technology. The hon. Gentleman rightly noted that if harm has been caused to these individuals and the Ministry of Defence and this nation are responsible, they should be offered redress. However, I think he would agree with me that any claim for compensation should be evidence-based. Evidence should be brought forward and determined on an individual basis.
I also think we can agree that there is no doubt about the sincerity of the veterans; I would not question for one minute their testimony or that of their families. It is important that we do not question or criticise them in any way. The vital issue, however, is whether we can link the conditions that some individuals and families have with those individuals having been present at the nuclear tests. As the hon. Gentleman acknowledged, previous Governments as well as this Government have looked at the evidence and have come to the conclusion that no link between conditions and presence at the tests has been demonstrated.
The hon. Gentlemans report conceded that current scientific evidence does not generally support the view that there has been an increased risk of ill health or death among the test participants. Even though Dr. Rowlands recent study indicates that genetic damage was present among the small cohort of individuals that he examined, it did not go on to draw any link between the genetic abnormalities found in the chromosomes and any conditions such as cancers. That report has been held up as an important piece of research, but it does not help to move forward the argument for drawing that link between damage to chromosomes and conditions such as cancers that developed later.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether I would give a commitment to replicate the Rowland study. He mentioned a meeting. I was not present, so I have asked my officials what was said. They have told me that it is quite clear that no clear commitment was given. I have examined the study in detail since I found that the debate was coming up, and I have come to the conclusion that it would be very difficult to replicate in the case of the individuals whom we are discussing. I am not sure what such a study would add to the debate if it led to the same conclusions that Rowland came to.
Mr. Baron: Nevertheless, it is an important piece of the jigsaw. The clear recollection from our meeting with the Ministers predecessor is that a promise was given on condition that the study was peer-reviewed. It now has been, and we hope that the Government will reconsider their position. I am not expecting an answer now, but all I ask is for the Minister to think about it.
Mr. Jones: I shall certainly address that point and return to the matter of the peer review at a later date. When my predecessor met the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North, he stated clearly that the Department would examine the Rowland research and take expert advice on it, and that has been done.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned other countries payments to their nuclear test veterans. What is unique in this country is that consecutive Governments have accepted that people who can prove that exposure to radiation caused them harm can apply for the war pensions scheme. That is not the case in other countries, so to say that we have done nothing is a little harsh on the current and previous Governments. I add that the burden of proof in the war pensions scheme is generous.
The hon. Gentleman complained about inconsistency in the cases involving the war pensions scheme. I accept that people have felt that, but they do have the right to go to a pensions appeal tribunal and ultimately, on a point of law, to the social security commissioners. I used to deal with tribunals and I accept that inconsistencies can appear to happen, but individual cases have to be considered on an individual basis. The Department has examined some of the cases involved and has not found inconsistencies, but if the hon. Gentleman or the nuclear test veterans want specific cases to be examined, I am quite prepared to ask the Ministry of Justice to do so. It is important to get credibility. A separate system would be difficult, and it would not lead to the payments that many of the individuals who come forward currently get.
The other route of access to justice is common law, and the hon. Gentleman will know that 1,000 nuclear test veterans have taken group litigation. The Ministry of Defence served a summary defence on 21 January, and a preliminary trial on the issue of limitation is due to commence on 19 January next year. It has been reported in the media that the matter of limitation is simply a technicality, but that is not the case. It is important that the matter is examined from a legal point of view, especially given that many of the key witnesses are no longer alive and that the evidence of others needs testing because of age or infirmity. I do not want to say a great deal more about that, because it is right that we let the legal process take its due course.
The hon. Gentleman made some emotive points about the offspring of test veterans. I accept that it is not easy for the families that have disabled children and that they find some of the responses that politicians give difficult to take. We need to examine the matter, but to say that there has been no research is wrong. I am told that good-quality research has been done on Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors, examining ill health among children born to survivors. That needs to be taken into account.
I genuinely do understand the British nuclear test veterans concern about this issue, on which they have placed a great deal of importance. At a recent meeting with my predecessor, they expressed the view that they wanted this issue to be looked at, putting more weight on doing that than on carrying out a Rowland mark 2 type study. I have listened carefully and looked at the files in the short time that I have been in the Ministry, and I think it is important to get experts to look in detail at what has already been done and what can be done.
This is not a simple task, and this afternoon I perhaps upset some of my officials by being a bit impatient in trying to get instant answers. The logistics will prove difficult because of the passage of time, loss of data and other such issues. However, my predecessor said he would meet representatives of the group in the autumn, and I am determined to move this agenda forwards. I
make an offer tonight to meet the hon. Gentleman, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North and representatives of British nuclear test veterans next week, so that we can discuss the possibility of taking forward a study on health experiences and issues associated with veterans offspring. Once that meeting has taken place, I propose to ask officials to discuss with the experts the best way to design and develop a possible research programme. It is important that this study and the terms of reference for it are correct, and that we are not asking people to do the impossible. That is a commitment that I give today.
Dr. Gibson: I welcome my hon. Friends very positive attitude towards helping in his early days in office. One of the logistical problems that we came up against was finding out where vets were, which is why it is very important that he has invited them along, because they may be able to help in finding out where all those folks live now, so that we can get decent numbers. It will be difficult, but I really do welcome my hon. Friends positive approach. Perhaps we will get to the bottom of this once and for all.
I am very grateful for that, and it is important that we meet next week to see what input the nuclear test veterans can have into the process. That could help, and I am quite prepared to listen to what they have to say. Once officials have met and experts
have come together to design and develop a research programme, I will make an announcement, before Christmas.
Mr. Baron: I sense that the Minister is about to conclude, so may I, too, put on the record my thanks for his positive response? He has decided to try to move this issue forward, certainly with regard to descendants, which I very much welcome. I look forward to that meeting next week, and I know that the BNTVA will also be looking forward to it. We should not forget that it has a database of at least 800 surviving veterans, which can help with that process. I want also to thank the Minister for his promise to sit down with the veterans and look at inconsistencies in the tribunal process, and to explore whether any progress can be made where inconsistencies have occurred. Those are two positive steps that we did not necessarily have months ago.
Mr. Jones: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. I hope to make an announcement before Christmas on the way forward. It will not answer all the issues raised in his inquiry, but I am determined to see whether we can at least get some movement and give some comfort, although I accept that the report might not come to any great conclusion. At least we are going to move the process on, which will give the sense to nuclear test veterans that they are being listened to.
That if, at the conclusion of this Session of Parliament, proceedings on the Political Parties and Elections Bill have not been completed, they shall be resumed in the next Session.
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