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Gulf War Illnesses

Volume 708: debated on Tuesday 10 March 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will now accept the findings of the United States Research Advisory Committee, based on a review of all the evidence, that the two most likely causes of Gulf War illness are the issue of NAPS tablets by the Ministry of Defence and the use of organophosphate sprays.

My Lords, first, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in offering sincere condolences to the family and friends of Marine Michael Laski, Corporal Tom Gaden, Lance Corporal Paul Upton and Rifleman Jamie Gunn, who died as a result of injuries sustained on operations in Afghanistan recently, and to the family and friends of Sapper Patrick Azimkar and Sapper Mark Quinsey, who were killed in Northern Ireland on Saturday.

Turning to the Question, the Government have examined the report following its publication on 17 November. Noble Lords will be aware that the United States Department of Veterans Affairs has sent the report to the highly respected Institute of Medicine for review, and we await the outcome of this process before making any conclusions on the report.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that Answer. Does she agree that the massive report which has been furnished by the committee is itself a review of more than 1,800 scientific papers published on both sides of the Atlantic? What need therefore is there for any further review? Does she further agree that the causes of Gulf War illness identified by the Research Advisory Committee are both causes for which the Ministry of Defence was directly responsible in 1991? If so, when will the Government acknowledge that simple fact and offer the victims some hope of compensation?

My Lords, the United States report is an important review of all the literature that has been published on this issue, with some new comments. The fact that it has gone to the Institute of Medicine is also an important factor, and it would be wrong for us to pre-empt what the outcome of that review might be. It is also important to realise that it is not just this country and the United States, but also those in charge in Australia, New Zealand and Canada who will be waiting for that particular review. In terms of the treatment of and compensation for the victims of Gulf War syndrome, as it is called, the principle should be that payment is made on the basis of need and the level of disability, and this is what happens with the war pensions scheme.

My Lords, we on these Benches also send our condolences to the families and friends of the marines and soldiers killed in Afghanistan, and the two soldiers from the Royal Engineers tragically killed in Northern Ireland. The Minister will be aware that I have raised Questions in the past about the health of veterans’ children. Do the Government have any plans to conduct research into this issue?

My Lords, the Government have spent some money researching the health of victims’ children, but so far we have not found causal relationships. Obviously, if there were to be new evidence, we would be more than willing to look at it. We accept that there are still many puzzling features and indeed much contradictory evidence about many of the inquiries that have taken place.

My Lords, I share the gratitude of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, to my noble friend, but whatever happened to the peer reviewing of the research-based decision taken by the United States Government several years ago to accept motor neurone disease as a Gulf War-related illness, while the widows of British veterans of the conflict who have died of the condition still await parity?

My Lords, the House will be aware that the system for claiming support and medical help in the United States is very different from that which appertains in this country, and, indeed, veterans cannot get help with support or indeed with medical care unless they are able to give a name to an illness. The evidence that we have shows that of the age group that we are talking about, five people who have had Gulf War syndrome have died of motor neurone disease. In a similar norm in the whole community, the figure would be slightly higher. So I do not think that as yet we have any evidence to suggest that it is a causal link.

My Lords, has the interdepartmental group on organophosphates, which I think is called the Carden committee, considered the implications of this report for other victims of OP poisoning?

My Lords, the committee to which I think the noble Lord refers was established by Defra and is called the Committee on the Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment. It is undertaking a study to look at all the published literature, which is indeed vast, and we do not expect it to report until next year. Obviously it will look at any new evidence, but we still believe that the problems arise with acute exposure to organophosphates rather than the very low levels that could have been experienced during the Gulf War.

My Lords, I declare an interest, as I know only too well from a personal point of view the effects of chronic exposure to organophosphates. Can the Minister explain why the Ministry of Defence and Defra have so much difficulty in accepting causation when a huge amount of literature indicates exactly what enzymes and cells are destroyed, permanently in many cases, by organophosphates? Why will they not look at treating patients with organophosphate poisoning? This is one of the worst problems that the Gulf War veterans have but they are not listened to by their GPs or by their consultants. Gulf veterans could give an awful lot of helpful information to consultants and doctors.

My Lords, my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in another place recently met the Gulf Veterans’ Association and the British Legion. It took some time for that meeting to be arranged, but my honourable friend offered to meet, discuss and follow up all these problems. As for organophosphates, it is a question of the level of exposure. There is no doubt at all that the effects of acute exposure are very serious. What are not so clear are the possible effects of low-level exposure, and work is still going on to try to clarify that.

My Lords, the report to which my noble and learned friend Lord Lloyd referred is an extremely comprehensive and authoritative document which well deserves further detailed study. However, I hope the noble Baroness will agree that there is a difference of opinion about the cases of motor neurone disease as between those involved in motor neurone disease research in the UK and those in the United States. In this country, research workers prominent in this field do not find convincing the case for relating motor neurone disease to Gulf War syndrome.

My Lords, I can confirm what the noble Lord has said. As I mentioned earlier, there are many contradictory findings in many of the inquiries that have taken place. The US Research Advisory Committee says that it is difficult to make simple conclusions about cause and result. We want to give priority to improving the health of Gulf War victims and to put our research effort into identifying beneficial treatments for the future. That has to be one of the things that we emphasise from now on.