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Gulf War Illnesses

Volume 697: debated on Monday 10 December 2007

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare a non-pecuniary interest as honorary parliamentary adviser to the Royal British Legion and as national vice-president of the War Widows Association.

The Question was as follows:

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

My Lords, first, I am sure that the whole House would wish to join me in offering sincere condolences to the family and friends of Sergeant Lee Johnson, who was killed during operations in Afghanistan over the weekend.

The needs of Gulf veterans and their dependants remain a high priority for the Government. We hope shortly to award the contract for research aimed at assisting the rehabilitation of Gulf veterans. We intend that this should involve close working with those affected. The recent launch of pilots for a new community-based mental health service for veterans and the extension of priority treatment could also assist some Gulf veterans.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend and I warmly welcome her return to ministerial office. In a reply to me, her predecessor, the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, accepted that the whole issue of Gulf War syndrome had been badly handled “from the beginning” and that the MoD had been,

“slow to recognise the emerging ill health issues and to put measures in place to address them”.—[Official Report, 11/10/07; col. 341.]

What measures were put in place and with what success so far?

Meanwhile, is it not shaming that wrangling with veterans over pensions still drags on, 17 years after the conflict, and that it has now engulfed so grievously Terry Walker, who had his pension cut from 100 per cent to 40 per cent shortly before he died, leaving his two orphaned children in poverty? How can any apology ameliorate the depth of distress caused by the handling of his case?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his comments. I admire his tenacity in raising this issue on numerous occasions in this House. He is right to say that, in the example that he gave of Terry Walker, no apology can make amends for what happened. Great distress was caused to the family. I think that my ministerial colleagues have acknowledged that, as I certainly do. I believe that some progress has been made: I understand that arrangements have now been made to pay Terry Walker’s funeral expenses. I hope that that helps the family to understand that there is genuine concern about what happened and that the apology that was given was very sincere.

On the overall situation, the Government have tried to come to grips with the problem but, as my noble friend knows, research in this area is extremely complex and there is still a great deal of divided opinion. I am sure that many of the people involved, and their families, think that there is a simple causal link, but for those charged with responsibility for pensions and other payments certain issues have to be dealt with and that is what has proved so difficult. But it is a great shame that this issue has been going on for so long.

My Lords, as the Government have at last accepted, in answer to my noble friend Lord Morris of Manchester, that those suffering from Gulf War syndrome have a genuine grievance for which the Government have at last apologised, is it not time for the Government to reinforce that apology by making small ex gratia payments to those who have been affected? Can the Minister see any other way of bringing this long-running saga to an end?

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord has a great deal of experience because of the work that he has done and I know that he has been in close contact with many of those concerned. We have acknowledged that there is an umbrella condition called “Gulf War syndrome”, but it is difficult to make the kind of ex gratia payment that he suggests without possibly being unfair to other people who have been injured or who have suffered as a result of conflicts in other areas. That is the basic problem that we face, although I understand that all involved would like to draw closure. I hope that some of the work that is being planned, including in particular assisting with rehabilitation and with mental health problems, will be of some benefit.

My Lords, this is clearly a very complex matter, but does the noble Baroness not agree that it is also one that causes great concern on all sides of the House? I refer both to Gulf War syndrome itself and to the Government’s treatment of its victims. Does she agree that it might be a good idea for the Science and Technology Committee of this House, which is held in high esteem on all sides, to find the time to inquire into this matter, not least to ensure that the lessons are fully drawn and that nothing of this sort is likely to happen again?

My Lords, I have to agree that this is an extremely complex issue. It is also one in which all sides of the House have been involved, both in looking into it and campaigning about it. It is not an easy issue. A great deal of research has been carried out in this country and in the United States, but none of it has proved definitive. Whether the Science and Technology Committee wishes to look into it is a matter for the committee.

My Lords, does the Minister recall that, in his apology to the House, her predecessor apologised not just to the Walker family but on behalf of the Ministry of Defence to all those suffering from Gulf War syndrome? There have been a number of detailed inquiries, not least that headed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, and the important report produced by the Royal British Legion, Gulf War: A Legacy of Suspicion. Does she now accept that the victims of Gulf War syndrome are looking for action, not more and more inquiries?

My Lords, I agree that those affected want action and that there have been a number of inquiries, but it is not a simple cause-and-effect issue. That is what the inquiries have shown. I hope that we have made some progress with those cases outstanding with the Pensions Appeal Tribunal, but I also hope that there may be some way forward with the work that is going on with rehabilitation and mental health issues.

My Lords, does the Minister recognise that the continuing dissatisfaction with the Government’s treatment of Gulf War veterans creates anxieties among the forces serving in present conflicts about their future care? Resolution of these outstanding issues for Gulf War veterans would aid morale now.

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate is quite right. We would all like to make the kind of progress that he is talking about. We have tried to take measures to ensure that those on operations now are monitored in a way that did not happen in the past. I hope that that provides some reassurance. I reiterate that this is not a simple issue.

My Lords, the Pensions Appeal Tribunal has determined that Gulf War illness is the appropriate label to allow compensation to be paid to Gulf War I personnel who became ill but do not have an established pathology. Do Her Majesty’s Government accept the Pensions Appeal Tribunal findings as legally binding? If so, what steps has the MoD taken to inform Gulf War I veterans whose claims were rejected by the Service Personnel and Veterans Agency because they did not have an established pathology that they should now reapply for compensation?

My Lords, I know that the noble and gallant Lord has taken a close interest in this. Indeed, he raised the issue with my predecessor a short time ago. He asked about the number of veterans who have been written to about the issue, as he did on the last occasion. The numbers are slightly higher than they were in October, with 1,375 letters written and 234 responses given. As to what we accept by “Gulf War syndrome”, the Ministry of Defence has made it clear that we accept it as an umbrella term, and many of the conditions within it are catered for in compensation. We have respected the decisions of the Pensions Appeal Tribunal, but it does not set precedents when it makes decisions.