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House of Lords

Thursday, 11 October 2007.

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

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Winchester.

Gulf War Illnesses

Lord Morris of Manchester asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence & Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (Lord Drayson): My Lords, the health of Gulf veterans and support of their families remain a high priority for the Government. Appropriate pensions are paid. We have written to advise veterans on how they can have the label “Gulf War syndrome” applied to their disablements as an umbrella term. We are working with appropriate experts to develop a rehabilitation programme, and we are monitoring international research. We shall consider further reasonable proposals for UK research.

Lord Morris of Manchester: My Lords, while I am grateful to my noble friend, is it not disquieting that, 17 years on from the conflict, wrangling with veterans over pensions still drags on, with no visible sign of closure? Can he now at least make it clear that Gulf War syndrome will be fully recognised as a meaningful condition by the MoD, both publicly and when making assessment decisions, as it is by the Pensions Appeal Tribunal?

Finally, is it not deeply shaming that Gulf War veteran Terence Walker, whose case I raised orally earlier this year, his pension having been cut from 100 per cent to 40 per cent, died shortly after being left, together with dependent children—to quote his own words—“in financial ruin”? What sort of appreciation does that betoken of those prepared to lay down their lives for this country?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right to raise these issues, as he has over many years. The issue of Gulf War syndrome will be fully recognised by the Ministry of Defence, and I accept on behalf of the Ministry of Defence that this issue has not been handled well from the beginning. The department was slow to recognise the emerging ill health issues and to put measures in place to address them. We have apologised for this, and I repeat that apology today.

With regard to the specific case that my noble friend mentions, I should also like to apologise on behalf of the Ministry of Defence to Mr Walker’s family. The Ministry of Defence made a mistake, and it has written to the Walker family to make that clear.

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Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, following on from what the Minister says, the MoD wrote to war pensioners inviting them to approach the SPVA to have the term “Gulf War syndrome” applied to their war pensions label. How many have done so?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, as the noble Lord said, we wrote to veterans earlier this year, as we promised. We sent out a total of 1,293 letters. As of today we have had 203 responses.

Lord Craig of Radley: My Lords, I am sure that many will be grateful to hear the MoD’s belated apology for the way in which this situation has been handled, but has not the time come to discontinue inconclusive research into the reasons for Gulf War syndrome and devote the money instead to compensating those individuals who are clearly ill but who do not have an established pathology? Surely they should be compensated, as has been approved by the Pensions Appeal Tribunal in at least one case.

Lord Drayson: My Lords, I understand the noble and gallant Lord’s point. However, we think that it is right to continue to invest in research where we are advised by the Medical Research Council that such research makes sense and is likely to lead to further understanding. However, the emphasis of that research is on the rehabilitation of veterans as opposed to research into possible causal links. We do not believe that it is right to pay compensation and make ex gratia payments. Gulf veterans already receive compensation under the war pensions scheme with respect to their disabilities. To provide an additional payment would in effect be to pay them twice. We do not think that that is appropriate.

Lord Addington: My Lords, will the Minister consider the fact that the Americans, our closest ally in that conflict, have been considerably more speedy and more generous in dealing with this situation? Should not this be a case in which Great Britain is following the American lead?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, as I have already said to the House, I accept that the way in which this has been handled by the department has not been good. However, the measures that we have put in place, the recognition of the umbrella term, the letters to veterans, the research that is being undertaken and the focus on rehabilitation are in response to that recognition. The noble Lord says that the Americans have been more generous and have acted more speedily; I do not think that is a helpful comparison to make at this time. The Ministry of Defence is now doing everything that it should be doing in this case; however, it should have done it earlier.

Lord Lloyd of Berwick: My Lords, does the Minister accept—I think he does—that it has taken the veterans years to persuade the Ministry of Defence that they are suffering from symptoms that are correctly described as Gulf War syndrome? In those circumstances, is it not time that the Ministry of Defence showed them a little magnanimity?

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Lord Drayson: My Lords, I recognise the efforts that the noble and learned Lord and others have made in persuading the Ministry of Defence to respond to this issue, and I accept the criticism that he and others have made. However, on his point about closure—which is where I believe we now are on this matter—I sincerely do not believe that that can be best achieved by some form of payment. I imagine that is what the noble and learned Lord was referring to by “magnanimity”. If there are other areas, which are separate from the payment in addition to the existing war pensions, that veterans feel would help in reaching closure, we would certainly consider them.

Lord Lawson of Blaby: My Lords, the Minister has made a very handsome apology, which I am sure the House greatly appreciates. This is a very serious matter. Does he agree that it might be a good use of the committee system of this House for the appropriate committee to have an investigation into how this happened, with a view to ensuring that this sort of thing does not happen again? If such an investigation were set up, would he support it and would his department give it full information and co-operation?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, I note the noble Lord’s suggestion. Clearly, it is for the House to decide how best to look into this, but the Ministry of Defence can certainly usefully learn from such issues. We are working very hard today on a number of issues relating to the military covenant, some of which go back decades. Therefore, anything that the Ministry of Defence can learn relating, for instance, to Gulf War syndrome, can be helpful in dealing with the issues that we face in modern theatres.

Food: Labelling

11.14 am

Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes: asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, to ensure a high level of consumer protection, all food additives are tested and evaluated prior to being permitted on the market. While I understand the noble Baroness’s desire for the most accessible information to be made available, it is not clear that all consumers would prefer additive names to appear on labels, some of which are long chemical names. E numbers might, therefore, be easier to identify. Moreover, the linkage between the two is easily accessible, for example, on the Food Standards Agency website.

Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes: My Lords, I am actually astounded by that reply. Does the Minister really expect people to go shopping with a little handbook so that they can look up these numbers to find out what they denote? Some of these additives are dangerous and many of them are undesirable. It is, therefore, all

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the more surprising that the FSA has not attempted to do anything about this and I suspect that, once again, the dead hand of the EU is preventing it.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I understand that the noble Baroness is astounded; however, if a parent knows that an E number will be detrimental to their child’s health, it is sometimes easier to look at an E number rather than a name that might have six or seven syllables. In respect of what the FSA has done, noble Lords will be aware of Southampton University’s recent research into some additives which was, in fact, commissioned by the FSA.

Lord Teverson: My Lords, is not that the most important point? This most recent research shows substantially that some of those E numbers have real effects in terms of hyperactivity and attention deficit disorder. Is not the solution that the FSA should take up with the European Food Safety Authority whether those chemicals should still be permitted in foods? Is that not the real issue and will the Government make sure that that review takes place promptly?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, that is the real issue and that is exactly what the FSA has done; it has transmitted to the European Food Safety Agency the research advice, which is being evaluated. The EFSA will produce a report in January and we are urging the Commission to act very swiftly, once that advice has been published.

Lord Krebs: My Lords, it is important in this case to look at what the science says, rather than what the newspapers say about the science. Does the Minister agree that the scientific evidence from the Southampton study is inconclusive and that this was the conclusion reached by the statutory committee on toxicity of substances, when it examined the report? In fact, the report concludes that, out of 14 comparisons between the controls and the experimentals among children aged three and eight, only two showed a significant effect; 12 showed no effect. The question of whether or not these substances are harmful remains open. Does the Minister agree that it would be disproportionate in this circumstance to demand labelling of substances that have not been shown to be harmful?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, the noble Lord is quite correct and we must ensure that any action taken is proportionate and must be evidence-based. That is why we have transmitted the research to the European Food Safety Agency, which is undertaking further scientific research; but that is not to undervalue or underestimate the research in Southampton.

Lord Elton: My Lords, in reply to my noble friend’s supplementary question, the Minister said that mothers of children who knew that certain E numbers were harmful to their children would not be troubled by needing to know the names. Will she tell us how the parents of those children will know which E numbers are harmful specifically to children? Secondly, will she bring out some regulation for the benefit of people of my age and above requiring that print on labels in no more than 8-point type should be accompanied by a magnifying glass?

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Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, in respect of the first point, the FSA is having meetings with parents, with groups involved in ADHD and hyperactivity and with industry to look at better means of communicating with parents—especially hard-to-reach parents, whose children might be affected adversely. In respect of labelling and the size of print on labels, I have great sympathy with the noble Lord. I know that this matter is constantly raised in this House and I will ensure that his views are taken back to the department.

Viscount Simon: My Lords, some noble Lords have said that E numbers are not understood. However, if the E numbers and the chemical name appeared together on a can, would people not be doubly confused and would there be any advantage whatever?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, there is not a lot of space on a label and I think that the either/or option is the easiest one at present. However, a review of labelling is being undertaken at a European level. A new draft regulation will be brought forward before Christmas, I believe, and that may have some bearing on this issue.

Earl Howe: My Lords, did the Food Standards Agency consider that certain additives may adversely affect the mood or behaviour of children? Is there not a case for having a visible warning symbol on packages of foods which contain the additives, analogous or supplemental to the so-called traffic-light system?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, that is a very good suggestion and I think that it will be considered once the scientific evidence from the European Food Safety Authority has been received. We will then look at the various risk-management issues to see how best we can act on the new research.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, does the Minister agree that size is as important as contents? Frankly, I have got to the stage where I cannot read whether what I am going to eat will poison me because I cannot read the label, as it is so small.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, size is always of the utmost importance, and I shall certainly take the noble Baroness’s message back.

Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974: Reform

11.22 am

Lord Dholakia asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 allows certain spent convictions to be concealed in an effort to improve employment opportunities and reduce reoffending.

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The Government’s 2002 document, Breaking the Circle, set out proposals for reform of the Act and the Government undertook to legislate when parliamentary time allowed. They will consider whether the Breaking the Circle proposals now need to be updated in the light of the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006.

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, does the Minister recall that in 2003 the Government announced their intention to reform this legislation? However, despite a series of criminal justice legislation, that reform has not surfaced. Does he agree that the length of the current rehabilitation period is a serious impediment to the rehabilitation of offenders who seek jobs? Is there not ample evidence that one-third to one-half of offenders who get a job are less likely to reoffend than those who do not have a job? Will the Government indicate whether such legislation is likely to surface in the Queen’s Speech?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I understand the noble Lord’s disappointment that the Government have not yet found parliamentary time to produce the legislation in the light of Breaking the Circle. He is right both about the statistics in relation to the importance of work in stopping reoffending and in his the comment about the length of time that must pass before a conviction can be spent; Breaking the Circle argued for less time. We are sympathetic to that. I can assure the noble Lord that the department will be working on this in the light of the 2006 Act.

Lord Elystan-Morgan: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the bar has been set at a fairly low level in that only punishments of up to 30 months’ detention are covered and that it takes 10 years for those to qualify? Does he also agree that, in the case of young people and persons in their 20s who have committed offences at an irresponsible period in their lives and have later reformed and lived decent and honest lives, this Act has been of particular value and merit?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I agree with all the noble Lord’s comments, and the recommendations in the Breaking the Circle report would address many of the points he raises. That is why we are looking very seriously at the matter.

Lord Judd: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, with all the pressures on the Prison Service at the moment, the importance of keeping an ethos of rehabilitation at the top of the priorities is essential for prisoners themselves, for the community as a whole and, indeed, for economic reasons? Does he also agree that some of the voluntary organisations involved in the rehabilitation of offenders in prisons are saying that it is a matter not just of getting a person into a job, it is a matter of ensuring that the right support is there when people go out into the community to help them make a success of their re-entry into civilised life?

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Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I very much agree with my noble friend. The Prison Service and Probation Service have done tremendous work in the past few years to help ex-offenders get into work. My understanding is that the latest figures, produced in August, show that 27.1 per cent of prisoners had gone into work and that a further 10.4 per cent had gone into education or training. I accept that much more needs to be done, but we are building on some very good work undertaken in the past few years.

Lord Hylton: My Lords, will the Minister undertake to mobilise his colleagues in government so that the public sector gives a lead in the employment of ex-offenders, which we hope will then be followed by the private sector?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I could not agree more with the noble Lord’s comment. Indeed, one has to pay tribute to the many private sector organisations that have shown themselves to be very progressive in this area. There is much that the public sector can learn from the private sector and I will do everything I can to mobilise my colleagues in this matter.

Baroness Hanham: My Lords, can the Minister say whether the foreseen desirable outcome—sustainable employment for former offenders—is being jeopardised by lack of reform of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, reform of the Act would clearly be helpful in meeting some of the concerns expressed about the 1974 Act. However, it is not only a question of the rehabilitation Act; as my noble friend suggested earlier, it is also about whether there is infrastructure support that encourages employers and ensures that, while they are in prison, prisoners have access to good education or training opportunities and are really given every encouragement and support to go into work. We very much require a co-ordinated effort.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, I entirely agree that opportunities for employment and housing are central if rehabilitation is to be effective. However, has the Minister any information about employers’ practices and attitudes to education which we are trying to change because they prevent ex-offenders taking up the training and further education that they may need to survive in today’s world?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the noble Baroness raises a very important point. The fact is that half of male prisoners and over two-thirds of female adult prisoners have no qualifications at all. More than half of all prisoners screened on reception are at or below level 1 in reading, writing and maths. The link between offending and very poor educational achievement is clear and sets out the requirement and the challenge for us to ensure that, as much as possible, prisoners are given every opportunity for education and training.

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