HL Deb 22 May 2003 vol 648 cc934-6

11.10 a.m.

Lord Morris of Manchester

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare an interest, not a financial one, as Honorary Parliamentary Adviser over many years to the Royal British Legion and a co-opted member of the United States Congressional Committee of Inquiry into Gulf War Illnesses.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what recent representations they have had from the Royal British Legion in relation to the problems and needs of veterans of the first Gulf War and the dependants of veterans with undiagnosed illnesses who have died subsequent to the conflict.

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

My Lords, this year my honourable friend the Minister for Veterans' Affairs has met representatives from the Royal British Legion on at least four occasions and has discussed issues surrounding veterans of the 1990-91 Gulf conflict. Officials attended the Royal British Legion Gulf War Inter-Parliamentary Group meeting in March and a number of informal discussions. As it happens, I shall be attending the Royal British Legion annual conference this coming weekend and will make the keynote speech which will include reference to veterans of the 1990-91 Gulf conflict.

Lord Morris of Manchester

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. Is he aware of the Legion's concern about whether the protocol for administering the anthrax vaccine has been strictly observed in all cases; about the seemingly endless haggling in tribunals and courts with veterans, some of them terminally ill, over war and service attributable pensions; and about distress among widows, many in broken health, who would have been better treated had they been US and not British citizens?

Is it not shaming that lottery funds are now in prospect to fund support services for our veterans? Moreover, is he aware that already soldiers back from Iraq are seeking advice from the ex-service community for serious illnesses that they have had since receiving multiple vaccinations on the same day?

Lord Bach

My Lords, as far as concerns the anthrax vaccine, there is no clinical evidence that anthrax vaccine is unsafe if used in combination with other vaccines or treatments. But we are not deaf to Gulf veterans' concerns and our guidance to medical staff states that the vaccine should be separated from other vaccines wherever possible and specifically states that anthrax vaccine should not be given within five days of a live vaccine. We have made standard service vaccines routine so there should be no need to administer the anthrax vaccine alongside other vaccines upon deployment.

In response to the last question that my noble friend asked—I pay tribute to the incredible work that he does on behalf of the Royal British Legion—a number of research measures into the physical and psychological health of those who have been involved in recent operations in the Gulf were announced in this House on 8th May. The announcement also extended the Ministry of Defence Gulf Veterans' Medical Assessment Programme to include veterans of the recent operation. We have not received any reports of ill health following this deployment, but given the concerns surrounding this subject we have already put a package of measures in place.

Lord Clement-Jones

My Lords, the key expert in this area— Professor Simon Wesley—who is, indeed, the Government's own adviser, has said, referring to the previous Gulf War, that there is irrefutable proof that going to the Gulf has affected the health of some UK servicemen. The War Pensions Tribunal of the MoD itself recently decided that that was so in the case of Mr Izett and there is a further case later this month in which it may well come to the same decision. How long will the Ministry of Defence bury its head in the sand?

Lord Bach

My Lords, the Ministry of Defence is not burying its head or any other part of its anatomy in the sand on this issue. Of course we accept that some troops who went to the Gulf came back ill. There is no question about that. The dispute is as to whether there is something which can be called Gulf War syndrome. All the medical evidence we have suggests that that is not so. As I understand it, the expert referred to by the noble Lord, is with us on that point.

Lord Craig of Radley

My Lords, I wonder whether the time has not come for Her Majesty's Government to make ex gratia payments in settlement without further commitment rather than to drag out endlessly expensive litigation and inconclusive clinical trials? Surely a little magnanimity now would not only be cost-effective but would also serve to relieve the continuing anguish of veteran sufferers and their families?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I cannot agree with the noble and gallant Lord that we have not been magnanimous as far as this is concerned. As regards war disablement pensions, a very large number indeed have been awarded to those who bravely fought in the first Gulf War. As the House will know, the burden of proof as regards such a pension is on the Secretary of State. He must prove beyond reasonable doubt that the illness or injury caused was not attributable to service. As a consequence of that extraordinarily heavy burden and standard of proof, a very large number of Gulf War veterans are receiving fairly generous pensions. I think that we have been magnanimous in this respect, but of course I shall take back what the noble and gallant Lord says and look at it again.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, can the noble Lord give an estimate of the numbers of surviving veterans with problems and needs from the first Gulf War?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I cannot give the noble Lord a specific figure. I can say that until now more than 3,300 patients have been seen by the Gulf Veterans' Medical Assessment Programme. I have already mentioned that a large number of those who fought in that war are in receipt of a war disablement pension.

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