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Nuclear Test Veterans: Medals

Volume 723: debated on Tuesday 22 November 2022

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the significant contribution of the nuclear test veterans from across the Commonwealth who participated in Britain’s nuclear testing programme.

Seventy years ago, on 3 October 1952, the UK undertook its first nuclear test and in so doing confirmed our country’s status as the world’s third nuclear power. Critical to the success were those who took part in our nuclear testing programme. In doing so, they made a unique and unprecedented contribution to our national security. There is a direct line between the service of these men and women all those years ago and the safety and security of all nations today. In recognition of their service and to mark 70 years since the first test, the Government are undertaking a programme of recognition to mark the contributions of all service personnel and civilians who took part in the UK and, later, the US nuclear testing programmes in Australia and the Pacific.

The programme of recognition began yesterday with the UK’s first commemorative event for nuclear test veterans at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire to mark the 70th anniversary of the first UK nuclear test. Going forward, the programme will include recognition of the role of military and civilian staff from Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and other Pacific islands, which were involved in the nuclear testing operations, as well as an acknowledgement of the traditional owners of the lands that were used for nuclear testing.

We will provide funds to support activities for nuclear test veterans and educate the public on their efforts. We are commissioning an oral history archive to ensure that the stories of the veterans who served are captured for future generations.

The Prime Minister yesterday announced the creation of a new medal, the nuclear test medal, which has been graciously approved by His Majesty the King. This important medal will recognise and commemorate the service to the nation by participants in the UK’s nuclear testing programme. This cohort of veterans, made up of both military and civilian participants, made a significant contribution to our enduring international security. In establishing the UK’s nuclear deterrent during the critical early years of the cold war, it is important that their service is recognised and commemorated properly, and a medal is an important part of that.

It is expected that eligibility for this medal will be announced in the early part of 2023, at which time related eligibility guidance and information about the application process will be laid before Parliament.

It was a privilege to officially commemorate for the first time our nuclear test veterans at the National Memorial Arboretum yesterday. We gathered together to say thank you to all those who were present and to the families of those whom we have already lost. This nation today still enjoys the freedoms and privileges afforded by their service, which started 70 years ago, and it is right that they have now finally received official recognition for their service.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister for announcing the medals for nuclear test veterans yesterday. The energy that he uses to make this the best place in the world in which to be a veteran should be supported across the House. Without his support, yesterday’s event would simply not have been a success.

I also thank my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary whose support for this cause over many years has been noted by campaigners. I pay tribute, too, to the often unseen members of the civil service who have gone well above and beyond over the past few nights, particularly those who have worked tirelessly in the Office for Veterans’ Affairs and in No.10 on this.

Primarily, I want to record from this Dispatch Box the Government’s thanks to the veterans of our nuclear tests. As one veterans’ campaigner to another, I would say, “I salute you. I salute your relentlessness, your courage and your determination. Your legacy is long and impressive.” I also wish to pay tribute to the families, friends and supporters of nuclear test veterans from all sides over the past 70 years. Their support to these men and women has been steadfast—from those who work in the media to those, from all parties, who have campaigned for so long in Parliament itself, such as the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey), my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) and my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes).

I salute the campaigners and I thank them, as we are now finally delivering on the long-overdue medallic recognition of our nuclear test veterans. A medal does not signify the end of that recognition; it signifies a new beginning of the official recognition of the nuclear test veterans’ service, with the initiatives I have outlined. I look forward to working with all Members of the House in the years ahead to get that right.

I thank the Minister for advance sight of his statement.

Yesterday’s announcement was a huge victory for our nuclear test veterans and their families. Finally, those veterans will receive the long-overdue medallic recognition they so deeply deserve. When I have spoken to nuclear test veterans and their family members in meetings and at rallies, I have found their passion for justice truly inspiring.

I take this opportunity to congratulate the nuclear test veterans campaigners specifically on the tireless perseverance that made this announcement happen: LABRATS, the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association, the Daily Mirror and its columnist, the relentless Susie Boniface. I was privileged to join them at the National Memorial Arboretum yesterday to witness the announcement and hear their moving testimonies. The outburst of applause was followed by deep sighs of simple relief that the medals have finally been agreed to, 70 years on from the first British test of a nuclear weapon.

Our country owes nuclear test veterans from across the UK and the Commonwealth a debt of gratitude. Their service, far away from home, ensured that the UK had a nuclear deterrent as part of ensuring our security and safety. They made that commitment to our country at great personal cost. Reports state that nuclear test veterans have a legacy of cancers, blood disorders and rare disease, while their wives report three times the usual rate of miscarriage. Their children also have 10 times the normal amount of birth defects and are five times more likely to die as infants. That was the cost of our nation’s safety.

This statement is the House’s opportunity to say thank you to our nuclear test veterans for their service and their deep personal sacrifices. On behalf of the Labour party, I thank the nuclear test veterans who served in Operations Hurricane, Totem, Mosaic, Buffalo, Grapple, Antler, Dominic, Kittens, Tims, Rats, Vixen, Ayres, Hercules and Brumby. Only around 1,500 of the 22,000 service personnel who took part in those trials are thought still to be alive, so I hope the nuclear test veterans’ families and descendants finally feel that that historic injustice has been recognised. It is completely right that these medals can be awarded posthumously and that the veterans’ dedication to our country will not be forgotten.

The Labour party has been proud to give nuclear test veterans our fullest backing. The shadow Defence team has consistently supported their campaign for justice, together with my hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey). My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition was the first party leader to meet the nuclear test veterans and their families and commit his support to their campaign. To ensure this situation never happens again, we are committed to a complete review of the system for awarding medals to serving personnel and veterans. The recognition they deserve should not require people to resort to lengthy campaigns or ministerial interventions.

Will the Minister commit to ensuring that the eligibility criteria for the nuclear test veterans’ medallic recognition are as wide as possible? What resources will be put into finding living descendants of nuclear test veterans to award posthumous medals? Finally, will the Minister support Labour’s proposal for a root-and-branch review of the whole medals process?

I thank the hon. Lady for her kind words. She is right to pay tribute to the campaigners in this space; as politicians we come and go, but these individuals have been campaigning over many years. I met a man yesterday who started campaigning for a medal 60 years ago. I pay tribute to those campaigners for their relentlessness and their ability to keep going, and I am delighted we have been able to do something, cognisant of the fact that there is more to do.

Of course the criteria will be as wide as we can possibly make them. While this announcement is one thing, delivering it to the people for whom it means so much is where the challenge lies. There are resources going into that; we have committed £450,000, part of which is for creating an oral archive, which will require us to go around and gather experiences and work with groups such as LABRATS, the BNTVA and others to get it right.

On the honours system, the Defence Secretary has been clear that he is prepared to look at how military operations fit into the bracket of medallic recognition. We need to be careful about political interference in that, but he has made his position clear on a number of occasions. In fact, that work has started: we saw during the summer how medals were awarded outside the usual parameters for Operation Pitting. That is an ongoing discussion that we can certainly have.

I congratulate the Government and my hon. Friend the Minister on the good work he has done on this issue. The House may be aware that a number of colleagues on both sides have campaigned on this for quite a while. In 2012, I was lucky enough to lead a campaign that finally saw a Prime Minister, David Cameron at the time, acknowledge the work of the nuclear test veterans and thank them at the Dispatch Box. We also managed to secure £25 million for the aged veterans fund, which is largely there for nuclear test veterans and their descendants—we should never forget the descendants, because the nuclear test veterans often are more interested in the welfare of their descendants than in themselves. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister and ask him to ensure that the momentum is kept up. We still have a lot to do, but we have accomplished an awful lot, including this initiative from the Government.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for all his efforts. As he rightly identified, in 2012 for the first time, David Cameron, the then Prime Minister, gave official recognition of nuclear test veterans. Mt hon. Friend is also right about £25 million going into the aged veterans fund as a result of much of his work. I pay tribute to him for his campaigning over the years and agree that this is the beginning: a medal is a part of the recognition. I hope that this good start will bring momentum towards standing by our promises and making this the best country in the world in which to be a veteran.

I thank the Minister for advance sight of his statement. This is great news for the nuclear test veterans. The recognition that they carried out operations in a dangerous theatre has been many decades in the making. I commend the tireless work of nuclear test veterans and their families, particularly Alan Owen of LABRATS, the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association and, as the Opposition spokesperson said, Susie Boniface of the Daily Mirror.

These veterans have had to wait decades with no reward. Tragically, with only an estimated 1,500 test veterans left, the medal has come too late for many. Why has it taken so long? While I welcome the decision, there is much more work to be done to recognise the extent of nuclear test veterans’ suffering, as the Minister acknowledges. In the United States, Canada and France, test veterans have been compensated. Will the Ministry of Defence now consider a financial package of compensation for nuclear test veterans who have suffered poor health as a consequence of their exposure to ionising radiation?

Will the MOD also consider compensation for families who have suffered health complications as a result of their parents’ exposure? What recognition will be given to those civilians who were involved, including those in the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, such as my constituent William Caldwell, now tragically deceased, who was present during the tests? This is a great first step, but it is only a first step; I look forward to hearing what the Minister plans to do next.

I thank the hon. Lady for her questions—they are very fair questions indeed. The one about why it has taken so long is a fair question. As time has passed since the nuclear tests, our perspective and understanding of what we ask people to do has improved, and the security that they generated for our country has come more sharply into focus. That has certainly had a role to play.

When it comes to compensation, war pensions are available, and indeed, nuclear test veterans claim them from the Ministry of Defence. When I was at the MOD in 2019, we created a clearer care pathway for individuals to come forward and make those claims, but I totally accept that there is more to do. Other countries do it differently, and we are always open, as the science becomes clearer, to making sure that we look after those people. This Prime Minister is absolutely clear that we will stand by our commitments and fulfil our manifesto commitments to our veterans not only in what we say and do from here, but in how it feels to be a veteran. That is an ongoing piece of work.

Of course, the medal is open to civilians. The specific criteria around that will be laid before Parliament early in the new year.

Sadly, some of the brave nuclear test veterans are no longer around to receive their medals, so will my hon. Friend assure me that medals will be awarded posthumously, so that families can be assured that we honour every single person who played a part in efforts to keep our world safe?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and his constant campaigning on veterans’ issues. When it comes to awarding the medal posthumously, the criteria will be laid out in 2023, as I have said, but families will be able to apply. I accept that whenever we do something such as this, it will come too late for many, and that is obviously a point of regret, but we will do everything we can to make sure that the families who have lost loved ones are able to apply and are looked after through that process.

I was with my constituent Laura and her granddad John yesterday as the Prime Minister made his announcement, and they cried with joy. I thank the Minister for his unwavering support and for everything he has done to make yesterday a reality. I also thank for their unwavering support the right hon. Members for South Holland and The Deepings and for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, and the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron), and of course LABRATS, the BNTVA, Susie Boniface of the Daily Mirror, and nuclear testing veterans themselves.

Days such as yesterday, when politicians transcended party lines for the common good, do not happen very often, and we should celebrate them when they do, but the Minister knows that much more needs to be done. I know that he is truly supportive of the veterans, so will he undertake to ensure that the Prime Minister meets me, my constituent and other nuclear testing veterans to discuss war pension reform, financial support, the release of blood and urine records, and research and an inquiry into all that happened to those men and their families?

I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for her relentless campaigning on this issue. Whether I have been in or out of Government, she and I have had conversations and she has continued to campaign relentlessly on behalf of veterans. I know that they are incredibly grateful for what she has done.

The Prime Minister committed yesterday, when he saw the families, to meeting those who took part in the events. I know that he was very much moved by the events of yesterday. We are committed to getting this right going forward. I have seen the stories about medical records being destroyed and so on. I do not recognise that—again, I have looked into it—but I am always open to evidence that the hon. Lady or others may have. I am determined that we get this right. The medal is one part, but it is not everything for everybody, and I am determined that the Government get right our recognition of what the nuclear test veterans did.

I commend the Minister on his statement and thank nuclear test veterans, on my behalf and that of my constituents, for everything that they have done. The work going on in Barrow at the moment to build the next generation of nuclear deterrent stands on their very tall shoulders.

Will the Minister commit to ensuring that we never forget the sacrifice of those nuclear test veterans and the critical role they have played in keeping Britain and our NATO allies safe, and, in doing so, will he make sure that the new medal is made as widely and easily available as possible?

There is an important piece of work alongside this—it is important that people understand that the medal is only one part of it. We have committed almost half a million pounds to recording and documenting an oral archive of the experiences of the test veterans. One thing on which I have campaigned for many years is for us to truly understand what it means to go through such things. The pain of not being recognised after serving their country was etched all over the faces of many of the people who were there yesterday, and the Prime Minister certainly noted it, as did I. Going forward, we are determined to get this right.

This announcement is hugely welcome, and I pay tribute to everyone who has made it a reality. It has been a privilege to meet nuclear test veterans and their families on a number of occasions. I am sure that the Minister is aware of issues relating to Veterans UK compensation and war pensions. That is why I and the all-party parliamentary group on veterans have launched a survey, and I hope that, when we publish the findings, the Minister will listen to them. How many nuclear test veterans have had their applications for war pensions rejected?

I do not have that data, but I am happy to write to the hon. Lady. When it comes to Veterans UK, my position does not change whether I am inside or outside the tent. There are good people there who work hard but have been underinvested in over the years by Governments of all colours, to the point that, two years ago, they were still working from paper records. Clearly, they will not get optimal results for veterans in that manner. This Government have committed £25 million towards digitising that whole space.[Official Report, 12 January 2023, Vol. 725, c. 10MC.]

There are still too many people whose experiences of Veterans UK are bad. I am committed, as is the Defence Secretary, to working out why that is. It is a massively important part of getting right our veterans care in this country because lots of people deal with Veterans UK every day. We want them to feel that we are actually making this the best country in the world for veterans, and I accept that we have work to do in that space.

Yesterday was a very good day, so may I thank the Minister, the Prime Minister and the Defence Secretary, as well as all the Members thanked by the hon. Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) and my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron)? May I add to the names they listed my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Fay Jones), who has been campaigning on the matter since before she was elected?

I thank them all on behalf of Mr Christopher Jefferies, a constituent of mine who wrote to me earlier this year. He said:

I…served in the Royal Air Force between 1955-60. Between 1957-58 I did two tours of duty on Christmas Island as a member of 49 squadron, the squadron tasked with testing Britain’s first hydrogen bomb. Although I was not affected by radiation very many of my colleagues were. For the last 60 years we have been fighting for some recognition of our services, by way of a campaign medal”.

I am so pleased that we have finally delivered for Mr Jefferies. Will the Minister take this opportunity to pay tribute to him and his colleagues for all the work that they did?

I pay huge tribute to Christopher Jefferies and all the veterans and civilians who, at that time, when the science was very unclear about the long-term effects of the tests, went through that experience for the greater good to provide a blanket of security that all nations enjoy today and that continues to be the backbone of our defence. Of course, I pay tribute to them not only for what they did at the time but, as I have said before, for their campaigning. Relentless campaigning is hard—particularly in this place—but people such as Mr Jefferies have been going at it for a long time, and I am delighted that they have finally got the recognition they deserve.

I join right hon. and hon. colleagues on both sides of the House in paying tribute to nuclear test veterans, to the Daily Mirror for its campaign, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey), who has been tireless in her campaigning.

Reports suggest that the Government’s own long-term study shows that nuclear test veterans were almost four times more likely to die from radiogenic cancer than any other servicemen. What plans does the Minister have to study the impact of nuclear test veterans’ service on their health and that of their families?

There have been four longitudinal studies on that over the years, and the truth is that the science is not as clear as we would like. If the science were clear, it would have been easier to resolve this a long time ago. But it is not a closed book—the last study was only three years ago—and we will continue to look at it. Anyone who thinks they have been affected must go to Veterans UK and apply for a war pension—there are accelerated pathways for nuclear test veterans to get into Veterans UK. I would be delighted to help the hon. Lady with any individual cases.

I wrote to the Prime Minister on behalf of the advisory military sub-committee and those who participated in the UK’s nuclear testing to ask that nuclear test veterans receive medals in recognition of their dedication and service, so today’s news is very welcome. I am also pleased that the Minister has confirmed that relatives will be able to apply so that their loved ones receive the nuclear test medals posthumously. Will he come to Ynys Môn to meet some of those families and veterans and to extend his personal thanks?

I thank my hon. Friend for her campaigning over the years. I would love to come to Ynys Môn. I know of a lot of her work up there in terms of the armed forces breakfast clubs and things like that, and I would love to come and support her in what she is doing. I am delighted that relatives can now apply for medallic recognition. It is an extremely important part of service in this country, and I would be delighted to come and meet some test veterans up in her patch when I can.

May I join the universal welcome across the House for this statement, and I thank the Minister for his work? I also congratulate my constituent, Alan Owen, the founder of LABRATS, and all the other campaigners who have fought tirelessly on this campaign. The Minister has mentioned in his statement and in answering many questions that this is the start of the recognition. Can I therefore echo one of the points made by the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey), who mentioned the need to release the medical records of the former nuclear test veterans, as that would be a clear indication that the Government value their contribution?

Absolutely. The Government and I are clear that there is no sort of deliberate blocking of anything like that. We all have to accept that the science is not straightforward—if it was, this would have been resolved some time ago. Also, different peer countries do it differently for different reasons. We are always open to those conversations. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. It is the start of proper recognition for these people, and I hope, as he sees the work we undertake going forward, he will feel we are doing a good job on that.

May I first thank the Minister? It has been a long campaign, and the Minister has delivered, and we thank him for that, and the Prime Minister, too. I am thrilled to learn of the awarding of the medals for the veterans of Britain’s nuclear testing on the plutonium anniversary. This is a true commemoration of the service and contribution of our brilliant veterans and service personnel. Does the Minister agree that the recognition of all veterans in Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Kiribati under UK command should be noted for their enduring service to our great nation. For those who have died, can the Minister confirm that the families left will be in receipt of their loved ones’ medals and that any financial compensation will also be available for them?

We were the last of those nations to provide some sort of medallic recognition. New Zealand has a commemorative coin. It is similar in the United States, and Australia has a similar programme. We are speaking to all those nations all the time. We are also aware that these tests were carried out in indigenous lands in Australia. Indeed, the UK contributed £20 million to clear up these tests at the time. There is an ongoing discussion to be had in that place about how we properly recognise the commitment of indigenous people to this issue and the security that ultimately we all enjoy every day in this place. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. When it comes to compensation, there is a war pension available, and for any veteran who feels they are owed that war pension there are clear pathways into Veterans UK. If that is not the case, if he writes to me, I would be delighted to look at it.