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Service Personnel (Gulf)

Volume 405: debated on Monday 12 May 2003

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What provision he will be making for the welfare of (a) service personnel and (b) ex-service personnel after the Gulf conflict. [112216]


What provision he will make for the welfare of ex-service personnel who have taken part in the 2003 Gulf conflict. [112222]

All personnel returning from Operation Telic, whether regulars or reservists, are being provided with appropriate support measures, acknowledging that each individual's experience of the conflict will be different. The procedures vary slightly between each service according to need, but are essentially similar and delivered in three stages: recovery, normalisation and after care. Support services include debriefings and post-operational tour leave. Reservists will receive all appropriate briefs, a medical screening and support with the potential for follow-up action as required, including specific guidance on returning to their previous employer. Post-deployment medical screening is not provided automatically to regulars, as they are subject to routine health surveillance, and all personnel are able to consult medical staff at any time, should they feel the need to do so.

Will the Minister tell me why our service personnel get such a raw deal when they are risking their lives on the front line, and why they lose out financially, particularly when compared with the American forces, alongside whom they are serving in the Gulf? Will the Minister now get the Armed Forces Pay Review Body to bring our soldiers' benefits to the level enjoyed by our American allies, and pay their council tax for them and give them income tax relief while they are deployed on active service? Is not it about time that the Government gave our forces a fair deal?

This seems to be one of the many myths that the Opposition perpetuate. The body responsible for armed forces pay and remuneration last year conducted an independent study into the package of benefits available to all serving men and women in a vast number of countries, including the United States of America, and concluded that our package, taken overall, was the equivalent of all of them. I do not think that we have anything to apologise for.

Marines of 40 Commando returning home from Iraq this weekend may consider that now is the time to leave the forces and settle down to civilian life in Somerset and Taunton. Some of them may be suffering from the mental scars of conflict, so I welcome the setting up of the medical assessment programme run by the MOD at St. Thomas's, but given that it will assess patients and only recommend treatment, what discussions are being held to ensure that local NHS hospitals such as that in Taunton have the knowledge and resources to treat ex-servicemen properly?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support. The measures that we have introduced should go a long way towards allaying anxieties about the support that we intend to give people on their return from the Gulf. We must try to cover every possibility, but he makes a good point about the management of mental stress, especially post-traumatic stress disorder.

We have come a long way in the past 10 years, and we certainly have a much larger body of expert advice available in the NHS, which has experience of treating such people. The medical assessment programme can provide help and advice too, so, all in all, while we cannot guarantee that no one will suffer as a result of their service, we are well placed to pick up on those who have served and to give them whatever help is available.

On the welfare of service and ex-service personnel, what are the Government doing to clean up the toxic and radioactive contamination that has resulted from the use of depleted uranium in the recent invasion of Iraq?

Any environmental programme will have to be drawn up as Iraq develops under its peaceful administration, and we are well aware of our obligations to take part in that, but I make it clear to my hon. Friend that there is no evidence whatever from anything that I have seen in the records of our people that any of our soldiers have been damaged by contact with uranium, depleted or otherwise.

After the first Gulf conflict, the medical screening that was available for returning UK service personnel was incomplete, incoherent and utterly unsatisfactory. Further to the Secretary of State's answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Bryant), will the Minister give a little more detail to show how we have learned from those serious mistakes of a decade or more ago in terms of the personnel returning from this conflict?

Our medical package has been carefully tailored to manage people appropriately within the situation in Iraq and on returning home. To that end, we keep better records and conduct more medical surveillance. We shall also take a great many steps as people return to debrief them adequately on their experiences and to provide medical help and assistance where necessary.

In addition, as the House is aware, I announced last week a programme of research, which will look in great detail prospectively—that is important—at the health of a large cohort of those returning from service in the Gulf. That will aid us in helping with individual problems and in establishing a proper database on which future research and work can be conducted.

On behalf of the official Opposition, may I warmly welcome the statement made last week by the MOD on setting up the research programme on the physical and psychological health of those involved in the recent Gulf conflict? Everybody will appreciate that move.

May I raise unfinished business from the earlier Gulf conflict? On 4 February, the MOD launched a High Court challenge against the pensions appeal tribunal ruling last May in favour of Shaun Rusling, which officially recognised Gulf war syndrome. Is it still the case that the MOD does not recognise Gulf war syndrome as a medical condition? Given that the Department is not planning to appeal against the successful claim of Alex Izzet on 5 May at a pensions tribunal that the concoction of drugs that he was given before planned deployment in the previous Gulf war caused osteoporosis, does that not, in effect, recognise the fact that such a concoction of drugs did cause severe medical problems for many veterans? Is it not time for a definitive ministerial statement on the subject, which so many servicemen and others feel needs addressing?

May I take the second point first? We did not appeal the Izzet decision because there are no grounds in law for an appeal. The fact that almost all informed medical opinion—certainly among all those who have studied the work that has been done and the practices used during the Gulf war—disagrees with the tribunal does not alter the fact that it is entitled to come to its decision. We cannot challenge it in law, and we will not do so.

The position is different with regard to the definition—it is purely a definition—of Gulf war syndrome. I feel strongly that we should not use terms that have no basis in medical fact. To use the term "syndrome" to describe conditions that encompass almost every symptom known to man or woman is highly unhelpful. We have challenged that ruling, and our position remains unchanged. In our opinion, there is no such unitary illness or disease as Gulf syndrome. A great many people have become ill as result of their service, but that is quite different.

I stress again that no one gets a penny more pension from us because they are diagnosed as having Gulf war syndrome. Pensions are paid on the basis of disability. At present, more than 1,200 are paid to veterans of the Gulf war. It does not matter to their financial recompense whether their condition is described as Gulf war syndrome. In my opinion, it matters greatly, because medical opinion in this country, in the United States and anywhere else where the condition has been studied properly is entirely in agreement with our position.