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Nuclear Deterrent

Lord Christopher asked Her Majesty's Government:

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: The SDR conducted a rigorous re-examination of our deterrence requirements. The Government have made it clear that we shall maintain the minimum credible nuclear deterrent whilst working towards the global elimination of nuclear weapons. The longer term goals of arms control, non-proliferation and multilateral disarmament were advanced considerably by a range of SDR measures. In addition to announcing Trident as the UK's only nuclear weapon system, these

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included: a reduction in the number of warheads deployed in each submarine; a significant reduction in the size of the UK's total nuclear weapon stockpile; the de-targeting of Trident missiles; having only one submarine on deterrent patrol, and the placing of the submarine on deterrent patrol at several days' notice to fire. These measures have all been introduced.

Following a trial period of moving towards single crewing of SSBNs, we have, however, decided to retain double crews. This decision reflects our determination, as part of our policy for people, to minimise the pressure on our service personnel and give them greater stability and time with their families.

Organophosphates: Long-term Low-level Exposure

Baroness Nicol asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether there is a relationship between organophosphate pesticides and the illnesses suffered by some veterans of the 1990-91 Gulf conflict in view of the recent reports from the Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment (COT) and the Institute of Occupational Medicine (IOM).[HL663]

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: The COT report, published in November, concluded that neuropsychological abnormalities can occur as a long-term complication following acute organophosphate (OP) poisoning, particularly if the poisoning is severe. Persistent peripheral neuropathy (disorders of the peripheral nerves) may occur, but not generally at a level which would give rise to symptoms. The body of evidence gives little support to the hypothesis that low-level exposure to OPs can cause chronic disease of the nervous system. However, the report notes that there remains a question over whether a small proportion of subjects may be at increased risk of clinically significant disease following low level exposure, and recommends further research in this area.

The Institute of Occupational Medicine (IOM) report on the relationship between OP sheep dips and illness in exposed sheep farmers and dippers found the critical exposure factor to be contact with concentrate dip: much higher rates of symptoms, predominantly of a sensory nature, were reported among those who had been principal concentrate handlers. There is very limited evidence that long-term low-level exposure to organophosphates leads to long-term neurotoxic effects.

The conclusions from these reports are in line with the findings of the Defence Scientific Advisory Council's (DSAC) Working Party report, the publication of which we announced on 20 October 1999 and which reviewed existing literature on the long term neurotoxicity of anticholinesterases. It concluded that high doses of organophosphates may have long-term effects on the peripheral nervous system, but that there is limited evidence about long-term toxic effects following low doses.

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During the Gulf conflict very few UK service personnel would have handled concentrated OPs. Those that did would have been Environmental Health Officers or technicians, or individual regimental hygiene duties personnel who were appropriately trained in procedures and the use of equipment. There was no evidence of acute organophosphate poisoning or of subsequent unusual ill health arising in this small group.

Neither the IOM nor the COT report provides evidence which would cause us to reassess our view of the possible role of OPs in relation to Gulf Veterans' illnesses. The case for ill-health effects resulting from long term low level exposure to OPs remains unproven and there is currently no reason to believe that Gulf veterans who might have been in casual contact with dilute pesticide (e.g. from the treatment of tents and equipment) or with the malathion dust used to de-louse Iraqi prisoners of war, are at increased risk of long term ill-health.

Although it remains the case that there is limited evidence of a link between low-level exposure to OPs and adverse health effects, MoD will continue to monitor the debate about the safety of OPs. We will continue to review scientific evidence in the light of potential exposures which may have occurred in the Gulf and follow future research, including that recommended by the COT report, very closely.

Gulf War: Biological Warfare Immunisation Programme

Baroness Nicol asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What information they have regarding the implementation of the immunisation programme against biological warfare agents for UK forces during the Gulf conflict 1990-91.[HL664]

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: The Government's "New Beginning" policy statement set out the way forward for addressing the health concerns of Gulf veterans and included a commitment to establish a fact finding team to look into the implementation of the anti-biological warfare immunisation programme during the Gulf conflict. Their work has now been completed and we are today publishing a paper entitled Implementation of the immunisation programme against biological warfare agents for UK forces during the Gulf conflict 1990-91. Copies of the report have been placed in the Library of the House.

The publication of this paper reaffirms the Government's commitment to ensuring that Gulf veterans should have access to whatever information the Ministry of Defence possesses which might be relevant to their illnesses.

The deficiencies in the implementation of the 1990-91 anti-biological warfare immunisation programme have been, and continue to be, addressed in improvements to our current arrangements. When we again deployed to the Gulf in 1998, our

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immunisation programme was unclassified, all troops were fully briefed using standard material, the nature of the threat and the vaccine were described in detail and all records were updated, showing that the lessons of 1990-91 have been learned.

The report found that the voluntary nature of the immunisation programme operated as intended in the majority of units and locations. It confirms that no unusual or previously undisclosed immunisations were given during the Gulf conflict and also explains the codewords which were sometimes used for the vaccines.

Uptake of the anti-biological warfare immunisations in the early stages of the programme was high. Over 75 per cent of all personnel deployed to the Gulf region are likely to have had anthrax and pertussis, and in many units this approached 100 per cent. Uptake of the second anthrax and pertussis immunisations and the first plague was less and varied between and within formations. Uptake of the third anthrax and the second plague immunisation was rare.

Alleged Chemical Warfare Incident,Al Jubayl, 19 January 1991

Baroness Nicol asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What information they have regarding the suggested exposure of UK troops to chemical warfare agents in Al Jubayl on 19 January 1991.[HL665]

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: The 1997 "A New Beginning" policy statement set out a number of commitments to help address the health concerns of Gulf veterans. One of these commitments was to review specific incidents of suggested biological or chemical warfare exposures. As part of this commitment, my honourable friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces has today published a paper entitled A Review of the Suggested Exposure of UK Forces to Chemical Warfare Agents in Al Jubayl on 19 January 1991. A copy will be placed in the Library.

As a result of our review of the available information, we assess that UK troops were not subject to attack or exposed to chemical warfare agents at Al Jubayl on 19 January 1991. Although it is not possible to give a single comprehensive explanation for all the events that took place on the morning of 19 January we conclude from the available information that the indications of the presence of chemical warfare agents were false alarms.

Gulf Veterans' Medical Assessment Programme Audit

Baroness Nicol asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether the recommendations in the report of the external audit of the Gulf Veterans' Medical Assessment Programme have been implemented.[HL666]

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Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: The Ministry of Defence response to the recommendations in the report of the audit of the Gulf Veterans' Medical Assessment Programme (GVMAP) has now been completed. A very small number of issues remain outstanding but the response explains why this is so and what action is being taken.

The staff of the GVMAP have welcomed this opportunity to review their working practices and take action where necessary. The implementation of the audit recommendations will provide an improved service for Gulf veterans.

We are placing a copy of the response to the audit report in the Library of the House and it is also being published on the Ministry of Defence Gulf Veterans' Illnesses website.

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