HC Deb 19 December 1984 vol 70 cc383-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Lang.]

9.59 pm
Mr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East)

Between 1952 and 1958 the United Kingdom conducted 21 atmospheric nuclear weapons tests at the Monte Bello Islands off the coast of Western Australia, at Emu Field and Maralinga in South Australia and at Malden Island and Christmas Island in the south Pacific. In addition, between 1953 and 1963 experiments in which some radioactive materials were dispersed into the environment were carried out in South Australia. Clean-up operations were carried out in 1963, 1964 and 1967. For some years there has been considerable concern about the effects of those nuclear weapons tests by Britain in Australia and the south Pacific, about the amount of radiation emitted during the tests, about the precautions that were or were not taken during the tests, about the contamination of the land and the natural environment by the nuclear explosions, about the damaging effect on the local aborigine population and about the damage that these tests may have done to the health of the servicemen and civilians who participated in them. I am sure that we should have the fullest information about the nature of these tests, about how they were conducted and about the results of the tests.

As a result of the concern that has been expressed in this country and particularly in Australia, in March 1983 the Australian Government asked Professor Kerr of Sydney university to look into the studies that had previously been carried out in Australia. Professor Kerr concluded that important data had not been considered by these studies and recommended that a full-scale Royal Commission should be set up. That Royal Commission was set up in July of this year under Mr. James McClelland. The setting-up of that Royal Commission reflects the widespread concern and anxiety in Australia about the reports of the precautions that were or were not taken, about the effects of the tests on the aborigine population and about the damage to the environment.

It was enormously important that the Australian Government took the decision to set up a Royal Commission. As the Minister will acknowledge, there was criticism in the first few months of the extent to which the British Government would co-operate with the commission. The Minister has recently indicated that some of the inhibitions of the Official Secrets Act will be relaxed to enable, in certain conditions, some people to give evidence about what happened during the tests. The Royal Commission is coming to this country next month. The Government have stated that they intend to give evidence to the commission. It is very important that the Minister should advise us about the information that will be made available by the British Government to the Royal Commission. There is no longer a case for secrecy. Surely the commission and the public are entitled to all the information about those tests.

Let me deal with the evidence that has been given in Australia to the Royal Commission. I make no apology for quoting again from some of the press reports in this country of the evidence given in Australia to the Royal Commission. A number of reports appeared in The Times from Mr. Tony Duboudin in Melbourne. One said: The highlight of last week's hearing was the allegation on Wednesday by a former Army lance-corporal who told the inquiry that 200 British and Australian servicemen were threatened with court-martial and the possibility of a firing squad if they recounted an incident in which an aboriginal family wandered into the Marcoo nuclear bomb testing site at Maralinga in the outback of South Australia. Mr. John Hutton told the commission that on one morning in May, 1956, while he was putting on protective clothing in a caravan before going out into a 'dirty' area around the Marcoo site to help scientists, he saw an Aboriginal man aged about 20, through the window of the caravan, standing in the contaminated area. That was about seven months after a nuclear bomb had been tested there. Another report said: The bodies of five Aboriginals were found near an Atomic bomb test site in South Australia in 1956, the Royal Commission into British nuclear tests in Australia was told in Brisbane yesterday. Mr. Terry Troom, a former soldier, said he found the bodies of two adults and three children while on a mail run with five other soldiers. He described the bodies as being all skin and bones and said they were lying under a tree … After his commanding officer was told of the discovery, he believed that bulldozers were moved into the area. I quoted reports of the evidence given to the Royal Commission in a debate on the Army just after the summer recess. The Minister who replied to the debate did not refer to my speech—I make no criticism of that—so I wrote to the Secretary of State for Defence, and the Minister of State for Defence Procurement, who is to reply to this debate, wrote to me: As regards the 'horrific' reports in the media of allegations made to the Royal Commission, most of the allegations are not new and many of them first surfaced during the time of the tests. However, I can assure you that Her Majesty's Government is not goin to allow the Royal Commission to remain ignorant of the true facts. I have already announced that the UK is to seek to be represented before the Commission and that it intends to give evidence. I welcome the fact that the United Kingdom is to appear before the Commission, but no matter how old the allegations may be, they are important and we are entitled to ask whether there is any basis for the reports in the media. They are horrific and alarming and they cast great doubt on the validity of the claim that all adequate precautions were taken. It is not sufficient to say that the allegations were made at the time of the tests and have been repeated since then.

It is important that we have a statement from the people who know, and the Government have the data and the records and, I expect, full and detailed reports of everything that happened during the tests. Will the Minister tell us whether there is some basis for the horrific reports, or will the Government wait until they are represented at the commission in January before telling us whether there is truth in the disturbing evidence given, in the main, by Australian ex-service men?

There is substantial worry that adequate precautions were not taken during all the tests in Australia and the south Pacific. The Ministry of Defence has repeatedly assured us that the precautions were adequate, but it is surprising that many British ex-service men have stated that they did not wear protective clothing and that proper precautions were not taken.

I shall not quote the statements of all those service men, but there are fears that the instruments for measuring radiation—the badges that were supposed to be worn by service men—were not worn regularly and that in many instances the radiation to which service men were exposed was not recorded. Are the anxieties that are being expressed, particularly in Australia, about the measurement of radiation valid? Was the measurement of radiation as reliable as the Government have maintained?

Earlier I mentioned the contamination of the land, and I think particularly of the position at Maralinga. To what extent has the land and environment been damaged for a very long time by the radiation and the plutonium left there? How successful were the cleaning-up operations? Are the reports true that the land is still contaminated and that a very difficult and costly operation will have to be carried out if there is to be any hope of reducing the level of contamination? What about the reports that some of the aborigine population have been exposed to very high and damaging levels of radiation?

Above all, concern in this country has naturally focused on the very large number of service men who believe that their health has been damaged as a result of participating in the tests.

The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Adam Butler)

I know that the hon. Gentleman has made a very considerable study of this problem. However, he has just referred to a very large number of service men who believe that their present illnesses are due to the tests. Can he put any figure on that?

Mr. Strang

The figure that I have seen reported is up to 300. However, I should be the first to acknowledge that much of that data is dependent on the valiant efforts made by the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association to collect information. Whatever the figure is, we must expect it to represent only a fraction of the number of those who have suffered from leukaemia. As I have made clear in every debate on this subject in which I have spoken, I accept that the proposition that those tests damaged the health of those service men or civilians is unproven. Of course, in the normal course of events, a significant proportion of those service men, particularly at their present age, might be expected to die of leukaemia and other diseases that can be caused by radiation. But we cannot dismiss the other possibility.

The Government have set up an investigation. We are grateful for the very full note that I believe the Minister provided all Members of Parliament with on 6 December. It contains some useful information and data on the actual yields of all the tests. But it is somewhat regrettable that he should insist on asserting that he is convinced that no damage has been done to those service men. The last paragraph of the letter from the Minister dated 20 November 1984, which I quoted from earlier, states: In conclusion, I repeat that I have every confidence that the test programmes in Australia were planned meticulously and conducted responsibly, and that the safety precautions adopted at the time were more than adequate to ensure that no one should have suffered harm arising from the ionising radiation produced during the test programmes. Some service men believe that in making that statement, the Minister is in danger of prejudging the outcome of the inquiry being carried out by the National Radiological Protection Board. The Minister is well aware of the work that the BNTVA, and Mr. McGinley as chairman, have put into this subject. Indeed, I hope that he will say something about the progress of that investigation. But I together with the BNTVA and many other people in this country still believe that, given the nature of the tests, the fears that have been expressed and the claims that have been made by those service men, it is not appropriate that the survey should be carried out on the basis of information supplied by the Ministry of Defence.

The Ministry supplies the names and addresses of the service men who participated in the tests. In addition, the Ministry of Defence supplies the names of the control group. I do not cast aspersions on the Ministry but the survey is basically being conducted by the Government. On the one hand the Ministry of Defence provides the data about the service men and civilians who participated in the tests and on the other it provides the data about the control group.

Secondly, the study is being carried out by a body that is funded by the Government and, at the same time, all its members are appointed by the Government. We respect the work of the people in the Ministry and in the NRPB, but it is to misjudge the situation to believe that that type of inquiry is adequate.

Most important of all, the service men should have full confidence in the inquiry. Therefore, I again stress to the Minister that we want a proper independent inquiry. If we cannot have a British Royal Commission, we should have a national committee, with leading scientists and experts drawn from universities, outside the Government machine, who will have full responsibility for supervising and conducting the inquiry and who will publish the results. That is the minimum that we require.

It is surely somewhat ironic that it is the Australian Government who have appointed a Royal Commission. The Australian Government did not carry out the tests, nor do they have the great mass of information about the tests and the way in which they were conducted. Those matters are entirely the responsibility of the British Government. Instead of the Australian Government setting up the Royal Commission—I welcome that—it should be the British Government. I hope that the Government will look again at that.

In conclusion, many hon. Members are taking an increasing interest in this subject. On the basis of the information that is now coming out in Australia there are grounds, to put it mildly, for real concern. I hope that the Government will think again about the secrecy that they are still applying to the tests, which took place about 30 years ago. There is an overwhelming case for making all the information public and enabling us to have a proper independent appraisal of everything that happened in relation to the conduct of the tests.

10.18 pm
Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Strang), on winning first place in what some would call the ballot but which I prefer to call the lottery. This is not a party-political issue. Therefore, I am disappointed at the attendance in the House tonight. I regret that one has to wait for the debate on the Consolidated Fund Bill in order to discuss the issue at all.

We must recognise the loyalty and allegiance, good work and sterling service of the men and women who, some 30 or 35 years ago, served their country by willingly, but in ignorance, allowing themselves to be exposed to a form of experimentation which was quite unreal at the time. Most, but not all, of them were compelled to expose themselves to radiation without any form of protective equipment. Some of them merely wore a beret, pair of shorts and sandals. They followed an instruction to turn their backs to the explosion, which was x miles away and to cover their eyes. They were told that no harm would come to them. We are reliably informed that William Penney was advised to take out insurance to guard against future handicap. I have a file of documents with me that make that clear. Sadly, he is unable to remember such a reference, but we have evidence of it.

We cannot blame the scientists, because they could not know any more than they did at the time, and we have the benefit of hindsight. I have no vindictiveness in my heart. It is important that we realise that the scientists were exploring an element of creation, the depth and danger of which they did not realise. Thirty years after the explosion we must assess who bears the responsibility for it. That is why I strongly emphasise that this is not a party political issue.

It is incumbent upon every hon. Member to examine the population in his constituency, especially the majority of the population who, as the Prime Minister said, served their country, "well and truly". She said that their good and faithful service would never be forgotten. It is important that all hon. Members recognise that, because we must consider the matter without any form of party political bias or emphasis.

We now have a middle-aged element in society which is experiencing an inordinately high incidence of disability—not necessarily deformity—in themselves and in their offspring. I remember that the Minister asked how we could verify the statistics, and I shall come back to that. If disability is in one's offspring, one can expect to see further evidence of it in future generations.

This afternoon I heard of a man who, during his first marriage, had three deformed children. That is unusual, but not so unusual that one would justify it statistically by exposure to a nuclear test. However, he divorced, remarried and had a further two deformed offspring, both of whom were deformed in almost the same way. Again, that is statistically questionable. But when one pools the available evidence, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East referred—he demurred to the House because he did not wish to occupy too much of the time—there is a statistical overburden which is unquestionable, provided that one can gain access to the service and medical records of those males and females who were engaged in or exposed to the tests.

That is where I question not only this Government but previous Governments of all political persuasions. Not only has the provision of service and medical records been seriously hampered, but the records have been short of information. In addition, the service records have been carefully falsified. There are cases of entire ships' complements for which there is no record of their having been in the zone but whose members say that they took part in the preparation for or the clearing up of those operations.

Secrecy plays a major part in this matter. No one could argue tonight — the Minister least of all — that those people do not deserve a fair deal. What we need in the Chamber tonight is the rare commodity of complete honesty among hon. Members of all parties. First, the service records of those people must be clearly outlined. We must obtain information about the medical treatment and examination that they received, and the locations of that medical treatment. We have evidence that many of them were shipped out to establishments run by other Governments. If that information is not provided, then, as the Minister said to my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East, we have no means of checking the statistics. If we do not have a base from which to start, we cannot come to a reasonable conclusion.

Britain has legislation—the Crown Proceedings Act 1947—which precludes a member of the armed services from taking legislative action to seek reparation for negligence during his period of service to the Crown. That legislation was dreamed up at a time when we had no knowledge of such operations, and no idea that they might occur in future. In this discussion we are considering a legacy of something about which we could not have known. Will the Government consider amending the Crown Proceedings Act to take account of the almost anachronistic failure of the legislation to cater for the future not only of those who have given good service to the Crown but of their offspring and future generations? We are talking about the suffering, of which we were unaware 30 years ago, of youngsters who may not be allowed to have children and who may have deformities that are even worse than those of their parents or grandparents. We are talking about things about which a legislative body has never before been forced to consider.

My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East referred to the Royal Commission which is coming here on 3 January. I would have hoped that the survey being conducted by the National Radiological Protection Board would, after all this time, have had some evidence to present, which would illuminate the British aspects of these tests. Sadly, it would appear from my examination of the NRPB survey that the movement of staff has been so grotesquely rapid that the whole team has changed from top to bottom at least once, if not twice. It is unfortunate that many questions that will be asked will be body-swerved on the basis that we have insufficient evidence.

We have so much evidence that it is important that it be examined in depth. A Royal Commission should have been set up, and it would have been welcomed. We must examine the matter more definitely. Ultimately, the people who were in the front line will die out the longer this goes on. We have a responsibility not only to them but to the generations after them.

I beg the Minister to listen carefully to what we say on behalf of the people who gave us such allegiance and loyalty. Will he give a commitment on behalf of the Government—because we now know facts that we did not before—that, in the words of the Prime Minister, he will listen to what has been said on behalf of those who served our country so well.