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House of Lords

Tuesday, 20th May 2003.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Hereford.

Depleted Uranium

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether, taking into account the priorities identified by the Royal Society and the United Nations Environment Programme, the issues surrounding spent depleted uranium ordnance are being addressed.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Bach): My Lords, in support of the United Nations Environment Programme environmental survey of Iraq, and as requested by the Royal Society, Her Majesty's Government have released information on how much depleted uranium they have used in Iraq and will make available details of where that usage occurred. We will co-operate fully with an in-country field study by UNEP when the security situation allows.

Her Majesty's Government agree with the Royal Society that soldiers exposed to high levels of DU should be tested, and have put measures in place to effect that.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his helpful reply. Bearing in mind the Answer of the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, yesterday about the health of children and the fact that we were doing what we could to help injured children in Iraq, do the Government have plans to join with UNEP or to undertake to fund sampling and monitoring of the water supply given that the effects of depleted uranium on health are unknown in the long term? It is likely that children's health will suffer. According to the Royal Society, the greatest concern is about depleted uranium washing into the water supply.

Lord Bach: My Lords, as the noble Baroness knows, there is no reliable scientific or medical evidence to link depleted uranium with the ill health of Gulf or Balkans veterans or people—including children—living in those regions. Studies by the Royal Society, the European Commission, the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Health Organisation support that view. The Government are determined to help as much as they can in the fields to which the noble Baroness refers.

Lord Vivian: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the depleted uranium tank round is known to penetrate all armour of modern tanks? Had such

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ammunition not been used in Iraq, the lives of British tank crews could have been put at risk, resulting in more casualties. In view of the general concern about depleted uranium tank ammunition and, as the Minister said, although the known health risks from DU are minimal, when will the proposed medical tests to which he referred be available for those personnel wishing to be checked for exposure to DU?

Lord Bach: My Lords, I very much agree with the noble Lord. DU munitions provide a unique anti-armour capability and will remain part of our arsenal for the foreseeable future because, frankly, we have a duty to provide our troops with the best available equipment with which to protect themselves and succeed in conflict. It cannot be said often enough that the use of DU is neither illegal—of course it is not—nor prohibited under any international agreements, including the Geneva Conventions. I cannot give the date by which the United Nations Environment Programme inquiries will be implemented but I know that it is working quickly on that, and we want it to do so.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, does the Minister agree that although depleted uranium provides wonderful weaponry, we also have a duty, when there are problems, to take care of the people who are or may have been damaged by depleted uranium? The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, mentioned the children in Iraq. There was a very good Austrian report about seven or eight years ago about the damage being done to children—I raised it in the House—but it seems to have been totally ignored. Will the Minister look very seriously, with the United Nations and, if it comes to that, the World Health Organisation, at what might be happening to children? It is easy to stick our heads in the sand and pretend that things are not happening. However, time and again, the public who are complaining about illnesses are proved right. It may well be that in this case they will also be right.

Lord Bach: My Lords, of course we shall do as the noble Countess says. I must repeat that media reports of DU-induced cancers and birth defects in Iraq are not substantiated with credible scientific evidence. I am afraid that many other factors must be considered as possible causes. The World Health Organisation proposed a number of studies to the then Iraqi government in 2001 but received no response. We very much hope, as does the noble Countess, that it will be possible for the World Health Organisation to proceed now.

Lord Rea: My Lords, will the Government actively support such an independent survey to put at rest those allegations?

Lord Bach: My Lords, I certainly can confirm that.

Lord Redesdale: My Lords, considering the growing concern about the toxicity of depleted uranium, the fact that the long-term effects of that toxicity on

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civilian populations have so far not been properly examined and the fact that we have a duty to stop any civilian deaths as a result of any action that we have undertaken, can the Minister say how much money has been put aside for decontamination of any depleted uranium used by British forces in Iraq?

Lord Bach: My Lords, I am not in a position to give the noble Lord a sum. But we take our responsibilities seriously. Our responsibilities are really to civil power at present. We will have to behave reasonably, and we are determined to do so, to ensure that any possible consequences are lessened.

The House probably knows that depleted uranium is 40 per cent less radioactive than naturally occurring uranium. We are all exposed to natural uranium every day through water, food and air without adverse effects on our health. DU is also widely used for a range of civilian applications. We must keep those very proper questions in context.

Firearms: National Licensing System

2.43 p.m.

Lord Marlesford asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether it is still their intention that the national register, required by Section 39 of the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997, should be operational in the summer of 2004.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Falconer of Thoroton): My Lords, as the noble Lord is aware, this has been taken forward as part of a national firearms licensing management system that interfaces to the police national computer. I understand from the Police Information Technology Organisation that the results of the tendering process are now being evaluated and the project is expected to be operational by 31st August 2004.

Lord Marlesford: My Lords, I am delighted that the Minister can confirm his earlier determination to do something after all this time. I do not particularly mind all the changes of name. I rather agree with Chairman Deng Xiaopeng that it does not matter what colour the cat is, provided that it catches the mice. The important question is whether the Minister agrees that, next summer, police anywhere in Britain should be able to access in real time the computer system to check whether someone has a firearm or has been refused one. Does he agree that the next stage will be to carry out licensing centrally, as is the case with motorcars and driving licences in Swansea, taking the burden off the police forces?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I do not understand the reference to the change of name. My name has remained the same throughout the process. I agree that the intended outcome is a national licence management system, with one source providing

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information on who has applied for a licence, who has one, and who was refused one, and one centre for dealing with the application process. It is to be hoped that the system will be operational from 31st August next year.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, will the national system do away with the inspection and licensing of guns in rural areas by a policeman who knows the people? It would be better if that system were not abandoned.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, the local system of enforcing who has a licence and who does not have one will be assisted by easy access to information on who has a licence and who has been refused one. But it does not obviate the need for a local means of enforcing the licensing system.

Lord Tanlaw: My Lords, is the Minister in a position to say now what percentage of gun crime is committed by legitimate holders of firearms or shotgun licences? Will he be in a position to answer that question when the register is up and running after 31st August 2004?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I cannot give an answer now, and it would be quite difficult to give one even after the system is up and running. The system aims to identify who has a licence and who has been refused one. If I can give more information than I have provided today, I shall write to the noble Lord.

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