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Gulf War 1990-91: Nerve Agent Pre-treatment Tablets

Volume 713: debated on Tuesday 13 October 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to the decision of the Pensions Appeal Tribunal in Edinburgh on 29 August in the case of Michael John Kozac that his death in October 2003 was directly attributable to high blood pressure caused by the consumption of nerve agent pre-treatment tablets, which he was required to take during his service in the Gulf in 1990-91.

My Lords, the decision of the Pensions Appeal Tribunal was based on the coroner’s verdict that Mr Kozac’s death was due to natural causes to which his military service in the Gulf campaign and an assault on 31 August 2000 were contributing factors. The coroner did not say that his death was directly attributable to the consumption of NAPS tablets, and the overwhelming evidence from scientific research shows no adverse effects from NAPS tablets.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that Answer. As she will know, Mr Kozac died in hospital after an operation. Mrs Kozac then had to wait four years for an inquest. The coroner found that his death was attributable in part to his war service but the department refused to accept that finding, so Mrs Kozac appealed. The department fought the appeal and lost. How does that history square with what the noble Baroness was saying yesterday in answer to my noble and gallant friend Lord Bramall about the importance of providing for the families of deceased and injured veterans?

My Lords, it did indeed take four years before this inquest was held. That had nothing to do with the Ministry of Defence. Indeed, when the inquest took place, the Ministry of Defence was not represented. The coroner said that the assault which led to Mr Kozac having a dissection of his aorta had been a contributing factor. It is regrettable that anybody has to suffer any ill effects, but the question of Gulf War syndrome—which we have discussed at length in this House and which I know the noble and learned Lord has a great interest in—is something to which the department has given great resources. Indeed, those who suffer from the syndrome get financial support, depending on the nature of their disability.

My Lords, I too thank my noble friend. Is she aware that this decision is seen as one of landmark importance by the ex-service community? Recalling the admiration felt across the House yesterday for British troops killed and maimed in our service, what action is the MoD taking to identify other veterans and bereaved families who could benefit from the implications of the tribunal’s decision?

My Lords, I think my noble friend will be aware that any decision of the Pensions Appeal Tribunal is not a precedent. That is an important fact. The Ministry of Defence cannot appeal, except on a point of law. Disagreeing with the evidence, and indeed the suggestions made about the cause of death, is not a basis for appeal, so I do not think it is a landmark decision in that respect. As far as yesterday’s decision is concerned, Lord Justice Carnwath said that the Secretary of State was,

“entirely justified in bringing the appeal”,

because it,

“seeks to clarify some important and difficult issues”.

Those issues are complex. I remind the House that we have only had the compensation scheme since 2005 and it is, of course, subject to review by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce.

My Lords, can the Minister at least accept that veterans will think that this has important implications for others who may have suffered severe ill health as a result of their service in the Gulf War? As a member of the Royal British Legion Gulf War Group, I am very conscious of the extent to which veterans have been looking at tribunal decisions of this sort and assuming that they have implications for others. Will the Minister give us at least the assurance that, if others come forward who appear to have illnesses of a nature similar to that of Mr Kozac, they will be dealt with speedily and not delayed in the way that, unfortunately, has happened in this case? I accept that it is not the fault of the Ministry of Defence.

My Lords, I welcome the noble Lord’s last point—that he accepts that the delay was not due to the department. Perhaps I can remind the House of exactly what the verdict was. Death was due to natural causes, to which Mr Kozac’s military service in the Gulf campaign and an assault on 31 August 2000 were contributing factors. Indeed, the coroner said, when explaining the verdict to the widow, that the evidence,

“goes no more than to suggest that that may be an explanation on the balance as to why his blood pressure was”,

high. That was considered to be a contributing factor. We should be careful not to mislead others into thinking that there are more implications in this decision than perhaps there are.

My Lords, could the Minister inform the House of the outcomes of the important discussions between government officials and the US Department of Veterans Affairs?

My Lords, I return to this subject, but with nothing new to say. We have made it clear that we are awaiting the outcome of the Institute of Medicine’s review. It is now looking at the report that was prepared. We have discussed it in this House. The report is due, I understand, in February. Lawrence Deyton, the chief public health and environmental hazard officer at the Department of Veterans Affairs, reconfirmed on 19 May that the Institute of Medicine is looking at the review that took place last year. Until that work is completed, it is not the intention of the Ministry of Defence to make any more comments on that research.

My Lords, will the Minister remind the House what are the benefits of nerve agent pre-treatment sets when engaged in chemical warfare or where there is a chemical warfare threat?

My Lords, I think it was clear in the Gulf War that there was a real concern about the threat of the use of chemical and potentially biological weapons. Those who took these tablets did so to protect themselves in what could have been extremely hazardous circumstances. It would have been negligent of the Ministry of Defence not to consider how best to protect our troops at that time.

Is it not time that we knew the approach of the Government to this question in principle, I respectfully ask?

The Government’s approach to the question in principle is that, if there is a problem and veterans are suffering, we should do all that we can to support them and identify their problems. The work that we are doing on Gulf War syndrome at the moment and the research that we are supporting, which is based mainly at the University of Cardiff, is about looking at how to help veterans face the future and deal with any medical problems that they have. As I mentioned earlier, there is also financial support which is based on the need of individual servicemen. It is important that that financial help is given on the basis of need and not on the basis of any label attached to any illness.