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Lord Gilbert: My Lords, first, I thank the noble Countess for her extremely kind remarks at the beginning of her Question. I was not aware that there were questions to which she was awaiting an answer. I shall look into the matter as soon as I return to my office this afternoon. Nor was I aware that there was a degree of dissatisfaction on the part of certain veterans with the treatment that they had been receiving. I am quite sure that the Minister for the Armed Forces will look into that as his attention is drawn to it, again later today.
Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, the previous Defence Committee in another place recommended that an account should be given as to why Parliament was misled on the issue of organophosphates and an account given of the action taken. Will the Minister confirm that the recommendation of that committee that a report should be made by 1st October of this year will be adhered to?
Lord Gilbert: My Lords, I have full confidence that the Minister for the Armed Forces will meet the recommended dateline of the House of Commons Defence Committee. Other than that I do not think that there is anything I can usefully add. The points about which the noble Baroness inquires are being addressed by my honourable friend in another place.
Lord Burnham: My Lords, further to the noble Countess's Question regarding those who are looking after the Gulf veterans, will the Government consider at the same time the possibility of bringing back Group Captain Coker from Washington? It would seem that he is the one man in whom all the veterans have great trust.
Lord Gilbert: My Lords, I am happy to bring to my ministerial colleague's attention the noble Lord's recommendation. I am sure that the noble Lord recognises that we receive recommendations from many directions regarding who should be involved in this research. I assure the noble Lord that I shall bring his suggestion to my noble friend's attention.
Earl Russell: My Lords, will the Minister join me in congratulating the noble Countess on being the only living evidence for the proposition that Parliament controls the Executive? Since the rest of us lack the noble Countess's skills, does he agree that this story illustrates the urgent need for a freedom of information Act?
Lord Gilbert: My Lords, long before I reached this hallowed Chamber, I was warned about the noble Countess and how I would get away with nothing at this Dispatch Box. I have been very careful in the preparation of this Answer, and shall be in all future answers that I give her.
Earl Howe: My Lords, is the Minister aware that we on this side of the House welcome the Government's determination to continue the policy of thorough medical assessment for those who need it? However, will he confirm that organophosphate poisoning cannot be an explanation of so-called Gulf War illness other than perhaps for a very small handful of cases? Can he also confirm that despite the commendably open-minded approach adopted by his department, there
Lord Gilbert: My Lords, I am grateful again to the noble Earl for his preliminary remarks. The fact of the matter is that we are unable to say what the illness is. We are able to acknowledge that people are ill; we cannot say why people are ill. At this stage we cannot confirm that any negligence was involved. The United States, too, has spent tens of millions of dollars on research into these fields. I am afraid that the United States is no further towards finding the truth than, regrettably, so far are we.
Lord Avebury: My Lords, the Minister did not answer the question of my noble friend Lord Russell. Does the Minister agree with my noble friend that the work of the noble Countess and the failure of governments over the years to respond to the repeated questions that she puts reinforces the case for a freedom of information Act?
Lord Gilbert: My Lords, a freedom of information Act runs much wider than this issue, as I am sure the noble Lord is aware. I am happy to endorse his encomium of the noble Countess. However, as the noble Earl was good enough to acknowledge, this Government are being more open than has been the case with respect to this matter. It is a little harsh to say that this Government have been involved with another Government for some years in misleading the public when we have barely been in power a month.
Is the Minister aware that I have never maintained that organophosphate poisoning or chemical weapon poisoning is the sole cause of the veterans' illness? I rather think that it is a combination of factors, including the vaccinations that they were given. It is no good crying over spilt milk now, but it would have helped considerably if vigorous action had been taken to find the cause of the illness when it was first reported in 1992. We are held back somewhat by the fact that the illnesses have developed and that no cause has been found. Can the Minister say whether this Government will now fund causal research as well as epidemiological studies?
Lord Gilbert: My Lords, the noble Countess deserves all the encomia that she has received this afternoon. With regard to the precise nature of the research, I think that I had better see her remarks in writing before I reply because I do not wish to mislead her in any way. I am sure that she will be aware that, as one of his new attacks on this problem, the new Minister for the Armed Forces has addressed himself to the question of multiple vaccinations.
Lord McNally: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that completely opaque reply. Word in the street is that the decision will be made on 13th June. Have the new Government made the ITC aware that they are as committed to quality, diversity and choice in broadcasting as were their predecessors? In the light of that, will the Minister suggest to the ITC that it would not be in keeping with those objectives for any individual or organisation to have the foot on the windpipe of both digital terrestrial and digital satellite broadcasting?
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the commission operates according to the remit given to it by the Broadcasting Act of last year. We have hardly been in a position to introduce any amending legislation. Perhaps I may remind the noble Lord that the Broadcasting Act says that the applications have to be judged on the basis of the proposed coverage, the speed of rollout of the service, the ability to establish and maintain the service, the appeal of the programme services to a variety of tastes and interests, plans for promoting or assisting the acquisition of receiving equipment by viewers, and the applicants' plans to ensure fair and effective competition in their dealings with service providers. That is the remit which the commission has at present.
Viscount Astor: My Lords, will the Minister encourage the ITC to look carefully at the financial strengths of the two bidders bearing in mind that if digital television is to be a success there will also have to be a large financial investment in digital cable so that cable users can view digital television?
Will he also encourage the ITC to look closely at the amount of money that will be required by each bidder in their rollout programme to ensure that whoever wins the application can achieve that success?
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the financial strength or otherwise of the bidders is of the greatest importance to the commission. It has obtained a great deal of detail from the bidders on that. The Government do not know some of that detail because it is commercially confidential.
Lord Taylor of Gryfe: My Lords, has the Minister's attention been drawn to the remarks in today's Financial Times by the commissioner responsible for competition in the European Union. He comments on the rival bids being considered by the ITC. Will the Minister explain the
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, my noble friend draws my attention to a very important article in today's Financial Times, in which Commissioner van-Miert expresses concern about one of the two bids. However, the issue as to who is to receive the contract is a matter for the commission and not for us. As I said, the ITC is required to take into account the whole question of the development of the market and competition issues; but those are a matter for the competition authorities, including the European Commission.
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