HC Deb 16 June 1997 vol 296 cc13-4
11. Mr. Rowlands

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the claims of the British nuclear test veterans. [2051]

Mr. Spellar

Under the provisions of the war pensions scheme administered by the Department of Social Security, a war pension may be awarded in respect of any death or disablement which is due to service in the armed forces. Claims for war pensions have been received from ex-service personnel who participated in the nuclear tests and awards have been made where there is reliable evidence to raise a reasonable doubt that the death or disablement is due to service.

Mr. Rowlands

Are there not many outstanding claims? Is it not true that the United States Government have settled all the claims of men affected by nuclear tests? Could we not follow their example and be rather more generous in responding to the many veterans who have suffered illness consequent on their service?

Mr. Spellar

My hon. Friend is right in that the United States has made a decision to pay compensation to the Marshall islanders who were near the tests. It will, no doubt, have taken account of the facts of the specific case, as we are doing in the case of British nuclear test veterans. We are having to work on the basis of scientific evidence and the facts made available to us by the National Radiological Protection Board. We shall continue to work on that. As my hon. Friend will know, in the related issue of workers in Chatham dockyard who were exposed to radiation, we are making major efforts to improve access to records to enable them best to pursue their case and interests.

Mrs. Ewing

I welcome the Front-Bench Members to their duties in the Ministry of Defence.

Will serious consideration be given to the ruling on the breach of articles 6 and 8 of the convention? Will it therefore be possible for the Government to ensure that more veterans who were subjected to nuclear testing have access to their own war records, which always seems to be a problem for those individuals? As it was ruled that there appeared to be a lack of candour from the last Government, can we have candour from this Government and, I hope, action for those people?

Mr. Spellar

Many of the records on the atmospheric nuclear tests have already been released to the public and, as the hon. Lady knows, veterans have drawn on those records in making their case to the European Court of Human Rights. Other records are currently being reviewed for release. However, some will need to remain classified if they contain details of weapons design, as the release of such information would breach the Government's obligations under the non-proliferation treaty. The Government do not accept the conclusion of the European Court of Human Rights that lack of access to unspecified contemporary yield and radiation records prevented the veterans from getting a fair hearing before the pensions appeal tribunal.

Mr. McWilliam

Does my hon. Friend understand that the records that have been released and some that have not were looked at by the Select Committee on Defence in the previous Parliament? Does he realise how conflicting some of the evidence is and will he undertake to revisit that evidence in detail, particularly in respect of the Bikini atoll tests?

Mr. Spellar

The study that was undertaken by Sir Richard Doll and the National Radiological Protection Board has been widely publicised and subjected to scientific review. We are not aware of any substantial scientific criticisms of that study, but if such criticisms exist, we are prepared to examine them.