Examination of Witnesses (Questions 260
WEDNESDAY 7 FEBRUARY 2001
MP, MR KEVIN
TEBBIT CMG, AND
260. You seem to be convinced but there is some
considerable evidence and strong feeling in the country that does
not necessarily share your view, particularly in the veterans'
associations. Have you met the Gulf Veterans' Association to discuss
it with them or have you received representations from them? Are
you telling us that they share your analysis and conclusions?
(Mr Hoon) There is strong feeling, I cannot dispute
that, but there is no evidence. That is the distinction that I
would ask you to consider. There is inevitably strong feeling
when material appears in the newspapers of pretty questionable
scientific and medical veracity. I will give you just one illustration.
A very well respected newspaper in this country on its front page
carried an assertion by a leading light in the Gulf War Veterans'
campaign that almost 500 men had died since they had been to the
Gulf. He was right, he was absolutely right, but 500 approximately
had died who had not been to the Gulf. Statistically, in fact,
you would expect out of a normal population in society that around
700 people would have died out of 53,000 over that ten year period.
The reason why it is lower for those who have been in service
is that they are fitter and, therefore, the actuarial statistics
are clear, there will be a smaller number. This was reported as
a front page story in one of our national newspapers as if it
was somehow significant. Nobody, neither the journalist in question
nor the editor, chose to put that into context. Undoubtedly there
will be strong feeling. If I had read that without the kind of
information I am giving to the Committee now, I would have been
alarmed by that. If I read in a respected newspaper that 500 people
have died since they served in the Gulf I would think that was
significant, it sounds significant, but put into context it is
not at all significant, in fact it is perfectly normal. I think
it is that kind of careful consideration of medical and scientific
evidence that we all need to rely on when reaching conclusions,
not strong feeling. We can all have strong feelings but those
strong feelings have got to be based on some evidence.
261. Mr Hoon, it is very important that you
do not fall into the trap of your predecessors, even though the
evidence may be very strong at the moment, that there is no correlation
between exposure to depleted uranium and illness. You really have
to keep looking. I would strongly, strongly advise you to carry
on the policy that you have begun of still looking and keeping
an open mind because the point Mr Hood mentioned is there is a
scepticism of the medical profession and all associated with it
and it is really important that you are seen to have a very open
(Mr Hoon) Can I make it quite clear that I have emphasised
over and over again, and I repeat it again to the Committee, if
there is any evidence of an association we will look at that evidence
absolutely rigorously. I would invite anyone who has evidence
to put that forward, but I have not seen any evidence to date.
262. The Committee has commissioned the Parliamentary
Office of Science & Technology to trawl the evidence but it
is not just a question of sitting back and waiting for some evidence
landing on your desk, I think it is important that the Ministry
of Defence and those associated with it are seen to be collaborating
with the Americans and with the Italians. I would be very interested
to know if the story about the Italians stands up at all.
(Mr Hoon) It does not. There has been very recently
a conference in Washington where a considerable amount of the
medical research and evidence that has so far been compiled was
considered. I think actually your family doctor will be able to
tell you this, that one of the well-known facts about leukaemia,
and the allegation of these two unfortunate Italian soldiers and
whether they suffered leukaemia as a result of going to the Balkans,
is that leukaemia takes between ten and 15 years to manifest itself
after the exposure to a particular source. These people had been
to the Balkans but in the last 12 months, yet that, again, did
not prevent any of the national newspapers seizing upon this as
being some highly significant story again because they probably
did not go and ask their family doctor in what circumstances leukaemia
shows itself. I can do my best to deal with the evidence, what
I cannot deal with is this kind of strong feeling that then is
the result of this alarmist publicity that people suffer from.
Chairman: But you know the problem is
not what is right, it is what people perceive to be right.
263. I can understand your concerns about the
tabloid press but it is the anxiety that I experience, and we
experience, and I am sure you experience, in our surgeries when
we have some of the veterans come to us asking questions and asking
for help. I have to say, Secretary of State, just saying "scientific
research says you have not got a case, it is nothing to do with
the fact you were injected with some stuff that you were not told
too much about, it is just a coincidence that you are now ill"
just does not wash.
(Mr Hoon) We do not actually say that to them, of
264. Of course you do not, but that is their
(Mr Hoon) It is not their experience. As I say, I
extend to you an invitation to go to the medical facility at St
Thomas' Hospital and ask those kinds of questions. Indeed, I have
had constituents, and I assume that you have, I have sent to St
Thomas' because it seems to me that is the best way of resolving
their doubts and concerns. Let me be clear, when I went there
I was told that there are treatments that they can use particularly
because one of the problems that many in the Gulf faced was the
fact that they failed to diagnose the kind of shock that people
can suffer from in that kind of high intensity warfare and the
longer that goes untreated the more difficult it is to resolve.
You have pressed me about DU, you have pressed me about the scientific
evidence and, I repeat, in the absence of any specific evidence
I am confident that we are dealing with these problems as best
we can. We will continue, and John Spellar's statement made this
clear, to work with independent scientific evidence to develop
the most reassuring processes that we can. If I have to try and
reassure people, the only way I can do it is on the basis of the
best scientific and medical evidence available. I cannot substitute
hysterical fears for that scientific and medical evidence. If
you can suggest where else I should go other than, say, the Royal
Society or other independent organisations for the best scientific
evidence, I would be delighted to hear where I should go. I cannot
do any better than rely on the best evidence that is available
265. What advice have you issued to people who
feel that they may have come into contact with depleted uranium
as to how they can get tested?
(Mr Hoon) If we can distinguish, first of all, between
the proposals we are developing for the Balkans, which we will
extend to any Gulf War veteran who still believes that his illness
arises from service in the Gulf, what we are seeking to do is
to find appropriate screening mechanisms that will allow those
who have continuing doubts to receive appropriate medical advice.
Trying to reassure people is the central purpose of what we are
developing. At the same time, if someone, before that is in place,
believes that their illness is attributable to their service they
can be seen straight away and they can be treated straight away.
If someone presents either to an Army doctor or, indeed, to their
own general practitioner and says, for example, "I served
in the Gulf and I have got an illness that I believe is associated
with that", they can be referred immediately to St Thomas'
Hospital and they will receive appropriate help and advice. As
I say, there have been occasions on which, particularly as a result
of psychological conditions, appropriate treatment has been recommended
by St Thomas' Hospital. I repeat, and the doctors and nurses there
have seen now a very considerable number of people, none of the
people they have seen has been able to demonstrate that the conditions
that they believe they are suffering from are in any way attributable
to their service other than, in the main, in relation to these
266. If somebody lives in Inverness do they
have to come down to St Thomas' or do you have some regional structure?
(Mr Hoon) If someone in Inverness has an illness they
will be treated either, if they are still in service, through
the normal processes of the military medical service or, if they
are no longer in service, by going to their general practitioner.
In a sense it is the residual category, the people who remain
anxious having, in a sense, been reassured that they do not have
any symptoms attributable to their service. As far as they are
concerned, we will pay, for example, their costs of travel down
to London and their expenses involved in visiting St Thomas',
that is part of the service that is available to them. I do not
see any gap in the process as far as they are concerned. It is
much more sensible for them to be seen by experts, people who
are used to dealing with the kinds of problems people may have,
than it is necessarily to try to set up a parallel structure in
every part of the country.
267. This links in with the next question, that
of compensation arrangements. The MoD historically has been pretty
parsimonious in compensating, and that is putting it at its politest.
In the SDR the Government announced there would be an inquiry
into compensation arrangements. We were hoping that document would
be published some time ago. Can you give us any indication as
to the progress of this research into new approaches to compensating
our military personnel who have been disabled as a result of service
on behalf of the Crown because the record, as I say, has not been
a particularly good one over the years in my view?
(Mr Hoon) The work has certainly taken longer than
was anticipated, not least because of the complexities of dealing
with modernising pension and compensation arrangements. A great
deal of progress has been made and I hope that we will be able
to publish a consultation document in due course.
268. In due course. Can you be a little more
specific than that? That could be six weeks, six months, six years.
(Mr Hoon) Soon.
269. Is that the best we are going to get? Mr
Tebbit, give us some relief. The Secretary of State is being rather
(Mr Tebbit) It does sound incredible but when we got
into this we found that it was much more complicated and the legislation
that was linked to all this stuff was much more difficult than
we expected, and when you get lawyers, and it is Victorian legislation,
it tends to take a long time. "Soon", I think, was an
indication that we are not dragging our heels on all of this but,
on the other hand, we are not in a position to do it in the next
few weeks. I would be very surprised if we sat here next year
and felt uncomfortable.
270. I would be extremely surprised and exceedingly
angry if it takes that long, it has been over three years now.
It must be immensely complicated if something takes three years
to do. I think we are getting a bit irritated because this Committee
threatened to do an inquiry into compensation at the beginning
of this Parliament and we were bought off by the promise that
the MoD would do it, and now we are coming to the end of this
Parliament and still we hear "soon, maybe".
(Mr Hoon) I have never said "maybe". I said
"in due course" and I said "soon", but I am
not going to give you a precise date today because the work is
not quite finished and it would be wrong for me to do that. If
you want to press me as to a precise date, I will give you a precise
271. I hope that it is in the next two or three
months or even earlier. I hope you can use your considerable influence,
Secretary of State, to kick a few posteriors. Another thing that
has been waiting for some time is the pensions review. Can you
tell us if the same criteria apply, same flexible timescale apply,
to the Armed Forces' Pension Schemes that are again causing a
lot of disquiet?
(Mr Hoon) Because of the obvious overlap between compensation
and pensions we are dealing with them together and I anticipate
that the publication of them will be simultaneous.
272. Is there any chance of allowing the different
services to develop different policies? It is no secret that the
Air Force would have liked to have seen the approach outlined
in the Bett Report which would have effectively ended early pensions
for regular officers leaving early. The other two services would
see that as very damaging. Are you looking at the wider issue
of allowing services to develop You mentioned specific
problems in particular areas not to be confused with the whole
and so on.
(Mr Hoon) I do not think it is particularly helpful
in the modern world to talk about differences between different
services. Certainly what we need to try and design are compensation
and pension arrangements that are appropriate for particular people
within the services. It may well be that there is significant
overlap and common ground between the different services rather
than saying all RAF pensions will be on this basis and all Royal
Navy pensions will be on a different basis. The reality is that
we have got to devise arrangements that are sensible for some
people who may well leave the Army routinely at around the age
of 40 as against those who might well stay in the Royal Navy until
they are 50 and there will be very different arrangements accordingly.
There may well also be a need to look at arrangements for those
who, say, stay in the services for ten years, whichever branch
of the services they are in. What we are trying to develop are
arrangements that reflect the modern world and reflect the fact
that some people will stay in for 22 years and earn a pension
at the end of that 22 years, whilst others may choose to leave
after, say, ten and want to be able to use the pension entitlement
that they have built up in that period to sustain them later on
in their different careers.
273. One final point. There is though surely
a considerable difference in principle between apparently identical
arrangements for two people leaving the service, say as officers
aged 40, between someone on the one hand for whom the existing
arrangement, the early pension, provides job security and, on
the other hand, further subsidising someone who is going out with
an extremely valuable and expensive skill? That is the difference
between most of the Royal Air Force and one or two small elements
of the other two services and the rest of the Armed Forces.
(Mr Hoon) I think that is right. I do not think you
should see the Royal Air Force as only consisting of pilots.
274. Minister, it applies to all air crew, nearly
all Air Force officer groups in fact.
(Mr Hoon) I accept that there could be a difference
in that sense but then there is a degree of fairness that we have
to extend to the individuals concerned and if you have trained
in a particular area I cannot honestly see any particular reason
why you should be disadvantaged at the end of your 22 years' service
simply because you have chosen to train in an area of specialisation
that then is marketable thereafter. What we have to ensure is
fairness both for individuals but reflecting, and I think this
is the key point, both the particular conditions of service life,
where we are not necessarily expecting people to spend their entire
working lives in the services, at the same time as making those
arrangements as flexible as possible to give people the opportunity
of either taking their pension with them or establishing a sufficient
pension that then allows them to do something else perhaps.
275. So what about those people who, in the
1970s, were caught in the trough? Does that mean there will be
some consideration givenyou have spoken of fairnessto
maybe compensating in some way those who, through no fault of
their own, were caught in that appalling trough and lost large
sums of money as a result of being caught?
(Mr Hoon) I have had a number of letters from colleagues
about particular cases that have been highlighted in their constituencies
as far as the Armed Forces are concerned. I have to say to the
Committee that this is not a specific problem to Armed Forces'
pensions. It may have been highlighted by particular groups, who
have clearly written to a number of colleagues as a result, but
this is a consistent problem of all public sector schemes that
were subject to pay restraint in the 1970s. The trough that has
been identified and colleagues have written about in relation
to Armed Forces' pensions, the same trough exists for public sector
pension schemes during the period. It has always been a basic
principle of all public sector schemes that the enhancements and
changes are not retrospective.
276. Most of those schemes have been amended
to take care of that.
(Mr Hoon) They have been amended prospectively, I
am not aware that they have been amended retrospectively, which
is the question the Chairman asked me.
277. I hope that is going to be at least considered
in the document that you produce. When we were in Bosnia three
years ago we had a lot of complaints from servicemen who felt
that they had been disenfranchised prior to the 1997 election
because of their lack of ability to obtain postal votes. As a
result of our report, the MoD promised to examine the issue jointly
with the Home Office. I would not expect you to be able to answer
the question now, Secretary of State, but would you consider the
question I have asked, look at what was promised, and perhaps
you can come back to us and tell is if there are going to be any
changes to ensure that when the election eventually does come,
and the certainty of that appears greater than the certainty of
your timescale for announcing the pension scheme, that people
are not going to be disadvantaged?
(Mr Hoon) I will write to you about that.1
Chairman: The last few questions are
on the Type-45.
278. If I could, Secretary of State, draw you
to the critical question as far as my constituents and many others
in South Hampshire are concerned about and that is the future
build of the Type-45. You will recollect that you gave a commitment
here that you wanted to see those ships built by at least two
companies and it would be spread around the country, and you repeated
that twice in the House of Commons in debate. Is it still your
intention to divide the construction of the first three Type-45s
between the two contractors in order to keep alive real competition
for the construction of the rest of the vessels?
(Mr Hoon) Yes.
279. And how do you intend to do that?
(Mr Hoon) By continuing with the process of ensuring
a fair distribution of work between the private contractor and