§ Lord Ashley of Stoke asked Her Majesty's Government:
§ How they propose to respond to the finding of the European Commission of Human Rights that the convention had been violated in relation to nuclear test veterans and that just satisfaction should be given by the Government.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Earl Howe)
My Lords, the Government intend to contest before the European Court of Human Rights the Commission's conclusion that in the case of McGinley and EE v. UK there has been a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.
§ Lord Ashley of Stoke
My Lords, it is entirely a matter for the Government if they want to appeal and carry on such a bitter fight with our veterans after 40 years. But is there not now a question mark over the methods they have been using? Will the Minister confirm that the Commission seriously questioned the honesty and integrity of the Government and said that their conduct was,reluctant and lacking in candour"?Will the Minister comment on that? Will he also comment on a statement by the Commission that the United States Government have paid 25 million US dollars to personnel who were hundreds of miles from the epicentre of the detonations in striking contrast to the treatment of our veterans who were very much nearer?
My Lords, we are naturally disappointed that the Commission considered some of our responses lacking in candour. Our intention was to be open and straightforward. Clearly, our written answers failed to deal convincingly with certain complex issues, particularly the difficulties in confirming the existence and whereabouts of records so many years later. We take that seriously. We acknowledge the criticism and will seek to provide clear answers to the Court on all the points on which we were unable to satisfy the Commission. With regard to the noble Lord's last question, the United States' decision to pay compensation to the Marshall Islanders is a matter for the United States Government. It is not a matter on which I feel I can comment.
§ Lord Williams of Elvel
My Lords, does the noble Earl accept that this is a long-standing problem and that the procedure has caused great distress and proved 1698 costly to those involved? Would it not be preferable to have the European Convention on Human Rights established into UK law so that the procedure can be shortened?
My Lords, the Government have made clear on many occasions that they consider the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights or the introduction of a Bill of Rights to be neither necessary nor desirable. Human rights are already very well safeguarded in this country. Our rights and freedoms are inherent in a legal system which protects them, as does Parliament. It is our view that the course suggested by the noble Lord would not provide significantly greater protection than the existing safeguards.
§ Lord Williams of Elvel
My Lords, in that case, is the noble Earl saying that people who feel themselves disadvantaged under UK law will still have to go through the long, costly and distressing process of appealing through the European Commission of Human Rights to the Court of Human Rights? Is that the Government's position?
My Lords, the other side of the argument is that such incorporation or the introduction of a justiciable Bill of Rights would also require our courts to make political judgments about a wide range of matters which at present are determined by our elected and democratically accountable Parliament. Those judgments are the proper functions of Parliament, not the courts. That is why we do not agree with the proposals of the party opposite.
§ Lord Ashley of Stoke
My Lords, will the Minister comment on the Commission's statement that there is undisputed evidence of steps by our Government to avoid the admission of incriminating evidence against themselves? Can he also comment on the Commission's statement that incriminating medical records went missing when in the custody of the Government? If the Government really intend to go on fighting in this way against our ex-servicemen, can the Minister at least make it a clean fight?
My Lords, we believe that the ex-servicemen involved have a fair and proper basis on which to approach the pensions appeal tribunal, which is what the case is all about. I have already said that we very much regret the criticism of the Government. It was certainly not our intention to be evasive in any way. We believe that the right course is for us to defend the position as we see it. We believe that there is sufficient and ample information already in the public domain to enable those veterans to take their case properly to the tribunal.
§ Lord Molloy
My Lords, will the Minister consider holding discussions with the Royal British Legion apropos this matter? That body is very much concerned, as I am, about Britain's ex-servicemen and women who have always had a good hearing in this House.
My Lords, I am sure that the whole House shares the respect that the noble Lord, Lord 1699 Molloy, has for the Royal British Legion and the excellent work that it does. I shall certainly consider the proposal that he puts to me.
§ The Countess of Mar
My Lords, does the Minister appreciate that men and women who volunteer to serve our country and who protect us in time of war expect to be protected by the Ministry of Defence when something goes wrong? We have the examples of the people referred to in the Question, the Porton Down volunteers and now the Gulf veterans. Will the Minister look again at the problems suffered by these people who have been made ill by their service? They are being told that they must go through the courts in order to get assistance.
My Lords, the noble Countess is absolutely wrong in what she has just implied. The cases of the Gulf War veterans and the nuclear test veterans are poles apart. As to the latter, at one time there was a hypothesis of cause and effect, namely, that their presence in the vicinity of detonations caused ill health. We commissioned research into that question. It is now clear that there were no long-term effects on life expectancy. As for the Gulf War veterans who have suffered ill health, the Government retain an open mind. We have commissioned research, as I have informed the House on previous occasions. I do not believe that the noble Countess's comparison is in any way valid.
§ Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone
My Lords, since the matter is before an appeal tribunal, is it not better to leave the matter to that tribunal to express a view upon it?
My Lords, my noble and learned friend is absolutely right. The Commission has referred the matter to the European Court of Human Rights. We must await its verdict before deciding the way forward.