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House of Lords

Wednesday, 16th December 1998.

The House met at half-past two of the clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by The Lord Bishop of Ely.): The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Gulf War Veterans: Illnesses

Lord Morris of Manchester asked Her Majesty's Government:

    How many servicemen and women who served in the Gulf War have illnesses still awaiting diagnosis; and what progress is being made in their investigations in relation to these illnesses.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Gilbert): My Lords, physicians participating in the MoD's medical assessment programme seek to make a diagnosis for all patients who present themselves with illnesses. A proportion of the patients can, however, be given only a symptomatic diagnosis. I expect detailed information about the diagnoses given to the first 1,000 patients in this programme, and also the initial results from an important study by Professor Wessely into the health of UK Gulf veterans, to be available early next year.

Lord Morris of Manchester: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his reply. Can we be assured that, in cases of doubt involving undiagnosed illnesses, claims can be decided in favour of Gulf War claimants irrespective of the War Pensions Agency's seven-year rule. Of the 400 veterans of whose deaths I was informed by my noble friend in a previous reply, do we know the causes of death and, more particularly, how many were suicides?

Lord Gilbert: My Lords, the answer to the first part of my noble friend's Question is that, as I understand it, the War Pensions Agency already applies to applications the benefit of doubt rule which was first introduced by my noble friend when he was Minister for War Pensions. As to the identification of the causes of death of the 400 Gulf War veterans, up to this time we do not have the information that my noble friend requests. I asked for the information today but it is not yet available.

Lord Ironside: My Lords, as the National Health Service is being saddled more and more with having to pick up the bill for the health care of Gulf War veterans, we find that the medical assessment programme can advise but not treat and that GPs can apparently treat but not refer locally because they are advised to refer back to the MoD. Does the noble Lord agree that this leaves a gap in NHS specialist treatment that should be plugged by designating informed specialists in the regions to whom GPs can refer sufferers--after all, there are only about 1,000--following the example of what

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the NHS has already done for the management of those who suffer injuries caused by radiotherapy for breast cancer?

Lord Gilbert: My Lords, I am not aware of any particular difficulties of the type that the noble Lord describes, nor am I aware of any restrictions on how general practitioners within the National Health Service make recommendations. It may be that advice is given to them. If the noble Lord is aware of any particular difficulties, I am very happy to look into them.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, in light of the failure of the Government to carry out their promises set out in the paper New Beginning, which was published fairly early on in this Administration, and in light of the Persian Gulf War Veterans Act 1998 enacted in the United States of America, which contains the presumption of an association between illness and Gulf War service, will the Government, if by 19th November 1999 the US Government has listed all possible causes of Gulf War illness, carry out their promise to shadow in this country what happens in the United States and make the presumption that these men are ill because of their service in the Gulf?

Lord Gilbert: My Lords, I am very happy to give the noble Countess the assurance that already Her Majesty's Government shadow everything that takes place in the United States. She refers to a recent piece of legislation enacted by the US Congress. I am informed that the US Congress has recently enacted two pieces of legislation in this field, one of which on its face appears to contradict the other in certain respects, and that the matter is being resolved by the US Justice Department.

The noble Countess alleges that Her Majesty's Government have failed to live up to their promises in the document published shortly after they came into office. I shall be delighted to know if she can point to any particular cases in which that has occurred. We are in the process of spending about £6.7 million on research in four different studies. Further, we have drastically reduced the waiting list for people who seek assessment from about 350 when we came into office to the present figure of about 60. We constantly trawl all the literature to make sure that we are completely up to date with developments on both sides of the Atlantic.

Lord Burnham: My Lords, how many Gulf War veterans or their next of kin receive pensions and other similar payments as a result of that service?

Lord Gilbert: My Lords, rather than guess at the figures that the noble Lord seeks, I shall write to him and give him the information. I recently answered a Question put by the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, about widows. The number of successful applications for war widow's pension as a result of the Gulf War is in single figures.

Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, my noble friend Lord Morris asked the Government specifically

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how many servicemen and women who served in the Gulf War had illnesses awaiting diagnosis. Can the noble Lord give the answer to that Question?

Lord Gilbert: My Lords, I believe that 63 are awaiting attendance at one of the medical centres.

Viscount Slim: My Lords, following the question of the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, can the Minister tell me what experience our general practitioners have--splendid and excellent though they are--of this disease? When they refer a case to the Ministry of Defence, what advice can the department give? So far we have not found the cause of the problem.

Lord Gilbert: My Lords, the noble Viscount is right, although in one sense he prejudges the answer to his own question by referring to "this disease". That is part of the problem. We do not know what has caused the collection of symptoms. That is why we are financing no fewer than four studies: two epidemiological studies, one interactive study to see whether the symptoms were produced by the combination of vaccines that the troops took, and a neuromuscular study.

Meat Hygiene: Enforcement

2.40 p.m.

The Countess of Mar asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they propose to take the same action against meat inspectors and other officials in breach of statutory rules as they have promised to take against private companies.

Lord Carter: My Lords, the Government take appropriate action against anyone in breach of statutory rules. Where necessary, disciplinary action is taken against meat inspectors and any other officials who are in breach of statutory rules. This may extend to prosecution. Private companies which fail to comply with statutory requirements will, in appropriate cases where other enforcement action has failed, be investigated with a view to prosecution.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Does he recall that when his party was in opposition, he and his right honourable friends the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister vigorously opposed the setting up of the Meat Hygiene Service? Is the noble Lord aware that the service is so short of British vets that it is having to employ vets from six different European countries, many of whom are young female vets?

Will the noble Lord agree that an abattoir is not a very congenial place in which to work? In the light of reports a few weeks ago of attacks on Meat Hygiene Service vets, is it not surprising that all of them have not been attacked? What do the Government propose to do to improve the understanding on the part of those

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young vets of our culture--there are many cultural differences--improve their communication so that they can communicate the law to the abattoir workers, and instil a spirit of co-operation rather than confrontation in abattoirs?

Lord Carter: My Lords, I agree that one does not go to an abattoir for an afternoon tea dance. Due to the shortage of veterinarians in the UK who are willing to carry out meat hygiene work, the MHS is seeking to recruit English-speaking vets from Europe. Foreign veterinarians engaged by the Meat Hygiene Service are required to have a working knowledge of the English language. The MHS recognises that working in slaughterhouses can be a difficult environment for all staff, in particular if they have to take rigorous enforcement action. However, the Official Veterinary Surgeon (OVS) is part of a team and the MHS provides every support to its staff. The MHS operates a hierarchy of enforcement staff. They seek to co-operate with operators. Only if that fails does more rigorous enforcement action come into play, and those are more serious offences such as animal welfare, food safety and specified risk material controls. Out of a total staff of 1,500, 118 are foreign vets, of whom 47 are women. Of the 47, 36 are from Spain.

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