HL Deb 22 January 2004 vol 657 cc1137-9
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 as honorary parliamentary adviser over many years to The Royal British Legion and a friend of Ian Hill.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what is their response to the coroner's findings at the recent inquest into the death of Major Ian Hill, a veteran of the 1990–91 Gulf conflict.

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

My Lords, we are aware of the Cheshire coroner's conclusion of 24 November 2003 on the death of Edward Ian Hill. To facilitate our understanding of the Cheshire coroner's conclusion, officials wrote to him on 19 December 2003 under the Coroners Rules 1984 requesting copies of reports of the post-mortem examination and any special examinations, notes of evidence and documents put in evidence at the inquest. We understand that delivery of the letter was delayed. The coroner has confirmed that he is dealing with our request, and we expect to receive the papers shortly.

Lord Morris of Manchester

My Lords, while I am grateful to my noble friend, as ever, is it not shaming that there was so much haggling over this good and courageous man's case, even while he was terminally ill, regardless of its doubly distressing effects on his disabled wife and daughter?

Now that the coroner has established that Ian died of Gulf War-related illness, who can doubt that his death was linked also, as Ian himself said, to the battery of 14 and more vaccines, one of them unlicensed, to which our troops were subjected; the appalling lack of medical records; and failure even to observe vaccine protocols? Does not this deeply worrying case shout the urgency of the need now for the public inquiry called for by The Royal British Legion?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I accept and acknowledge the feeling that the noble Lord, Lord Morris, brings to the Question, as he was extremely close to Mr Hill and is extremely close to his widow. So far as the coroner's findings are concerned, I shall read from what is described as a formal note headed: Inquisition—Conclusion of the Coroner as to the death". It should be put on record, particularly because of misleading reports in today's papers. It states: Edward Ian Hill died from Natural Causes to which service as part of the 1991 Gulf Campaign contributed". Those are the words that the coroner used in his formal document.

I do not think that the way in which this case has been dealt with is shameful. As my noble friend will know, exemption 12 of the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information prevents me, as it would any Minister, disclosing details of any actual pension paid to Mrs Avison, the widow, as that is of a private and personal nature. However, I can say that war widows' pensions are paid when death is deemed to be due to service, and that the widow has to raise only a reasonable doubt for claims to succeed. Mr Hill's death was regarded as due to service under the war pensions scheme. Armed Forces occupational pensions may also be paid regardless of whether the death is attributable.

My noble friend asked about a public inquiry. The Government's position is clear: we are not convinced that a public inquiry would help. The possibility that we may look again at the matter has not been ruled out but, in present circumstances, it is only through the programme of research initiated by this Government that we are ever likely to be able to establish the causes of Gulf veterans' illnesses.

Lord Redesdale

My Lords, what would the legal implications be if the Government finally recognised that Gulf War syndrome existed?

Lord Bach

My Lords, because we have discussed the matter in this House on many occasions, the noble Lord knows that we of course accept that some veterans of the first Gulf War have become ill, and that many believe that some of that ill health is unusual and related to their Gulf experience. A great number of pensions and compensations have been paid on the basis of those who became ill during the Gulf War. We do not accept that there is Gulf War syndrome at the moment, because all the medical research at present suggests that there is not. I very much doubt whether it would make very much difference to the generous amounts of pension and compensation that have already been paid.

Lord Bramall

My Lords, would the Minister not agree that, whether the block term "Gulf War syndrome" is accepted or not, any veteran of that war who incurs a neurological condition of which the symptoms started to occur soon after that war should now, in view of all the hard evidence coming to light, automatically be eligible for an attributable pension, and a widow be provided for accordingly?

Lord Bach

My Lords, the noble and gallant Lord tempts me by sympathetic questioning into a response that I cannot make. Of course we have to be sympathetic, and I hope that my answer to the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, indicated that we have been. However, cases have to be decided on an individual basis, case by case. We are obliged to do that as the legislation stands.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I remind the House of my peripheral interest. Do scientists understand why Gulf War illness is not apparent among French veterans?

Lord Bach

My Lords, not for the first time the noble Earl has surprised me with a question. I am afraid that I do not know whether British scientists are surprised by what has happened to French veterans. It is a fair question, and I shall find out and write to him.

Lord Ackner

My Lords, what research is currently going on? What does the Minister anticipate will be its result?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I shall certainly not anticipate the result of any research. To do so would be somewhat foolish. We look forward to the research when it arrives. The portfolio of research into ill health reported by veterans includes two major epidemiological studies, a programme of clinical tests, research to investigate the possible adverse health effects of a combination of medical countermeasures used in the Gulf to protect British troops against the threat of biological and chemical warfare agents, and a systematic review of research literature on Gulf veterans' illnesses. We expect to spend at least £8.5 million on the research.

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