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Ministry of Defence: Porton Down Trials

Volume 684: debated on Friday 14 July 2006

My honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Tom Watson) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

On 21 November 2000 the then Minister for Veterans’ Affairs (Dr Lewis Moonie) announced a package of measures intended to address emerging concerns that some Porton Down volunteers might have suffered unusual ill health because of their participation in trials at the Chemical Defence Establishment, Porton Down. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has sought to address these concerns through a number of measures. These include a historical survey of the Porton Down service volunteer programme 1939-89 (the period of most interest to volunteers), which is published today. It sets out a full description of the size and shape of the studies in which volunteers took part, and explores their ethical aspects. Also, the MoD is funding an independently run epidemiological study, overseen by the Medical Research Council, to assess the incidence of cancer and mortality among former Porton Down volunteers. The study is expected to report in 2007 and it is hoped that the results will be published in peer-reviewed literature shortly thereafter.

Copies of the historical survey will be placed in the Library of the House and it will also be available on the MoD website at

The survey has been conducted by MoD officials who had no previous professional contact with Porton Down. No member of Porton Down staff was involved in determining the ground that the survey should cover or the documents which were to be consulted. Porton Down's advice has been sought in order to clarify explanations of scientific matters—for example, the effect of agents and treatments on physiology and the metrics used to measure doses and exposures. They have not had any further editorial involvement.

I would like to place on record my deep appreciation of Professor Sir Ian Kennedy's contribution as the independent supervisor to this project. I know that the survey team appreciated his valuable guidance. Sir Ian's assessment of Porton Down's conduct appears at the end of the survey. It draws on the descriptions of the trials conducted by the Chemical Defence Establishment, the information presented on how service volunteers were recruited and on Dr Alasdair Maclean's analysis of ethics codes/guidelines and practice. No attempt has been made by the MoD to summarise Sir Ian's assessment, to avoid any inadvertent changes in meaning or language.

Sir Ian identifies a small number of trials spread over several decades which he considers “amount to serious departures from what should have been done”. However, he is clear that they “are few in number”. Sir Ian also warns that these studies must be viewed in the historical context of both the Second World War and the Cold War. The MoD welcomes Sir Ian's view that “a very great debt of gratitude is clearly owed to those who volunteered to take part in the research at Porton and to those who carried it out”.

The MoD takes the health of veterans very seriously indeed. We are seeking to address the concerns of former volunteers who are worried about their health and it is for this reason that the MoD established an independent medical assessment programme (MAP) at St Thomas’ Hospital in London. Attendance at the MAP is free of charge but is conditional on the provision of details of participation in the Porton Down service volunteer programme and access to individual NHS medical records. If volunteers have concerns about their health and are interested in attending the MAP they should contact Porton Down on its helpline number (0800 7832521) in order to obtain their records of attendance. Volunteers also have the opportunity to inspect their own records relating to the trials in which they took part at Porton Down. Alternatively, they can contact the MAP direct on the MAP Helpline 0800 169 5401 or ask their GP for a referral. The MoD welcomes the publication of this historical survey today as being complementary to these existing resources.