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Lord Burlison: My Lords, I believe that the key issue in this matter is the total load of uranium in the body. The proportion of uranium present as a result of contact with depleted uranium is not relevant to the health aspect. Any patient who attends the MAP may be tested for uranium if there is evidence of possible exposure and if the MAP doctor assesses that that is clinically appropriate.

The noble Countess referred to Canadian testing. The MoD's line on that was viewed as in some way discrediting the evidence. I hope that that is not the case. We need to see the results of testing by

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Dr Durakovic and Dr Sharma before we can reach any conclusion. They have not shown us their results, which is why we are arranging for all those who have been tested to be retested independently of the MoD. Only then shall we know the results and be able to act accordingly. There is no scientific consensus on the issue; for example, Dr Sharma has told us that he does not believe that depleted uranium is responsible for the ill health of Gulf veterans.

Lord Rea: My Lords, is my noble friend aware--I am sure that he is--that there are persistent anecdotal reports of high or raised levels of cancer, particularly leukaemia, among the women and children of southern Iraq? Will Her Majesty's Government use their influence to have a proper, expert epidemiological study carried out in southern Iraq by, for example, the World Health Organisation or UNICEF to ascertain what is the truth; and, if there is found to be an increase, whether possibly depleted uranium is responsible?

Lord Burlison: My Lords, the Ministry of Defence is of course aware of the suggestions, particularly those in the press, that the use of depleted uranium-based ammunition during the Gulf conflict has caused an increase in ill health in southern Iraq, including deformities, cancers and birth defects. However, we have not seen any peer-reviewed epidemiological research data on that population to support those claims. The Government will, of course, consider carefully any medical or scientific data which may emerge concerning the incidence of ill health in Iraq. With regard to the suggestion of my noble friend, I believe that the MoD will welcome any assessment in this respect for its consideration.

Lord Swinfen: My Lords, can the Minister tell the House whether there is any increase in birth defects in children born to servicemen who have been in the area of the depleted uranium, as compared with the number of birth defects in the rest of the population?

Lord Burlison: My Lords, I do not have that information. I shall ascertain whether it is available; if it is, I shall be happy to write to the noble Lord.

Lord Hughes of Woodside: My Lords, can my noble friend say how many patients have been seen at the MoD assessment centre? Can he give a robust assurance to the House that the matter is being looked at openly and properly and that there is no attempt by the MoD to discredit other people's opinions or, indeed, to skew the research against the proper interests of those people affected in this matter?

Lord Burlison: My Lords, the number of patients who have passed through the Medical Assessment Programme (to which I referred before as MAP) is 2,906. That was to the end of November 1999. Currently there are 28 patients waiting to attend the programme. A test load is being carried out and, although that may seem a high number, one must take

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into account that some 53,000 troops were deployed in the area at that time. I make it quite clear to my noble friend and to the House today that the MoD is sympathetic to Gulf veterans; it will continue with the tests; it will continue to help wherever it possibly can; and it is completely open-minded on the issue. The big problem it faces at the moment is that the evidence available to it is vague and not sufficiently scientifically based for further action to be taken in this area.

The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, will the Minister say whether any problems are caused by the inhalation of dust from depleted uranium shells?

Lord Burlison: My Lords, I believe that any problems caused by the inhalation of dust may come from the area indicated by the noble Earl.

Non-departmental Public Bodies

2.57 p.m.

Lord Islwyn asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What progress has been made in reducing the number of quangos.

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Lord Falconer of Thoroton): My Lords, in 1997-98 there was a net reduction of 55 non-departmental public bodies over the previous year. Public Bodies 1999, which is due to be published on 16th December, is likely to show a further decrease in numbers.

Lord Islwyn: My Lords, is the Minister aware of the turmoil caused in Gwent in south-east Wales by the proposal of the Arts Council for Wales to close Gwent Theatre which over 23 years has provided such an excellent theatre-in-education service? All local authorities and Members of Parliament in the area are opposed to the proposal and the opposition is also buttressed by a public petition of over 8,000 signatures. Even the staff of the Arts Council is now threatening a vote of no confidence in the board. As that body receives £15 million of public money, is there not now a need for a full inquiry into the matter? Meanwhile, should not the chief executive, M.S.J. Weston, and the chairman resign?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I am aware of that because my noble friend told me so on the telephone yesterday, for which I am genuinely grateful. However, responsibility for sponsoring the Arts Council for Wales transferred to the National Assembly on 1st July. As my right honourable friend the Leader of the House has already said in connection with Scottish affairs, the Government do not believe that it is appropriate to reply on matters which are not the responsibility of UK Ministers. The responsibilities assumed by the Assembly on 1st July are defined by Part II and Schedules 2 to 4 to the Government of Wales Act, along with the National Assembly for Wales (Transfer of Functions) Order

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1999. However, there was an adjournment debate on this issue in the other place on 1st December 1999. The Parliamentary Under-Secretary in another place undertook that he would pass on the concerns expressed in that adjournment debate to the relevant Minister in the National Assembly for Wales and to the chairman of the Arts Council. I undertake to do the same in relation to the matters raised by my noble friend today.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, in view of the fact that the Minister cannot answer for the devolved bodies, will he tell us whether or not the publication in December will include any quangos in Scotland, Wales and possibly Northern Ireland? We now have many task forces. Are they listed under quangos? If not, will he define what a quango is currently known as?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, not a "quangaroo", as my noble and learned friend the Deputy Leader of the House suggests. I believe that the publication in December will refer to quangos in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. Perhaps I may confirm that in writing or correct myself if I am wrong. Task forces are a separate kind of body. They are set up to help ensure that decisions are soundly based and representative of a wide range of views. They are not intended to have the permanence of non-departmental public bodies, which is the phrase used to refer to quangos.

Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, is the Minister aware that included among the quangos to which he has referred, there is an unknown number, running into some hundreds, of task forces to which have been delegated by the Ministers concerned executive and advisory powers of some significance, without any reference to Parliament? Does the noble and learned Lord think it is now time that we should publish particulars of those task forces, the terms under which they are engaged and the personnel involved in order that there can be perfect transparency in the parliamentary terms to which we have become accustomed and to which we look forward in the future?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, to some extent that touches on the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes. The Government have set up about 40 task forces and 250 short-term working groups which do not have a standing remit. That is perhaps the essential difference between those bodies and a non-departmental public body. It is open to noble Lords to ask any questions they wish of the Government. Indeed, I know that my noble friend Lord Bruce of Donington has asked many questions in relation to task forces which we have endeavoured to answer.

Lord Hooson: My Lords, what proportion of the quangos in existence when the Government came into power still exist? Were the figures which the noble and learned Lord gave directed to the whole of the United

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Kingdom, or England and Wales together, or England and Wales separately? Does the Minister not agree that the Government fought the last election on the basis that one of the justifications for the Welsh Assembly, an elected body, was that it would enable them to get rid of many unnecessary quangos in Wales? That has not happened; they are persisting with them.

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