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House of Lords

Tuesday, 9 December 2008.

2.30 pm

Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Chester.

Gulf War Illnesses


2.36 pm

Asked By Lord Morris of Manchester

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 a non-pecuniary interest, the United States Congress having co-opted me to serve on its Committee of Inquiry into Gulf War Illnesses, from whose work Federal funding of this research ensued.

Lord Tunnicliffe: My Lords, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in offering sincere condolences to the family and friends of Lance Corporal David Kenneth Wilson, who was killed while serving on operations in Iraq last week.

The Government are assessing the report following its publication on 17 November and we will review its contents carefully. We note that the US Department of Veterans Affairs has sent the report to the Institute of Medicine for review. In 2003, the Medical Research Council undertook a review of Gulf research, including UK and overseas studies. The key recommendation was that future studies should focus on improving the long-term health of veterans.

Lord Morris of Manchester: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. Is he aware that US spending on research into Gulf War illnesses—£269 million—compares with £8 million here, and that these landmark findings show,

namely, pyridostigmine bromide and organophosphates, to which virtually all British veterans were exposed?

Again, is he aware, as veterans are, that the RAC’s findings have already been discussed to good effect with President-elect Obama’s transitional committee, and that the medical press here has been no less swift and supportive in its response?

Thus the Lancet, in an editorial last week, unreservedly welcoming the findings, called for,

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How do we respond to that urgent, humane and highly influential plea?

Lord Tunnicliffe: My Lords, I can respond to two of those points. We believe that approximately £9 million of funding has been spent in the UK. Up to $300 million has been spent in the US. However, the very report in which the noble Lord was involved casts considerable doubt on that. We share the view of the Department of Veterans Affairs that the report’s findings must be carefully reviewed and peer-reviewed. The Department of Veterans Affairs press release states:

“Because VA has traditionally and by law relied upon IOM for independent and credible reviews of the science behind these particular veterans’ health issues, Secretary of Veterans Affairs ... has asked IOM to review the advisory committee’s report before VA officially responds to the report’s conclusions”.

The Ministry of Defence intends to consider this long report very carefully before responding in detail to it.

Lord Lloyd of Berwick: My Lords, this massive new report, of which I am sure the noble Lord will have read at least a summary, identifies NAPS tablets, which the veterans were required to take, and organophosphates, with which their tents were sprayed, as being the effective cause of the illness known as Gulf War syndrome. If so, is it not time for the Ministry of Defence to accept full responsibility for the consequences that it has brought about?

Lord Tunnicliffe: My Lords, as I have just said, the Ministry of Defence does not accept any conclusions of the report. I have indeed read the executive summary. The report is a review of published research and, as such, it is entirely proper that it is carefully considered and peer-reviewed first. The noble and learned Lord seems to have gone on to ask whether we should make ex gratia payments to Gulf War veterans. It is absolutely essential that we understand that the system of compensation under the war pensions scheme and Armed Forces occupational pension schemes takes the form of a pension or, if less seriously disabled, a lump sum, for conditions that are found due to service. This is unaffected by any debate on how these conditions might be labelled. There is no justification for treating Gulf veterans differently from others from other operations who have the same conditions.

Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, we, too, send our condolences to the family and friends of Lance Corporal David Wilson. Following on from the Minister’s response and the review that he mentioned, there appear to be a number of unanswered questions about Gulf War veterans’ children. Will the Minister give an undertaking that the review will look into that important issue as well?

Lord Tunnicliffe: My Lords, I believe that the original review that was conducted in 2003 called for a review of that, and that work has been done, but I think it is better if I send a copy of that report later.

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Lord Addington: My Lords, these Benches wish to be associated with the condolences already expressed. Does the noble Lord agree that it has taken far too long to reach where we are at the moment? Would he care to estimate the total costs, working out what was lost by those affected and what it has cost us in benefits before we have reached this point?

Lord Tunnicliffe: My Lords, the Ministry of Defence has already apologised for processes and record-keeping and the way in which some of the early things were affected. The whole issue of where we are now on the science is in my view entirely reasonable. These are slow-to-develop situations, and they are situations where the most careful science must be considered. I reiterate that when it comes to compensation being paid to these individuals, the cases have been properly considered and the compensation is being paid.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that as long ago as July 1994, I hypothesised that there was a link between pyridostigmine bromide, the pesticides that were put on to Gulf War veterans’ tents and the exposure to chemical nerve gas? Is it not outrageous that it has taken this long—14 years—for any conclusion to be made about Gulf War veterans’ illnesses? Does the noble Lord agree that we should now sack the psychobabblers in the Ministry of Defence and rely on proper scientists who do proper research, instead of surmising that the Gulf veterans have invented their own illness?

Lord Tunnicliffe: My Lords, I am sorry but I must completely reject the essence of that approach. We are using the best scientists; we are employing people to look at this problem in the most in-depth way. I am satisfied that the Ministry of Defence is discharging its responsibility properly.

Older People: Abuse


2.44 pm

Asked By Baroness Greengross

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, we already have legislation that covers protecting older people from abuse, including the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006. However, a revision of the key guidance No Secrets is currently under way. The consultation asked a number of questions about whether new legislation to help protect vulnerable adults is needed. This consultation will close on 31 January. The impact of enabling and strengthening local safeguarding boards and the role of safeguarding leads are also being considered.

Baroness Greengross: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Given the Government’s immediate and very welcome response that they might introduce further legislation, as well as reviewing child protection mechanisms following the recent tragedy, will she commit them to treat elder abuse with the same urgency and

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introduce quickly a legislative framework to strengthen the measures to safeguard the 4 per cent or so of vulnerable old people who experience abuse, mainly in their own homes, which is equally unacceptable?

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, the noble Baroness is indeed correct; any case of abuse is serious and unacceptable. However, there is no doubt that there are some profound and quite complex differences between the issues surrounding adult protection and children. For example, it is neither possible nor appropriate to scoop up an adult and place them in a care system as one would wish a child in jeopardy to be. The debate about how to deal with this issue is wider than just legislation, but we are very committed to getting this right. People have been telling us that No Secrets has done a good job in raising the profile of adult protection, and we know that there are many examples of good practice. We have learnt a lot in the eight years since the publication of No Secrets, and we feel that it is time to build on that learning and use it to strengthen our systems. We are not ruling out new legislation.

Baroness Pitkeathley: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that one of the best ways of preventing abuse of elderly people is to provide adequate support for their carers? Does she further agree that it is important to give carers choice, so that caring is not imposed on an already abusive relationship? For example, where a woman has been sexually abused by her father, surely it is not acceptable that she should then be expected to become his carer in later life.

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right. As she was partly responsible for the Government’s commitment to and support for carers, she will be aware that that is very important; but, of course, the caring services, when they go into elderly adults’ homes, absolutely depend on the support of local social services departments.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, is it not a fact, however, that all this abuse is not necessarily in one’s home? I have dealt with cases in hospitals where people have been abused by care assistants; unfortunately, we were told that there were no grounds for dismissal—they were simply moved to some other part of the hospital. This happened not when I was chairman of a hospital, but when I was regional vice-chairman. If this abuse has occurred, it should be taken seriously and it should be grounds for dismissal. Can anything be done through the health service to produce a code of practice to ensure that people cannot get away with that sort of treatment of vulnerable elderly people?

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, the noble Baroness is absolutely correct. It is completely unacceptable for staff, whether in hospitals, domiciliary care or care homes, not to treat older people in a safe environment where their rights and dignity are respected. The inspection regimes for hospitals and care homes have powers to take swift and decisive action where abuse occurs. They can serve notices, they can close services down and they can insist that people are removed from the

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positions that they hold. The new vetting and barring system, which will replace the protection of vulnerable adults scheme in October 2009, also extends a wide range of powers to social care and the NHS.

Baroness Barker: My Lords, does the noble Baroness accept the view of the Law Commission, expressed in July 2008, that adult social care law is inadequate, often incomprehensible and outdated? Does she also accept the findings of Action on Elder Abuse that there is no consistency whatever among social services departments as to what merits a serious case review when an older person is abused? In view of those findings, and as the adult social care group paper is on its way, does she not concede that there is a case for legislation to bring about consistency in the treatment of abused older people?

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, we are indeed looking at serious case reviews, which are locally commissioned and reviewed. Hitherto, the department has not routinely reviewed serious local case reviews but we have commissioned research on this. We expect to have that research this winter, which I shall share with the noble Baroness, and we think that we may need to take action on precisely that point.

The Lord Bishop of Chelmsford: My Lords, does the Minister accept that there is a deep, cultural issue behind all this and that right across our society attitudes towards vulnerable elderly people need to be moved forward into ones of respect for their dignity and status in society? Public services right across the board may have a lot to do in helping to shift public attitudes, not only if carers are to be helped but if vulnerable adults are to be better protected in our society.

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, the right reverend Prelate is completely correct. The idea behind publishing No Secrets and making it part of the monitoring process for care services was partly to raise awareness of this whole issue. However, the right reverend Prelate is completely correct that this is also about a cultural shift in attitudes towards elderly people, who need and deserve our care and protection.

Community Relations: Muslims


2.51 pm

Asked By Lord Renton of Mount Harry

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Baroness Andrews): My Lords, our community relations approach, as set out in our community empowerment White Paper, aims to give control and influence to local people and covers all faith communities. We have continuing good relations with all faiths, as highlighted

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in our interfaith strategy in July this year, including the Muslim community, with whom we work bilaterally, and through the Faith Communities Consultative Council.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Does she agree that, following, and against the background of, the tragic events in Mumbai, this is a particularly appropriate and necessary moment to strive to find wise and sympathetic relations with the Muslim communities in our country? Does she recollect that in July the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Hazel Blears, mentioned that there was a proposal for young Muslims to be taught citizenship in school so that they could see that there was no necessary conflict between Islam and British life? That is a difficult task, but has the process started and is it succeeding?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, I start by saying that our sympathy goes out to all the innocent victims of that indiscriminate terror attack in Mumbai. We monitor the effect of such events on our communities in this country, and it is worth telling the House that the Secretary of State has today called together a parliamentary round table, the aim of which is to meet parliamentarians to update them on the situation and to get their understanding of their communities. However, so far nothing significant has been reported in our communities by way of a response.

The noble Lord used some very positive and encouraging words, such as “wise and sympathetic”. That is exactly what we try to do in our work to promote cohesion and prevent extremism by building up the resilience of the local communities. Young people are critical in that. It is encouraging that an increasing number of mosques are choosing to teach citizenship, and of course young Muslims in our schools continually have the opportunity to access the citizenship curriculum, so it is a very positive movement.

Lord Hylton: My Lords, do the Government recognise that British Muslims and others should be free to make political criticisms of military occupations and regimes, where these occur, without automatically being labelled as extremists?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, we certainly agree with that. Our work to prevent extremism is simply to build up the resilience of local communities to deal with distortions of the faith. That is why we are working at civic and community level and with faith groups to put into practice some of the opportunities, for example new activities for young people and leadership programmes for women and young people, which can help to challenge such distortion.

The Lord Bishop of Southwark: My Lords, while acknowledging the efforts which the Government are making to improve relations with the Muslim community, is the Minister aware that other faith communities in Britain, such as the Sikh and Hindu communities, believe that they too deserve more attention and support, particularly in capacity building?

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Baroness Andrews: Yes, my Lords, that is a very proper use of the argument. I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate because I can tell him, as he will know, that we recognise the contributions made by all faith communities and the need to build up capacity. With DIUS, for example, we are funding a community leadership qualification for all leaders from all faiths. Our Inter Faith Network is growing. Over the past few years, we have had 183 new interfaith groups. We aim to promote side-by-side engagement—not face to face—as that is the way to make the real difference.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, is there a danger in lumping people together into different communities, such as the Muslim community, the Sikh community and the Hindu community? People within those groups are individual human beings with very different positions. If we classify them in that way, will we not create a divisive rather than a united system?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, there is an issue about how we describe communities. The practical work which we do recognises that there is much diversity within communities. We are certainly not blind to that. Some highly innovative work is being undertaken by local authorities, for example, at ground level with grass-roots funding to ensure that all groups are supported and helped.

Baroness Warsi: My Lords, can the Minister confirm that British Muslim communities are part of the general communities which make up Britain? If that is so, can she explain why the British Muslim engagement unit is based in the Foreign Office?

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, the noble Baroness is absolutely right that, of course, they are part of our national community. I hope that, increasingly, our work together will strengthen those communities and help them to become productive and resilient. I do not know much about the work of the unit, but I shall find out. I presume it is in the Foreign Office because it engages with Muslim communities abroad. That would seem to be logical.

Baroness Whitaker: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that all these consultations would have more validity as regards social cohesiveness if they included representatives of those with no faith who have other values?

Baroness Andrews: Yes, my Lords. We have had many debates in this House about the work which we do with people of no faith. Of course, they are included. We have regular engagement with such groups.

Baroness Falkner of Margravine: My Lords, in January we saw the appointment of 19 women to the National Muslim Women’s Advisory Group. In August that was augmented by 20 young people becoming Cabinet advisors to Ministers Byrne, Blears and Balls. Without getting stuck on the Bs, can the Minister tell us, in the interests of equality, why a Muslim men’s group has not been established to work with the Government, as that might be part of the problem?

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