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Lord Luke: My Lords, I, like everyone else, am most grateful to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, for introducing this debate. I begin my contribution by making it clear that we on these Benches have every sympathy for veterans and ex-servicemen and women who have risked their lives for this country, some of whom now feel that it has let them down. Our servicemen and women deserve the very best, both by provision of the right equipment and resources when they go to war and the support that they get on their return home after the conflict is over, and also when they have left the Armed Forces. It goes without saying that it is crucial that the United Kingdom, through the Ministry of Defence, properly compensates with financial assistance members of the Armed Forces for ill health arising from their military service.
One of the veterans' main grievances is the way in which the MoD has handled their cases and the fight for awards through the war pensions scheme that they have had to undertake. I agree wholeheartedly with the call of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, for Her Majesty's Government to express their regret about the long and protracted delays experienced by veterans in the pursuit of their claims and the truth about their illness. When a person of such considerable experience and knowledge of the armed services, and in particular of the operational circumstances during the Gulf conflict, makes such a call, the Government should certainly sit up and take note.
The fact that the MoD did not choose to give evidence to the inquiry chaired by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, has been perceived by the veterans as symptomatic of the dismissive approach by the MoD to the whole problem of the Gulf War veterans. As the noble and gallant Lord has said, this attitude has done nothing to improve relations with the veterans. I mention this
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particular grievance in the hope that every effort should be made by the MoD to be seen as open and constructive as possible from now on.
This debate is set in the context of the Government's ambivalence towards our veterans. The debt of honour due to them is not being repaid. The burden of proof is now on a veteran to prove that his or her injuries were due to their service, whereas under the previous war pension scheme, the onus was on the MoD to prove that injuries were not due to service. This is just one example of how, step by step, our Armed Forces are being equated with ordinary civilian professions. This is simply not right. The Armed Forces stand alone in what they are asked to do and this uniqueness needs recognition.
I have said already, and must reiterate, that I agree with very much of what the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, said in his speech. The noble and gallant Lord is and has been a most valiant advocate of the veterans' cause. There are, however, some who might question the significance of one aspect of his speech; namely, the call for the Government to confirm their acceptance of the phrase "Gulf War syndrome" as an umbrella term covering any medical condition caused by service and connected to the 1991 Gulf conflict. The Government have already had to accept the use of "Gulf War syndrome" as an umbrella term, but does it really advance the issue further? I submit that it is only useful in as much as the veterans feel it is a step in the right direction.
The Pensions Appeal Tribunal ruling in November 2005 was conclusive in finding that there was no reliable evidence that Gulf War syndrome isas has been mentioned several times this eveninga discrete pathological entity. The ruling found that there is a Gulf War health effect, this being an increase in the incidence and severity of a variety of symptoms for Gulf War veterans. The crucial point is that it seems there is no identifiable set of symptoms unique to those with Gulf War service. There is an argument that it might, therefore, be more useful to adopt the Pensions Appeal Tribunal's use of the term "health effect" to differentiate this occurrence of a range of accepted symptoms from a new specific syndrome.
However, the real question to address is "what next?" We support the idea, proposed in the report of the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd, that the 272 unsuccessful cases should be reviewed. It would be helpful for the Government to indicate what steps they have taken, or will take, in this regard. We also support the noble and gallant Lord's call for the Government to commit to achieving a conclusion to all this. A real acknowledgement of the difficulties that the veterans have had to endure would be appropriate. I fully support the noble and gallant Lord's suggestion that Ministers should meet veterans and their representatives as soon as possible to try to achieve a satisfactory conclusion. Veterans are demanding this and, 15 years on, it is what they deserve. I look forward to the reply of the noble Baroness.
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Baroness Crawley : My Lords, in thanking the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, I acknowledge his tenacity in following this issue, and the very professional expertise he brings to the subject. I was warned by my noble friend Lord Morris of Manchester that I would probably need an ejector seat for this debate, as feelings are running very high. Indeed, it has been a robust debateand so it should bebut also an extremely informative one, which we will read very carefully at the Ministry of Defence.
The MoD has drawn a certain amount of flak, not all of it, I might suggest, deserved. However, I am grateful to the noble and gallant Lord for securing time for this debate, because this is an extremely important issue and I recognise that the concerns he raised, which have been shared by other noble Lords through their contributions this afternoon, are also felt by many outside this House.
It is essential that these issues should be fully debated and that the views of the House are carefully considered. Noble Lords will recall that my noble friend Lord Bach set out the Government's response to the report of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd, during the debate held on 21 December 2004. I should like to say to the noble and learned Lord that I pay particular tribute to his work on behalf of veterans. However, there have been a number of developments since that response was given and I welcome the opportunity to update the House on the Government's position.
As my noble friend Lord Bach made clear, we studied the noble and learned Lord's report carefully. We concluded at the time that it did not contain any new substantive or scientific evidence to support its conclusion and main recommendations. We have seen nothing since to change our view. The noble and learned Lord said that we should acknowledge that Gulf veterans are ill. My noble friend Lord Drayson said on 21 July 2005 that we have always accepted that, since returning from the Gulf in 1990 and 1991, some veterans have become ill and, where the evidence supports it, we have accepted that this ill health is related to their service in the Gulf.
The Government have again been criticised in today's debate for not participating in the noble and learned Lord's investigation. We did not do so because we do not consider that an inquiry, public or unofficial, would contribute to answering the basic question of why Gulf veterans report more ill health than those who did not deploy. We have maintained thatand I should say to noble Lords that researchers into the illness of Gulf veterans did attend the inquiryresearch independently overseen rather than any form of public inquiry or investigation will best allow us to understand and help veterans and their families to address these issues.
However, we provided a significant amount of published material to inform the investigation. I understand that the noble and learned Lord was encouraged by the format of that material. We do not consider that it was taken fully into account in his
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report. The report does nothing to change the fact that the wide range of research that we and others have sponsored over the years has shown no unique illness associated with service in the Gulf. As my noble friend Lord Truscott observed, to date we have spent over £8 million on research. The United States Government have undertaken some $300 million-worth of research and we have always monitored it closely for any lessons it may offer for our own veterans.
One of our first actions on taking office was to announce a package of measures aimed at addressing veterans' concerns. With such significant sums spent on research, I can say that our understanding of the ill health reported by 1990 and 1991 Gulf veterans is now much greater than when this Government first came to office. We have remained committed to the assurances we gave in that document, and this commitment continues today.
I find it difficult to understand, therefore, that some Members of this House remain unwilling to acknowledge the very real progress the Government have made with this important and complex issue. This is true not least of the report of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd. It has a tendency to concentrate on the problems experienced prior to May 1997, rather than any of the efforts that we have made since to find solutions and to help veterans. Nor does it acknowledge the way in which we have applied the lessons of the 199091 Gulf conflict to improve the position for the current Iraq deployment.
The Government recognised that we needed to be as transparent as possible about these sensitive medical and scientific issues. In contrast, we still find it somewhat surprising that the noble and learned Lord has been unwilling to disclose who sponsored and funded his investigation, thus raising questions about its true independence.
Let me make it clearas the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd, raised it himself in this debatethat his good intentions and those of his fellow panel members have never been doubted. But this House would expect full transparency of funding of our research and we can see no reason why his own investigation cannot meet that same widely respected protocol.
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