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Mr. David Laws (Yeovil): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the issue of Gulf war illness. I am grateful to the Minister of State for Defence for joining me at this late hour in place of his colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie), who has ministerial responsibility for veterans' affairs; I understand that the Under-Secretary cannot be with us this evening. I am also grateful for the presence of my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), who has had a sustained expertise and involvement in these matters.
The Minister of State will doubtless know from the correspondence that I have recently had with the Minister for veterans' affairs why I am raising Gulf war illness today. He will be aware that Petty Officer Nigel Thompson, a constituent of mine, died from motor neurone disease in January this year after a long period in which he played a leading role in the campaign to draw attention to Gulf war illness. He conducted a lengthy campaign for a full independent public inquiry to get to the bottom of an issue that has affected many people who served in the Gulf and could well affect service men in future if we do not deal with some of the underlying problems. After Nigel Thompson sadly died in January, I spoke to his widow, Sam Thompson, who lives in my Yeovil constituency. She confirmed that, despite the tragedy of her husband's death, she is keen to pursue the campaign that he helped to lead for many years to obtain a clear outcome and a full public independent inquiry to establish the facts.
I appreciate very much the role that the Government have played since 1997 in seeking to identify the causes of Gulf war illness, a condition now recognised by the Ministry of Defence, even though its causes are still unclear. Nevertheless, 11 years after the end of the Gulf war, we have failed to find answers to many of the key questions. I therefore want to use today's debate not only to press for a full inquiry but to put further pressure on the Government to advance their agenda of medical and other work to make sure that we get to the bottom of what happened in the Gulf in 1990 and 1991, which affected many thousands of our service men as well as many thousands of service men from the United States of America.
There are four main reasons why it is vital to get to the bottom of the matter. First, it is in the medical interest of individuals who served in the Gulf and are still alive. Secondly, we all want to know what happened in the Gulf, particularly friends and relatives of individuals who died as a consequence of a Gulf war illness of one kind or another. Thirdly, and most importantly, we need to ensure the safety of our armed forces who, as we speak, are being deployed in places such as Afghanistan, where they may come face to face with some of the possible causes of Gulf war illness, on the medical evidence for which we do not have clear agreement. Finally, although this is not my constituent's priority, many individuals who have experienced Gulf war illness remain concerned about
Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is essential that there should be no suspicion whatever that there has been a cover-up for the delay in finding out the cause of Gulf war illness?
Mr. Laws: I agree entirely. Although I said earlier that the Government since 1997 appear to have pursued the problem energetically, there are certainly doubts not only about the length of time that they are taking to resolve it but about the performance of the Ministry of Defence, especially prior to 1997. Although I do not particularly want to rake over those matters, they are relevant to the continuing calls for a full independent public inquiry. I refer hon. Members to the report prepared by the Select Committee on Defence in April 2000, in which the Committee draws attention to its earlier report of 1995 into Gulf war syndrome. That previous report stated:
There are two reasons why confidence is crucial in this area and why the present approach must be questioned. First, there is the record in this regard, to which I have referred. I appreciate that much of that somewhat dubious record, including evidence given to the Select Committee prior to 1997 which proved not to be accurate, pre-dates the Government, but it has created in many people's minds, and in the minds of Gulf veterans, serious doubt whether the Ministry of Defence can be relied upon to take a sufficiently independent and proactive line in the case.
Eleven years have passed since the Gulf war and since people returned from it. Without being emotive, I remind all hon. Members that during that time many of those who were affected by Gulf war illness have died. That will inevitably lessen the momentum to resolve the matter, and we must not allow that to happen.
On the second issue, I speak with all due deference to the professionalism of staff who work at the Ministry of Defence, and I am fully aware that one issue that has given rise to concern about the cause of Gulf war illness is vaccination and inoculation against chemical weapons that might have been used by those whom we were fighting in the Gulf war. People will inevitably be sceptical of the MOD's ability to assess its own performance, in that the possible causes of Gulf war illness included not just the action that may have been taken by our enemies, but the actions that we may have taken through the use of munitions such as depleted uranium, our inoculation programme, particularly the multiple inoculations, and the use of organophosphates, about which I hope my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) will comment if he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. When compensation would have to fall on a contingency reserve or directly on the MOD budget, there must be scepticism about whether that will influence the ability of the Department as a whole, even if not of Ministers, to see the matter through properly to an end. If the veterans have such a perception, that alone is a major reason to conduct a fully independent public inquiry now. The Government have yet to rule out such an inquiry. They say that they are waiting, but I do not believe that we can afford to wait much longer to resolve this matter.
I hope that the Minister will comment on the prospects for such an inquiry and respond to my points. I hope also that he can update us on the research that his Department is commissioning and backing on vaccines, organophosphates and depleted uranium. Perhaps he can tell us when we can expect those reports to be published and give us an interim update.
I am proud to have the opportunity to raise this important matter on behalf of a constituent who was himself particularly active in shedding light on it. I am determined, as many other hon. Members clearly are, to see it through to a conclusion in the interests not only of