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11.31 pm

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws). I am grateful to him for allowing me briefly to contribute and to the Minister for consenting.

My interest is that I have been for many years a member of the Gulf war group organised by the Royal British Legion, which has taken the lead in trying to assist veterans in a very difficult situation. I do not wish to deal with the particular issues on which my hon. Friend concentrated, but I entirely endorse the general thrust of his remarks.

We sent service personnel to the Gulf in circumstances that turned out to be entirely unexpected from the point of view both of those individuals and of the Ministry of Defence. We do not know precisely why the illness that is the subject of the debate, which has been a matter of controversy over the years, has arisen. All we know is that it has done so, and that such work as has been undertaken in this country shows that it is not identical to the syndrome that has been found after previous hostilities. It is different in degree and character, and as chairman of the all-party group on organophosphates, I am especially concerned with the mysterious role of that type of pesticide and insecticide.

We are disappointed that the Minister's colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, cannot be with us, as he has taken a personal interest in this matter over the years before and since he became Minister for veterans' affairs. I have had various exchanges with him in the House and by correspondence.

The answers that the Ministry of Defence has been able to provide on the role that organophosphates may have had in this mystery have been inadequate. That inadequacy stretches back to the previous Government's term in office, when a Minister was misled—it was not his fault—into giving me an answer saying that OPs had not been used extensively in the Gulf. Subsequently, he had to apologise to the House and showed that they had been used extensively in UK forces. Significantly, OPs were not used by our French allies, who did not seem to have anything like the same problems after hostilities ceased.

Let me turn to my particular concern and the reason why I wanted to contribute. The United States Government are undertaking a very extensive research programme and congressional hearings are taking place in Washington. In addition, no less a personality than Ross Perot is funding a research programme into some of the specific aspects that I mentioned. That is occurring because that country is so concerned to see that justice is done by the service personnel who served it and us well.

Although my hon. Friend is right that more attention and care has been given to the subject since 1997, my concern is that our Ministry of Defence and Government seem not to be taking full account of the international research programme, which should be relevant to our inquiries. Hence the need for an independent public inquiry.

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I ask that the Minister express to the Under-Secretary my continuing concern, shared by the Royal British Legion, that we have yet to take full advantage of international studies—particularly on the role of organophosphates—in this deplorable episode.

11.35 pm

The Minister of State for Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) for initiating tonight's debate on Gulf veterans' illnesses, and to the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) for his contribution. The hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs) also deserves my gratitude, although I must confess to hesitation in remembering his constituency. That shows how quickly one's past life as a Northern Ireland Minister can be forgotten.

I apologise for the absence, due to illness, of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, who has direct responsibility for this subject within the Department. I shall ensure that any points of detail that are not answered in the debate will be dealt with by him on his return.

As the hon. Member for Yeovil has pointed out, this topic is of considerable interest to a wide community—primarily, of course, to those veterans of the 1990–91 Gulf conflict who are unfortunately ill. Let me make it clear from the outset that issues relating to Gulf veterans' illnesses remain a high priority for this Government. We have demonstrated our commitment to addressing Gulf veterans' concerns openly, honestly and seriously, and I can assure the House that we will continue to do so. I am grateful to the hon. Members for Yeovil and for North Cornwall for recognising that the matter is being dealt with in a substantially different way since this Government took office.

We accept that some of the 53,000-odd UK Gulf veterans have become ill, and that some have died. Many believe that such ill health and mortality is unusual, and is related to the Gulf conflict; indeed, that is the contention and core argument of the hon. Member for Yeovil. However, although there is evidence that Gulf veterans report more ill health than other comparable groups, no medical or scientific consensus exists as to why. Because of this unknown factor, important research continues. We are monitoring mortality and publishing the data every six months. Our most recent data—published on 31 December last year—showed that the total number of deaths among Gulf veterans was almost identical to that among a matched group of service personnel who were members of the armed forces on 1 January 1991 but who did not deploy to the Gulf.

It may be helpful if I set out how the Government are approaching this complex issue. We have adopted three principles to underpin our response to concerns about Gulf veterans' illnesses. First, all Gulf veterans will have prompt access to medical advice from the Ministry of Defence's Gulf veterans' medical assessment programme. Secondly, appropriate research will be undertaken into veterans' illnesses and factors that might have a bearing. Thirdly, the MOD will make available to the public any information that it possesses that is of potential relevance to this issue. I want to say a little more about those three topics before dealing with some of the specific points that were raised.

The Gulf veterans' medical assessment programme has been running since 1993. Since then, it has been subject to audit by the Royal College of Physicians and the King's

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Fund health quality service. In addition, the Royal College of Pathologists has provided advice on the range of clinical investigations undertaken. Since 1993, more than 3,300 patients have been seen by physicians participating in the programme, and the annual underlying trend in referrals is declining. I am pleased to say that an analysis of satisfaction questionnaires showed that 96 per cent. of patients who responded were satisfied with their consultation. The physicians at the Gulf veterans' medical assessment programme, who have complete clinical independence from the MOD, find that about 80 per cent. of those they see are well. Of the 20 per cent. who are unwell, about 85 per cent. are found to have psychiatric disorders. That shows the importance of the psychiatric referral network that has been established. I should like to take this opportunity to encourage all Gulf veterans who are worried about their health to seek a referral to the Gulf veterans' medical assessment programme through their doctors.

I know that the hon. Member for Yeovil and other hon. Members who have involved themselves in this subject accept that scientific and medical research is vital to the issue of Gulf veterans' illnesses, as that is the only way we will find out why some veterans are ill. So far, the Ministry of Defence has spent approximately £6.7 million on studies in this field, and another £1.8 million will be required to complete the current programme of work. That level of expenditure underlines our commitment to scientific research.

The results from one important research study commissioned by the Ministry of Defence through the Medical Research Council were published last year. The study was based on self-reporting, which can be unreliable, but the team from the university of Manchester found a link between skin and muscle problems and the number of vaccinations given to Gulf veterans. However, the study team found no reason to explain such a link between vaccinations and these problems. Further work is currently under way in this area. The MOD's vaccines interactions research programme is studying whether the combination of vaccines used to protect personnel during the Gulf conflict can give rise to adverse health effects. That important research will be completed by the end of 2003. However, we hope that further interim results will be made public later this year.

Another Government-funded study, at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, is examining the reproductive health of Gulf veterans and their partners and the health of their children. Results from the study are expected to be published this year.

Lady Hermon (North Down): I appreciate the Minister giving way, and the patience of other Members at this late hour. Given the uncertainty about the immunisation programme for the soldiers who fought in the Gulf campaign, what lessons have been learned and implemented for troops who have recently been sent to Afghanistan?

Mr. Ingram: I am sure that the hon. Lady will appreciate that my hon. Friend the Minister for veterans affairs has a detailed knowledge of this issue, so I shall ensure that she is given a full response in writing to that

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question. Lessons are always learned, but rather than me trying to explain the specific lessons, it would be better if she were given that information in more detail.

The provision of information and dialogue is the third principle of our approach. Last year, my Department sent an updated information pack about Gulf veterans' illnesses to all GPs in the United Kingdom as well as to other interested health professionals, including those in the defence medical services. More than 48,000 copies have now been despatched.

The MOD's internet website is frequently updated, and is an increasingly valuable way of making information public 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, worldwide. Gulf Update, the newsletter produced by the MOD's Gulf veterans' illnesses unit, is published every six months and sent to several hundred veterans, to Members of both Houses and to other interested parties. The next issue will be published in the summer.

Veterans and others continue to contact the MOD via our freephone helplines and to receive appropriate assistance. In addition, my Department deals with a considerable amount of correspondence from veterans and their representatives.

As the hon. Member for Yeovil said, the whole issue is scrutinised by Parliament, both here and in the other place. Less than a year ago, my hon. Friend the Minister for veterans' affairs gave evidence on Gulf veterans' illnesses and on depleted uranium to the House of Commons Select Committee on Defence, from which the hon. Gentleman quoted.

I should like to deal with some of the particular points raised during the debate. The Government's position on a public inquiry into Gulf veterans' illnesses issues is clear. A public inquiry could not help to answer the question why some Gulf veterans are ill; only continuing scientific and medical research can do that. Furthermore, the Government's record is already subject to close public scrutiny and we believe that our current policy, our track record on delivering what we have promised and our continued openness allow for a proper assessment of what is being done. I have set out at length the three principles underlying that.

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