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House of Lords

Thursday, 22 March 2007.

The House met at eleven o’clock: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Chelmsford.

Gulf War Illnesses

Lord Morris of Manchester asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Drayson): My Lords, the needs of Gulf veterans remain a high priority for the Government. We are open to undertaking new research where, in the opinion of the independent Medical Research Council, it is considered justified. The MRC has been asked to review research into rehabilitative therapies designed to improve the long-term health of veterans with persistent symptoms.

Lord Morris of Manchester: My Lords, while I am grateful to my noble friend, is it not disquieting that the Pensions Appeal Tribunal itself, the constitutional legal authority for settling veterans’ pension appeals, charges the MoD with,

tribunal decisions and of actions that,

of the dispute? Is he aware that closure will not come from attempts at tactical cleverness, only from a genuine change of heart and direction at the MoD?

Finally, how many British troops could have been exposed to sarin from the fallout at Khamisiyah in 1991, and what amount of sarin was involved?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, the Ministry of Defence accepts that we could have better communicated the matters relating to the tribunal to which my noble friend refers. We accept that, but we do not accept that there has been any attempt to reinterpret the tribunal decision. The Ministry of Defence does, however, need to communicate these issues better. My honourable friend the Minister for Veterans is committed to doing that.

Approximately 9,000 UK service personnel may have been within the area of possible exposure at Khamisiyah. However, the level of nerve agent to which they would have been exposed in that area was too low to have any biologically detected effect on them.

Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, the Minister talks about research into Gulf War illnesses. Can he tell us how much money has been spent in this country on such research, and how that amount compares with expenditure by the Americans on research into Gulf War illnesses?

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Lord Drayson: My Lords, I do not know the amount that the United States has spent on research into Gulf War illnesses. It is recognised in the medical community, however, that all this research is peer-reviewed. It is shared within the community, so any research by the United States is available to us and is taken into account in our consideration of this very important and complex matter. However, I will write to the noble Lord with the data on expenditure by both the United States and the United Kingdom.

Lord Tyler: My Lords, is the fact that the Ministry of Defence is represented on the interdepartmental Official Group on Organophosphates, the so-called Carden committee, an acknowledgement that some British troops in the Gulf were damaged by exposure to OPs? If so, is it relevant that the Secretary of State recently acknowledged that medical services for troops were in some cases inadequate, and does this apply to the troops who came back from the first Gulf War as well as those who came back from the Iraq invasion? Finally, why is the Department of Health not represented on the Carden committee? It is obviously extremely important to have joined-up government in this matter.

Lord Drayson: My Lords, I do not know why the Department of Health is not represented on the Carden committee. I will look into it and write to the noble Lord. Frankly, I do not accept the association he makes between concerns over veterans’ illnesses, issues relating to organophosphates and the Gulf War. We look into all these issues, not because we believe that there is necessarily a causal link, but because we have a duty to research these issues properly in order to understand whether there might be one and therefore whether it relates to the nerve agents used at Khamisiyah, raised by my noble friend, to organophosphates or indeed to anything that might cause the symptoms of Gulf War syndrome. However, that does not necessarily mean that we accept that there is a causal link.

Lord Winston: My Lords, further to the Minister’s Answer to my noble friend Lord Morris, would he be kind enough to outline the nature of the research commissioned by the MRC and who has been asked to do it?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, a wide range of studies have been undertaken, including animal and epidemiological studies in terms of the follow-up of veterans. These have looked at a wide range of the possible causes of the syndrome. We accept the existence of Gulf War syndrome as an umbrella term; we do not have evidence to explain its cause. I am happy to write to my noble friend to detail the extent of the research undertaken in the United Kingdom and in the United States. All the research undertaken is under the direction of the Medical Research Council, which advises us on which research would most help us to understand whether there are causal links to anything the troops were exposed to.

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Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, would the Minister be very kind and look this way? If in being polite to the noble Lord who has asked a question he turns around, we cannot hear him.

Lord Drayson: My Lords, that is a fair point and I apologise to the noble Baroness. I will not do it again.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, the Minister said that the troops were not exposed to sufficient doses of sarin to have any effect. Does he realise that American research has shown that combinations of different organophosphates, of which sarin is one, can have different effects? The clothing and tents of troops were sprayed with Top Clip Gold Shield, which is an organophosphate. They were also given pyridostigmine bromide, which is a carbamate closely related to organophosphates and has the same effect on the cholinesterase. Does he not consider, given that the American research shows serious effects on human health, that exposure to these chemicals in combination, particularly when combined with DEET, which is a pyrethroid, has long-term health effects? This has been found by Hailey and Abou-Donia in America. Why do the British Government not accept it?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, the noble Countess is correct to list these issues; they are areas that have been researched both in terms of individual effects and effects in combination. That research, undertaken over many years here and in the United States, has been assessed by independent peer review. It has not concluded that there is a causal link; that has not been established.

Drivers: EU Regulations

11.13 am

Lord Willoughby de Broke asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the new European regulation on drivers’ hours will have a similar effect on volunteers to that of the existing European regulation. Compliance with the prescribed rest requirements will determine how much time professional drivers can spend as volunteers. With the exception of emergency work, any time spent as a reservist, retained fire fighter or special constable will count as other work, not rest.

Lord Willoughby de Broke: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Can he therefore confirm that these regulations will mean that people who wish to serve in the Territorial Army, the fire fighting services or as special constables will not be able to do so if they have already met the hours specified in the regulations; that is, they will not be able, for example, to drive for the Territorial Army because the time will count as working time and they will already have used all their driving hours?

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Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I do not agree with the noble Lord’s interpretation. I am sure that matters will proceed pretty much as they have done since the current regulations were put in place in 1985. There are some variations to the way in which the regulation will take effect and it is true that there will be a slight problem in terms of organising operations that reservists have to drive on in order to take account of their fully paid work. The important point here is that we need to ensure that proper health and safety regulations are in place so that they and those who work with them are protected from tiredness. We do not want operations to be undermined by tiredness.

Lord Garden: My Lords, I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, will advise the Minister that we depend greatly on our military reservists in military operations. There is now a high degree of confusion within the reserve community and among employers about the exact situation regarding the requirement for rest periods. Can the information be put on the Ministry of Defence website via the Department for Transport so that everyone knows what the rules are? If this has implications for the number of our reserves, can we have a statement on how it is to be handled by the Ministry of Defence?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am sure it can be put on the website. I know that the Ministry of Defence fully supports the spirit of this legislation and for many years has had measures in place to ensure that people are not unduly exposed to the risks I referred to earlier. I agree with the noble Lord that there is a dependence on reservists. They play a very important part in our operations.

Earl Attlee: My Lords, is the Minister aware that limitations in character may not become apparent until a soldier is tired—very tired? If we adhere to the drivers’ hours regulations and the working time directive, which also impacts on the TA, we run the risk of promoting soldiers in the TA who have some limitations in capability.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, it is important that those who serve and do a highly valued job in the Territorial Army are fully fit for work. That is what the regulations aim to ensure.

Baroness Hanham: My Lords, I understand that the Government spent around four years negotiating these new regulations, yet the consultation paper states that with regard to the derogation,

Will the Minister tell us what they negotiated?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am not going to attempt to get into the micro-detail of negotiations from the Dispatch Box today; it could take some hours, I am sure. We were arguing about some of the impacts and some of the detail. That is quite right as some of the detail can have an effect on our ability to provide for the Territorial Army and the other reserve services.

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Lord Greaves: My Lords, the retained firefighters cannot arrange when they go out with their machines; they have to go out when the fires occur. Will the Minister give us an absolute assurance that these regulations will not in any way affect the operation of retained fire services, where they exist?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, there are two points here. First, it is clear that the EU regulation has not been identified as having a significant impact on the ability to recruit or retain retained firefighters. Secondly, drivers volunteering as retained firefighters are exempt from the new EU regulation when dealing with an emergency.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, will the Minister define “significant”? Have we lost people who would have been able to serve?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am not aware that we have lost people who would otherwise be available to serve. I am clear that this has not had an impact on the retained fire service.

Lord Willoughby de Broke: My Lords, if I may come in on that, the Commission apparently said that it was possible to seek a derogation from the regulations for the Armed Forces. Have the Government sought such a derogation for the Armed Forces?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am not aware that we are approaching the matter in that way. If there are problems with the way in which the regulations work, I am sure that we will have further discussions to ensure that the necessary flexibility exists. That would be very important.

Earl Attlee: My Lords, under the drivers’ hours regulations, a vocational driver must have his tachograph discs from the previous week or two to show to the authorities what his driving activity has been. Military vehicles are not equipped with tachographs. How does a driver who has done some service driving over the weekend meet that requirement?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, that sounds like an incredibly good question. I am so confounded by the noble Earl’s knowledge and wit that I will have to retreat and find a Written Answer for him.

Prisoners: Foreign Nationals

11.20 am

Lord Waddington asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal): My Lords, deportation is occurring at higher volumes than ever before, with 2,240 individuals removed or deported since April 2006. Within the

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group of 1,013, we are pursuing deportation action against 675 individuals, and 163 have so far been deported.

Lord Waddington: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for her reply, but the latest report of the Chief Inspector of Prisons and evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee reveal not just that only 163 of the prisoners referred to in my Question have been deported, but also that, in the effort to get back behind bars the 1,013 who were wrongly released, British citizens have been mistaken for foreign prisoners and carted off to jail, foreign nationals have not been deported even when they have been desperate to return home, with one prisoner becoming suicidal after being wrongly kept in prison for seven months, and 1,300 foreign prisoners are still being detained after the expiry of their sentences, thus contributing to the prison overcrowding crisis. Does not this reveal the worst kind of administrative shambles, as the chief executive of NACRO said, and suggest that the Home Secretary has no better grip on his department than his predecessor?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I cannot accept that that is the true reflection of where we are now. Noble Lords will know that no foreign national prisoners have been released without full deportation consideration being given to their case. We are speeding up the process of consideration. Deportation is now being considered four months before release in the majority of deportation cases, and deportations of foreign national prisoners are occurring at a higher volume than ever before. As at 12 February, 2,240 foreign national prisoners had been deported, as I indicated. So I cannot accept the noble Lord’s description. Furthermore, I think that it is right to say that Anne Owers accepted in her report that the system has improved. There is much to do, but much has certainly been done.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, if the Minister does not recognise my noble friend’s description, is she denying that British citizens have been wrongly targeted for deportation? Is she denying that the Government have on occasions during the past year had to pay out £55,000 in compensation for people wrongly detained? Wherein has my noble friend misdirected the House’s attention?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, the noble Baroness will know that Lin Homer, the director-general of the Immigration and Nationality Directorate, has now made four very full reports, the last of which was in February, detailing the precise number of those who have been removed and identified. The noble Baroness will see in those figures a small number of prisoners who were initially identified as foreign nationals. When proper investigation was then undertaken, it was demonstrated that they should not have been retained. Those issues have been clearly outlined. To suggest, as the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, did, that my right honourable friend in charge of the Home Department does not have a grip is very far from the truth, as the House knows.

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Lord Dholakia: My Lords, may I ask the Minister—

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords—

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Rooker): My Lords, it is time to hear from the Lib Dems.

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, the Minister said that the number was small, but will she say how many British nationals as opposed to foreign nationals were detained after they had completed their sentence? Also, is it not possible to identify the national status of an individual at the beginning of the sentence rather than waiting until the sentence has been completed?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, the noble Lord is right. He will know that we are now adopting a process of early identification. We are looking at a number of systemic changes in order to accurately identify at the beginning of the process the nationality of the individual who is brought through the system. The noble Lord will also know that the difficulty that we have had historically, in each Administration, is that we have had self-identification, so that the individual will not necessarily be able to be challenged about their nationality. The details of the numbers are clearly set out in Lin Homer’s four reports and I invite the House to refresh their memory from those. There are copies in the Library.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, does the Minister challenge the accuracy of the detailed information given by my noble friend Lord Waddington?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, some of those figures have to be looked at within the context of the broader figures. My point was that this context is clearly set out in Lin Homer’s four full reports and that it would be far better for us to look at those. The figures were an issue of concern and as a result, as noble Lords will know, it was agreed that the director-general should set out these figures on a regular basis. It is very difficult to correlate figures pulled out from other reports away from the figures that she gives, because different dates give us different figures. That is why, although I am not specifically challenging, I am saying that one has to correlate those figures with the figures given by Lin Homer and the dates on which they were collected.

Lord Waddington: My Lords, I hope—

The Earl of Sandwich: My Lords—

Lord Rooker: My Lords, it is time to hear from the Cross Benches.

The Earl of Sandwich: My Lords, how many prison places are still taken up by asylum seekers, or so-called failed asylum seekers, who have been detained without any charge being brought, purely pending removal? How long do we have to use prison for this purpose?

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