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The Countess of Mar: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for his reply. Is he aware that witnesses who gave evidence to the Defence Committee in another place stated that they had been prevented from making a proper investigation of their ill-health by the threatened imposition of the Official Secrets Act? I have received letters from individuals who served in the forces and who say the same. Can the noble Earl say what is to be done about the allegations within the Ministry of Defence--of which I know he is aware--that up to 10,000 medical incidents have been "removed, lost or corrupted" from Ministry of Defence computers, and that these events relate to health problems from the Gulf War? Will the noble Earl instigate a ministerial inquiry without prejudice to the person who reported this matter?
Earl Howe: My Lords, I will gladly look into the matters raised by the noble Countess, as I always try to do. With reference to the evidence given to the Defence Select Committee, we have consistently released information about what treatment was administered to individuals on a need-to-know basis. Therefore, doctors and GPs have had access to the information. It is not true to say, however, that even where, let us suppose, medical records have been mislaid a Gulf War soldier has no access to the
Lord Williams of Elvel: My Lords, in responding to the noble Countess's Question, the Minister started by saying no. Looking at the Question, is the answer not yes? The strict application of the Official Secrets Act takes precedence over anything which is an official secret. Is that not right? The question therefore resolves itself into whether the material about which the noble Countess is talking is or is not an official secret. That, I imagine, is something that should be tested sooner or later in the courts. Does the Minister agree?
Earl Howe: My Lords, as I made clear to the noble Countess a moment ago, what we have consistently tried to do is to release information to specific individuals on a need-to-know basis. That is a common procedure. On the other hand, what we have sought to avoid is to broadcast to the world at large what is our anti-nerve agent capability. I am sure the noble Lord would agree that would not be a sensible thing to do. I believe that the course we have taken is the right one.
Lord Monkswell: My Lords, in an earlier answer, the Minister mentioned the fact that relevant information would be made available. Will he advise the House who will judge whether or not the information is relevant? Will it be the person's general medical practitioner who will determine what is and what is not relevant?
Earl Howe: My Lords, full details of what was administered to a specific serviceman would be released to his or her GP. Alternatively it is open to servicemen and servicewomen, or ex-servicemen and ex-servicewomen, to come forward to be assessed by the medical assessment programme run by the MOD. In that event there would obviously be no question of anyone determining what was or what was not relevant. The key point however is that there is no reason for any GP to be in doubt about what was administered to a particular individual.
Lord Burnham: My Lords, in an article about the noble Countess in the Mail on Sunday there was much play on the use of chemical weapons in the Gulf, which I have no doubt largely gives rise to her Question. Has not the work of Senator Riegel and Mr. Tuite, who were mentioned in the article, and of the Czech medical teams in the Gulf been largely discredited? Have the Government any information as to whether there are any changes so that allegations of the use of chemical weapons can be in any way substantiated?
Earl Howe: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. Let me make it clear that we have no confirmed reports of any Iraqi biological or chemical agents being present in the Gulf theatre of operations. Claims of Iraqi chemical attacks and chemical agents dispersed by Allied bombing have been found on investigation to have no basis in fact. There were some earlier Czech
The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish): My Lords, we await the Social Security Advisory Committee report on proposed legislation which would ensure that, as a general rule, housing benefit only meets charges for those services which relate to the fabric of the dwelling. The proposal was introduced after a commissioner's decision in an income support case cast some doubt on the meaning of current case law. It would be wrong to prejudge consultation.
Lord Stallard: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Is he aware that the existing rules regarding eligible and non-eligible services are complex, as demonstrated by the court case he has just mentioned? Is he aware of the concern caused to voluntary organisations and housing associations responsible for the care and attention of elderly people by the fact that the latest proposals are capable of being interpreted as implying that many of the services associated with the management of residential accommodation should be withdrawn, leading to the possibility that some residents would be asked to find a further £20 to £50 per week to fund the shortfall in housing benefit? Surely it would have been far better to have awaited the outcome of consultations with the voluntary organisations and housing associations before making the recommendation.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, we are awaiting the outcome of consultation on the SSAC report. The SSAC has been out to consultation and will give us a report on our proposals to clarify the legislation. The noble Lord is right to mention the complexity in this area. It is complex. The position is that we now have two cases, one recently from Commissioner Mesher and the north Cornwall judgment three years ago, which appear to be pulling in two different directions. It is clearly in everyone's interests, including our own in the DSS, to clarify the position regarding the legality of the payments we make.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, were not schemes such as Abbeyfield developed precisely because the frail elderly need not just accommodation but communal and warden facilities? Housing benefit has paid for almost all of that. If the Government's proposals to cut housing benefit go through so that housing benefit does not cover the cost of heating, lighting and cleaning of corridors, lifts and communal rooms in a sheltered housing scheme, or does not cover
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, the noble Baroness has, as usual, hugely overstated her case. There is no doubt that the facilities she mentioned and the communal areas--the lifts, corridors, and so forth--clearly fall within the scope of housing benefit. It is necessary to draw a line between what services can be met by housing benefit, which is designed to meet housing costs and the related service charges which go with housing costs, and those other services which have more to do with the personal day-to-day care of the people involved. That is a difficult line. I do not think that it does anyone any good for the noble Baroness to exaggerate.
Earl Russell: My Lords, the Minister will, I am sure, agree that the cost of services for people in sheltered housing who cannot perform those services for themselves has to fall somewhere. Will he therefore give the House an undertaking that he will not shift those costs out of social security until he has reached agreement with the Department of Health and the Department of the Environment about what is the most cost-effective way of meeting those costs from public funds as a whole?
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, we are looking carefully at the issue. Indeed, my officials met the leaders of the Abbeyfield Society yesterday in St. Albans to discuss all these matters. As I said, we shall wait for the report of the SSAC. Officials and Ministers will be discussing with their colleagues how we should proceed with this difficulty.
Lord Stallard: My Lords, the Minister has not really answered the questions we have asked. The court cases he mentioned were many months ago, and some many years ago. Why is it taking so long to bring forward this set of proposals? Is it not a possibility that the recent universal support for the Government's proposals to increase the disregard for residential accommodation from £3,000 to £10,000 means that people now feel that an attempt is being made to recoup some of that money by cutting the housing benefit? Would that not be just another cynical case of paying with the one hand and taking back with the other?
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