HL Deb 08 May 1996 vol 572 cc108-11

3.5 p.m.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In so doing, I declare an interest as patron of the Gulf Veterans Association.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what is their response to the results of research conducted at the Southern General Hospital, Glasgow, and by scientists in the United States, into the effects of the combination of drugs and vaccines administered to members of British and United States' armed forces, and the pesticides to which they were exposed at the time of the Gulf War.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Earl Howe)

My Lords, we were aware of the research being undertaken in Glasgow and were interested to read the team's report of its findings. So far as research in America is concerned, the work at Duke University, North Carolina, has recently been widely publicised in the media, but the research team has yet to publish its own report. Until we see that report, we cannot comment on the team's findings.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Before I ask my questions let me make it absolutely clear that I am satisfied that the Government should do everything that they can to protect their troops in the theatre of war against any chemical and biological weapons. However I am also concerned that when the drugs, vaccines and other protective agents cause problems they should be investigated adequately. Therefore, in view of the fact that it was in July last year that Dr. Jamal sent his paper to the Ministry of Defence, and was visited by Wing Commander Coker at the end of July, why has no contact whatever been made with Glasgow Southern General Hospital, yet the USA Department of Defense, as soon as Dr. Jamal's paper was published, asked for copies of the paper, which it is following up? Why has our Ministry of Defence done nothing?

Earl Howe

My Lords, it is not true that there has been no contact between my department and the Glasgow research team. The consultant in charge of the Gulf veterans' medical assessment programme visited Dr. Jamal in August last year after a copy of his research findings had been passed to us. Later, we had to reject a request from Dr. Jamal for assistance with further research because we had not at that stage decided what areas of research to pursue. We provided him with a copy of the guidelines in which we envisaged collaboration with outside researchers.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, does not the Minister find this an odd story: each time Gulf War Syndrome is raised, the Government say, "Well we do not have the evidence. There is nothing in it"? The next time it is raised they say, "We do not have the evidence, and there is nothing in it". The next time it is raised with further evidence they say, "Well, perhaps there is something in it". When will they sit down and say, "Look, there may well be something in it", and admit that they have not yet taken it as seriously as it should be taken? This is an important matter, for, admittedly, a minority, but a significant minority, of people who served honourably in the Gulf War.

Earl Howe

My Lords, there has been no inconsistency in what we have said. We retain an open mind, as we always have done, on the so-called Gulf War Syndrome. There has been no evidence to date that such a syndrome exists, but it is only responsible of us to pursue such matters and to get to the bottom of them. That is why we have proposed the research that we have, which will be proceeding shortly.

Lord Napier and Ettrick

My Lords, is it true that doctors treating these patients have been denied full knowledge of the cocktails with which these people were injected, in particular to do with nerve gas?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I do not believe that there has been any secrecy about these matters, although clearly in some cases the precise compounds remain a classified matter. The vaccinations against endemic infectious diseases and the assessed biological warfare threat were offered to Gulf personnel on the basis of voluntary, informed consent. Those products were licensed, fully tested, and cleared by the National Institute of Biological Standards Control before their use. All the vaccines have recognised civilian uses. I am surprised to hear what the noble Lord said. If he would like me to follow it up I shall gladly do so.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, can the Minister assure the House that when they have the evidence they will not do what they always do in cases in which troops may have been damaged; that is, to demand absolute proof? Often absolute proof cannot be brought forward in such cases. Therefore, will the Government make a decision on the balance of probability?

Earl Howe

My Lords, we have absolutely no interest in concealing anything. The results of the research will be published and assessed by peer groups. The Government will consider the conclusions impartially and will be as open as possible about them. I cannot pre-empt the results of that research but I can tell the noble Lord that we have absolutely no interest in denying to our veterans of the Gulf War any redress or compensation to which they may be entitled by virtue of negligence from the Ministry of Defence.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, is my noble friend satisfied that the serious cuts in medical services in the forces have not created a difficulty in that there may be insufficient people to give the necessary time to such research?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I do not believe that my noble friend's anxiety is well placed. We asked the Medical Research Council to supervise the research that has been commissioned. We have every confidence that it will be able to do so in an effective and impartial manner and that suitable persons and bodies around the country are able to undertake that work.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, does my noble friend appreciate that if the chemistry of the injections or tablets administered—for example, in the case of nerve gas—is withheld as classified information, a barrier is raised to proper treatment by doctors?

Earl Howe

My Lords, the constituent ingredient of the nerve agent pre-treatment sets is no secret; it is pyridostigmine bromide. It has long been administered for neuro-muscular disorders when it is taken in doses larger than was the case in the Gulf War and over longer periods than was the case with NAPS. Therefore, its safety has been long established. I do not believe that those features of the treatment administered to our veterans which are classified—and they are few—represent a barrier to proper diagnosis by doctors.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, is it not the case that the nerve agent pre-treatment sets were not licensed until 11th August 1992, which was two years after the Gulf War, and that many doubts surround that particular medication because it is being used on healthy people. When it is used in cases of myasthaenia gravis the patients already have nerve damage. Can the Minister say whether a neuroscientist is a member of the group which is investigating Gulf War syndrome and if not, why not?

Earl Howe

My Lords, the constituent ingredient of NAPS is pyridostigmine bromide which has been administered for a long time in the treatment of various conditions. It has not been known to react with any vaccine to produce harmful side effects or anything such as that. As regards the second part of the noble Countess's question, I shall write to her.