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House of Lords

Wednesday, 22 November 2006.

The House met at three of the clock: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Southwark.

Gulf War Illnesses

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 to the Royal British Legion.

The Question was as follows:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Drayson): My Lords, the needs of Gulf veterans remain a priority for the Government. Possible causes of their illnesses have been thoroughly researched and we monitor relevant work in the United States. We shall investigate new proposals on causation where sensible. As recommended by the independent Medical Research Council, we are giving priority to research into rehabilitative therapies to improve the long-term health of Gulf veterans. Appropriate medical treatment is provided and pensions as appropriate.

Lord Morris of Manchester: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend whose personal concern for the afflicted and bereaved is undoubted, but is it not disquieting that the Pensions Appeal Tribunal itself finds the MoD guilty not only of “highly regrettable” delay in responding to its decisions but of “redefining” and even “tampering” with them?

Moreover, is he aware that this week the Royal British Legion described a recent ministerial Statement to this House on vaccines used by the MoD as,

When can they now expect closure of a dispute that should have been settled years ago?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, I am sincerely grateful to my noble friend for continuing to raise the issues of concern to Gulf War veterans. It is absolutely central to the desire of the Ministry of Defence to achieve closure on this matter, and at a meeting that I attended with the Gulf veterans Minister in the summer I felt that we were close to doing so. However, the recent statements by the Royal British Legion indicate that we have some way to go.

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My noble friend is right to highlight concerns about the Pensions Appeal Tribunal’s point. We recognise that we need to do more on this issue, and I know that my honourable friend is willing to meet representatives of veterans. Frankly, the Ministry of Defence is not clear what issues would achieve closure with Gulf War veterans. We need to work harder to get that clarity and work to achieve that closure.

Lord Lloyd of Berwick: My Lords, I shall press the Minister a little further on that. Do the Government agree with the Pensions Appeal Tribunal’s criticism of the Veterans Agency for refusing to accept the term “Gulf War syndrome” for 14 years, a term that the agency now accepts? In view of that, will the Government consider writing to the 1,370 Gulf War veterans who have had their claims rejected on the grounds that “Gulf War syndrome” was not the correct label to offer some compensation for the trouble and the distress they have been caused owing to the error of the Veterans Agency, or at least to apologise?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, I also pay tribute to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd, for his efforts on behalf of Gulf War veterans. To give direct answers to his two questions: yes, we regret the delay, and yes, we will write to those veterans.

Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, the Minister said that the Government are monitoring the US research, which they so far appear to have disregarded. How will the Gulf War veterans be kept informed on this important research?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, they will be kept informed through a number of mechanisms. First, there is the publication of the results in peer review journals, which we bring to the attention of veterans through their representative organisations, through Members of this House who represent veterans, and through the Ministry of Defence website. We also need to go further, as I have said. We need to write to those veterans for whom this is most relevant. We need to do so when we are clear about the issues that will achieve final closure. I feel that we are close, but there is not sufficient clarity about what that closure would be based on. We need to do more, and we are prepared to do that.

Lord Tyler: My Lords, I declare a non-pecuniary interest as a member of the Royal British Legion Gulf War Group. I will press the Minister one step further. He will be aware that the legion and the veterans believe that the recent statement by his colleague, the Minister for Veterans has misrepresented the outcome of the recent research. Will he give an undertaking that as soon as possible he and his colleagues will meet the Royal British Legion Gulf War Group and the veterans to clear this matter up once and for all?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, I am absolutely happy to give an assurance that my colleague, the Minister for Veterans, will meet representatives of the Royal British Legion as soon as possible. I understand that

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there are dates in the diary to meet a number of representatives soon. I do not accept, however, that he has misrepresented the research; he has not. The research findings, through peer review, have been very clear in what they have determined. Having read it myself, I can say that what he said was an accurate representation of the research findings.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, the Minister has said that Her Majesty’s Government are following American research. Is there still a full-time Gulf Health Liaison Officer based in Washington? Is there still a British representative on the US Persian Gulf Veterans’ Co-ordinating Board research working group? If those two posts are still in place, will he explain why, in Written Answers to the noble Lord, Lord Morris, myself, and other noble Lords, Her Majesty’s Government seem to know nothing about the research that is going on in America into immune system damage, nervous system function and a lot of other things?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, my understanding is that we continue to have that representation. We do follow closely the research undertaken in the United States. In the Written Answers that we have given, we have reflected our level of understanding of where research is today in this very difficult and complex area for which, unfortunately, we do not have the answer to the causes of Gulf War illnesses today. We, as a Government, are diligent in looking for evidence. That evidence has not yet been found. We will continue to support research if that research will help us better to understand the causes of illness. Our focus now is on the understanding of what best can be done for rehabilitation, which we feel is the right priority at this time.

Lord Garden: My Lords, on 8 June, the Minister told me that it would be inappropriate to write to each of the 53,000 Gulf War veterans to update them. What data has he had since on the success of his approach, which was to put the information on the web? How has he publicised the web information?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, the 53,000 figure that I gave earlier is correct for the total number of Gulf War veterans. I gave an answer earlier relating to the number of Gulf War veterans for whom the Gulf War illness issue is of most concern. Our understanding in the Ministry of Defence, through liaison with the representatives of those Gulf War veterans, is that it is approximately 1,300 people. We have made the commitment, and we are prepared to write to those people to give them further information. We need to have a better understanding of the issues relating to closure. In terms of the further publication of the results, we are doing everything that we can to make sure that people fully understand the conclusions that have been reached from research. If people have ideas about how the Ministry of Defence could go further, I would be happy to listen to those ideas and pass them on to my honourable friend.

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Transport: Rail and Air

3.14 pm

Lord Dubs asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, The Future of Air Transport White Paper recognises the important role of rail services in providing an alternative to air travel. The Government have invested heavily in upgrading the rail network, improving the frequency of services and reducing journey times, thereby increasing its attractiveness compared to air.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that while market forces are obviously crucial in a modern economy such as ours, they do not necessarily lead to the best outcome for the environment, especially as train fares to parts of this country may be three times as high as the comparable plane fares? Does he agree that the Government need to take further their policy of improving the west coast main line in particular, possibly with a high-speed link, given that otherwise—according to this morning’s news—there may not be the ability to carry all the passengers on that service in 10 years’ time?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, this morning’s news was an unvarnished tale of success in terms of the increase in the number of rail journeys. The pressures on the system are due to that increase, which reflects the fact that the comparative position between rail and air is changing because of the quality of the rail service. My noble friend is right on the broader issues regarding emissions and climate change. Of course we must consider measures other than just the market.

Lord Rotherwick: My Lords, am I right in thinking that pollution per passenger mile for a fully loaded train is more than that for a modern airliner, such as the Airbus A380? Its makers claim that it is less polluting per passenger mile than the most modern, energy-efficient car.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, that depends a great deal upon the distances being travelled. This Question is about travel within the United Kingdom. On the broader issues, the noble Lord is right in one obvious respect; namely, that modern aircraft are considerably less polluting than their predecessors and that is due to improvements in technology. We look towards such improvements with regard to aviation pollution, but that does not alter the fact that if processes continue at the present level, aviation pollution in the atmosphere will increase by a very substantial percentage over the next two decades. That is why we are addressing the question of aircraft emissions.

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Lord Maclennan of Rogart: My Lords, does the Minister recognise that in respect of the announcement on the west coast main line, he has not focused on the concerns expressed by the Comptroller and Auditor General? They were that, despite the £8.6 billion investment in that line, there is a danger of early obsolescence with the electronic signalling and that the industry does not believe that it will be able to deal with the potential uplift which, in the past year, has been encouraging, with a 20 per cent growth.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, it is right that we take into account the contribution by the National Audit Office that identifies potential bottlenecks two decades on, but that reflects a substantial increase in passenger traffic in recent years. The noble Lord is right: that we need to look at potential further investment in that line and that one of the constraints may be the quality of signalling available. But in other respects, as Virgin has indicated, some extra demand can be met by lengthening trains and by some increased frequency of service.

Lord Hogg of Cumbernauld: My Lords, will my noble friend join me in congratulating British Airways, British Midland and easyJet on the provision of cheap air fares from Aberdeen, Inverness and the northern airports to London and other European destinations, so that ordinary, hard-working people and their families can travel to London? While recognising the admirable green qualities of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, will the noble Lord, Lord Davies, in his role as Deputy Chief Whip, have a kindly word with him and remind him that ordinary working-class families are what we on this side are all about?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I assure my noble friend that all my words, both public and private, to my noble friend Lord Dubs are kindly, but I take on board the point that my noble friend emphasises. Cheap air travel has increased opportunities for people to travel within the United Kingdom, particularly on journeys from Scotland. Those journeys are and will remain lengthy by any other form of transport, and that is why air travel has a role to play. We should recognise that companies have succeeded in providing opportunities for people across the range.

Lord Kilclooney: My Lords, does the noble Lord accept that some parts of the United Kingdom will not have the luxury of competition between trains and aeroplanes from London until we get a tunnel between Great Britain and Northern Ireland? Does he realise that this week it cost me £380 to come here by British Midland and that today my son-in-law came from Northern Ireland for £50 with easyJet? There is a wide range of prices for travelling by air. Does the noble Lord agree that the Government should not get involved in manipulating and controlling the price of aeroplane tickets?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for reinforcing the point that I sought to make in my opening reply, which is that the Government have no intent to interfere in the pricing policies of air or rail travel. I take on board his point that, although

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we congratulate ourselves—rightly—on improved rail services, that has limited significance to those who travel to this country from Northern Ireland.

Roads: Fatal Accidents

3.21 pm

The Earl of Dundee asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, in 2005, there were 465 road fatalities involving a driver aged 17 to 19, of whom 149 were drivers in that age range. These are dreadful figures, and this problem is a main focus of a review that we are conducting of our road safety strategy, which we aim to publish in the new year.

The Earl of Dundee: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. Given that many fatal accidents occur at night, when young newly qualified drivers are carrying passengers, does he agree that targeted advertising would serve to reduce that number of deaths? However, does he accept that the disproportion of fatal accidents affecting young drivers will never properly alter until a balanced package of restrictions and incentives is introduced, currently the subject of inquiry by the Transport Committee in another place?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, in our review, we will take into account both the conclusions of the Transport Committee in the other place and the representations that we have had from many Members in this House, of which the noble Earl is an excellent example, on how we could improve safety. We are very concerned about the road fatality rates for young drivers but there is no easy answer to this. Part of the problem is that we can introduce all the regulations, restraints and constraints in the world, but if a substantial proportion of these fatalities occurs among people who act lawlessly, such constraints will just be ignored.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester: My Lords, does my noble friend have any statistics which demonstrate what proportion of the fatalities involving young people also involve the intake of drink? Is not one of the solutions to reducing the number of deaths among 17 to 19 year-olds to reduce the legal blood-alcohol level so that it is equivalent to that which applies elsewhere in Europe?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, my noble friend has identified a contributory factor which the House would suppose to be germane to this issue. Twelve per cent of the accidents that resulted in fatalities were due to excessive consumption of alcohol or the taking of drugs. Of course, we recognise that that is a feature of some young drivers but, again, I make the point that reducing the level of the alcohol test would mean little to those who were bent on reckless behaviour, and our problem with these statistics lies largely in that area.

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Lord Marsh: My Lords, does the Minister agree that we need to hit people of this age and type where it hurts most; that is, by having the ability to confiscate their vehicles?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, there is also the sanction of taking away the ability to drive. Punishment is severe when fatalities have occurred, which is where the Question is directed. The issue is not about the level of deterrence in the courts; it relates more to the effective control of drivers who break the law, and society’s recognition of the necessity to bring home to young people who act recklessly in this regard the dreadful consequences that might be visited upon them and on complete strangers who are involved in such accidents.

Lord Hanningfield: My Lords, the Minister mentioned lawlessness, and we know that most of those fatalities are associated with youngsters who are uninsured, unlicensed, and may not even have passed their driving test. Surely one of the main problems is that there are far fewer traffic police because of the reliance on speed cameras, so there is no one to catch these young people. Does the Minister agree that if more traffic police were back on the road, some of these people might be apprehended and we would not have all those fatalities?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I agree with that. We want traffic police to concentrate on reckless and dangerous driving, which has dramatic and disastrous effects on others, rather than just on speeding, but the noble Lord will recognise that speeding is a major contributory factor to such accidents. He will recognise, too, that the Road Safety Act, which we recently passed, freed up resources through the Highways Agency for more police to be engaged in traffic patrols. Of course I welcome that.

Lord Bradshaw: My Lords, is the Minister aware of, I think, eight successful presentations that have taken place in Thames Valley at which members of the emergency services—the practitioners who go to road accidents—seriously injured victims of such accidents and bereaved parents met thousands of 16 and 17 year-olds? Will he ensure that the knowledge of those forceful presentations becomes widespread, because I and other members of an audience of nearly a thousand were very struck by the effect that it had on the young people concerned?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the noble Lord has identified a constructive development. There is no doubt that in the process of educating young drivers—indeed, all drivers—our ability to communicate the consequences of careless and reckless driving is extremely important. People who have offended against speed limits are invited to attend a seminar in which they are taught the consequences of excessive speed, and that also appears to be having a beneficial effect.

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