HC Deb 12 January 1998 vol 304 cc1-3
1. Helen Jones

What research the Government are undertaking into illnesses possibly related to Gulf war service. [20196]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. George Robertson)

In addition to two existing epidemiological studies, we are undertaking a major programme of research into the possible health effects of the combination of vaccines and tablets which British troops were given during the Gulf war to protect them against the threat of Iraqi biological and chemical warfare agents.

Helen Jones

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply and welcome the research that is being done. Does he accept the need to disseminate that information? What steps will he take to make the results of the research known both to Gulf war veterans and to members of the general public?

Mr. Robertson

In the normal course of events, that question would have been answered by the Minister for the Armed Forces but, as the House knows, the tragic death of his wife last Thursday means that he cannot be with us today. I know that hon. Members would want their condolences sent to my hon. Friend at this time of bereavement.

My hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces has an extremely good record in these matters. Not only has he had three meetings with representatives of the veterans' organisations: he has made it clear that all those who believe that they have been affected will have access to advice through the medical assessment programme; that appropriate research will be undertaken—and new projects have already been started in that area—that maximum information will be put into the public domain; and that all information relevant to the circumstances that applied in that war to the forces who served in it will be made public.

I draw the House's attention to the words of the Royal British Legion: The Legion has no axe to grind for this, or any other government, but it, with most of the Gulf War Veterans Organisations believes that the new Minister has made a determined and positive attempt to urgently review the cases of those who are unwell and to speedily bring a conclusion to this very real problem. I strongly agree with the Royal British Legion's view.

Mr. Viggers

I support the Government's vigorous approach to investigations into Gulf war syndrome, and rise principally to say that all hon. Members would wish to be associated with the Secretary of State's words. The Minister for the Armed Forces has many friends on both sides of the House and we would all wish to express to him our deep sympathy for his loss.

Mr. Robertson

I am extremely grateful for the hon. Gentleman's words. When I go to the funeral with a number of other hon. Members tomorrow, I shall take those sentiments with me.

Mr. Barry Jones

Is my right hon. Friend sure that Gulf war veterans, such as Mr. Ritchie Turnbull, Mr. Mark Doyle and Mr. David Robertson from my constituency, can see consultants of their choice about the illnesses from which they suffer? Does he understand that cash-strapped health authorities may not want constituents to travel long distances to see such consultants? May I, too, thank my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces for the excellent way in which he has tackled those problems during the past seven short months?

Mr. Robertson

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those words about my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces. We have always made it clear that, where there are problems with access to NHS services—we recognise that problems are inevitable, especially where illnesses have not been pinned down or made specific—we shall do our best to ensure that appropriate attention is paid to them. The priority that we have set ourselves is that Gulf war veterans will be dealt with openly, sympathetically and seriously and that, wherever problems in the system arise, we shall take immediate action to deal with them where we can.

Mr. Hancock

Will the Secretary of State pass on the condolences, prayers and thoughts of Liberal Democrat Members on the sad and tragic loss of the wife of the Minister for the Armed Forces and tell him that our thoughts are with him and his family?

I thank the Secretary of State and the Minister for the Armed Forces for their work on behalf of Gulf war veterans who are service men. May I also draw the Secretary of State's attention to the fact that, of the 1,520 claims that the Ministry of Defence has received so far, a number have come from civilians who were in the Gulf, such as my constituent Mr. John Laffey, who believes that he has not be able to work for the past four and a half years because of illnesses that he contracted in the Gulf? Those civilians should not be disadvantaged. Will the Ministry support and help them: they were not enlisted into the armed forces, unlike civilians during the Falklands crisis? Will the Secretary of State give an assurance that the same facility offered to service personnel will be given to civilians or their families who lodge claims related to Gulf war-associated illnesses?

Mr. Robertson

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments about my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces, whose close personal friends straddle party boundaries. I shall give him the hon. Gentleman's good wishes. I shall look into the points that he raised concerning others who may have been affected by the as yet undetermined nature of Gulf war illnesses.

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