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Mr John Hall

Volume 204: debated on Tuesday 25 February 1992

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Neil Hamilton.]

12.7 am

I feel privileged tonight to raise in the House the case of my constituent, John Hall, of Shetland road, Leicester. I have known John Hall for seven years. He was among the first people I met when I moved to Leicester. I would never have believed that one day I would be standing in the House of Commons, telling the forum of the nation about his case.

John Hall is a brave man. Like millions of his fellow citizens, he has served the nation as a member of our armed forces. He comes from an ordinary family, the kind of family that is the backbone of this country. His wife, Marilyn, is a local justice of the peace and has stood by him during the last few difficult years. She is a woman of courage and I admire her greatly. He has three sons, Colin, Ian and Mark. He and his family have served the people of Leicester well with their various civic duties and the city of Leicester is with them tonight.

For any person to take on the might of the Ministry of Defence is a daunting task, but John Hall is not alone. As a nuclear test veteran, he stands in the shoes of about 22,000 other veterans and their families. He is seen as a test case for the veterans' cause.

The failure of the Ministry of Defence to satisfy the veterans' plea for justice is a stain on the good name of the British armed forces. To make people who were prepared to give their lives for this country campaign for what should be a voluntary act by a grateful nation shows the contempt, spitefulness and wilful neglect of those who have closed the door on compensation.

To treat our veterans in a worse way than the veterans of America, Australia or New Zealand is outrageous. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have raised the matter on many occasions. I particularly wish to acknowledge the efforts of my right hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley), and my hon. Friends the Members for Sunderland, North (Mr. Clay) and for Paisley, South (Mr. McMaster), as well as the efforts of Conservative Members, including the right hon. Member for Worthing (Mr. Higgins) and the hon. Member for Davyhulme (Mr. Churchill). I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall) is in the Chamber tonight. Each of those and many more hon. Members have a constituency interest in the issue.

I also commend the tireless work of the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association, Ken McGinley, its chairman, and its committees. Many feature articles have highlighted the veterans' plight in newspapers as different as The People and The Independent.

John Hall's campaign has been remarkable by any standards. It has included numerous meetings with Defence Ministers and shadow Ministers, including the shadow Foreign Secretary and the Leader of the Opposition. A year ago I met the Prime Minister in his room in this House, and my hon. Friends and I have raised the matter during Prime Minister's Question Time and at other times. Numerous early-day motions have been signed by hundreds of hon. Members and last week I presented a petition with some 10,000 signatures in support of the veterans' cause. Tonight, we bring the campaign back to the House and ask the Minister to act now, before more veterans die.

John Hall is 53 years old. He was born in Burnhope in county Durham and moved to Leicester in 1961. He joined the Royal Air Force in 1956. He was an electrical mechanic and served with 76 squadron of the RAF, which did all the sampling in all the tests in the 1950s. The squadron was responsible for flying through the bomb clouds picking up samples of radiated particles.

John Hall was employed as an aircraft electrician serving the Canberra bombers used in that process. He served at RAF Edinburgh Field from 8 October 1957 until 19 August 1958, during which time he was detached with the squadron to Christmas island in the Pacific ocean from 3 March until 19 May 1958 for Operation Grapple Y. It had gone there for the H-bomb test that took place on 28 April 1958.

John Hall is currently being treated for high-grade, B-cell non-Hodgkin's lymphoma of the centribalistic type. It was orginally diagnosed as hairy-cell leukaemia. He worked on aircraft immediately after they returned to the airfield. He was given gloves and a cotton overall to wear, but no other protective clothing. On Christmas island, most of the aircraft that he worked on had flown through the nuclear cloud several times. Once, he worked on a plane that had not been through a decontamination centre to be washed off.

In 1984, John Hall's wife read in the Leicester Mercury of a meeting of service men who had taken part in the nuclear tests of the 1950s. John and Marilyn Hall decided to go because they felt that it was important that there should be a thorough investigation into the servicemen's health problems.

In 1989, John Hall found that he was losing weight and suffering from a shortage of energy. He went to the doctor, who said that he was anaemic and he was then sent to the Royal Infirmary, where he was given blood tests and transfusions. He was put on interferon injections every day for the first six months, then every other day and, until April 1991, three times a week. He now receives chemotherapy and is on drugs known in the trade as "pace bombs" and "chops", That consists of three or four large and painful injections in his arm. I pay tribute to the care and professionalism of the doctors and nurses, and other workers who look after John Hall when he goes to the Royal Infirmary for treatment.

He left work in 1989 as he found that he did not have the energy to do physical work. He needed pain-killing pills, which caused him great problems. Not only could he no longer work, but he could no longer dig his garden or repair his car. He used to love going on walking holidays, but he was unable to walk far without becoming very tired. His appearance has changed dramatically in the past seven years.

When the Ministry of Defence looks into cases that have been brought to its attention by hon. Members, it should take direct evidence from the participants. That has not happened in John Hall's case, or in any other case. At the very least, the Minister should arrange for John Hall to meet MOD officials so that they can take direct evidence from him. They have, to date, relied on written submissions and, as the Minister knows, the delay has been intolerable.

The Minister will rely in his reply on a report that was prepared for the Prime Minister when he wrote to me on 6 February 1992. The report states that the ground crew of 76 squadron were not subject to radiation. How is it, then, that Air Vice Marshal Wilfred Oulton, the task force commander, could write in his book, "The Christmas Island Cracker":
"No personnel, other than the air and ground crews of the Canberra sampling aircraft, should ever be exposed to any radiation."
On pages 130 and 131 of the book he adds:
"The aircraft used for Mosaic and Buffalo might still be too hot to use safely in Grapple or even to stage through international airports like Nandi. Likewise, some of the crews of both air and ground might have reached or be near to their safe limit of exposure to radiation."
How can the MOD ask an independent consultant, as it did in John Hall's case, to make a decision if that consultant is told in the first place that there is no exposure to radiation? One has the conclusions before the evidence is examined.

The report went on to state that there was a 48-hour delay to allow the radioactive material to decay, there being no exception to the rule. But John Hall is emphatic that the men were never told to restrict repairs to maintenance schedules. If a fault occurred which required replacement of an unscheduled component, it would be carried out immediately. He remembers the decontamination centre to have been 50 yards from the 76 lines.

When I met the Prime Minister on 12 March 1991, he demonstrated great concern and sympathy for the plight of John Hall. The Minister of State will recall that the Prime Minister told me of his own knowledge of the suffering of cancer victims as his brother-in-law had died of cancer. I showed him a letter from the son of a nuclear test veteran who had died of cancer, who himself had the illness. In my view, the Prime Minister was clearly moved by that. I told him that the second National Radiological Protection Board report was to be published and I urged his intervention to ensure that that was done speedily. He asked the Minister to do that.

The Prime Minister had already written to me on 29 January 1991 saying:
"We hope that its results will be available by the end of the year."
That was in 1991, and the report has still not been published. Can the Minister say when it will be published? We should also like all the reports that were prepared on operation Grapple Y to be placed in the Library of the House, including those that have hitherto not been published.

While we wait, nuclear test veterans continue to die. It is not just them who suffer, but their families. Last week, I received a letter from Mavis Gardner, the widow's representative for the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association. She writes of the anxiety, hardship and distress caused by delay. She says:
"I do feel that the widows should be remembered when our veterans' cases are brought up, as they are the ones who are suffering after their loss. We have nearly 300 widows on our books, but there must be many more that we do not know about. Even some of the widows have died, but what has happened to their families? We shall never know."
Four weeks ago, the Government announced that the special provision already made for those with haemophilia and HIV would be extended to those who had been infected with HIV as a result of national health service transfusions or tissue transfer in the United Kingdom. The payments will also apply to any of their spouses, partners and children to whom their infection may have been passed on.

The Secretary of State for Health, in a written reply, spoke of compensation being granted because of those people's very special circumstances. Three weeks ago, we read of proposals to compensate people suffering from cancer because of their work on Britain's nuclear submarines and the nuclear deterrent. That was to be on a no-fault basis. Yesterday, in a written answer, the Secretary of State for Defence presented what he described as radical and imaginative proposals to give service men and ex-service men—despite the mobility required of them —new and impressive housing opportunities.

All those announcements show that, where there is a political will, there is a way. On 28 February 1991, the Prime Minister made the following comments about the performance of our armed forces during the Gulf conflict:
"Our forces deserve the highest praise for the courage and professionalism that they have displayed—in the air, on land and at sea … Here in our country we may be justifiably proud of our British forces and their commanders … The whole nation is proud of them, proud of their families and proud that, through their valour, freedom and justice have prevailed. It has, on this occasion, been a victory for what is right."—[Official Report, 28 February 1991; Vol. 186, c. 1118.]
Are we proud of John Hall, and of what he and others did in the service of this country? Is the Minister proud of him? I spoke to him tonight. He has just come out of hospital after being there for three days. His spirits are high: he is eager to continue his civic duties. He is sorry, and I am sorry, that he is not well enough to be here to watch the debate.

It is in the nature of Governments to say no, and in the nature of Oppositions to demand everything yesterday, but this is not a campaign founded on ideology—this is a campaign born out of principle, of men and women who have right on their side, and who claimed and reached the moral high ground far too long ago. The Prime Minister's words show that we must be proud of people like John Hall, and the thousands of other nuclear test veterans in this country. They, indeed, have right on their side. Tonight, the Minister could right a great wrong, and award John Hall and the other nuclear test veterans the compensation that they so richly deserve.

12.22 am

I congratulate the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) on securing the debate. He has, over the years, campaigned—along with other hon. Members—for compensation for those personnel who participated in the United Kingdom's nuclear test programme; now, more specifically, he has raised the sad case of his constituent John Hall.

The question of the nuclear test participants is not a new one; it has been discussed in the House at length. The hon. Member is well aware that the principal difficulty here is that of establishing a causal link between participation in the programme and any subsequent illness. I must emphasise at the outset that there is no such evidence, either in the test participants generally or, more specifically, in the hon. Gentleman's constituent's case.

Considerable concern has been expressed by those who participated in the nuclear test programme, their relatives and hon. Members about the nuclear weapons test programme conducted in the south Pacific in the 1950s, and the suggestion that those who took part in the tests have now developed illnesses as a result of their participation. The concern is understandable, especially in the light of the widespread publicity given to the sometimes misleading and unfounded allegations that have been made in the past.

The House will be aware that cancer is a common cause of death in the developed world, with some 20 per cent. of deaths being attributed to the disease. Tragically—and it is a sad and inescapable fact—there are over 100,000 cancer-related deaths a year in this country alone. It has been estimated, as I have said in the House before, that some 1,000 of these deaths may be caused by the various natural sources of radiation present all around us. Many participants in the test programme, therefore, would by now be suffering from cancer, or would have died, if they had spent their service entirely in this country and had never gone to the south Pacific.

Before I address the points raised by the hon. Member, I should like to remind the House that the general nuclear safety standards of the tests were in accordance with the standards in force in the nuclear industry today. All individuals who were liable to be exposed to radiation were issued with dosimeters to record the radiation experienced, and those records were kept. The safety regulations in force were consistent with the recommendations of the International Commission on Radiological Protection and advice from the Medical Research Council. Safety precautions were properly monitored and stringently implemented.

While we remain confident that the safety precautions were adequate and that participants were not subjected to any significant health hazards, we have been anxious to alleviate the fears expressed by some of those who participated. Bearing in mind the difficulties in determining causation, it was decided that there should be a study to provide up-to-date and reliable information to show if a problem existed and, if so, its extent. In October 1983, the independent and internationally respected institution, the National Radiological Protection Board, was commissioned to undertake a study of the participants and investigate any correlation with radiation exposure. The study, as the House is aware, compared the mortality and cancer incidence of more than 22,000 men who participated in the tests with a similar group of service men and civilians who were not involved in the tests.

The study, the results of which were published in the British Medical Journal, concluded that participation in the tests had had no detectable effect on the participants' life expectancy. Nor did the study establish a causal relationship between the incidence of cancer and participation. In particular, there was no evidence of increased radiation dose, contrary to what might have been expected if those cancers were radiation induced. The study did indicate a small but statistically significant increase in the incidence of certain leukaemias and multiple myeloma in test participants compared with the control group. The control group, however, exhibited an extraordinarily low incidence of these two cancers compared with the average for England and Wales. The NRPB concluded that these differences were likely to be due to chance. Internationally accepted estimates of risk from radiation predict that not one person would be expected to die as a result of exposure to radiation from the United Kingdom's test programme.

I must emphasise that the NRPB study shows no correlation in the incidence of the cancer—high-grade, B cell, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma—from which Mr. Hall is suffering and participation in the test programme.

The Government regard the result of the NRPB study as vindicating their view that the safety precautions adopted during the test programme were effective.

When does the Minister expect that the second report that is currently being investigated will be published? He will recall the meeting with the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister's letter to me. May we be told when the second report is likely to be published?

I am just coming to that question.

The NRPB did, however, recommend that observations on the groups of participants and controls should be maintained for a further 10 years. The Government gladly accepted the suggestion. The NRPB has, therefore, continued to monitor the cancer and mortality incidence of the participants and will publish an updated study this year covering the first five years of this 10-year extension. I know that the hon. Member for Leicester, East wants a more accurate forecast of when the five-year study will come out. I shall write to him about that.

The hon. Gentleman said that he has taken up the case with a number of Members of the Opposition, including the Leader of the Opposition. I should be interested to know whether the right hon. Gentleman undertook, if he became Prime Minister, to pay compensation to the nuclear test veterans. I should be more than happy to give way to the hon. Member for Leicester, East if he would like to enlighten the House on that important point. I see that the hon. Gentleman is silent and I can tell him why: it is because, of the 22,000 test veterans, one would expect, I am afraid, some 20 per cent. to die of cancer. Therefore, by the law of averages, more than 4,000 nuclear test veterans may suffer from cancer. If all of them are to be paid compensation, the bill will be substantial.

The Leader of the Opposition is not the Minister of State at the Ministry of Defence and therefore does not have responsibility. We shall seek the same pledge from the next Labour Government as we are seeking from this Government.

That is the most unutterable nonsense that I have heard in my life. Why has not the hon. Gentleman obtained a pledge from the Leader of the Opposition? He can say that if he takes office he will fulfil the pledge to compensate all the nuclear test veterans, and he can make that pledge today. The hon. Member for Leicester, East well knows that the right hon. Gentleman cannot make that pledge because the cost to the taxpayer would be unbelievable. It would open the door to compensation to many people who may have cancer through natural causes, and I am afraid that the reality is that a large percentage of people die from cancer and nobody knows the causes. As I have said, there is no causal link between Mr. Hall and the tests on Christmas island in the 1950s.

The hon. Gentleman raised the question of compensation for his constituent, Mr. John Hall, with the Prime Minister last year, and he referred to that in his remarks. At the Prime Minister's request, the Ministry undertook to investigate Mr. Hall's case. The hon. Member for Leicester, East is aware from the Prime Minister's reply of 6 February and from the report attached to it that the initial difficulty in Mr. Hall's case, as with so many others who participated in the test programme, is that there is simply no evidence of his having been exposed to any radiation.

Mr. Hall served with the Royal Air Force as an electrical mechanic. He was not a member of the active handling flight whose task it was to carry out the aircraft decontamination process. There are no records of film badges having been issued to him, nor is there any record of him being exposed to radiation—and we do not expect there to be. By radiation, I mean occupational radiation. As a member of the public, Mr. Hall will have received natural background radiation amounting to 100 mSv or more over his lifetime.

In the absence of recorded levels of exposure to occupational radiation, only through the statistical studies of the NRPB can we determine whether there is an elevated incidence of radiation-linked diseases among the test participants involving the possibility of a causal link. That is not to say, however, that we shall consider no claims without dosimeter records. It has been repeatedly made clear that we shall consider any claim where any evidence of exposure to ionising radiation can be adduced.

The Minister says that the door is still open provided evidence can be submitted and examined. One of the problems that I highlighted in my speech is that Mr. Hall has never been interviewed by his officials. Will the Minister please agree to allow Mr. Hall to meet officials so that these questions can be put directly to him? One of the problems is that it took a long time to get a reply from the Prime Minister because we relied on written submissions. If he will agree to Mr. Hall being interviewed by officials, many of the problems of the case could be solved. Will he agree to that?

I shall write to the hon. Gentleman about that. I do not understand how an interview could help because we are talking about the types of cancer from which Mr. Hall suffers. The point is that the NRPB report did not identify Mr. Hall's cancer as being caused by the tests, but I shall come back to the hon. Gentleman on that.

As the report given to the hon. Gentleman makes clear, Mr. Hall has produced no such evidence and, indeed, the only specific claims that have been made were to The Independent newspaper, which reported on the case on 24 January 1990. Nevertheless, Mr. Hall's case was looked at in considerable depth and a detailed report was forwarded by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to the hon. Gentleman. From the report he will have seen that, although there was no evidence of exposure to radiation, it was necessary to postulate various situations —based on Mr. Hall's allegations in The Independent—from which hypothetical dose levels, together with Mr. Hall's medical records, it was possible, using the internationally accepted methodology, to calculate the radiation-induced risk—called the probability of causation—to determine the likelihood of Mr. Hall's cancer being caused by doses at those hypothetical levels.

The report to which I refer is, of necessity, rather lengthy and technical and I therefore do not intend to go into great detail during this debate as it will mean little to those who have not seen it. I can assure the House, however, that all possible hypothetical scenarios were investigated and the probability of causation assessed. In each hypothetical case, the dose levels were so low that there could be no reasonable inference of a causal link and therefore no basis for awarding compensation.

Mr. Hall, like many ex-servicemen, has been awarded a war pension by the Department of Social Security. This was from 5 October 1989, on the basis of a diagnosis of leukaemia, as the hon. Gentleman said. That is one of the varieties of leukaemia of which the NRPB report showed a small increase of incidence among test participants compared with the control group. Proof is not essential for a claim to succeed under the war pension scheme and the claimant is given the benefit of any reasonable doubt concerning attribution to service.

As I mentioned earlier, the control group itself had an unusually low incidence of these particular diseases, the differences probably being due to chance, according to the NRPB. Certainly the NRPB found no evidence of a link with radiation. However, it is not necessary to show any such link to receive a war pension. Subsequently, Mr. Hall's diagnosis has, after the issue of a war pension, been revised to non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. The Department of Social Security, however, has no wish to review Mr. Hall's award of a war pension now that the diagnosis has been revised.

In conclusion, I must emhasise that the Government are ready to pay compensation wherever their legal liability is established and where there is firm evidence to show, on balance of probabilities, that ill health is being suffered as a result of participation in the test programme.

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock on Tuesday evening and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-three minutes to One o'clock.