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Germ Warfare Tests (West Country)

Volume 300: debated on Wednesday 12 November 1997

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

9.34 am

During the 1960s and 1970s, germ warfare tests were carried out off the west country coast by the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency. During that period, and indeed as late as 1977, testing took place from Lyme bay to Devonport, involving a cocktail of bacteria, including E. coli 162, B. globigii and serratia marcescens, being pumped into the atmosphere. Those germs were apparently used for their usefulness in simulating a biological attack. The issue has recently come to light because of the release of previously classified documents.

The Western Morning News, and especially its journalist, Mark Townsend, deserve high praise for their pioneering work in bringing the facts to the public's attention and the responsible way in which they have raised the inevitable question of what lasting effects the experiments may have had. Even today, the many people living in the coastline areas where the experiments took place continue to suffer a growing number of unexplained illnesses and medical conditions.

The issue is not party political. My purpose in bringing it before the House is simply to find out exactly what happened, and especially which bacteria were used. I wish to find out why the experiments were conducted in the first place; what safeguards were devised at the time, if any; and what assessments successive Governments have made of the lasting dangers. I believe that those living in the coastline areas deserve specific answers and nothing else will suffice.

Many documents, especially those relating to later incidents of testing in Portland and Devonport, have still not been released. Obviously, we do not know how many documents exist, but the fact that full disclosure has still not taken place must inevitably raise fears and suspicions. At least in Portland and Devonport we have an explanation of sorts of why the experiments took place.

Last year, the former Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Portillo, in a letter to the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) said that the experiments were
"to assess the vulnerability of naval vessels, to determine the hazard arising from a biological attack and to evaluate rapid detection concepts."

The purpose of the earlier Lyme bay experiments is, however, far from clear. In those earlier experiments, it seems that a bacterial brew was pumped into the atmosphere and deliberately aimed inland towards the coast of west Dorset and east Devon. The extent of spread and penetration was supposedly monitored for up to 10 miles inshore. I had better lay my cards on the table, and concede that a physics with chemistry O-level from 1965 does not equip me to come to a final conclusion, but I wonder how a floating cloud of bacteria could be monitored in that way. Why 10 miles? Why not nine miles or 11 miles? One has only to ask those and similar questions to wonder at what was done.

The possible lasting effects of those actions has not been properly explained. The Defence Evaluation and Research Agency continues to reiterate the theory that the bacteria used will have had no harmful effects, but what is the evidence for that proposition? It is not the agreed position of several of the country's leading independent microbiologists. Professor Richard Lacey of Leeds university, writing on the army's germ warfare simulants, maintains that much evidence points to the conclusion that the type of germs used cannot be labelled harmless.

I do not wish to detain the House at length by going through all the examples that could be cited, but I want to give just one example from Professor Lacey's book. George H. Connell, the assistant to the director of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in America, addressing the United States Senate hearings on biological warfare testing, said in 1977:
"There is no such thing as a microorganism that cannot cause trouble."
He continued:
"If you get the right concentration at the right place, at the right time, and in the right person, something is going to happen."
Professor Lacey concludes:
"none of the four agents that the army admits using over populated areas in simulated biological warfare attacks is harmless."

Indeed, many families who have lived in the area since the experiments took place feel a growing concern that there may be a link between the experiments and their high proportion of health problems. Of the 22 families who grew up in one village—East Lulworth, on the coast of Lyme bay—all the girls have had miscarriages or given birth to children with defects.

One family in particular, that of Noreen and Sidney Hall, has seen an unprecedented number of unexplained illnesses over the past 14 years. Each of the four daughters has had a miscarriage or given birth to a disabled child. Babies have been born with missing limbs, been afflicted with severe learning difficulties, or started life with shrunken brains caused by unexplained illnesses.

Those who served in the ship that was used in the experiments, the Icewhale, also believe that there is a link between the experiments and various mysterious illnesses. Fishermen caught in the cloud of bacteria have complained of the effects of a "tear-gas-like" cloud emitted at the time.

The apparent failure to explain in detail what was done, and the lack of any detail concerning the possible lasting consequences of the experiments, led many people to say that the tests are responsible for a number of debilitating illnesses and birth defects. Whatever the reasons for the tests at the time, I can safely say that it is inconceivable that such experiments would be carried out in such a random way today. People on the south coast were used as human guinea pigs.

If people are to know the possible effects of what they were subjected to, and when and over what period they were subjected to it, the only reasonable course of action is for the Ministry of Defence to release all the paperwork relating to the incidents. The Government must also carry out a full and public examination to establish once and for all whether there is a causal link between the experiments conducted and the personal medical tragedies that I have mentioned.

Obviously, the present Government are not responsible for the experiments. None the less, it is their responsibility to carry out the fullest investigation into the experiments, so as finally to determine exactly what went on, and what the possible consequences are. If a link is established between the experiments and the unexplained illnesses, the question of compensation will have to be faced.

It will not be sufficient to say that there is no evidence that people have been harmed, simply because at the time it may have been assumed that the whole process was safe. What people need to know is not the assumptions that may have been made 25 and more years ago, but what, in the light of today's knowledge, they may have suffered.

I have deliberately spoken briefly, so as to give other hon. Members the chance to take part. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams, in particular—

Times change.

I know that my hon. Friend, in particular, has been concerned about the matter, and that he needs to attend a Committee in a few moments. I also want to allow the Minister the necessary time to respond. I am pleased to see that the Minister of State himself has come here to reply to the debate. I hope that he will have been helped by the fact that I provided him with a copy of my speech in advance.

I have not sought to apportion blame. I have set out such facts as are available as briefly and dispassionately as I can. I pass no judgment on the scientific aspects of the matter; indeed, I am not qualified to do so. What I can say is that, finally, once and for all, answers are needed. I should like to think that, when the Minister has responded to the debate, the process of answering the questions that people want answered will be seen to have started today.

9.44 am

I have only a few words to say, chiefly to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) for bringing the matter to the notice of the House. Clearly it concerns us all in the west country. My hon. Friend does a great service to his constituency and to the rest of Devon by raising the matter.

I am glad to say that I cannot endorse some of the cases that my hon. Friend has raised, simply because, fortunately, my experiences have not been the same as his. I have not been advised of any problems in the former South Hams constituency, which is now known as Totnes. All I can say is that the matter will cause the House some concern, and that I feel sure that the Government will investigate it as they should.

9.45 am

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) on bringing the debate to the House. As a Member who has been actively involved with the problem for more than a year, perhaps I can throw more light on what has happened already, and what we are trying to do about it.

It is important that we give serious consideration to the concerns of our constituents, but also that we do not leave them in an alarmed state, in which all the health problems of the past 30 years will be blamed on the experiments.

I certainly follow my hon. Friend in asking for the release of any information that is still to be released under the 30-year rule—in some cases, the 30 years may not yet be up.

When the matter first became public knowledge, the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) tabled a series of questions bringing to the attention of the House the fact that the experiments had taken place. We were told that bacteria that would be totally harmless had been released, to check how bacteria of that nature dispersed around the coastline, and how they might or might not penetrate the defences of Her Majesty's warships.

The immediate reaction in my constituency was dramatic. One of my local papers, the Dorset Evening Echo, to which I pay tribute, sent someone to the Public Records Office to find out as much information as possible. In a series of articles, the paper explained what had been going on. That was the most important development in terms of getting information out to the public.

The local authorities and I approached the then Government and said, "Look, this is an extremely important issue. What are you going to do about explaining to the public what has happened?" With representatives from the county council, from West Dorset district council and from Weymouth and Portland district council, I had an interesting and detailed meeting with the then Minister of State for Defence Procurement, who explained that the Ministry had examined all the files and was satisfied that no harm had been done to anybody. However, it was strange that such a harmless experiment had been kept so secret.

One interesting development had taken place under a previous Labour Administration. Like other Ministers of the time, Lord Healey said that he knew nothing about the experiments, and that the scientists had never told him what was happening. There is some dispute about that, because there are records within the Ministry of Defence showing that he was being briefed at Porton Down while the experiments were being designed—but there is no record of whether he was briefed on those specific issues.

We are also told that, at the time, an independent committee approved all such experiments, and that those independent scientists said that what was being done was perfectly safe. None the less, in today's climate it would not be possible to do the experiments without telling the public. They concerned not secret materials but the dispersal of bacteria. Not telling people that they were being carried out was reprehensible.

If the public and the health authorities had known what was happening at the time, they could have checked the population to monitor the effects. We understand that no such checks were made, and there is no record of anything untoward happening at the time. Had checks been made, we could have ensured that not only the Ministry of Defence but the health authorities thought that the experiments were safe.

The Defence Evaluation and Research Agency, which is now responsible for Porton Down, agreed that, rather than holding a public inquiry—an expensive way of going round in circles—it would mount a detailed exhibition. That was shown in three places in Dorset, to allow the public to examine all the available information and to decide whether they could have been affected. DERA is adamant that it has done nothing that could have given rise to problems.

The exhibition was shown during the summer recess, and various people said that they had a medical condition, that their cattle had died because of E. coli, or that they had all sorts of other problems, but it is difficult to link any such incidents directly to the tests. Nobody is suggesting that, on the morning of a test, or five days afterwards, something suddenly happened. People who have experienced a cluster of problems wonder whether the tests are responsible.

We invited the Dorset health authority to be represented at the exhibition, to reassure the public. Wisely, the authority decided not to do so, because it believes that it should be seen as the guardian of the public interest, and it wants to investigate independently what is going on without being seen as part and parcel of the Government or Ministry of Defence machine.

The most serious allegation is that East Lulworth has had many more birth defects and miscarriages than would normally be expected. I wrote to the Dorset health authority about that; its immediate reaction was to say that it had no record whatever of undue problems in East Lulworth. The family who had experienced particular difficulties decided to conduct a survey. They found that many girls who had been brought up in East Lulworth had married and moved away, spreading the cluster of miscarriages and birth defects further afield, so the health records did not show that East Lulworth had an especial problem.

The health authority assures me that it is using that information and conducting an epidemiological study. That route is much more positive than simply asking the MOD why the people are having problems. East Lulworth is close to a nuclear facility, and even closer to a tank range. I certainly hope that the Minister will assist the health authority to find out whether any substances are emanating from the tank range; after all, we use a lot of nasty materials to fire tank rounds, and within the rounds themselves. Let us ensure that we concentrate on establishing whether there is a link between the tests and the problems.

I have received a helpful letter from Dorset health authority about some letters that I sent on from people with concerns. It says:
"I have passed on these letters to the Consultant in Public Health who is investigating the concerns … The health authority became aware of the germ warfare experiments at the same time as the general public and has liaised closely with relevant local authorities as well as with members of the general public who have written in or telephoned the Department of Public Health about specific issues. Mr. Peter Harvey, the Chief Executive of Dorset County Council, has made a file available to the Public Health Department which includes all correspondence received by his Department from the general public detailing their concerns of possible health problems associated with the germ warfare experiments. The letters cover a very wide range of medical problems and give no indication that there has been any clustering of any particular problem in any given locality within Dorset. The Authority is currently only aware of one cluster of childhood illness in Dorset, and that is the neuroblastoma cluster in the Littlemoor area of Weymouth which is being investigated as part of a national epidemiological study.
During July 1997 a Consultant in Public Health from the Dorset Health Authority, together with a Community Infection Control Nurse, made a visit to DERA and were given a presentation detailing the nature of the germ warfare experiments. This confirmed that the bacteria released over Dorset as part of the experiments were not known to cause illness in man at the time the experiments were conducted. However, one of the bacteria, Serratia marcescens, has been subsequently demonstrated to cause acute illness in people with weak immune systems especially in Intensive Care Unit settings. There is currently no research evidence to link the bacteria which were released with birth defects or any chronic illness such as multiple sclerosis or Parkinson's disease.
The Communications and Public Relations Department of Dorset Health Authority assisted DERA by providing comments on the final format of the material which they presented at the Roadshows held in Dorset to inform the general public about the experiments. The Authority did not send representatives to attend the Roadshows as it was felt important to maintain a distance between ourselves and the Ministry of Defence in order to demonstrate to the public that the Authority is an independent body. This is important to maintain public confidence in the Authority's ability impartially to investigate public concerns, not just about the germ warfare experiments but also other environmental issues such as electromagnetic radiation from power lines, chemical release from landfill sites and chemical emissions into the air from chemical factories in Dorset."
I want to reassure my constituents that, although the link to the experiments may be tenuous, we are taking the problems seriously.

I wrote to the Minister suggesting that he might have access to files that were not available to a Conservative Government. I was somewhat disappointed—although I do not blame him personally—that his correspondence section sent the letter on to DERA, with which I had already had a long correspondence. I understand from DERA that it has not even received the forwarded correspondence, although it had my letter telling it to ignore it because I was writing to the Minister again.

I hope that the Minister will shed as much light as possible on the matter from the MOD point of view, and that every facility will be provided to the Dorset health authority to help people from East Lulworth. If the problems come from a source other than the biological experiment, we want to know, so that we can take some action. I hope that the MOD will act expeditiously, and give as much help as possible.

9.58 am

I should like to amplify in two respects the remarks made by my hon. Friends the Members for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) and for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce). I have had considerable correspondence from constituents about the problem, much of which relates specifically to West Dorset, where the recent roadshows and exhibitions were mainly held. I have also had various correspondence from the permanent secretary to the Ministry of Defence, and I want to thank him for the efforts he made to expand the scope of the roadshows, which were much appreciated in West Dorset.

I understand that some 27 field reports have been prepared. Of those, two are public knowledge so far. I believe—the Minister will correct me if I am wrong— that two or three further reports are to be released roughly a year from now. That leaves more than 20 that are scheduled for release some years from now as they come up to their 30-year rule.

The secrecy of the field reports is generating, perhaps unnecessarily, a disproportionate amount of concern among my constituents, and, judging by the sedentary reactions of my hon. Friends, among theirs. People feel that those reports may contain material which would cast light on the issue, and that they cannot have access to it simply because of the 30-year rule. It may be that the reports contain matters of profound importance to national security which it would be inappropriate to release. Speaking as an amateur, I find it difficult to imagine that items which will be open to inspection a few years from now without compromising national security would compromise it if released now.

I urge the Minister to consider, upon a personal view of those papers, whether there is genuinely a case for retaining them in secrecy for as long as would normally be the practice, or whether, either in whole or in great part, those papers could be released earlier. That would certainly contribute to the reassurance that, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset, is urgently needed.

There is inevitably concern that the Ministry of Defence and other Government Departments and public authorities, including Dorset health authority are in some conspiracy. Very often, the belief that officialdom is in conspiracy is wholly false. My general supposition is that, when things go wrong, it is usually by mistake rather than by conspiracy.

Nevertheless, there is an understandable fear in this case. I do not believe that it will be resolved until and unless, in addition to the release of the field reports, steps are taken to establish a reputable, calm, dispassionate, scientific view of the matter. That could be achieved by appointing someone who is not an employee of Her Majesty's Government or a lurid, overblown scare raiser—the last thing we need—to review the field reports. It should be an expert who can reassure the public that nothing went wrong, if nothing did go wrong.

Such an expert could investigate in detail whether there were any grounds for supposing that there was a link between the problems experienced and the events to which we have referred this morning. Such an expert could produce a report much faster than a public inquiry or royal commission. He would have the same independence that one expects of such bodies. That is particularly important because, as my hon. Friends the Members for South Dorset and for Teignbridge said, increasing numbers of cases brought to the attention of constituency members are now being laid at the door of the experiments.

One farmer's cattle had a severe and unexplained set of problems. On investigation at Porton Down, it turned out that the problems were caused by a severe outbreak of E. coli. I have not the slightest idea whether there was any link between that outbreak and the experiments, but it is inevitable that, in the present climate, in the absence of release of the field reports or an independent investigation of any links, it is widely asserted that such a link exists. That is regrettable if it is not true. If it is true, it needs to be pinned down.

Therefore, I urge the Minister to release the reports and establish an independent expert quickly to review the matter.

10.4 am

I congratulate the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) on obtaining this Adjournment debate today. I thank The Western Morning News for its sensitive, non-sensational handling of this issue. The speeches by hon. Members this morning have also been non-sensationalist, and that is the way in which the issue should be treated.

It is difficult to prove beyond reasonable doubt the link between scientific substances known within the scientific community and medical conditions. The public need to be satisfied that the matter has been rigorously investigated, that all available information is freely available, and that nothing has been kept secret.

My attention is particularly drawn to a report from the biological research advisory board, which tested the bacteria on animals before releasing them. According to the report of the 51st meeting of the board, after tests on animals, the board approved
"the use of living non-pathogens in trials which might involve exposure of members of the public, subject to rigorous testing of every batch of material in animals."
So it is clear that there was no release into the atmosphere of the agents involved until after they had been tested on animals.

Nevertheless, in one of the field reports from the time, the methodology for toxicity tests on mice is recorded. In one, 20 mice were exposed to a cloud of E. coli cells for five minutes and then observed for seven days after, and the number of survivors recorded. In another, the lungs of mice exposed to a cloud of E. coli were examined for evidence of lesions, but the report failed to mention how many actually survived. That begs the question whether the so-called pre-testing was adequate to enable a judgment to be made that the bacteria should be released into the atmosphere, where they would be likely to come into contact with human beings.

My constituency is in the middle of the test area, between Portland and Plymouth. I was brought up in the area. I do not want anyone to draw any conclusions about that. I never thought that I had been exposed to germ warfare before I read The Western Morning News, and I suspect that many of my constituents thought the same. There is genuine concern among the population of the coastline and those who may have been around at the time. That is why the debate is important, and questions need to be answered.

Why were the experiments carried out? Who approved them, and what conclusions were drawn? Have all health authority records covering people resident along the coast from Portland to Plymouth been investigated to identify and further investigate any cluster of abnormalities? We know that some research has been done into health records in Dorset, but we do not know whether such an investigation has taken place in Devon.

Can the Minister inform us whether similar tests may have taken place in other parts of the country? These things have a habit of coming to light thanks to the vigilance of the press. Unless a similar informant speaks to the press in other areas, we will not know whether other tests may have taken place. Should we not know? Why did tests take place only in Lyme bay? Perhaps there is a reason for that, which the Minister can give us, or perhaps he can tell us whether other areas were affected.

I look forward to the Minister's replies to my questions. I know that my constituents will be reassured if full information is made available, and there is no suspicion that anything is being hidden.

10.9 am

If the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls)—indeed, if any people—have had their health damaged as a result of Ministry of Defence trials, there is absolutely no doubt that every effort should be made to find out what happened. The Ministry of Defence and its agencies have a clear duty to do all they can to allay the fears of those concerned, and to assist the health authorities wherever possible. I have no doubt that they will be keen to do that—it is in their interests, and it is in everyone's interest.

It must be for the Minister to answer the charges laid by my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge. We on the Opposition Benches will listen with great interest and care to his detailed explanation, because my hon. Friend's debate raises some fundamental issues.

It is an irony that, as a direct consequence of the increasing openness of the Ministry of Defence under the current Government and under previous Governments, we have seen headlines in regional newspapers such as "End the secrecy on germ war tests" and "Disagreement over dangers of bacteria".

It is not surprising that our constituents have not read the scientific journals describing the work at Porton Down over many years. Aspects of the trial being debated today were first recorded in the scientific press in 1968; but, had it not been for documents released under the 30-year rule and the excellent road shows touring the country explaining the work of the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency, we would not be debating the issue today.

There must, inevitably and always, be secrecy and confidentiality surrounding our national defence interests—but only when it is genuinely necessary. I know from personal experience that, in respect of Porton Down, the Ministry of Defence always does all it can to be helpful in individual cases of personal health problems, and that records are always made available to general practitioners, wherever records are available and whenever doing so may be helpful.

There have been calls for a public inquiry, but it is hard to know what might be gained, because DERA has already put into the public domain much, if not all, of what there is to know. The agency even released the old black-and-white film of what happened all those years ago on board the ship off Portland.

The records are clear enough about the trials themselves, but explanation and reassurance are needed about the effects on the general public inland. I understand that a former Dorset county medical officer has come forward to say that the situation was monitored at the time, and there was no record of anything abnormal in the population. Let us examine that in more detail—I hope that we can be reassured that no abnormalities were recorded by the health authorities.

At this point, I wish to say a few words about Porton Down itself. With pride, I declare an interest as Member of Parliament for Porton Down. It amazes my constituents that Porton Down is used as a generic term for the two establishments based there. They are also amazed when they are accused of having some complicity in germ warfare.

We are not talking about germ warfare—we all know that this country gave up any aggressive capacity in that respect decades ago; what we are talking about is research and defence. Until 1979, the Ministry of Defence had at Porton Down the Microbiological Research Establishment and the Chemical and Biological Defence Establishment. In 1979, they were divided: the Department of Health took over what became the Centre for Applied Microbiology and Research, and the Ministry of Defence retained the Chemical and Biological Defence Establishment.

Speaking as a former member of the Medical Research Council, I believe that it is extremely important that we in this country retain confidence in the scientific community at Porton Down and elsewhere. We are talking not about monsters, determined to do ill and create havoc, but about real people, with real families and normal concerns about everyday life and health issues, who make a huge contribution to the life of our community.

I know that all the staff at both the CBDE and CAMAR operate to the highest ethical standards, and that they are world-class scientists. I am proud of their contribution to science, to the health of the nation and to the world. I am proud of what they have achieved in raising standards of public health around the world through their contribution to research into cancer, AIDS and more common ailments. It is astonishing to me that anyone should question the motives of the scientists at Porton Down.

Although I echo my hon. Friend's tribute to the work at Porton Down and to the good sense of the scientists involved, would he not agree that to carry out perfectly safe experiments but not tell people would not be acceptable today? On that basis, surely we ought to have all the information that would have been released if the experiments of the past 30 years were going on today?

I am delighted to acknowledge that my hon. Friend has stolen my final lines. Of course he is right—times have changed.

As constituency Member of Parliament for Porton Down, I have received inquiries about this issue and I have pursued them; but, since March, I have had no further representations from the local community, who are those most likely to be affected by any adverse reaction to the work of Porton Down. There is great local confidence in the work of the two establishments there, but I agree that we need to understand far more about why the experiments and trials are conducted in the first place.

The work is conducted primarily in order to protect our service men and women and the platforms or vehicles in which they work—be those helicopters, aircraft, ships, tanks, land rovers, tents or only protective suits.

I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend so rudely—it is hard to catch his eye when I am sitting right behind him. For the avoidance of any doubt, I wish to emphasise that nowhere in my presentation did I criticise his constituents or the workers of Porton Down. I have no reason whatsoever to suspect that the standards applicable at the time were not followed to the hilt.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce), I ask only that we should find out what happened. Unless we are about to hear some revelation from the Minister of State, which I suspect is unlikely, I have no criticism to make of the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) or of staff at Porton Down.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that reassurance, which I know will be noted by the scientific community at the Porton Down establishments and beyond.

We must understand that there are real threats. That fact is supported by the declarations made to the United Nations special commission by Iraq in the matter of its biological weapons programme, and by the use of a chemical weapon on the Tokyo subway shortly afterwards. There is no doubt that the threat exists, so we must understand how chemical and biological agents are dispersed and how they can be detected. That was what the trials we are debating were designed to discover, and the work done all those years ago was of real benefit to us all.

As for the incidents mentioned, I have been reassured by John Chisholm, the chief executive of DERA, who wrote to me on 20 March. He made it absolutely clear that
"The majority of these studies involved no release of biological material whatsoever and were conducted using organisms in different environmental conditions."
He also reassured me that
"The work in public areas would have been subject to clearance by Ministry of Defence committees, external to the research establishments concerned, before approval was given to go ahead."
He concluded:
"I must stress that the simulant substances that were released were harmless organisms commonly found in soil, grassland and hay throughout the United Kingdom and were not judged to present a risk to the general population."

It is of the greatest importance to the protection of service men and the general public that work at the two establishments at Porton Down continues—indeed, in an uncertain and unstable world, there is a strong case for enhancing and expanding the effort put into their work.

I warmly welcome the greater openness that we have seen at those establishments. I recognise that times have changed. The standards that were acceptable 30, 40 and more years ago are not acceptable today, and I am sure that the Government would wish to do all they can to be as open as possible in that respect.

However, we all need to put our minds to greater public education and awareness of what goes on at those establishments and why, and what we are protecting our troops and civilian communities at home for. If we can answer those questions, the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge will be much reassured, and so will everyone else.

10.19 am

I thank all those who have spoken this morning: the hon. Members for Totnes (Mr. Steen), who has had to go to a Committee meeting, for Torbay (Mr. Sanders), for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce), for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), and for Salisbury (Mr. Key). I congratulate the hon. Member for Teignbridge on having the good fortune and good sense to raise such an important issue. Hon. Members have raised this issue in an extremely responsible fashion, without being uncritical. I assure them that I am aware of both the anxieties and the importance which their constituents attach to it.

I shall refer to a number of issues raised by the hon. Member for Teignbridge and others, but if the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I shall refer first to a number of specific issues that were raised by the hon. Member for South Dorset.

The first was about a letter addressed to me, which was apparently diverted. My general rule on those matters is that, when a Member of Parliament writes to me, he is entitled to expect that the Minister will deal with the issue. I have caused inquiries to be made, and can confirm that the letter was received, and erroneously sent on to the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency.

In view of what the hon. Member for South Dorset said, I shall ensure that the letter receives the attention it deserves at DERA, but he may, as he said, wish to write to me again. This time, we shall see whether Wells Fargo manages to get the mail through to the Minister's office. I shall then personally answer the points that he raises.

The hon. Member for South Dorset then asked about ministerial approval, advice and so on. He is aware that the general convention that applies to all incoming Ministers is that we are not entitled to see the advice proffered by civil servants or others to previous Ministers. I am therefore somewhat restricted, as I cannot gain access to the personal papers.

If the hon. Gentleman will let me finish this point, it may satisfy his question.

At the time of the trials, the Ministry of Defence was advised on safety by part of the then Government's scientific advisory council, which was called the biological research advisory board—in the context of a Department that loves acronyms, he will be pleased to know that it was called BRAB—and included a range of independent and eminent academics. It is understood that Ministers were aware of the trials. The hon. Member for South Dorset raised that specific point, so I hope that that clears up any ambiguity.

I am grateful to the Minister for his response, but will he clarify the following point? The previous Minister made it clear that he could not see most of the ministerial advice given to the previous Labour Administration, and one accepts that rule. Given that the previous Minister could see everything that happened under the Conservative Administration—he gave me assurances about what was happening in that respect—can the Minister return to the previous Labour Government's detailed memorandums, or are those banned from him as well?

I shall have that investigated. I understand that I am not entitled to go back to those papers. It is a matter not of party politics but of subsequent consecutive Administrations.

As the hon. Gentleman says from a sedentary position, it is to protect civil servants, and the impartiality of their advice depends on such protection. If it did not exist, the advice given might be mitigated by a fear of future impingement on that confidentiality.

I shall give way to the right hon. Gentleman, who has an esteemed past as a Defence Minister.

I am most grateful to the Minister for giving way, particularly as I have only just walked into this debate, although I listened to some of the earlier speeches.

Can the Minister confirm that documents will come into the public domain under the 30-year rule? That is a rolling process, and we hope that any advice tendered to his predecessors will soon be available for public scrutiny.

Yes, I can confirm that. I shall cover that general point in my speech, but at this stage I was dealing with the specific questions asked by the hon. Member for South Dorset. I thought that I was being specific enough by telling him, to clear up any ambiguities, that I understand that previous Ministers were aware of the trials.

The Minister knows that the noble Lord, Lord Healey has written to the Cabinet Secretary asking that the civil service look again at his past papers and advise him on whether he had been briefed. He denies that he was briefed about those tests, and says that he knew nothing about them. That gives rise to concern.

If the scientists did not tell the Minister, my constituents want to know what they had to hide. The Minister says that Lord Healey had been told about the trials. The House needs to know what was going on. We are more reassured if we know that the civil service and the MOD told the Minister of the day about the trials and what was going on.

I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman is helping to clarify the issues by going into great detail. I can be no clearer than to say that previous Ministers were aware of the trials. I am aware of all the facts that the hon. Gentleman puts and of previous statements, but those events took place 30 years ago, and it is not always immediately apparent to those involved that every aspect of the issue was known to them at the time.

In the natural course of events, those involved would have caused investigations to be carried out, and would have written to people at the time asking for access to papers. I am giving the hon. Gentleman the latest position: I understand that previous Ministers were aware of the trials. That will be elaborated in due course by the then Ministers themselves, once they have access to the information and have satisfied themselves that they have an accurate picture of events.

Another question raised was whether the local health authority was told of the trials. Nothing in our records, which we have studied, shows who was informed of the trials. However, during the exhibitions in Dorset, to which the hon. Member for Teignbridge and others referred, we were informed by a then employee of the county emergency planning staff that elements of the local authority were aware of the trials. We have also been told that the area health authority, which collected regular medical returns, detected nothing abnormal during or after the trials.

Finally, I was asked a specific question about harmful effects on immuno-compromised people, or people with asthma. In recent years, some people have questioned whether extremely large doses of the material, to which I shall refer later, that was used during the tests causes a problem in certain people, such as immuno-compromised people. I do not suggest that that means anyone to whom hon. Members have referred, but people with AIDS, for example, are classified as immuno-compromised. Although no specific studies have been carried out, the experts consulted do not believe that there would be a problem. Of course, the number of immuno-compromised people in the 1960s was very much smaller than it is now, and such people would be at much greater risk from the large number of other bacteria and viruses present in the atmosphere all the time than they would be from the four to which we shall refer today.

With reference to asthma, there are a large number of bacteria, viruses and other particles of biological origin, such as pollen and fungal spores, in the air all the time. There are no special features of BG—B. globigii—or E. coli that make them any more likely to cause asthma than all the organisms to which people are exposed all their lives.

I have dealt in some detail with those specific points, because I know that the hon. Gentleman and others have taken an interest in the matter over the years.

I listened carefully to the speech of the hon. Member for Teignbridge, which, because of his courtesy, I had been able to read in advance. I do not regard the subject as a matter of party politics; it is a matter of national interest, and I am gratified by the way in which it was handled by the hon. Gentleman. I was entirely in accord with that. One would expect a good constituency representative to raise issues that are of particular importance to his constituents.

I listened closely to the hon. Gentleman's thoughtful speech, and to those of other hon. Members. 1 shall deal with the main issues that he addressed, and if he wants to raise specific points, he will no doubt come back to me during the debate or in writing.

I am aware that the subject is, naturally, of great concern in the west country. 1 have read with close attention the articles that appeared in the local, and more recently the national, press, and I am therefore pleased to take the opportunity to respond to the points raised this morning. Before I deal with the hon. Gentleman's specific concerns, I hope that he will allow me to establish for the record some basic facts on which I hope we can all agree. I do so because it is important that the House understands—as I do now, having been briefed in considerable detail—the background to the issues that the hon. Gentleman raises.

The debate relates essentially to a series of trials carried out in the 1960s and 1970s by the former Microbiological Research Establishment, or MRE, at Porton Down. I should make it clear that MRE closed in 1979. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency, or DERA, is now responsible for activities at Porton Down.

The tests to which we refer are those that scientists would probably prefer to call biological defence trials. We call them germ warfare tests, which is easier for ordinary people to understand, but the term provokes visions of dangers that might not be borne out when one realises what the tests involved.

The tests were carried out because, during the icy confrontation of the cold war, there was a real concern that infectious, disease-causing biological agents could be used to attack not only our armed forces, but the mainland of the United Kingdom. In retrospect, that may appear an idle invention, but it was not. It was a hard-headed assessment made at the time of a potentially terrifying threat to the British people.

The trials were designed to assess the potential impact of a biological attack on our country, and to determine what level of protection would be needed. The fearful consequences of such an attack, were it to be launched, need no amplification for hon. Members.

In support of the Minister's remarks, may I point out that, in 1992, President Yeltsin confirmed what had been suspected by western intelligence agencies for a long time: that, for 20 years, the Soviet Union had been breaching the 1972 biological weapons convention, whereby it was supposed to have abolished all its offensive biological weapons stocks, and had been carrying out detailed and intensive research on anthrax and other deadly diseases.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who we all know has an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of such matters. From my less than encyclopaedic knowledge, I can confirm my memory that that is correct. That revelation was made, as the hon. Gentleman says, within the past six years. Indeed, there is some concern that, even at that point, without the President's full knowledge and authority, the research was still being carried on. Such revelations during the past decade show that the attitude taken 20 years previously was not as melodramatic as it might seem in the more relaxed atmosphere of a thaw in the icy confrontation.

Faced with a dreadful perceived threat, scientists at the time needed to answer important questions, not as a matter of abstract scientific pursuits or as research for the sake of research, but with the practical implication of discharging the first duty of a Government—the protection of their citizens.

Scientists needed to know how far a cloud of bacteria would travel, how long organisms would survive in atmospheric conditions, and how such a cloud could be detected. All those questions had important practical implications for any counter-measures against biological attack.

To determine the answers to those questions, a range of trials was carried out. Some, which took place in many parts of southern England, involved the exposure of micro-organisms to the atmosphere in special apparatus, so that the bacteria were not released at all.

I am well aware that the natural secrecy with which such tests had to be carried out provokes even greater speculation about the meaning of terms such as "special apparatus". Hon. Members will have read accounts that special apparatus was used on London bridge. I can tell hon. Members that they need not worry; I can show them that special apparatus, which I understand is no longer classified. Some of the wilder visions of what it involved can be put to rest by opening up a little of the secrecy. The special apparatus is no longer being used, hon. Members will be pleased to know.

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the Minister, but the House is not used to demonstrations of the kind that he has just made. It will be difficult to record it in the context of the debate, unless he will be good enough to describe what he has produced before the House.

I am grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker. That is precisely why I brought the apparatus with me. I was not quite sure how one would describe it. It is almost like a fish knife without a middle in it. It is a rectangular piece of metal approximately 1½ in long with a 2 in handle extended on it, round which was wrapped an extremely thin thread, almost of the dimension of a spider's web, which held within it a small number of such bacteria. The apparatus was carried on Waterloo bridge and elsewhere to expose it to the atmosphere, then put away and tested to see whether the bacteria had been killed by the atmosphere. It was as simple as that.

I hope that I have dispelled any visions of London being swamped by bacteria through the use of such special equipment. Hon. Members have heard my description, and I hope that they are somewhat relieved.

During his measured speech, the hon. Member for Teignbridge referred in passing to trials involving the release of micro-organisms far offshore while testing protective measures for ships and their crews. I cannot say that no material from those trials drifted overland, although that was not the intention of the tests. However, that possible outcome was not monitored, so I cannot provide any results.

The third category of tests to which hon. Members referred specifically has attracted the most attention.

I think that hon. Members will understand that the Minister cannot give a guarantee whether the far offshore trials led to a dispersion of micro-organisms over land. However, can he give some assessment as to the likelihood that that occurred? Presumably he has been reassured by officials that the likelihood is very small, but it would be interesting to know the percentages.

I cannot give a guarantee, because it was never intended that the tests would involve bacteria reaching land. The trials were conducted far offshore, so there was no monitoring on the land. However, the bacteria used in the tests do not last very long in a polluted atmosphere.

Some less concentrated or minute traces of bacteria may have reached land, so it is impossible for me to guarantee that no bacteria landed anywhere. However, the second series of tests was conducted so far from shore that it is extremely unlikely—that was the assumption at the time—that the bacteria would have caused land-based infection. When I describe the bacteria that were used in the third test, I think that the hon. Gentleman will be even more reassured. That point was at the heart of the contribution by the hon. Member for Teignbridge.

The third group of trials generated the most public interest, because it was intended that the bacteria would be carried on to the mainland by on-shore winds, and they may have travelled over populated areas with houses, places of work and other buildings. The hon. Gentleman asked for some clarification as to the range of the tests—was it five or 10 miles inland? I think—I speak from memory and not from notes—that the range was 40 or 50 miles inland.

There were good reasons for choosing Lyme bay as the trial site. Its geography meant that the trials could proceed in a variety of wind conditions. Its location was also convenient to the naval base at Portland and to Porton Down, which helped with setting up the trials and collecting the results.

For those trials that involved the release of micro-organisms in Lyme bay, bacteria levels were monitored over the mainland. In those trials, the Microbiological Research Establishment used a specially adapted experimental trials vessel, Icewhale, which was equipped to spray material from the rear of the vessel into the onshore wind. The exact course that the ship sailed, and the position of the land-based sampling sites on each trial, were determined by several factors, including weather conditions. The samples collected from the detectors behind the ship and from the land-based sampling stations were taken for scientific analysis in the laboratory.

I must reassure hon. Members that the scientists did not use real biological agents in those experiments, but four species of bacteria that would mimic the behaviour of real agents. Two of the bacteria, bacterium aerogenes and serratia marcescens, were killed before use. They were dead bacteria, and as such they would have been incapable of growing and of producing disease. Those species were used in only a limited number of trials.

Hon. Members may ask: if the bacteria were dead, why were they used? I remind them that one purpose of the tests was to see, among other things, how biological agents would be carried by weather conditions. Another purpose was to measure how long live bacteria would last in the atmosphere. Although the bacteria used were dead, they were still traced. They were covered with a translucent coat—I think it was purple—that allowed the bacteria, though dead, to be detected as they came ashore.

The other two species of bacteria that were used in the majority of the trials occur naturally in the environment, and most people are exposed to them many times during their lifetimes. The first organism, B. globigii—which, thankfully, is commonly referred to as BG—occurs widely in soil, dust, hay and water, and is naturally present in large amounts during the autumn. It would be inhaled simply by walking in the countryside, and material disturbed during harvesting is likely to be released in high concentrations.

Hon. Members will be pleased to know that I asked what would happen if the organism were found in larger quantities and higher concentrations than normal. I was assured that there is no evidence that it would cause any particular ailment, and certainly no long-term damage.

The second micro-organism, E. coli strain MRE 162, causes concern because of its generic name. It is one of the many different strains of the E. coli species, in which I take a particular interest, given my constituency background and last year's tragic incidents. Many of the E. coli species are part of the normal flora of the intestines of man and animals. They are part of the background atmospheric rumble, both outside and inside human beings and animals.

Unlike some strains of the organism, MRE 162 does not produce harmful toxins. I stress that it is quite different from the strain that caused recent food poisoning epidemics in Scotland. Each batch was tested before use at the time, and its safety was reaffirmed recently by independent tests at the Central Public Health Laboratory using the most up-to-date technology. In this case—which I presume is the most worrying for hon. Members—we are relying not purely on 30-year-old assertions, but upon recent evidence as well.

Several hon. Members asked whether the trials were useful. I have been advised that they were extremely useful, providing a considerable amount of important information about the progress and survival of micro-organisms released close to the United Kingdom, as might happen in a biological attack.

For example, scientists were able to calculate the concentration of surviving organisms at different times and different distances from their source of release, and how that related to their size and meteorological conditions. In light of my description, hon. Members may assert that some results may contain information that we would not wish to disperse to anyone who might seek it. I shall return to that point.

Information gathered from these trials proved invaluable for assessing what measures would be needed to protect Britain and its people from a biological attack. The results obtained also contributed to the development of computer models that were used as late as the Gulf war to help plan to protect the UK armed forces should Saddam Hussein have used his biological weapons.

Hon. Members will know—they will need no reminding, since they read newspapers and watch television, and heard my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, who answered a private notice question in the Chamber on Monday—that this is, of course, still a very live issue. Indeed, it is at the centre of some of the tensions that have arisen recently in the Gulf. When I refer to the release of information, 1 hope that it will be accepted that it is not merely convention, paranoia or natural secrecy that causes me not to give absolute assurances on these matters, although I will try to be as helpful as I can.

One of the contentious questions that cause concern today—not least to the hon. Member for Teignbridge—is, of course, whether the general public should have been told about the trials before they took place. Several hon. Members raised that point. At the time, almost certainly for reasons of national security, the trials to simulate the impact of a biological attack on the United Kingdom were kept secret, although information subsequently became available in the form of reports placed in the Public Record Office at Kew.

As I have said before, it is important to remember that, at the time of the trials—more than 30 years ago—before the general thaw that we seem almost to take for granted today, there was a general disposition to keep defence matters very much under wraps. It goes without saying that biological warfare was a particularly secretive area. Certainly MRE would not have wanted to release any information that might have helped a potential aggressor, any more than I would wish to do so today.

Some of the detailed data remain sensitive. There is a fine balance to be struck between helping those with aggressive intentions and, on the other hand, informing people with a legitimate interest in what is going on.

I have given reasons why the trials were kept secret, although I accept that, if we were considering such trials today, they would not take place without some publicity—however constrained—and with greater information than would have been expected and was the convention some 30 years ago. Nevertheless, the existence of the trials has been in the public domain for many years, and in the past year in particular much more information has been placed in the Public Record Office.

The Defence Evaluation and Research Agency also held, as several hon. Members mentioned, a series of informative exhibitions during September 1997. Those exhibitions, in Dorchester, Weymouth and Bridport, were aimed specifically at explaining the background and facts surrounding the biological defence trials in the Dorset area, and gave many people the opportunity to talk to scientists and to find out exactly what took place.

The hon. Gentleman's other main—and entirely legitimate—concern was whether the trials presented any hazard to the health of the people living in his area, and in the areas of other hon. Members.

Let me be quite clear about this. The scientists who carried out the trials concluded at the time that they in no way posed a threat to human life. A current evaluation of the work has reaffirmed that conclusion. I referred to some of that work earlier as regards bacteria. None of the experiments would have been carried out if there had been any doubt about the effects on public safety. They were designed with the sole and exclusive purpose of ensuring public safety, and no harmful reactions were reported at the time.

Nevertheless, I do know of the anxieties, and that a number of concerns have been voiced since the existence of these experiments came to light. In particular, as the hon. Member for Teignbridge, and others, mentioned, a number of people have suffered, or some within their family group have suffered, serious and largely unexplained illness, and they believe that the trials may have had something to do with their specific medical problems.

I have every sympathy with their search for answers and explanations, and I would use this occasion—as no doubt the hon. Gentleman would—to urge them, if they have suspicion about this, to approach their health authority, which has, in any case, just commissioned a statistical survey of the incidence of birth defects in the area covered by the trials.

Of course, the trials, as several hon. Members said, are just one of a number of potential factors that would need to be considered if any causal relationship was being studied. Nevertheless, it almost goes without saying that, if the health authority were to decide that there was a case to be investigated, I—and my Ministry—would, of course, be more than willing to assist them and to give them any help they wanted in interpreting the data, most of which are already in the public domain.

I am sure that the public will be greatly reassured by the way in which the Minister has handled this. He has given a painstaking explanation, and I am very grateful to him for it. However, I ask him to clarify one thing.

Is he saying that some of the information in documents that have yet to be released is still so sensitive that it will be exempt from the 30-year disclosure? If the information is sensitive today but is releasable in a year, 18 months or two years' time, the case for its release may not be very attractive to civil servants, but, from a political perspective, which the Minister will understand completely, there could be a very good reason indeed for releasing it now. Which of those two categories does the information fall into?

I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman that I have read the other 27 documents—I have not. However, I shall look at this and review the risk, in my view, of releasing information, which on its own is sometimes not dangerous but which, when added incrementally to other information in the public sphere, can be of great use to a potential enemy. I will balance that against the political requirements. I will be as open and honest as I can. I will have two caveats, because this is not completely in my power to handle.

I shall give way briefly to the hon. Gentleman, but I really must finish now.

I shall be brief. I am very grateful to the Minister for the way in which he has conducted the debate. He is not a scientist, and nor am I, but we are both concerned for constituents who are genuinely worried about any ill health that they may feel goes from generation to generation. Is it the Minister's understanding, as it is mine, that, even though no dangerous pathogens were released, if chemical or biological agents which were real had been released, their effects would have taken place within minutes or hours, and we would not be talking about something happening 30 years later?

That depends on which bacteria were released, but, yes, in most cases, that certainly would have been the case. I understand that, because, for very good reasons, many of these matters had to be kept secret at the time—some of them, perhaps, even now—people's suspicions are naturally heightened. That is not automatically the case. There are very good reasons for having kept some of this secret. Nevertheless, it goes without saying that, if the health authority were to decide that there is a case to be investigated, we will be willing to assist it, in interpreting the data in particular.

In the meantime, some of the formal scientific reports relating to these trials have already been routinely released—in the normal way—into the Public Record Office at Kew. The remainder are in the process of being so released.

I have no unconstrained power in my office to order release. There is the 30-year rule. Other Departments are involved in this. It is not entirely within my gift. There may, of course, be matters that relate specifically to future security.

However, I can tell the House that, in discussions with Porton Down, I have made my own view known, and have asked that whatever steps can be taken by my office to assist the processes being accelerated should be taken. I have also ordered that copies of reports so far published, and any others that are published, are placed in the Library of the House to make it easier for hon. Members to access them rather than having to send to Porton Down or anywhere else. I hope that that is of some assistance.

I hope that my commitment to be open and honest in dealing with the public on these issues, and to offer assistance to the local authorities where we sensibly can, together with the facts that I have set out this morning, will offer some reassurance to those living in the localities in which the tests took place.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Teignbridge for bringing these issues to my attention, and for providing me with the opportunity publicly to respond to the points that he made; and to assure him and his colleagues that, as far as the Ministry of Defence is concerned, we will do whatever we can to reassure the public and address his constituents' anxiety.