HC Deb 09 January 2001 vol 360 cc877-90 3.30 pm
The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. John Spellar)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement. I apologise to the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), for the short time that the statement has been available.

During the last few days, concern has been expressed in the media and in the House about the possible exposure of United Kingdom forces to depleted uranium in the Balkans. This reflects a series of reports from the media and elsewhere that the health of peacekeepers in Bosnia or Kosovo may have been affected by its use. It is suggested that some UK service personnel may have become ill as a result of exposure to depleted uranium in the Balkans.

This afternoon, I shall set out our position on depleted uranium, and list the steps we are taking and intend to take. Depleted uranium is a very dense heavy metal. It results from the uranium enrichment process, and because the majority of the more radioactive isotopes are removed in this process, depleted uranium is about 40 per cent. less radioactive than natural uranium. Because of its density and metallurgic properties, depleted uranium is ideally suited for use as a kinetic energy penetrator for use in anti-armour munitions. The UK has developed and deployed a 120 mm armour-piercing round for use in the Challenger main battle tank. This ammunition was used in the Gulf war, where about 100 rounds were fired by us against Iraqi armour, as well as some rounds during training in Saudi Arabia. This ammunition provides a battle-winning military capability. Alternative materials are not as effective. Therefore, DU will remain part of our arsenal for the foreseeable future, because when this country commits our forces to conflict, we fight to win. Our troops need the best available equipment to enable them to do that. To deny them a legitimate capability would be quite wrong.

Handled in accordance with the regulations, DU shells present no hazard to our forces. We have long recognised, however, that on the battlefield its debris might present a hazard from chemical toxicity, in the same way as any heavy metal such as lead, and a low-level radiological hazard. The risk from chemical toxicity would arise from ingestion of the soluble depleted uranium oxides, and the radiological risk primarily from inhalation of the insoluble depleted uranium oxides. Those risks arise from the dust created when DU strikes a hard target such as an armoured vehicle. In its massive form, as expended rounds or solid fragments, it is a negligible hazard.

In response to the health concerns of Gulf veterans, the Ministry of Defence has, both in 1993 and 1999, published details of those hazards together with our estimates of the risk that they might have posed to troops in the Gulf. We believe those risks to have been low, which is borne out by the findings of our medical assessment programme for Gulf veterans. There has been no evidence, during the deployment or subsequently, of the kidney damage that would be the chief indication of heavy metal poisoning. Radiological damage would become manifested as an increased rate of cancer only after a long period of latency. Furthermore, there is currently no evidence, after 10 years, of a higher rate of cancer among Gulf veterans compared to a control group. We currently offer tests to Gulf veterans who attend the medical assessment programme for whole body load of uranium, if there is a clinical indication that uranium might be linked to the illnesses that they manifest.

Substantial amounts of research into the health risks of uranium have been conducted and published over many years. Recent work by reputable bodies has assessed this literature in the context of possible battlefield exposures to DU.

The conclusions of all that work, including that by the RAND corporation, the US Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry, and the US Institute of Medicine, is that there is no evidence linking DU to cancers or to the more general ill health being experienced by some Gulf veterans. As regards exposures, important work at the Baltimore Veterans Affairs clinic in the United States is monitoring Gulf veterans known to be at the highest risk of exposure due to "friendly-fire" incidents. None of those troops, including those who retain DU shrapnel in their bodies, have health problems related to DU. Testing of Gulf and Balkans veterans for uranium in the US, Canada and Belgium has failed to show any of them excreting higher than background levels unless they have embedded shrapnel.

Depleted uranium has also been fired by NATO forces during operations in Bosnia in 1994 and 1995, and in Kosovo in 1999. Compared with around 300 tonnes fired in the Gulf, only 3 tonnes were fired in Bosnia and around 9 tonnes in Kosovo, very little of it in the British sector.

Conscious of the potential risks that DU posed, we issued precautionary guidance to our forces in Kosovo about the need not to approach recently struck, burned-out armoured vehicles possibly hit by DU, which present the main hazard, and about the need to wear suitable protective clothing if they had to work in the vicinity of those vehicles.

The working environment of our forces in the Balkans is already closely monitored because of health and safety and environmental concerns about the theatre, which extend well beyond the question of DU. The Ministry of Defence is aware of no evidence to date of unusual ill health among our Balkan peacekeepers, or specifically of any ill health that would suggest heavy-metal poisoning. Indeed, a thorough epidemiological study was done by King's college in the context of Gulf health, which examined a cohort of nearly 4,000 Bosnia peacekeepers. The study found no difference in the level of symptoms between them and troops who had been deployed neither to the Gulf nor to Bosnia.

Media reports have also focused on the test firing of DU at UK ranges. Apart from a small amount of contained firing at Foulness and Aldermaston, that has been concentrated in the ranges at Kirkcudbright on the Solway Firth, and at Eskmeals in Cumbria. It is fired at Kirkcudbright into the sea, and at Eskmeals—until 1995—into armour plate targets. Safety at the ranges, and in their environs, has been a paramount concern. The DU firing programme is subject to regulation under the Ionising Radiation Regulations 2000. The Environment Agency and the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency also have oversight of the firing programme. A detailed review of the environmental impact of firing DU at these ranges was undertaken by the independent environmental consultants W. S. Atkins. The consultants concluded that the radiation doses to members of the public and the associated risks from DU released into the environment were extremely low.

I have spelled out the background to depleted uranium, and to our and other existing research on the issue, because it is important to put some of the inaccurate and inflammatory media coverage in context. These issues are not new, and we must not unduly alarm service personnel or their families about the position.

That said, we recognise that there are concerns among our people, and we recognise a need to reassure them. We take very seriously our responsibility to our service personnel, given the demands that we make on them during operations.

Our response, therefore, will be to identify an additional appropriate voluntary screening programme for our service personnel and civilians who have served in the Balkans. We shall do that on the basis of the best available science. We shall consult appropriate national bodies, such as the United Kingdom national screening committee of the Department of Health. Another important source of external scientific advice will be the report currently under preparation by the Royal Society, which is taking an independent look at depleted uranium.

It will be important also to co-ordinate an approach with allies, many of whom are assessing the same reports as I make this statement. A crucial part of our approach will be to discuss with allies their data on risks to health in the Balkans, the health of peacekeepers in the Balkans, the responses that they plan, and to ensure that all data available across NATO are pooled as a basis for subsequent decisions. We are also conscious that the United Nations environmental programme has surveyed sites in Kosovo and we await the publication of its final report with interest. I should add that its interim statement refers to only slightly elevated levels of radiation at eight of the sites that the programme monitored. I am also announcing that the UK will enhance its existing environmental surveillance programme in the Balkans to ensure that no health threats to our forces, and indeed to the local civilian population, are overlooked. In the meantime, any individual who believes that their health may have been damaged by service in the Balkans should seek medical advice. If their doctor considers that there is evidence that depleted uranium might have contributed to ill health, tests for uranium levels will be carried out.

I hope that this statement puts the current debate into context, provides the necessary reassurance to the House as well as to our forces and their families, and indicates the way ahead. We are providing battle-winning equipment for our forces and taking seriously our responsibility for our forces' welfare. I am sure that the House will agree that they deserve no less.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green)

I thank the Minister for his courtesy in giving me a copy of the statement before he came to the Dispatch Box. I also welcome the statement generally, given all the press speculation over the past few weeks.

The Minister is right to be here today. The reasons for the Government to have acted are threefold: first, to calm the speculation that has been raging for some time, not only in the past couple of days but over the Christmas period and before; secondly—as the Minister said—to reassure service personnel and their families that the Ministry of Defence is concerned enough about their well-being to be prepared to investigate if such investigation is necessary; and, thirdly, to find out whether there is any basis in truth for the recent spate of allegations, which appear to have come mostly from the Italians, but also from elsewhere. Most of the Italian cases come from Bosnia, as I am sure the Minister will confirm. I shall say more about that in a second.

The Minister referred to reports published earlier that suggest that there is no risk. For example, the World Health Organisation and the United Nations have said that they do not think that there is a radiation risk. They refer to this as a toxicity issue rather than a radiation issue. Will the Minister spend a little more time explaining the basis for those statements? The Ministry of Defence produced a report, "Testing for the presence of depleted uranium in UK veterans of the Gulf conflict", which came to similar conclusions.

I also note, given the point about the Italian cases in Bosnia, that a Mrs. Obradovic, a haematologist in the Serb-controlled half of Bosnia, said recently that the leukaemia rate among the 500,000 residents in that section was the same as before the Bosnian war. That was one of the areas that experienced the greatest concentration of the use of these weapons. I would, therefore, be concerned if they were experiencing no change while we are apparently seeing a change in service personnel, whoever they may be.

Will the Minister confirm that there was no firing of depleted uranium rounds on the testing range at Bovington on the Salisbury plain?

I would like to know what has changed in the past 24 hours. A Ministry of Defence spokesman ruled out health checks yesterday, then suddenly, in today's papers, we were being briefed that there would be health checks. The Minister said that there was no new evidence, so perhaps he could explain whether this change has been driven from sources outside the Ministry of Defence, particularly from Downing street, which appears to have provided the statement. Will he explain the reason for the change and for this early statement?

Given that this issue has created some concern over the past few weeks, why did the Minister and his colleagues choose not to make the sort of statement that he has made today to clarify the position? Surely that would have soothed some of the more ludicrous press comments. Why, then, did the Ministry choose to leave officials to make only simple statements?

What will the Minister's response to other NATO nations be? The Italians are reported as saying that if they do not get the weapons banned, they will withdraw from NATO. What discussions has the Minister had with his counterparts in the Italian Government on that? Expletives can be deleted in this case.

Is not the Minister's real point, with which I agree, that there is an issue of balance of risk? After all, we are dealing with war-fighting weapons that are used in the most dangerous and risky circumstances. The weapons are used to protect British or allied forces, which may have to engage tanks or armoured vehicles that would otherwise be likely to destroy their position or even kill them. Is not that ultimately the main decision—whether there is any risk and what the balance of risk is, given the nature of the circumstances in which such weapons are likely to be used? Establishing these factors quickly, and doing so in the public domain as much as possible, would reassure service personnel and their families as much as others in the country who want to know that the Government and the Ministry of Defence will do whatever it takes.

Mr. Spellar

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the tone of his response, and should like to deal with some of the details that he raised. He rightly mentioned the greater risks from toxicity than from radiation, particularly the lack of any perceived link between radioactivity in the air and incidence of leukaemia. The World Health Organisation made its statement based on work that has been done with uranium miners who, while they show incidence of other cancers, do not show a higher incidence of leukaemia, and on the evidence from Chernobyl where, again, there was no increase in the incidence of leukaemia, as I understand from the WHO's reports. However, it is right to identify the fact that there are potential risks, and I shall come later to risk management.

The hon. Gentleman referred to data in other countries and how they are perceived. That reinforces the need to pool data and seek a common methodology and approach across the NATO countries. Discussions are taking place bilaterally and also at NATO level in that context. Indeed, there is a meeting of NATO countries this week.

I am advised that depleted uranium has not been fired at Bovington. I am happy to provide reassurance on that point.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the reason for the change and the impact of media coverage. Inevitably, greater concern will be felt by our troops reading the weight of media coverage on the subject. It is important that our forces have the best possible reassurance regarding their position. That is why we are looking at an expanded programme, in dialogue with the appropriate medical and scientific authorities, to ensure that we have the best possible mechanism for delivering that. As the hon. Gentleman rightly anticipated, we shall be having meetings at NATO.

The hon. Gentleman also talked about risk. It is important to stress that the correct philosophy is not risk avoidance, which is impossible and, as he suggested, may carry much greater risks to our forces in terms of loss of military capability. That is why I believe that it would be fundamentally wrong to move away from justifiable weapons that enable our people to undertake the tasks that the country gives them when we send them into conflict to fight and win.

We are concerned, however, with risk management—the evaluation and handling of risk, and the avoidance of unnecessary risk. That is why we are looking at further environmental studies, as I outlined in the statement, and at individual monitoring. We believe that that is the responsible way in which to handle the issue. I hope that that provides the necessary and justified reassurance to our forces that we are making our best efforts and using our best endeavours for their welfare.

Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South)

Will the Minister accept that almost everybody here welcomes not only the statement but the enthusiastic, unprompted, spontaneous factors that led to his appearance at the Dispatch Box this afternoon? Will he confirm that the first two thirds of his speech was written by the same civil servants who wrote Government policy on the Gulf war syndrome between 1991 and 1997? Does he accept that I am elated that politicians sit on top of decision making in our system of government and not civil servants? Finally, does he recall what the Government said to the Select Committee on Defence in 1997? They said: The new Government believes we have a debt of honour to those who have served their country in the Armed Forces … I think that today's statement confirms that that debt of honour, for whatever reason, will be paid.

Mr. Spellar

I thank my hon. Friend for his concluding comments. When we came in as the new Administration, the previous occupant of this position, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, North and Bellshill (Dr. Reid), made it clear that we wanted to provide the best available resources to get to the facts and the truth and to be guided by the science. That is the basis of my statement today. We want to use the best possible scientific advice to establish the facts. If that means that we can only provide reassurance to our forces that there is no risk to them, that will be of value in itself. If there is a risk, we shall be able to consider how we can best manage it and remedy the position for individuals. Therefore, we have to be guided carefully by the science so that we make the best practical decisions for both the health of our forces and their operational effectiveness. My hon. Friend and his Select Committee will be working with us to achieve that aim.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford)

On behalf of all those on the Liberal Democrat Benches may I welcome the statement and thank the Minister for his courtesy in supplying me with a copy of it? As for the timing, Mr. Speaker, you hear almost weekly requests for statements from the Government from those on the Opposition Benches, so it would be churlish to criticise the timing when such a statement is made. We welcome it. We also welcome any aim to ascertain a connection between DU and health risks for service personnel and civilians. Will the screening that he has announced be a one-off or will it be on-going?

In the Gulf, the cocktail of immunisations, environmental pollution and any agencies used by Iraq make it difficult to ascertain whether there is a definite link between DU and ill health. In the Balkans, such a distinction could be made clearer. Can the Minister give us a few more details? When will the tests begin? Will they be connected with the study that is already being undertaken by the Royal Society into so-called Gulf war syndrome?

The Minister mentioned the allies. The weapons were used in United Nations and NATO operations. How will discussions with the allies take place? He also mentioned the two training grounds. Can he give an absolute guarantee that those munitions have not been used on other testing sites in the United Kingdom, as there have been suggestions that they have? If there is contamination, what guidance will be given to the civilian populations in areas where the weapons were used, to non-governmental organisations and even to the British police and civilians who now operate there? Should not the cautionary principle that applies to sites where cluster bombs were used also be used for DU?

Mr. Spellar

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. He asks about the timing of implementation of the programme. That will depend on the scientific advice that we receive. As he rightly says, that advice will also be guided by the independent study that the Royal Society is conducting. As the spokesman said, the Royal Society instigated that study, but we have been happy to co-operate. We will be working with the Royal Society to get the best advice on the nature and timing of the programme and, equally importantly, evaluation of the results. We shall have discussions through NATO with our allies on the issue, in particular to ensure that we pool data so that we have a much wider database for the programme.

I am not aware of any sites in the United Kingdom where depleted uranium has been fired, apart from those that I identified in my statement. Of course, in other areas, some of the vehicles that were hit will already have been removed. In many areas the level of radiation is fairly low. An environmental evaluation will need to be undertaken as part of the programme. We shall obviously work with the United Nations mission in Kosovo precisely to determine the best way to handle such matters, because much of the responsibility for them lies within UNMIK's remit, rather than that of KFOR.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Is the Minister prepared to put in the Library the interim findings of the air cells unit of KFOR?

Mr. Spellar

I think that I shall have to write to my hon. Friend on that particular subject.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East)

Although I welcome very much the assurance that the Minister has given to the Gulf veterans, does he accept that there is a need for continuing concern and care about the situation in areas where the weapons are being tested or destroyed? In particular, on the basis of the statement, can he give a clear assurance to the residents of Shoeburyness, Foulness and Great Wakering in my constituency that no meaningful health hazard has been identified from the activities there? Will he seek to persuade the local health authority to publish statistics that show that it has found no evidence of worrying health statistics that might be related to the destruction of weapons? Can he give us an assurance on supervision and control—for example, through the Environment Agency—when the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency goes through the changes involved in privatisation?

We welcome the statement, and the Minister's intention in making it, but does he accept that there is a genuine need to give continuing care, concern and attention to the areas where such weapons have been tested or destroyed?

Mr. Spellar

As I identified in the statement, the work at those sites is already under the supervision of the appropriate environment agency. That will continue irrespective of the ownership status of any site. We have no indication of any meaningful health hazard arising from the work at Shoeburyness and Foulness. Equally, we are not aware of any figures from the health authority, but we liaise with health authorities in all the areas where we work. I am more than happy to take up that matter on the hon. Gentleman's behalf, to provide the necessary reassurance to his constituents.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham)

Does the Minister accept that some soldiers returning from the Gulf war and the Balkans have developed very serious illnesses? Is he aware—I am sure that he is—of my constituent, Mr. Dave Robertson? He went to the Gulf war a fit, healthy, active career soldier, but developed into an absolute wreck when he came back. His skin bleeds for no reason; he bleeds internally; he has developed epilepsy; he has regular seizures; and he has had a number of strokes. He sees a neurologist, an orthopaedic surgeon and a rheumatologist. He has respiratory problems; he has had pneumonia and pleurisy; and he has chronic fatigue syndrome. He needs permanent daily support just to exist.

If depleted uranium was not the cause of that, what was? If it was not depleted uranium, was it the toxic vaccines that were given to Mr. Robertson as a matter of course to prevent him from suffering illnesses? The previous Tory Government did nothing about that for nearly 10 years. There are many people, such as Mr. Robertson, who have deep, deep health problems, and it is the responsibility of a responsible, caring Government, such as this, to do something about it and try to find out exactly why Mr. Robertson and many of his colleagues have those illnesses.

Mr. Spellar

I fully understand the feeling that my hon. Friend has for his constituent. Indeed, several hon. Members have constituents who served in the Gulf and who are suffering from illnesses. That is precisely why previous Ministers for the Armed Forces have announced a range of studies, which the Government have continued, to try to ascertain the causes of those illnesses. There is a difference between veterans from the Gulf and those from Bosnia and Kosovo, in that those who served in the Balkans do not show higher levels of illness compared with a comparable group.

It is certainly true that a number of Gulf veterans suffer from illnesses and that they are showing considerable symptoms. However, the root causes of those illnesses is still not clear from the work that we and other allied countries have undertaken.

We have funded several programmes. Some of them have already reported, but others have still to report because they will run for a number of years and are extremely extensive. We have funded those programmes to get to the bottom of the causes of the Gulf war illnesses, to see what can be done to remedy the illnesses of those who served in the Gulf and to avoid a similar situation in the future.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

May I warmly welcome the Minister's statement? It is clear that he is doing the right thing, and that the research will build on the work that was put in place by the Secretary of State and the substantial work—I am sure that the Minister will acknowledge this—that was put in place by the previous Government but that failed to come to the same conclusion. Indeed, we are not significantly further forward than we were several years ago. I also welcome the fact that he acknowledges that depleted uranium weapons are designed to inflict the most serious damage on the Queen's enemies and are an extremely effective weapon.

Will the Minister reassure the House that in the work done on testing armour-piercing weapons, all effective steps were taken to protect those who took part in the work? Will the research that now takes place consider in detail the equipment that was used and the clothes that were worn by those who examined the targets almost immediately after the test firings?

Mr. Spellar

I shall certainly write to the hon. Gentleman about the detailed points that he has raised. As I said in my statement, the work was undertaken under the control of the environmental agencies and under the appropriate ionising radiation regulations. It was subsequently evaluated by W. S. Atkins, who are extremely professional and experienced consultants on this matter. Therefore, we have received a considerable degree of reassurance regarding the environmental safety of the work force involved and the surrounding environment, and thus the residents in the area.

I fully acknowledge that work has been undertaken to try to ascertain the cause of the illnesses suffered by Gulf veterans that are now universally acknowledged to exist. Although we still have not determined the cause, we might have eliminated a number of possible causes.

Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley)

Can my hon. Friend confirm or deny whether tests of the weapons have taken or will take place in Northumberland? As I suspect that he will tell us that the civilian population is safe, why does he not test the weapons in his constituency?

Mr. Spellar

Possibly because I represent one of the most urban constituencies in the country, where the amount of open land available is considerably less than at Otterburn. Its use by the armed forces is greatly welcomed by the residents for whom the work is a significant source of employment. The area's use helps to maintain an attractive national park and to sustain a considerable number of wildlife, which may be less disturbed by human intrusion.

I am not aware of depleted uranium rounds having been used at Otterburn. Equally, our application for the extension of Otterburn is related not to depleted uranium but much more to rocket-launching, systems and the capacity of the AS90, which is a considerable addition to our military capability and one that I am sure we shall all welcome.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

In some countries—notably, the United States—the attitude is that if their service personnel are put in harm's way and suffer in any manner, they should be supported and compensated. However, in this country the attitude sometimes is that if a service man suffers injury, he must demonstrate that he is injured and that he derived that injury from serving in the armed forces. That is not a party political point; it is based on constituency experience.

Mr. Spellar

The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the provisions for war pensions whereby the burden of proof in the first seven years is on the Ministry of Defence, which has to establish that a particular condition was not caused by an individual's service in the armed forces. After seven years, the burden of proof shifts in the other direction. That is analogous to his description of arrangements in the United States.

It is right that we should compensate and seek to assist those people who are injured while serving the country. At the same time, we have a duty to the taxpayer to assure ourselves that an individual's claim is a proper case for compensation. However, as the hon. Gentleman knows, war pensions are administered by the Department of Social Security. He will also be aware of the attributable pension, which is payable to people who are injured while serving in the armed forces, although with a slightly different burden of proof.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

My hon. Friend rightly stressed the paramount need to reassure our armed forces. There will, of course, be similar concerns among our allies, the Portuguese, the Italians and the Greeks. He also properly said that there should be a pooling of data. Has that not been done comprehensively already? Are we initiating that? To what extent is that a matter not for individual Governments, but for NATO itself to lead?

Mr. Spellar

That matter will be discussed by NATO with a view to drawing up a common methodology, leading to a future pooling of data. However, the actual assessment of individuals' conditions, in all the countries that my right hon. Friend mentioned, is at an early stage. In the one or two countries where there have been programmes of testing for uranium, there has been a fairly limited take-up and, indeed, no presence of uranium has been detected. Urgent discussions are taking place between NATO members to ascertain each country's position. The prime responsibility for delivering programmes at the sharp end will lie with national Governments. However, it is appropriate for discussions to take place at a NATO level to try to co-ordinate them.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion)

Can the Minister reassure my constituents that no depleted uranium has been fired, stored or transported at Aberporth in my constituency, and that there is no health risk to them? Will he also expand on what he said in response to the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) regarding the responsibility for toxicity after the privatisation of DERA sites?

Mr. Spellar

That was a slightly different question from the one posed by the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) on the contamination of a site. As far as I am aware, responsibility for that will lie with the site's owner, although transitional arrangements will be undertaken, depending on the individual circumstances of each site. I am not aware that any depleted uranium rounds were fired at Aberporth. However, I shall check on details of its involvement with depleted uranium and write to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton)

I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for his statement, but will he take it from me that the absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence? Veterans' cases have demonstrated that over the years and we must take the matter seriously. As for the European theatre, he will be aware that in France, four soldiers have contracted leukaemia; in Italy, six soldiers have died; in Belgium, five soldiers have been treated for cancer; and in Spain, eight soldiers are being treated. It is a European-wide and USA-wide issue. Will my hon. Friend ensure that there is an effective NATO response and a uniformity of approach on medical issues? Will he also ensure that veterans will receive a much more sympathetic response than has been the case over the past 10 years?

Mr. Spellar

We must not jump to immediate conclusions on the data. My hon. Friend has mentioned a number of cases where people have sadly died. We are not as yet aware of the cause of death. Reports in one paper, for example, suggest that there was a range of different conditions among the six Italians. I am advised by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, who is more versed in medical matters than I am, that these conditions are quite different.

We are talking about tens of thousands of people from each of the countries concerned. There are standard data tables which indicate for any population the expected numbers of people who will contract certain conditions and diseases. We must have regard to where there is an abnormal departure from those numbers. We must then consider the potential cause and examine the connection to establish causation and, if necessary, a remedy. That is very much what happened with the work on lung cancer and the smoking of cigarettes. There was an epidemiological study to assess whether there was a much higher incidence of lung cancer, which was followed by work on causation.

We must be concerned, but we must be careful to ensure that we are driven by science. That is the way in which we can best identify a remedy or a way to alleviate people's conditions. At the same time, it is the way in which we can manage the risk to try to avoid such problems in future.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

Will the Minister comment on the statement, which was reported yesterday, by Mr. Haavisto, who is the head of the United Nations environment programme team on Kosovo, that he and his team had been surprised at radiation levels in Kosovo? The team had tested a sample of 11 sites out of the 112 that NATO had identified as having been attacked with depleted uranium rounds. It found significantly increased radiation at eight of them. We agree that our forces should not be militarily disadvantaged in any war—the problem is what health effects remain after the war is over.

Mr. Spellar

The comment to which the hon. Gentleman referred, particularly on the vehicles, was about a slightly increased level of radiation. That is why I said in my statement that we await with interest the final report. I am not saying that to disparage the report. We want to see the full data, conclusions and, potentially, even recommendations. We shall be examining the report together with the Royal Society report to inform our thinking both about potential environmental remediation and individual cases. We must study the data to ascertain whether they show any potential increase in levels of radioactivity. We must also evaluate the level of risk that the increased level of radioactivity might bring about.

Even in natural conditions there are quite considerable variations in levels of radioactivity between different parts of the United Kingdom, particularly in those areas with substantial amounts of granite, which will show higher levels of background radiation than elsewhere. We must obtain the data before we can make any response, and we hope to have them, in the not too distant future.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

What information does my hon. Friend have at his disposal concerning the effects of radiation in Serbia, Iraq or Kosovo on the civil population? Is he prepared to publish whatever information he has? Is he aware that some people, on listening to his statement, would identify a degree of complacency about the effects of depleted uranium on British soldiers? The Italian and Portuguese Governments have expressed the deepest concern about deaths among their soldiers as a result of depleted uranium. Is it not urgent that my hon. Friend publishes at the earliest opportunity the information for which my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) asked so that we can assess the real risk?

Mr. Spellar

I absolutely agree that we should have as much information as possible in the public domain for there to be proper scientific peer review of that information and both the situation and possible remedies. It is unfortunate, therefore, that my hon. Friend immediately leaps to the conclusion that some deaths were automatically caused by depleted uranium. There have been deaths from leukaemia and depleted uranium was used in Kosovo and Bosnia. At the moment, no linkage has been drawn and we therefore have to work on the best available scientific evidence to consider the condition of individuals, any causation and the environmental situation.

My hon. Friend is also absolutely right to draw attention to any possible threat to civilian populations. I mentioned the matter in my statement, particularly with regard to our further review of environmental conditions in the area as they affect our service personnel and civilians and the local civilian population.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

I sit on a Royal British Legion working group concerned with the health of Gulf war veterans and I very much welcome the statement, but does the Minister recognise that Members on both sides of the House owe it to those who serve our country in the armed forces to take a careful and comprehensive attitude to their health following the exercises in which they engage on our behalf? He referred to the medical assessment programme. What proportion of service personnel who went to the Gulf or to the Balkans are having their health monitored? What consultation is taking place with the Royal British Legion to increase participation in the MAP? When does he expect to receive the Royal Society report?

Mr. Spellar

My recollection is that some 3,000 people have been through the medical assessment programme, but the hon. Gentleman should not consider any downturn in numbers to be a failure. Those who have illnesses that they believe may be attributable to service in the Gulf may have already been seen and the great majority of the rest, if they have illnesses, either may not believe that those are Gulf related or, thank heavens, may be fit and well, as the great majority of those who served in the Gulf are. Therefore, as I have said a number of times, we must always consider the level of illness and whether it is abnormal compared with that in an equivalent cohort. I have already described our work comparing those who went to the Balkans or to the Gulf with those who did not. We are dealing with separate situations. We must recognise that and then use scientific method to ascertain possible reasons for differences. That leads to the question of possible remedies.

As yet, I am not aware of the time scale for the Royal Society report, but I am advised that it is coming along fairly well and will not be delayed too long.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Will the Minister examine the 1993 letters from two of his predecessors to me which confirm, first, that those soldiers most at risk in the Gulf war—tank crews and other personnel—had no warning of the dangers of depleted uranium; and secondly, that test firings were carried out at four sites in Britain, including Foulness? Will he examine the answers given at that time to a range of parliamentary questions? One was tabled on 28 March 1991, during the Gulf war, and in 1993 an early-day motion demanded a full inquiry. All received contemptible and contemptuous answers from the Government of the day, who were informed by the Ministry of Defence. Is not it common sense that a battlefield covered with depleted uranium dust—tonnes of it—represents a hazard to human health and that the perception of danger is real? We need to protect those who put their lives on the line for this country from not only real dangers, but powerful perceptions of danger.

Mr. Spellar

I think that my hon. Friend welcomes the measures that I announced today. During my preparations, I did not have time to go back to questions from the early 1990s, but I will refresh my memory later. He is right that we must examine the potential risks faced by our forces when they are engaged in operations. Some risks are inevitable; some are potentially avoidable. If we can avoid them without losing battlefield effectiveness, we should do so. It is important that we learn the lessons of every operation in order to improve our performance. That is why we have undertaken the work that I outlined in my statement. I hope that that will provide reassurance to my hon. Friend, other hon. Members and, most importantly, our service men and women.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

I welcome the Minister's statement and hope that it will bring calm and reassurance to our soldiers, sailors and airmen who may be affected. It is distressing when soldiers, sailors and airmen do not know the cause of their illness, especially for those who might have been affected by depleted uranium or Gulf war syndrome.

Will the Minister confirm that those who think that they may be affected will receive the same benefits in the form of disability pension as equivalent service men wounded in the course of action or made ill by their service? Under the seven-year rule, the burden of proof of a causal connection between the illness and the service man's involvement in action—except, I understand, in the case of Gulf war syndrome—changes from the MOD to the service man affected after seven years. Will he also confirm that until the science is clearer, the seven-year rule will not apply in the case of alleged depleted uranium poisoning?

Mr. Spellar

I will write to the hon. Gentleman about that. As I said in my statement, part of the assessment that we are undertaking involves the latency of possible impacts and the time scale within which leukaemia may be expected to appear from any possible causation. From studies of the various related groups who were affected by radioactive dust, that does not seem to increase the incidence of leukaemia, but we are conducting further work in that regard, and we are mindful of the delays that can take place. I will look into the detail of the provisions and write to the hon. Gentleman.

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