HC Deb 19 December 1984 vol 70 cc389-98 10.32 pm
Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Strang) on securing this debate. I agree with some of what the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) said. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, East said that he was disappointed that there are so few hon. Members to listen to the debate. As he will recall, I initiated two previous debates on this subject, in July 1983 and March 1984, one of which took place at 4.31 am, and the other at 3.49 am, when there were about half the number of hon. Members who are present tonight. Statistically, that is an improvement, and I hope that the Minister will bear that in mind.

I think that the Minister will accept that this issue will not go away, even though some would suggest that our Government will procrastinate and draw the matter out. The Australian Government cannot be accused of that, and, acting as a stalking horse against our Government, they have ensured that this matter will run and run. Our Government have become rather besotted by the ludicrous new doctrine of inherited culpability. The Government worry too much about the sins of their forefathers. No one is accusing them of having been involved in the events 30 years ago. An all-party group is deeply interested in this subject, and the Government will know that the group thinks not that the Government were involved in the terrible events of those days but that they have done insufficient to make information available, and have tried to cover up for the sins of those who went before them.

I should like to contrast the approaches of the Australian and British Governments in dealing with this matter. First, I shall examine the remedies that are open to aggrieved service men and their families. The hon. Member for Stockton, North rightly referred to section 10 of the Crown Proceedings Act 1947, with which the Minister will be familiar. When hon. Members have regularly suggested that that legislation should be amended to allow people in the position of these service men to sue the Government, the Ministry of Defence has always maintained that that would lead to a reduction in morale and discipline among our service men, and for that reason the Act could not be amended. I refute that idea. Although I accept that that legislation was introduced to cover the second world war and that in wartime it cannot be right that a Government should be expected to recompense the relatives of loved ones who are aggrieved because of injuries sustained, nevertheless, in peacetime different criteria apply.

It is ironic that in Australia service men who served cheek by jowl with our service men in those tests have had the right to take their Government to court, and in one case have gained redress in the courts, while our service men have been denied that privilege. that is ironic, especially in view of the dubious reason given, that that course would lead to some loss of morale or discipline among our men. It would therefore appear that the Australian Government have a far greater respect for the rights of their service men than we have for ours. I suggest that that fact points to the need for a bill of rights or at least the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights in our statute books. If that were done, any Government who acted in this way would be in breach of their obligations.

The second contrast between the way in which the British and Australian Governments have tackled this problem concerns the availability of information. As the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East said, the Australians have established a Royal Commission. It is ironic that we should have the same Queen but that different ground rules should apply. It is a paradox that the Australians should have established a Royal Commission but that what is good enough in Australia is not good enough here.

In Britain, secrecy is the order of the day, and that fact obviously points to the need in the dying moments of this year for freedom of information legislation. It is one of the tragedies of this year that we have not moved towards providing greater access to information for our citizens. Far too much of this country's business is done in a hole in a corner, and we are plagued far too much by the national obsession for and disease of secrecy, of keeping knowledge from people who have a right to know.

When the Minister intervened during the speech of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East and suggested that the hon. Gentleman should provide the statistics in this debate, that seemed to underline again the extraordinary fact that, because of the way in which the system works, the Opposition are denied access to the information that would have allowed them to answer such a question. The people are really asking only for the right to that information, so that they can come to the type of judgments which the Minister constantly tells them they should make. The Minister tells us that, statistically, what happens here is no worse than it would be for any other part of the population, and all the rest of it. We have heard those arguments repeated from the Dispatch Box.

Mr. Butler

I do not believe that that charge can be made in this case. The hon. Members for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Strang) and for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) have studied this matter. The question I asked the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East involved how many people the hon. Gentleman thought were claiming that their present ill-health resulted from the tests. That information is not available to the Government, so it is not information that the Government can be accused of withholding.

Mr. Alton

When will that information be available? For 18 months, the Government have been giving us different figures. I suggested: The figures ranged from 13,500 to 20,000 people and they were given in the space of only six months." — [Official Report, 12 March 1984; Vol. 56, c. 187.] That was the answer given by the Prime Minister. Clearly, if the Government are not aware how many people will be surveyed and how many were involved in those tests, how can hon. Members expect to have any idea of what constitutes a reliable statistical sample or survey?

The third contrast that I should like to make between the way that the British and Australian Governments have handled the matter relates to the sense of urgency shown and the anger that people rightly feel about the issue. Since early October, the Australian Royal Commission has taken evidence from more than 100 veterans and scientists. As we have heard, it is to come to the United Kingdom in the new year to interview another 60 witnesses.

The Royal Commission was established after a Government report asserted that Australia had been kept in ignorance all along about the true nature of the British tests. Why, first having promised the full co-operation of Her Majesty's Government in the work of that commission, did the Government decline to send anyone to put Britain's case until two week's ago? Why did that change of mind come about? Although I welcome it, I should like to know why, having first said that we would co-operate in the Royal Commission's work, we failed to send anyone, and why it took so long to change our minds.

Why did the Government deliberately frustrate the attempts of the veterans to gain legal aid in Australia by withholding information which is locked away in British archives?

The chairman of the commission, Mr. Justice James McClelland, has rebuked Britain over what he calls a rather unsatisfactory state of affairs… that there is ultimately a right of British veto. He says: It is most desirable that we should not conduct this commission with our hands tied behind our back. Although I know that 8,500 files have been released, many people in Australia claim that others are still held back. Can the Minister do anything tonight to allay the fears of the chairman of the commission and to refute his damning indictment?

Two incidents that have been revealed over the past few weeks show the Government's obsession with secrecy. After one of the Maralinga blasts in 1957, officials discovered an aboriginal family who said that they had camped in the bomb crater for two days and drunk water collected there. The family were given showers and sent back to the desert. John Hutton, an Australian service man, has told the commission that 200 soldiers were assembled later and told by a British officer that if anyone let out news of the incident to the media, he would be tried for treason. The men were allegedly reminded that under the Official Secrets Acts they could be shot by a firing squad or gaoled for 30 years if they talked about it. I should welcome the Minister's comments about those allegations.

I should like to draw to the attention of the Minister the remarks of Paul Malone, who works for The Canberra Times in the press gallery in Parliament House in Australia. I sent this document to the Minister's predecessor, the Minister for Information Technology, on 21 September 1984. In that document, Mr. Malone says: An examination of the documents written at the time of the tests reveals that many of the published official reports on the subject do not tell the whole truth. In fact in many cases the official reports are misleading. This particularly applies in relation to aboriginal presence in the region at the time of the tests. I have submitted pages of questions to the British High Commission here and have only just received a reply. Most of my questions have not been answered. Although the Commission has had the questions in writing for over six weeks, the response I received today to most questions was simply 'referred to London'. When the Minister replied to that letter he went to great pains to say that, while he refuted many of Mr. Malone's allegations, he did not want to pre-empt the findings of the commission. It is amazing that information which might damage the Ministry of Defence is initially withheld. It is then released, sometimes grudgingly, to the Australian Royal Commission. Yet members of the press in Australia and here and Members of Parliament are denied access to the same information.

On another issue in the letter, the Minister says: Although I sympathise with the unfortunate people who are referred to in the newspaper article"— in the Sunday People the article is an example of mischievous reporting, which can only act to spread unnecessary concern among the many thousands of participants and their families involved in the tests. Those articles referred to the genetic effects of the atomic tests on many of the children of service men who were involved in the tests, which were referred to by the hon. Member for Stockton, North.

I shall refer to three such cases this evening. The first is that of Ken Clarke of Wigan, Lancashire. He is 47 years of age. He was with the Royal Air Force on Christmas Island. He suffers from bronchitis but otherwise he is fairly fit. His son John, who is 25 years of age, has had problems with his knees since he was a teenager and has had two operations. His daughter, Janine, is 18 years of age. She has a disease affecting her hip joint and finds it difficult to walk. She says: The doctors do not even have a name for my condition. Secondly, there is the case of Geoff Collins. He is aged 48 years and resides in Wallasey, Merseyside. He visited the Monte Bello islands during service as a Navy radio operator. His 20-year-old daughter has a badly deformed spine and shoulder blades and a congenital abscess of the middle ear, making her deaf. When she was born, doctors thought at first that she was a thalidomide victim, but her mother never took thalidomide. Geoff says: I have the nagging belief that my daughter has suffered because of the involvement with the tests. The third case is that of Desmond Shaw, aged 50 years, of Liverpool, who was on Christmas Island. Five years after returning home he was struck down with an arthritic condition which his doctors were unable to diagnose accurately. He suffers still from this ailment. His daughter, Maria, was healthy at birth but at the age of one year she suddenly blacked out and has been mentally handicapped ever since. She is now 15 years of age and she attends a special school. Desmond's wife, Mary, says: No one knows what caused Maria's trouble. The doctors just shrug their shoulders and say, 'It is one of those things.' I have mentioned only three such cases, but the Sunday People has evidence that 57 children of British service men who were exposed to nuclear bomb tests have died, been hideously deformed or disabled or suffer crippling diseases. It makes the point in its article that there is no statistical evidence that these deaths, deformities, disablements or cripplings are greater per head of population than the deficiencies which occur in normal circumstances. However, there is a lingering doubt in the minds of many of the families involved. There is a belief among many of them that their children have suffered because of their parents' involvement in the Maralinga and Christmas Island tests. I should like to know from the Minister what he intends to do to ensure that a survey is conducted to determine what genetic effects there have been on the children of these service men.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, East has referred to the Minister's letter of 6 December. Part of the letter reads: All the evidence I have indicates that proper precautions were taken to safeguard the health and safety of those involved in the UK's atmospheric nuclear test programmes. It is important to note that the standards in use at that time were comparable with those of today. If the right hon. Gentleman reads all the evidence that hon. Members have sent him and the two previous debates on this matter, he will find a document which his Department produced in 1953. The document gives the lie to the suggestion that service men were properly clothed or that proper precautions were taken. One paragraph describes what the Army set out to do in the tests. It is a Ministry of Defence document which was top secret. It reads: The Army must discover the detailed effects of various types of explosion on equipment, stores and men with and without various types of protection. So the men who were to be involved in the atomic explosions were to be exposed to the effects of radiation with and without protective clothing to discover what the effects would be on them. That gives the lie to the suggestion that adequate safety standards were set. It is rather reminiscent of all the bravado of the cold war years. It betrays an alarming ignorance of the effects of radiation in those early days.

The Minister says that it will be October 1986 before the survey by the National Radiological Board is completed. I believe that that is an unnecessarily long time to wait. Although I respect individual scientists who are working on the survey, I still believe that a body entirely independent of the Government should have undertaken the task. Service men and their families cannot understand why the survey is taking so long to complete. Perhaps the Minister will tell us what progress is being made.

In summary, I should like to make just five points. The survey should be expedited more quickly. Every assistance should be given to the Australian Royal Commission and our own should be established. All files and documents relating to that period should be released. The Crown Proceedings Act should be reviewed and amended to enable people to take the Ministry of Defence to court if they feel that they have suffered grievances as a result of those tests. Finally, a survey of the genetic effects of radiation on children of test blast victims must be urgently undertaken.

I am grateful for the debate, and to the Minister for being here to reply to the points that have been made.

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

This is a most opportune time for the debate. I am well aware of the situation and have read the debates that have taken place over the past year or so, but the reason why I describe the debate as opportune is that the attention of all those who are interested in the subject, and possibly of those who may not have been well acquainted with it in the past, will be concentrated somewhat more in the coming months when the Australian Royal Commission comes to London and goes about its business in the first few weeks of next year. The debate is opportune because it allows me to say one or two things that I have already said in different ways and about which I have written to Members of Parliament, in an attempt to present a fair and reasonable factual background to an issue that, frankly, is difficult, complex and, understandably, often emotional.

One has only to listen to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) refer to the cases of Mr. Clarke and Mr. Collins and their families and others, upon which I shall not comment — the House will understand why—and to details given in the debate and on other occasions, to appreciate even more the particular strains that those families are under. I say with the fullest possible sympathy that one fully understands why several of those who participated in the tests—who may or may not have been exposed to radiation, but believed that they were—and who suffer from cancer and cancer-related diseases attribute the incidence of those diseases to the fact that they participated in the tests. It is entirely understandable. In each and every one of those cases one difficulty is to establish whether that was so, but the greater difficulty is to persuade those concerned that it was not so.

I should like to take up a point made by at least two of the three people who spoke in the debate about the knowledge that existed at the time. For instance, the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) said that we had not realised the great danger of radiation at that time. The hon. Member for Mossley Hill made a remark in similar vein. The fact is that when the first nuclear tests took place at Monte Bello in 1952, extensive knowledge of the effects of nuclear weapons was already in the possession of those responsible for the conduct of the tests. The preparations for the 1952 test and the recognition of the potential radiation hazards are clearly outlined in a report to the Chiefs of Staff meeting in September 1949. That was conveyed to the then Australian Prime Minister when his agreement for the tests was sought in 1951. Care and concern for the safety of the participants is apparent throughout the whole programme.

The effects of ionising radiation, far from having been discovered during the experimental period of the tests, had been known since the turn of the century. By the early 1950s when the tests started, permitted levels were internationally established at a point at which it was judged that the harm caused was acceptable in comparison with the other risks that we face every day of our working lives. The principle enshrined in modern radiological protection practice—as low as reasonably practicable—had not at that time been formulated in the precise terms that apply today, but it was a basic tenet that exposure to ionising radiation had to be kept to a minimum within permitted limits and consistent with the needs of the operation.

Against that background, I can say clearly that the limits set in the regulations that applied to the Hurricane operation in 1952 are comparable with those that apply today. Many of the distinguished scientists who helped to determine those limits for the United Kingdom test programme have since served on the International Commission for Radiological Protection and have therefore seen broadly the same standards developed in the early 1950s enshrined in the current commission's recommendations more than 30 years later.

Mr. Frank Cook

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) referred to the following statement: The Army must discover the detailed effects of various types of explosion on equipment, stores and men, with and without various types of protection. That is in a document marked "special circulation" and "top secret". It is dated 20 May 1953—four years after the date specified by the Minister.

Another top secret document—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must not make another speech.

Mr. Cook

I am not making a speech. I promise you, Mr. Speaker, that I am asking a question.

There is another top secret document, dated 2 January 1953. The Australian vessel HMS Hawkesbury had been in that area—

Mr. Speaker

Order. That does not sound like a question to me.

Mr. Cook

This is my question, Mr. Speaker. If the knowledge of the threat of radiation existed in 1949, as the Minister claims, why would certain areas of the Monte Bello islands remain from the January date until April and possibly longer still extremely dangerous so that everything had to be excluded? If all this was already known five years earlier, why should there be top secret documents about it?

Mr. Butler

I find it difficult to see how the hon. Gentleman's intervention relates to what I was saying.

Mr. Cook

It is a matter of logic.

Mr. Butler

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will allow me to develop my argument, just as I allowed him to develop his. I shall some to the point raised by the hon. Member for Mossley Hill, which has been dealt with many times before, but it was not immediately relevant to the point that I was making.

I was answering the assertion of the hon. Member for Stockton, North that we were, as it were, ignorant of the effects of radiation and thus finding our way during the course of the tests and that only today have the kind of limits been established that we consider to be safe for people such as radiation workers. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that that was not the case. The knowledge went back a considerable number of years. On ionising radiation, it went back to the turn of the century. I believe that what I have said belies the claim that standards were lax at the time of the United Kingdom test and confirms that the international scientific view of the acceptability of the risks of exposure to ionising radiation has not altered despite the vastly greater body of data on its effects which has been collected and examined during the period since then. It is important to make that point first and foremost.

The next point that I must make is one that I emphasised in the note that I sent to all hon. Members. Frequently, when this matter is debated, one could form the impression that hundreds of people were exposed to massive doses of radiation that would not be acceptable today. I have described the limits in operation at the time, and the knowledge that existed, and have said that those limits were comparable with those of today.

Let us now consider the numbers who were exposed to radiation and the levels at which they were exposed. This part of my reply will inevitably be somewhat detailed. I hope that the House will bear with me while I try to set in context the levels of radiation to which people such as radiation workers may be exposed today compared with the levels of radiation to which those who participated in the tests were exposed.

I hope that the House will forgive me for reading this part of my speech. It may be helpful if the information is printed in Hansard and can be used as a record.

The current United Kingdom national limits for radiation workers are 30 milliSieverts per quarter, or an annual limit of 120 mSv, provided that the annual average dose from the age of 18 is less than 50 mSv. The international commission includes a single planned special exposure limit of 100 mSv provided that a limit of 250 mSv from such special exposures in the working life is not exceeded within the lifetime limit of 2,500 mSv. The current commission's recommendations set an annual average limit of 50 mSv.

As the House knows, about 20,000 people participated in the tests. Of those, 15,000 suffered no additional radiation exposure at all. There were some 6,000 recorded exposures associated with 5,000 individuals who experienced some radiation. Starting at the top of the scale, fewer than 30 experienced more than 70 mSv. In order not to take up too much time, I ask those who are interested to compare that figure with the figures that I have just given. There were fewer than 150 in the range between 20 and 70 mSv., and about 500 falling between 3.5 mSv. and 20 mSv. About 1,500 had measured exposures of less than 3.5 mSv. The remaining exposures, of which there were about 4,000, were not distinguishable from exposure to normal natural background radiation.

Participants aged about 60 will have received on average a dose from natural background radiation of about 150 mSv., or about 2.5 mSv. per annum. I understand that, within reasonable limits, a continuing dose of radiation at a low level, adding up to a certain figure, has approximately the same effect as a single high dose of that amount.

Even at the highest level, therefore, and for a very few people, the levels of radiation to which people were exposed were within the sort of levels that are acceptable today. For the vast majority, they were comparable with those that a normal person would receive during his life on this earth. The amount of radiation absorbed can vary by up to five times the average, depending on what part of the United Kingdom a person lives inland what type of house he lives in. The majority were exposed to limited levels. That must be important when we consider whether there was a risk.

We must also consider whether proper precautions were taken. I am aware as anyone else who has studied this subject of the anecdotal evidence about precautions not being followed properly. As far as I am aware, those claims have not been substantiated, or they have been based on a false understanding. I am persuaded by the evidence that I have seen, and from studying the matter as closely as I can, that precautions were adequate and observed. It is quite conceivable that, where there are human beings, errors can be made. I have no evidence of that, but it is therefore conceivable that some of the stories are based on fact. Even if there was some error, the amount of radiation to which those people would have been exposed would have been very small. The fewer than 30 people who were exposed to the higher levels were given specific tasks and knew that they would be exposed to high levels. If errors occurred, the chances of people being damaged are minimal.

How, then, do we attempt to prove whether I am right? That must be done in a statistical exercise. That is why the survey has been set up. It is unreasonable to charge the National Radiological Protection Board with any bias or with any lack of independence of mind when tackling its work. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Strang) said that information would be supplied by the Ministry of Defence. That is necessary because it has the records, but the board has made it clear that it will validate all information given to it before undertaking its work. The Ministry does not and will not dictate how the board undertakes that work. I cannot think of a better body to do the work. It is highly competent and has a great deal of experience. We do no service to our search for the truth by suggesting that the board's work will be other than comprehensive and unbiased.

I was asked whether the board was tackling the problem with a sense of urgency. When I took on my new responsibilities and discovered that the board's report would not be available until the autumn of 1986, I reacted as would have anyone else. I made special inquiries to discover whether there was any way in which to accelerate its work. I was told that, if the exercise was to be done properly, it would take that time. The report is statistical and objective. That is its importance as compared with the work of the Royal Commission. In no way am I suggesting that the Royal Commission was not objective, but a statistical exercise is, by definition, objective.

There will be a need to demonstrate that the control group or groups have suffered a different health experience from the participants. If 300 service men have experienced cancer and similar diseases as a result of the tests, the statistical analysis will show a higher incidence of cancer among participants than the norm. That must be so statistically. As I have said previously, if that is so the Government will have to change their stance.

The important thing is that by carrying out this exercise, and not through listening to the evidence of individuals, we shall be able to establish that first important point. I do not propose to consider a Royal Commission until the findings of that board are known. Only if they show a difference in experience between the control group and participants will the Government reconsider their position to see what the next step should be.

Mr. Alton

If this is to be a survey of only 20,000 people — a relatively small number—why will it take until October 1986 for it to be completed?

Mr. Butler

The board will undoubtedly read this debate, and it will note the urgency that the House, like the Government, places on the need for early publication of its report. My Department has been told that the work is of such a nature—and this is a highly complex matter — as to take this length of time. No one would be gladder than I if it could report earlier.

The Government were criticised for taking a different line from the Australian Government. I refute absolutely that we are going about our work in the wrong way. It is, however, correct that the Australian Government have set up a commission which, in the relatively near future, will be taking evidence in London.

This is an Australian Royal Commission, set up primarily to inquire into safety precautions and the possible effects of the tests on the health of Australians. Naturally, when the Australian Prime Minister requested United Kingdom co-operation in providing relevant information to the commission, the Government's response was to assure full co-operation within the constraints imposed on them on the grounds of national security or international obligations.

Already, literally hundreds—possibly thousands—of documents have been made available. With the exception of classified material, all information which is being made available to the commission will be made available in the Public Records Office. Special arrangements have been made with the Royal Commission that any relevant material which must remain classified is available to it.

It is not the Government's normal policy to release official documentation before the 30-year time period prescribed by the Public Records Act 1958. The decision to do so in this case is a reflection of our willingness to co-operate fully with the Australian authorities. I therefore refute the suggestion that our co-operation has in any sense been lukewarm or half-hearted.

It is correct that in the early days we decided not to be represented by counsel in Australia. That is very different from giving evidence. We have now decided to be so represented. With the advent in London of the commission, I believe that counsel will be helpful. It is necessary that evidence, based as much on fact and recorded experience as possible, is put before the commission. The evidence that the Government give will generally be presented by those who took part in the tests—for example, by Scientists, who have a full record of their experience. That evidence will be laid before the commission to enable it not to seek to pass judgment on the British Government—that is not the purpose of the commission—but to enable it to establish the factual background to its investigations into the circumstances of the test and the possible implications for the health of Australians.

To illustrate the contact and co-operation that exists, the terms and conditions under which the commission will operate in the United Kingdom have been agreed between myself and Senator Evans, who is the new Australian Minister for Resources and Energy. We wish the commission well in its work.

I end with the assertion that I have made on previous occasions. I have confidence that the safety precautions in the tests were more than adequate to ensure that nobody should have suffered harm from the effects of ionising radiation from the United Kingdom test programme. As for the possibility of its effects on United Kingdom participants, we have set up the NRPB study. That will demonstrate whether their health has been adversely affected by their presence. I can assure the House that I have to retain, and that I do retain, an open mind on that matter against the reports of the board.