HL Deb 07 October 2002 vol 639 cc1-4

2.36 p.m.

Lord Morris of Manchester

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 honorary Parliamentary advisor over many years to the Royal British Legion and as a co-opted member of the United States Congressional Committee of Inquiry into Gulf War Illnesses.

The Question was as follows:

What course of action they propose to take following the Pensions Appeal Tribunal's judgment in the case of Gulf War veteran Shaun Rusling.

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, we have carefully studied the reasons given by the president of the Pensions Appeal Tribunal for refusing leave to appeal to the High Court in the case of war pensioner Mr Shaun Rusling. The Ministry of Defence still believes that there is an error on a point of law in the tribunal decision dated 20th May 2002, and has therefore decided to exercise its right to apply direct to the High Court for leave to appeal.

Lord Morris of Manchester

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. Is she aware that the reaction of Gulf veterans to the Government's double defeat over Shaun Rusling's pension and indeed—I quote from the tribunal's judgment—failure even, to make a reasonably arguable case", is that, if less time and money had been spent on contesting pension entitlements, more could have been done to help those left bereaved or in broken health by the conflict?

How many veterans secured their current pension entitlement only on appeal? How many others could be affected if the Shaun Rusling judgment stands? Finally, does not this landmark case demonstrate again that—at least until the Porton Down inquiry reports late next year—we could be involved in a second Gulf War without fully having learned all the lessons of the first?

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, I recognise the great efforts that my noble friend has mounted on behalf of Gulf War veterans. As he will know, more than 4,600 Gulf veterans have been awarded a pension. Since 1991, there have been almost 900 appeals from Gulf veterans, about one-quarter of which have been successful. Only 270 of the 900 appeals were in respect of claims for Gulf-related illness; the remainder were in respect of claims for conditions that occurred during Gulf veterans' service career elsewhere than in the Gulf or for conditions not particular to the Gulf. About one-quarter of the 270 Gulf-related appeals were successful. I should also point out that many of the cases already had a war pension in payment and that the appeal in fact increased the level of the award.

Lord Redesdale

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, due to increasing evidence in relation to the nerve agent protection system which is now available, there is need for a swift public inquiry? Should not this inquiry be conducted before this form of protection is given to our troops who may take part in further action?

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, as the noble Lord will know, there has been a continuing study into the interactive effects of the combination of vaccines and the nerve agent pre-treatment set tablets that were given out during the conflict. That work is being done at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down, and work is also being done at the National Institute for Biological Standards and Control, where the effect of the specific combination of anthrax and pertussis vaccines is being examined. The work at Porton Down is very complex, and the need for initial dose range work, the establishment of sophisticated monitoring techniques and so on means that that work cannot be completed quickly. We also cannot hurry the assessments of the results. We hope, however, to have the final completed report by the end of 2003.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, in view of the points made by the noble Lords, Lord Morris and Lord Redesdale, and in view of what might be happening in the Gulf in the next nine months, does the Minister feel that it is safe to wait until the end of 2003 for that report? Although I recognise that these things take time, and we have all seen that it took about 10 years to get as far on the matter as we did, is it really impossible to hurry things up a bit? It seems to me a very dangerous situation.

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, the principle on which the Government have always proceeded on this matter is that any research must be peer reviewed so that it is credible and robust. For this study to be peer reviewed, we shall have to await its completion. We will of course produce interim reports and small pieces of research which are available before the end of 2003 in the form of posters for conferences and in other ways. However, the completed study will have to be peer reviewed if we are to ensure its credibility and robustness.

The noble Baroness, Lady Park, raised the issue of lessons learned. She is absolutely right that we will have to learn from the problems of the past, and I believe that we have learned some lessons. There have, for example, been great improvements in medical record keeping so that medical service personnel on the ground regularly record health events and inoculations. We are also keeping up to date with service standard vaccinations, which was a concern during the conflict.

Finally, there was again a routine lack of medical intelligence, during the conflict, of relevance to operational deployment. That problem will not arise in future because the Permanent Joint Headquarters now commissions up-to-date medical intelligence briefings for those areas of the world in which it is judged that UK forces are likely to operate.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords—

Lord Winston

My Lords, as a scientist who is regularly involved in the peer review of many articles and research publications, I know that it takes on average two or three weeks for the peer review of a paper in Nature. Why would it take so long for the peer review of this one topic for the Government?

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, I can only repeat what I said in answer to the original Question of the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester; that is, that when the study is completed—the particular study with which we are concerned, the interaction study, is not yet complete—and it goes to peer review, we will be very happy to publish the results.