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Nuclear Test Veterans: Service Medal

Volume 692: debated on Tuesday 20 April 2021

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(David Duguid.)

Long ago in a far off place, men who were just a short step from boyhood took risks, without recognising them, as they served their nation. The things they did in those distant days have stayed with them for all the years since. They were the servicemen who are now our nuclear test veterans. What they did for their country in the 1950s was of inestimable value; what we have done for them since pales by comparison.

As a Cabinet Office Minister, I persuaded the then Prime Minister David Cameron and then Chancellor George Osborne to make an ex gratia payment—funds of £30 million, indeed—available to nuclear veterans. Those payments were administered through the Nuclear Community Charity Fund, which was established back then, to go some way to recognising the price the veterans paid in declining health and diminished wellbeing. The veterans have struggled with all kinds of conditions attributable to their exposure to radiation during the time of the nuclear tests; worse still is the pain they feel having unknowingly passed those conditions on to their descendants.

I speak today for those aged men and their deserving families to ask for simply this: that the Government recognise Britain’s 22,000 nuclear veterans with a much deserved medal to mark their patriotic service. They were at the forefront of Britain’s foray into the atomic age. Atomic veterans not only risked life and limb then, during the course of their duties, but those brave British personnel faced radioactive smog and searing nuclear heat which altered their very DNA.

At a time of great scientific advancement, mankind’s discovery heralded a destructive power that the world did not then fully comprehend, for the lethal dangers of radiation were not at first fully understood. In the darkness of our ignorance, nuclear test veterans were drafted into a programme in which they stood just a few miles from apocalyptic explosions, flew through nuclear winds, walked through radioactive sand and drank contaminated water.

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on bringing this matter forward; he is absolutely right to ask for this medal. Does he agree that it is right and proper that these veterans, like most of our veterans, have appropriate recognition for their service and, further, that although the 2018 reformation of the Advisory Military Sub-Committee was welcome, the delay is not? This must be dealt with as a priority because, as we have seen from the death of one of the last remaining second world war veterans, His Royal Highness The Prince Philip, every month is precious.

Yes, I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. The debt does not disappear just because the years roll by, and the debt that we owe these people can be marked in precisely the way that I have recommended and that he has endorsed.

Nuclear power is an extraordinary force, sufficient to warp the cellular building blocks of man, but that is something that the veterans now—the servicemen then—could not possibly have understood. This was their duty. They were part of a mission to develop a safe and effective nuclear deterrent for Britain that would keep the nation safe and strong throughout the cold war; the fruits of that mission defend the realm to this very day. The details of what nuclear veterans endured in service to their country have been set out time and again over the course of a long campaign to grant them appropriate recognition.

I commend the right hon. Gentleman for the work he has done over many years on behalf of the nuclear test veterans. One reason given for not giving these men a very well-deserved medal is that they were not put in any danger. Does he agree that that is obviously ludicrous? These days we would not ask any service personnel to what they did because of the danger posed. It was clearly a dangerous situation and should be recognised as such.

I could not agree with the hon. Lady more, and I thank her for what she said. I will deal with and, indeed, reinforce the point she makes when I come to discuss the consideration of the matter so far and what more now needs to be done. She is quite right, as I shall explain.

For me, this journey began, as the hon. Lady suggested, long ago: I went to see the Labour Defence Minister at the time—so we are stretching back in time, Madam Deputy Speaker—the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), who gave the case a good and fair hearing when I took veterans to see him. I know that he was then, and I imagine he continues to be, very sympathetic to the case. Time and again we have been blocked by a combination of the top brass—I do not know whether the Minister regards himself as top brass—and the military establishment in the Ministry of Defence. Politicians from all parties in this House have typically heard the sense that has been offered again today by the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) and, to a lesser extent, by me in making this argument.

Over the years since then, I have heard heartbreaking stories of lives forever altered by radiation sickness. I have witnessed the tireless efforts of those involved in obtaining formal recognition for the servicemen who selflessly endured the unknown risks of atomic testing. Indeed, I have come to know many such veterans well. There is, of course, a rate of attrition as these people become older and deal with some of the illnesses that I have described, but there are remaining veterans. I have come to know well one of my constituents, Douglas Hern, who was one such person drafted into the south Pacific nuclear testing programme. Every meeting I have attended and every story I have heard reminds me of our moral duty to deliver a suitable emblem of the debt that we owe not only to the more than 1,000 nuclear test veterans who are still with us but to their families. I see no reason—perhaps the Minister will tell me why it is not a good idea—why families should not collect medals on behalf of those they have loved and lost.

In 2019, following a meeting that I led with the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association, the then Secretary of State for Defence announced that he would ask the honours committee to re-examine whether a medal should be awarded to nuclear test veterans. He rightly stated:

“We must never forget their courage and bravery in contributing to keeping their country safe during the Cold War.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that it met only half a dozen times in the two years after he missioned it to look at this matter, and after no testimony whatsoever from veterans or veterans’ organisations, the advisory military sub-committee refused to recommend the award of a medal model on the grounds that—the hon. Member for Glasgow North West made reference to this—such service

“did not meet the level of risk and rigour”

required. Not enough risk? These men flew fighter planes through mushroom clouds and felt the heat of nuclear explosions on their bare skin. Knowing what we know now of the life-altering effects of radiation exposure, to state that serving in that environment did not amount to risk and rigour sufficient to deserve a medal is—I put it as mildly as I can—bewildering, baffling, astonishing. There is clear evidence of a legacy of heartache and of pain—literally and metaphorically—that spans generations. There is a legacy of cancers that cut great men down to size before their time, wives who suffered the unimaginable pain of infant mortality, and a generation of children born with life-altering conditions.

The United Kingdom has a long tradition of marking the service of our personnel through the award of medals for particular operations. My father, a second world war veteran, wore them proudly. I do not have them, but I have no doubt that the Minister wears his proudly. Campaign medals have rightly been granted for novel and non-combat operations in the past. The Minister will know of the Ebola Medal for Service in West Africa and the medals awarded to remote drone operators in 2017. There are clearly established precedents for the awarding of service medals for non-combat operations. In 2012, David Cameron, the then Prime Minister, personally intervened to secure a medal for Arctic convoy veterans, so there is a specific precedent for the award of a medal long after the event it marks.

The time for excuses has long passed. Now is the time for decisive action. For the veterans and the mothers and fathers, children and grandchildren affected, I urge the Government to act before it is too late. It is time to step up for those who stepped forward when their country needed them. It is time our generation recognised what those generations before did to make us safe. In the twilight of their storied lives, it should be our privilege to present our nuclear test veterans with an emblem of our gratitude for what was endured in the name of Queen and country. Not to honour these good and true people who served their nation would disappoint them, but it would dishonour all of us.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) for his speech. He has campaigned for a number of years on this and has worked tirelessly to see those who served their country get recognition for their service. I pay tribute to him for his huge efforts.

Ensuring that victims get the recognition they deserve is fundamental to supporting veterans in this country, as is recognised in the strategy for our veterans, and I am determined that we recognise our veterans in the correct way. The Government have committed to veterans in a way that none of our predecessors have, with more money now being spent on the veterans community than ever before. Establishing the Office for Veterans’ Affairs was a systemic change and an indication of the Government’s commitment to her veterans. Never before in previous Governments under previous Ministers has there been an Office for Veterans’ Affairs to take responsibility for these issues and to champion the needs of veterans across government.

I hope today to assure my hon. Friends that the contributions of those who participated in the nuclear testing programme are not unrecognised, and that the Government continue to acknowledge and thank all service personnel who participated. Importantly, as my right hon. Friend mentioned, they contributed to keeping our nation secure during the cold war and since by ensuring that the UK was equipped with an appropriate nuclear capability. We will never forget their service, and we continue to recognise all that they did for their country.

As hon. Members will be aware, the advisory military sub-committee, which has been mentioned, was established to reconsider historic medallic recognition cases. As has been mentioned, last year the committee considered this case and concluded that participation in it did not meet the committee’s criteria. It is important to get across to the House that this is an independent process. It operates to a strict criteria and is outwith ministerial control, and rightly so. It was not a decision that some campaign groups, veterans and their families hoped for. I understand their disappointment—of course I do.

In 2012, David Cameron agreed to award medals—I cannot remember for which campaign; it may have been the Ebola campaign—so Prime Ministers can step in to let their feelings be known and to put pressure on the appropriate people to ensure that medals are awarded. There is a role for Ministers and for Government in this. This would be a very simple way to recognise the specific and dangerous situation that these veterans were put in.

I thank the hon. Member. She is not correct; there is no formal role for Ministers to play in this decision-making process. There never has been for medals. It is important that the AMSC is able to determine for itself which medal claims should be reviewed. The terms of the sub-committee are clearly laid out, and any new submissions that might have been provided have been passed to the sub-committee. The decision on whether the case will be reviewed will be shared with campaigners by the AMSC in due course. This is not the end of the line. Those reasons will be shared.

As I have said, the medallic system is outside the control of Ministers, and it always has been. It is rightly in that position, protecting the integrity of the medals system—this is important—and of those who have received honours in this country. However, I am determined to continue to do all I can to support this cohort of veterans. It is fundamental to me that there is no tiered approach to veterans in this country, that those who have served for any period, in any circumstance, are recognised and supported as veterans. Therefore, although there are no dedicated compensation arrangements for UK nuclear test veterans, all claims have been and continue to be considered under the war pension scheme.

Any veteran who believes they have suffered ill health due to service has the right to apply for no-fault compensation under this scheme, and I encourage them to do so. War pensions are payable in respect of illness or injury as a result of service in the armed forces before 6 April 2005, with the benefit of reasonable doubt always given to the claimant. Decisions are medically certified and follow consideration of available service and medical evidence, and carry full rights of appeal to an independent tribunal.

I thank the Minister for his response. The right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings referred to the risk. I am not sure whether everybody here watches “Call the Midwife”, but on Sunday night past they had an article in the paper and it was about this very thing. I know that it was a drama, but it illustrated the effect on not only the soldiers, airmen and navy personnel, but the families. When it comes down to risk, is there not, as the right hon. Gentleman said, an obligation to deliver?

The hon. Gentleman gets to the nub of the problem. I have seen some of the drama on Sunday night in “Call the Midwife”, and it is clearly a good and emotive production. The difficulty the Government have is that the evidential basis linking conditions such as that to these tests is with the scientific community and in its opinion it is not of the standard whereby we can draw clear evidential proof. That is the problem we have. That is not a decision for a Minister—that is not a decision for me. I have my own views on medals, and I have worked hard to support this cohort in other ways. That is the nub of the problem, and it is a difficult one, because I know it is frustrating for the families and for campaigners. That is the situation we are in, and work continues to identify the links between illnesses that people think they received from nuclear tests and the actual radiation exposure itself.

The Minister is being extremely generous in giving way, so I am grateful to him. I understand the argument about compensation, which is why of course the then Chancellor George Osborne made an ex gratia payment—I did emphasise that—but the medal is a bang to rights case. The fact that this committee suggested an absence of risk and rigour is extraordinary. There can be no greater risk than going into a radiation cloud. Surely the Minister, with his expertise, recognises that. Can he commit tonight to refer this back to that committee and at least ask it to take evidence from the veterans and their representatives, which it failed to do last time?

There is an appeal going into this process, and I will write to the AMSC and ask it to make sure that it has seen veterans and their groups when making the decision in that appeal process.

In addition to maintaining access to compensation for all veterans who have suffered ill health due to service, I am committed to ensuring the provision of excellent wraparound care. That includes access to free confidential advice and support on a wide range of issues through the Veterans Welfare Service; maintaining access to bespoke services such as the veterans trauma network in England; and levelling up veterans’ mental health provision through the launch of Op Courage.

I also recognise that veterans are civilians and most access support through regular NHS services wherever they live in the UK. I am rolling out a veteran-awareness accreditation programme for GP surgeries and hospital trusts, with over 800 GP surgeries and nearly 60 trusts signed up. Let me be clear: there should be no reason in this country today why any GP surgery or NHS trust is not veteran-aware accredited. This is a duty we have to the nation; it is something we all have a responsibility in. I will be relentlessly campaigning for every NHS trust and GP surgery to become veteran-aware.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings for his tireless efforts. Anybody who tirelessly campaigns for veterans is clearly an ally of mine. We are committed as a Government, more than any Government before us, to getting the veterans’ case right, and that includes those who participated in the nuclear test programme. Those veterans made a huge contribution to ensuring the security of each and every one of us by ensuring that we had a capable and resilient nuclear deterrent during the height of the cold war. I reiterate my absolute support for those service people and I pay tribute to their service.

This idea that veterans who served in the nuclear tests are not worthy is completely wrong. There is no hierarchy of veterans in this country. The challenge in this particular case is the causal link between exposure to radiation and the illnesses that then present in individuals—and their families, because this goes on for some time. I am committed to making sure that we achieve fairness. I will make sure that the views of veterans’ groups and their representatives are portrayed to the AMSC. But I also have a duty to maintain the rigour of the system. Awards and medals always have been inherently difficult and at times divisive, but I am sure we will get there in the end—we will arrive at the right answer—and I urge my right hon. Friend to keep going with his campaign.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.