HL Deb 24 April 1995 vol 563 cc695-7

Lord Burnham asked Her Majesty's Government:

What progress has been made in the investigation of the causes of the so-called Gulf War syndrome.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Henley)

My Lords, although we retain an open mind on the question of a Gulf-related illness, our examinations of more than 200 British Gulf veterans have so far failed to reveal any evidence of the alleged Gulf War syndrome.

Lord Burnham

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. Has he seen the American report on the first 1,000 of 11,000 cases? I believe that the report on the second 1,000 cases came out last Friday, but my fax machine was not working and I did not receive it. However, from what has emerged, can my noble friend say whether British researches support the American findings that most patients are suffering from relatively common diagnosable and treatable illnesses? Further, are Her Majesty's Government compiling, like the Pentagon, a comparison of morbidity and mortality statistics among servicemen who served in the Gulf and those who did not so serve?

Lord Henley

My Lords, broadly speaking, I think I can agree with my noble friend. We are aware of the US research. We have examined it, and we shall certainly study the further research to which my noble friend referred, published on, I believe, the 21st of this month. Obviously, we want to see more information in relation to that research so that it can be evaluated. We have also seen research from a number of other countries which broadly supports our view that there is no evidence as such at the moment of a Gulf War syndrome. Clearly, we are sympathetic towards all those who believe they are suffering from unexplained illnesses. However, in any group of some 45,000 there will always be a number of such people. I can reassure my noble friend that a recent report from the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Psychiatrists highlights just that—the extent to which chronic multiple unexplained symptoms can occur among the civilian population. It points to something of the order of an average of 1,200 per health district.

Lord Craig of Radley

My Lords, although I appreciate the Minister's desire to keep an open mind on the subject, has not the time perhaps come to draw a line and to suggest that the efforts and resources being put into studying this problem should be directed to the more pressing issues facing the defence medical services?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I believe that the noble and gallant Lord is right. We should not put excessive resources into this issue. I believe that we are devoting sufficient resources to examining something about which I think it is right that we should keep an open mind. I agree with the noble and gallant Lord that at present there is no evidence to warrant any further detailed inquiry, but we shall certainly do whatever is necessary to reassure those who still feel some uncertainty and fear that they may have suffered something as a result of the Gulf War.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, can my noble friend inform the House whether comparable syndromes arose from World War II, a war in which there were long periods of fighting in the desert and in insalubrious jungles, and grievous and heavy casualties in other theatres from violent and relentless enemy action? Is it possible that some surviving soldiers, in touch with me still, may have been suffering from a syndrome for the past 50 years without knowing it? If so, should they be encouraged to seek redress?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I am not aware of any such syndrome. Obviously, in any war, and particularly in the war to which my noble friend refers, a great many servicemen suffered grievous and horrendous injuries, both physical and mental. It is right that we should compensate them for that, as and when appropriate. I can assure my noble friend that any serviceman from the last war or the Gulf War who still believes that he has suffered as a result of that war can apply to the War Pensions Agency and seek redress in that forum.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, while supporting the question of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, that there are other matters to which defence expenditure should properly be addressed, has the Minister seen a report in the New Scientist—unlike the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, my fax machine is working—stating: The mysterious illness known as Gulf War syndrome may have been caused by the combined effect of a pill given to protect against nerve gas and an insect repellent, according to preliminary results from American research"? Are the Government aware of that? Do they support that preliminary finding?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I am not aware of the article to which the noble Lord refers, but I shall certainly ask my officials to look at it. As I said, I am aware of the American research, but we are not aware of any implication in that research that there is evidence of a Gulf War syndrome as suggested.

Lord Walton of Detchant

My Lords, is the Minister aware that a letter published in the British Medical Journal on Saturday last, 22nd April, by the Surgeon-General stated: No evidence has emerged that any organic disorder has occurred more commonly in Gulf veterans than in any similar population over a similar four year period. As might be expected, certain psychiatric conditions … can be attributed to the Gulf conflict, though there is no evidence that their incidence is greater than that in earlier conflicts. These findings remain consistent with the earlier British position and recent American findings"?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord for referring to that letter from the Surgeon-General. I had highlighted that paragraph with a view to reading it to the House.

Lord Greenway

My Lords, bearing in mind the fact that ships of the Royal Navy had to change their chemical filters very much more often than usual as a result of the burning oil wells, did the ingestion of such fumes and smuts have an adverse effect on our servicemen, particularly in relation to respiratory problems?

Lord Henley

My Lords, studies have shown that the level of atmospheric pollution caused mild irritation to the respiratory tract but did not impair lung function or produce long-term effects on health. There is no definitive medical evidence of adverse health effects resulting from multiple exposure to individually non-harmful levels of chemicals containing oil fire smoke. I believe that the noble Lord's point is dealt with. We have no evidence that servicemen in the Royal Navy suffered from the effects of smoke.

Lord Ironside

My Lords, in the United States restrictions have been placed on Gulf War veterans giving blood. Have any such restrictions been placed on Gulf War veterans here?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I am not aware of any such restrictions, but I shall take up that point and write to my noble friend.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, why is the attitude of Her Majesty's Government towards Gulf veterans so very different from the American Government's attitude to their veterans? Also, has the noble Lord seen the research, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Williams, which has been carried out at Duke University, North Carolina, which indicates that tests with pyridostigmine bromide and deer (the insecticide) have an adverse effect upon the neurological tissues of rats and chickens which are the test subjects for OP poisoning?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I reject totally the noble Countess's allegations that our attitude has been different to that of the Americans. We have kept in close contact with the US authorities who are investigating this alleged syndrome. There is no clinical evidence from the US Department of Defense investigations of a single or unique agent causing the so-called Gulf War syndrome. I accept that President Clinton has authorised a programme to award payments to US Gulf veterans suffering from undiagnosed symptoms, but that should not be taken to mean that the US Government acknowledge the existence of a Gulf-related condition or that it is compensation in the legal sense. Payments are in the form of disability awards and reflect the significant differences in welfare and war pensions arrangements between the US and the UK.

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