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6.58 p.m.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Gilbert): My Lords, it is a melancholy duty to have to reply to a debate of this nature. As so often, I am forced to stand here agreeing with many of the questions raised but helpless to give answers to them, as I would normally have hoped to be able to do.

I echo the congratulations to my noble friend Lord Morris on raising this important subject. As I am sure he and other noble Lords agree, it is impossible not to understand the sadness, the anger and the sense of injustice on the part of many Gulf veterans at the way they believe they have been treated by successive governments. As your Lordships will know, a few short weeks ago I had the sad duty of having to receive back the medals from a dozen or so Gulf veterans who felt that returning them was the only way in which they could make their protest about what they saw as the

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unsatisfactory way in which they had been treated. I do not conceal from myself that the fact that only a dozen or so handed back their medals does not mean that there were not many more who felt just as strongly as did those who were present on that sad Saturday.

Before I address many of the remarks made in the debate, I should like to thank those noble Lords who paid tribute to the diligence of my honourable friend the Minister for the Armed Forces who brought a new urgency to the matter. As the noble Baroness, Lady Park, said, we must not lose the momentum of the steps taken last year, that momentum being due almost entirely to my honourable friend.

It may be helpful to the House for me to deal with the various points raised, though not necessarily in the sequence of the speeches. One of the first points on which I should like to touch is the position of Dr. Coker. As has rightly been said, it is a matter of considerable concern to many veterans. He is the one man in whom they had confidence. Anxiety was expressed today that he has been shunted off to Washington and is out of the mainstream of MoD activity with respect to Gulf War illness.

Dr. Coker is closely involved in preparing a detailed report on the first 1,000 patients, to which reference was made this evening by many noble Lords. That paper is in its final stages of preparation and will shortly be submitted for review and publication. I repeat, Dr. Coker is closely involved in its publication. As to whether or not it is appropriate for the doctor to work in Washington, all I can say is that he has been back to this country. He had a meeting with my honourable friend the Minister for the Armed Forces. In addition, in July last year, he was asked whether or not he would prefer to return to the United Kingdom and replied at that time in the negative for both personal and professional reasons. At the moment he is doing sterling work in association with the medical services of the United States. I hope that not only your Lordships but also the veterans will be comforted by the news of his continuing involvement in the MAP review.

My noble friend Lord Morris said that there was a feeling of a lack of sympathy at some of the interviews when individuals were being assessed. The noble Countess, Lady Mar, repeated that point. It is not within my power to comment on what happened at individual interviews. All I can say is that if there have been such cases--I in no way impugn the noble Countess--they are to be deplored. I shall certainly bring her comments to the attention of my honourable friend.

I noted what was said again by my noble friend regarding the case of Gunner Ford, repeated by the noble Earl, Lord Effingham. Gunner Ford is apparently suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic fatigue and chronic arthritis. Apparently he applied for a war pension as long ago as 1996. I shall certainly look into the question of whether or not interim payments would be appropriate or possible, but I cannot answer yea or nay from the Dispatch Box this evening. I shall obtain an answer for the noble Earl as soon as I can. The same applies in respect of the case of Mr. Parker, who was discharged in April 1997 and I shall also look

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into the question of whether or not correct advice was given to members of the TA as to the eligibility of their spouses to receive the same benefits as regular servicemen.

My noble friend Lord Morris called for a veterans' register. The call was echoed by the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, and others. That is a matter already being looked at within the MoD and I hope to be able to reply one way or another before too long. I am sure that my noble friend will recognise that the issue has wider implications. There are difficulties in ascertaining exactly where veterans are; many may be abroad. There are also implications for the organisation of government in that respect.

With respect to the Khamisiyah--another question raised by my noble friend and others--we have been trying to identify exactly which units of Her Majesty's forces may have been under the plume of the explosion at the time. It is proving extremely difficult, though the evidence I have seen shows that few British personnel were likely to have been exposed to any toxic materials in those circumstances and, if there were any, those who were would have been exposed for an extremely brief period of time. Exposure for such a period would not normally be expected to affect them medically.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, I was a little surprised to hear from the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, reports of a chemical attack on a Royal Naval warship. I heard of no such incident during the course of the Gulf War. However, I shall be happy to look into the question of the six widows if she will let me have details of those to whom she referred.

The question of tented accommodation was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, and the noble Countess, Lady Mar. I have already given the House as detailed an explanation as I possibly can with respect to the contamination of some tents. We are not likely to be able to obtain further information on that subject in the future.

The noble Earl, Lord Effingham, asked questions about confusion with the seven-year rule and the claim period being extended from three to six years. He believes that some clarification is necessary and that there are technical deficiencies in the regulations. I hold a detailed brief which I could read out, but it may detain your Lordships too long. I shall be happy to place on the record the answers to noble Lords' questions, but I ought to touch on other matters before I bring the debate to an end.

I was particularly struck by the questions asked by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, regarding lessons for future conflict. However sad the events of the past seven years, they are matters to which we need seriously to address ourselves. What lessons have been learnt from the past? What are we doing about the future? What precautions should we take and what procedures are now in place?

The first thing which must be said with respect to any possible future conflict in the Gulf is that Ministers today, like previous Ministers, will be bound to take the

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best medical advice available to them. They have a responsibility to see that British forces are protected, in so far as is humanly possible, against chemical and biological weapons. The advice will relate both to what is known about the weapons available to a hostile power and the degree, given military deployments and what has happened under the UNSCOM regime, which has been very helpful, of the threat.

The United Kingdom and the United States are co-operating closely with respect to research programmes but we do not necessarily accept that the procedures the United States is putting in place are appropriate for this country. For example, I think I am right in saying that the United States recently decided that it would embark upon a programme of compulsory vaccination, if that is the right word, against anthrax for every single member of its forces. British Ministers at the moment have no plans for compulsory medical treatment for anyone. This is a matter which, quite properly, has to be reviewed from time to time. The question is whether or not we have a moral right to require a member of one of our services to accept medical treatment in advance--for prophylactic purposes--if that service man or woman is reluctant to accept that treatment. There is also the question of whether or not in the judgment of senior officers the fighting capability of that man or woman might be impaired were they not to accept the treatment that is considered appropriate.

One of the difficulties we have in facing any future conflict is that we cannot know as of now the full range of the diabolical agents at the disposal of Mr. Saddam Hussein. Others may come to light at any moment which will produce new problems and will need new types of protective treatment. There is full co-operation between this country and the United States. The United States is funding two important research programmes in this country. As far as I know, we have full access to all their research. They are in a position to spend far more money than we are in these matters. We have at least one official over there in constant liaison with the work that the Americans are doing in their research programmes.

I understand full well what the noble Countess, Lady Mar, meant when she said that veterans do not want litigation; they want recognition of their illness, they want treatment for it and they want pensions for which they do not have to fight. That is a menu of requirements with which few of us would quarrel. The only problem is that we have not yet been able to get medical diagnosis of the causes of some of these symptoms. Recognition of the illness is easier said than done. If you cannot diagnose the illness, you have a problem with the treatment for it. With respect to fighting for pensions, I accept entirely that we need to look again at the interface between the Ministry of Defence and the War Pensions Agency. I shall certainly draw the attention of my honourable friend the Minister for the Armed Forces to the many remarks that have been made in this respect in today's debate.

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The noble Lord, Lord Burnham, raised many questions which highlighted the complexities of this matter. He asked a question which I asked myself almost as soon as I arrived at the MoD this time. He asked why the French did not have any units that suffered from Gulf-related symptoms. This could be a matter of where the French forces were deployed during the Gulf War. I suspect that that may well be an answer to the noble Lord's question. I had not realised until he raised the point that most of the American forces who suffered were reservists and not front line forces. There may well be some significance in that which I am sure the Americans will be looking at diligently.

The noble Lord said that GPs need training. I do not know whether they need training. I certainly think there is a case for advisory circulars going out--I am sure that some already have gone out--but the numbers involved do not justify further training.

A point has not been made this evening but I think I should mention it. I am aware that certain of the veterans think that they should go to various institutions that could care for them but that their local health authorities do not think that the money would be properly or best invested in sending them to those institutions. All I can say is that at the end of the day that has to be a matter of judgment for the local health authority. I can only hope that the number of cases where veterans are dissatisfied with that aspect of these matters is greatly diminished over time.

It is a sad occasion to have to stand at the Dispatch Box to discuss these matters. I am immensely grateful for the moderate way your Lordships have put their points to me this evening. I undertake to study the debate again in tranquillity. If there are any points that I have failed to touch on while I have been on my feet I will of course, as is my practice, write to noble Lords about them.

In conclusion, I should like to say that with the arrival of my honourable friend in the post of Minister for the Armed Forces--this point has been widely recognised in the House--the Government have increased dramatically the funds available for trying to get to the bottom of these matters, have accelerated the procedures of the MAP so that the waiting lists are much reduced and have greatly enhanced consultation with the veterans and their organisations and individual Members of this House. We are in no sense complacent. I shall certainly take away the messages that were left with me by noble Lords on both sides of the House. I can assure your Lordships that we have no intention of letting slip the momentum which, as the noble Baroness, Lady Park, was kind enough to acknowledge, we started last year.

Lord Burnham: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, I thank him for his comments. Perhaps I may ask him to pay particular attention in the replies that he will give to the numbers involved. I believe that to be very confused.

Lord Gilbert: My Lords, I am happy to do so.

        House adjourned at eighteen minutes past seven o'clock.

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