HC Deb 14 July 1997 vol 298 cc1-5
1. Mr. Hutton

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what plans he has to establish an internal advisory group on the health of Gulf war veterans. [6507]

7. Mr. Olner

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence when he last met representatives from the Gulf War Veterans Association to discuss Gulf war syndrome. [6513]

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Dr. John Reid)

The new internal advisory group on Gulf war veterans' illnesses, which I announced on 16 June, met for the first time last week, to aid my consideration of the detailed policy statement, "Gulf Veterans' Illnesses: A New Beginning", which I am publishing today and contains 20 key measures setting out how the Government intend to address Gulf veterans' concerns in future.

As part of an on-going commitment to deal openly and honestly with Gulf veterans, I met representatives from the main Gulf veterans' groups earlier today to brief them on this initiative.

Mr. Hutton

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that reply. I welcome that initiative and the others that he has taken since 1 May to deal with the incidence of ill health among our veterans from the Gulf, one of whom is my constituent, Corporal Mervyn Grey, who was exposed to large amounts of pesticide during his service in the Gulf and has been unable to work since. When will the group produce a list of final recommendations for the Government? Will my hon. Friend ensure that they are made available to the public?

Dr. Reid

I can certainly assure my hon. Friend that every piece of information that I have will be made public. As for the current situation, I know that the Gulf veterans will listen closely to what is said today. I am sure that they will be only too keen to update me on future recommendations.

My approach is based on three guiding principles: Gulf veterans will be given prompt access to medical advice; appropriate research will be conducted into veterans' illnesses; and the Ministry of Defence will make public any information it possesses which is of potential relevance to veterans' illnesses. We have pledged our resources to that task and the package that we have produced today, which will double the resources allocated, will cost about £6.5 million over the next three years.

Mr. Olner

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the attitude of the Labour Government which is completely different from that of the previous Government. We recognise that our brave men and women who fought in the Gulf have been left will real problems connected with Gulf war syndrome. There is such a thing, but it was not recognised by the previous Government. I am sure that my constituent, Mr. Tilson, will be pleased to hear my hon. Friend's announcement that research will continue in partnership with our colleagues who fought in the Gulf war rather than according to the adversarial approach taken by the previous Government.

Dr. Reid

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. As I have said before in the House, we all owe a debt of honour to those men and women who were prepared to sacrifice their lives and to take risks with them on behalf of the country. Our future relationship with the veterans will be marked by openness and dialogue. Two meetings have already been held between officials, Gulf war veterans and me. The openness is already apparent by the provision of information, which we will make available to the veterans, and the new research into the interaction between the vaccines that they were given and the nerve agent pre-treatment sets tablets. The dialogue is also apparent from our efforts to involve Gulf war veterans in the process, including the research project, which will be overseen by a panel of independent experts. I am glad to say that we have invited the veterans to name their independent assessor on that panel and that they have welcomed that offer.

Mr. Viggers

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there seems to be a difference between the supportive attitude of the Ministry of Defence to soldiers, sailors and airmen who are serving in the armed forces and its attitude to those who have unfortunately been invalided from the forces? Is he aware that the former Defence Committee thought that it might study that difference? Would he support such a study were it to be conducted?

Dr. Reid

My approach to the veterans, and that of the Government, is that we have a duty and an obligation to them because of the sacrifices that they have made for this country. There are anomalies involving pensions and other benefits. There are anomalies in the treatment of those injured in the service of the country in Northern Ireland, who can receive criminal injuries compensation, and those serving in Bosnia. We are examining all the anomalies and will attempt to produce schemes that are in the best interests of, and provide the best security for, those who have served this country.

Rev. Martin Smyth

I thank the Minister for his statement. He mentioned the main Gulf war veterans group. Is he satisfied that isolated veterans in other parts of the country are fully aware of what is going on? I thank him for his promise to meet me with the Northern Ireland representative next week.

Dr. Reid

I commend the hon. Gentleman on his robust advocacy over many years on behalf of those who are suffering and who served in the Gulf. One of the practical points of the 20-point plan that I have issued today, at the suggestion of the veterans in an earlier meeting, will be the dissemination of information through local general practitioners, the Department of Health and service units to bring the medical assessment programme to the attention of any veterans who are not aware that it is available. If anyone has any other suggestions on how we might disseminate information or make veterans aware of either the medical or the financial resources to which they are entitled, I shall be only too happy to consider them.

Mr. Hancock

I thank the Minister for his useful and helpful announcement this afternoon. I look forward to the report's publication. Will he make available to Gulf veterans, who loyally served this country, the information that has been made available to American service men and women who have suffered similarly from Gulf war syndrome and who seem to have had more success in persuading their Government to acknowledge the syndrome and in obtaining the compensation that they deserve? How many people are known to have had a reaction? What is the Ministry of Defence doing to contact individuals and make information available to them?

Dr. Reid

I am not aware of any area in which other Governments, including the American Government, are further ahead of this new Government in providing information. I have studied the subject of compensation carefully; there are two ways of providing it. The first is the American way, which is to pay large sums of money—largely, but not exclusively, related to the fact that veterans have to pay private medical insurance. We have a thing called the national health service, which this Government are bent on maintaining. The second is no-fault compensation, which is already available to veterans here under their war pensions. That compensation is a supplement—a separate pension from the service pension. The war pension itself is of considerable capital value. A veteran who is on 50 per cent. of the war pension of £107 a week—when supplementaries are taken into account—would have to spend £110,000 capital to purchase that cover. Someone aged 35 who is on a full war pension has a pension with a capital value of £420,000. In addition, unlike their American counterparts, even if our veterans receive that pension, they are entitled to take the Ministry of Defence to court; should they do so, we shall review the position again.

Mr. Barry Jones

I thank my hon. Friend for the manner in which he received my recent deputation when I took to his Department Messrs. Turnbull, Doyle and Robertson. My hon. Friend gave up much of his time and listened carefully. It is the wish of my constituents who are Gulf war veterans that Group Captain Coker should make as much input as possible into the workings of the group. When will the group make its findings known? I am concerned that my constituents' health is deteriorating rapidly and I wish to see them compensated and well treated.

Dr. Reid

I welcome the advice that I received from my hon. Friend's constituents when they came to see me in the Ministry of Defence. I know that there was a perception among the veterans that Group Captain Coker, who had previously been involved in the medical assessment programme, had somehow been dispatched because of his views. I am not entirely sure that that was the case and my hon. Friend will be pleased to know that in the past few days I have spoken to Group Captain Coker, who has agreed to rejoin my advisory committee. I am sure that that fact will be warmly welcomed by the veterans as another sign of the trust which the Government knew was lost and which has now been re-established.

Sir George Young

No one doubts that many hundreds of Gulf war veterans are ill and we welcome this further initiative to find out what went wrong. If there is any new scientific evidence that might shed light on what went wrong, of course it should be pursued and I support that. May I ask the Minister about research? He will know that, last week, Lord Gilbert said that the new Ministry of Defence research programme, which was announced last month, has not been recommended by the Medical Research Council. Will he take steps to ensure that the research has that validation?

Dr. Reid

I shall certainly do that. I think that my noble Friend meant—and he was quite correct—that it was initiated not by the MRC but by me. I shall continue to initiate the exploration of any avenues that will assist research and medical resources for our Gulf war veterans.

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