HL Deb 08 December 1999 vol 607 cc1274-6

2.48 p.m.

The Countess of Mar

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is the scope of medical examination and follow-up undertaken for members of HM Armed Forces who were at any time located in or passed through areas contaminated by depleted uranium during and after Operation Granby.

Lord Burlison

My Lords, the Ministry of Defence's Medical Assessment Programme is the referral centre for Gulf veterans concerned about their health. Patients attending the Medical Assessment Programme are given a full medical interview and examination and a range of laboratory tests, including urinalysis, haematological, biochemical and serological tests, an ultrasound scan of the abdomen and electrocardiography.

The Medical Assessment Programme may recommend also additional investigations or a referral to another consultant; for example, a patient may be tested for the presence of uranium if there was evidence of possible exposure or if the examining physician felt that there were symptoms to suggest uranium-linked illness. In addition, the Ministry of Defence has offered to arrange independent testing for depleted uranium for those veterans who have had samples tested in Canada.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Is he aware that there is a widely held belief among the several thousand Gulf veterans who have been involved in passing through areas where depleted uranium was used during the Gulf war that neither the Minister nor the Medical Assessment Programme understands the problem? Is he also aware that there is a widely held belief that by looking only at the 30 people who have had their urine tested in Canada, the MoD is determined either to discredit the Canadian research or to minimise the problem? Is he aware too that the Gulf veterans now believe that the refusal of the Medical Assessment Programme and the MoD to extend this proposal to all the Gulf veterans who were involved is based only on crass ignorance, gross incompetence or calculated deception?

Lord Burlison

My Lords, I believe that the key issue in this matter is the total load of uranium in the body. The proportion of uranium present as a result of contact with depleted uranium is not relevant to the health aspect. Any patient who attends the MAP may be tested for uranium if there is evidence of possible exposure and if the MAP doctor assesses that that is clinically appropriate.

The noble Countess referred to Canadian testing. The MoD's line on that was viewed as in some way discrediting the evidence. I hope that that is not the case. We need to see the results of testing by Dr Durakovic and Dr Sharma before we can reach any conclusion. They have not shown us their results, which is why we are arranging for all those who have been tested to be retested independently of the MoD. Only then shall we know the results and be able to act accordingly. There is no scientific consensus on the issue; for example, Dr Sharma has told us that he does not believe that depleted uranium is responsible for the ill health of Gulf veterans.

Lord Rea

My Lords, is my noble friend aware—I am sure that he is—that there are persistent anecdotal reports of high or raised levels of cancer, particularly leukaemia, among the women and children of southern Iraq? Will Her Majesty's Government use their influence to have a proper, expert epidemiological study carried out in southern Iraq by, for example, the World Health Organisation or UNICEF to ascertain what is the truth; and, if there is found to be an increase, whether possibly depleted uranium is responsible?

Lord Burlison

My Lords, the Ministry of Defence is of course aware of the suggestions, particularly those in the press, that the use of depleted uranium-based ammunition during the Gulf conflict has caused an increase in ill health in southern Iraq, including deformities, careers and birth defects. However, we have not seen any peer-reviewed epidemiological research data on that population to support those claims. The Government will, of course, consider carefully any medical or scientific data which may emerge concerning the incidence of ill health in Iraq. With regard to the suggestion of my noble friend, I believe that the MoD will welcome any assessment in this respect for its consideration.

Lord Swinfen

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House whether there is any increase in birth defects in children born to servicemen who have been in the area of the depleted uranium, as compared with the number of birth defects in the rest of the population?

Lord Burlison

My Lords, I d o not have that information. I shall ascertain whether it is available; if it is, I shall be happy to write to the noble Lord.

Lord Hughes of Woodside

My Lords, can my noble friend say how many patients have been seen at the MoD assessment centre? Can he give a robust assurance to the House that the matter is being looked at openly and properly and that there is no attempt by the MoD to discredit other people's opinions or, indeed, to skew the research against the proper interests of those people affected in this matter?

Lord Burlison

My Lords, the number of patients who have passed through the Medical Assessment Programme (to which I referred before as MAP) is 2,906. That was to the end of November 1999. Currently there are 28 patients waiting to attend the programme. A test load is being carried out and, although that may seem a high number, one must take into account that some 53,000 troops were deployed in the area at that time. I make it quite clear to my noble friend and to the House today that the MoD is sympathetic to Gulf veterans; it will continue with the tests; it will continue to help wherever it possibly can; and it is completely open-minded on the issue. The big problem it faces at the moment is that the evidence available to it is vague and not sufficiently scientifically based for further action to be taken in this area.

The Earl of Listowel

My Lords, will the Minister say whether any problems are caused by the inhalation of dust from depleted uranium shells?

Lord Burlison

My Lords, I believe that any problems caused by the inhalation of dust may come from the area indicated by the noble Earl.