HC Deb 12 March 1984 vol 56 cc185-98 3.49 am
Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

I am sorry that the Minister of State who has just replied to the previous debate should have the invidious task of replying also to this one. He could be forgiven for a sense of deja vu, since only last July, in another Consolidated Fund Bill debate on this same subject—atomic explosions in the south Pacific in the 1950s — he also drew the short straw.

I make no apology for having sought to raise this important issue again. I want to return to some of the questions that I put to the Minister last July. First, I want to press him on the orders which were issued to our service men and the conditions which prevailed during those tests. Secondly, I want to question him about the faltering progress which the long-awaited survey of the personnel involved in those tests is making. Thirdly, I want to ask him what redress he believes should be made available to service men or their widows and whether he will be prepared to look again at section 10 of the Crown Proceedings Act 1947, which prevents service men from seeking compensation through the courts.

The Minister will have received from me a copy of the report of the Defence Research Policy Committee, circulated on 20 May 1953, which has been made available through the Public Record Office under the 30-year rule. This document was written in May 1953, six months after Britain's first nuclear explosion off the coast of the Monte Bello Islands in Western Australia. In October 1953 Britain tested two more devices at Emu Field in South Australia. This is among the first official records to be released on the atomic bomb tests. It says: Many of these tests are of the highest importance to departments, since on their results depend the design of equipment, changes in organisation and administration, and offensive and defensive tactics. The report says that the Navy required information on the effects of various types of atomic explosions on ships, their contents and equipment. The RAF similarly wanted information on the effects of explosions on airfields, submarine bases and the oil industry.

Undoubtedly the most disquieting and disturbing part of the report refers to the Army's requirements. This 1953 report says: The Army must discover the detailed effects of various types of explosion on equipment, stores and men, with and without various types of protection. In a concise and tightly written report, there is no equivocation or ambiguity. Men were to be used as human guinea pigs—not dummies or instruments. Men were to be deliberately exposed to the effects of radiation, with and without protective clothing. It was to be a glorified scientific experiment.

It says something for, at best, the woeful ignorance, and, at worst, the callous indifference of those who issued those orders that, in the Army's book, equipment and stores appear to rank higher than men in this bizarre order of merit.

When we debated this matter last July, I pressed the Minister to say whether he accepted the findings of the Australian Ionising Radiation Advisory Council. In its report of last June the council claimed that the British authorities decided that 200 British and 62 Australian service men would experience the effects of an atomic blast at closer range than normally allowed. The men were to be situated a mere five miles from the 20-kiloton bomb that was exploded—a bomb roughly equivalent to those exploded at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, whose destructive capacity was therefore well understood. This was during the Buffalo series of tests in 1956.

Last July, in reply to the previous debate, the Minister said that he was not familiar with that report. I hope that this morning he will be able to tell the House whether he has now considered both the Australian report and the 1953 report of the Defence Research Policy Committee. Perhaps he will also confirm that, after the Monte Bello test in October 1952, an Australian vessel, the Hawkesbury, was sent to survey the area and that, according to a telegram from the Commonwealth Relations Office to the British high commissioner in Australia, its role was to guard against the collection of intelligence". Will the Minster confirm that an earlier signal from the Hawkesbury stated that radiation would pose a considerable hazard to health for six months and possibly even longer"? Does the Minister share the view of Dr. Rotblatt, one of the world's top radiation experts, that there is no such thing as a safe threshold for radiation?

The crux of the matter is that an air of secrecy has surrounded basic facts about the British tests. Information which would help to establish the true level of radiation exposure has been deliberately concealed. Hitherto, the Government have refused to release the yield of each of the bombs tested, although the yield of United States' bomb tests was readily available. The Government have refused also to release vital information, such as the 1968 Pearce report, which described the contamination left behind on the Maralinga range.

The Ministry says that that document is classified. It details how highly radioactive cobalt-60 pellets were scattered over the range after a 1957 atomic test, and were later collected and buried. Asked by The Observer why the pellets were collected many years later and buried 8 ft down in 1½ in thick lead containers, the Ministry's spokesman maintained: They were not a health hazard when scattered. But somebody might have gathered them all together if we had left them. I am sure that the Minister does not seriously expect us to believe that lame explanation. Surely he agrees that the contents of the Pearce report should be made available to hon. Members and to the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association.

During the last such debate in July I outlined a number of cases that demonstrated the ineffective nature of the precautions taken to protect our service men, Anecdotal evidence exists in abundance. In this weeks's Sunday People the case of Seaman Joe Greavey is highlighted. He was on the frigate Plym which took an atomic bomb to Monte Bello in 1951. The newspaper reports: With only dark glasses to protect them, he and his shipmates stood with their backs to the blast when the bomb was exploded only 18 miles away. Three years ago, Joe died of cancer at the age of 62. His widow lives in Liverpool.

The Glasgow widow of Frank McCann, who died in 1972 after taking part in the Christmas Island tests in 1957, is reported in the Sunday People as saying: Frank told me he was never issued any kind of protective clothing. They just walked around in shorts or swimming trunks the whole time including during the tests. That statement is confirmed by former RAF Warrant Officer Tom Armstrong, who says: We were just dressed in khaki drill. There was no protective clothing. We must not rely just on anecdotes. Australian service men who served shoulder to shoulder, side by side, with British service men have had their accounts tested in the Australian courts of law. According to a World Medicine article published last year, To date, five widows of Australian test veterans have received compensation in out-of-court settlements. Another three claims await court decisions. If they succeed, 300 compensation claims could follow in Australia. In Britain, careful research, painstakingly carried out by Dr. Alice Stewart of the University of Birmingham, revealed a level of blood cancers among service men who were at Christmas Island at two and a half times the normal incidence rate.

In the face of such overwhelming evidence, I found the comments of one man greatly involved in the tests, Air Vice Marshal Stewart Menaull, remarkably unconvincing. In this morning's Daily Mail he dismissed the suggestions contained in the Ministry's 1953 document as "absolute nonsense". However, he would say that. It is worth reminding the House of his comments to reporters as group captain in charge of the military task force as he set out for the Pacific in 1956: It will be a wonderful experience for everybody. For many who were later to contract blood cancers, leukaemia and cataracts, it was certainly an experience that they would never forget. For many widows and relatives who lost loved ones, there is bitterness and anger that such a low price was put on the value of human life.

The Minister not only owes it to the relatives of those service men and the House to publish all the documents surrounding these tests, but has a duty to make known the names of those who compiled the 1953 document and to investigate vigorously the way in which those declared objectives were pursued.

Dealing next with the survey that the Government announced last year, I have a series of questions that I should like to put to the Minister. When does he expect the survey to be completed? Could it seriously take until 1987, as some commentators have suggested, before the report is likely to be completed? What is the latest number of personnel to be examined? In the debate last July I pointed out that widely differing figures had been given in answer to parliamentary questions, some of which I tabled in the month before the debate. The figures ranged from 13,500 to 20,000 people, and they were given in the space of only six months.

Has the Army been able to locate the files of all the service men involved? If not—this is a crucial point—how many medical files and how many of the service men involved in the test have been located to date? The British Nuclear Test Veterans Association says that the files are in a shambles and claims that only about 6,000 people have been located so far. I would welcome the Minister's comment on that.

The Minister will also recall that I expressed doubts about the suitability of the National Radiological Protection Board to conduct the survey. I suggested that it was a case of the watchdog being too closely identified with the burglar. The view of the Joint Committee on the Medical Effects of Nuclear Weapons is contained in a letter which reached me today. It states: The National Radiological Protection Board's expertise is in monitoring radiation exposure, not in carrying out health surveys such as the one entrusted to it by the Secretary of State for Defence. Indeed, the study was to have been headed by a physicist (who has since died) not a medical epidemiologist. An investigation of the complexity of the one to be undertaken could only be carried out satisfactorily by persons suitably trained. At the very outset of the NRPB's study, therefore, sceptics may find some confirmation for doubts aroused by the Government's entrusting an investigation of it own liability to a government body. The choice is surprising in view of the fact that there are at least five university departments which would be sure to carry out the study with an academic impartiality which could not reasonably be questioned. Does the Minister fully realise the high scientific standards that will be expected of the study and the care with which data will not just need to be collected but to have been seen to be collected if the results are to be seen clearly by the medical profession, the patients and bereaved relatives to have been reached by objective and impartial processes?

Will the Minister confirm that every step will be taken to ensure that the greatest scientific rigour is brought to bear? Many bereaved relatives see the long drawn-out nature of the survey as a way to try to dampen opposition and fob off people. Surely the Minister does not seriously expect the House to believe that it will take another four years to complete that survey, if that is the case.

Lastly, I draw the Minister's attention to the subject of redress. In that context I bring to his notice a motion which will be debated by the Royal British Legion at its spring conference. It says: That this Conference is concerned at the recent reports relating to the possible effects on health of those members of HM Forces who were involved in the Nuclear Tests in the South Pacific and elsewhere and urges HM Government to effect publication of the results of the study currently being carried out by the National Radiological Protection Board as soon as possible, and should this indicate a causal link between certain conditions suffered by some of those involved, to take all necessary measures to provide adequate compensation to those whose health has been affected in this way and to the widows of those who have died from these conditions and further to provide checks for their offspring. The Royal British Legion, some of whose members I met last Thursday, is most anxious about the anomalies which exist. It says that over the past year it has received over 100 inquiries, 14 appeals are currently pending and 20 claims are in the pipeline. It relates the case of a Welsh widow whose husband was involved in the clearing-up operation after the tests. The Department of Health and Social Security has awarded her a pension because it accepts that her husband's death was attributable to his service.

The pension cannot be enhanced because he died more than seven years after the events occurred. If he had died during the first seven years, the onus of proof would lie not on his family but on the Department. I understand that that rule originated in the 1920s. Clearly it has no relevance today in terms of radiation-related diseases, which might come to light only many years after the event. It has no bearing on long-term psychiatric diseases either, which is perhaps more relevant to the previous debate, on Northern Ireland.

Similarly, as soon as the Department accepts that a death is in any way related to active service, section 10 of the Crown Proceedings Act applies. That law, which was understandably enacted to prevent millions of claims after world war two, is being used for a purpose for which it was never intended. Unlike his opposite number in Australia, who can seek redress through the courts, once attributability is accepted, the British service man's right of appeal to the courts is removed. That may well be an acceptable doctrine in battle. When men sign on, they inevitably accept risks of serious injury or death in action, but in peacetime it is an unacceptable and unnecessary deprivation of the rights of service men engaged in normal day-to-day activities.

I return to the anomalies that the rules create. At present, the Ministry of Defence is hedging its bets. Astonishing contradictions between the Ministry and the Department of Health and Social Security are coming to light. I bring to the attention of the House the case of seven such service men, highlighted a few weeks ago by the Sunday Telegraph. It stated, in a report by Peter Dobbie: Seven of the 12,000 servicemen who took part in Britain's nuclear test programme 30 years ago, when 21 atomic bombs were exploded in Australia and Christmas Island have received pensions and payments averaging £2,000 from the Department of Health. The Money, paid to the men or their dependent wives and families, is for cancer-related illnesses which the department accepts were contracted during military service. However, Health officials last week denied any link between the disabilities and the atmospheric nuclear tests, which took place between 1952–58 at Christmas Island and Malden Islands in the South Pacific, Emu Field and Maralinga in South Australia and the Monte Bello Islands off the Western Australia coast. A letter to one of the seven, who last week received a cheque for —2,042, read: 'You will see that on the advice of the Department's doctors your claim is admitted on the grounds that your rodent ulcer is due to exposure to strong sunlight. It is not accepted that your condition is related in any way to possible exposure to radiation from atom bomb tests as claimed by you. It has been decided that, owing to the nature of your condition a final settlement of the extent of your disablement cannot yet be made. We propose to review your assessment in about four years' time.' The letter and payment made in the last six months surprised ex servicemens' groups demanding Government compensation for men who served at test sites and are ill. The Ministry of Defence has refused to recognise their case which is being studied by the National Radiological Protection Board, an independent research group part-funded by the department who last week began a £200,000 survey to find out whether the tests are responsible for serious ailments, including cancer. There is another interesting section in the article, which details what happened to one ex-service man: The 46-year-old ex-seaman bears facial surgery scars from the rodent ulcer—a cross between a cancer and a chronic ulcer. The ex-seaman reports that at the time he was serving in the South Pacific, He wore dark goggles and anti-flash protective equipment for the test but still recalls catching the full glare of the bomb. He said: 'It was terrifying—something you would not wish on your worst enemy.' Another 63 who claimed compensation were refused after the Department researched applications with family doctors and held their own medical examinations. That is clearly unacceptable. I hope that the Minister will investigate the situation. I hope that he will also promise today that the Government will review section 10 and consider introducing amending legislation. The Royal British Legion would cogently argue that the case is made for a independent inquiry to investigate a host of anomalies and their replacement by a far more equitable system. It also sees a clear need for a department of veterans affairs within the Ministry of Defence. I hope that the Minister will respond to those points, too.

Those are the three areas to which I wish to draw attention today. I thank the Minister for his patience in listening to the arguments and I hope that he will answer each of my questions when he replies to the debate.

4.10 am
Mr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) on raising an important subject which, as I am sure both he and the Minister agree, must be properly investigated and debated in the coming months.

The issue is important for two reasons. First, it is fundamental that the service men and civilians who participated in or were in the vicinity of the tests in the 1950s and their families should receive the justice that they deserve—a thorough, independent investigation into the effects of the tests and, where it is shown that they are suffering as a consequence of the tests, adequate compensation.

Secondly, the matter has a bearing on the major effects of radiation, especially relatively low levels of radiation, on human beings. The information that we have on this is based on limited events in the past, and it is important that this data should be used to enhance our knowledge in this area. That knowledge may be important in relation not just to nuclear weapons, but to safety levels at nuclear power stations, where every revision so far has been downwards.

The House will be well aware of the history of these developments and of the famous letter published by Dr. Alice Stewart and her colleagues in The Lancet last April. I also pay tribute to the tremendous work being done by the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association and its chairman, Ken McGinley, in seeking, first, to locate and identify as many people as possible who participated in the tests and, secondly, to focus public attention on this issue of immense importance not only to them and their families but to the country generally.

The first and crucial issue is the compelling need carry out a comprehensive, independent scientific investigation. There should be no argument about that. That investigation must be acceptable not just to the Ministry of Defence and the Government but to scientific and public opinion generally.

In that context, I agree with the hon. Member for Mossley Hill that it would have been far better to have the survey carried out by an independent group. I in no way seek to criticise the National Radiological Protection Board, but, with respect, it would have been much better if university departments or even the Royal Society of Scientists had been involved in carrying out the study. I hope that at this late stage the Government will not rule out looking into that again. At the very least, it may be practicable to invite the Royal Society and perhaps the British Medical Association to collaborate and to work jointly with the National Radiological Protection Board in the investigation and survey.

Secondly, it is important to make public all the assumptions and criteria which are taken into account and used in the study.

The hon. Member for Mossley Hill has referred to the 8,000, 12,000 or, as now estimated, 20,000 people who took part in the atmospheric nuclear weapons test programmes. It is of fundamental importance that the basis on which the figure of 20,000 was arrived at should be openly described.

Mr. Alton

Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the reply given by Lord Glenarthur in another place last April? Putting the figure at 13,700 people to be surveyed, he said that the aim was to avoid statistical bias". The Prime Minister, speaking of the 20,000 people, said: These will include support personnel who worked in areas away from the test areas and others who were, at the time, not considered to be at any risk from radiation exposure." — [Official Report, 14 July 1983; Vol. 45, c. 394.] Many feel that some people have been included in the survey simply to make up the numbers. If so, the findings of the survey will be distorted and biased.

Mr. Strang

The hon. Gentleman is right. It is vital that the basis upon which the various groups were included should be properly documented.

The National Radiological Protection Board's protocol, published last October, referred to 12,000 people, including 6,000 from the Royal Navy, 2,000 from the Army, 3,000 from the Royal Air Force and 1,000 United Kingdom civilians.

The protocol states: While there is confidence that this listing, which will be referred to as the 'blue book' data, includes almost all, if not all, personnel who were monitored and shown to have been exposed to radiation above the threshold of measurement, it is clear that it does not include everyone who took part in the atmospheric nuclear weapon test programme. In a written reply in December 1983, the Minister who is to reply to the debate, stated: The number of United Kingdom personnel who took part in the United Kingdom atmospheric nuclear weapon test programme is estimated to be about 20,000." — [Official Report, 15 December 1983; Vol. 50, c. 547.] He also referred to information about the exposures recorded.

I do not suggest that the Government are seeking to bias the results. That charge would be wholly unacceptable. It is crucial, however, that the basis on which people were selected is properly and objectively stated at an early stage, and that there should be the maximum possible disclosure of information. All Government Departments, particularly in situations such as this, have an inherent tendency towards secrecy. We want an end to that secrecy. It is vital that there should be disclosures on that point and on a number of others.

For instance, why, after so many years, cannot we be told about the size of the bombs used in the tests? The Minister has said that some were in the kiloton range and some in the megaton range. Why is that information still treated as secret? There should be an investigation into the procedures followed—or perhaps not followed—at the time of the tests. The survey, of course, does not refer to those procedures. It is purely a comparison of those who were subjected to the tests, or who were in their vicinity, with the control group. The hon. Member for Mossley Hill referred to the top secret document, which has now been released, headed: Atomic Weapons Trials—Report by the Defence Research Policy Committee. I assume that the Minister will confirm that that document is authentic. We must be entitled to know the outcome of the statement that the Army must discover the detailed effects of various types of explosion on equipment, stores and men with and without various types of protection. There can be no justification for keeping that information secret.

There has been a study on this subject by the Australian Government entitled, "Health of atomic test personnel", which was published towards the end of last year. The Minister must surely accept that, to carry out a study on the basis of a posted questionnaire on events, some of which took place 30 years ago, is not adequate. The authors of the report make that clear. In their summary they say: Within the limitations of a survey based on the completion of posted questionnaries relating to events of many years before by those whose health is the subject of the survey, in the absence of any other Australian populations with whose health that of the survey population could be compared, and with the difficulties inherent in interpreting large numbers of tests of statistical significance, the analyses give no grounds for concluding that Australian personnel who participated in the UK atomic test programmes in the 1950s and 1960s suffered significant adverse health effects. We should ask some questions about the nature of the study upon which the Government are embarking. The protocol refers to the way in which control groups are selected. Selection of the control groups is as important as the selection of the service men who participated in the tests. If there is to be scientific and objective investigation of data, there should be proper participation by outside independent experts.

The hon. Member for Mossley Hill referred to compensation. It is remarkable that the Department of Health and Social Security granted compensation to service men and stated that compensation was granted due to exposure to strong sunlight while serving in the Pacific. It then said that it did not accept that the condition was in any way related to exposure to radiation as a result of atomic bomb tests, as claimed.

There is an overwhelming view in the House that service men and others who participated in tests are entitled to a thorough investigation and, where appropriate, compensation, as are their families. I hope that the Minister will take on board the gravity of the issue and ensure that the inquiry is regarded as appropriate and has credibility with outside experts and the community. It would be an enormous mistake to embark on a study that proved unacceptable to the people who have been directly involved and was unconvincing to independent experts.

4.24 am
The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Geoffrey Pattie)

With the permission of the House, I shall reply to this important debate. I hope that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) can maintain the appropriate objectivity on this matter. It is a difficult subject that is prone, understandably, to great emotion and to press reporting that is long on sensationalism and short on facts and analysis. He and the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Strang) will accept that we would not wish to do anything in such a debate to aggravate the understandable concerns of those who have contracted the ailments to which he referred.

The subject of the debate is the rights of former British service men involved in atomic bomb tests, so perhaps I might say something about that first, and then discuss some of the other matters raised by the hon. Gentleman.

As to the rights of service men generally to claim compensation, the Crown Proceedings Act 1947 introduced the principle that the Crown would be in the same position as any private person in litigation. However, Parliament recognised when the Act was passed that it would not be acceptable for a service man, or the dependants of a deceased service man, to be able to bring an action for damages against the Crown and/or an individual service man on the grounds that the injury of death had been caused through the negligence of another member of the armed forces.

Service men are called upon to risk injury and sometimes death not only in operations but in training, and it would make the conduct of the armed forces impossible if a service man could bring an action against another service man, possibly his superior or subordinate in rank, or against the Crown, for alleged negligence during service activities. Therefore, provided that certain conditions are met, section 10 of the Act bars any legal action against the Crown or a service man arising out of the death of or injury to another service man.

In addition to Ministry of Defence pension schemes, recompense is provided by the war pensions scheme administered by the DHSS. If the death of, or injury suffered by, a service man is considered by a DHSS medical board to be attributable to service, a war disablement pension or a war widow's pension, as appropriate, is awarded by the DHSS. There is also a range of further allowances to compensate for differing degrees of disability. For a claim to succeed, there must be an indication that the injury is attributable to service in the armed forces. That applies to all service men, without regard to the tasks performed.

The hon. Member for Mossley Hill will be aware of the reply given by my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces in the House on 10 November in answer to a question about legislation on this matter. The House was informed then that the arrangements that I have described are under review.

As to these nuclear tests, I ask the hon. Gentleman whether his point of view, and that of those whom he represents, does not rest on the assumption that some harm was done to those who took part in the tests. I would be the first to agree that it would be entirely wrong to deny compensation if harm were proved. But it is equally wrong to believe that the natural sympathy that one has for those who are suffering from serious illness, or who have been bereaved, is in itself a justification for denying the available scientific and other evidence. Our claim that the tragic illnesses suffered by some of those who took part in the tests were not caused by exposure to radiation from those tests, is based on that scientific evidence and does not reflect a lack of sympathy for those afflicted.

Essentially, there are two points to be considered. First, a scientific assessment must be made of the adequacy of the safety precautions taken at the time of the test in the light of the most up-to-date knowledge about the biological effects of radiation. Secondly, the statistical evidence must be examined to see whether the test participants have suffered an abnormal incidence of those diseases that may be caused by exposure to radiation.

Mr. Alton

Perhaps, before the Minister leaves that point, he could deal specifically with the case raised by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East and myself, of seven people who have been awarded pensions because of illnesses that have been deemed by the DHSS to be directly attributable to problems caused to them during the course of their service. Does the Minister accept that the act of accepting that attributability prevents those people from taking action because of the Crown Proceedings Act 1947, section 10, which prevents them from going to courts? Does he also accept that it is not right that British service men should be prevented from testing their cases in the courts of law when their Australian counterparts have the right to do so?

Mr. Pattie

I have already rehearsed the position for the hon. Gentleman and told him that certain aspects are under review, and he would not expect me to go over it all again. I gave a detailed account of the safety precautions when I replied to the hon. Gentleman's debate, at a similar hour to this, on 25 July last year. Therefore, I propose to stress some of the main points now.

Safety precautions were taken that compare favourably with the international standards in force today. Radiation exposures were predicted on the basis of expected weapon performance, and all the weapons performed within the expected parameters. Measure exposures matched the estimates, and information on these exposures is still available. I urge those hon. Members who want to know more about this aspect to read Hansard for the July debate and the detailed Australian report known as AIRAC 9, entitled "British nuclear tests in Australia—a review of the operational safety measures and possible after-effects", a copy of which is in the Library.

We recognise the real perceptions of those individuals and their desire to attribute their present suffering either to something other than natural causes or to an unusual and notable event in their past lives. It is not unnatural for men who have experienced the frightening effects of blast, and observed the intense flash of a nuclear weapon, to assume that they were exposed to high levels of radiation. They were not.

The hon. Gentleman has referred in somewhat derogatory terms, and using what he admitted himself was anecdotal evidence from an unimpeachable source such as the Sunday People, to the phrase "guinea-pigs". A force of officers was positioned closer to the test detonation than other observers to experience at first hand some of the effects. The hon. Gentleman raised the same question last July and I wrote to him after the debate with a full account of the circumstances. I want to make this point clear, because I can see that, reading through the 1953 chiefs of staff committee paper, the phrase that has attracted attention and that is capable of misinterpretation, if it were believed to be possible, and I accept that there are people who believe that such things are possible, that, to test the effects on men, they would be asked to stand outside in either a protected or an unprotected condition. I shall explain what was meant by that phrase.

The requirement to discover the detailed effects of various types of nuclear explosions on men with and without various types of protection does not mean that protected and unprotected men had to be exposed to the hazardous nuclear weapon effects. Indeed, this would be in complete contravention of the safety policy and philosophy for all our nuclear weapons tests. The blast and thermal and radiation consequences of a nuclear explosion on man were determined by making measurements of the flux levels of various protected and unprotected positions using instruments, and then calculating what the consequences of those flux levels would be for man.

Mr. Alton

The Minister spoke of the Australian report which had been placed in the Library of the House. Does he not agree that it would also be appropriate to place in the Library the report of the Australian Ionising and Radiation Advisory Council, which made it clear that 200 British service men were deliberately placed closer than usual to an atomic blast to test the effects on them? In that case, it was a 20 kiloton bomb, a bomb the size of that used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

How can the Minister claim that the statement in this report is in any way ambiguous when it makes it clear that the army wanted to discover the detailed effects on men with and without various types of protection? That is plain English. That cannot be open to misinterpretation, and the rest of the report is written cogently, coherently and in clearly unambiguous terms. Why does he claim that this statement is so ambiguous?

Mr. Pattie

I am telling the hon. Gentleman what happened. In trying to meet him half way, I am explaining that if one reads the sentence about discovering the detailed effects of various types of nuclear explosions on men with and without various types of protection, one could immediately leap to the conclusion that there would be two categories of men, some with and some without protection, stuck on the hillside. I have explained—and I will not detain the House by going through it all again —the position by saying that computations were made of what would be called a protected position and an unprotected position, then asking, "If a man had been in that protected position, what would have been the effect on him?" and "If a man had been in that other position, further over on another hillside, what would have been the effect on him?"

Mr. Strang

I appreciate what the Minister is saying, but anybody looking at the issue now must conclude that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to get an adequate answer to the question posed in this document — the question of what would be the effect on men, protected or unprotected—in that way. Is the Minister saying that it would be possible without actually exposing men to radiation, to conclude what would be the effects of various radiation levels on men, protected or unprotected? That is the whole point, for we are uncertain even now about the effects on the human population of low levels of radiation, and that is why only recently we have had to reduce the safety levels.

Mr. Pattie

The answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is that that is what I am saying because whatever we are prepared to do must be compatible with the safety policy and very strict regulations that were observed at the time; and there is no question, as it were, of playing fast and loose with those.

The Australian report to which the hon. Member for Mossley Hill referred was the 1956 Buffalo series at Maralinga, where it was decided to allow service men to experience the effects of nuclear explosions at ranges closer than previously allowed, and 200 United Kingdom service men were stationed at about eight kilometres up wind from zero. Their movements were under the full control of atomic weapons research establishment personnel.

They had undergone a dress rehearsal prior to the event and after the event they visited non-contaminated areas to observe the effects on military material and some of them, three days after the event, also visited the contaminated areas under strict radiological safety control. The personnel wore dosimeters and radiation levels were also monitored by other instruments. The dosimeters proved that the radiation exposures were below the prescribed levels. That is why I am giving the hon. Members for Mossley Hill and Edinburgh, East the facts and urging them to act with their customary restraint. This is a subject which is capable of being handled in an entirely sensationalist way. I hope that it will be accepted from previous exchanges across the Floor of the House that I do not seek to fob off those who are concerned about these matters. It is reckoned that the study will take two to three years. It may well take three years.

I have been asked about personnel numbers. The position is as the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East said when he quoted one of my previous answers, or a letter that he had received from me. I am grateful to him for not suggesting — the hon. Member for Mossley Hill came close to making the suggestion in an intervention—that the numbers are being artificially inflated to try to defuse the effect of the epidemiological survey. I think that both hon. Members will accept that this is a no-win situation. If the numbers are very low and in some way artificially restricted, the Government are accused of restricting numbers to try to gain some advantage. If we say that we shall try to find anyone who might have been affected, we are open to the gibe that we are trying artificially to inflate the numbers. I suppose that I should not be grumbling because it is the lot of Ministers to be in that position.

We are talking of about 20,000 individuals. In February 1983, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister spoke of about 12,000 service men and 1,500 civilians. The uncertainty about additional numbers lies with those men who were assessed at the time not to be at any radiation risk whatsoever and, therefore, do not figure in the lists maintained by the radiological radiation authorities.

Our best estimate of the number of persons to be considered for the Pacific test is about 12,000. The remaining 8,000 are associated with the Australian tests and certain other operations such as the Maralinga experimental programme and the clean-up operations at Maralinga and Christmas island.

It is well known that cancer, the disease primarily associated with exposure to radiation, has a high natural incidence. About one in four of the male population in Britain contracts it and one in five dies of it. It is also fairly well known that although many advances have been made in cancer research it is at present seldom possible to determine the cause of any particular cancer by clinical means. Consequently, the only way of determining cause and effect is by undertaking what is known as an epidemiological survey.

When I last spoke in the House on this subject in July 1983 in reply to a previous Consolidated Fund Bill debate, much had been made of a survey of Christmas island test participants undertaken by the University of Brimingham Department of Social Medicine. Preliminary results of this survey were published in a letter to The Lancet on 9 April 1983 and the hon. Member for Mossley Hill quoted from it as follows: The follow-up of the South Pacific population is far from complete but already there is evidence of an abnormally high incidence of leukaemia and other RES neoplasms". We said at that time that the results were not to be relied upon because the study lacked at least two of the essential ingredients for a reliable survey: unbiased information and an adequate sample size. I would not want to hazard a guess at the reasons for it, but we have heard rather less about a second letter to The Lancet that was published on 8 October 1983, which concluded that a confident interpretation of the data is not possible. It urged that a comprehensive follow-up operation be undertaken of all men involved in nuclear weapon tests. I think that the apparent difficulties of this subject are demonstrated more vividly by this survey than by anything that I can say.

On 3 October last year, one week before the second Lancet letter was published, I announced the details of a survey being undertaken on behalf of the Ministry of Defence by the National Radiological Protection Board. I stressed then, as I do again now, that the decision to commission the survey did not reflect any loss of confidence in the safety measures taken for the tests. However, I knew that many members of the public and of the House were alarmed and distressed by the claims which were being made in the press and elsewhere, and I realised that there was a need for additional information which such a survey would generate.

We had a discussion at that time, and on several other occasions in the House at about the time that the appointment of the NRPB was being made, about its independence and suitability. I had hoped that both hon. Gentlemen would be prepared to accept a body of the eminence of the NRPB, with considerable experience in this subject—that, after all, is one of the main criteria—as an acceptable assessment source. The cause that both hon. Gentlemen genuinely espouse, and which I fully respect, is not served by casting further doubt on its objectivity, competence, and so on.

I am pleased to be able to say that the survey is progressing well. I have never pretended that it would be easy, for we always knew that, if it was to be worthwhile, it would have to be done properly, and it is true that we have already had to overcome many difficulties and will undoubtedly face some more. The hon. Member for Mossley Green expressed concern in the House last July that the survey would take an agonizingly long time. I would rather face that kind of criticism than have to concede at the end of the day that the study was not sufficiently comprehensive, or suffered from inadequate statistical treatment, or was otherwise ill founded. However, I am conscious, too, that a balance must be struck between reliability and speed. On the one hand, it would be quite improper for me to exert pressure on NRPB to be a party to a study which did not meet the high standards of scientific integrity which we have come to expect from that body. In any event, the board would rightly refuse to undertake such a study if that restricted it from making a sound scientific judgment of the outcome.

On the other hand, I share the concern of those whose expectations have been raised by the fact that a study is being conducted to resolve the issue one way or the other. There must be no false expectations.

Mr. Dunster, the director of the NRPB, in introducing the study protocol, to which the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East referred, emphasised that it must not be expected to provide a major new insight into the effects of ionising radiation. Its purpose is to establish whether there has been significant excess mortality or incidence of cancer in the study group, but it is not likely to provide a quantitative relationship between any such excess and radiation dose. Mr. Dunster also stressed the point that I made in July, and I would wish the House to take particular note that the survey is not, and by its nature cannot, provide evidence on individual cases. Nor is it a study for which intermediate reports are likely to be useful.

I am grateful to both the hon. Gentlemen who have spoken in this debate, and for the tone in which they couched their remarks. I assure them that the Government are not trying to fob the issue off or — to use Civil Service parlance — to kick it into touch. I have attempted to give them the fullest exposition that I can of the Government's position.