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House of Lords

Thursday, 5th June 1997.

The House met at three of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Ripon.

Several Lords--Took the Oath or Affirmed.

Gulf War: Pensions Policy

The Countess of Mar asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What is their policy concerning the provision of war pensions and the relief of hardship to those members of Her Majesty's Armed Forces who served in Operation Granby and who became ill as a result of that service.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Social Security (Baroness Hollis of Heigham): My Lords, under the war pensions scheme awards may be made in respect of any disablement due to any service in the Armed Forces. Where a claim is made within seven years of termination of service, and that applies to all claims made so far in respect of service in the Gulf, the onus is on the Secretary of State to show beyond reasonable doubt that disablement is not due to service. Benefits under the social security scheme may also be available.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, I thank the Minister for her Answer. However, is she aware that many members of Her Majesty's Armed forces who served in the Gulf War are experiencing enormous problems in receiving the benefits to which they are entitled, both as regards war pensions and pensions from the Ministry of Defence? Will the Minister consult with her friends in another place, and with those in the Ministry of Defence, to ascertain whether they can produce a leaflet setting out all the entitlements that apply to these war veterans and the circumstances under which they may be claimed? In that way, everything would be covered in one document rather than having a large number of leaflets dealing with separate benefits.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I accept the criticism made by the noble Countess that it is taking time to hear such claims. However, your Lordships will understand the difficulties involved as we are dealing with Gulf War "syndrome", which is very ill defined; indeed, we do not know what it is. It occurred six years ago and at a time when record-keeping was not always immaculate. Inevitably, each component of the syndrome has to be assessed by consultants. Nevertheless we are trying to speed up the process. We are now, with permission, seeking to use the medical reports from the Gulf assessment programme, which should replace the need for some of the consultants' reports.

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I turn now to the second part of the noble Countess's question, of which she was kind enough to give me notice, regarding whether or not we can bring together all the entitlements set out in separate brochures. I checked this morning to see what kind of leaflets we issue and I also checked with the Royal British Legion to ascertain whether or not they were considered satisfactory. The leaflets were revised some three years ago and the legion believes that they are clear and satisfactory; however, there may be a question over distribution. I shall therefore look into that matter as well as taking up the point made by the noble Countess.

Lord Molloy: My Lords, can my noble friend the Minister say whether consideration could be given to seeking the views of the Royal British Legion?

Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Molloy: My Lords, I do not see what is funny about that. The Royal British Legion serves those men and women who allowed us to live in a free country. I hope that that fact will always be remembered. I repeat, will my noble friend the Minister seek the views of the legion on the issue? It is pretty upset and wants to assist in any way it can.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right. It is for that very reason that I spoke to the Royal British Legion today.

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, the Minister says that the illness is ill defined and dates from six years ago. I agree with her as regards it being ill defined. However, as regards the "six years ago", does the noble Baroness not consider that to be a rather flimsy excuse when war pension applications from the Second World War are still being heard in Blackpool?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I accept the criticism. However, I have to say that the previous administration had 18 years to deal with such problems.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, as this is the first time that the noble Baroness and myself have faced each other in the new configuration of the Chamber, perhaps I may say how genuinely pleased I am to be able to congratulate her on her post. Indeed, does the Minister realise how pleasing it is to see someone who laboured long and hard in Opposition from this Dispatch Box getting her due reward following her party's election victory?

Can the Minister remind the House just how many cases are still outstanding in this category? My recollection from a few months ago is that it is not exactly the huge brigade of numbers that the noble Countess would have us believe; it is something like 100 outstanding cases remaining to be considered under this mystery. Can the noble Baroness further assure the House that, despite all the pressures, exactly the same rules will apply to these people as were applied to those

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veterans for whom the scheme was originally envisaged; namely, those who fought in the enormous wars against the Germans and the Japanese?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I should like, first, to thank the noble Lord. He always exuded amiability and wit, as well as knowledge, when speaking from this Dispatch Box. Indeed, if I can even faintly begin to emulate him I shall think that I am doing well. I see that the noble Lord shakes his head indicating that that was not exactly what he said. Well, he may not have said that, but that was certainly what he intended.

The noble Lord is right to remind the House of the figures involved. Out of some 53,000 servicemen who served in the Gulf War, about 26,000 have since been discharged and are therefore eligible to claim a war pension. I trust that the House will forgive my reading out statistics, but I was invited to reply in this way. We have received 1,172 claims, of which 893 relate to what we would call "normal conditions", for example, knee injuries and the like. Only 279 claims--and I stress the word "only"--concern servicemen who have linked their illness to service in the Gulf. Of that number, 140 have so far been cleared, resulting in 124 awards made in favour of the ex-servicemen. Therefore, the record of success so far is something in the region of 90 per cent.

Earl Russell: My Lords, I join in the congratulations offered to the noble Baroness on her position. I believe she said that 26,000 servicemen had been discharged. What would be the control group figure for a normal proportion of servicemen who were not in the Gulf? If she does not have that figure to hand I hope she will communicate it to me and to the noble Countess.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, the noble Earl is exactly right; I do not have the figure to hand. It is certainly the case that in trying to determine the incidence of sickness we are dealing with what is called the healthy worker problem; in other words, we would expect a lower proportion of illness in fit young men. There are two pieces of MoD-sponsored research being handled by the MRC which seek to identify this syndrome of illness. It is far too early to reach even preliminary findings. Quite extensive American research has already been undertaken or is in the process of being undertaken. That research has been unable to identify the nature of this syndrome and whether it is definable. For the purposes of social security benefit, the cause of the syndrome or illness matters much less than the fact that within the DSS we can recognise disability and the pension will follow irrespective of its cause.

Lord Craig of Radley: My Lords, in an earlier reply the noble Baroness mentioned a time limit of seven years. Bearing in mind that the Gulf War took place nearly six and a half years ago and there have been difficulties in establishing the reasons for illness in many cases, will that time limit of seven years be applied rigorously or can it be waived?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I hope the House will forgive me if I did not make myself clear.

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The seven-year period is not a time limit for accepting claims; it is a time limit in which the burden of proof is on the side of the servicemen. All claims will continue to be entertained, reviewed and surveyed and awards made in the light of that information. As I said, the seven years is the point at which the burden of proof moves from the ex-servicemen to the department. There is no question of a ticking clock which would exclude servicemen from rightful compensation and war pensions for injury.

Baroness Strange: My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness on her appointment on behalf of the War Widows Association. We hope to work as warmly and closely with her as we did with my noble friend, whom the association also loves. Is the noble Baroness aware that some of the syndromes which appear did not occur in the case of people who had injections and lived in houses but only in people who had injections and lived in tents? I wonder whether there could be any significance in that.

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