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House of Lords

Wednesday, 12th February 1997.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Lichfield.

Message from the Queen: Succession to the Crown

Viscount Ridley: My Lords, I have the honour to present to your Lordships a message from Her Majesty the Queen signed by her own hand. The message is as follows:

    "I have received your Address and, relying on the wisdom of my Parliament, I desire that my prerogative and interest, insofar as they relate to the succession to the Crown, should not stand in the way of the consideration by Parliament during the present Session of any measure providing for the removal of any distinction between the sexes in determining the succession to the Crown".

Gulf War: Health Studies

2.37 p.m.

The Countess of Mar asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether the results of the Gulf War Assessment Programme, and the epidemiological studies recently commissioned, will accurately reflect the health status of the participants in view of the lack of evidence as to vaccines and other medication administered.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Earl Howe): My Lords, the epidemiological studies recently commissioned by the Ministry of Defence will collect self-reported data on the health status of Gulf veterans and their families and on exposures in the Gulf. This will be validated wherever possible by reference to civilian or service medical records, and to the epidemiological database on health status which has been compiled within the Ministry of Defence.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, is the Minister aware that there are a great many other factors which have hitherto been denied by the Ministry of Defence which should be taken into account? He knows of one about which I spoke to him on Monday. There is also the evidence given by Mr. Richard Turnbull, which, I understand, is in the hands of his right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence. Does he agree that all that should be taken into account, and that it is time the MoD came clean about exactly what was used in the Gulf?

Earl Howe: My Lords, I am sure the noble Countess is not suggesting that officials in my department may have deliberately withheld relevant information from Ministers. If she is saying that officials may be fallible

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in some way, I can only agree that they have that characteristic in common with us all. However, I can assure her that officials throughout the MoD are well seized of the importance which the Government attach to the successful conclusion of the research that we have commissioned. I have every confidence in their ability to provide all the relevant evidence available.

Lord Williams of Elvel: My Lords, will that study take into account also the vaccination records, as mentioned by the noble Countess in her Question? It seems to be the case, and perhaps the Minister can confirm this, that at least one soldier received 12 vaccinations in a period of 10 minutes. Furthermore, it appears also that the incidence of asthma is very high in Gulf War veterans. It may well be that there are factors other than purely epidemiological factors. Would the Minister care to comment on that?

Earl Howe: My Lords, details of the programme of vaccinations given to British troops during the Gulf War as a protection against biological weapons were declassified in December of last year, as the noble Lord will be aware. Any Gulf veteran who requests information about the vaccinations he or she received will be provided with the details recorded on their medical file. If those details are incomplete, the veteran will also receive advice as to what vaccinations he or she was likely to have been given. Common allergies such as hay fever and asthma are not, I am advised, contra-indications for any vaccine and therefore there was no need to screen recipients of vaccines in the Gulf.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, will the Minister explain why it should be self-reported data only?

Earl Howe: My Lords, in the first instance it will be self-reported, because that is the methodology which the team of scientists has chosen. That methodology has been approved by the MRC. After phase one we shall move to a further phase which will build on the work already achieved to see whether any patterns of ill health are emerging and where those patterns occur.

Lord Molloy: My Lords, are our Government keeping in touch with the American Government, who are doing splendid research into this matter? I know that they would be only too willing to share it with our great old country.

Earl Howe: My Lords, the noble Lord makes an extremely important point. I can assure him that we are in close touch with the US authorities on these matters. My honourable friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces visited the United States some weeks ago for that very reason.

Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that while it is correct that every investigation should be made to ascertain whether there are adverse consequences as a result of the inoculation programme for the troops, that programme was undertaken in the

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best interests of the health of those troops and the fact of the matter is that in the general run the health of the soldiers during the Gulf War was at a very high level?

Earl Howe: My Lords, my noble friend makes an extremely important point. I agree that the vaccination programme was intended to provide our forces with the best protection available in the face of what was a clearly assessed and potentially deadly threat. We should remember that the incidence of the disease which might ordinarily occur in such circumstances was extremely low.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, will the Minister comment on the report which I have read several times that the troops of the French Foreign Legion were not subjected to spraying with insecticide nor the other measures and that no ill results have been reported in the health of the veterans of that body?

Earl Howe: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Williams, asked a similar question when we last debated this subject. As I confirmed to him then, the French authorities have said that they recognise no medical syndrome connected with the Gulf War and that no French soldiers have claimed to be ill with the so-called Gulf War syndrome. The French did not give their troops any form of protective immunisation against either chemical or biological agents.

Lord Williams of Elvel: My Lords, in an earlier question I mentioned asthma and the noble Earl denied that there was a contra-indication. Is he aware that troops in the Gulf were given NAPS tablets (nerve agent pre-treatment set) and that the following condition is listed under caution for the use of the tablets: "Asthma; extreme caution"?

Earl Howe: My Lords, my advice is that NAPS is a very effective and safe counter-measure against chemical warfare nerve agents. The active ingredient is pyridestigmine bromide. That is known to have minor side-effects when the drug is taken, but those side-effects stop when the drug is no longer taken. As far as I am aware, there are no known long-term adverse effects from taking pyridestigmine bromide.

Lord Gisborough: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it is easy to be wise after the event? If nerve gas had been used and we had not given those pills there would be far more cause for complaint?

Earl Howe: My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right. I am sure that if today the Armed Forces were faced with a similar decision as to whether to administer protective medication to our forces they would do so.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, I hope that the Minister is aware that I have absolutely no desire to make political capital out of this matter. My objective is to see that these very sick men receive recognition and treatment for their illness.

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In view of the information which I have and constantly receive, will the Minister kindly arrange to meet me so that I can give him that information, together with the corroborative evidence, in order that we can get to the bottom of this awful problem?

Earl Howe: My Lords, I am delighted to agree to the noble Countess's suggestion. I stand ready to receive any information which she has on these important matters as soon as possible.

Nuclear Weapons

2.47 p.m.

Lord Jenkins of Putney asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether, in the light of their commitment to nuclear disarmament and of the opinion of the Canberra Commission that the present lack of control of nuclear weapons is dangerous, they will support the commission's recommendation for the gradual internationally agreed and verified reduction of nuclear weapons to zero.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Chalker of Wallasey): My Lords, we remain committed to pursuing nuclear disarmament under our international obligations, including Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Nuclear disarmament measures cannot be divorced from the broader global security context. As we have previously made clear, we disagree fundamentally with the Canberra Commission's assertion that nuclear deterrence has no role.

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