Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire): The opportunity to hold such a debate is fairly rare. I shall not give an account of the illnesses suffered by people who attended, witnessed and took part in the preparations for nuclear tests on behalf of this country. Instead, I shall focus on some of the ways in which we can remedy grievances. Those who took part in the tests as well as their children and grandchildren feel that the men who had often risked their lives in war prior to the testsin which they took part at the behest of the Governmenthave been poorly treated in the past 50 or so years.
I do not intend to criticise the present Government heavily. Successive Governments have taken the same stance towards claims for compensation or improved pensions on behalf of the service men who took part in the tests. It has been argued throughout that there is no overwhelming medical evidenceit is only marginalof a link between participation in the tests and particular illnesses. Such matters were revealed in the analysis of the test outcomes by the National Radiological Protection Board and, in some cases of leukaemia, a war pension was granted when a link to the tests was demonstrated. That is based on a slightly increased likelihood demonstrated in the data that have been analysed to date. The Government have taken that position throughout.
We need to create an atmosphere of greater objectivity and consensus building. Research has demonstrated that many of those who took part in the tests have since suffered terrible illnesses; there have also been cases of illness among their offspring. We must consider how to attribute that information to the circumstances of their lives; what they did in their lives when they were service men and later. So far the Government have commissioned work through the NRPB, which is currently undertaking its third study of the data produced by the examination of the records of 20,000-plus service men who attended the tests at various times during the 1950s and early 1960s.
I am worried that there is no proper consensus on whether that is the correct basis for research into illnesses. I note in particular the approach to similar circumstances taken by other countries. We are not alone in having carried out nuclear tests involving our service men. At that time we had a Commonwealth on which we could call, and some Commonwealth countries provided men. I draw attention to the example of the New Zealand Government, who have grant-aided the New Zealand Nuclear Test Veterans Association to provide a basis for that organisation's own research. That is a positive idea for two reasons.
First, the test veterans argue that they are overwhelmed by the scale of a large and understandably secretive Departmentthe Ministry of Defenceand the weight of the scientific establishment, against which they must contend purely with voluntary funds. The New Zealand Government have set a good example in choosing to grant-aid their veterans so that they can buy their own research. That provides a proper balance with the science of the matter. Secondly, we should genuinely consider whether there are different ways of looking at how to research the issue.
Thus far, our approach has been to take account of the scale of the issuemore than 20,000 people were involved in testswithout, perhaps, always recognising the different circumstances of individual test veterans. Some people were clearly exposed to a greater risk than others. The Sunday Mirror has carried many stories about the issue. By simply taking the group as one swathe, without sufficient differentiation of either the test or the circumstances of the military operation in which a person was involved, the precise circumstances will be concealed by the sheer scale of the data which the NRPB will be examining.
At the end of my speech I will call for far finer slicing of the data, to attribute the data to individual operational circumstances and particular tests. If we did that, we would be able to identify whether pockets of occurrences might be concealed in the overwhelming evidence of a large number of people who may have had little exposure to danger during an operation.
The United States has had an extensive programme of tests and it operates a policy for veterans for whom there is a presumed cause for one of 15 illnesses from which they may suffer. If a person can demonstrate that they were involved in a particular test and developed one of those illnesses, there is a presumption, which does not require a test in court, that they should be compensated for that experience. I do not understand why we choose not to follow a similar path to the one taken by the United States; that great Government are prepared to take such a step.
The Australian Government have also, to a lesser extent, adopted a presumed cause approach. In my correspondence with the MinisterI always appreciate the courtesy and the length of the answers that he has given to me on the various questions that I have askedhe hints at one possible reason, which is that factors such as the small size of the nuclear test participant group appear to be relevant. That suggests that we can take a straightforward approach to the issue because some countries say that only a relatively small number of people were affected. It also suggests that the British Government are apprehensive about a large number of claimants and, therefore, the substantial cost associated with dealing with the problem. That does not reflect well on our integrity and honesty. Surely, damage is the same whether it is done to a citizen of New Zealand, Australia or America, or to one of our own citizens. We should be prepared to take the experience of other countries into account.
Some of the New Zealand Nuclear Test Veterans Association's research has been commissioned in this country. We welcome that because it provides us with greater opportunities to examine different dimensions of the problem. Research is being undertaken in Dundee and I am aware that the MOD has taken a particular
I should hope that we are fully engaged with the New Zealand Government on what they have set off through their approach, although I have not been reassured by the answers that the Minister has given me. I have asked whether we have made representations to the New Zealand Government and the answer was no. I have asked whether there has been any substantial engagement with the issue, and was told that there has not. I hope that we are aware of the research activity, and that we are engaged sympathetically in trying to understand what that research is seeking to achieve and in liaising with those who commissioned it.
I come to the rather legalistic way in which the issue has been addressed. I represent a former mining constituency, in which miners had to fight for many years to demonstrate the damage caused to their health by coal dust in their lungs and the use of vibrating tools. That culminated in a successful action in 1997, and gradually and painfully, in the drawing down of compensation for the people involved.
I am well aware of the lengthy civil process that can be involved in pursuing such claims, and I would not wish that on anyone, particularly not on a voluntary organisation. The one advantage that mine workers had was a well resourced trade union to fight the case on their behalf and to commission the best possible legal advice. I note that civil cases are being considered at the moment, and I would not wish that process on those pursuing them; it would be long, painful, and might, if the case is eventually proved, lead to a large class action.
There are far better ways of pursuing such issues, and one can see that even in the mining industry. In the early 1970s, the Government correctly understood that pneumoconiosis was a major disease in mining, and that there should be a straightforward compensation scheme available to people who could demonstrate that they had experienced it in their lives. I recommend a simple process, and the presumed cause approach that I have suggested would provide that simplicity.
If a case went to court, one would have to demonstrate negligence, and consider the advice that was available. We must recognise that our knowledge is much greater than it was then, and some of the precautions that, frankly, we ridicule now may well have seemed to be the best ways of protecting people. We would also have to show whether there was intent, and that causes concern. I have received correspondence from the Minister that says that there was no intent to test the effect that the weapons had on human beings. In a quotation from the Sunday Mirror, there is a reference to a declassified document, dated 20 May 1953. The article says:
I have talked to my fatherwho was a career naval officerand my mother about that time, and it is clear that their generation's attitude towards risk was very different from ours. People had lived through a world war in which they had seen friends die in violent ways, and many of them were trained to say, "Well, it is our job to take risks." That might have been the case, but people who are placed in harm's way deserve to know something about what that harm might be and what the exercise that they are involved in might achieve.
I see no evidence of such candour towards service men at that time. It appears that advice and information were minimal and perfunctory. It is worth reflecting on the culture of the time, which is evidenced by the recent disclosures at Porton Down that service men could be used legitimately as guinea pigs; they were given minimal information, and sometimesone hopes in extreme casesthey were deceived. That that was the concept of a service man's role at that time in our country's history should be addressed honestly.
It is easy to make judgments now about attitudes then, and I am not seeking to do that. I merely think that we should be honest about what might have happened, and about the contexts of these tests. Therefore, I hope that as part of this exercise, we can be open with people about the purpose and meaning of these tests, and about how we communicated what they were about to those who participated in them.
First, we should consider the basis of presumed cause in dealing with certain kinds of illnesses where they occur among nuclear test veterans. Secondly, we should re-examine the test data and seek to differentiate it with regard to the circumstances of the operation in which people were involved and the individual test in which they participated. Thirdly, we should look at empowering the test veterans associations by providing them with resources so that they can commission their own research and vigorously question the science of all of this. The Minister will almost certainly respond by discussing the science as it is perceived by the Ministry of Defence. I want there to be proper engagement with that subject; we should debate that science in a fully informed way and with a greater degree of consensus than has been achieved until now. Fourthly, I want a proper disclosure of the purpose of these tests and how we communicated what they were about to the service men of that time.
We should give respect to those who participated in these tests and followed the orders that they were given. They did their duty. We have a duty to act with integrity towards them and their families.
Mr. Francis Maude (Horsham): I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd), and I congratulate him on securing the debate. The matter is of great importance to a relatively small number of people, but the issues that the debate raises are of wide importance. He has done the House and the public a service by raising this subject.
I want to centre my remarks on the case of my constituent, Mr. Derek Fiddaman. He was serving on the guard ship HMS Cossack as part of Operation Grapple X when the fourth British nuclear test at Christmas Island was carried out on 8 November 1957. The ship sailed to the west of the island after the explosion, and it is argued that it became contaminated as the wind carried radiation from the site of the explosion to where it had sailed to. Eighteen years later, in 1975, the first symptoms appeared of the basal cell carcinomas from which Mr. Fiddaman still suffers today.
After the contamination of nuclear test veterans came publicly to light in 1980, Mr. Fiddaman contacted a radiologist in Guildford. He was diagnosed as suffering as a result of over-exposure to radiation. He had been undergoing a course in radiotherapy for the basal cell condition; but that course was ceased immediately. Since 1980, he has undergone more than 100 operations to remove malignant tumours. He will attend a further clinic tomorrow.
Mr. Fiddaman has stressed that his case is by no means the worst. He is not whingeing or complaining; he says that many others are much worse off than he is. However, he has suffered enormously from his condition for more than 27 years. In 1980, when the source of his illness was first properly diagnosed, he applied for a war pension. Two years laterthe process was not rapidan initial decision was reached and he was offered £2,000. On appeal, that was upgraded to a 20 per cent. pension entitlement. Eventually, after a series of grudging decisions to upgrade the entitlement, he was awarded a 60 per cent. war pension. Getting that level of pension sounds like a long and painful process, but Mr. Fiddaman, again, is comparatively one of the lucky ones. Out of 1,228 claims for war pensions from the test veterans up to March 2000, only 467 resulted in awards.
As we know, until 1987, service personnel were prevented from pursuing claims for compensation from the Ministry of Defence by the Crown Proceedings Act 1947now, happily, repealed. Between then and May 2000, 144 claims for compensation were made; none has been settled. In other words, fewer than 500 of the perhaps 20,000 veterans who witnessed the tests have received any kind of recompense. In no case has it been recognised that people suffered as a result of inadequate precautions when the tests were carried out. The onus for proving entitlement to a war pension is placed entirely on the veterans. As Mr. Fiddaman's case illustrates, the process is long and tortuous. More than half of the cases have resulted in outright failure; in many other cases, only a partial award has been made.
In the meantime, the continuing struggle to establish a right to compensation has left the veterans in a state of great uncertainty. It is now 45 years or more since the tests took place and many people werearguably; this is the issue that must be resolvedexposed to the radiation that has harmed them.
This is not a partisan issue. I am conscious that it is the kind of issue that parliamentarians tend to take up in opposition and then drop when in government. I hope that the tone of this debate will be non-partisan. I understand why Government Ministers and the MOD take a slightly different view today from that taken by the Labour party when it was in Opposition. The MOD has a history of being very reluctant to accept liability; I am not talking only about this issue but about other issues as well. As we saw with Gulf war syndrome, when any such suggestion is made, the MOD tends immediately to deny any possible connection between what was done and the illnesses that transpired. The issue is then obscured and even obstructed. That is very unfortunate and very bad for the reputation of the MOD. The House will appreciate that I am not one of those who routinely attacks the MOD. I am a huge admirer of our armed forces, which are the finest in the world. I have no animus at all against the Ministry of Defence. However, its Ministers and officials must understand that a lack of straightforwardness has caused distrust of the MOD. People do not feel that they have been treated fairly, openly and straightforwardly on this issue and, indeed, others. I urge a different approach most strongly.
I was a Treasury Minister many years ago. I am very conscious of concerns that are raised in the Treasury on any issue of this sort. The same old phrases always emerge: "Floodgates opening"; "The thin end of the wedge"; and "If we accept liability in one case, the whole thing will be opened up." I am one of nature's Treasury Ministers. I am not an enthusiast of the reckless spending of public money. However, an injustice has been done and people have been subjected to danger and suffering as a result of what the Government asked them to do.
That is especially true of our armed service men, who were national service men who had no option about what they did or where they went because they were under military orders. They were subjected to danger as a result of the Government's actions. If it is probableit does not need to be established beyond peradventurethat what they went through caused the pain and illness that many have suffered, the Government should pay up because that is required for justice.
There has been a lack of openness and straightforwardness. In 2000, the Government said that test veterans would have the right to request access to their official service records, including their medical records. It was said that they would be entitled to have access to any information held relating to their exposure to radiation while participating in the nuclear test programme. The situation has not quite worked out like that. Despite repeated attempts, Mr. Fiddaman has still not been able to view his service records. During a meeting with an MOD official, it transpired that radiation readings carried out among servicemen at the time of the tests appeared not to have been properly logged in several cases. That puts people at a major
Indeed, it was left to Mr. Fiddaman to prove the positioning of the HMS Cossack on the day of the test. Using his training in navigation, he reconstructed the ship's course on charts held in the Public Record Office. It is fair to say that he was a bit offended by the justification that the MOD eventually used for awarding him his 60 per cent. war pension. The MOD said that it was offered to him on the basis of his "over-exposure to brilliant sunlight" while on active duty. We all know about the risks of skin cancer due to sunlight, but that way of denying liability for something that seems increasingly likely is mildly offensive. Mr. Fiddaman continues to campaign despite the fact that his position is better than that of many others.
I am following on from what the hon. Member for South Derbyshire said. I urge the Government to be very open, to lay the records bare and to allow completely open scrutiny of everything that happened. The Government and the Ministry of Defence should not fear such openness and scrutiny. If there is nothing to hide, there is, by definition, nothing to fear from the most open scrutiny that can be imagined. If there is something to hide, simple, straightforward equity and justice require the course that I urge the Government to take.
Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) on securing this debate on an issue that will, clearly, not go away. I am pleased to be here to support him and the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude). They clearly elaborated the issue from the veterans' point of view.
I wish to discuss an issue raised in a letter from my hon. Friend the Minister to a member of the veterans association in which he describes the Ministry of Defence view being established and supported by "sound scientific analysis". I am slightly sceptical whenever I see phrases such as that one or "evidence-based medicine". It is not that I do not want to achieve that, but there is always another view. A view is only as good as the evidence that is available today. Further research often shows that there is another explanation.
Indeed, science is based on quarrelsome individuals who hardly ever agree with each other. There are still people who do not believe that prions cause BSE and some who believe that AIDS is not caused by a virus. There are others who, with little scientific evidence, believe that telecommunication masts cause childhood leukaemia. Such issues are concerned with more than just straightforward, scientific and medical evidence. The public must also be convinced that the expertise and knowledge is convincing and can be supported.
We live in a world that is rapidly changing. On the issue of genetically modified crops, for example, people do not necessarily believe the evidence of experts. We should be sceptical about whether the sun will rise tomorrow morning in the east. I am 99 per cent. sure, but part of me says, "Well, it might not." Our views and legislation should operate on that basis.
Much evidence has been produced that will no doubt be disparaged, such as the work of Dr. Rabbit-Roff, or by John Urquhart, who addressed a meeting of MPs and veterans in Westminster Hall last week. The Sunday Mirror contacted the 350 families from the original study and 300 responded. Among those, the number of cases of Down's syndrome was significantly greater than the national average.
Mr. Urquhart is a brilliant statistician. I know that, in epidemiology, statistics are allwith chi-squares and T-tests and so forth. However, it is not necessarily an exact science. It is hard to get the evidence, but it is based on good statistics. Mr. Urquhart has researched child leukaemia and has found that, in the families studiedalthough it could be argued that the study is selectivethere are above average rates of cancer and Down's syndrome.
Dr. Rabbit-Roff and others claim that the incidence of multiple myelomasa type of blood cancer arising in the bone marrowis way above national levels among veterans. When I looked it up in the medical books that I occasionally pull off the shelf, I found that one cause of multiple myeloma is exposure to nuclear explosions. That is what young medical students are now told. When one looks at death certificates, such sophisticated knowledge is not always there. Any analysis based on a death certificate that says "heart failure" must be absolutely right because everybody's heart fails when they die. Death certificates can be filled in quite easily. They are not a good parameter for examining the issue.
There are tests available that veterans could now use, such as cytogenetic tests that examine chromosomes, the deoxyribonucleic acid and so forth. They would clearly show that there had been minor damage to chromosomes in the genetic material that had been caused by radiation. Nobody would deny that radiation causes genetic damage. The subject is crying out for new research to examine the whole process of what has happened. There are individuals who are prepared to play a part in that, and I hope that the Government will, now take a good solid look at all the evidence available, pull it together and give us the final judgment.
Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden): As I am conscious of the time, I shall concentrate on the case of a constituent. I am not someone who is necessarily drawn to the work of the Ministry of Defence or to defence matters, but I was particularly shaken by a meeting with my constituent, Shirley Denson of Morden. It was towards the end of 1998 when I first heard from her and became aware of the tragic life of her late husband, Squadron Leader Eric Denson, who committed suicide in 1976 after a long struggle with health problems.
Some 40 years before my first meeting with his widow, the 26-year-old Flight Lieutenant Denson captained one of the three Canberra aircraft deployed to fly a nuclear cloud-sampling mission through the mushroom cloud created by the three-megaton Grapple Y air drop detonation on 28 April 1958.
The planes were collecting samples while in the cloud. In the process, Flight Lieutenant Denson and his crew would each have collected 13,000 rads, which is the equivalent of 6,500 full body X-rays. Flying into the
Eric Denson was sent home after that flight and told that his dosage exceeded the legal limit, thus excluding him from participating in further tests. His vomiting started almost immediately, and became so severe that he was forced to delay in Fiji for a further three days. Great emphasis was placed on the imposition of strict orders of secrecy concerning any discussion of events going on in the south Pacific. Be that as it may, after Eric Denson's return in obvious ill health, no medical checks or follow-upin fact, no duty of care of any reasonable kindwere provided that could have alerted him to the probable cause of his progressive medical problems. Significantly, no mention was made in his medical records of his activities in the south Pacific in 1958.
Squadron Leader Denson ended his life in 1976 at the age of 44, after 18 years of breathing difficulties, acute sinusitis, mood swings, anxieties and depressions. He was the father of four children. His widow had no idea at the time of his high dosage of ionising radiation, which he acquired through his participation in nuclear tests almost two decades earlier. Another 20 years passed, during which Shirley Denson brought up four daughters on her own, three of whom were born after 28 April 1958. All three have experienced lasting health problems.
In 1997, Shirley was alerted to the latest scientific evidence about the Christmas island tests, and started her own investigations into the events there, with a growing realisation of the true effect of radiation poisoning on her husband. Such is the case of my constituent, and I pay tribute to her energy and tenacity. It has been strongly suggested to her during meetings with officials that her late husband was sickly and unbalanced from boyhood, and that his suicide was somehow inevitable and nothing to do with Christmas island. That is not an image of Eric Denson that squares with the fit Yorkshireman who joined the RAF to serve his country, and who was pronounced among the fittest of his peers, an expert pilot and a credit to the squadron that he would eventually lead.
There are several questions concerning that case, and there are many scientists here today who know a great deal more than I do. In the couple of minutes that I have left, I should like to ask the Minister some questions. I should be grateful if he explained why UK pilots such as Eric Denson and his peers were ordered to fly into experimental thermonuclear detonations without radiation protection. Will the Minister also explain whether the Government have any intention of following the lead taken by the Labour Government of New Zealand and instituting a medalposthumous in too many casesto commemorate the sacrifice of British test veterans?
Successive Governments have kept up a studied policy of denial, which today is clearly at odds with those of most western and NATO countries. Will the Minister explain why Britain persists in pursuing such a strange strategy? In doing so, the Minister might also explain why that policy of denial relies on a 1993 National Radiological Protection Board study that clearly found that UK test veterans had an excess of four major types of leukaemia, as well as excesses of bladder and liver cancers compared to a similar control group of veterans who did not participate in the tests.
I have many more questions, but I do not want to take up any more time. I want to allow everybody to have their chance to speak. Many people have questions that they want answered, and they deserve answers. Those responsible should be more straightforward than they have been.
Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth): First, I should like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) on securing the debate. I should also like to welcome my hon. Friend the Minister. He is a gentleman, and we can expect him to take copious notes and not just to read out the carefully crafted brief from his Department. If he is unable to answer some of our questions, no doubt he will write to us.
I am going to tell a story, which some people may not appreciate. The issue is shrouded in deceit, deception and duplicitythe stuff of politics. Many people do not know that Britain never developed an independent H-bomb. The Minister and his Department will know that the first time we tested a bomb it was unsuccessful. In the middle of the cold war, however, the Government's policy was to sit at the top table with the H-bomb countries. They wanted parity with America and an independent deterrent, and they wanted to defend certain colonies and ex-colonies.
The Government concocted the biggest hoax in this country's history. They exploded an atom bomb that contained so much uranium that it caused a 750,000 tonnes explosion, which made the Americans think that we had an H-bomb. The Americans admitted us to the top table and gave us access to their secrets. Later, Britain managed to clone an American bomb, but we had, of course, created some difficulties. An atom bomb is dirtier, more dangerous to personnel and more radioactive than a hydrogen bomb. We could not allow that fact to be revealed in the form of extra protection for our service men. We therefore sailed our service men close to the explosion, and did not give them the protection that they needed.
Worse than that, the British did not record the radiation readings in case they fell into the hands of a clever American observer who would have noticed that the radiation levels did not coincide with the explosion of an atomic bomb. All the readings were faked and fixed in the interests of national security. However, we need not have bothered because the Americans knew that the dosimeters did not work. Once we had started our great lie, however, we had to continue it.
One incidence of the great lie concerns a friend and constituent, Ron Coates. He was told that he could not have been issued with a dosimeter because his duties did not concern radiation. Unfortunately for the
What were the duties for which Mr. Coates did not need to be issued with a dosimeter? He was a member of the Fleet Air Arm, and his job was to maintain aircraft and, in particular, helicopters. Britain might not have had an H-bomb, but we must have had a world lead in helicopters. Apparently, we had a helicopter that could land on an island one hour after an atomic blast without raising any dust or having any dust sticking to it. Apparently, it flew back to its ship and was perfectly clean. Supposedly, Mr. Coates was not exposed to radiation and his meter showed no radiation. The fact that after handling the helicopter, he had to go through the scrubbers and down the dirty trail has been totally forgotten.
I shall tell hon. Members the history of the four men in that photograph. Pete Cutforth has cancer; John Carr has diabetes, plus several other ailments; and Ron Coates has cancer. They have lost touch with the fourth man, a Mr. Rowlands, so they do not know what happened to him. That is some record. At least two of the four have certified cancer, despite the claim that they were not exposed to a sufficient level of radiation.
Mr. Coates, after many strugglesand having gone through all the hoops to gain the war pension for which he thought he was eligiblewas told, believe it or not, that he had to prove that he would not have contracted cancer had he not been exposed to the radiation. How can anyone prove that? A person would have to go back to a point prior to the explosion, create two of themselves, and allow one to go through the explosion and one not to do so in order to see whether the one who had not gone through it developed cancer. What a stupid thing to say. It is as bad as asking a service man who has been shot on active service to prove that he would not have been shot while walking the dangerous streets of Britain. Anyone who did that would be laughed out of the tribunal, but that is what was said, in effect, to that group of servicemen.
All they are asking for is fair treatment. I know that it is difficult for the Department, but the cat is out of the bag. The Americans now know that it was a con and a hoax. We do not have to keep up the pretence any longer. All we need to do is to quantify the cost to us. The first part of the claim is to secure a recognition of what these people went through; what we put them through. After that, we should ensure, like the Americans, that there is an easier trail for such people to claim war pensions and thus compensation. They were there when their country needed them; please let their country be there when they need it.
Mrs. Janet Dean (Burton): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) on securing this important debate. I want to raise the concerns of my constituent, Mr. Prescott, who
Whatever the results of the NRPB studies in 1988 and 1993, since 1998 an increasing number of pensions have been awarded to UK veterans for conditions recognised by the United States as radiogenic. Sadly, those pensions are not being granted by the Veterans Agency, but are being won on appeal to pensions appeals tribunals. The British Nuclear Test Veterans Association estimates that the Veterans Agency regularly spends £50,000 on trying to reject such awards10 times the amount that non-officer ranks could expect per year for a 100 per cent. war pension. It will always be difficultin fact, probably impossiblefor test veterans to prove conclusively that their medical conditions are caused by their service.
Many veterans have had many years of ill health. Indeed, as we have heard, some have already died. They feel a strong sense of injustice that they were used as guinea pigs. They have lived in fear for the past 40 to 50 years. Is it not time for the United Kingdom to adopt a formula based on a presumptive principle similar to that of the United States? If what we asked our servicemen to do was so harmless, my constituent, Mr. Prescott, asks,
Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall): I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) on securing the debate, not least because of my constituent, Mr. Tom Clarke, who lives in Blunts. I shall not repeat what Mr. Clarke has been telling me, because we have heard so many good accounts of veterans' stories. I shall instead concentrate on a few extra questions. The Minister has already heard many questions, so if he does not get around to answering all of them, I hope that he will respond in writing, as it is important that our constituents hear as many answers as possible.
How, if there were insufficient records on veteranswe have heard much about the way in which data were or were not takencould the 1998 and 1993 studies claim any accuracy? Why do the Government continue to ignore the medical conclusions reached in other countries, such as America and Australia, and maintain such a distinct position?
I shall consider some legal aspects. The Minister will be aware that the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights criticised the Government's reluctance to provide comprehensive information about tests and medical details, and concluded that it constituted a breach of human rights. What is the Government's response to that? Have they given an official response, or will they respond today?
I have written to the Minister on other issues, such as asbestos, relating to the effect of the repeal of section 10 of the Crown Proceedings Act 1947, which bars retrospective claims by law. Does he intend to continue to invoke that, so that legally, even if the Government are persuaded that there are compensation requirements, they will be barred from seeing them through?
In today's state of heightened tension over Iraq and so on, the public are looking to the armed forces as they do not usually do. Surely it is of paramount importance that we are seen to treat them in the very best way. We have seen not only how successive Governments have treated the veterans under discussion but how they have decided to treat Gulf war syndrome, unlike America, which has accepted that the syndrome may exist. It is important for the Government to recognise that if we want men and women to join the armed forces and put their lives on the line, we should show them some respect if things go wrong and unintended consequences come back to haunt us.
There seems to be a prevailing ethos in the Government of closing down any thought of proper investigation and introducing new regulations to ensure that they do not have to meet legal responsibilities. If we are asking people once again to go and fight for their country, the background of how the armed forces are being treated will have an effect. In today's climate, we need to give tangible assurances of the real commitment to treat service personnel as they ought to be treated.
Valid and transparent research, which is required for monitoring veterans' conditions, is crucial to past and present members of the armed forces and to the public, who are beginning to be uneasy. They think that the Government are continuing to absolve themselves from any responsibility towards themin relation not only to the armed forces but to other areas, such as miningand that they are trying to avoid paying compensation. That is in stark contrast to the way in which other countries have been prepared to accept certain responsibilities. Is it not now time for the Government to consider presumptive principles? It would be a matter not of blame but of recognising that many people who have served their country now need the Government's support.
Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): I join everyone else in congratulating the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) on having secured this important debate, in which many interesting contributions have been made.
I echo the words of the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed). This country owes a great debt of gratitude to its service men. The issue is particularly apposite at present because so few citizens of this country are members of the armed forces. It is not like during the second world war and its aftermath, when the entire nation was involved. From time to time, we call on a tiny proportion of society to lay down their lives for their country. I have just returned from the Falkland islands, where acts of great heroism were carried out. Sometimes the warfare in which the armed forces are engaged is similar to the warfare that was seen during the first world war, yet the rest of the nation is watching television, going to the pub and playing football. We owe a great debt of gratitude to those who serve and have served in Her Majesty's armed forces and we should take their concerns and concerns about them seriously.
The independent nuclear deterrent provided security for the peoples of these islands for a generation. If it had not been for that deterrent, who knows what might have happened? These people were involved in testing the weapon that went on to keep the peace in Europe. My right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude), who said that he was ever a Treasury man, commented that even if the tests were the probable cause, Her Majesty's Government should pay up. I have to tell him that even as an Opposition spokesman I am not in a position to write a blank cheque, and if he were in the position of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), as he previously was, he would certainly slap me down if I were to do so. I recognise the difficulties.
We need to take a new look at how we treat veterans in the United Kingdom. When I went to the United States with the Select Committee on Defence in February, I noted how different the approach was there.
I know that the Government have set up a Veterans Agency, but it is a fairly limited operation. The time has come to examine where the burden of proof should lie. However, if there is to be an increase in public expenditure arising from such a change, it is perhaps not fair that that burden should fall on the Ministry of Defence. The crux of the issue is whether there is a causal link between participation in the nuclear test programme and any subsequent illness. As hon. Members said, successive Governments have commissioned scientific investigations to establish whether such a link exists.
The 1983 National Radiological Protection Board report was mentioned. That study compared the rate of mortality and the incidence of cancer in more than 22,000 men who took part in the tests with those in a similar group of men and civilians who were not involved. The results were published in the British Medical Journal and concluded that participation in the tests had no detectable effect on the participants' life expectancy. The study also failed to establish a causal relationship between the incidence of cancer and
The 1983 report recommended that there should be further observations on groups of participants, that controls should be maintained for a further 10 years, and that a further report should be commissioned in 1992. The Conservative Government kept their word and commissioned that report. In December 1993 the then Minister, Jeremy Hanleynow quite rightly Sir Jeremy Hanleyconfirmed in an answer to a parliamentary question that the follow-up report had reinforced the original report's conclusions. It had established that no case had yet been found that proved a causal link.
No causal link had been proved, although independent scientists had recommended that further studies be undertaken, and we were bound to abide by their findings. The Conservative Government had made all decisions strictly in accordance with the recommendations of the independent scientists at the NRPB.
Recently, the debate has been enlivened by a newspaper campaign. The hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), who I believe presided over a meeting here with the veterans, said that the veterans had no confidence in the NRPB. Indeed, he told us this morning that people were sceptical about scientists and, by implication, that he tended to agree with them. However, he holds a bachelor of science degree in genetics and I hope that he would feel that the public had some confidence in his views on genetics.
The NRPB has consistently found no causal link. We are making a serious charge when we say that we do not trust those scientists. Applying that distrust across the board undermines any study that the Government commission, and by extension undermines the evidence that others submit. It would be a grave crime against the people of this country if the NRPB had systematically
Dr. Gibson : The hon. Gentleman is over-egging the pudding. That was not what was being said, which was that different people can assess scientific evidence in different ways. It depends on the questions asked. I made the point that it is a very difficult field in which to acquire hard evidence. It is difficult to determine that one factor in the environment is causing a problem when people are subjected to all sorts of assaults from their environment. No one is saying that the matter debases science itself. The argument is about the interpretation of scientific results.
It would be easy for the Opposition to jump on the bandwagon in support of a newspaper campaign, but I do not intend to do that. I will, however, have a little fun at the expense of the Minister, if I may. In 1986, a Mr. Neil Kinnock, whom some hon. Members in the Labour party might remember, wrote to Ken McGinleythen chairman of the British Nuclear Test Veterans Associationsaying:
I stand by the pledge that my predecessors gave when the Conservatives were in office. The Ministry of Defence owes a duty of care to everyone serving in the armed forces and a duty to compensate those injured in the course of service. If the Sunday Mirror has produced evidence that strongly asserts a causal link between participation in the test programme and any form of injury or illness, the Government should properly assess the validity of the new claims. I understand that the Legal Services Commission recently awarded the veterans funding to undertake a further review. I hope that that will be forthcoming and that the MOD will approach it in the spirit that both Government and Opposition Members would like it to have.
I have spelt out the Opposition's principled position, but add a qualification: despite the conclusions of many rigorous scientific investigations, anecdotal evidence remains to suggest at least the possibility of a link between participation in the programme and various examples of long-term injury. Anyone who has seen pictures on the television of the mushroom cloud and men standing there with their hands covering their eyes must feel discomfort at the apparent lack of protection that those men were given.
If it is possible to separate out those veterans who may have been exposed to a higher risk during the programme of tests, that group should be analysed relative to the control group. Obviously, it cannot be a self-selected group of veterans who took part in the tests and subsequently fell ill. As I mentioned, from a group of 20,000 veterans, more than 3,000 would have been expected to die in any case. However, I remind the Minister that even if only a handful of veterans have suffered as a result of their participation, we owe it to them to find that out and compensate them if possible.
I was very touched by the case mentioned by the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh). To the layman, it must seem almost an open-and-shut case that a pilot flew through a mushroom cloud and subsequently developed various ailments. That also points to a new development: the genetic effect on subsequent families since the tests of 1983 and 1992. The Minister might like to address that. I shall conclude my speech now to give him a chance to respond to the many points that have been made.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie) : I am grateful that my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) has secured the debate. I cannot answer today all the detailed questions that were asked, but I promise that every hon. Member who asked a question will receive a full response as soon as possible.
Nuclear testing is a deeply emotive subject. Recent articles in the Sunday Mirror that coincided with the 50th anniversary of the first test conducted by the United Kingdom, which took place on 3 October 1952 at Monte Bello island off the north-western coast of Australia, have once again provoked much debate, some of which is clearly ill informed. I therefore welcome this opportunity to restate the position of the Ministry of Defence on this important matter.
The UK conducted a total of 21 atmospheric nuclear tests in Australia and at Malden island and Christmas island in the 1950s. Some 28,000 UK service personnel were involved in the test programmes, the majority in logistic support. Service personnel from Australia and New Zealand also took part.
For some years, a number of veterans of the test programme have claimed that their health was damaged by deliberate or accidental exposure to ionising radiation. However, my Department has consistently rejected those claims, on the basis that stringent safety precautions were in place at all times. Film badges were issued as necessary to some personnel to record radiation dosage, and environmental monitoring was undertaken. The majority of the service men involved were mustered at safe locations and advised as to what precautions they should take. Obviously, that means that some who took part in the tests were mustered at less safe locations. I think that they made up some 8 per cent. of the 1,800 in total who were issued with film badges. Obviously, there were degrees of exposure. No one, certainly in modern times, has denied that.
In response to concerns about the health of British service personnel who participated in the UK's test programme, my Department commissioned a comprehensive and independent epidemiological study by the National Radiological Protection Board and staff from the Imperial Cancer Research Fund in the early 1980s. The studybased on death certificate information and data from the national cancer registration schemecost £540,000 and an additional £160,000 was spent on a subsequent follow-up study. A variety of sources were consulted and, in order to secure accuracy, more than 100,000 records were examined.
The studies involved tracing the service records of 22,000 participants and identifying an equal number of servicemen matched for age and experience but who had no involvement in the test programmethe control group. The results of the study were published in 1988 and a follow-up study was later conducted and its findings published in 1993. Both studies showed conclusively that participation in the test programme had no detectable effect on the participants' expectation of life or on the risk of developing cancer or other fatal diseases.
Leukaemia and multiple myeloma were particular concerns. The 1993 report stated that the possibility that participants in the tests experienced a small risk of developing leukaemia in the first 25 years could not be ruled out. The same report also stated that the possible multiple myeloma noted in the previous 1988 report was not confirmed. A third analysis by the NRPB into the incidence of multiple myeloma, other cancers and other causes of death among test veterans was commissioned by my Department. The results of that study, which has undergone peer review, are expected to published next year. Funding of £30,000 per annum is also being provided for the maintenance of the database of veterans, which has been used during the compilation of these three studies.
Dr. Moonie : Without having the substantial study in front of me, I cannot reply now other than to say that we would be prepared to consider the possibility of examining the health experience of a sub-group that received slightly higher than average doses. One has to be careful not to bias epidemiological studies; the greater proportion of the group that is separated out, the more likely the bias. The studies were paid for by the Ministry of Defence, but were constructed on the most rigorous scientific methodology available. People who know what they are talking about have held them up as models of how epidemiological studies should be carried out. When we are debating scientific research, it is important to recognise that, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) would agree.
Informed criticism and debate of scientific studies is always welcome. Having been responsible for a programme of work on Gulf veterans, I know that procedures have changed over the years and that further studies are carried out in the light of criticisms of previous ones. We maintain an open mind and want to people to be as well informed as possible about what is going on. We recognise that the over-secrecy of the past is counter-productive to honest debate.
Mr. Jenkins : Is the Minister saying that the 1,800 servicemen who were issued with film badges were not separated out and did not become part of the population to which the tests were directed? Were they lost in the greater number of 22,000, so that the figures were subsumed in a greater population than the one that we should have been assessing?
Dr. Moonie : No, that is not the case. If my hon. Friend were to examine the records of the people claiming to have suffered effects, he would find that they are not all members of that sub-group. If we want to study the effects on the group as a whole, we must study the group as a whole and not select out and bias the results. If the results are biased, the research is valueless. Frankly, speaking as a scientist and someone who was an epidemiologist in the pastif not a terribly good one in comparison with Sir Richard Doll or other such luminariesI know that we have to be careful when constructing the population from which we draw inferences about the incidence of diseases.
There is no doubt that those who are complaining of being ill are ill. They have our greatest sympathy. After all, they are people who have served us. Sad to say, illness comes to us all with increasing age. However, where people are attributing an illness to a particular condition, we must be able to show that it is reasonable to do so.
Obviously, we are sympathetic to those with health problems, but the seventh report of the Committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment, which was published in August this year, has dismissed ideas of a general link between preconceptional exposure to radiation and cancer in offspring. The report states:
Current information on radiation health effects suggests that studies of cancer among people who have been exposed to radiation are likely to provide a more sensitive means of detecting such effects than studies of their children.
There is no current scientific or medical evidence to show that the health problems, or other physical problems, suffered by the children or grandchildren of test veterans could be attributed to the veterans' participation in the test programme. If the nuclear test veterans have further new evidence that supports their case, I invite them to present it for independent scientific review.
Mr. Todd : Confidence in the science has been part of this debate. That confidence would increase if sufficient resources were provided to the nuclear test veterans so that they could commission their own scientific advice to input to the debate. What is the Minister's reaction to that proposal, bearing in mind the fact that the New Zealand Government have adopted such an approach?
Dr. Moonie : That is a matter for the New Zealand Government. I have studied this matter both as a Minister and as a professional in the field and I am confident that rigorous standards have been applied to the work that has been done and that no back-up is required in the form of further studies. Such studies would use essentially the same test base.
I want to comment on other studies and, in particular, on the work of Sue Rabbit-Roff, who is a medical sociologist at the University of Dundee. My Department is fully aware of her work, which is supported by the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association, an organisation that covers about 10 per cent. of the known test participants. Her study is mainly descriptive and is based on the death notifications of 608 test participants, provided by the BNTVA. That figure, of course, has to be compared with the figure of more than 21,000 in the National Radiological Protection Board studies. Her study is therefore of a self-selected
Two test cases against the United Kingdom Government were brought before the European Court of Human Rights by the BNTVA in November 1997. The first concerned allegations that veterans were being prevented from obtaining documents required for applications for pensions. The second involved the daughter of a test veteran who was diagnosed as having leukaemia at the age of four.
The court ruled in favour of the UK Government on both occasions. In the first case, it decided that the Government had neither denied access to documents nor falsely denied the existence of related evidence. In the second case, the court found that there was no reason to suppose that the veteran in question had been exposed to dangerous levels of radiation and that there were no grounds on which the Government should have taken positive action by warning of or monitoring a risk to his daughter's health.
Turning to the matter in handand to repeat what I said at the outset of my speechthere is no evidence to support the test veterans' claim that their participation in the tests has had a detectable effect on their life expectancy or their risk of developing cancer or other fatal diseases. Consequently, grounds do not exist for compensation to be paid.
However, my Department's Veterans Agency makes provision in the form of war pensions and associated benefits for ex-service personnel who suffer from an illness or injury that is attributable to their service. Over the years, many war pensions claims have been made by ex-service men who participated in the nuclear test programme.
Based on the first National Radiological Protection Board report of 1988, the normal policy was to award war pensions for claims for leukaemiaother than chronic lymphatic leukaemiaand multiple myeloma, as well as for some other illnesses such as polycythaemia. The second NRPB report led to a revision of that policy. Since its publication, on the basis of presence at atmospheric nuclear test sites, new claims for multiple myeloma are not accepted, but awards continue to be made for leukaemiaother than chronic lymphatic leukaemiaand for primary polycythaemia rubra vera that has clinical onset within 25 years of first presence at the test sites.
The reports do not provide reliable evidence to raise a reasonable doubt that other cancerssuch as liver and bladder cancermight be attributable to service in the armed forces because of presence at the sites. Consequently, awards are not made for solid cancers on the basis of presence at atmospheric nuclear test detonations or clean-up operations alone. However, an award of a war pension for cancer may be made in any case where there is reliable evidence of service exposure to a sufficient level of ionising radiation and a recognised causal link between the claimed condition and such accepted exposure.
Compensation to service personnel of other states who participated in the UK nuclear tests has been the subject of some debate, particularly with regard to the Governments of Australia and New Zealand. In 1983, the results of a study commissioned by the Australian Government into the health of Australian participants in the UK tests that were conducted on Australian territory indicated no increase in adverse health outcomes.
It has often been claimed that, in 1993, the UK Government were prepared to pay £20 million in compensation to Australian nuclear test veterans at the expense of their own test veterans; although that claim has not been made today. That sum was paid to the Australian Government, but it was a contribution towards the clean-up operation at the Maralinga range in South Australia, which is now complete.
In Australia, military nuclear test veterans can apply for an award through the military compensation and rehabilitation scheme in respect of injury and disease resulting from their participation in the British nuclear tests. Where it is confirmed that a claimant has been exposed to ionising radiation and they present with a disease that is characteristic of such exposure, claims are accepted without further investigation and compensation is paid. That is similar to the process that is followed in the UK.
I understand that nine payments have so far been made to Australian service men, and that several other cases are under consideration, with each case being decided on the basis of available evidence. The health disorders for which payments have been made include malignant neoplasms and skin conditions.
In New Zealand, veterans who participated in the British nuclear tests are eligible for full coverage under the Pensions Act 1954. A veteran may lodge a claim for any disability. Acceptance of the claim is subject to medical verification of the disability and acceptance that the condition is attributable to the veteran's service. Benefit of the doubt is exercised in favour of the veteran if there is any uncertainty as to whether a disability is attributable.
As in the United Kingdom, the war disablement pension is tax-free and, once awarded, paid for life in weekly payments. There are no known cases of nuclear test veterans having been paid compensation by the New Zealand Government. Four nuclear test veterans