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The Countess of Mar: My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that a great deal of concern is being expressed by individual Gulf War veterans, solicitors representing them and the organisations who support the Gulf veterans over the choice of Dr. Simon Wessely? He has written in The Times in uncompromising terms that Gulf War syndrome is caused solely by post-traumatic stress syndrome. Does the noble Earl appreciate that Gulf veterans who are ill will be unwilling to take part in the research because they believe that Dr. Wessely approaches the matter with preconceived ideas? Why do we have to rely on American money for research into our veterans? Can the Minister say how much we are spending on research and how many projects the Medical Research Council has already approved?

Earl Howe: My Lords, it is not for me to comment on the likely course of Dr. Wessely's research. His research proposal was selected by a team of US research experts asked to commission studies which were most likely to discover whether the Gulf War had any unusual or unique health effects on personnel who served in the conflict. It is a study commissioned by the US Government, not by us. We have nothing to do with the decision which the US authorities took.

The noble Countess asked about British research which is, of course, much more on my mind than the US programme. Work to commission research is proceeding under the oversight of the Medical Research Council. It will be resourced adequately by the Government for approved research projects. We are satisfied that the timetable is being adhered to. The MRC intends to make its decision on proposals to be accepted by the end of October and work will proceed thereafter.

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Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, if, as the noble Countess stated, the doctor has expressed preconceived ideas, does that not disqualify him from independent research?

Earl Howe: My Lords, I have said that this is work commissioned by the US Government. I understand that Dr. Wessely enjoys a high reputation in his particular field. I do not wish to make any further comment on that. The UK Government are not involved in the commissioning of the work.

Lord Williams of Elvel: My Lords, the Minister says that the UK Government have not been involved in commissioning the research and that it is funded entirely by the United States Department of Defense. What is the Government's view of the research? Do the Government support the project in general despite providing no funds or do they condemn it?

Earl Howe: My Lords, we have been in close touch with the US authorities on the work they have commissioned. We have no reason to doubt that the decision taken by the US authorities was not well founded. However, I cannot accept the allegation that Dr. Wessely is inherently biased towards the work he is undertaking. The article that I read concerning his approach to the subject emphasised the need for a rigorous scientific approach to research in this area, which I am sure is the only way forward.

Lord Desai: My Lords, can the Minister explain why it has taken such a long time for the MRC to commission research? It has not yet commissioned anyone. How long will it take to find the reasons for the Gulf War syndrome?

Earl Howe: My Lords, it is important that the eminent scientific and medical specialists appointed by the MRC to oversee the matter have sufficient time to assess the background material to matters related to Gulf War illness and to assess the proposals submitted. It was also important to give sufficient time to potential researchers to formulate their own proposals. I do not think that we dragged our feet. I believe that the research that the United States is undertaking, and the research that we shall be commissioning, will dovetail satisfactorily.

Lord Dainton: My Lords, will the Minister be kind enough to answer this question? Will the work undertaken by Dr. Wessely be published freely in the open literature? That seems to me a prime consideration in relation to its independence.

Earl Howe: My Lords, I do not know the answer to that question. I shall write to the noble Lord with an answer. I understand that Dr. Wessely's research will focus on the prevalence of unexplained illnesses including chronic fatigue-like symptoms in members of the UK Armed Forces deployed to the Gulf.

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Armenia: Issue of Visas by British Embassy

2.47 p.m.

The Earl of Shannon asked Her Majesty's Government:

    When the British Embassy in Yerevan, Armenia, will be in a position to issue visas for visitors to this country.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Chalker of Wallasey): My Lords, we hope to be able to start issuing visas in Yerevan for Armenian nationals this autumn. We are currently working on putting into place the necessary administrative arrangements.

The Earl of Shannon: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness the Minister for that helpful and constructive reply. I hope that her department has always borne in mind that to ask someone to travel over 1,000 miles to obtain a visa is not helpful to that person or to us if we intend to trade with that country.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, I could not agree more with the noble Earl. We have had to work out how to provide this service because, as I believe the noble Earl knows, the embassy has been established for only about a year. It is a very small post. However, between perhaps 600 and 1,000 Armenian nationals may want to come to this country. I fully agree with him that it is sensible to issue that limited number of visas in Yerevan.

The Earl of Lauderdale: My Lords, can my noble friend tell the House whether there is an Armenian Embassy in London?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, yes. I am fairly certain that there is.

Baroness Cox: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that Armenia is among the most stable politically of all the countries of the former Soviet Union? It is also beginning to thrive economically despite the continuing blockades by Azerbaijan and Turkey. I hope that her answer will give some comfort to the Armenian people. They have felt immensely hurt by the inconvenience of having to travel to Moscow. They have seen it as a rather dilatory policy of initiating visas and there has been some anti-British feeling. Does she agree that her answer may give some comfort and reassurance?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, I certainly hope that it will make it easier for the Armenian people who want to come to Britain to obtain those visas. That is why we are making the necessary arrangements. Perhaps I may underline that although at present commercial opportunities for British companies in Armenia are somewhat limited because of the state of the economy, there are now increases in exports to Armenia and in Armenian exports to the United Kingdom. Far more needs

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to be done to build that up and then perhaps there will be even more visitors. However, we are making a good start.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, can the Minister tell us how many nationals of other former Soviet Union countries have to go to Moscow to get visas?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, I cannot be sure of the figures as I do not have them in my file. I apologise to the noble Lord and will let him know.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, I hope the Minister will forgive me if my question is a little wider. Can she tell the House what steps the Government are taking, either through the European Union or with any other international agencies, to encourage new forms of co-operation in areas such as transport and communications between Armenia and its neighbours, Azerbaijan and Georgia? Does she agree that it is important to secure lasting peace in the region and that now would be a good time to start co-operation?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, I am all for co-operation if the parties are also willing to discuss the issues in a sensible way. I hope that it will be achieved. The OSCE has been making efforts in the region and a good deal can be done. We have always regarded the Minsk group as the main forum for achieving progress towards peaceful settlements of the dispute in the area. It has created much more contact than there used to be, but everyone needs to work at it--all the countries in the region and not only members of the European Union. That includes Mother Russia.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, would my noble friend be too shocked to receive my heartfelt thanks for the answer she has given to the noble Earl, Lord Shannon? It will come as great comfort to many of us who wish to trade with Armenia and have Armenians here for training in know-how.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, I am absolutely overwhelmed.

The Western Sahara

2.51 p.m.

Lord Wise: My Lords, in the unavoidable absence of the noble Earl, Lord Winchilsea and Nottingham, and at his request, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in his name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they are taking any initiatives other than through the United Nations, to find a political resolution to the crisis in the Western Sahara.

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