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Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, we have heard a number of very powerful speeches and, being less of an expert, it is not my intention to detain the House for long. I should like to touch on just two points, leaving aside the question of pensions, which was raised among others by the noble Earl, Lord Effingham. The first point I wish to raise is the question of openness and transparency; and the other is the lessons we have learnt for future conflicts from this experience.
We discussed earlier today a Statement on Iraq, which raised the question of chemical and biological weapons. It is clear that this conflict is unlikely to be the last in which British troops are engaged in which these risks will be suffered. Clearly, therefore, we must consider what we have learnt and what procedures are now in place. We must consider the international co-operation in which we are now engaged with our NATO allies, and perhaps others, to investigate the diseases and problems that have been encountered and the precautions that one should take against chemical and biological warfare. Those are questions which I hope the noble Lord the Minister will be able to answer.
I return to the question of openness and transparency. The comment of the noble Baroness, Lady Park, expressed exactly my own feelings as regards the need to be reassured that there are no more time bombs of undiscovered knowledge to come. The slow trickle of information from research publications within the United Kingdom and the United States worries those who have been through this experience. I refer to the incomplete information, incomplete records, and stories not yet fully confirmed, as to whether chemical weapons were released, and, if so, in what areas, and exactly which pesticides were used when.
I have consulted some of my colleagues on this subject. My noble friend Lord Falkland told me that his son served in the Gulf as an officer; and that the cocktail of chemicals which were given to him rapidly as he went out there caused him considerable problems in terms of lowering his level of immunity. It was not until he had left the Army and was in the United States that he realised that he was suffering from some long-term debilitation. He then went through a series of tests. The first assumption was that he suffered from the same Gulf War syndrome as did the Americans. It was not until some time had passed that the idea that British troops and American troops often had different experiences and had taken a different cocktail was understood. My noble friend Lord Winchilsea tells me that during his visit to Iraq in 1996 he was shown round a children's hospital in Baghdad which had a number of wards each containing 20 children from southern Iraq. They were all suffering from leukaemias and cancers. The doctors there were convinced that they had been exposed to chemical weapon fallout.
One learns a lot from these and other examples. Some of the reports have come from the "learned" press--from the Economist and others. They state that there has been a range of experiences not fully explained and not put together. I should like to hear from the noble Lord how far the United Kingdom and the United States are now working together to make sure that all information is collated and can be made available to those who have suffered.
Lord Burnham: My Lords, in common with other noble Lords, I must express my great thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester, for putting down this Question. The noble Lord has been kind enough to refer to me. He told me earlier that he would do so and I remonstrated with him then because I have in fact done very little, and I am not being modest about that. He himself has been one of the stars of The Royal British Legion Committee under the chairmanship of the Director of Welfare, Colonel Terry English, to whom I and several other noble Lords who have spoken in this debate are much indebted for his help.
I believe it to be unfair to say that the services or the Ministry of Defence have ever ignored the problems which have arisen as a result of Gulf service. This has been a very, very complicated issue, and a developing one, getting steadily worse over the years. Much of the misconception surrounding it has been caused by the use of the word "syndrome". The noble Lord, Lord Morris, has been careful to avoid this, and talks instead of "illnesses"--a word which does not imply that there is any one single reason for what has happened. We must stop looking for a "syndrome".
An enormous amount of work has been done both in this country and in the United States, but there are still very few who understand the problem, and the MAPS programme does not really seem to be working. Almost every one of your Lordships who has spoken has referred to Group Captain Coker and I must add myself to this number. It is most important that the ministry should get him back into full harness. He is, as I understand it, at present on secondment in the United States, although he does spend some time here. It cannot be a very pleasant assignment for him to have, but he is without doubt the one man the sufferers trust and whom they feel understands their problems. If and when he does come back he must be given fair and unlimited access to allow him to investigate, without any comeback on him or his career if he does find anything.
One of the main difficulties is that we do not know the size of the problem. Having seen a report in a newspaper that 6,000 people were suffering from Gulf illness in this country, I recently asked the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, to find out how many there were. In a complete and helpful reply I was told that 219 pensions had been granted out of 425 claims and that only a very small number had been turned down. Incidentally, I understand that that figure is almost exactly the same as the figure given in reply to a Question to the Minister in the previous government. However, a solicitor who specialises in these claims tells me that no cases have been settled. Perhaps the Minister
We need a veterans' register. The total numbers were being recorded by the solicitor to whom I referred. However, many sufferers were encouraged to register directly with the Ministry of Defence and the solicitor has therefore lost count of the numbers. Establishing the numbers is vital, although I admit that it is difficult because of the different criteria used. In addition, in many cases it is by no means certain whether the illness derives from Gulf service. The Americans are trying to establish the degree of Gulf illness by comparing peer groups of servicemen who did not serve there and those who did to find out how their states of health compare. I understand that as yet there is no result which has any statistical validity.
I was rather alarmed by the reference by my noble friend Lady Strange to a petty officer who is suffering as a result of a chemical attack on the frigate on which he was serving. I am not aware that any chemical attacks took place during the Gulf conflict. My noble friend also mentioned a number of other alarming cases. They may or may not be the result of Gulf service, and that is one of the things that we have to establish.
There are so many oddities involved in this problem. It seems that no Frenchmen are suffering: could it be that French troops who served in the Gulf all came from the Foreign Legion and were used to serving in those areas? The same might apply to Iraqis and others working and living permanently on the ground. Most of the Americans who are suffering seem to come from their reserve forces and not from the regular army, so training may be of some account. Very little of the trouble is found among those who served in the front lines. Why did the Czechs find evidence of chemical weapons when no one else did? And so on. There is an endless number of variations.
The noble Countess, Lady Mar, has evidence, as she told the House recently, of malformed children whose illnesses seem to be derived from depleted uranium. I recently asked the Minister a Question regarding the toxicity of depleted uranium. I am grateful to him for his letter of explanation; all I can say with reference to that letter is that it serves me right for asking the Question. From a report which he enclosed with that letter, it seems that depleted uranium is unlikely to have any effect on servicemen. I note the noble Countess's reference to malformed children. It may be that depleted uranium is not a factor in Gulf illness among former servicemen, but we do not know.
Perhaps the Minister can help with the numbers. At the same time I must remind him, with the very greatest respect, that he is replying for the Government and not for his department. So much of this is a matter for the Ministry of Health and not for the Ministry of Defence. I hope that he will nevertheless be able to help us. I let him get away with it with reference to Northern Ireland and the case of the two imprisoned guardsmen, but I think that in this case he can probably give us what we
This aspect of the problem arises again with the question of after-service care. I should not like to comment on the sad cases quoted by the noble Countess, but when a man suspects that he is suffering from a disease as a result of his Gulf service, has been seen by the appropriate authority and discharged into the hands of his GP, the GP is given his records. But have GPs any idea what to look for or how to treat that patient? I hope that GPs are now alerted to the existence of something that they may not know how to handle. With the disappearance of almost all service hospitals, GPs are the only immediate source of help and they will have to be trained. Very few will see a case of suspected Gulf illness, but it is vital that, if they do, they should know what steps to take.
As we speak, the problem is becoming increasingly important--not for the current sufferers, though their problems are great, but for those who may become sufferers in the future. Even more than with the current cases, the United States is concerned for its troops in the future if the Gulf crisis deepens and men are sent into Iraq on the ground. What are they likely to suffer from next time? What cocktail of injections have they been given?
Do those for whom it went wrong in 1990 and 1991 suffer from chemicals spread by the enemy or from what they were given to prevent them from so suffering? Undoubtedly there was a justified fear that Saddam Hussein had the capacity to employ chemical weapons and might use them. It would have been criminal to let the allied forces go into Iraq without protection. Exactly the same applies today. Let us pray that, if the worst happens and ground combat ensues, enough is known to get it right this time. Undoubtedly something--we do not know what--went wrong in 1991. Let us hope that it will not happen again and that the work that the Government are doing will be enough both to cure those who are ill now and to prevent others from becoming ill in the future.
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