HL Deb 18 December 2003 vol 655 cc1277-9
Lord Morris of Manchester

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. I declare an interest—not a pecuniary one—as honorary parliamentary adviser over many years to the Royal British Legion.

The Question was as follows: To ask Her Majesty's Government what further consideration they are giving to the problems and needs of veterans of the 1991 Gulf Conflict with still undiagnosed illnesses.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Bach)

My Lords, the Government remain determined to address the concerns of those Gulf veterans who are ill. Medical assessments are available from the Gulf Veterans' Medical Assessment Programme. The Defence Medical Services and NHS deliver medical treatment. Financial support is available when appropriate through pensions and the Veterans' Agency Welfare Service provides help for war pensioners. We remain committed to funding relevant scientific research to shape the Government's approach to this important and complex issue.

Lord Morris of Manchester

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. Does he recall the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, being told in this House two years ago that we must wait until 2003 for the report on Porton Down's research on animals to test the safety or otherwise of the vaccines our troops were given 14 years ago? Where is its report, and how can that research possibly replicate the immunisation regime adopted for our troops when the MoD does not know who had what vaccines and when?

With thousands of veterans in broken health, many terminally ill, and for all the reasons so admirably set out by the Royal British Legion, is not the best course now to concede a public inquiry; act more generously to veterans and dependants; and cut the spiralling costs of the MoD's litigation against them over war pension appeals?

Lord Bach

My Lords, of course I recall the Question asked by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, some time ago. My noble friend knows that the research at Porton Down is continuing; he knows that it is a very complex research programme; and he knows that the preliminary results were announced in April for the first three months of the study. They were not only announced but published too. These show no apparent adverse health consequences three months after the administration of the vaccine and/or bromide. The whole programme is due to complete by the end of this year, 2003. So in 2004 the results of that particular part of the research—which is not the only research being carried out in this field; the Government are spending up to £8.5 million on it— will be known.

Lord Bramall

My Lords, in the absence of the final report—and if the Minister can bear another question from me—can he at least confirm that Gulf War veterans given that cocktail of inoculations have had a higher incidence of neurological illness than any comparable group outside? Should that not be taken into account when awarding attributable pensions?

Lord Bach

My Lords, it is a pleasure always to have a question from the noble and gallant Lord— sometimes it is more pleasurable than at other times— and I am delighted to attempt to answer him. The figures are difficult and complex. There is no doubt that there are veterans of the Gulf War who are ill. We say that there is absolutely no medical evidence that there is anything called "Gulf War syndrome". All the medical evidence is absolutely against that at this stage. But the point of the research is to determine whether that is actually so.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, can the noble Lord give an estimate of the number of surviving veterans with these illnesses and what progress is being made in finding a cure and treatment?

Lord Bach

My Lords, it is difficult to say how many veterans of the Gulf War have illnesses. But I can tell the noble Lord that in the period between April 1991 and June 2003, 600 Gulf veterans had died; but from a comparable group 613 had died. So there was no difference in the overall death rate between Gulf veterans and the control sample. So far as suicide is concerned—a matter which has been raised in the House before—110 Gulf veterans had, alas, committed suicide compared to 103 from the comparable control group. The next update on those figures will be early next year.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, I ask my question as patron of the Gulf Veterans' Association. It is my understanding that members of Her Majesty's Armed Forces, both territorials and regulars, who are currently serving in the Gulf are now getting in touch with the Gulf Veterans' Association because they have been having vaccines, in bulk, as happened during the first Gulf War. Can the Minister either confirm that this is not the case or explain why, unlike members of the American Home Guard who have been having their vaccinations over a period of 18 months, we have not been doing the same in this country?

Lord Bach

My Lords, regular personnel and volunteer reserve personnel at a high-readiness state are routinely offered vaccination over a period of time. Any decision to vaccinate personnel over a shorter period of time than normal is undertaken only after a risk assessment has been conducted and specialist advice sought. The decision to vaccinate over the reduced time period is balanced—and it is an important balance—against the risk of contracting a disease or diseases during deployment. In such circumstances full account is taken of any other treatment or medication that an individual may be receiving at the time. Vaccinations are administered only after the individual is found fit and suitable to receive them and—this again is important—has given his or her informed consent.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

My Lords, is it not a fact that motor neurone disease is far more prevalent among Gulf War veterans than among other people of a similar age group? Is it not a fact that it has been found also among American Gulf War veterans? Is it not time that we sorted out this business, as the Americans have done?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I am not in a position to say whether there are more cases of motor neurone disease among Gulf War veterans than among other people. I shall look into the matter and write to the noble Lord.

Lord Wright of Richmond

My Lords, I apologise for the third intervention from the Cross Benches. Is the Minister aware that it is my noble and gallant friend's 80th birthday? May I on behalf of the Cross Benches, if not the whole House, offer him our congratulations?

Noble Lords

Hear! Hear!

Lord Bach

My Lords, I confess that I was not aware of it. I am delighted that I have been told and the House has been told. I, too, offer him felicitations.

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