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Gulf War Illnesses

Volume 706: debated on Tuesday 9 December 2008


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to the implications for British veterans of the findings, published on 17 November, of the Congressionally mandated United States Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War illnesses, identifying neurotoxic exposures and, specifically, pyridostigmine bromide and organophosphates as the foremost causes of these illnesses.

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, the United States Congress having co-opted me to serve on its Committee of Inquiry into Gulf War Illnesses, from whose work Federal funding of this research ensued.

My Lords, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in offering sincere condolences to the family and friends of Lance Corporal David Kenneth Wilson, who was killed while serving on operations in Iraq last week.

The Government are assessing the report following its publication on 17 November and we will review its contents carefully. We note that the US Department of Veterans Affairs has sent the report to the Institute of Medicine for review. In 2003, the Medical Research Council undertook a review of Gulf research, including UK and overseas studies. The key recommendation was that future studies should focus on improving the long-term health of veterans.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. Is he aware that US spending on research into Gulf War illnesses—£269 million—compares with £8 million here, and that these landmark findings show,

“strongly and consistently that two Gulf War neurotoxic exposures are causally associated with Gulf War illnesses”;

namely, pyridostigmine bromide and organophosphates, to which virtually all British veterans were exposed?

Again, is he aware, as veterans are, that the RAC’s findings have already been discussed to good effect with President-elect Obama’s transitional committee, and that the medical press here has been no less swift and supportive in its response?

Thus the Lancet, in an editorial last week, unreservedly welcoming the findings, called for,

“expanded programmes of care, support and compensation as the least that is now owed to those whose … service to their country turned into lifelong disability”.

How do we respond to that urgent, humane and highly influential plea?

My Lords, I can respond to two of those points. We believe that approximately £9 million of funding has been spent in the UK. Up to $300 million has been spent in the US. However, the very report in which the noble Lord was involved casts considerable doubt on that. We share the view of the Department of Veterans Affairs that the report’s findings must be carefully reviewed and peer-reviewed. The Department of Veterans Affairs press release states:

“Because VA has traditionally and by law relied upon IOM for independent and credible reviews of the science behind these particular veterans’ health issues, Secretary of Veterans Affairs … has asked IOM to review the advisory committee’s report before VA officially responds to the report’s conclusions”.

The Ministry of Defence intends to consider this long report very carefully before responding in detail to it.

My Lords, this massive new report, of which I am sure the noble Lord will have read at least a summary, identifies NAPS tablets, which the veterans were required to take, and organophosphates, with which their tents were sprayed, as being the effective cause of the illness known as Gulf War syndrome. If so, is it not time for the Ministry of Defence to accept full responsibility for the consequences that it has brought about?

My Lords, as I have just said, the Ministry of Defence does not accept any conclusions of the report. I have indeed read the executive summary. The report is a review of published research and, as such, it is entirely proper that it is carefully considered and peer-reviewed first. The noble and learned Lord seems to have gone on to ask whether we should make ex gratia payments to Gulf War veterans. It is absolutely essential that we understand that the system of compensation under the war pensions scheme and Armed Forces occupational pension schemes takes the form of a pension or, if less seriously disabled, a lump sum, for conditions that are found due to service. This is unaffected by any debate on how these conditions might be labelled. There is no justification for treating Gulf veterans differently from others from other operations who have the same conditions.

My Lords, we, too, send our condolences to the family and friends of Lance Corporal David Wilson. Following on from the Minister’s response and the review that he mentioned, there appear to be a number of unanswered questions about Gulf War veterans’ children. Will the Minister give an undertaking that the review will look into that important issue as well?

My Lords, I believe that the original review that was conducted in 2003 called for a review of that, and that work has been done, but I think it is better if I send a copy of that report later.

My Lords, these Benches wish to be associated with the condolences already expressed. Does the noble Lord agree that it has taken far too long to reach where we are at the moment? Would he care to estimate the total costs, working out what was lost by those affected and what it has cost us in benefits before we have reached this point?

My Lords, the Ministry of Defence has already apologised for processes and record-keeping and the way in which some of the early things were affected. The whole issue of where we are now on the science is in my view entirely reasonable. These are slow-to-develop situations, and they are situations where the most careful science must be considered. I reiterate that when it comes to compensation being paid to these individuals, the cases have been properly considered and the compensation is being paid.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that as long ago as July 1994, I hypothesised that there was a link between pyridostigmine bromide, the pesticides that were put on to Gulf War veterans’ tents and the exposure to chemical nerve gas? Is it not outrageous that it has taken this long—14 years—for any conclusion to be made about Gulf War veterans’ illnesses? Does the noble Lord agree that we should now sack the psychobabblers in the Ministry of Defence and rely on proper scientists who do proper research, instead of surmising that the Gulf veterans have invented their own illness?

My Lords, I am sorry but I must completely reject the essence of that approach. We are using the best scientists; we are employing people to look at this problem in the most in-depth way. I am satisfied that the Ministry of Defence is discharging its responsibility properly.