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Gulf War Illnesses

Volume 687: debated on Wednesday 22 November 2006

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare an interest as honorary parliamentary adviser to the Royal British Legion.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what further help they are considering for veterans of the 1990-91 Gulf War with still medically unexplained illnesses and the dependants of those who have died since the conflict.

My Lords, the needs of Gulf veterans remain a priority for the Government. Possible causes of their illnesses have been thoroughly researched and we monitor relevant work in the United States. We shall investigate new proposals on causation where sensible. As recommended by the independent Medical Research Council, we are giving priority to research into rehabilitative therapies to improve the long-term health of Gulf veterans. Appropriate medical treatment is provided and pensions as appropriate.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend whose personal concern for the afflicted and bereaved is undoubted, but is it not disquieting that the Pensions Appeal Tribunal itself finds the MoD guilty not only of “highly regrettable” delay in responding to its decisions but of “redefining” and even “tampering” with them?

Moreover, is he aware that this week the Royal British Legion described a recent ministerial Statement to this House on vaccines used by the MoD as,

“yet another insult to Gulf Veterans who are still no clearer about their medically unexplained illnesses.”?

When can they now expect closure of a dispute that should have been settled years ago?

My Lords, I am sincerely grateful to my noble friend for continuing to raise the issues of concern to Gulf War veterans. It is absolutely central to the desire of the Ministry of Defence to achieve closure on this matter, and at a meeting that I attended with the Gulf veterans Minister in the summer I felt that we were close to doing so. However, the recent statements by the Royal British Legion indicate that we have some way to go.

My noble friend is right to highlight concerns about the Pensions Appeal Tribunal’s point. We recognise that we need to do more on this issue, and I know that my honourable friend is willing to meet representatives of veterans. Frankly, the Ministry of Defence is not clear what issues would achieve closure with Gulf War veterans. We need to work harder to get that clarity and work to achieve that closure.

My Lords, I shall press the Minister a little further on that. Do the Government agree with the Pensions Appeal Tribunal’s criticism of the Veterans Agency for refusing to accept the term “Gulf War syndrome” for 14 years, a term that the agency now accepts? In view of that, will the Government consider writing to the 1,370 Gulf War veterans who have had their claims rejected on the grounds that “Gulf War syndrome” was not the correct label to offer some compensation for the trouble and the distress they have been caused owing to the error of the Veterans Agency, or at least to apologise?

My Lords, I also pay tribute to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd, for his efforts on behalf of Gulf War veterans. To give direct answers to his two questions: yes, we regret the delay, and yes, we will write to those veterans.

My Lords, the Minister said that the Government are monitoring the US research, which they so far appear to have disregarded. How will the Gulf War veterans be kept informed on this important research?

My Lords, they will be kept informed through a number of mechanisms. First, there is the publication of the results in peer review journals, which we bring to the attention of veterans through their representative organisations, through Members of this House who represent veterans, and through the Ministry of Defence website. We also need to go further, as I have said. We need to write to those veterans for whom this is most relevant. We need to do so when we are clear about the issues that will achieve final closure. I feel that we are close, but there is not sufficient clarity about what that closure would be based on. We need to do more, and we are prepared to do that.

My Lords, I declare a non-pecuniary interest as a member of the Royal British Legion Gulf War Group. I will press the Minister one step further. He will be aware that the legion and the veterans believe that the recent statement by his colleague, the Minister for Veterans has misrepresented the outcome of the recent research. Will he give an undertaking that as soon as possible he and his colleagues will meet the Royal British Legion Gulf War Group and the veterans to clear this matter up once and for all?

My Lords, I am absolutely happy to give an assurance that my colleague, the Minister for Veterans, will meet representatives of the Royal British Legion as soon as possible. I understand that there are dates in the diary to meet a number of representatives soon. I do not accept, however, that he has misrepresented the research; he has not. The research findings, through peer review, have been very clear in what they have determined. Having read it myself, I can say that what he said was an accurate representation of the research findings.

My Lords, the Minister has said that Her Majesty’s Government are following American research. Is there still a full-time Gulf Health Liaison Officer based in Washington? Is there still a British representative on the US Persian Gulf Veterans’ Co-ordinating Board research working group? If those two posts are still in place, will he explain why, in Written Answers to the noble Lord, Lord Morris, myself, and other noble Lords, Her Majesty’s Government seem to know nothing about the research that is going on in America into immune system damage, nervous system function and a lot of other things?

My Lords, my understanding is that we continue to have that representation. We do follow closely the research undertaken in the United States. In the Written Answers that we have given, we have reflected our level of understanding of where research is today in this very difficult and complex area for which, unfortunately, we do not have the answer to the causes of Gulf War illnesses today. We, as a Government, are diligent in looking for evidence. That evidence has not yet been found. We will continue to support research if that research will help us better to understand the causes of illness. Our focus now is on the understanding of what best can be done for rehabilitation, which we feel is the right priority at this time.

My Lords, on 8 June, the Minister told me that it would be inappropriate to write to each of the 53,000 Gulf War veterans to update them. What data has he had since on the success of his approach, which was to put the information on the web? How has he publicised the web information?

My Lords, the 53,000 figure that I gave earlier is correct for the total number of Gulf War veterans. I gave an answer earlier relating to the number of Gulf War veterans for whom the Gulf War illness issue is of most concern. Our understanding in the Ministry of Defence, through liaison with the representatives of those Gulf War veterans, is that it is approximately 1,300 people. We have made the commitment, and we are prepared to write to those people to give them further information. We need to have a better understanding of the issues relating to closure. In terms of the further publication of the results, we are doing everything that we can to make sure that people fully understand the conclusions that have been reached from research. If people have ideas about how the Ministry of Defence could go further, I would be happy to listen to those ideas and pass them on to my honourable friend.