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Gulf War Illnesses

Volume 695: debated on Thursday 11 October 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What further consideration they are giving to the problems and needs of veterans of the 1990–91 Gulf War, who have still undiagnosed illnesses, and of the families of those who have died since the conflict.

My Lords, the health of Gulf veterans and support of their families remain a high priority for the Government. Appropriate pensions are paid. We have written to advise veterans on how they can have the label “Gulf War syndrome” applied to their disablements as an umbrella term. We are working with appropriate experts to develop a rehabilitation programme, and we are monitoring international research. We shall consider further reasonable proposals for UK research.

My Lords, while I am grateful to my noble friend, is it not disquieting that, 17 years on from the conflict, wrangling with veterans over pensions still drags on, with no visible sign of closure? Can he now at least make it clear that Gulf War syndrome will be fully recognised as a meaningful condition by the MoD, both publicly and when making assessment decisions, as it is by the Pensions Appeal Tribunal?

Finally, is it not deeply shaming that Gulf War veteran Terence Walker, whose case I raised orally earlier this year, his pension having been cut from 100 per cent to 40 per cent, died shortly after being left, together with dependent children—to quote his own words—“in financial ruin”? What sort of appreciation does that betoken of those prepared to lay down their lives for this country?

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right to raise these issues, as he has over many years. The issue of Gulf War syndrome will be fully recognised by the Ministry of Defence, and I accept on behalf of the Ministry of Defence that this issue has not been handled well from the beginning. The department was slow to recognise the emerging ill health issues and to put measures in place to address them. We have apologised for this, and I repeat that apology today.

With regard to the specific case that my noble friend mentions, I should also like to apologise on behalf of the Ministry of Defence to Mr Walker’s family. The Ministry of Defence made a mistake, and it has written to the Walker family to make that clear.

My Lords, following on from what the Minister says, the MoD wrote to war pensioners inviting them to approach the SPVA to have the term “Gulf War syndrome” applied to their war pensions label. How many have done so?

My Lords, as the noble Lord said, we wrote to veterans earlier this year, as we promised. We sent out a total of 1,293 letters. As of today we have had 203 responses.

My Lords, I am sure that many will be grateful to hear the MoD’s belated apology for the way in which this situation has been handled, but has not the time come to discontinue inconclusive research into the reasons for Gulf War syndrome and devote the money instead to compensating those individuals who are clearly ill but who do not have an established pathology? Surely they should be compensated, as has been approved by the Pensions Appeal Tribunal in at least one case.

My Lords, I understand the noble and gallant Lord’s point. However, we think that it is right to continue to invest in research where we are advised by the Medical Research Council that such research makes sense and is likely to lead to further understanding. However, the emphasis of that research is on the rehabilitation of veterans as opposed to research into possible causal links. We do not believe that it is right to pay compensation and make ex gratia payments. Gulf veterans already receive compensation under the war pensions scheme with respect to their disabilities. To provide an additional payment would in effect be to pay them twice. We do not think that that is appropriate.

My Lords, will the Minister consider the fact that the Americans, our closest ally in that conflict, have been considerably more speedy and more generous in dealing with this situation? Should not this be a case in which Great Britain is following the American lead?

My Lords, as I have already said to the House, I accept that the way in which this has been handled by the department has not been good. However, the measures that we have put in place, the recognition of the umbrella term, the letters to veterans, the research that is being undertaken and the focus on rehabilitation are in response to that recognition. The noble Lord says that the Americans have been more generous and have acted more speedily; I do not think that is a helpful comparison to make at this time. The Ministry of Defence is now doing everything that it should be doing in this case; however, it should have done it earlier.

My Lords, does the Minister accept—I think he does—that it has taken the veterans years to persuade the Ministry of Defence that they are suffering from symptoms that are correctly described as Gulf War syndrome? In those circumstances, is it not time that the Ministry of Defence showed them a little magnanimity?

My Lords, I recognise the efforts that the noble and learned Lord and others have made in persuading the Ministry of Defence to respond to this issue, and I accept the criticism that he and others have made. However, on his point about closure—which is where I believe we now are on this matter—I sincerely do not believe that that can be best achieved by some form of payment. I imagine that is what the noble and learned Lord was referring to by “magnanimity”. If there are other areas, which are separate from the payment in addition to the existing war pensions, that veterans feel would help in reaching closure, we would certainly consider them.

My Lords, the Minister has made a very handsome apology, which I am sure the House greatly appreciates. This is a very serious matter. Does he agree that it might be a good use of the committee system of this House for the appropriate committee to have an investigation into how this happened, with a view to ensuring that this sort of thing does not happen again? If such an investigation were set up, would he support it and would his department give it full information and co-operation?

My Lords, I note the noble Lord’s suggestion. Clearly, it is for the House to decide how best to look into this, but the Ministry of Defence can certainly usefully learn from such issues. We are working very hard today on a number of issues relating to the military covenant, some of which go back decades. Therefore, anything that the Ministry of Defence can learn relating, for instance, to Gulf War syndrome, can be helpful in dealing with the issues that we face in modern theatres.