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Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, will the Minister give way? Before the noble Baroness goes further, we need to make it plain that, as I understand it, we are seeking the inquiry not so much to discuss the research--nobody disputes the fact that ongoing research is a long-term strategic necessity--but what went wrong with the delivery of the necessary services, justice, (whatever one wishes to call it) to the Gulf War veterans. We need to know what can be done now to cure that situation. I believe that I am right in saying that that is what the inquiry was intended to be about.
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, as I understand it, a number of reasons have been put forward as the argument for a public inquiry. One has been to discover whether or not there are illnesses that are associated with serving in the Gulf. Certainly, another has been to look at the way in which the whole issue has been handled. Another is to try to unearth whether there are lessons to be learned for the future. Therefore, although I accept that the noble Baroness is right that there is not one single trigger for the request for a public inquiry, I suggest that none the less the basis of what really happened to those serving in the Gulf is one of those factors adduced by those who have requested that such a public inquiry be undertaken. However, I hope to come to the point raised by the noble Baroness about the ways in which the whole issue has been handled.
I return to the four research projects of which I spoke a moment or two ago. The information already available from the first part of the King's College study and from studies in the United States points to a very similar conclusion: that Gulf veterans report between two to three times more ill health than comparable groups. That does not constitute a single condition, nor unique illnesses among Gulf veterans. The same symptoms were also reported, but less frequently, by
Through the Medical Research Council the Government already receive the best independent advice they can about how best to take forward research. In answer to the questions raised specifically by the noble Countess, Lady Mar, since 1997 seven full proposals have been received for research. Two have been accepted, but I stress to the noble Countess that those are not MoD decisions; they are decisions taken by the Medical Research Council independently of the MoD. The scientific feedback, including the reasons for rejection, is provided by the MRC in confidence to the applicants. Therefore, the MRC does not leave people guessing why specific research projects have been rejected.
The Countess of Mar: My Lords, I know of two cases where applications were made to the Medical Research Council--admittedly prior to this Government coming into office--when no reasons were given for the rejection of the research proposals, despite promises by the then Minister in this House that the applicants would receive them. The second point that I should like to raise with the Minister is that, in his King's College study, Professor Wessley found a correlation between vaccines and the increased incidence of reporting of ill health among the veterans. Yet, he appears to have chosen to ignore that in preference for a psychosomatic problem. What is the Ministry of Defence's attitude to that?
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, on the latter point I shall have to write to the noble Countess. However, on her earlier point, the points that I was making to her relate to what has been the practice since 1997. If the noble Countess would be kind enough to tell me of any examples of practice before that date which are still cause for concern, I shall certainly look into the matter. However, as she will be aware, it is not the practice of governments always to look at what was done by previous administrations. Therefore, my ability to help her may be somewhat limited, but I undertake to do my best.
Answers to questions about Gulf veterans' health can only be addressed by scientific and medical research. A public inquiry would have no better information before it than is currently available since all the research, both from the UK and worldwide, is published in journals which are available for everybody to see.
There have been calls for a public inquiry into specific aspects of the Government's response to Gulf veterans' illness issues, one being a request for an inquiry into the Medical Assessment Programme which a number of your Lordships have mentioned this evening.
Perhaps I may say in answer to the specific questions about the Medical Assessment Programme that the funding for the Medical Assessment Programme has not been cut and, as I understand it, nine individuals are involved with the programme in total. There is no long waiting list. We are satisfied that that is the correct resourcing level for its functions.
On 20th January 2000, a few days ago, the Government published their response to the audit of the Medical Assessment Programme. I believe that that was another question raised by a number of noble Lords and in particular the noble Countess, Lady Mar. The auditors were impressed by the enthusiasm and commitment of the staff, the organisation of the service and the evident commitment to the provision of a high quality service. The report also made a number of recommendations on how the organisation of the Medical Assessment Programme and the service it provides could be improved. Implementation of the audit recommendations will provide further improvements in the service of Gulf veterans.
Other requests for an inquiry have focused on the issue of why the Government did not acknowledge earlier that some Gulf veterans were ill--a point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Park, a few moments ago--in addition to the whole handling of the issues.
The Government are well aware of the frustrations which arose because it appeared that action was not being taken soon enough. The Medical Assessment Programme was set up in 1993 under the previous administration soon after it became apparent that some UK Gulf veterans had health problems. The Royal College of Physicians audited the Medical Assessment Programme in 1995 and recommended epidemiological research and the Medical Research Council put that research in place during 1996.
Significant shortcomings in the MoD's performance--for example, in medical record-keeping and in the handling of questions about organophosphate pesticides--have been acknowledged from 1995. Those issues, including the speed of the relevant MoD's response, have been and are being inquired into by the Defence Select Committee and in Parliament more generally. We believe that that is the most appropriate means of maintaining public scrutiny over this issue. We do not believe that to examine that further through a public inquiry would help us to understand more of what has gone on over and above what the Select Committee is already looking at. We certainly do not believe that it will help us to understand why the Gulf veterans were ill.
Having considered the matter very fully, the Government are not persuaded that on the basis of the information currently available to them, there is a case for paying additional no-fault compensation to Gulf veterans separate from and above that which is already available to both Gulf and other veterans. However, that will be kept under review in the light of developments. We have made clear that if legal liability is established by future research or investigation, the Government will of course pay common law compensation.
As I have said, many of your Lordships will be aware that the Defence Committee is currently examining the Gulf veterans' illness issues. We believe that the Government's record is already a matter of close public scrutiny, both here and in another place. We believe that our current policy, our track record on delivering what we have promised and our continued openness allows for proper open assessment of what is being done. The Government believe that with hindsight, some of the things that were done at the time of the conflict should and could have been done better. I have spoken of medical record-keeping. The Government are determined to learn from the lessons of the past and we believe that this Administration have done so.
For example, as my noble friend Lord Morris made clear in the paper published last week, the MoD has for the first time provided comprehensive information about the arrangements for the implementation of the anti-biological warfare immunisation programme. We pointed out that when we again deployed troops to protect Kuwait in 1998 during Operation BOLTON, we implemented those lessons.
Our programme of anthrax vaccination was not classified. All troops received a detailed briefing on the vaccine, including the threat and the possible side-effects, to enable them to decide whether to be vaccinated. It is wrong to say that progress has not been made. The Government are trying to learn lessons from the past. We have been open in what we have put into the public domain.
I entirely agree with the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, about delays in correspondence. I was enormously disappointed to find those delays. I am making inquiries into why they arose.
To my noble friend Lord Morris of Manchester I say that I shall be happy to look at any detailed cases that he wants to take up with me. A lot of information is coming out. Many noble Lords have referred to detailed statistics, including the number of deaths that have occurred since 1991. The most recent figure that I have is 413, although the noble Countess, Lady Mar, quoted 428. We need to look at the figures in the context of the Manchester study. Speculating now, as a number of noble Lords have done, about whether the rate of suicides is unusually high is premature when we shall have the findings of the Manchester study before us shortly.
Questions were also raised by the noble Countess, Lady Mar, about our views on work with the United States. My honourable friend John Spellar has made a point of talking to our colleagues in the United States about the ways in which they handle such problems. We also have a full-time Gulf health liaison officer based in Washington who liaises closely with a number of US federal agencies. I should be happy to write on these issues to the noble Countess if she would find that helpful.
I am trespassing on your Lordships' time, but a number of detailed questions have been raised. It is important not only for your Lordships but also for the Gulf veterans that I do my best to answer them. We are determined to learn from the lessons of the past and to maintain the momentum that we have achieved in dealing with this very important issue. The noble Baroness, Lady Park, was quite right. It is an issue of confidence not only among those who have served but also among those who are serving in our Armed Forces that they will be dealt with properly.
To conclude, after careful consideration, we have taken note of the representations made since October 1999, but the Government believe that a public inquiry will simply not be able to answer the question of why Gulf veterans are ill. We hope that the other question raised by the noble Baroness and others about handling matters will be dealt with in greater detail by the Select Committee.
Furthermore, assisting such an inquiry would divert resources away from the important work already under way that aims to answer the basic question of what happened to our troops in the Gulf. However, I stress that that decision reflects today's circumstances. Were circumstances to change, the possibility that a public inquiry may become appropriate is not excluded. That would depend on the evaluation of the circumstances at the time.
The Countess of Mar: My Lords, before the Minister sits down, I believe she was under a misapprehension about the audited amount. A management audit was carried out last year that has been reported on and to which the Ministry has now responded. A clinical
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