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House of Lords

Monday, 10th November 2003.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Derby.

Gulf War 1990–91: Vaccines

Lord Morris of Manchester: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare an interest as honorary parliamentary adviser over many years to the Royal British Legion.

The Question was as follows:

    To ask Her Majesty's Government what representations they have received from the Secretary General of the Royal British Legion about vaccines used by the Ministry of Defence during the 1990–91 Gulf War and the renewed call for a full public inquiry.

Baroness Crawley: My Lords, the Royal British Legion continues to campaign for such an inquiry. However, the Government are not convinced that a public inquiry would help. The possibility that we may look again at this matter has not been ruled out but, in the present circumstances, it is only through the programme of research initiated by the Government that we are ever likely to be able to establish the causes of Gulf veterans' illnesses.

Lord Morris of Manchester: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. Is it not a deeply serious parliamentary matter that, 13 years after the conflict, so many of our troops, some now terminally ill, are still left with medically unexplained illnesses? Are not the Government's frank admissions on 9th October—that medical record-keeping was abysmal and that an unlicensed vaccine was used on our troops—also cause for grave concern? As the MoD does not know what vaccines were given to whom and when, Porton Down's tests on animals cannot possibly have replicated the immunisation programme as administered. So how can it possibly be determined whether the vaccines were safe in any particular case? Surely the Secretary General's compelling case for a public inquiry now deserves a positive response.

Baroness Crawley: My Lords, in answering my noble friend's question, I acknowledge the tremendous work that he carries out with the Royal British Legion on behalf of Gulf War veterans. Although we are aware of the tremendous frustration felt by Gulf War veterans in the years since the conflict, my noble friend, of all people, will appreciate the work undertaken by this Government since we came to office in 1997. We have initiated scientific research, provided medical help, given information and made

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that information available and transparent, and we have provided substantial financial assistance. We have acknowledged the problems of the poor record-keeping that occurred in 1990–91, as referred to by my noble friend. Indeed, we placed that in the public domain. In the intervening years, this Government have made many improvements to record-keeping.

In an Answer to my noble friend on 5th November, we said that, although the Government were not convinced that a public inquiry would help to answer the basic question of why Gulf veterans are ill, we have not ruled out the possibility that we may look at the matter again if circumstances change.

Lord Vivian: My Lords, can the Minister explain why the combined anthrax and pertussis vaccine was used to immunise troops in January, February and March 1991, given that the pertussis vaccine was not licensed for use in the United Kingdom and that the test results of the combined vaccine on mice resulted in severe weight loss, although guinea pigs showed no reaction? Furthermore, the then Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Dr Metters, recalls advising the MoD on 21st December 1990 of the importance and relevance of the information from the National Institute for Biological Standards and Control, stressing his own concerns and those of the institute. What were the reasons for going ahead with the immunisation programme when such serious concerns had been reported to the MoD and the Department of Health?

Baroness Crawley: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Vivian, will know that the fact that a vaccine is unlicensed does not mean that it is untested and therefore inherently unsafe. He will also know that licensing procedures cannot be accelerated; hence, there was no possibility of obtaining a United Kingdom licence for any previously unlicensed products in the six months between the Iraq invasion of Kuwait and the coalition campaign to liberate it. Anthrax was licensed, as the noble Lord acknowledged, and pertussis was licensed for children but not for adults. As we said in our Written Answer of 9th October to my noble friend Lord Morris, we do not know whether or not heed was taken of the concerns expressed by the Chief Medical Officer. The test results referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Vivian, are interim results published at Porton Down. We await the final results at the end of the year.

Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords, I share the indignation of the noble Lord, Lord Morris, in that it appears that the Government still do not know the consequences of their vaccination programme of some 12 years ago. Indeed, the noble Lord's Written Question, put to the Minister in January this year, was not replied to until October. That demonstrates that the facts and figures were not available to this Government.

Further to the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Vivian, what was the status of those vaccines? The Minister's reply to the Written Question stated

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that it was offered to all personnel. Was that an offer that they could not refuse or was it a vaccine that was genuinely voluntary? What is the current status?

Baroness Crawley: My Lords, the reason for taking so long to answer my noble friend's Question—it was tabled in January and answered on 9th October—is because it included several questions. We found it necessary to seek the advice of independent experts on the arrangements for administering anthrax and for MoD officials to consult colleagues in the Department of Health licensing department, who in turn needed to seek advice from others. In order to give the fullest possible Answer, it was decided to provide information on the use of the anthrax vaccine after 1990–91. Information about contraindication for the 13 vaccines used at that time was not readily available. Anthrax was not a compulsory vaccination and never has been. It has always been voluntary.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, is the same cocktail of vaccines being used for the troops in Iraq today?

Baroness Crawley: My Lords, we have learnt many lessons from the problems identified in 1990–91. Today we have a very important schedule of vaccination times. Vaccines are given at certain times on a routine basis. As to the content of the vaccine, I shall contact the noble Baroness.

Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, I remember this issue being raised many years ago. It was not admitted then as freely as now that there were serious mistakes in medical record-keeping. That has been said for a long time. Does the Minister agree that if we can have public inquiries for a train or boat disaster, surely it is wholly unreasonable that we should still refuse to have one for more than 5,000 people who are getting older and who have unexplained illnesses, and at a time when we have troops at war?

Baroness Crawley: My Lords, it is still the view of this Government that only through a programme of research initiated by the Government are we ever likely to find the reasons why so many Gulf veterans are ill. As I said, the Government have not closed their mind.


2.45 p.m.

Lord Bradshaw asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they have any proposals for revision or modification of the existing system of hallmarking of precious metals.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Sainsbury of Turville): My Lords, a draft EU directive on hallmarking has been proposed, but the UK is opposing it because it would weaken the protection

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currently enjoyed by consumers in the UK. We think that we have a reasonable chance of success. The British Hallmarking Council has recommended changing UK legislation to mark mixed metal articles, but responses to a consultation on this did not make an adequate case for such changes.

Lord Bradshaw: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. I hope that it is still a draft directive rather than law. If we are forced down that road, can he ensure that we still retain, as a secondary mark, the established British hallmarking system on genuine goods, because some of the European states will not enforce a European directive?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, let me be clear. We oppose the directive because we believe that it would not maintain consumer confidence, that it would not be effectively enforced and that it would do nothing for the common market. The terms of the directive do not mean that an assay mark cannot be used; they simply mean that it does not have to be used and that one can rely on a manufacturer's mark plus market surveillance. We do not think that that is a good system. We want to retain the system we have. Even if the directive is passed—we shall oppose it—we could still put on the marks that we have.

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