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Troop Deployments

6. Ms Claire Ward (Watford): If he will make a statement about the number of British troops deployed in Bosnia and Kosovo. [143716]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): In the week beginning 8 January 2001, the number of British troops deployed in Bosnia was 2,265, and in Kosovo it was 3,351.

Ms Ward: Next week, I shall visit Kosovo with the Royal Marines as part of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, and I expect to be asked a number of questions as a result of the statement made by my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces last week. Is my right hon. Friend now able to give more details about the testing programme for depleted uranium, so that hon. Members taking part in the scheme will be able to enlighten members of the services during their visit to Kosovo?

Mr. Hoon: The enhanced screening programme described by my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces last week will require extensive consultation, not least with the national screening committee of the Department of Health, the Royal Society and other respected scientific and medical bodies. I hope that we shall be able to complete those consultations by the end of March. In addition, we shall invite the views of groups representing veterans.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon): Will the Secretary of State ignore the support that he is getting from Conservative Members on the question of depleted uranium and listen to Back Benchers from his own party and others who are extremely concerned about this issue? In particular, will he re-examine the parliamentary answers given to me on 17 November 1998 and on28 January 1999 on depleted uranium? Those answers were clearly misleading in the light of last week's statement, and seem to be part of a cover-up on the issue.

Mr. Hoon: I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman insists on using a term such as "cover-up" to describe a situation in which the Government have consistently, over many years, acknowledged the low-level risk that exists--for example, the risk to soldiers who go into the burned-out shell of a tank immediately after it has been hit by a depleted uranium shell. We have given clear instructions that they should approach such a vehicle only when wearing appropriate protective clothing.

Information on this matter has been published again and again, including on the Ministry of Defence website. It is readily available for the right hon. Gentleman to see, and I am sorry that he believes that it has been the subject

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of a cover-up, because the Ministry has tried extraordinarily hard over a long period to publish as much of this information as it possibly can.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Government deserve to be congratulated on the actions that they took in Kosovo, without which there would undoubtedly have been no change in Serbia? However, is he also aware that I and many other hon. Members are very concerned about reports, some in today's newspapers, about the effects of depleted uranium, including cancer risks, on civilians in Kosovo and Bosnia, arising from the operation that took place there in 1995? Is he now willing to go further than the statement made last week in recognising the dangers involved, and to make a further statement to the House at an appropriate time?

Mr. Hoon: May I give my hon. Friend some of the background information on which our assessment has been made? It is important to consider this issue in context.

A specific study has been carried out by the school of epidemiology and health sciences at Manchester university, which considered the 53,000 people deployed to the Gulf against a control sample of members of the armed forces who were not deployed there. Of those who had served in the Gulf, 452 had died of all causes by 30 June 2000, compared with 439 in the control group, and 156 had died of disease, compared with 190 in the control group. It is perhaps particularly relevant to my hon. Friend's question that 64 Gulf veterans had died of all forms of cancer, compared with 68 in the control group.

If one deploys around 53,000 people in a particular situation, there is, sadly, a reasonable chance that a number of them will die of cancer, whether they are in the Gulf or the Balkans. Wherever they are in the United Kingdom, the same statistical incidence of cancers will arise.

There is absolutely no discrepancy in any of the statistics between those who have been to the Gulf or the Balkans and those who have remained in the United Kingdom. I ask my hon. Friend to consider the matter dispassionately, rather than simply relying on some of the more fanciful headlines that have appeared in the newspapers.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury): If I may say so, the Secretary of State's defensive tone is redolent of the situation some years ago when my party was in government, and was accused of such things by the then Opposition. On 28 April 1999 the then Minister for the Armed Forces told the Select Committee on Defence, which was then probing the question of depleted uranium:

Moreover, Conservative Ministers in the previous Government were not aware of the impact of depleted uranium munitions. Why are Ministers now repudiating the Ministry of Defence advice, which was in wide circulation in Kosovo in the summer of 1999, and which was given to the staff of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, as well as to British forces? What is the Secretary of State doing now to protect British and other troops in Kosovo? What is he doing to protect

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civilian communities in Kosovo, Bosnia and Serbia? Above all, what is being done to protect and educate children in that respect? Finally, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm reports from Brussels, following the first meeting of the EU Political and Security Committee under the Swedish presidency, that the European rapid reaction force will be armed with depleted uranium weapons?

Mr. Hoon: I found the early part of the hon. Gentleman's question a little puzzling. We do not believe that there is any significant risk associated with the use of depleted uranium. I have described the precise circumstances in which both the present Government and the previous Government have recognised there is a risk. Details of that risk have been published, and instructions have been given to the armed forces to guard against it. As for the civilian population, efforts have recently been made by British forces to identify sites in the area of Kosovo for which they are responsible, where depleted uranium is likely to have been used. Those sites have been examined and no evidence of any increase in the level of background radiation has been found. Therefore risk of harm, either to members of Britain's armed forces or to the civilian population, does not arise from the use of depleted uranium--certainly so long after the events that led to the use of those shells in the first place.

I have made it clear on behalf of the Government that unless there is any clear scientific evidence to link the use of depleted uranium with any specific illnesses, Britain's armed forces will continue to use depleted uranium shells both nationally and in a multinational context.

Armed Forces (Education)

7. Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood): If he will make a statement on developments in education and training for the armed forces. [143717]

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. John Spellar): As has been well demonstrated by the recent deployments to Sierra Leone and in the Balkans, the training of our armed forces is of a very high standard. To maintain that standard and to ensure that our training and education arrangements for the armed forces and Ministry of Defence civilians continue to meet defence needs in the 21st century, my noble Friend Lord Robertson, when Secretary of State for Defence, announced a wide-ranging and fundamental review of education and individual training in the Department. This review is due to be completed this spring, when I will make a further statement to the House.

Mrs. Humble: My hon. Friend will be aware that the armed forces recruit many young people. Will he assure me that when they leave, they take with them appropriate transferable qualifications that they can take out into the wider world of work?

Mr. Spellar: We certainly recognise that the vast majority of our people will go on to other careers and occupations. We are talking to the appropriate authorities and qualifications bodies to ensure that when people leave they take with them qualifications that recognise their attainments, and what they have achieved while they have been with the armed forces--not only in traditional

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technical areas but in the high level of training in leadership and management qualities that the armed forces give to our people.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset): Will the Minister place in the Library, or at least supply to the Select Committee on Defence, details of the training that our armed forces have been given in handling depleted uranium and vehicles that might have been hit by depleted uranium shells? Will he comment on the fact that in his statement on Tuesday he made no mention of the Royal Navy using depleted uranium in its Phalanx guns? I was always told that that was non-hazardous ammunition, but the Americans are now withdrawing it in favour of a more expensive ammunition. Why did the Ministry of Defence announce on Saturday that it was withdrawing the ammunition because the Americans were no longer manufacturing it? Why did it decide to withdraw it?

Mr. Spellar: We have not yet made the decision to withdraw it. We are phasing out depleted uranium ammunition on Phalanx because the Americans have found that the tungsten round has a further reach and greater accuracy, leading to a higher probability of knocking out a missile. The difference between the role of Phalanx and land-based or air-launched depleted uranium weapons is that the former is for missiles launched at our ships. Therefore, by definition, Phalanx is unlikely to be used against heavy tank battle armour, against which depleted uranium is the only effective weapon.

Not only this Administration but a previous Administration published quite a bit of information on depleted uranium, which, with the advent of internet technology, has been placed on our website. A wide range of information is available. The instructions given to our forces in theatre are exactly consistent with what we have said throughout, including in my statement last Tuesday, and reflect our responsibility for ensuring, in the particular circumstances outlined by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, that people take adequate precautions, while also looking at the very low level of risk in other circumstances.

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North): I welcome the review of training to which my hon. Friend referred. As someone who has served on the armed forces parliamentary scheme, I know that there is concern about the extent of health and safety training with respect to depleted uranium. Several people in Staffordshire who served in the Gulf were not aware--or appeared not to be aware at the time--of any need for health and safety training, particularly for the use of depleted uranium. Will my hon. Friend give special consideration to how the precautionary principle can be included in that aspect of health and safety training?

Mr. Spellar: We certainly take that very seriously, which is why there has been a series of instructions. It is fair to say that depleted uranium was used for the first time in combat in the Gulf. The evidence is that that information did not get through to some units at the time. However, there is no evidence of a higher level of illness arising from such occurrences.

I am pleased that my hon. Friend referred to her membership of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Ms Ward).

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They demonstrated, once again, the enormous value of the scheme in enabling Members on both sides of the House to hear the views of the armed forces and to gain a much better understanding.

Our understanding, from the figures rightly identified by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, is that there is no increase in illness as a result of the use of depleted uranium, and epidemiological statistics bear that out.

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