Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. It is not an inquiry into Gulf War illness but an inquiry into the handling of the Gulf War illness problem.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, I take the point that there are differences between the handling of the illnesses and the illnesses themselves. I was going on to agree with the noble Countess that there are some matters which need to be looked at, such as the difficulty of accessing service medical records and the requirements of the Data Protection Act which she mentioned. However, those are not so much questions of policy as of procedure. Can the Minister reaffirm that in accordance with the Government's policy of being completely open and honest with Gulf War veterans, they will make their medical and other records available to them? Coming from such a source, the proposal of the Royal British Legion needs to be discussed.

I echo the question put by the noble Countess as to why Ministers have not invited the Royal British Legion to a meeting with this item as the only item on the agenda before they reach a decision, which was promised soon in answer to a question from my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones last October. The secretary of the Royal British Legion wrote to the Minister of State on 28th February reminding him that this matter had been outstanding since its annual conference in May 1998, as the noble Countess pointed out, and his letter to the Prime Minister shortly after that. I agree with her that this is not good enough and that they should have received some kind of reply by now. Preferably, they should have been invited to such a meeting so that they could have discussed their concerns and gone over them with Ministers.

Finally, it has been established, as we have heard, that Gulf War veterans suffer from an excess of ill-health over what would have been normally expected from service in a conflict zone, whether Bosnia, the Falkland Islands, Northern Ireland or any other theatre of operations where our Armed Forces have been engaged in recent years. Yet, the Government are still saying, in effect, that none of this is the responsibility of the Ministry of Defence. Only if the victims can prove a causal relationship between the package of medications they were ordered to take and the ill health they subsequently endured would compensation be considered over and above the no-fault system of payment already made under the war pensions scheme and the Armed Forces pension scheme.

Is it not time to accept the findings of epidemiological studies, as in cases of industrial harm from substances such as alpha naphylamine, asbestos, or mono ethyl chloride? Do the Government accept that for hundreds of ex-servicemen who consider that they are entitled to some recompense for the illnesses they suffer, the additional stress of dealing with legal matters could make them worse, and that because they are receiving legal aid, the taxpayer is already bearing some

24 Mar 1999 : Column 1405

expenditure? I believe that most people would prefer to see money going into the pockets of the Gulf War veterans than into the pockets of lawyers. Will the Government enter into discussions with the veterans' representatives with a view to designing a scheme of compensation based on the observed deterioration in the quality of life of Gulf War veterans?

10.19 p.m.

Lord Burnham: My Lords, I mean absolutely no disrespect to the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, when I say that for reasons that we fully understand I am sorry that he is to reply to this debate. However, for the past 22 months the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, has been involved closely with Gulf War illness matters and--I say this again with no disrespect to the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle--he would probably have had a more intimate knowledge of some of the problems. Nevertheless, I have no doubt that we shall get some answers.

This is an old song which the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester, and the noble Countess, Lady Mar, are singing, but it is a very sad song--and the trouble is that nobody really knows the words. I pay tribute to both the noble Lord and the noble Countess for all their work. This evening the noble Countess gave us the most hair-raising tales of the troubles of at least a number of Gulf veterans.

However, I do not really accept it to be true that either this Government, or the last, ignored the problem. There were never any easy answers and it would be easier if we knew the questions. I find myself startled in that I agree with almost everything said by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury.

I am concerned, however, that what we are being told is not always consistent. I went to Washington with the noble Lord, Lord Morris, nearly three years ago. There was no doubt that a great deal of work was being done there and that there was close liaison between the Department of Defense and the Office of Veterans Affairs in Washington, and the Ministry of Defence here. Nevertheless, in reply to a Question in another place on Monday, Mr. Doug Henderson twice said:

    "We want to enter into discussions with the US Government to determine how best we can combine our research resources".--[Official Report, Commons, 22/3/99; col. 6.]
On the face of it, this looks as though we were only now thinking how to discuss the problem with the Americans. Luckily, I do not believe that, as I know that a great deal of work has been done by both nations, separately and together.

Certainly the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, answered a question from the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, last June by saying that there is a full and continuing exchange between our two governments. That exchange is fortunate, since the number of members of the British Armed Forces in the Gulf is so small as to render it difficult to provide a meaningful sample of every one of the number of symptoms from which only the veterans may show themselves to be suffering. Almost the only thing that can be said and established is that there is no such thing as one Gulf syndrome.

24 Mar 1999 : Column 1406

Even so, the number of Britons suffering from one problem or another is sufficiently large to be extremely worrying not only for those who are suffering the problems now, but for those who might have to deal with similar problems if we have another desert war.

It is interesting to note that the work of Professor Simon Wessely shows that the pattern of illnesses in this country is broadly similar to those in the United States. All the more reason why the two sets of research teams should work closely together.

Even for this country, the figures are frightening. As I understand it, there have been 2,762 applications for pensions and 1,448 have been awarded. Compensation has been applied for by 1,769 and, if my figures are right, there have been 381 deaths. The noble Lord, Lord Morris, said 400, but that seems much the same. Quite rightly, the question is: why? why? why?

One of the reasons why liaison with the United States is so vital is that the Americans have been able to carry out a controlled experiment with a similar number of servicemen who did not serve in the Gulf. What is the norm for those illnesses in a body of young men (and a few women)? It seems too that in America the reserve forces in the Gulf suffered worse than the regulars; the back areas were worse than the sharp end--

Lord Morris of Manchester: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. It was my noble friend Lord Gilbert who gave the House the figure of 400 deaths. That was speaking last year. My suspicion is that there were a number of unverified deaths in his figure, but I have asked tonight--and I await the reply from my noble friend who will wind up the debate--for an updating of that figure and for other important information to the ex-service community.

Lord Burnham: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Morris, for that intervention. My figure of 381 comes from his and my non-noble friend, Colonel English of the British Legion.

As I said, the American reserve forces in the Gulf seem to have suffered worse than the regulars; the back areas were worse than the sharp end. And in France nobody suffered at all. The French did not have MAPPS tablets and were almost all members of the Foreign Legion. It may be, therefore, that they were more familiar with desert conditions. Is that significant? None of those factors concern the epidemiological studies and I am sure that it is with those that we should be most concerned today. I am glad that Professor Harry Lee has been appointed to head the Gulf War Medical Assessment Programme as last summer it was found difficult to find a successor to Colonel Bhatt and the situation was very worrying. I have heard good reports of the work that Professor Lee is doing.

Concern has been expressed on many sides that there has been no public inquiry. Like the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, I am not certain that would benefit anyone except possibly the lawyers, and would merely divert the workers in this field from their important research for the sole purpose of presenting a public face. It would only be necessary if Gulf disease was in danger of being

24 Mar 1999 : Column 1407

ignored, and that is certainly not the case. I do not believe it ever was, though it is undoubtedly true that the scale of the problem was not realised for some time.

Any public inquiry would take an inordinate amount of time. Not unnaturally almost every sufferer would wish his individual case to be considered in detail. In common, I am sure, with many other noble Lords, I received this week an 11-page document on one case. The man whom it concerns has now sadly died and I express my deepest sympathy to his relatives and to the relatives of all others who have suffered. But if there is to be an inquiry into all of them it would not be possible to get any other work done.

The writer of the letter to which I refer is himself a Gulf veteran and is complaining that he has been unable to get possession of his blood samples which were taken at the time of the conflict. He has been told that they are being held at Porton Down, but the suggestion was that they might no longer be valid. In a Written Answer last summer, the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, confirmed that blood samples were generally available and that they were being held at Porton Down. Can the Minister confirm that they are being used in epidemiological studies? If so, will the results be published; and will they be published on an individual basis?

Much has been made of the use of depleted uranium. I asked questions about its use last summer and was entirely convinced by the reply of the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, that there was no fallout of DU dust except in a very restricted sense, as there would be if you hit a tank with any other piece of hard metal. The noble Lord wrote to me in terms that I considered served me right for asking the question--they were incomprehensible. I beg leave to suggest that the reply did not come from his personal knowledge of the subject, but the arguments made were very convincing.

However, I shall be grateful to the Minister if he will confirm that there has not been any reassessment of the dangers of depleted uranium and that none of the research conducted so far has shown it to be responsible for any of the Gulf illnesses. I suspect it is the word "uranium" which generated folklore on the subject. I should like to think that a categorical answer from the noble Lord would erase the subject completely from consideration. But I fear it will not.

Oil pollution is another subject which is, I hope, being examined. This is something which will have affected the Kuwaitis themselves even more than the servicemen in the Gulf, and the views of the Kuwaiti Health Minister, who is himself a doctor, are very much of interest. At the time I was told by the first lieutenant of a frigate in the Gulf that they were having to clear their filters many times more than normal, but I was told also that the nature of the oil pollution did not too seriously affect the lungs. I doubt that that now reflects current thinking. The "plumes" to which many people referred must present a serious health hazard.

During the course of this debate noble Lords have asked a number of questions. The noble Countess has had her nose to this particular grindstone for many years and has worked desperately hard and effectively in this

24 Mar 1999 : Column 1408

respect. Indeed, that has been demonstrated by the number of Questions that she has tabled. Can the Minister now give the House a situation report of how we stand at present? I hope that we will be satisfied with what he has to tell the House. I also hope that we will have another debate before the hereditary Peers bid farewell to the rest of your Lordships so that the Minister can keep the House informed and demonstrate how much progress is being made in the interim period.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page