HL Deb 15 October 1998 vol 593 cc1045-8

3.13 p.m.

Lord Morris of Manchester asked Her Majesty's Government:

When the outcome of their investigations in relation to the undiagnosed illnesses among servicemen and women who served in the Gulf War is likely to be announced.

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

My Lords, the first results from one of the two MoD-funded epidemiological studies investigating the health of British Gulf veterans are expected to become available around the turn of the year. The MoD is also funding other research programmes and there is a considerable programme of research being undertaken by the United States Government. The results of this work will appear as the individual elements are completed. Scientific research is, of course, only part of a wider programme of work to address the health concerns of Gulf veterans, which will continue as long as it is needed.

Lord Morris of Manchester

My Lords, has my noble friend seen the disquieting statement by Professor Malcolm Hooper—a scientist appointed by the Government to investigate these illnesses—that our troops in the Gulf were treated like "guinea pigs" and that a "conspiracy of deceit" obscures the true extent of their problems?

Is it too early yet to say anything about the findings of Professor Simon Wesseley's study? And to how many of the Gulf war veterans—service men and women who have already died of illnesses dating back to their service—has this country's debt of honour gone unpaid?

Finally, when will the Prime Minister be responding to the Royal British Legion's request for a public inquiry?

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, I have seen the remarks of Professor Hooper in relation to the Ministry of Defence and as I understand it my noble friend accurately reports them. I am frankly at a loss to follow Professor Hooper in his view that the Ministry of Defence is pervaded by a culture of deceit and conspiracy in these matters. Anybody who knows the activities of my former colleague, Dr. John Reid, in this respect would reject, as I do, such allegations totally out of hand. I am confident that his successor, Mr. Henderson, will follow down the path that Dr. Reid set.

The paper produced by Professor Wesley has already been discussed informally with him and a number of individuals who have a professional interest in that subject. Those discussions are a matter for Professor Wesley and we look forward to seeing the results of his study when they are published.

In relation to the public inquiry requested by the Royal British Legion, that matter is under advisement from the Ministry of Defence and we expect to be able to give a formal response in the near future. I fully share my noble friend's remarks about the debt of honour that this country owes to our veterans of the Gulf conflict. However, at this moment we have no final figures as to the number of those veterans who have died since the conflict. To assist the House, I am able to say that the figures we have available at the moment indicate that approximately 400 deaths have occurred among the 53,000 Gulf veterans since 1st April 1991.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, what procedure is in place now for safe vaccination of service personnel when they may be called away to war in a hurry?

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, the Ministry of Defence, both now and at all times in the past, relies on advice as to which vaccinations are safe. We instituted a system of voluntary vaccinations which, as I am sure the noble Baroness will be aware, have been undertaken by certain Ministers and Chiefs of Staff in the Ministry of Defence to illustrate that we have confidence at the highest level in their safety. In that sense there have been no further definitive decisions since the last time there was fighting in the Gulf. But these matters are continually being studied.

Lord Clement-Jones

My Lords, will the Minister explain why his department is so heavily reliant on the testing of animals in this area? Does he really believe that the administration of a very unpleasant cocktail of vaccines such as anthrax, whooping cough, organophosphates, nerve pre-treatment agents and other matters together with stress is the way forward? Can he explain why his department turned down a well thought-out proposal by an eminent immunologist at University College London which might have led to a greater understanding of Gulf War syndrome and indeed perhaps to a cure for it?

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, with respect to the noble Lord's last point, I shall be grateful if he will give me details of the programme that he says was suggested to the Ministry of Defence. I am not familiar with the case because he has not identified it. Furthermore, I am not aware that the Ministry of Defence is particularly involved with animals in research into these matters. We rely on the advice given to us by the Medical Research Council and other people. We act only on medical advice.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, is the noble Lord ready to concede, as the United States of America's Pentagon has conceded, that all the chemical alarms which went off during the Gulf War were both reliable and accurate and that as many as 100,000 British and American troops were exposed to nerve gas and mustard gas? If he does concede that, in view of the fact that in the past all the answers to my questions have been in the negative, will he now instigate a programme of proper research and treatment by those who have been dealing with organophosphates for many years and know what to do?

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, I know that the noble Countess has followed this matter with great diligence for many years, but I must advise her that I cannot recognise the figures that she offers the House. If it were the case that some 100,000 members of the services of this country and the United States were exposed to nerve gas and other chemical weapons during the Gulf War, I am afraid that the casualties would be very much higher than they have been.

Lord Burnham

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester, the noble Countess, Lady Mar, and others have been singing this very sad song for an extremely long time. Is there not now an overwhelming case for the speedy setting up of a sub-department of state to deal with all service affairs?

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, I fully follow the noble Lord in the seriousness of these matters that have been pursued by the noble Countess, Lady Mar, and my noble friend Lord Morris. However, establishing a separate department within the Ministry of Defence to deal with service affairs would seem superfluous. That is a very large part of what the Ministry of Defence is doing. We have recently set up a particular secretariat within the Ministry of Defence to deal with veterans' affairs which may be what the noble Lord is referring to.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, of the 400 people who have died since the Gulf War, how many have left widows and how many of those have been able to qualify as war widows?

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, I am afraid that I do not come armed with the answers to those questions. However, I shall do my best to provide them to the noble Baroness.

Lord Ironside

My Lords, as most of those suffering from Gulf War illness have now left the service and have to rely on the National Health Service and their general practitioners for further treatment, can the noble Lord say to what extent general practitioners are advised about treatment processes? What is their ability to refer patients who are suffering to consultants who have a thorough knowledge of the treatment requirement, or do they still have to be referred back to the specialists in the Ministry of Defence?

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, nothing that the Ministry of Defence has done could in any way impede, or has impeded, access by National Health Service practitioners to anyone else in the medical services of this country at their discretion. I am aware, of course, that there has been some dissatisfaction on the part of Gulf veterans with the level of knowledge of various general practitioners in the National Health Service with respect to these matters. The Ministry of Defence has issued guidance to them in the past. If the noble Lord has any practical suggestions that he would like to bring to our attention, I should be happy to consider them.