HC Deb 13 February 1998 vol 306 cc427-8W
Mr. David Atkinson

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement about his recent initiatives concerning former Porton Down volunteers. [28897]

Mr. Spellar

This is a matter for the Chief Executive of the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA). I have asked the Chief Executive to write to the hon. Member.

Letter from John Chisholm to Mr. David Atkinson, dated 13 February 1998: I have been asked to reply to your request for a statement on the recent initiatives concerning Porton Down volunteers. Throughout their history, the Ministry of Defence laboratories at Porton Down in Wiltshire, now the Chemical and Biological Defence Sector of the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA), have been involved in the research and development that has underpinned the UK's biological and chemical defence capability. Volunteers from the Armed Forces have been a vital part of the research programme as subjects in a whole range of trials. In all, over 20000 volunteers have visited Porton Down; in the last thirty years, more than 5000 have participated in projects looking at defence against or medical treatment for chemical and biological agents. The vast majority of the volunteers who have visited Porton Down have come and gone, quite unconcerned about their attendance. Indeed, studies have always been, and continue to be, carried out with the utmost regard for the safety, health and well-being of volunteers. Nevertheless, in the last few years about 150 have enquired about the trials in which they took part, sometimes out of curiosity, but sometimes because they have concerns about their health and wonder whether there is a link. In the past, many of the actual records and reports of the experiments were, quite justifiably, kept secret in the interests of national security. Understandably, this has fuelled the concerns and uncertainties. Further, some people have not known where to go for information, or they believe that it is being withheld. The recent initiatives, prompted by the Minister for the Armed Forces, are aimed at making it easier for former volunteers to get information about their attendance at Porton Down. DERA has set up a dedicated helpline to take enquiries from former volunteers (0845 603 9140) and has produced a leaflet to explain the type of information and help that may be available, with useful addresses. Staff at Porton Down will look at individual records and formal technical reports to provide volunteers with as much information as possible about the trials in which they participate. It will also be possible for former volunteers to visit Porton Down to see the records for themselves or to talk to the medical and scientific staff about their experiences. I hope that this information is helpful.

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