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Nuclear Test Veterans: Medical Records

Volume 741: debated on Tuesday 28 November 2023

I beg to move,

That this House has considered nuclear test veterans and medical records.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Vickers.

British nuclear test veterans have now rightly received medallic recognition for their service, and for that I am very grateful to the Government, but the Minister must know that behind their proud smiles, those veterans are really struggling. They—and sometimes their wives, widows and descendants—have reported making repeated requests to gain access to the results of their blood or urine testing samples which they recall being taken during the nuclear testing programme. Sadly, many confirm that their service medical records do not include the test results, and they just do not understand why. The issue is relevant to the current health concerns of many veterans and their descendants and the treatment they need for anaemia, leukaemia and rare genetic conditions. That is why it is so important for them to access the information urgently.

As the Minister will know, nuclear testing veterans first raised the issue of health problems in 1983. In 1985, the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, ordered a health study by the National Radiological Protection Board, which in 1988 reported that there was a “slight risk” of veterans getting leukaemia. The report was only seven pages long, and it was criticised by veterans as a whitewash. It was repeated, with similar results, in 1993 and 2003. Further, it has been reported in recent days that the 1988 scientific report was altered on the instruction of officials.

The link between radiation and illness is now well established. In 2007, genetic research found that nuclear victims had the same rate of DNA damage as clean-up workers at Chernobyl. In 2011, a Ministry of Defence health study found that 83% of survivors had between one and nine chronic health conditions, and further surveys of nuclear veterans report that miscarriage rates are three times higher among their wives and that their children have 10 times the usual number of birth defects. However, despite the clear health risks and the apparent causal links to the conditions experienced by many nuclear testing veterans, very few war pensions are approved unless veterans can clearly show information proving risk and the impact on health. Such information would include, for example, blood and urine samples demonstrating high levels of radiation exposure, but information from successive Defence Ministers or potential record holders has been inconsistent and unclear on whether there were tests, whether records were kept, where they were kept and whether records are now accessible for searching.

I congratulate the hon. Member on securing the debate and on all her successful campaigning work on this issue. I have a constituent whose late husband was one of the test veterans who served in Kiritimati, or Christmas Island. She wrote to me a couple of months ago and said:

“On landing back home after an arduous journey at the young age of 20 or 21 years old, he started to regress into bed-wetting…None of the politicians that are now in the House could possibly know what it was like to be ordered to be guinea pigs for the so-called good of the country.”

Given what my constituent writes, does the hon. Member agree that some of the illnesses and symptoms were mental as well as physical?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and I agree with his comments. It is not just physical conditions that impacted on these veterans; there were indeed profound mental health concerns reported afterwards as a result of what they experienced.

My constituent’s grandad, John Morris, is just one nuclear testing veteran who has suffered and who has been trying to locate the relevant information so that he can apply for a war pension. He was a Royal Engineer and served on Operation Grapple on Christmas Island, and he witnessed four nuclear explosions. He told me that one day he and his colleagues were told to sit in the open air with their backs to the explosion. Shorts and shirts were the norm, but on this day they were told to wear Army-issued sunglasses and find a cloth to put over their eyes. They were then hit with a flash 1,000 times brighter than the sun. His hands became an X-ray, as he could see every bone and every joint, and he was then hit with the heat blast. It was so intense that the palm trees scorched, as did the men’s backs.

On his return from service, John’s first-born son tragically died suddenly at four months old due to birth defects that John believes were linked to radiation. John himself has since been diagnosed with cancer, and at age 26 he developed pernicious anaemia, a blood disorder linked to radiation. John gave multiple blood samples during his service, but they cannot be found on his main medical records. When he asked for details of the blood test, he was told:

“Everything you have received was all that was held in your Army personnel and medical file.”

John’s story is matched by countless similar battles for test and medical information by other nuclear veterans.

My first simple question to the Minister is this: were blood and urine samples taken from nuclear testing veterans, and was a record kept of those samples? To help in his analysis, I will share with him the information that I am aware has been archived on this basis so far. First, there are publicly available documents—limited documents, notes, forms, official instructions and guidance—that are accessible in the National Archives. They highlight a range of pertinent references that suggest blood and urine test data was collected from servicemen and that this information was stored and analysed.

For example, documents show that the MOD had a director of hygiene and research who organised blood tests of personnel and kept a “master record” of results. They note orders from the Air Ministry and War Office telling unit medical officers to arrange repeated

“blood testing of personnel working regularly with radioactive sources”.

They detail the medical forms used and the instructions on how to duplicate and store them. They point to Army blood tests being copied from Atomic Weapons Research Establishment records to be put in soldiers’ main medical files. They show that pathologists attached to the weapons trials were told to create a “special health register” to log the data. There are countless other documents ordering the testing of servicemen at various nuclear trials.

It seems clear that blood and urine tests were routine, that they existed as formal documentation and, indeed, that a register and master record were kept; yet to my knowledge the register and master record have not been released, nor has specific documentation relating to each individual, bar one or two exceptions. It should also be noted that thousands of the released documents relating to this period reference the AB and ES series of files, which I understand were withdrawn from the National Archives for a security review in 2018, with no expected date of return.

Secondly, the Minister will be aware of a freedom of information request made to the Atomic Weapons Establishment in September that uncovered a list of 150 documents currently held by the AWE. Three are in the public domain, but the remainder are not. These documents include titles such as “Blood Examinations Personnel Proceeding to Christmas Island”; “Message from AWRE Christmas Island To AWRE Aldermaston reference Blood Count Irregularities from”, and the rest is redacted; “Blood Counts at Maralinga”; and “Dose Record Grapple Z—record of 4 urine samples”. There are many more documents referred to in a similar vein. Again, these documents seem to clearly point to the existence of blood and urine test results.

The Minister might be as perplexed as I am as to the location of such sample results and why they have not been released to veterans. Indeed, the Government’s responses to such questions over the last few years have certainly sown a great deal of confusion. For example, in 2018 it was stated that:

“The Ministry of Defence is unable to locate any information that suggests that Atomic Weapons Research Establishment staff took blood samples for radiological monitoring at the tests.”

Then in November last year, it was stated that:

“The Atomic Weapons Establishment holds copies of the results of urine radioactivity measurements and blood tests for a small number of individuals where these were included in scientific documentation on the nuclear weapons trials.”

In December last year, the opposite was again indicated:

“We would also like to take this opportunity to confirm that AWE does not hold the medical records or the results of blood and urine tests for current or ex-servicemen.”

That merry-go-round of confusion goes round and round, month after month, with every question asked and response received.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate, which is of particular interest to my constituent Steve Purse, whose late father served at Maralinga. Steve and his young son have rare genetic conditions and Steve has described the distress that he experiences over the uncertainty as to his late father’s medical records and whether those can be disclosed. Does the hon. Lady agree that the primary outcome of this debate needs to be greater certainty for people such as Steve about what the answer to that question is?

I thank the hon. Member for his intervention. I know his constituent very well: he is a very lovely man and has fought long and hard to achieve recognition for veterans and their families and descendants. Unfortunately, veterans themselves have not undergone an extensive health study into the effects of the radiation to which they were exposed, let alone their descendants in relation to the impact on future family members. The Government certainly need to address that to give people such as Steve the certainty that he will receive the support that he requires if it is needed in the future. At the moment, he is not receiving such support, sadly.

The Minister himself has stated that it is likely that the blood tests are simply categorised in scientific data at the AWE. That may of course be the case, but for that data even to exist in the first place, the sample results had to come first, so what happened to them? I truly intend to be helpful to the Minister in getting to the bottom of this puzzle. I have no doubt that he wants to help veterans and their families to receive the information that they need. To that end, I have a number of questions that I would like him to answer.

First, can the Minister review the security classification for the 150 FOI documents that I have mentioned, so that they can be released for public view? Will he release the AB and ES series of files and, if not, explain to the House why they are to be withheld? In response to a recent question to the Defence Secretary, I was informed that all classified documents retained by the Ministry of Defence under a Lord Chancellor’s instruction or a national security exemption are still available to be searched on request. If they are indeed searchable, despite being withheld documents, can the Minister confirm that the person making the relevant search request will be notified that that information is being withheld and will be given the reasons why?

Is the Minister specifically aware of any blood test and urine sample information that is being withheld under a Lord Chancellor’s instruction or a national security exemption? He will be aware that many blood and urine test samples were taken under old Air Ministry orders and that the AWRE was not legally required in 1959 to share or disclose documents on request, as would be the case under current legislation. Can he confirm that those historical records are being searched when a subject access, FOI or similar search request is received?

The fact remains that blood and urine test samples were taken from many servicemen at nuclear test sites and the archive documentation suggests that they were formally documented, so what happened to the documents? Where are they now, and why in so many cases are nuclear veterans and their families unable to access their personal medical data? That data is vital for their war pension applications and for an understanding of the conditions that they suffer. If I have one request for the Minister today, it is to give those men and their families the medical information that they need, while they are still alive. They simply need to know where their test sample data is. I say to the Minister this. If it is not available, be open: explain what happened to it, when it happened, why it happened and on whose instruction.

My hon. Friend is making a fantastic speech, setting out all the issues. I would just like to add weight to that point about simple transparency. If the information is there, can the veterans and their families see it? If there is a reason why they are not able to see it, can that be explained? I really hope that the Minister will accept either of those routes and give an explanation to my hon. Friend today.

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention and for all the work that she has done over the years to support nuclear test veterans. They are very appreciative of her efforts. On her point about transparency, that is the key to today’s debate. All that these men are asking for is the truth. They want to know where their test results are and if they cannot access them, they want to know why. They deserve nothing less than the truth for the service they have provided to this country. I hope the Minister will do all he can to honour their requests.

It is indeed a pleasure to speak in this debate. First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) on setting the scene so incredibly well with detail, passion and understanding. We are indebted to her for that. It is also a pleasure to see the Minister in his place. He has been a dear friend during all my time in this Chamber, since I came here in 2010. I look forward to his response because I believe he understands the issue of the veterans well. I think we are all keen to have the response to the questions that have been asked and the commitment that we seek.

I recognise the critical contributions of veterans and civilian staff to the UK’s nuclear deterrent testing programme in the late 1950s and 1960s. It is great to hear that so many veterans have now received their medals for that service. This debate is not about those medals, but that is one of the recognitions we have sought over the years and at least that has been agreed. The right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) is not here, but he has been active and instrumental in that over the years; we thank him for his contribution. I also look forward to the shadow Minister’s contribution as well. He understands the issues of veterans well and has been assiduous in Westminster Hall and the main Chamber in relation to the issues under focus.

There are 20,000 British servicemen, many from Northern Ireland and some of whom are my constituents, who took part in numerous nuclear tests. To this day, none has received any compensation for illnesses they believe were caused by radiation and other side effects from the impact of the testing. The hon. Member for Salford and Eccles set the scene at the beginning, where they were told to put their sunglasses on and sit down, shirtless, never knowing what was coming. That horror of what they endured, unknowingly until it was over, illustrates very well their issues.

Many have stated that those health issues passed down genetically to their children. In some cases, many lost their children at a very young age. I am a fan of “Call the Midwife”—we probably all are—and one of the stories last year or at the end of this year was that of a veteran who had been subjected to that and the effect it had on him, his family and, of course, his baby yet to be born. Sometimes, TV programmes illustrate very well pertinent stories out there in real life. They portrayed that extremely well and gave me a personal feeling and an insight into what was happening as well.

While numerous veterans have since obtained copies of their medical records, what the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles referred to, and what we all seek, is an open-doors release of all those medical records; that important data so people can ascertain where the problems started and where they came from. Many recall having certain tests done, which were not recorded on the records they received. I find that hard to comprehend. I am not saying there is, but we are all asking: is there a cover-up? Is there a determined commitment to not releasing that?

I know the Veterans Minister well. I trust him and find him an honest and sincere person, so I do not for one second believe that there has been any deliberation to make that happen. The Minister is always diligent in his work, and he has stated that there has been no cover-up of medical records, so I take it at face value that there has not. I therefore suggest that we should release all those medical records—all that information—to each and every one of those veterans and their families, without their requesting it. We have an obligation to look after them.

We are here as elected representatives on behalf of our constituents—I am representing those of Strangford and across Northern Ireland. Although we should have every faith that what the Minister says is the truth, there is clearly still a question to be answered about where the missing information is and who has access to it. I say to the Minister: make it clear, release all the records and let the people see what is going on; then there will be no mystery, stories or thoughts about what is happening.

Many medical records that remain incomplete hold vital information needed to claim war pensions. The hon. Member for Salford and Eccles made it clear that the records have implications not just for veterans’ health today but for their pensions. If somebody has served their country well, we have a real obligation to look after them fully. I know that is the Minister’s intention, and I have absolutely no doubt that he will say that in his response, but we need action, not just words.

Although the Government remain committed to do all they can to locate the records when they are applied for, there is unfortunately a disparity in the records that our veterans receive. I again urge the Government and the Minister to ensure that all efforts are made to locate missing records that hold vital information about the health conditions that veterans may be suffering because of nuclear war testing. That is what the hon. Lady wants, what I want and what everybody else here wants. That is our request as elected representatives on behalf of our constituents. Let us get the answers.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Vickers. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) not only for her sterling work in securing and opening this debate, but for her continued campaigning for justice for all our nuclear veterans.

For decades, our nuclear veterans, their families, campaign groups, journalists and MPs have relentlessly pursued truth and justice for those brave servicemen who bore close witness to the most devastating weapon this country ever produced. Those men were part of an experiment that secured our safety but devastated them and their families. The Minister is well aware of the countless testimonies from those willing to speak about the harm that radiation exposure has caused to them.

Cancer, heart, skeletal, dental and skin problems, difficulties conceiving, depression, personality changes, chronic headaches, mental ill health, rare genetic conditions and birth defects passed down through generations were all prevalent after taking part in those tests. That is the enduring, painful legacy of the tests those men were subjected to. Many of them still feel responsible for that pain, but they are not responsible; the Ministry of Defence is. It is the MOD that sent them to the blasts without any understanding of the protection they needed. Men stood in their shorts and vests, and were simply asked to turn their back on nuclear blasts that contaminated the land around them and instantly killed all wildlife there.

Litigation, petitions, information requests and pleas have all been sidelined by Governments who have stated that they cannot prove that those men were irradiated, and that the scientific evidence needed to prove the link between their and their families’ unexplained ill health simply does not exist. Who on earth would seriously keep up the denial that nuclear blasts do not have a negative impact on the human body? The veterans rightly suspect some kind of cover-up. Susie Boniface at the Daily Mirror, in her long campaign for the truth, has repeatedly uncovered evidence that would indicate such a cover-up—most recently, evidence that the National Radiological Protection Board report had been tampered with by officials, and past UK-Government commissioned research that contradicted the conclusions of international scientific research.

My constituent and dear friend Jack Taylor was involved in Operation Antler near Maralinga. He has files full of documents and pictures from his time there and also, sadly, mountains of dismissive letters from various Secretaries of State and Ministers. For him, like many of the nuclear veterans, it is not just about compensation; it is about recognition, truth and justice. It breaks my heart that my dear friend and others who did their duty to our country—as Jack says, a duty that has kept the world safe for decades—should be treated in such a despicable way. There is nothing worse than knowing you are telling the truth and those in authority keep telling you that you are wrong. It remains a stain on this country.

The common theme through the decades that veterans and their families have been fighting for justice is inconsistency from Government on whether the servicemen had blood and urine tests prior to and after the nuclear tests. If they did, where were the records kept and how can they be accessed?

A recent freedom of information request has shown that such records do exist, but, as usual, full details will not be released because the AWE says that it is too expensive. That is why the veterans, exhausted but not defeated, are exploring fresh legal action, but they should not have to. The veterans and their families know that full access to their medical records will show they were exposed to radiation that caused them ill health. They are therefore owed compensation.

I am sure that the hon. Lady will agree that the question is one of openness and transparency from the Ministry of Defence. Those brave servicemen, including my constituent Dennis Brooks, served this country and contributed to the safety of this nation over many decades, and they deserve answers. Many of the families and brave servicemen are now advanced in years. It would be lovely if, before they pass away, they received the answers that they and their families and children have waited so long for. The Government surely have an obligation to deliver that for the families.

I thank the hon. Member for that intervention—I could not agree more. Given the anger and frustration that the families and the veterans who are still with us today feel, the Government’s answer that it will cost too much is an insult to the veterans and their families and everything that they have been through.

The UK remains the only nuclear power to deny compensation to its bomb test veterans. Does the Minister seriously think that the US, Canada, France, Fiji and Australia are all wrong to give their nuclear veterans compensation? Why must our nuclear veterans here have to continually fight every single step of the way? We often hear that the Government’s ambition is for us to be the best place in the world to be a veteran, but it is clear that that ambition does not extend to our nuclear veterans.

I want to start by paying tribute to the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) for securing this debate. This place is often at its best when we put aside partisanship and resist the temptation to parrot party political lines, and instead help to shape Government and Opposition thinking through both understanding and shared experience. The work that she has done on this issue—I have been pleased to work with her, as she knows—has been illustrative of exactly that spirit.

In that spirit, the Minister knows that on the basis of a cross-party campaign, which I began long ago when Labour were in government—that shows how long ago it was—we secured, as a result of the intervention by the then Prime Minister, the former Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, a medal for nuclear test veterans. Many were able to receive them before Remembrance Sunday, and this very day a reception is being held for veterans to recognise their contribution. But much, much more needs to be done.

It might be said that any age, including ours, will be gauged by how it perceives its inheritance—what it gained from those who came before us—and what it gives to the future—what we bequeath to those who will be born later. When we think of what the veterans did and the effect that it had on all who came later, including all of us, we can truly value their contribution. We have made progress, as I have said, and today the Office for Veterans’ Affairs is holding a reception to recognise the 22,000 nuclear test veterans who risked life and limb long ago in the course of their duties, facing a radioactive smog and searing nuclear heat that altered their lives forever and changed their DNA.

Many have now passed, of course; this was a long time ago, before most of the people in this Chamber and I were born. We are dealing with a declining number of people, but of course their families were affected too because of the profound character of the effect that it had on them—it has been passed from generation to generation. That is why this issue of records is so salient. It is not just about the overdue recognition that I have described. It is about understanding our responsibility to those who this policy affected in the most dramatic of ways and dealing with—I hesitate to use the word—what looks to me like a cover-up.

By the way, no party in this House has not been involved in that because Governments have come and gone since the nuclear tests. One of the few things that has united them wholly is their unwillingness to play straight by nuclear test veterans. Indeed, I mentioned a moment ago that I first went to a Labour Defence Minister to raise the issue of the plight of nuclear test veterans when I was a Back Bencher in the late ’90s. After that—as you know, Mr Vickers—I served in government and was able to persuade the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, to grant an ex gratia payment to the test veterans, which I know was warmly received. He is now Lord Cameron of course, and so has gone from being the Prime Minister to David to Lord Cameron during the period of our campaign. I would be interested in the Minister’s view on whether it is time to refresh that payment by the way. It was £30 million and that was quite a while ago, so perhaps we could have the Minister’s view on how he intends to maintain that fund, given the effect on the veterans’ descendants.

The publication of records from 70 years ago is being withheld on what are, in my judgment, highly questionable grounds. I say that and I use the term “cover-up”, which is not one that I would deploy lightly, because the MOD, as the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles said, initially denied that there were records at all. For years, we were told that these tests were not done, or at least if they were done, the records were missing. Then it was revealed that there were records but they were not to be released. It has been only through freedom of information requests that we have discovered that blood records do indeed exist held at the Atomic Weapons Establishment.

FOI requests determined that those blood and urine samples were taken after the first bomb test and that the samples were analysed. We know too that these tests were flagged as missing as early as 1959. In more recent years, replies from the MOD have varied from stating that there was no information held about blood tests, to revealing the existence of hundreds of bloods tests, to claiming that no one who had a blood test was individually identifiable.

There are many questions for this very diligent, experienced and honourable Minister to answer. If there are tests, how many are there? Where are they held? Was the analysis done, and if so, does it still exist in a way that can be scrutinised? Were the records generic or particular—were they maintained and named to individuals? Those are all matters that I know the Minister will want to make this Chamber aware of without delay. If he cannot provide chapter and verse then, knowing him, I know that he will write to Members and answer those specific questions.

Repeated requests have revealed that many of the files have been closed using the Lord Chancellor’s instruction, citing national security exemptions. I would welcome a clarification on this from the Minister, including at what point, if any, Ministers have ever been made aware that blood tests exist for veterans, which may prove or disprove their claims of having been harmed by radiation.

My constituent Douglas Hern died recently. He was the person who first inspired me to take up the cause of nuclear test veterans 20 years ago. He was one such individual sent—in boyhood really, barely a man—out to the south Pacific, to journey close to nuclear explosions. He was told to turn his head and wear a hat and sunglasses. Can you imagine such a thing, Mr Vickers? Can you imagine the horror of that? It lasted with him forever, and it is why he campaigned so vigorously. I speak today not only as patron of the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association, but for Douglas, and for his family, whom I was happy to meet after his passing, despite the sad occasion. He had lost his wife, Sandie, about a year before; they were dear friends of mine. It was through Douglas that I learned of this injustice. It is why I took up the cause more than 20 years ago, and why I maintain faith that this Government and this Minister will finally make these records available, so that we can do right by those that did so much for us.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Vickers. Like others, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) on securing this vital debate. I also congratulate her on her ongoing campaign for the rights of nuclear test veterans. Many people all over the country are very grateful for her work. When I was on the Labour Defence team, she introduced me to a group of veterans, their families and campaigners. Their stories were both compelling and moving, and I thank her for that.

I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins), who until recently was our shadow Minister for Veterans. I know I speak on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), who also served with her, when I say that she was an excellent shadow Minister for Veterans. Throughout my time on her team, I knew that her main focus was on our veterans, and I should like to thank her personally for her service.

In Islwyn, we have a strong history of supporting nuclear test veterans. I am proud of the fact that up until 2011, the Welsh branch of the Nuclear Test Veterans Association marched through Risca every year from 1993. The standard now proudly stands in St Mary’s church in Risca. As a much younger MP, I was always honoured to attend the event. I am pleased to report that when I visited the church last summer, the standard was still there in all its glory. It is hung from the ceiling—a constant reminder of what our nuclear test veterans went through. I am proud of the fact that Britain has a long, cherished and celebrated history honouring the valiant efforts of its military personnel, recognising their unwavering commitment and readiness to make the ultimate sacrifice for the safety and security of the nation.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles mentioned in her passionate speech, nuclear test veterans have been recognised for their service, with a medal run off the production lines in August ready for Remembrance Sunday. There is still, however, a feeling of unfinished business, as many Members here have already mentioned. The heart of this matter lies in the historical quest for answers by those who, in service to our nation, participated in or witnessed nuclear testing. That testing took place between 1952 and 1973 in Australia and around the Pacific. Around 40,000 individuals left their families and homes to play a crucial role in ensuring the safety of civilians and military personnel. Without their contribution to the development of a nuclear arsenal, Britain would never have been able to carry out Operation Hurricane—the detonation of a plutonium bomb in the Montebello Islands. That allowed us to become the third nuclear power.

The weapons that resulted from that test are still protecting us today, yet amidst our fight to maintain and hold that arsenal, we have often overlooked those whose lives have been affected by their participation in those tests. Access to medical records is fundamental to the health and wellbeing of veterans. These records contain critical information that can aid in diagnosing, treating and managing health conditions arising from exposure to radiation through nuclear tests. It is important to note that many veterans and their families believe that their exposure to these weapons and the radiation has affected the health of not only the veterans themselves, but their children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren. To shed light on their own health and that of their loved ones, the veterans are asking that blood and urine tests taken while they were serving their country are released. This is not just an issue for our veterans; it will play a critical role by helping us to understand the effects of radiation poisoning.

Some claim that when they have had their medical records back, crucial information has been missing or redacted. When queried, the Ministry of Defence has implied that the tests never took place. One veteran was able to narrow down the dates he gave blood to an extremely specific period due to being in medical isolation at that time. If these medical records cannot be found or veterans receive incomplete medical records with key information redacted, we must ask whether there were failures by the MOD to properly log and store the veterans’ information. That is certainly not an isolated case. Another veteran says the veterans group has

“uncovered over 200 archive documents which clearly show that the veterans were required to be tested for both blood and urine samples…before they went out to the South Pacific to engage in the nuclear testing, whilst they were there and when they came back”.

In the words of one veteran:

“If those tests were done where are they now?

American veterans involved in nuclear tests have been able to access their medical records and have received rightful compensation for the essential work they completed. These measures include, but are not limited to, a national day of recognition for their service and priority healthcare. Our veterans are not even asking for a day of recognition, but simply for their own medical files. Is it right that British veterans who carried out the same work as their American counter- parts have been deprived of the same recognition and support?

The lack of medical records has placed our veterans in an impossible situation. They find themselves denied access to their own medical records—crucial documents that hold the key to understanding and addressing potential health issues arising from exposure to radiation during nuclear tests. That denial leaves them stranded, unable to make informed decisions about the health of their families and to access appropriate, fully informed medical care.

The recent awarding of medals by the Government is no less than what the veterans deserve. However, I cannot help but feel that without granting these veterans the right to view their own medical records, it is a superficial act. A military medal is respected around the world, but we must not allow that medal to become hollow by treating those in receipt without the respect they deserve. Access to those medical records is not just a matter of principle; it is their right. It is essential for their wellbeing and testimony to our respect for their sacrifices.

Access to any medical record is a moral issue. The nuclear test veterans have fought a long, hard and—yes—painful campaign. As many now reach their twilight years or have already left us, let us give them the justice they deserve by granting their simple request.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Vickers, and an honour to be part of such an important and powerful debate, standing with many colleagues from across the House who are concerned that they see an injustice. I join in the tributes to my hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey), who has been a tremendous advocate for the nuclear test veterans—and persistent. I fear that often persistence is what is required in this place, no matter how strong and compelling the case being made. I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) for his support and work on this issue, too. He is right that this House is at its best when we join together.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) suggested that “Call the Midwife” was the relevant cultural reference for the debate. I feel it is more of a horror story and a horror film, because when we actually listen to the stories of what happened to our constituents and what is happening to their families, it feels like something out of the Hollywood playbook. It simply feels like it could not be true, and yet we know it did happen. It happened to citizens of this country, and the effects are still being felt generations later.

I will share the experience of my former constituent Albert Swain, known as George, who is 91. He lived in Walthamstow on his return from the Pacific for almost 50 years. He has now left, but his daughter is still my constituent. In 1957, he was serving on the aircraft carrier HMS Warrior during Operation Grapple X. This was a test of the hydrogen bomb, which was more than 140 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Albert worked in the galley, but during the test he was told to come up to the deck to witness the explosion—told to put himself in harm’s way. He was not given any special protective equipment, and despite turning his back on the explosion, he says that he still remembers seeing his bones through his flesh when the weapon was detonated. His colleagues on the ship said the same thing.

Since his involvement, he has now received his medal, and it is right that we thank these people for their service. But our debate today is about whether we have truly honoured them for the sacrifice they have made of their health, which is what we are now seeing. Albert’s family are concerned about the medical implications of that day for him. He has had skin cancer on his face, he has been blind in one eye for about five years, and he has always had anxiety—the psychological problems, the mental health issues that were mentioned earlier.

More worrying, Albert’s children have had medical issues that they are desperately concerned are related. One daughter had two miscarriages; another lost a baby two days postpartum. All his granddaughters have gynaecological problems of some sort, and one grandson has scoliosis. We know that exposure to ionising radiation can lead to heritable mutations, meaning that the family will never be sure, unless somebody investigates, whether what is happening to them is because of what happened to George.

Let us think for a moment of 40,000 families in this country thinking the same thing, and then ask ourselves whether what we are having to ask today is really enough. I know the Minister has heard the calls for the evidence from the blood and urine tests to be released. It says something about us, does it not, that we are now dealing with quite an elderly generation—as the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings has said, some have now passed away—and yet, rather than tearing down the barriers of the challenges that they may face, these still exist.

Surely in this day and age, knowing what we know now about what has happened to these people, we should not be waiting for people to make requests for their own medical information. There should not be a question about whether data can be released, or a freedom of information request is sufficient; we should be humbled and horrified enough to get that information to them and proactively investigate the healthcare concerns that they and their families may have.

Surely the very least we can do is to recognise the problems that are happening—the stories being told across the country of the people affected by what happened to their grandparents, but who still today are struggling to get information. It is surely a mark of shame on us—I know the Minister will share their concern—that veterans are having to consider legal action to get their medical records, and the compensation and answers they deserve. The right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings is right: Governments of all colours have played their part in this tragedy. Surely now is the time to stand up and be what these people were—the best of our country, the best of our people—and do the best of service for them.

I hope the Minister will do more today than just ask whether the data is available, or even if people are making compensation requests. We have to offer those families the help and support they need if they are facing these experiences. We have to offer the proactive approach that I think everybody here agrees needs to happen. I know the Minister will want to do this, so my question to him is, what does he need from us to make that happen? He will have heard the stories. He will think of somebody like George standing on that deck on a bright day, seeing his bones through his skin, and not even realising that generations later it could affect his grandson in the way we fear it might have. He will want to do right by George, and all the others. What does the Minister need from us to make sure not just that those records are released and compensation is given, but that we have the inquiry we need to get to the bottom of what happened to those people, and determine what we can do to put it right?

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Vickers. I congratulate the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) on the way she introduced the debate. I congratulate her on being persistent, calm and very clear about what justice looks like, what the veterans of those British nuclear tests deserve, and what can be done about it. This is not the only debate where she has done so; she has done that over many years. She speaks for many hon. Members, from Government and Opposition parties, when she makes the very simple case for justice, for transparency, and for an understanding that those people involved in the tests are currently being denied. I thank her for that effort.

I echo the thanks to the “Fleet Street Fox”, Susie Boniface of The Daily Mirror, for her persistent and dogged campaigning. If it were not for her arguing for the column inches, articles and time to investigate over many years, this issue would not be as loud or as prominent as it is today. Many people owe to her journalism the justice that I hope they will get in future.

I entirely endorse that. I described my constituent Douglas Hern as having inspired me. Had that Mirror journalist not cajoled and informed me over such a long period, I do not think I would have maintained this campaign with quite so much vigour. He is entirely right to pay tribute to her.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I also echo the thanks to my colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins), for her time in the shadow Defence team, and welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe), who is shortly taking over that role. I am merely a stand-in today, but I should like to add my thoughts and experience in Plymouth to those shared today.

Our nuclear test veterans served our country with pride and distinction. They made a vital contribution to the creation of Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent, which continues to keep us and our NATO allies safe today. It is a contribution that our nation should be proud of, and for which our nation owes a huge debt of gratitude and honour. That is not an abstract honour. When those words are used it is like a fog that descends, but I do not think it is. I think that debt of honour is a promise for action. Just as our Armed Forces Covenant says that no one who served should suffer disadvantage because of their service, it is clear that these veterans are suffering disadvantage because of their service.

Those of us who argued for the armed forces covenant and a sense of decency and respect for those who have served and serve today, should honour that with action. Defence Ministers should work to ensure that, as much as possible, transparency and respect are shown to those nuclear test veterans and the lasting consequences their families have suffered. My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) put it clearly when she talked not only of the test veterans but their children and grandchildren. This is not a cohort that deserves justice before they die, although they do. This is a cohort whose experiences in the Pacific will last generations to come, if we do not provide that clarity and understanding.

My hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) described it as unfinished business, and he is right. It is business that this Minister and this House can do something about. As has already been referenced, there are reports that nuclear test veterans are considering suing the Government to access their medical records if they are not forthcoming. It should not take legal action to access the truth. Indeed, the words that some Ministers have used around this legal action suggest that that is the only way to get the truth, because there is nothing that Ministers can do in the meantime—or nothing that they want to do.

That does not sit well with me or Members of the House—that this group of veterans must be prepared to pay for lawyers to get at the truth. What does it say about our democracy that that is the only way for them to access the justice that they deserve? Reasonable questions have been asked of the Minister in this debate. I want to echo a few that have been put so far. What discussions have he and his colleagues had with the nuclear test veterans and affiliated veterans’ groups about access to the requested medical records? This is not just about parliamentarians on both sides of the House asking those questions. There are groups of determined individuals out there, making that case consistently, calmy and coolly.

When was the last time the Minister met that group, and when is he planning to meet them next? If those medical records are being withheld, is there a good reason for doing so? It was alluded to by my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) that it is around cost. If it is around cost, it is about money. All of us understand that money is about where we put our political priorities. It is clear that there is a political priority and an interest from Members on both sides of the House to resolve this. If it is about cost, can the Minister help to unblock that?

What support is in place for the war pension applications from nuclear test veterans who have not received their full service medical records so far? And how does the awarding of a medal—that medallic recognition—tie in with their campaign? Does the Minister regard the medal as a full stop at the end of the campaign, or does he regard it as a platform that shows how we, as a nation, recognise that service and must now do more to resolve the final issues with that group?

Labour is proud to give its full support to nuclear test veterans’ campaign for their medallic recognition. It is important, and has support from both sides of the House. As a party, we are proud that the Leader of the Opposition was the first political leader to meet the nuclear test veterans, back in 2021, as part of that campaign. However, it should not have taken decades for a medal to be awarded to the 22,000 veterans who served during Britain’s nuclear tests.

Everyone who served—those alive and those who have passed—deserves recognition for their service during the tests, but it is not just about receiving the medal; it is also about how those medals are received. At present, many nuclear test veterans receive their medal through their door in plain packaging in second-class post. They deserve better than second-class post. They deserve better than a medal arriving in the post. They deserve a proper ceremony.

I helped Mr Tony Carpanini, an 88-year-old constituent of mine, to receive his medal after he struggled to get it from the Ministry of Defence. He said, “If I had received the medal 60 years ago, it would have meant a lot more, but it is much better late than never.” Mr Carpanini is right about his medal, but so many people he served alongside will not be able to get that medal because they are no longer with us.

We must learn from the experience with medals and offer the experience of justice that many people are seeking in this debate. The strong sense of injustice with which Mr Carpanini left me is something that we have heard in interventions from both sides of Westminster Hall—from people standing up for their constituents. The hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Dr Davies) spoke about his constituents; the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Scott Benton), who is no longer in his place, spoke about his constituents; and the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord) spoke about a person in his constituency. This affects all our constituencies. If we divide 22,000 veterans by 650 Members of Parliament, there are enough in every constituency to make every single MP do something about this. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) put it very well when he asked for the doors to be opened and for that relationship with data to be published. “Make it clear; release all the records,” is how he put it. That is a strong ask, and I encourage the Minister to look at it.

Returning briefly to the medal ceremonies that have been so missing, I would like the Minister to join me in congratulating Councillor Alan Dowson in Peterborough —whom I met on a visit to Peterborough with Andrew Pakes—Fred Thomas in Plymouth and Catherine Atkinson in Derby, who have been organising medal ceremonies in their communities because the Government did not provide a medal ceremony for nuclear test veterans, notwithstanding a knees-up in the Office for Veterans’ Affairs today. There should be a ceremony for every veteran to receive their medal after so long being denied it. What Fred, Catherine and Alan are organising is a ceremony in their own communities, asking the mayor or lord mayor of their local council to present the medal to those veterans, to say thank you for their service on behalf not just of a grateful nation but of a grateful community.

The Minister could do something really quite special with that, even if he says no to many of the requests we have heard today. He could encourage every local authority to hold a medals ceremony to award those medals to nuclear test veterans in their community. Councils do not know how many nuclear test veterans there are in their community. I do not know how many there are in mine in Plymouth, but I know that they are everywhere. The census showed us that there are veterans in every one of our communities. The best thing about that, which will not get me in trouble with the shadow Chancellor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), with the Minister or with the Chancellor himself, is that it will not cost the Ministry of Defence a penny. We can encourage our friends in local authorities to do this; they want to do it to recognise the service of those people in their communities.

Of course, the descendants too, because I hope that the medals can be awarded posthumously to descendants such as those of my constituent Douglas Hern. I will get that medal for his descendants—so the Minister had better agree it now, or we will have to have a disagreement.

The right hon. Gentleman is right: it should be about those people who are descendants of nuclear test veterans. I believe that the terms and conditions of the applications make provision for those people who are no longer with us to have that medal awarded posthumously. That in itself, though, provides a set of principles that we should apply equally to their service elsewhere. In this debate we have heard from Members across the House, just asking questions. We have heard fair questions asked today on behalf of constituents who just want to understand the truth about what happened to their blood and urine tests and why the “truth” in the statements from the Ministry of Defence has changed so often over time. If the Minister cannot give us answers to those questions today, will he set out a journey that he and his Department can go on which will provide comfort and confidence to the families and to Members from both Government and Opposition parties that the Ministry of Defence takes this seriously, and give a general sense that direction, clarity and understanding can be achieved even if all answers cannot be offered?

I conclude by going back to the start of what I said. I am proud that my party stands with our nuclear test veterans, but proud also that hon. Members from both sides of the House stand with those veterans. They served our country with pride and distinction, and we owe it to them to be transparent about the risks they faced and the lasting consequences that their families have suffered. The Minister could do more, and I hope that he will be able to give peace of mind and a sense of justice to those who are affected by our nuclear testing programme.

I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) for bringing this debate and for her tireless championing of the cause of nuclear test veterans. We all have nuclear test veterans in our constituencies. Many of us served with them during the initial parts of our service life; and some of us have nuclear test veterans in our own families.

We will certainly never forget the tens of thousands of service personnel scientists and civilians from the UK and her allies who participated in the British nuclear testing programme between 1952 and 1967. The test programme over 15 years represented the largest tri-service event since the D-Day landings. By equipping the UK with an appropriate nuclear capacity they helped to keep the Cold War in the fridge, preventing a third, potentially devasting, conventional war. With the threat from nuclear armed states escalating, their contribution continues to keep us safe today.

We have had some powerful contributions from Back Bench Members today. In addition to the contribution from the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), who speaks for the Opposition, we have heard from the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck), my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) and the hon. Members for Islwyn (Chris Evans) and for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy). I will try to respond to the points they have made in the time available, but if I am unable to do so I will certainly write to them.

When it comes to health effects, we should remember at all times that the UK atmospheric nuclear test programme experimented on weapons; it did not experiment on service personnel. Tests were carried out to contemporary radiological standards, as shown by the documented safety measures and monitoring that took place at the time.

Over the past six decades there have been four big independently conducted and analysed longitudinal cohort studies of the population at risk. The results have consistently demonstrated that cancer and mortality rates for the nuclear test veterans are similar to those serving contemporaneously in the armed forces who did not participate in the testing programmes. It is important to emphasise that those are big epidemiological studies. The results show that the cancer and mortality rates are in fact lower than for the general population. I am not going to pray that in aid, as we would expect that to be the case, given what is called the healthy worker effect, but it should give some reassurance to those who served. In corroboration, a study of mortality among US military participants in eight above-ground nuclear test series events between 1945 and 1962 was published last year. The study population was 114,270 individuals over 65 years. No health effect from participation in the tests was evidenced. In July last year, Brunel University published the results of its study into the number of chromosomal abnormalities in nuclear test veterans and their children compared with a control veteran group. It found no significant differences.

Those studies are important because, perfectly understandably, veterans may ascribe illness or abnormality to dramatic past experiences, such as witnessing a nuclear mushroom cloud, but the highly compelling evidence we have from both this country and abroad strongly suggests that they should be reassured in respect of their participation in nuclear tests between 1952 and 1967. Based on the peer-reviewed evidence, furthermore I think that we should all be responsible and measured in the language we use, even as we rightly advocate for our constituents and call for transparency, on which more anon.

On the point the Minister made about the United States tests, President Biden said in July this year:

“I have signed laws that support veterans who developed cancer and other medical conditions stemming from our World War II nuclear program.”

What science is he relying on that we are not relying on?

I am relying on the evidence that was published last year—the study of 114,000-plus veterans who have been followed up over 65 years. I cannot account for the remarks of the President of the United States. What I can do is rely rigorously on the scientific peer-reviewed evidence. Today we have heard a number of harrowing accounts from constituents, and I have my own, but at the end of the day the hon. Lady will appreciate that policy has to be based on a rigorous examination of the evidence. I believe that is what has been done in this country and, I suspect, by predecessor Governments of all political persuasions. That is the only basis on which we can proceed. May I tell the hon. Lady, who spoke powerfully, that we need to be careful about unduly alarming people who have served the country in the way we have been describing. That is not in any way to say that their concerns should be downplayed or, indeed, that we should not be transparent in the evidence we produce. I will come on to cover some of that.

I have to say that the narrative that someone is hiding files, presumably under consecutive Governments, is curious. To answer the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles, I am not aware that medical records or test results have been withheld for national security reasons. I have asked again, and it has been confirmed, that the Atomic Weapons Establishment does not hold medical records for any former service personnel. It does, however, hold historical technical and scientific documentation about the UK’s nuclear testing programme in its archives. This was published as recently as September through a freedom of information request, as has been mentioned in today’s debate.

In response to the request for any documents containing the words “blood” or “urine”, the AWE returned a report containing the subject headings of 150 items. Those were reviewed and it was found that three particular documents referencing blood and urine tests were of interest. One referred to an anonymous blood test, another contained four anonymous urine tests and the last identified one individual’s blood tests. Following a request, that information was provided to the individual’s next of kin. I have looked at the subject headings and asked officials to look again at the 150 files with a view to placing those not already available to the public in the public domain. I have also asked to see them myself.

I hope that helps the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport. I share the House’s desire to make transparent that which can be made transparent. I hope this will put the matter beyond any possible doubt. To answer the hon. Member for Strangford directly, recently my right hon. Friend the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs said categorically:

“There is no cover up”.—[Official Report, 21 November 2023; Vol. 741, c. 220.]

Indeed, I cannot see why there would be.

No personal health records are withheld from living veterans. Any medical records taken either before, during or after participation in the UK nuclear weapon tests that are held in the individual military medical records in the Government archives can be accessed on request by submitting a data subject access request. I must say, however, that any records that were made would be up to 71 years old. They would be paper, poorer-quality and perishable—not at all the auditable, searchable medical and technical records that we are used to today. Absent or incomplete records should not be taken as evidence of some sort of conspiracy.

We know that when a group of nuclear test veterans initiated a claim against the then Government in the early 2000s, the then Government denied that exposure took place and said that there were no health consequences as a result of being present at nuclear test sites. I cannot answer for the then Government but evidence since strongly supports the claim that there have been no health consequences.

I thank the Minister for drawing our attention to the Brunel study. Having read it, he will understand that an element of that report says there is concern about the DNA building block SBS16 and that there was a mutation, particularly in nuclear veteran families. I appreciate that the bulk of the report said that there was no evidence of a substantial difference in genetic material between the test and control groups, but there is evidence that there is something. It also highlighted a disproportionate number of birth defects in the families of nuclear test veterans which could not be explained by genetic testing.

That rather suggests that before we completely close the door to the idea that there has been a health impact, as the Minister perhaps suggests we should, we might need to explore those angles. After all, the researchers themselves said that they cannot rule out with any confidence that that is a random variation.

It is difficult to prove a negative, but the overall conclusions of the researchers from Brunel University are clear. In the interests of transparency, it is worth pointing out that it was a fairly small study and also the first part of a series of reports that we anticipate from Brunel University. We will have to see what transpires, but the headline response published in July last year should be reassuring for those who believe that their exposure between 1952 and 1967 caused generational problems to their families.

I turn to the subject of compensation raised today, albeit fairly briefly. With respect to that matter, the Department published its policy on ionising radiation back in 2017. The statement was validated by the independent medical expert group, which provides evidence-based medical and scientific advice to the Ministry of Defence, ensuring that our decisions reflect both contemporary medical understanding on causation and the progress of disorders. In its sixth report, published in September 2022, IMEG again reviewed the evidence, including the findings of the fourth report of the longitudinal study. It concluded that no changes to the Department’s policy statement were required on the basis of the evidence available. 

However, nuclear test veterans who believe that they have suffered ill health due to service still have the right to apply for no-fault compensation under the war pensions scheme, which applies to anyone who served before 6 April 2005. War pensions are payable in respect of illness or injury as a result of military service, with a benefit of reasonable doubt always given to the claimant. Decisions are medically certified and take account of available service and medical evidence, and they also carry full rights of appeal to an independent tribunal. Additionally, there is a range of supplementary pensions and allowances payable, including for dependants. Each case will be considered on its own merits.

Some specific concerns were raised about the handling of individual medical data. I can confirm that there is a formal complaints procedure under the Data Protection Act 2018. On requests made for medical data under the freedom of information legislation by relatives of deceased veterans, I hope hon. Members will appreciate that I am unable to comment due to ongoing legislation.

We now know that tests were done, presumably because there was a view that there might be an effect of the exposure to radiation, otherwise there would not have been blood and urine tests. Veterans’ inquiries about that were, as the Minister put it, “curiously” not answered on earlier occasions. So the question remains: why, who and when? Which Ministers—they may still be in this House or possibly the upper House—refused to provide that information, on what basis and when? The Government can presumably provide that information now with a degree of notice.

There is a list of 150 files of data that the Atomic Weapons Establishment said in September that it holds, and they contain reference to blood and urine. I have a list here; it is in the public domain and I am perfectly happy to give it to my right hon. Friend. What I am not clear about is what the bulk of those files actually say and what is in them. All I have are the subject headings. Some of them are pretty anodyne, to be honest—they are proceedings of various symposia, which presumably are available elsewhere—but some are tantalising and refer to test results. I would like to see what those documents look like. I have not seen them so far, and I certainly intend to examine them myself. More than that, I think it is reasonable for officials to trawl through them again to be absolutely clear why that which is not currently in the public domain—which I suspect is quite a lot of this—is not, and why it should not be.

There has to be a very good reason why this data is not in the public domain. Clearly, these tests happened overseas, and there may be very good reason why this material was not placed in the public domain, but it is now up to 71 years old, so given the level of public interest, it seems reasonable at least to ask why these documents, so tantalisingly put before us through the Freedom of Information Act in September this year, are not in the public domain in their entirety. I undertake to find out why that is. Wherever I can possibly do so, I will ensure that that material is placed in the public domain, with the usual caveats. For example, if there is personal information in them, which I do not expect from what I have been told, there are clearly some restrictions on the publication of that, but if it is simply sheets and sheets of dosimetry and urine and blood test results, I cannot see why that should not be available. I will certainly make it my business to examine that in the days ahead if that is of any help to my right hon. Friend.

The Government are committed to doing everything we reasonably can to support our nuclear veterans, as indeed we are for all our veterans. That includes acknowledging the profound contribution they have made through medallic recognition. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport for majoring on that. He knows very well that last November the Prime Minister announced that all nuclear test veterans will be eligible for a commemorative medal. To date, some 1,600 veterans have received the medal, whose design features an atom surrounded by olive branches. I am delighted that, as he said, there will be a reception today at Admiralty House, which I will attend, co-hosted by the Secretary of State and the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs. We will witness a further 15 nuclear test veterans receiving their honour.

The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport asked why the medals are not presented formally. I understand where he is coming from and note that lords lieutenant sometimes undertake medal presentation ceremonies, but I think that, in this case, there was an imperative to get medals out of the door so that veterans could have them by Remembrance Sunday, and we have achieved quite a lot of that. As far as we could make out, that was the wish for the bulk of the veteran community. In general, however, I would support the hon. Member’s contention that it adds to the expression of gratitude represented by a commemorative medal if it can be presented personally. That will not be the wish of every veteran—of course it will not—but it will be for many, and, in general, I support point made by the hon. Member.

Our appreciation of the contribution of nuclear test veterans does not stop there and, indeed, the hon. Gentleman rightly said so. We are also investing in projects to further our understanding of the experiences of all who were deployed between 1952 and 1967, which will include funding for academics to record the life stories of veterans across the UK. I hope that colleagues will join me in encouraging all members of that unique community who reside in their constituencies to come forward and share their front-row experience of one of the defining operations of our time.

I thank everybody for their contribution to today’s debate, which has been very good and collegiate. I extend special thanks to the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes). It is very rare to make good friends with someone on the opposite Benches, but he and I have been very friendly and active on the issue of nuclear testing veterans; he has done long-running work over the years as a champion of those veterans. He said that although we may have been united in our campaigning activities, the Governments over the decades have not been united, or have been united only in their failure to recognise what testing veterans suffered.

Various colleagues made references to the compensation and support provided to other countries’ nuclear testing veterans; for example, in America, nuclear testing veterans have received a day of recognition, medical care, compensation and access to their full medical and testing records. The hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) talked about the need for an inquiry, not only for testing veterans, but for their descendants. In the UK, we have never had a detailed health study or research project into the effect of radiation on nuclear testing veterans and their descendants. The Minister made reference to a number of papers that were produced, but the veterans were not provided with the full suite of information required to determine what outcome was needed. Indeed, international studies have come to different conclusions. However, they found excessive radiation in nuclear testing veterans, and that it had overall implications for their health over time.

I have no doubt that the Minister’s intentions in this debate are very honourable, but he made some confusing comments. For example, he stated that the Atomic Weapons Establishment does not hold any medical records—that is his firm belief—but he went on to say, in response to the question about the 150 documents that were referenced in the freedom of information request, that test information was in there, and was provided to the next of kin. That suggests to me that the AWE did hold test information on individuals, and that as a result of the FOI request, it had to issue those results to a veteran’s next of kin. Would the Minister like to respond on that point?

The hon. Lady is right. I understand that one out of the 150 documents references an individual by name. I do not know why that is; it could have been a mistake. That is why I have asked to see those 150 files myself and, in particular, the three that were pulled out of the 150 as being particularly germane to this debate. I shall be interested to see what the reason is. I apologise to the hon. Lady, but in the time available to me, the AWE has not been able to tell me why, in all the data that they hold, one person in one case is personally identifiable.

I appreciate the honesty of the Minister’s response, but I am sure he can understand the frustration in this debate, and of course in the wider country. Every response that we receive is different. One suggests that there are medical records; the other suggests that there are not. We just want to know the truth. I understand that he has undertaken to review the 150 FOI-request documents, which is very much appreciated. Perhaps he will report his findings to the House, but there are numerous other documents that we know exist—for example, the AB and ES files that have been withdrawn from the National Archives. If he could commit to putting those in the public domain again, we would be grateful.

As for other documents that may or may not be available, the Minister referenced the fact that the documents are very old. Veterans have been campaigning for access to their records for over 70 years. He said that many of the documents will be in paper form, and that there might not be an auditable trail. I find it very hard to believe that in one of the greatest militaries in the world, there would not be a system for accessing particular documents. Will he look into that as a matter of urgency, and perhaps conduct an inquiry on the location of those historical documents and report back to the House? As I said in my opening remarks, if the documents do not exist and he knows that they do not exist, it is up to the Government to be open and honest, and to explain what happened to the documents, on whose instruction they were destroyed, and why.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered nuclear test veterans and medical records.

Sitting suspended.