HC Deb 18 January 2000 vol 342 cc818-26

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Robert Ainsworth.]

11.40 pm
Ms Candy Atherton (Falmouth and Camborne)

This debate concerns both my current constituents and, sadly, some who are no longer with us. The issues that I plan to raise involve the use of land by the Ministry of Defence on the north coast of my constituency, at the base formally called Nancekuke, near Portreath. I shall be asking for a totally new inquiry into operations at Nancekuke and the possible effects on my constituents.

Nancekuke was a chemical defence establishment— although that rather bland title hid its real role. Nancekuke was used to produce and test nerve gas after the second world war, and some of its equipment was salvaged from Nazi Germany.

The production of nerve gas was given real impetus by the arms race, and the fear that the eastern bloc was moving ahead in the sphere of chemical warfare. As the Government stated in a declaration to the United Nations, Nancekuke was the United Kingdom's main chemical weapons research and development facility. Chemical weapons produced at Nancekuke were, it is believed, used offensively by the United States until 1964. More than 20 tonnes of the nerve agent GB sarin were produced at Nancekuke—which was a rather large amount, one might think, for research purposes alone.

Nancekuke closed in 1980, after the 1976 defence review, and the buildings and equipment were buried on the site. That is but one of the issues that I wish to pursue in the debate.

Nancekuke consists of eight scattered farms and old quarries and is at the heart of Cornwall's mining history. Many mines were never mapped. Mining is not referred to within the said disclosure to the United Nations. Originally, during the second world war, the site was used as an airfield, but, in the 1950s, people realised that it was being used as an Army research centre.

The base first reached prominence when a local Redruth man, Trevor Martin, claimed that he was suffering from nerve gas poisoning after working as a fitter at the factory. Subsequently, it was discovered that the Ministry of Defence was dispatching nerve gas along the A30, to Porton Down, causing great local alarm.

In the 1960s and 1970s, local Members of Parliament started asking questions, and one particular story rose to prominence. It concerned Tom Griffiths, who is delighted that his personal quest for the truth may—I very much hope that it will—be successful today.

In 1958, Tom was working as a fitter at Nancekuke and had signed a declaration under the Official Secrets Act 1911. One day, he was the victim of an industrial accident, with another worker who has since died in an unrelated accident. Tom had been told to enter a laboratory cubicle without any protective clothing, after being told that it would be safe to do so. However, sarin was leaking into the cubicle.

From that day onwards, Tom has been ill. He received no atropine, which many people believe is a partial antidote. He also did not tell his general practitioner of the accident, fearing the consequences of the Official Secrets Act provisions. Tom's cholinesterase level dropped from 133 to 105 and did not return to normal for 15 months. Consequently, Tom was misdiagnosed, and therefore mistreated.

It was not until 1969, when people started to understand Nancekuke's role, that Tom's GP realised that toxic chemicals were involved and referred him to a neurologist. He diagnosed nerve gas as being responsible for Tom's prolonged neurological and psychological problems. Later, a consultant toxicologist examined Tom and became convinced that sarin was responsible.

Subsequently, Tom spent years of medical tribunals, appeals, counter-appeals and ombudsman involvement. It was a harrowing time, to put it mildly. I could spend the entire debate outlining Tom's case, but I do not have the time.

It was eventually concluded that Tom had suffered from anti-cholinesterase action of organic phosphorous compounds. He received a very small payment from the Ministry of Defence. Tom has had to fight official secrets and duplicity for many years. It is time that his concerns were addressed.

Another worker at Nancekuke who came to see me recently was responsible for testing the blood of fellow workers. On one occasion the machine that protected him from fumes malfunctioned and blew fumes into his face rather than away from him. To this day he has suffered effects consistent with toxic poisoning.

I have also been contacted by people from constituencies further up the coast in Cornwall. They claim that toxic compounds were swept on to the beach at Padstow, leaving them burned and suffering from unusual and classic nerve gas effects. Their then Member of Parliament, John Pardoe, asked many questions about the subject. At much the same time, a large number of seals on the north coast were found dead. Decontaminants were flushed out through a cave into the sea. Those chemicals, rather than nerve gas, may well be responsible. We shall probably never know. Those who believe that they suffer to this day would like to know the answer.

All that might be the stuff of anti-nuclear dissertations, were it not for Carlton Television's south-west news programme "Westcountry Live". Its "Insight" feature broadcast last month broke new ground in the long-running saga, producing the new evidence that many believe justifies a fresh inquiry.

In 1970, because of concerns and legal battles, Ministers decided that a medical inquiry was required to look into the deaths and ill health suffered by workers at Nancekuke. I believe that there was a genuine wish to unearth the truth. I am pleased to say that it was a Labour Government decision. Sadly, in the interim between the decision to investigate and the results of the three-year survey, the Government changed complexion and the truth remained hidden. I am pleased that this Government have agreed to authorise the early release of the information. That is a tribute to open government and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister and his colleagues for agreeing to a request from Graham Smith, the reporter from Carlton Television, for privileged access to examine the documents at Kew a full three years early. They make disturbing reading.

Beneath the rather prosaic language that civil servants of only a few years ago seem to have adopted, the message is clear. Some 41 men died—nine during employment and 32 after leaving the establishment— between 1950 and 1969. We learn more than was published before about how they died. Some complicated statistical analysis was applied and the conclusion was reached that such a death rate was lower than the national average. If a small company employing 150 people lost 41 current and former employees among a relatively young and healthy cohort, alarm bells would ring.

Those men were working not underground or at sea, but in a factory and a laboratory environment. I should like my hon. Friend the Minister to look again at the issue. Can fresh thoughts be applied and modern statistical analysis used?

The key time for the production of nerve gas—we are talking about production, not research quantities—was the 1950s. During the four years from 1955 to 1959, there were 306 cases of respiratory disease—almost double the numbers for the following years. Can those figures be explained by procedures having been tightened up? Are the figures a reflection of the amount of nerve gas produced?

The report made conclusions over a 15-year period from correspondence between civil servants in the Ministry of the Defence and the Office for National Statistics. The documents show that civil servants then were well capable of spin. They wrote to the director of chemical and biological defence research saying that they wished to amend the draft letters to Members of Parliament. They eventually claimed that it was impossible to draw conclusions. In effect, they redrafted the results of the investigation politically. There was clear evidence of a doubling of bronchitis among industrial staff. That was not reported to Parliament at the time.

The overwhelming impression that one gets is of the civil servants desperately trying to manipulate the facts to help themselves out of a hole—not out of concern for the then Government's workers, but in terms of defending negligence claims. Meanwhile, trade unions and their members were fighting health actions, with the Official Secrets Act coming between them and answers.

A number of my constituents have contacted me in recent weeks, and they are genuinely concerned. In many cases, they worked at Nancekuke at the height of production. What medical checks have there been on former Nancekuke personnel since the closure? Does my hon. Friend the Minister not think that, given the high incidence of bronchial problems at the height of production, a sensible course might be to look again at the medical records of those who worked there— particularly in the late 1950s?

Will my hon. Friend look again at the case of Tom Griffiths and others—not necessarily because they seek financial compensation, but because they want to know what happened? I would like to know why it was felt that it was too dangerous in the 1950s to manufacture nerve gas at Porton Down or elsewhere, but all right in Cornwall. Was it because Cornwall is surrounded on three sides by water and has a relatively smaller population than other areas?

Nancekuke was closed in 1980. It is now a RAF listening station and attached to RAF Portreath. I have written to request a visit to the station, and I hope that I will shortly receive a positive reply. I would like to see the site for several specific reasons. When Nancekuke closed, the chemicals were transported to Porton Down. Could my hon. Friend confirm that, and tell the House who conducted the work? Also, the buildings and equipment that could not be guaranteed as clean after decontamination were buried on site. In effect, the polluted elements were left on site 23 years ago.

As I said, the site is a labyrinth of mine shafts. I have been told by many local people that there is a widespread belief that some of the equipment was just dumped down shafts. Production was concentrated on three sites, with the north site as the hub. I understand that only the south and central sites are used by the RAF today, and that several buildings still standing, but used for production, are not currently used.

Why is the north site not used? Are there fears for safety? When was the last complete survey conducted? Is it true that a survey of the site was conducted last year? Would my hon. Friend the Minister be prepared to use modern scientific techniques to survey the land to check that containers are not buried on the site, rather than relying on previous assurances? Will he ask the Environment Agency to monitor water levels for the foreseeable future?

My requests are given more urgency, given the experience of the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key). I understand that similar clear-up operations at Porton Down have revealed large amounts of buried chemicals—chemicals that we had been assured did not exist. I and many of my constituents have real concerns about this issue. What if the rumours are true, and there are chemicals buried locally? After 20 years, they may not be as securely buried as we would all wish. Did the recent survey find such evidence?

Given that health and safety procedures were not as rigorous even a few years ago, might the materials be leaching into the ground? Given the Porton Down experience, will my hon. Friend the Minister conduct such a survey? This is a holiday area and, rightly, local people and visitors will want to know, and be reassured if he has the answers.

I have felt as though I have been involved in a cloak-and-dagger operation since I started raising concerns about Nancekuke. Several figures in the county have implied that I am taking a risk in asking these questions. I find that rather fanciful, but respected individuals in the area have suggested that I take care.

I would like to reiterate my thanks to my hon. Friend the Minister for his openness in enabling us to discover a little more about Nancekuke. Rather like the song, the opening of the documents has raised more questions than answers. Will my hon. Friend initiate the investigations that I am calling for? I cannot believe that it would be a problem, as the ability to locate chemical weapons and tackle leaks must be an element of armed forces training in a world where far too many countries have this capacity.

Also, the ability to monitor those affected by nerve gas and other poisons must be a skill required in tackling chemical accidents. Pensions records should assist in locating those people, and the Government could gain many new friends if, once again, they showed that they were prepared to try to resolve the problems inherited from others.

We have this opportunity and I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to look with fresh eyes. These were toxic chemicals manufactured by and close to my constituents. We all need to know the answers and I look forward to my hon. Friend's reply.

11.55 pm
The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. John Spellar)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton) for this opportunity to discuss the work of the former Ministry of Supply establishment at Nancekuke in Cornwall and also the case of her constituent, Mr. Tom Griffiths. She is a strong campaigner for her constituents and we take her representations seriously. I also want to record our appreciation of our skilled staff at Nancekuke, Porton Down and elsewhere, whose work has played such a vital role in the defence of our country and our freedom.

Before I deal with the specifics of the case and the other points raised, I have to say that I do not entirely agree with my hon. Friend's view on the issue, although I entirely understand the background to the concerns that she has raised. I hope that what I have to say this evening will allay fears that former employees at Nancekuke were at significant risk of being poisoned by nerve gas or, indeed, that activities at the site might have posed, or still might pose, some sort of hazard to the local population.

It might be useful if I describe briefly the history of the establishment at Nancekuke and the site's present situation. I am sure that the House is aware of the use of chemical warfare by the Germans in the first world war when many of our service men suffered the debilitating effects of gases such as mustard and chlorine. I am sure that the House can also appreciate the devastating effects, not only for the individuals concerned but for our military operations. Those threats heralded the start of the research and development that have underpinned the UK's chemical and biological defence capability to the present day.

The great war laid down the principles for the study of chemical warfare and chemical defence and, by the outbreak of the second world war, the ability to protect the UK and its forces against the use of gas had been brought to a level that was superior to that of any other nation. The development of our retaliatory capacity had been more limited but was greatly intensified during the second world war.

Undoubtedly, at the time, our preparedness and that of our allies, did much to influence our opponents' decision not to use their considerable chemical warfare capability and we must be thankful that we were spared the additional casualties that would have been inflicted. However, it was the discovery of German shells containing nerve agents that provided a new dimension to the concept of chemical warfare and impetus to activities during the post-war period.

The site at Nancekuke was one of several involved in the nerve agent programme. Established initially as an autonomous facility of the Ministry of Supply in 1951, Nancekuke was concerned at first with the investigation of processes for the production of chemical warfare agents.

A chemical called GB—known to the Germans as sarin—emerged as the nerve agent on which the UK's chemical weapons were to be based and for that reason was among the agents studied at Nancekuke. A pilot plant was built with a capability of producing up to one ton of nerve agent a week. Plans were also laid for a large-scale production plant. However, those never came to fruition because the UK decided to abandon its offensive chemical warfare capability in 1956.

The pilot plant was decommissioned and, from then on, the work at Nancekuke was carried out solely in support of the defensive programme seeking to address the services' requirements for equipment to detect nerve agents in the field, for prophylaxis and therapy for nerve agent poisoning, for the protection of individuals and facilities, and for monitoring decontamination and residual contamination of terrain and equipment. Various nerve agents were produced but only on a laboratory bench scale.

The House should be aware, however, that the work at Nancekuke was more wide-ranging than just the small-scale production of chemicals and agents for research and studies into the stability of those materials. There were many activities that did not involve working with nerve agents at all. For example, some production and development was concerned with riot control agents, chemicals for detectors, drugs for development as counter-measures, training stimulants and charcoal cloth for NBC—nuclear, biological and chemical—protective suits.

I turn now to the general health of personnel working at Nancekuke. There is no evidence that personnel were likely to suffer effects on their health as a result of working there, or that the local population was in danger.

I can say that because similar concerns were raised by the then Member for North Cornwall some 30 years ago, as my hon. Friend mentioned. They led to two studies by the Registrar General of the mortality and health of former employees up to 1969. As my hon. Friend knows from the answers to her recent parliamentary questions on this issue, the first study showed that the mortality of persons employed at Nancekuke was actually rather less than the average for England and Wales as a whole, possibly, it is said, due to climate and social conditions. This is also one specific instance in this matter where I have to disagree with her about secrecy: the results of the review were not kept secret but were published in the Official Report in 1970.

My hon. Friend noted that 41 deaths out of a work force of 150 seems extraordinarily large. However, the deaths relate to the sum total of people who worked at Nancekuke over approximately its first 20 years, not to the number in any one year. Additionally, the number of staff on the site varied by year and, for some years, was in the region of 300. Regrettably, we no longer have records of precisely how many people were employed at Nancekuke over the period, but it probably ran into a couple of thousand.

I shall risk disagreeing with my hon. Friend again. We are not convinced that the second study that looked at sickness data in Nancekuke employees warrants such attention as it has received recently in the media. Although the study into sickness and absenteeism among employees at Nancekuke could be taken to imply a greater incidence of some illnesses in some workers, it is worth stating the original expert conclusion that, due to a variety of factors, the data were insufficiently robust to be used as firm evidence of increased ill health among staff.

That was also the view of the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys in 1992, and that lack of statistical robustness is the reason why the results were not published formally. In fact, the paper itself explains why the comparisons between sickness rates at Nancekuke and the population at large might be considered invalid.

For example, the data from Nancekuke includes all sickness absences, no matter how short, whereas the national data come from social security records that are confined to absences of at least four days. In addition, the industrial workers at Nancekuke constitute only a subset of the total work force at the site and yet were compared with the total UK working population. The report states that that automatically biases the results against Nancekuke". There are also a number of other issues that could be held to invalidate the report. They include age ranges, national versus regional differences for illnesses such as flu, and Nancekuke's insistence—for understandable reasons—on medical examination for all minor episodes of illness. I do not have time to go into detail about them here but, in view of those shortcomings, it might have been expected that another review would have been carried out. However, all these years later, we do not know why that was not the case.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Given the lack of a review, will the Minister make it possible for those hon. Members—such as myself and the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton)—to see the papers that are available to him? Clearly, there is no longer an issue of secrecy in this regard, but would it be possible to satisfy ourselves about the accuracy of what he is telling us?

Mr. Spellar

I shall look into the matter, and write to the hon. Gentleman.

On secrecy, I am sure that there is no question about the need for some classification to have been applied to various elements of the work at Nancekuke at the time. I should be very surprised if we disagreed on the issue of national security and the great sensitivities surrounding the chemical defence programme, but I understand that the need to protect such information can lead to unwarranted speculation and suspicion. However, the sickness data were not classified, and I am therefore pleased that I responded as I did to the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler).

Before I move away from possible health effects, it is fitting to turn to the case that my hon. Friend raised tonight—that of her constituent, Mr. Tom Griffiths, a Nancekuke employee who was accidentally exposed to sarin in 1958. I agree entirely with her that this was a very regrettable and unfortunate incident, but it was an accident, not an inevitable and predictable event. My Department accepted that, as a result of the accident, Mr. Griffiths suffered some short-term ill effects, and he received compensation in 1976. This is the only case that I am aware that my Department appears to have dealt with, and I am aware of only two cases that were handled by the then Department of Health and Social Security around 1970.

The decision to close Nancekuke and transfer the remaining work to another establishment was taken during the 1976 defence review. Since 1980, the site has been known as RAF Portreath. It is currently an Air Surveillance and Control System—ASACS—reporting post. As such, it forms part of the United Kingdom's air defence system. RAF Portreath also occasionally acts as a relief landing ground for search and rescue helicopters on training activities operating out of RAF St. Mawgan.

I assure my hon. Friend that great consideration was given to drawing up a plan for the closure of Nancekuke in an orderly and phased manner, with due consideration of decontamination and disposal processes. It was certainly not the case that the withdrawal was careless or hurried, and no chemical warfare agents were ever disposed of to either the sea or the land at Nancekuke. In all, in the region of 20 tonnes of sarin were produced. Most of the nerve agents were chemically deactivated, and only small quantities were transferred to Porton for defence research. I am not aware of any chemical warfare agents being transferred to the United States, other than a few laboratory samples. Any other materials and decontaminated plant and equipment were disposed of at a number of clearly identifiable locations on the site.

Nevertheless, I recognise that there has been an evolution in thinking about matters such as contamination of water supplies. My hon. Friend will be pleased to learn about the land quality assessment that is under way at the site, in line with my Department's policy of undertaking such assessments over a 10-year period from 1996. In particular, surface soil and water samples which have been undertaken by the National Rivers Authority have shown no signs of contamination from toxic agents and, as a responsible landlord, we are considering how best to take this work forward, including appropriate consultation with the representatives of local authorities, the Environment Agency for England and Wales, English Nature, and other Departments.

My hon. Friend raised the issue of clear-up operations at Porton Down, but that is an essentially different situation. The site of concern there was a munitions testing range rather than a production facility.

The House may also be interested to know that the former activities at Nancekuke were declared by the United Kingdom under the terms of the chemical weapons convention in 1997. In addition, a team of international inspectors has confirmed that the production facilities have been destroyed and that the few buildings remaining were not being used for chemical weapon purposes. The site will be open for such inspection for at least another 10 years.

My hon. Friend asks if she may visit the site. She will be glad to know that the RAF will be happy to host her at RAF Portreath.

In conclusion, I hope that my hon. Friend and her constituents will now feel more confident about this issue. As Minister of State for the Armed Forces, I have had the opportunity to understand in some detail the importance of our progress in understanding chemical, and, indeed, biological weapons. Nancekuke provided a valuable contribution, which is still relevant in this very uncertain post-cold war world.

I commend to the House our public paper, published last July, which sets out our policy and strategy for defending the United Kingdom and United Kingdom armed forces against the threat of biological and chemical weapons. As I said at the outset, I also commend the excellent work undertaken by our employees in providing this service in defence of this country and of our freedoms.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

Order. The Minister has replied to the debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at ten minutes past Twelve midnight.