Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 260 - 279)

WEDNESDAY 7 FEBRUARY 2001

RT HON GEOFFREY HOON MP, MR KEVIN TEBBIT CMG, AND MR RICHARD HATFIELD CBE

  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.

Chairman

  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 mind.
  (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.

Mr Hood

  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 course.

  264. Of course you do not, but that is their experience.
  (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 to us.

Chairman

  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 psychological consequences.

  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 imprecise.
  (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 date.

  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.

Mr Brazier

  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.

Chairman

  275. So what about those people who, in the 1970s, were caught in the trough? Does that mean there will be some consideration given—you have spoken of fairness—to 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.

Mr Hancock

  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.

Chairman

  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.

Mr Hancock

  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 Vosper Thornycroft.


 
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