HL Deb 14 July 1998 vol 592 cc108-10

2.58 p.m.

The Countess of Mar asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their response to the request of the Royal British Legion that they commission a public inquiry into the way the aftermath of the Gulf War has been handled.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Gilbert)

My Lords, the Prime Minister has received a letter from the Royal British Legion and, more recently, a petition from the National Gulf Veterans and Families Association calling for a public inquiry. The Government are considering the matter carefully and will respond formally to both organisations shortly.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reply. Is he aware that, while I acknowledge the great efforts made by the present Government to improve the situation with sick Gulf veterans, it is now nearly six-and-a-half years since the Gulf War and many of the veterans are seriously ill? Many of them are now committing suicide: I believe that the suicide rate is running at about one a month. They have met with nothing but procrastination, obfuscation and economy with the truth. They are rightly anxious that something should be done extremely quickly to sort out their situation.

Does the Minister acknowledge that the United States of America seems to be further ahead than us, in that it is ordering proper clinical research into its Gulf veterans' illnesses, while we, with two small exceptions, seem to be sticking to epidemiological studies? Therefore, is there not a need to look into the way this whole situation has been handled?

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, I certainly respond with gratitude to the first part of the remarks made by the noble Countess in which she paid tribute to the work done by my honourable friend the Minister for the Armed Forces. However, I am sure that she will not expect me to agree with her that the veterans have received nothing but "obfuscation and economy with the truth". As I am sure the noble Countess is well aware, we are doing everything we can. So far as concerns how far advanced the US is, as the noble Countess will know, the Americans are in a position to put far more resources to work in this matter than we are. However, my best information is that they are no further towards finding a solution than we are at this stage.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, is my noble friend the Minister aware that the Question tabled by the noble Countess is vital to our former servicemen represented through the Royal British Legion? Indeed, I cannot imagine a more worthwhile organisation nor one which deserves the full and unmitigated support of any government or any opposition in either House. The legion expects just that. Does the Minister also recognise the fact that the noble Countess will be acknowledged for what she has done? I hope that our Government and the whole House will give her full support on behalf of our Royal British Legion.

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, I have no difficulty whatever in sharing my noble friend's tribute to the Royal British Legion and to the noble Countess, whose tenacity in these matters deserves the admiration of everyone in this House. I can only ask my noble friend to accept that the Government are doing everything that they possibly can in these matters. As I am sure my noble friend is aware, we have announced additional resources in various directions. In addition, in the Strategic Defence Review, we announced that we will be allocating something of the order of £40 million a year extra to defence medical services over the next three years. Moreover, we are setting up a cell in the Ministry of Defence for veterans' affairs to which they can apply for help with all the problems that they may face.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, can the Minister say whether service personnel are still being given multiple vaccination when they go abroad?

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, so far as I know, the circumstances have not arisen.

Earl Russell

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the contrast that the noble Countess has made between our reactions and those of the United States is a real one? Further, does he agree that that difference is a good reason for welcoming the commitment of this Government to freedom of information and wishing well those Ministers who attempt to deliver it?

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, I would not for one moment recognise in the words of the noble Countess an intention to say that the attitude of this Government, or their predecessor, is different from that of successive American administrations. Indeed, I do not accept that at all. We are working very closely together with the Americans. They have more resources than we have, but we have full disclose of information with them. We are both seeking to get the answers to these very difficult questions.

Lord Mowbray and Stourton

My Lords, is the Minister aware that I too am a president of the Royal British Legion—in Tayside? The members of the legion are the most loyal of people. They are not complainers and they are not whingers. Therefore, on their behalf, I should like to ask the Minister to accept that they would not want to be given anything that was not deserved. However, if it is deserved, should we not give it to them? Let us not give the impression that the whole of the Royal British Legion is on the march in an attempt to demand more money.

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, I hope that nothing I have said from this Dispatch Box has given that impression. I am certainly happy to repeat the tribute that I paid to the Royal British Legion, whose work everyone in this House will have admired for many years. As I am sure the noble Lord is aware, I should possibly add that the letter from the Royal British Legion goes far wider than just questions on Gulf illnesses. That is one of the reasons why its suggestions must be treated very carefully by the Government.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, does the Minister accept that it is not only the Gulf Veterans who are ill at present who are important? Of course, that is the reason why this public inquiry has been requested, but the confidence of our troops in the future is important also. They must feel sure that they will be protected against as many as possible of the assaults of any enemy that they may come across. That confidence appears to be lacking at present and seems to be reflected in the noble Lord's failure to answer my question of 7th May regarding how many people had refused anthrax vaccinations.

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, the noble Countess is quite right. There is a question of confidence that we are having to address at the Ministry of Defence. I do not have the figures with me as regards the number of people who have refused anthrax vaccinations. However, the policy is voluntary. At present, the number who have refused is really quite small, especially among those troops who are serving ashore. The number who declined it among those who are serving afloat is considerably higher, and that is probably because they do not see the urgency or immediacy of it.

The noble Countess is quite right, the Government have a responsibility, which they seek to discharge, to ensure that, where Her Majesty's Forces may be exposed to chemical and biological warfare in future conflicts, protection is given on the best medical advice available to us, as the previous government did with the best medical advice available to them. Indeed, we must ensure that resources are made available for inoculations and injections. To that end, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State and my honourable friend the Minister for the Armed Forces both voluntarily submitted themselves to inoculations to set an example for everyone else.

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