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Gulf War Illnesses

8.50 p.m.

Lord Morris of Manchester rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what progress they are making in their investigations into the undiagnosed illnesses of service men and women who served in the Gulf War.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, of all the duties it falls to parliamentarians to discharge, none is of more compelling priority than our bounden duty to act justly to men and women who were prepared to lay down their lives for this country and the dependants of those who did so.

We are met in this debate to discharge that duty to many hundreds of men and women who served in the Gulf War over eight years ago. They were then fit and well. Today they have debilitating illnesses--some very severely disabling--and look to us for support. Hundreds more have already died from illnesses that were never diagnosed and went to their graves with a deep sense of injustice.

On 2nd February, 1998 my noble friend the Minister of State reported that by then there had been 400 deaths among Gulf War veterans. I hope he will be able to update that figure in replying to this debate and to say whether and to what extent it included any unverified deaths. I shall be grateful also to know, first, how many of the deaths were suicides, and, secondly, how many of the suicides were those of veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. It will be helpful, too, if this evening, or by letter, my noble friend can identify the causes of all deaths of veterans of the conflict and say whether the rate for suicides among Gulf War veterans is higher than the norm for ex-service personnel.

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This further information would clearly be of value to Professor Simon Wessely's continuing study of Gulf War illnesses. As my noble friend will know, some of the media coverage of Professor Wessely's interim findings and of the report of the MoD's Medical Assessment Programme (MAP) on its first 1,000 patients caused distress to veterans trying to cope with their illnesses and deep concern to the Inter- Parliamentary Gulf War Group whose members include parliamentarians of all parties and of none. Like the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, and the noble Countess, Lady Mar, I am a founder member of the group. Its members also include Michael Mates MP and Paul Tyler, MP; representatives of the ex-service charities; Major Ian Hill and Flight Lieutenant John Nicol from the veterans' associations; and both senior doctors and nurses.

Negative media coverage both of Professor Wessely's interim findings and the MAP's report has masked their significance: namely, that while veterans of the Gulf War have complaints similar to those of other conflicts, they are affected significantly more often by disorders of unknown cause. The reporting of both studies was mainly to the effect that they discounted the existence of a "Gulf War syndrome".

Understandably, many Gulf veterans felt that headlines about this obscured the extent and complexity of their undiagnosed illnesses. They were also dismayed by the decline in public interest that followed the media coverage of the two studies, and particularly that of Professor Wessely's interim findings, despite his having gone on record as saying that they require "explanation and action not complacency".

This has given renewed urgency to the ex-service community's call for a public inquiry into all aspects of the handling of Gulf War illnesses. A motion calling on the Prime Minister to commission a public inquiry was unanimously approved by last year's annual conference of the Royal British Legion and Brigadier Ian Townsend, the Secretary-General, asked the Prime Minister to give it urgent effect in a letter dated 11th June 1998. The request was passed by the Prime Minister to the Minister for the Armed Forces to investigate but as yet the only response has been an acknowledgement. Naturally I hope very much that my noble friend can respond this evening to a request that was urgent when it was made over nine months ago and, for those afflicted and bereaved by the Gulf conflict, has become ever more urgent since then.

Doug Henderson, Minister for the Armed Forces, for whom I have high regard, published a report last Friday on the use in the Gulf conflict of depleted uranium (DU). In an accompanying statement, he said:

    "The paper sets out in detail the risks associated with it and the circumstances in which exposure could be harmful. As the paper makes clear, in the context of the Gulf War, these risks were small. I am not aware of any UK Gulf veteran who is suffering from a depleted uranium-related illness."

But many Gulf veterans are unconvinced. They point out that, in sharp contrast to the paper's finding that risks were small, the US Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses now accepts that thousands of troops could have been exposed to the effects of this

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radioactive and toxic material. And the MoD's paper itself notes that the US authorities are inviting personnel in certain categories of exposure to enrol in a specialised DU medical evaluation programme. What the MoD's paper does not attempt is any estimate of the combined and interactive effects of exposure to DU and of all the innoculations and injections that were administered to those who served in the Gulf.

In Britain veterans with undiagnosed illnesses have been paying for themselves to be tested for harmful exposure to DU and a report I have seen from Professor Hari Sharma, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Chemistry at Canada's University of Waterloo in Ontario, shows that 30 British Gulf War veterans have tested positive to depleted uranium oxide. I am passing the information sent to me about this to my noble friend and I know he will want to respond to me about it at the earliest possible date.

A further reaction from Gulf War veterans to the MoD paper's finding that the risks of harmful exposure to DU were small has been to recall the reply of the then Minister for the Armed Forces to a parliamentary question put to him in another place in 1996 about a possible link between the undiagnosed illnesses of some Gulf War veterans and the destruction by US troops in March 1991 of ammunition bunkers at Khamisiyah in Southern Iraq. UNSCOM inspectors later identified the site as an Iraqi chemical weapon storage plant and found there ammunition containing chemical agents. The Minister's reply to the question--which I myself tabled--was that only one British serviceman was deployed in the area of fall-out plume when the bunkers at Khamisiyah were destroyed and that his health was unimpaired.

That reply, which later had to be drastically revised upwards, continues to damage the credibility of official statements about the risks our service men and women faced in the Gulf. In truth, there is still uncertainty about the numbers of British service personnel who could have been contaminated by fall-out at Khamisiyah and I shall be grateful to my noble friend for any more precise details he can give us tonight. The paper on depleted uranium that was published last Friday is the outcome of one of two official studies. The other relates to the implementation of the anti-biological warfare vaccines, and any information my noble friend can provide on the progress of that study will be helpful. I know he will at least want to indicate tonight when he expects it to be published.

Meanwhile I wish to mention a helpful note given to me this afternoon by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall. He wanted very much to be here this evening but unfortunately a commitment made before the date of this debate was decided makes this impossible. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, asks me to say that what he cannot understand is:

    "... why tests were not done as soon as possible after the conflict into the effect of the cocktail of innoculations and injections given to our service men and women who went to the Gulf, all administered at the same time, on the human immune system. Or why if tests were done the results have never been published".

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I know how highly my noble friend respects the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, and that he will take careful note of his comment to me. In this regard my noble friend will be aware of the belief of Professor Malcolm Hooper and others that the greater degree of sickness suffered by Gulf War veterans compared with other veterans is related to the vaccinations that they were given.

Other issues of continuing concern among Gulf War veterans include the seeming lack of official interest here in the very serious effects of the Gulf conflict on the health of the civilian population in Kuwait, not least the effects of setting the oil fields on fire. It is estimated that the 600 burning oil wells released into the atmosphere 50,000 tons of sulphur-dioxide, 100,000 tons of soot and 85,000 tons of carbon-dioxide every 24 hours. Air samples detected the presence of carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons together with benzine, cadmium copper, molybdenum, nickel, lead, vanadium and zinc in "above average" concentrations.

Philip Congdon, then a squadron leader in the RAF, who led the training team sponsored by the British Government that went to Saudi Arabia soon after the invasion of Kuwait to train expatriate, Saudi Arabian military and civil defence personnel in chemical and biological warfare defence writes:

    "Everybody who was present in the Gulf will remember the smoke cloud generated after the oil fields were set on fire. The result was not a fog but rather the pollutants, held by ugly thick smoke, rose into the atmosphere producing a dirty sable black dome that extended from horizon to horizon over Kuwait and often drifted well into Saudi Arabia. Within this dome a mist of oil particles would occasionally precipitate. We now know that the atmosphere was saturated with pollutants of the most profoundly life-destroying type".

It was an atmosphere described by Philip Congdon as "passive smoking of the most deadly type" and it was shared with the Kuwaitis by British personnel. Anyone who thinks exposure to pollution on that scale was but a passing inconvenience for those affected ought to speak to public health officials in Kuwait.

After visiting Kuwait seven months ago and talking at length with Ministers, including the Minister of Health, I was left in no doubt that much could be gained from increasing our knowledge of the effects of the Gulf conflict on public health in Kuwait. I hope this, too, is something my noble friend may wish to comment on when he comes to reply.

I turn now to the processing of war pensions and complaints made to me and others of preventable hardship to Gulf veterans. One case referred to me, about which I tabled a Parliamentary Question on 23rd February, is that of Richard Pruszynski's claim for a war pension in relation to his service with 32 Field Hospital, Wadi Al Batin, during the Gulf conflict. His unit was confirmed to be under the gas cloud from the destruction of the ammunition bunkers at Khamisiya and his health was seriously affected by conditions for which eight other veterans who served with him, including Dr. Colin Purcell-Lee, had already been pensioned.

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Richard Pruszynski's case was raised not only by me, but previously by the Royal College of Nursing, the Royal British Legion and the National Gulf Veterans and Families Association. I am glad to say that it was resolved by the granting of a pension on 1st March.

Another case--one raised with me and the Royal British Legion--is that of Christine Lloyd whose original war pension application was made in November 1994. She is now awaiting the outcome of an entitlement appeal and has been informed that, as a female ex-officer, her appeal must be heard by another female ex-officer and that this will further delay the already lengthy appeal process. Meanwhile I am told that supporting evidence from Group Captain Coker, the former Head of MAP, has been "totally ignored" by War Pensions Agency medical advisers. I shall be grateful if Christine's case can now be urgently further reviewed and similarly if my noble friend can also arrange for the cases of Richard Turnbull and Desmond Dodd, two other Gulf veterans whose difficulties have been raised with me by the Royal British Legion, details of which I am sending him to be looked into again.

I know that my noble friend shares my view and that of noble Lords in all parts of this House and those afflicted by the Gulf War must be spared the hurtful indignities that accompany long delay in dealing with rightful claims. There was no delay in their response to the call of duty eight years ago. Nor must there be any preventable delay now in meeting in full our debt of honour to them. That is the best way of showing our regard and admiration for those who served us with such distinction and gallantry in the Gulf.

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