[Mr Gary Streeter in the Chair ]
We are very proud of and grateful to the Royal Navy and to our Vanguard-class submariners, who are on patrol as we speak, for their service to our country. It is right to recognise that service, but there is a legacy from the dawn of our nuclear deterrent that has yet to be fully recognised and a debt of gratitude that has yet to be fully acknowledged—that is to our British nuclear test veterans.
The deterrent that this country now has would not have been possible without the efforts of 20,000 servicemen during the 1950s and 1960s at nuclear tests in the south Pacific and Australia. The science at the time was not well understood. Precautions, therefore, were primitive and inadequate, and they often failed to protect individuals from the effects of blast, heat and ionising radiation. Many test veterans believe that their health was adversely affected by their service. That view has been substantiated by scientific research undertaken relatively recently by Professor Rowland in New Zealand. That work was peer-reviewed and accepted by the then New Zealand Government.
Some years ago, I was contacted by a constituent about those issues. That initial contact spawned an association with the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association, which is the largest organisation by far that represents both veterans and their descendents. I am pleased to say that I am its patron, and I take this opportunity to commend all those who work for the BNTVA, its membership and especially the chairman, Nige Heaps, and the vice-chairman, Jeff Liddiatt.
After a long campaign, the BNTVA, I and others in the House persuaded the Ministry of Defence, with the help of the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), to undertake a health needs analysis of surviving veterans. Many helpful and practical measures are being introduced as a result, particularly in relation to a veterans pathway through the NHS. Our first priority was to focus on health, given the age profile of the veterans.
Following the success of the health needs analysis, over the summer, the BNTVA, I and others in this place launched the second and final part of our campaign, which essentially involves two main objectives. The first is official recognition from the Prime Minister—preferably orally, but in writing, if not—for the veterans’ unique service. The second part of that campaign, which we are presently in, involves the establishment of a £25 million benevolent fund administered by a board of trustees that would be distributed on the basis of need, not entitlement.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter—I apologise, but I will be leaving before the end of the debate, as I have other duties. I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I have at least five survivors and families of survivors from that time in my constituency, and I would be very interested to hear him flesh out more details about the potential funding pot. We have had numerous letters in and out of the MOD since I became an MP in 2010, and I am looking for a glimmer of hope that there will be practical measures as well as support, verbal apologies and congratulations to the servicemen involved at the time.
The benevolent fund that we are discussing would be distributed on the basis of need and not entitlement, which is terribly important to understand. That is what differentiates this fund from other recognition or compensation elsewhere. There is often an automatic entitlement to compensation in other nuclear test countries if veterans can prove that they were there at the tests and have suffered ill health. The US is an example, as is Canada, and even the Isle of Man. I shall come on to the point in a minute that we are near the bottom of what I would call the international table of decency, in terms of how we treat veterans, compared with other countries.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He does a lot of good work for veterans, in relation not only to nuclear tests, but to reductions in defence forces in general. I welcome the proposal for the £25 million benevolent fund; I think that the suggestion is a practical one on the basis of need. These veterans made a major contribution to understanding the effects of nuclear war. That is very important, and to do that they often sacrificed their health, and they are still suffering for it today. I find it very strange that, in this country, we always have continual battles to get recognition for veterans. Some years ago, it was about getting recognition for the merchant navy during the war. I do not know what it is about this country, but we seem to be falling behind everybody else in recognising the contribution that people have made on our behalf. I hope that we do not make the same mistakes with the veterans of Afghanistan in future.
Having served myself, I sympathise with what the hon. Gentleman says and I understand the campaigns that he mentions. This is one of the key points that we wish to make about the benevolent fund: if we look at other countries—I shall come on to this very briefly—and compare how they treat their test veterans, we rank very near the bottom. However, I suggest to the Minister—this is where there has been confusion in the MOD before—that the payment should be ex gratia; in other words, there would be no admission of liability. There has been some confusion within the MOD that the BNTVA, as an organisation, has been involved in litigation through the courts, when that has not been the case. If we look at other countries that have made ex gratia payments, we see that the case being made very much stacks up. There would be no admission of guilt or liability, but it would put right an injustice.
It is important to reinforce that point. The campaign organised by the BNTVA, other hon. Members and I has been very much focused on Parliament and not on taking this issue through the courts. Perhaps I should also add that the BNTVA has put in a submission to the medal review led by Sir John Holmes, and it is waiting for the outcome of Sir John’s deliberations. However, that is separate from the campaign that we are discussing today.
I return to both interventions, in a way, and to the point about how other countries treat their test veterans. It is clear, when looking at the comparisons, that we rank towards the bottom of what I would call the international table of decency. Let us take the US for example. Our campaign is about recognition, and all that people have to prove for compensation there is that they were present at a nuclear test—one is sufficient—and there they have a list of more than 100 illnesses. They do not have to provide a causal link between the two. Providing that someone can prove those two things, they will automatically get compensation—£47,000 for the first illness and £47,000 for any secondary attributable illness as a bonus. No causal link between service and illness is required; payment is simply automatic. That is in addition to the fact that veterans in the US have access to free health care.
Commonwealth countries played a great part in our nuclear tests. Canadians were there in large numbers, and Canada pays some £15,000 to each veteran, in addition to war pensions, and enjoys a health care system like the NHS—free at the point of use. Closer to home, the Isle of Man, which has been supportive of our campaign, makes an ex gratia payment of £8,000 to any resident test veteran, and 17 such payments have been made to date.
I stress that our proposals are different from the comparisons that I have just listed, because the £25 million would be distributed on the basis of need, not entitlement. That is why it is important to stress the ex gratia nature of the payment. There is no admission of liability; no admission of guilt. The benevolent fund would be there to help veterans and their descendants who need help with their care and treatment. The fact that someone is a veteran does not necessarily mean that they would gain access to the fund in question.
I urge the Minister, when considering the proposals, to look further afield again. I remind her that in the 1990s this country made an ex gratia payment to Australia that just so happened to be for the exact sum of £25 million, and that payment was made in compensation for having undertaken tests in Australia. It was the equivalent sum of money, and if it is good enough for Australia, I do not see why it is not good enough for our own test veterans. I remind the Minister that Australia already offers a generous pension to its test veterans.
I very much appreciate the work that my hon. Friend has put into this. Does he agree that the test veterans, by far and away, will be better supported by the £25 million fund that he has talked about than the Australian Government? In other words, their need is greater than that Government’s ever was. Does he also agree that, with ex gratia payments, far less administrative time, effort and money would have to be put in by the Ministry of Defence and other state bodies in disbursing that money than if compensation was based on a careful assessment of all the criteria implied by a strict compensation scheme?
I agree completely. The benevolent fund would be administered by a board of trustees; it would be an established charity. It would be up to them to distribute the funds, as I said, on the basis of need, not entitlement, and the payments would be ex gratia. Therefore, there would be no admission of liability or guilt.
Perhaps we need to focus on progress with the Government to date, during the second phase of the campaign, which was launched only on 11 June here in Parliament. We also had a superb art exhibition on the theme of the veterans’ experiences during the tests. Some of the pieces were created by the descendants themselves. Progress since 11 June has been somewhat slow. I had a meeting with my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, who was then responsible for veterans. I had a brief meeting with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. I wrote to the Prime Minister. I have now received a response, and there are warm words about the role of the nuclear test veterans, but there is no sympathy for the idea of a benevolent fund at all.
What the Prime Minister did mention was the war pensions scheme, and no doubt the Minister will address at length the generosity of that scheme when it comes to our veterans generally, but many test veterans—I must say this to her—have found the system not sympathetic to their cause. War pensions are fine on paper, but time and again, veterans find that the system is stacked against them. A recent questionnaire of BNTVA members revealed that 90% had seen their application for a war pension declined. For one thing, with claims made seven years after leaving service, the burden of proof is on the claimant to show that the illness or injury was caused by service; for another, the system is time consuming and complicated for these elderly veterans, even when successful. The perception is that they are still having to take on the system. As if to illustrate the point, a British lady received payment from the US for the role that her British husband played, while flying for the RAF, during one of the American nuclear tests. She had been repeatedly refused a war widow’s pension in this country, but managed to get a payment from the US authorities.
The Government, including the Minister, should be in no doubt that we will not walk away from this campaign. On 27 November, veterans and their descendants will march on Parliament to draw attention to the cause. We are determined to see this through. In welcoming the Minister to her new post, may I urge her to reconsider our campaign? After all, the Government have a very good record of recognising just causes and righting past wrongs—mesothelioma and thalidomide victims are just two examples. The nuclear test veterans fit into both categories. I suggest that we do owe our veterans a debt of gratitude for helping to ensure our safety. Many people would argue that they were instrumental in helping us to win the cold war.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his leadership of this campaign. While we are talking about the calibre of the individuals, I want to mention one gentleman in my constituency, who I suspect would prefer not to be named. When I went to see him, he outlined his service during the nuclear tests. He was obviously unaware of the dangers at the time, but he told me—this shows the calibre of individual we are talking about—that had he known the dangers, he would still have done it for the good of his country, because he thought that it was essential. That shows the calibre of these people. We can show that we have a debt of gratitude without, as my hon. Friend correctly said, needing to show a causal link.
I completely agree. What has been striking in discussing this issue with test veterans has been their dedication to duty for their country, but also the fact that they have less concern about their own well-being and more concern about their descendants. That is an important point for the Minister to take on board.
We should never forget, either, that it was a unique service by these veterans in many respects. The science was unknown and the risks were unquantifiable, but the cost to the veterans and their descendants was very severe indeed. Official recognition—I stress that we are talking about recognition, not compensation, as I hope that I have made clear in relation to the second phase of our campaign—of this unique service and contribution to our defence is therefore only right. If the Government continue to fail to recognise that, they fail not only our veterans but their descendents, and they fail to lift the veil of shame that almost uniquely hangs over this country. The time for action is now. Warm words are no longer enough.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Streeter. I congratulate the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) on securing the debate and on the way in which he has mobilised support both inside and outside Parliament for a very important cause: recognising the contribution of these professionals to this country’s safety—a safety that we continue to benefit from today.
At one of the first surgeries that I held when I became a Member of Parliament, two gentlemen who were nuclear veterans, David McIntyre and Peter Barnard, came to see me. They were concerned to press their case in the most modest way. They want no recognition in the sense of what we normally think of as recognition. They just want things to be put right and to be treated like anyone else who has served their country in the right way.
Mr Barnard described what it was like on Christmas Island observing the explosion and the scene. As the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay described in answer to the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), those men and women, service personnel at the time, did not realise the danger that they were in and it was not clear. It has become clear only later, as events unfurled.
What is being asked for as part of the campaign for recognition is only proper and correct. It would be a good statement if all parties in the House recognised the service that those men and women performed. Treating people who have served their country properly would begin to bring us into line with other nations that have tackled the same issue. It is merely a question of stepping up to the plate. I recognise and pay tribute to the leadership that has been shown, and I hope that Government and Opposition respond to the challenge.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Streeter. I congratulate the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) not only on securing today’s debate, but on all the work that he has done in recent years on this important issue.
I recognise the vital job that all our armed forces do and that all our veterans have done for us and the country, including the nuclear test veterans. I recognise the unique nature of their service. I regret the worry and uncertainty that they have experienced in the years since their service. Whatever the facts, it is highly regrettable that we have ended up in the situation that we are in today. It is clear from the comments made that there is a lot of good will and a desire to see an outcome, but there is also frustration that it has not been achieved. I shall refer to that point in a few moments.
I was delighted to meet representatives from the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association earlier this year in Brighton. I am grateful to those from the group who took the time to host a reception and exhibition there. The art exhibition “Shadow of the Bomb” is extremely powerful and helps to convey the spectrum of emotion and feelings with which the test veterans and, indeed, their families live. It helped me to understand that the fear of what might happen, what might have happened and the fear of the unknown can, in a different way, have debilitating effects on some veterans, almost as great as a physical illness. That is also true for their children and grandchildren. We can all appreciate that those are horrible doubts and fears to have to carry around. We have to spend only a short time speaking to the veterans to get a sense of deep uneasiness about their experiences. One image that stuck in my mind was of those carrying out the tests being covered from head to foot in protective clothing, while the serving personnel, as the veterans were then, went about their work just in shorts.
The events took place in the 1950s, and just as they do now, service personnel signed up and did what was asked of them, without question and with 100% commitment. They did so alongside individuals carrying out their national service, who had not volunteered to be there, but they did what was asked of them with just as much commitment. Another difference between then and today is that there is far more scrutiny today of what we ask our service personnel to do and how they are treated, as shown by the recent discussions on whether human rights laws and the concept of negligence should apply to service personnel on operations and in what circumstances.
Times have changed markedly since the 1950s, when there was far less external scrutiny of the treatment of our forces and probably less awareness on the part of the serving personnel themselves about whether what they were being asked to do was unreasonable. We would now, rightly, find troubling the prospect of the deliberate testing of radiation on people who had signed up to protect and defend their country, who did not have full knowledge of the implications or the option to say no or ask questions.
As the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay outlined, the BNTVA is looking for two things: recognition of what happened and their service; and the possibility of some sort of financial settlement. I hope that the debate today goes some way towards providing the recognition sought, but I appreciate that that desire is for recognition to come from a more high-profile source.
The proposed financial settlement is in the form of a benevolent fund. Members may be aware that the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), the former veterans’ Minister, authorised a financial settlement proposal. The nuclear test veterans involved in the case at the time were not made aware of the offer, and disappointingly, it appears that the lawyers acting on behalf of the veterans rejected the offer without putting it to them.
I am pleased that the hon. Lady made that point about the lawyers. As I am sure that she is aware, she is referring to the legal proceedings outside this place, in which the BTNVA has never participated. It has been criticised for not participating by those outside. It is important to make the distinction.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for putting that on the record. It is important that we look at the issue, rather than at particular groups representing people. I appreciate the distinction, which is why earlier in my remarks I said that the situation is regrettable because we could by now have come to some sort of settlement or agreement. I fear that lawyers have prevented that from happening. If an agreement had been reached then, an agreement about the wider issues would also have been possible. I understand that the legal route has now been exhausted and no avenues to pursue remain.
I appreciate that the reins on the public purse are tightly held at the moment, but could the Minister look at whether it is possible to allocate money from the LIBOR fund, because that money is already set aside, to kick-start a benevolent fund? There are many demands on the fund and applications to it have been made, but it would be an obvious source of money that could be released quickly and easily. Nothing will ever take away the worry and uncertainty about the impact of the tests, but if something can be done to help to draw a line and help the veterans move forward, we should certainly consider it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Streeter. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) on securing the debate. I pay tribute to all those who have contributed: the hon. Members for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) and for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham), and my hon. Friends the Members for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) and for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Sir Andrew Stunell).
This subject evokes considerable passion among some, perhaps even many, people. We have heard the veterans’ cause argued with that passion yet again by my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay, and he is right to do so. Members should bring issues that are dear to their hearts to this place, so that we can debate them and causes and ideas can be advanced, only for Ministers then to say too often, unfortunately, “Well, it all sounds very good, but I am afraid I don’t agree with you, and I’m afraid that at the moment this proposal will not advance particularly far within Government. We’ve made our position clear.”
Before I explain why that is, I want to make something absolutely clear. It seemed to be suggested that the Government have not acknowledged the significant role played by the men and women who participated in the nuclear test programme. My hon. Friend quite properly mentioned a letter written to him by the Prime Minister. I repeat some of the Prime Minister’s words, because I cannot put it as eloquently as he did:
“This Government continues to recognise the servicemen who participated in the British nuclear testing programme. Their contribution ensured that the UK was equipped with an appropriate nuclear deterrent during the cold war, which thankfully we never needed to use.”
To be absolutely clear, I do not hesitate to acknowledge the hugely significant role played by all those veterans, and I pay tribute to all who participated in the programme. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude.
I do not doubt the Minister’s genuineness on this issue, or indeed the Prime Minister’s. The letter that the Minister read out was a response to me. All test veterans would welcome a statement from the Prime Minister addressed to them, officially recognising their role and our debt of gratitude to them. We would prefer it to be given orally—perhaps in a statement in the House—but if not, a written statement would go a long way towards ticking that box, rather than just giving part of a response to me about a wider issue in the campaign.
It is not for me to say what the Prime Minister should or should not do, but he has written in clear terms to my hon. Friend, who I assume shared the letter with all those in the association. However, I understand—he will correct me if I am wrong—that not all those who participated in the test programme necessarily belong to the association. I am now putting it on record, in Hansard, for all to see and to broadcast to all veterans the Prime Minister’s clear acknowledgement and tribute to those veterans, as well as his acknowledgement of the great service that they did our country.
That is very much my point. The Prime Minister’s response was to me. Not every test veteran is a member of the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association. Although I welcome the Minister’s warm words of acknowledgement and gratitude and I do not doubt her genuine intent, a statement to all test veterans from the Prime Minister, preferably orally but if necessary in writing, would cost nothing and would tick that box, and it would be gratefully received by all concerned.
I will ensure that the Prime Minister hears my hon. Friend’s words. He will then decide how he may or may not be able to advance the matter. However, I think that my having read out the letter so that it can be publicly recorded in Hansard goes a considerable way towards making it absolutely clear that the Prime Minister acknowledges the great work done and why it was so important.
As we know, for many years, veterans of the nuclear tests have claimed that their health has been damaged by exposure to ionising radiation. The Ministry of Defence has consistently rejected those claims on the basis of the findings of three comprehensive studies on cancer incidence and mortality among nuclear test participants carried out by the independent National Radiological Protection Board. The three studies were conducted and published over a 20-year period, beginning in 1983 and finishing in 2003. Overall levels of cancer incidence and mortality were similar to those in matched service controls, and death rates from all causes were lower than expected from national rates.
On specific cancers, there was some evidence of a raised risk of certain leukaemias, but the researchers concluded that it was due to chance rather than radiation exposure. The Government has every confidence in those independent studies. Accordingly, we believe that there are no grounds for paying compensation to British nuclear test veterans as a group.
In 2010, the MOD commissioned a health needs audit of all BNTVA veteran members resident in the UK. The survey, which had a return rate of 71%, asked respondents to self-report on serious illnesses and long-term conditions diagnosed by a doctor since their participation in the nuclear tests. Overall, the range and severity of problems reported was typical of older people in the UK in general. Whatever their health experience, most respondents indicated that, in general, they felt that their health care needs were being met very well by the NHS; primary care services were particularly well regarded.
My hon. Friend referred to the Rowland report. I am reliably informed that the report, published in a specialist genetics journal, concerned a laboratory-based study of peripheral blood lymphocytes—I apologise for my pronunciation, which may not be great—that were taken in the mid-1990s from 50 New Zealand naval veterans who had been on weather ships 50 to 100 km from the detonation centre of Operation Grapple in 1957-58. Dr Rowland reported the findings of three cytogenetic tests. Two showed no difference between the veterans and matched control groups. The third showed an elevated translocation frequency in the peripheral blood lymphocytes—I am more than happy to share that in plain English with my hon. Friend—of the veterans compared with the control group.
The sample size was acknowledged to be small, and there has been some doubt about the suitability of the control group. Known possible causes of increased translocation include ageing and cigarette smoke as well as ionising radiation. The report emphasises that the study makes no comment on the health status of the veterans. At this time, such cytogenetic tests are not in routine clinical use, because no relationship has been shown between any genetic abnormality and health effects or clinical state.
May I return to the health needs analysis? I am pleased that the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) has now taken his seat, as I paid him a compliment earlier by suggesting that he was instrumental in helping us get the health needs analysis, which was our campaign’s first objective. The veterans of the BNTVA have found it helpful as a pathway to guide them through the NHS.
To return to the science briefly, we can argue about it. Professor Rowland’s report was peer-reviewed and was accepted by the New Zealand Government of the time; the Minister should not skirt over that too lightly. The point that I am suggesting to her is that, compared with other countries that have test veterans, we are near the bottom of the table in terms of how we treat them. Surely, there is a moral obligation to consider where Britain fits in. In many other countries, veterans do not have to establish a causal link between being at the tests and ill health. Compensation comes automatically, although I stress once again that I am not arguing for compensation in this case; I am asking for recognition, as highlighted.
I am interested by that intervention. My hon. Friend now seems to be saying that we should put the science to one side, because it perhaps does not suit his argument, but the science is absolutely clear. However, I am more than happy to turn now to the comparison of international provisions for nuclear test veterans.
I will deal with this first, and then I will be more than happy to give way. I hope that I can set the record absolutely straight.
Comparisons of provisions in the United Kingdom and other countries can be very misleading. We are not at the bottom, and I do not want these good people, who have served our country so well, to feel that they are in some way being short-changed and that an advantage is being given to test veterans from other countries. I will go through some of the other schemes.
Let us talk about America. The compensation scheme offered by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs must be seen in the context of the United States health care system, which, as we know, is not free. Access to veterans’ health care is for those with service-connected disability of a certain level, and it is means-tested for all veterans, including atomic veterans. I would therefore argue that is not as good as the scheme in our country.
No. I am so sorry. I will be happy to give way at the end, but I want to go through all these other countries to put the record straight.
Let us look at the compensation scheme run by the Canadian Government. It was run for just one year—from 2008 until 2009—and it was principally designed for approximately 900 personnel involved in the clean-up of the Chalk River radiation leak, without reference to any illness or injury. If I may say so, therefore, its relevance to our nuclear test veterans is, at best, peripheral.
In France, nuclear test veterans have been eligible for compensation only since 2009, and they were not consulted on the design of the scheme now in existence. As a result, although it may appear more generous than the UK’s war pensions scheme, which I will describe later, the scheme in France demands a greater burden of proof of a link to service. If I may say so, it would do, because it was introduced only in 2009. As a result, we believe only one award has been made in France, which speaks volumes about that scheme.
It is a similar story in Australia, where the compensation scheme operates in part on the basis of a reasonable hypothesis. Again, that may appear, at first blush, to be more generous than the terms of our war pensions scheme, which demands only that a reasonable doubt of a link to service is raised on the basis of reliable evidence. However, in fact, nuclear test veterans in Australia face a tougher test, which is set out in the legislation. For example, for cancer of the bladder, veterans must have received a cumulative dose of at least 100 mSv of ionising radiation a number of years before clinical onset, while there is no such requirement in the UK scheme.
My hon. Friend mentioned the Isle of Man scheme. The Isle of Man decided to award £8,000 to nuclear test veterans, with no proof of medical causation required. That is, of course, a matter for the Manx Parliament. The UK Government rightly have an evidence-based policy. They also strive to provide value for money for the taxpayer, which the Isle of Man has less need to be concerned with, because it has made only two payments.
Our central argument is not to put the science to one side, as the Minister suggested. We can argue about the science, and both sides will be able to draw justification for their particular line. The Rowland report was certainly peer reviewed and accepted by the New Zealand Government of the day, so it cannot be easily discarded by the Minister.
Let me return, however, to what I call the international table of decency. The Minister needs to check what happens with regard to US veterans, because those who turn up at a veterans’ hospital have access to free health care. In addition, there does not have to be a causal link between being at the tests and one of a series of illnesses—mostly cancer, but other illnesses, too.
The Minister also mentioned Canada; again, no causal link is required, but it is clear that the payment is there to be made. Likewise, the Minister is slightly incorrect, or disingenuous at least, to suggest that we can simply discard the example of the Isle of Man. She says that only two payments have been made, but she also needs to check that figure, because my evidence suggests that 17 have been made to date.
Order. Before I call the Minister, may I repeat the obvious point that interventions should be brief?
That is what I am told. If my hon. Friend is saying that it is not true, we will get it sorted out and we will find out. My information is that there have been two payments. He misses the point about the American system, which is that it is means-tested, while ours is not. I have made my point about Canada, where the scheme applied to 900 personnel involved in a clean-up after a radiation leak. I would therefore suggest that there is no comparison to be made in relation to nuclear test veterans.
On the science, my hon. Friend relies on one report, and I have made my comments about it. I rely on three reports, which have been done over many years, and I know of no one who challenges their findings.
I apologise for not being here earlier, but I was in another meeting. Does the Minister agree that the issue with the Rowland study, which I have read on several occasions, is that although it found radiation could, in some cases, cause chromosome abnormality, it did not—this is the important next step—show that those chromosomal changes led to cancer?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for providing that information. That is another compelling argument in relation to the science.
I want to make it absolutely clear that it gives no one any pleasure to stand up and to have to talk about these things, because it sounds as if no one cares. On the contrary, those of us who do not agree with my hon. Friend and the £25 million fund that he advances do so not because we do not care, but because we know what the science says and because—I certainly take this view—we have to set this issue in the context of all our veterans, so that we do justice by everyone. We must always be careful not to be seen in any way to single out one group and put it above another.
I really take issue with the idea that we are somehow being shameful, or that we are in any way wrong, in our attitude to our nuclear test veterans. That is not the case. The existing scheme is good, fair and, arguably, generous, and it is one we should be proud of. Of course one could always argue that anyone in receipt of any form of compensation or benefit should have more, but what we have at the moment is fair and generous.
Let me come on to our scheme, because it is important to put on the record that any veteran who believes they have suffered ill health due to service has the right to apply for no-fault compensation. We therefore have a no-fault compensation scheme under the war pensions scheme. Where there is reliable evidence that disablement is due to service, a war pension is awarded, with the benefit of reasonable doubt always given to the claimant. Nuclear test veterans are no different, and war pensions are paid to claimants for disorders accepted in principle as being caused by radiation, where the evidence raises a reasonable doubt of service-related radiation exposure. In addition, awards are made automatically to nuclear test veterans who developed certain leukaemias within 25 years of participating in the tests. For some, therefore, there is an automatic entitlement, which is absolutely right. Again, that begins to move us up that so-called league table, if, as some would argue, such a table exists.
It should be noted, however, that in May this year the first-tier tribunal, the war pensions and armed forces compensation chamber, delivered a decision in a group action of 14 nuclear test veterans’ war pension appeals. The majority of the appeals were rejected. The tribunal found material exposure where appellants undertook work in forward areas or otherwise came into contact with radiation, but not in relation to the majority of the bystander appellants. The decisions of the tribunal support the MOD’s current policy relating to claims for a war pension made by nuclear test veterans.
The veterans have made it clear that they find the war pensions process time-consuming and arduous, even when they are successful. We talk about success rates, but 90% of the veterans membership have failed to get a war pension.
As for the international table, the compensation payments in the USA, Canada and so on—although I am focusing on recognition, not compensation—are made in addition to war pensions that are already given to veterans. We should not paint this country’s war pensions as doing anything special, when those are very much automatic in other countries, and there is compensation on top of that.
I have made my comments about the so-called league table, and have relied on the information I have been supplied with, but I do not believe that our nuclear test veterans are at the bottom of any league table. I certainly do not believe that our record is shameful.
The Government’s second reason for remaining unable to support a benevolent fund concerns the comparison that my hon. Friend has made with compensation packages provided abroad. I hope that I have dealt with all that. My hon. Friend mentioned the sum—it is actually £20 million—given by the UK Government as compensation to the Australian Government in the 1990s. We should be clear about why that money was made over. The £20 million was ex gratia and was given to the Australian Government to contribute to the total cost of rehabilitating the test sites in Australia. Payments were made in instalments, the last being made in 1998. I do not want it to be suggested that the Government somehow advantaged veterans or other people who served in the forces in Australia.
The Government hold the view that to create a benevolent fund would be tacitly to accept liability for which no legal grounds exist. That was demonstrated in the atomic veterans group litigation for damages against the MOD in 2006. In 2009, 10 lead cases were allowed to proceed to a full trial on causation, at the judge’s discretion, under the Limitation Act 1980; normally, there is a three-year statute of limitations on personal injury claims. The MOD appealed, and in 2010 the Court of Appeal overturned the High Court ruling in all respects, except for one case. In arriving at its judgment, the court also considered the merits of the claims in terms of causation and concluded that their general merits were extremely weak.
The Minister has been generous in giving way, which is appreciated in a debate of this sort. Payment to a benevolent fund would not necessarily be an admission of liability. An ex gratia payment makes no admission of liability or guilt. We need to make that clear. The Government have made ex gratia payments to other countries, as the Minister readily admits.
I must throw that back to my hon. Friend and ask him for what purpose he wants a benevolent fund. Is he saying that the nuclear test veterans’ need is greater than that of other groups of veterans? What would the payment redress?
I am pleased that we are clarifying this. To repeat what I said earlier, the payments would be dispensed on the basis of need, to help with care and treatment, not on the basis of entitlement. Not all veterans would receive it, but it would be recognition of the fact that their service was in many respects unique, that the science was at the time unknown and that the risk was unquantifiable. Let us not forget that those servicemen were doing national service; that is an important factor. In many respects their service was unique, and we should recognise that.
I do not think that that is the strongest of cases. We know what the science tells us. If the view is advanced that the group of veterans in question—and I pay tribute to their service—should have the money just because they did that work on the country’s behalf, I can hear that being advanced by all manner of other veterans groups with equal force.
When I was a Minister, I authorised a settlement proposal, because in my opinion large amounts of public money should not be wasted on lawyers when the case could be settled without the question of liability. Unfortunately, the settlement that I authorised was rejected by the lawyers involved. I am sorry, but I think that it was the individual veterans’ best chance of getting a large amount of compensation. The figure stretched to several million pounds.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend—there is no harm in my calling him that—who raises an important point, which has already been explored, quite properly. I was shocked by it. I do not know the details, but I have experience as a criminal barrister and know that every lawyer is under a duty to consult the client first. No lawyer ever makes the decision—although, apparently, in the case in question, very unusually, that was what happened. The client provides the instructions and makes the decision. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman and I should talk about those events after the debate. I should like to know more.
I was talking about a case that went to the Court of Appeal, where the general merits of the claims were found to be extremely weak. On appeal, the Supreme Court ruled in March 2012, on a majority decision, in favour of the MOD. Significantly, all the justices, even those dissenting, recognised that the veterans would face extreme difficulties proving causation. That brings us back to the science.
The MOD continues to recognise the concerns of nuclear test veterans—I am always prepared to listen and like to think that I have an open mind, although I have spoken frankly this afternoon. However, there is no medical or legal evidence to support calls for compensation of the veterans as a group—and I hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay says about seeking a benevolent fund, not a compensation fund. Any veteran who believes that service has had an impact on their health can submit a war pension claim. Where the evidence supports their claim, we will provide financial compensation. However, recent legal cases have shown that the incidence of that is far lower than many veterans organisations claim.
The argument for a £25 million benevolent fund to compensate veterans and family members affected by ionising radiation is flawed. The UK’s existing health, social and welfare support for its citizens and the specific support for all veterans make it unnecessary. Indeed, when we consider the public investment in the NHS and in the social and welfare fields, it can be argued that the financial value of that support far exceeds the monetary value of any compensation payment that the Government would pay.