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As anxiety grows hourly about the prospect of a second conflict in the Gulf, this debate is about the men and women who sacrificed their health in the service of this country in the first. Their claim to the attention of your Lordships' House is one of compelling priority. Having been fit and well when, in Kipling's words, the band began to play, many are now very seriously ill. Others have already gone to their graves with a deep sense of injustice, leaving behind aggrieved dependants, some of them wives who were widowed when young and fear poverty when they are old.
The Gulf War ended almost seven years ago and the debate provides an opportunity for Whitehall and Westminster to address with a new sense of urgency the problems and needs of those afflicted and bereaved. I am in no doubt that is how my noble friend the Minister will see this debate. Nor can anyone doubt the depth of commitment my honourable friend, Dr. John Reid, the Armed Forces Minister, brings to his responsibilities for
I have an interest to declare in the debate, but not a financial one, as The Royal British Legion's honorary parliamentary adviser for many years and a founder member of its Gulf War Group. The group was set up in 1993 to press for urgency in providing medical help and in dealing with war pensions and other forms of compensation. Since then its range of activity has grown to include every issue of interest and concern to the afflicted and bereaved.
Selected group members visited the United States to compare provision for veterans with Gulf War illnesses there and in the UK. They then wrote papers for the Commons Defence Committee that were included in its report to government. Other members were appointed to all of the epidemiological study teams investigating veterans' illnesses and are making a major contribution to the progress of research into their causes. Again, partly due to the Gulf War Group's pressure, the MoD's Medical Assessment Team was strengthened and work on encouraging veterans to come forward for medical assessment was given a higher profile.
Ably chaired by Colonel Terry English of the Legion, the group includes parliamentarians from both Houses of Parliament; representatives of the ex-service charities; Major Ian Hill and Flight Lieutenant John Nichol from the veterans' associations; and both senior doctors and members of the legal profession. Among the group's parliamentarians, no one has contributed more to its work than the noble Lord, Lord Burnham. Edwina Currie has also given long and distinguished service, while the noble Countess, Lady Mar, has made a strong and valued contribution on the use of organophosphates. Paul Tyler MP, a newer member, adds to the impact of an initiative that accords with the highest traditions of the RBL.
Yet while the group's work has been reassuring and of much practical help to veterans, many strongly insist that more urgency is needed to save lives. They are deeply concerned by Group Captain Coker's departure from the Medical Assessment Programme (MAP); and some complain not only about discontinuity in senior staffing but also of a lack of sympathy with their condition. It will thus be helpful to know what further action is being taken to restore the veterans' confidence in MAP.
There is concern also about serious delays in processing war pensions and preventable hardship among veterans in urgent need. One example is the case of Gunner Tom Ford, late of the 2nd Field Regiment Royal Artillery. He first applied for a war pension in 1996 but his case has yet to be fully addressed. Having fought Saddam Hussein and then struggled to cope with
Meanwhile I shall be grateful for any information he has on when Group Captain Coker's long-awaited report on the findings of his initial review of the patients he has assessed will be published. Veterans hold Group Captain Coker in very high regard. They will be glad if he can be reinstated as Controller of MAP, and perhaps my noble friend could let us know if and when this might be possible when he replies to the debate.
Anything he can say about new initiatives to deal with shortcomings in the medical administrative system, of which many Gulf War veterans complain, will also be helpful. What is being done to ensure, for example, better maintenance of medical records for serving personnel and an efficient transition from medical services in the Armed Forces to the NHS when their engagements end? Again, can my noble friend say whether there is any likelihood in the near future of a veterans' register being established for men and women leaving the services?
My noble friend is aware that I first raised in 1996 in another place, with the then Armed Forces Minister, a possible link between the undiagnosed illnesses of some Gulf War veterans and the destruction by US troops in March 1991 of ammunition bunkers at Khamisiyah in Southern Iraq. UNSCOM inspectors later identified the site as an Iraqi chemical weapon storage plant and found there munitions containing chemical agent, a sombre reminder today of the awesome threat to human life of the sort of weaponry available to Saddam Hussein as he demonstrates yet again his absolute contempt for UN Security Council Resolution 687.
The Minister's reply to my question was that only one British serviceman was deployed in the area of the fall-out plume when the bunkers at Khamisiyah were destroyed. I understand that this must now be drastically revised upwards and I shall be grateful for any more precise details my noble friend has of the numbers of British service personnel who could have been contaminated by fall-out at Khamisiyah.
There's a further issue that threatens to become of increasing concern and is worthy of mention in this debate. I refer to the report of increasing birth abnormalities identified in Kuwaiti children. Not unnaturally, that is very disturbing to veterans of the Gulf War who want to see all available information on
I come now to my concluding point. Governments are fond of saying--I speak as a former Minister--that with individual rights go responsibilities. That must ever be so and it is clearly true also that power, not least that of governments, carries with it heavy responsibilities. After all, what governments do conveys a more eloquent and enduring message than what they say. The relevance of all this is that the MoD is the biggest employer in western Europe: and thus how those who serve it and their dependants feel about its employment policies is highly important to the moral authority of government as a whole. As I said at the outset, I am totally sure that Ministers are deeply aware of this and I know that my noble friend, my parliamentary colleague for more than three decades, will respond to the debate both positively and with his customary humanity.
The vast majority of the British people want the most generous possible treatment for those afflicted and bereaved in their service. Our debt to them cannot be measured in money terms; but lack of money inflicts hurtful indignities. Let us, therefore, resolve today that the best way of demonstrating our regard and admiration for those who served us with such distinction and gallantry in the Gulf is to meet in full what I am sure your Lordships' House sees as an undoubted debt of honour.
Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Morris, for initiating this important debate. As the Minister will know, I tabled a Written Question to his colleague, the Minister for the Armed Forces, in July of last year asking whether the findings of Group Captain Coker, submitted to the Gulf War inquiry when he was posted to the US in 1996, had been or were to be published. In reply, I was told that the first draft of a paper concerning the results for some 500 patients under the medical assessment programme had never been completed but that a total of 1,435 patients had now been seen by MAP and the consolidated results would be published later in the year.
I was also pleased to learn that Group Captain Coker would be closely concerned with the work, which would supersede his original draft. Indeed, I was favourably impressed by the energy and the resources put into addressing the question of Gulf War illness and the Gulf War veterans by Ministers. I read the paper, Gulf Veterans Illnesses, a new beginning, published by the MoD as evidence of the new approach on 14th July 1997. I wonder whether any of this would have happened without the long struggle conducted by my noble friend Lady Mar in this House and by the noble Lord, Lord Morris, and others, in the other place.
The MoD paper refers to the reports of dead animals, to scout tents and to the concerns expressed by the Department of Health in late 1990 about pertussis vaccine. It is no thanks to the MoD, I fear, that any of those issues have been identified and acted upon. On the contrary, questions on the first two were regularly rebutted, as were the concerns about the use of organophosphates by our own people. It is one of the saddest ironies that we are dealing with friendly, not enemy, action and its consequences and with a culture within the ministry which was, rightly I fear, characterised by the Defence Committee as, "instinctive defensiveness and insularity", and insensitivity of a high order. It is deeply unfortunate that most of the new research programmes set in train by Ministers will not be reporting until 1999 and 2000 respectively. Meanwhile, the clock ticks on for the veterans. Where is the review that was promised for the end of 1997, and is Group Captain Coker, who I understand is no longer working with the group, in agreement with the findings?
The MoD paper that I mentioned referred to the treatment of veterans still serving and said that they will be treated by the Defence Medical Services. If that refers to treatment in this country, I should be very interested to know how many are receiving such treatment and where. In December of last year it was still the case that virtually all the beds in at least one of the MDHUs were occupied by non-service geriatrics. When Group Captain Coker did his initial work, I believe that he was grossly overworked because, clearly, the Defence Medical Services had been cut to the bone under Front Line First, that splendid Treasury exercise in short-term economy and long-term disaster.
Were money and lack of staff the reasons why, although the Defence Committee recommended a full-scale epidemiological study as long ago as 1995, no real effort was made until July 1997? Equally, one of the constant themes of the veterans--and the issue is often raised in this House--has been the difficulty of access to medical records and, indeed, the loss or destruction of relevant medical events. The Defence Committee was told that 15,000 such events had been lost. Both my noble friend Lady Mar and I had quoted a figure of 10,000 (not all related, of course, to the Gulf War).
The immediate question is: why is Group Captain Coker, the man who originally recognised that there was a case to answer but whose report was not published and the man who Ministers brought back and in doing so reassured many, no longer apparently involved? Why is there such a disastrous lack of continuity in the staff of MAP? Where are the detailed results that were to have been published at the end of 1997, once the new database had been created?
The Government must not lose the momentum of the actions that they have taken since July of last year. It is essential to establish a veterans' register, to reinstate Group Captain Coker and to ensure that the Defence Medical Services and MAP in particular have the staff to deal promptly and sensitively with the urgent needs of veterans who have had too little attention and have been up against a faceless bureaucracy when they needed prompt answers.
In another debate on organophosphates in June of last year, I urged that the research that was being funded jointly by the MoD, MAFF and the Health and Safety Agency should have an independent co-ordinator, with no ministry connections, free to take evidence under privilege, and someone who could not be required to delay or even suppress evidence on the grounds of some greater good. We, and the veterans above all, need to know that there are no more time bombs of undisclosed knowledge ticking away. In the context of the Statement we heard earlier today it is perhaps even more important than before for servicemen to be given cause to trust the Government and to feel that the services look after their interests. I know that the Minister has given proofs, as have his colleagues, of real concern, but this is a crisis of confidence. The veterans have rights and those rights have been ignored.
This is a moment when we must not wait for reviews and research groups and above all we must not allow the Treasury termites to eat away the serviceman's trust in his service. There can be nothing more important than that.
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