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Mr. Spellar: We must not jump to immediate conclusions on the data. My hon. Friend has mentioned a number of cases where people have sadly died. We are not as yet aware of the cause of death. Reports in one paper, for example, suggest that there was a range of different conditions among the six Italians. I am advised by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, who is more versed in medical matters than I am, that these conditions are quite different.
We are talking about tens of thousands of people from each of the countries concerned. There are standard data tables which indicate for any population the expected numbers of people who will contract certain conditions and diseases. We must have regard to where there is an abnormal departure from those numbers. We must then consider the potential cause and examine the connection to establish causation and, if necessary, a remedy. That is very much what happened with the work on lung cancer and the smoking of cigarettes. There was an epidemiological study to assess whether there was a much higher incidence of lung cancer, which was followed by work on causation.
We must be concerned, but we must be careful to ensure that we are driven by science. That is the way in which we can best identify a remedy or a way to alleviate people's conditions. At the same time, it is the way in which we can manage the risk to try to avoid such problems in future.
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): Will the Minister comment on the statement, which was reported yesterday, by Mr. Haavisto, who is the head of the United Nations environment programme team on Kosovo, that he and his team had been surprised at radiation levels in Kosovo? The team had tested a sample of 11 sites out of the 112 that NATO had identified as having been attacked with depleted uranium rounds. It found significantly increased radiation at eight of them. We agree that our forces should not be militarily disadvantaged in any war--the problem is what health effects remain after the war is over.
Mr. Spellar: The comment to which the hon. Gentleman referred, particularly on the vehicles, was about a slightly increased level of radiation. That is why I said in my statement that we await with interest the final report. I am not saying that to disparage the report. We want to see the full data, conclusions and, potentially, even recommendations. We shall be examining the report together with the Royal Society report to inform our thinking both about potential environmental remediation and individual cases. We must study the data to ascertain
Even in natural conditions there are quite considerable variations in levels of radioactivity between different parts of the United Kingdom, particularly in those areas with substantial amounts of granite, which will show higher levels of background radiation than elsewhere. We must obtain the data before we can make any response, and we hope to have them in the not too distant future.
Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): What information does my hon. Friend have at his disposal concerning the effects of radiation in Serbia, Iraq or Kosovo on the civil population? Is he prepared to publish whatever information he has? Is he aware that some people, on listening to his statement, would identify a degree of complacency about the effects of depleted uranium on British soldiers? The Italian and Portuguese Governments have expressed the deepest concern about deaths among their soldiers as a result of depleted uranium. Is it not urgent that my hon. Friend publishes at the earliest opportunity the information for which my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) asked so that we can assess the real risk?
Mr. Spellar: I absolutely agree that we should have as much information as possible in the public domain for there to be proper scientific peer review of that information and both the situation and possible remedies. It is unfortunate, therefore, that my hon. Friend immediately leaps to the conclusion that some deaths were automatically caused by depleted uranium. There have been deaths from leukaemia and depleted uranium was used in Kosovo and Bosnia. At the moment, no linkage has been drawn and we therefore have to work on the best available scientific evidence to consider the condition of individuals, any causation and the environmental situation.
My hon. Friend is also absolutely right to draw attention to any possible threat to civilian populations. I mentioned the matter in my statement, particularly with regard to our further review of environmental conditions in the area as they affect our service personnel and civilians and the local civilian population.
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): I sit on a Royal British Legion working group concerned with the health of Gulf war veterans and I very much welcome the statement, but does the Minister recognise that Members on both sides of the House owe it to those who serve our country in the armed forces to take a careful and comprehensive attitude to their health following the exercises in which they engage on our behalf? He referred to the medical assessment programme. What proportion of service personnel who went to the Gulf or to the Balkans are having their health monitored? What consultation is taking place with the Royal British Legion to increase participation in the MAP? When does he expect to receive the Royal Society report?
Mr. Spellar: My recollection is that some 3,000 people have been through the medical assessment programme, but the hon. Gentleman should not consider any downturn in numbers to be a failure. Those who have illnesses that they believe may be attributable to service in the Gulf
Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West): Will the Minister examine the 1993 letters from two of his predecessors to me which confirm, first, that those soldiers most at risk in the Gulf war--tank crews and other personnel--had no warning of the dangers of depleted uranium; and secondly, that test firings were carried out at four sites in Britain, including Foulness? Will he examine the answers given at that time to a range of parliamentary questions? One was tabled on 28 March 1991, during the Gulf war, and in 1993 an early-day motion demanded a full inquiry. All received contemptible and contemptuous answers from the Government of the day, who were informed by the Ministry of Defence. Is not it common sense that a battlefield covered with depleted uranium dust--tonnes of it--represents a hazard to human health and that the perception of danger is real? We need to protect those who put their lives on the line for this country from not only real dangers, but powerful perceptions of danger.
Mr. Spellar: I think that my hon. Friend welcomes the measures that I announced today. During my preparations, I did not have time to go back to questions from the early 1990s, but I will refresh my memory later. He is right that we must examine the potential risks faced by our forces when they are engaged in operations. Some risks are inevitable; some are potentially avoidable. If we can avoid them without losing battlefield effectiveness, we should
Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): I welcome the Minister's statement and hope that it will bring calm and reassurance to our soldiers, sailors and airmen who may be affected. It is distressing when soldiers, sailors and airmen do not know the cause of their illness, especially for those who might have been affected by depleted uranium or Gulf war syndrome.
Will the Minister confirm that those who think that they may be affected will receive the same benefits in the form of disability pension as equivalent service men wounded in the course of action or made ill by their service? Under the seven-year rule, the burden of proof of a causal connection between the illness and the service man's involvement in action--except, I understand, in the case of Gulf war syndrome--changes from the MOD to the service man affected after seven years. Will he also confirm that until the science is clearer, the seven-year rule will not apply in the case of alleged depleted uranium poisoning?