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Nuclear Test Veterans: Support

Volume 837: debated on Thursday 2 May 2024


Asked by

My Lords, we are grateful to all service and civilian personnel who participated in the British nuclear testing programme and contributed to keeping our nation secure. That is why, as recognition, in November 2022 the Prime Minister announced the Nuclear Test Medal. We are also funding projects to celebrate, support and memorialise nuclear test veterans.

In addition to the existing range of veterans’ support available, the Government have instigated further benefits through the Veterans’ Strategy Action Plan, which outlines over 60 commitments to be delivered by 2028, including access to housing and healthcare, maximising veteran employability and recognising historic advantage. Over two-thirds of these commitments have already been met.

I am grateful for that Answer, but the MoD was ruled to have acted unlawfully when it withheld Terry Gledhill’s medical records. That was part of 4,000 papers maintained as state secrets by the AWE at Aldermaston, which were then declassified and described by a Minister as being innocuous but which are now at risk of being locked away again after a security review by the warhead director at the MoD. I say to the Minister that there is a big, important reason why this matter has to be put right. We are about to invest £20 billion in the new warhead programme, and those of us who publicly defend the independent nuclear deterrent, on all sides of this House, will play their part in maintaining public trust and support for that project. Does the Minister agree that our job will be made much easier if all test veteran records are made public, apologies are made where appropriate, and compensation is delivered where necessary? We do not have a Bikini island this time; we have to defend public trust in the ethics of the new programme.

My Lords, no medical records have been withheld from veterans before, during or after participation. Records can be accessed via subject access request under the Data Protection Act. The Atomic Weapons Establishment does not hold individual medical records. They are either held by the MoD or transferred to the National Archives.

My Lords, does the Minister know that some 1,500 of the test veterans who are still alive, of the 20,000 who were affected, have attended meetings here in Parliament and have claimed that, because some records were incomplete, those records have not been made available to test veterans? Will he look at that specific issue? Also, given that sites such as Maralinga in Australia, where some of the tests took place, are still regarded as uninhabitable, does he not agree that this demonstrates that people who were serving Crown and country were placed in harm’s way?

Yes, my Lords, I agree with that. It has been widely recognised. A lot of the data that is held is extremely historic and, at times, what the issue really is can get blurred. As I have indicated in previous Written Answers on this subject, my right honourable friend the Minister for Defence People and Families visited the Atomic Weapons Establishment in March to personally review these 150 documents that are being referred to and which allegedly relate to test veterans. He is committed to update the other place in due course—actually, in pretty short order. I do not wish to pre-empt that Statement.

My Lords, the decision to award a Nuclear Test Medal is very welcome. The MoD endeavoured last year in advance of Remembrance Day to issue as many of these medals as possible. How many of these medals have now been issued?

My Lords, I can. Just over 22,000 individuals come into scope. We have received 4,800 applications. Of those, 4,400 have been approved. An assessment is going on because of some of the complications I mentioned earlier. As of today, we have dispatched 4,345—2,569 to veterans and 1,776 to next of kin. Before Remembrance Day, which noble Lords may remember was one of the issues last year, we succeeded in dispatching 1,220. Priorities since then have been for the over-90s and those with a terminal disease.

My Lords, in responding to the Question, the noble Earl talked about the commitments to the veterans of the tests but said that the information, if it is kept at all, is now very old—which is true, but so are the veterans. Does His Majesty’s Government really believe that a medal, or the no-fault compensation scheme under the War Pensions Scheme, is sufficient for those who were subject to tests and to bloods being taken, potentially without agreement? Is His Majesty’s Government really doing enough for the veterans who are still alive and their families, many of whom, unlike with other issues associated with war, will have been affected by miscarriage or birth abnormalities?

My Lords, the opportunities for nuclear test veterans are the same as for all veterans who are now in civilian life. All veterans can seek support from the Veterans Welfare Service, which is MoD-managed. The nuclear test veterans who believe that they have suffered ill health due to service can apply for no-fault compensation under the War Pensions Scheme. There is also the war disablement pension, which is available to all veterans who served prior to 2005, including all nuclear test veterans.

My Lords, the time taken and the reluctance to give compensation in this case make it similar to the case of infected blood, and we see it again with the sub-postmasters. Has the Minister come around to the view that I am coming around to—that, irrespective of who is in government, there is a tendency in Whitehall to refuse compensation to people who deserve it? Is that not something we all ought to do something about?

My Lords, the broad issue of compensation is very thorny. Obviously, compensation needs to be evidence-based and appropriate and it needs to follow the correct tracks. I do not believe that Governments, of whatever hue, try to slow down compensation. I think what they try to do is get it right.

My Lords, is this not an example of the malaise that we have in the handling of veterans? Veterans are unhappy and we are in a bad situation with both recruitment and retention. Over 76% of veterans are dissatisfied with the Armed Forces compensation scheme and 500 veteran households are declared homeless every three months. Establishing an independent Armed Forces commissioner as a voice to improve service life and fully incorporating the Armed Forces covenant into law would give veterans the legal support that they deserve. Would the Minister support these measures?

My Lords, all Governments take the issues of veterans extremely seriously. As I said earlier, the Veterans’ Strategy Action Plan is a further attempt to offer veterans additional support as they leave our Armed Forces, on employment, housing and all sorts of issues that are peculiar to veterans having served our country. It is only right and proper that we should continue to press those as hard as we possibly can.

My Lords, following the question from the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, is it not the case that compassion should be the central consideration in the Government’s work to provide compensation? I hesitate to suggest it, but a little more compassion would be no bad thing.