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Kosovo

Lord Hoyle: My Lords, before I reply to the debate tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester, perhaps I may deal with a question that the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, asked my noble friend Lord Gilbert in relation to the planes. I can tell the House that all our planes have returned safely, but we cannot confirm that a plane from another allied air force has not returned.

Gulf War Illnesses

Debate on Unstarred Question resumed.

10.30 p.m.

Lord Hoyle: My Lords, as noble Lords are aware, I must first apologise for the absence of my noble friend Lord Gilbert, who has been undertaking very important work as regards the grave Statement which he repeated to the House tonight. I should begin by congratulating my noble friend Lord Morris of Manchester on ensuring that once again your Lordships' House has an opportunity to consider the complex issue of Gulf veterans' illnesses at length.

It is true that from time to time we deal with particular aspects of this subject during Question Time. However, it is also valuable that we have been able this evening to have the opportunity to take a broader and deeper view of the matter.

My noble friend Lord Morris asked me about the number of deaths among Gulf veterans. Late last year my noble friend Lord Gilbert explained to the House that the Ministry of Defence was aware of approximately 400 deaths among Gulf veterans since the 1st April 1991. As a result of work undertaken by the MoD, the Minister of State for the Armed Forces was able to announce in another place that, as of 5th March, 381 of the 53,462 members of the UK Armed Forces who were deployed on operation "Granby" or to a state in the Gulf region at some time between 1st September 1990 and 30th June 1991 were recorded by the MoD as having died since 1st April 1991. However, information received by the MoD in respect of a further 17 Gulf veterans who have been reported as having died is currently in the process of being validated. I hope that those figures satisfy the House.

I must also point out that, separately, the MoD is funding a specific mortality study as part of the wider work that is being undertaken. So we are trying to get the figures as specific as we possibly can. I regret that,

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as yet, we have no verified data on the causes of death. I know that that includes suicides, to which reference has been made tonight.

No one present in the Chamber tonight could have heard the speech of the noble Countess, Lady Mar, without being very moved not only by the way that she addressed the subject but also by the way that she has undertaken the campaign on behalf of the Gulf veterans right from the beginning. The noble Countess again posed some questions tonight. Those I do not answer, as is the case with other questions, I shall deal with by way of letters.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, asked two questions that I can answer tonight. However, I shall write to him in regard to the rest. He asked about the MoD putting hot links from its Gulf site to other relevant web sites. My understanding is that the MoD's Gulf veteran illnesses web page already has hot links to other relevant sites. That includes the parliamentary site and the US Department of Defense Gulf link site. I assure the noble Lord that the MoD will be pleased to consider the suggestions he has made tonight.

The noble Lord also asked whether anyone from the UK attended the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention conference in Atlanta. A number of officials from the Ministry of Defence with responsibility for Gulf veterans' illnesses participated in the conference and we are now considering the various papers arising from it. As has been said tonight, there has been collaboration, and rightly so, with the research that is being carried out in America.

The Government want to understand why some veterans of the Gulf conflict are now ill, and there have been some important developments in this regard in recent months. The publication in January of results from the King's College study has for the first time compared a population of UK Gulf veterans with a comparable group of their contemporaries in the Armed Forces who did not serve in the Gulf conflict. From that we have been offered two important hypotheses: first, that our Gulf veterans are reporting up to three times more ill health than the control groups; secondly, that this is not a manifestation of one single illness. Taken together these hypotheses represent an important step forward.

Gulf veterans may with some satisfaction point to the fact that the first finding confirms their longstanding belief that there is something different about their state of health. The second finding is equally important, if less reassuring to the veterans, because it suggests that there is unlikely to be a simple answer to the question: why are some Gulf veterans now ill? In fact many commentators, including some of those who have been most critical of successive governments on this issue, have long suspected this was the case.

Let me make it quite clear that the fact that the scientific evidence does not support--the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, mentioned this--a unique Gulf War syndrome does not diminish our determination to deal with these illnesses properly. The Government were pleased that, as a result of the hard work of individuals associated with the MoD's medical assessment

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programme, it is now possible to see for the first time a diagnostic profile of the clinical findings from the first 1,000 patients to attend that programme. These results, which were published in the British Medical Journal, provide a profile of the ill health being suffered by some Gulf veterans, and I believe these data will be useful to those working with Gulf veterans and responsible for their healthcare.

We have brought in outside experts, the King's Fund, to conduct a management audit of the medical assessment programme with a view to establishing what we should do to ensure that it meets with best practice. We expect to be able to publish the report of that audit quite shortly. A clinical audit will follow, as will arrangements for a rolling programme of audit in the future.

The MoD has appointed two new doctors at the medical assessment programme within the past six months and we are now looking forward to a period of stability there because we are acutely aware of past criticism. It is also perhaps appropriate to mention here that much of the work we have heard about this evening has been carried out by public servants with a daily commitment to the Gulf veterans and their welfare.

As more research results emerge during the course of the year, the Government will be considering with the Medical Research Council how best to take forward our research programme in the light of these findings. I understand that the Manchester University team under Professor Nicola Cherry, which is carrying out one of the two MoD funded epidemiological studies into the health of Gulf veterans, currently expects to submit the first results from the study for publication at about the middle of the year. We believe that the other study, being undertaken by a team from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine under Dr. Pat Doyle, is the largest survey of military health ever carried out in the UK. United Kingdom Gulf veterans--more than 53,000 people--and an equally sized control group are being invited to participate by returning a questionnaire.

In answer to my noble friend Lord Morris, the MoD has made considerable efforts over the past 18 months to assist the various research teams to contact the UK Gulf veterans and control groups who are essential for the success of these studies. We share the concerns that have been expressed about the current response rates and we will be looking again at the obstacles to contacting veterans, including the workings of the Data Protection Act. As in other areas, we are open to suggestions for, or offers of assistance in, improving these response rates.

So far we have spent approximately £2 million on research into Gulf veterans' illnesses and we expect that completing our research programme would cost a total of £5.9 million. Nevertheless, we continue to receive proposals for new research from time to time and the Government have made it clear that we will find funds for any additional work that the Medical Research Council recommends to us as being necessary.

The MoD has also set out a programme of reviews into historical aspects of the Gulf conflict that are of particular interest to veterans. A paper describing the

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implementation of the anti-biological warfare agent immunisation programme in 1990-91, based on the field work of a fact-finding team last year, is in an advanced stage of preparation. We aim to release this paper as soon as possible.

We are committed to providing comprehensive information from the MoD's records and from interviews with those who took part in the Gulf conflict, written up in a way which is readily understandable. This can take time. It may be appreciated that the more successful the MoD is in finding relevant information, the longer it takes to complete each project.

One of the topics of current interest which has been mentioned in the debate is depleted uranium. The MoD published last week a paper setting out in detail the scientific advice it has received on this subject. The paper is entitled Testing for the Presence of Depleted Uranium in UK Veterans of the Gulf Conflict: The Current Position, and copies were placed in the Library of the House last week.

One important issue is to ensure that Gulf veterans receive the financial benefits to which they are entitled. We know what a source of concern that remains. I understand that the War Pensions Agency is making considerable efforts, following meetings with Gulf veterans' representatives, to improve the service that it provides to the veterans. However, I will ensure that the points that have been made on this issue are conveyed to my colleagues.

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The MoD has been undertaking a review of the Attributable Benefits for Reservists Scheme. The review is taking a long time because there are many different categories of reservists. Nevertheless, my honourable friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces has undertaken to complete the review as soon as possible.

The outstanding request for a public inquiry was raised again during this debate. The Minister of State for the Armed Forces is giving careful consideration to the issues involved and I will draw his attention to the points made about the time that this matter is taking. I understand that my honourable friend expects to reply to the Royal British Legion very shortly.

The Government are committed to listening and learning on this subject. I have taken close account of the points raised during this debate. I will respond in writing on those points that I have not been able to address in my reply.

I believe that we are making real progress. Again I thank all who have participated in this interesting debate. I apologise for the length of my response. I felt that it was important to deal with as many points as I possibly could from the Dispatch Box.

City of Westminster Bill [H.L.]

Commons amendments considered and agreed to.

        House adjourned at a quarter before eleven o'clock.

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Fiddle


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